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Puzzles and conundrums – over @ShinyNewBooks! #oulipo #georgesperec #italocalvino

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A quick post today, to point you in the direction of the rather lovely Shiny New Books site! Those of you who follow SNB will know of the technical crisis recently when the whole blog was accidentally deleted – horrors! Furtunately, technical whizz Annabel has been reinstating the blog, with a sparkly new look, so do pop over and have a look. If you aren’t following yet, you’re in for a treat, as the regular weekly posts will alert you to all manner of interesting-sounding and intriguing new works; the downside, of course, is that your wishlist and tbr will grow… ;D

Anyway, I have a new piece up there today, and instead of a review it’s a feature in the Bookbuzz section considering some of these guys:

Yes, I’ve been happy to provide a beginner’s primer to the Oulipo authors, with potted biographies, a look at some anthologies and suggestions of where you could start reading works from this intriguing group of writers! I don’t claim to be an expert – but I *have* read a good number of books by the group, so if you’re interested in exploring their rather wonderful books, hopefully my primer will be a helpful guide. Do pop over and have a look here – and why not explore Shiny while you’re at it? 😀

Murder? It’s just not cricket! :D @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Settling Scores: Sporting Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Yes. There *really* is a lot of classic crime on the Ramblings at the moment, and today’s offering ventures into territory I rarely go near – sport! As I mentioned when I reviewed “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery“, sport and I don’t generally get on. However, I loved that particular book (and it brought back memories of old-school football before it got really commercial). I also loved J.L. Carr’s wonderful “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup” so I approached the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics range with great interest; as the title indicates, the subject is sporting mysteries.

I should state straight away that I loved these anthologies from the BL; Martin Edwards always chooses a wonderful selection of stories, and the ones in this collection are no exception to the rule. ‘Sport’ is a broad term, and the tales collected here include anything from swimming through cricket, racing, boating, golfing, rugby and of course football, to even take in fishing. It’s a wide-ranging selection, therefore, and the authors are an equally interesting bunch.

Many names will, of course, be familiar: there’s Arthur Conan-Doyle, Gladys Mitchell, Julian Symons and Michael Gilbert for a start. Other writers, like J. Jefferson Farneon, have been brought back to the public eye thanks to the Crime Classics range. There are authors who are less familiar, like Gerard Verner and David Winser; and the pleasing inclusion of Celia Fremlin, who writes wonderfully suspenseful works. Most delightfully, there is another Reggie Fortune tale from H.C. Bailey, which to my mind makes the collection worth every penny! 😀

It was a Monday morning in August. Mr. Fortune was explaining to Mrs. Fortune without hope that duty would prevent his going to the house in Scotland to which she had promised to take him… A place in which there is nothing to do but take exercise he considers bad for his constitution, and the conversation of country houses weakens his intellect. All this he set forth plaintively to Mrs. Fortune, and she said, “Don’t blether, child,” and the telephone rang. Reggie contemplated that instrument with a loving smile.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a dud amongst the stories, and the collection was a beautifully immersive (and distracting!) read just when I needed it. As always with short story collections, it’s hard to pick out favourites, so I’ll just mention a few titles which particularly stood out. The aforementioned Celia Fremlin contributes a wonderfully dark tale of domestic noir which is very clever and gets deep into the complexities of male/female relationships; I highly recommend her book The Hour Before Dawn if you can get hold of a copy. Sherlock Holmes is, of course, always a delight. The Great Gladys (Mitchell) contributes a very short but sharp story about murder at a swimming gala. “Four to One – Bar One” by Henry Wade delves into bookmaking and early protection gans, with a suprisingly amoral look at things. “The Wimbledon Mystery” by Julian Symons takes what is perhaps a more genteel sports into the realms of spying, which is quite fascinating. And of course, there’s Reggie…

H.C. Bailey – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

As I’ve said many a time, I love the Reggie Fortune stores. I know Bailey’s work is not fashionable, and his style considered mannered (as Martin Edwards reminds us); yet I love Reggie’s aparrent vagueness, his sense of justice and Bailey’s often snarky descriptions. “The Football Photograph” is a twisty tale from a 1930 collection which features jewel thieves and an initially unfathomable murder. Along with his regular police sidekicks, Bell and Lomas, Reggie investigates and finds unexpected links to a footballer. But can the team break a perfect alibi and find out the truth? As Reggie says at the end, “One of my neater cases. Pure art. No vulgar emotion.”

“Settling Scores” is, therefore, another exemplary collection in the British Library Crime Classics range. Even if you don’t much like sport (ahem!) you’ll still love this marvellous selection of classic mysteries. It’s wonderfully diverting and entertaining, and the perfect antidote to the rather scary events we’re living through – highly recommended!

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

Coming up in six months’ time – what year have we chosen? ;D

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Following on from the success of the last reading club – 1920 – Simon and I had a bit of a chat and discussion about what year we should choose for the next reading club. And we both felt happy at moving back to a mid-century position, so drum roll please – the next club will be 1956! 😀

A quick look online reveals all manner of interesting titles from 1956, both well-known and quite obscure. I know that there are a number of books I’m very keen to get to, and although it’s six months down the road, the next club will come round very quickly. So what are you waiting for? You have plenty of notice to start exploring titles, gathering books, making lists and reading! I do hope you’ll all join Simon and I for the #1956Club – it will be such fun! 😀

Golden Age Crime – Japanese style! @PushkinPress #HonjinMurders

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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

The kindness of fellow bloggers is one of the great joys of the online interactions I have as part of the bookish interweb. As well as discussions, ideas, reading suggestions and general bookish mateyness, one of the other lovely things we do is share our books around! I always love to send on volumes I’m not likely to re-read to other interested bloggers, and I’ve been lucky enough to recieve books in return. “The Honjin Murders” is one of those, kindly sent on to me by Janet at From First Page to Last; I don’t know why I’d not picked up on it before because it sounded right up my street and turned out to be perfect distraction reading during our current situation…

Seishi Yokomizo was apparently one of Japan’s best-loved crime writers, so it’s to my shame that I’d never heard of his work. “The Honjin Murders” introduces his regular protagonist, the amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi, who went on to feature in a series of 77 books; and it’s widely regarded as one of Japan’s greatest mystery novels. So quite a reputation to live up to, which I’m pleased to say the book did!

“Honjin…” is set in the winter of 1937, in the village of Okamura, where the place is full of excitement; a wedding is due to take place in the aristocratic Ichiyanagi family, a clan with a long dynastic history. But on the wedding night violent screams are heard from the newlyweds’ annexe, and the pair are discovered stabbed to death. This is no straightforward murder, however, as the doors and windows are locked from the inside, the murder weapon is outside the building and, crucially, there are no footprints in the snow. Add in the fact that spooky koto music is heard at night and a strange, masked, three-fingered man has been seen in the area, and the plot really does get thicker and thicker!

This is the book’s first translation into English, and I really can’t understand why it’s taken so long for this to happen – so kudos to Pushkin Press! I shan’t discuss too many specifics of the plot, because I would hate to spoil the pleasure for anyone else reading it, but it was such fun! “Honjin…” really is the Japanese equivalent of a Golden Age country house murder; there’s a posh extended family all present and correct, complete with their emotion baggage and the tensions caused by being under the same roof. There’s an impossible locked room crime, hints of mystery in the past and a mysterious stranger. The plot is wonderfully clever and twisty, and there was no way I was going to work out whodunnit and why!

Let’s talk about the amateur sleuth. Kosuke is a young man who travelled to America, narrowly escaped from drug addiction and set himself up as a private detective. Fortunately, he’s known to the late bride’s uncle Ginzo, who attended the wedding and who calls Kosuke in to investigate the slaughter. Yokomizo’s description of his detective paints a vivid picture, and the young man turns out to be very deceptive.

A young man alighted at N- station on the Hakubi Line, and came sauntering down the road towards K- Town. He was around twenty-five or -six, of medium build, on the pale side, and he would have been completely unremarkable if it weren’t for his unusual choice of clothes. He wore a matching set of short haori jacket and kimono in a kind of splash-pattern dye, with a traditional hakama skirt of narrow stripes over it. However, the haori and kimono were full of wrinkles, and the hakama, conversely, had lost any trace of its crisp pleats. His toenails were beginning to poke through the ends of his tabi socks, his wooden geta clogs were worn down, his hat had lost its shape… In short, for a young man in the prime of life he seemed shockingly indifferent to his appearance.

The image is almost of a Columbo-like character, yet Kosuke is sharp as anything, as well as being well versed in the classics of crime literature!

In fact, one of the delights of this book was the undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek nods to GA novels and authors – in fact, further back all the way to Poe – and many a knowing homage to the greats. There are references to A.A. Milne and Gaston Leroux, as well as Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie; and of course John Dickson Carr gets numerous mentions. Intriguingly, both the narrator and one of the family members have an almost unhealthy interest in classic crime, in particular locked room mysteries, and any lover of GA writing will get a kick out of this element of the book.

1930s Japan Travel Poster – Japanese Government Railways / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, there’s another aspect of the book which is particularly interesting, and that is the focus on the changes taking place in Japan, both pre-WW2 when the mystery takes place, and immediately post WW2 when the narrator is telling the tale (the book was published in 1946). The author builds these elements into the storyline, and it adds fascinating colour and history to his tale. There is much here, as well, which throws light on differing attitudes towards men and women in Japanese society and how they might be changing. An acknowledgement in passing at the end of the book about recent events added poignancy to the narrative, too…

The story is told in the voice of an author, writing the story from a variety of reports and source (though whether this is a narrator standing in for the author or meant to represent Yokomizo himself isn’t spelled out and probably doesn’t really matter). He’s an engaging and down to earth companion, enthusiastic about his story and happy to show off his knowledge of crime literature and the mystery to hand. I’ll be happy to make his and Kosuke’s acquaintance again!

So “The Honjin Murders” turned out to be a marvellous read, a real classic crime mystery with wonderful twists (in setting and context, as well as the crime itself!) As I said above, I’m really surprised that this book hasn’t been translated before because it’s such a good read and completely absorbing (which is very welcome at the moment). I so enjoyed my first encounter with detective Kosuke Kindaichi and, most pleasingly, it won’t have to be my last, as I see that Pushkin Press have put out another one of his adventures….! 😀

Thanks so much to Janet for so kindly sending on the book – you can read her review here!

#1920Club – the ones that got away! ;D

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Phew! Well, that was an interesting and varied week of reading. Thanks *so* much to everyone who joined in – it’s been a particularly wonderful Club and I think 1920 was a great year to choose. So many unexpected books turn out to have been published in the year and it’s been fascinating reading everyone’s posts and comments!

I’m very happy with the books I read for 1920, but inevitably I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to. So here is a pile of the books I have on hand and *could* have read, but which got away…

pile of books flowers james joyce colette cheri 1920 club reading

As you can see, there are some chunky books as well as slim ones, and lovely choices. I regret not getting back to either Mansfield or Colette, as I’ve been keen to revisit both. Hesse is an old favourite too, and “Wandering” was appealing right now, though may well have triggered claustrophobia…

“Ulysses” is more of a long-term goal, so I didn’t really intend to tackle that one this week, tbh. Likewise, the Lawrence might be a good place for me to try to start with his work, but it didn’t feel this was the right moment. The Fitzgerald and Carswell are books I haven’t read (though I’ve read other books by both of them and loved them). Again, not enough time…

So those are the possible reads which got away. Maybe I’ll catch up with at least one of them later on this year. However, as I said, I’m very happy with what I read as I chose some favourite authors and also managed to get back into reading Proust! I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading along with Simon and myself, and do share links to any posts I’ve missed on the 1920 Club page here – I’ll try to gather up any links I’ve missed over the next few days.

As for which year we choose for our next Club in six months’ time? Watch this space…. ;D

#1920Club – “Each of us sees in brighter colours what he sees at a distance, what he sees in other people.” #Proust2020

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The Guermantes Way Part 1 by Marcel Proust

When I first started looking into books published in 1920 for our reading club, it did strike me that it was very much a year of extremes. Although the first year of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ saw any number of lighter works from authors like Agatha Christie, E.F. Benson and Beverley Nichols, there were also a couple of heavyweights published, in the form of James Joyce’s” Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “The Guermantes Way Part 1”. I’m not making any kind of value judgement here, as I’ve read any number of so-called light works, and I started off the week with the Christie! Nevertheless, both the Joyce and the Proust are books I’ve wanted to read for a long time; I was pretty sure (and I was right!) that I wouldn’t get to “Ulysses”; however, Proust was a different matter… I’ve read the first two books in his great sequence, “Swann’s Way” and “Within a Budding Grove” (back in 2014!!); and so “Guermantes…” was the next in line. The temptation was immense and in the end I didn’t resist – 2020 is the year I’ve climbed back on the Proust wagon!

proust in search of lost time volume 2 the guermantes way

At the end of “Within a Budding Grove” Marcel and his beloved grandmother were coming to the end of their time spent by the seaside. “Guermantes…” opens with the family having moved into a new apartment, connected to that of the Guermantes. It’s a shock to their systems, with Marcel lamenting his lost country home, but he does manage to find consolation. The book is informed by three main themes: Marcel’s obsession with Mme de Guermantes; his friendship with Saint-Loup and latter’s relationship with his mistress, Rachel; and the effect on French society of the Dreyfus affair. This latter runs as a thread through the story and it’s clear it was extremely divisive .

Marcel is very much a man driven by his emotions, which in this book are exercised by his unrealistic vision of Mme de Guermantes. His previous passions for the actress Berma, Gilberte and Albertine have fallen by the wayside and his obsession with Mme de Guermantes is, of course, all-consuming (as are all of his passions). He sees her from a distance at the theatre, while watching Berma with indifference; at one point, the latter was his be-all and end-all! He stalks his neighbour in the street simply to get the pleasure of an acknowledgement as they pass. And he visits his old friend Saint-Loup, her nephew, at his barracks in an attempt to effect an introduction. To the reader, it’s perhaps something of a mystery as to why Marcel is so taken with her; it may be part of his mother-complex coming through again, or simply the glamour attached to her name; but in any event, he’s obsessed. And I have to say that, as someone with slightly obsessive tendencies, I’ve not read anyone who writes quite so well about this!

A fair amount of the book is taken up with Marcel’s visit to Saint-Loup, and interestingly enough our narrator seems to get on quite well once away from his normal setting. Instead of the invalidish young man, he seems to take a fair amount of exercise and mixes regularly with Saint-Loup’s fellow officers. However, Saint-Loup’s concern for his friend is a constant reminder that Marcel is not always in good health, and I was drawn back again to the knowledge we now have of him wrestling with illness in his cork-lined room.

It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.

There is much discussion of military tactics, as well as Dreyfus, but he does eventually manage to persuade Saint-Loup to try to arrange a meeting with his aunt. Alas, this doesn’t happen, but then Saint-Loup visits on leave and we are introduced to the strand of the plot dealing with his love-life. It’s a turbulent one, with Saint-Loup’s mistress Rachel calling the shots, although Marcel stands cynically back, recognising her as he does from a previous encounter at a brothel. There are scenes and rows, with Marcel (and everyone else!) seeming to think Saint-Loup would be better off without Rachel. How much of this is due to her Jewish heritage is another question…

The final long section of the book takes place in the salon of Mme Villeparisis, where the narrator encounters many familiar characters from the first two books. His old school friend Bloch is as awkward and obtuse as ever; Odette Swann puts in an appearance; Saint-Loup comes and goes; and Marcel attains his dream of meeting Mme de Guermantes (although it’s an oddly understated encounter). But much of the focus is again on the Dreyfus affair, the opposing views and the effects on society. Both Bloch and Rachel are Jewish and this colours the attitudes of many of the aristocratic attendees towards them. Towards the end of the book, the rather slimy de Charlus reappears and offers to take charge of Marcel – a rather alarming prospect, really… Part One of Guermantes ends with a family drama and I have to admit I was tempted to keep right on reading!

… Memories and griefs are fleeting things. There are days when they recede so far that we are barely conscious of them, we think that they have gone forever. Then we pay attention to other things.

Well, that’s a short summary of a long work! And with Proust, of course, the big problem is always that so much has been written about him already. However, I’ll pull out some themes and things which struck me most strongly. First off, the portrait of the complexities of French society at the time is masterly; it’s a rigidly structured edifice with a fixed heirarchy; woe and betide anyone who doesn’t conform or fit in! The salon sequence is often funny, filled with wonderful character sketches, and to be honest shows most of them up as rampant snobs. Marcel obviously relishes being amongst these people, however, and he is a wonderful observer of their foibles – of one attendee, for example, he says:

Having suffered for some weeks from a nervous insomnia which resisted every attempt at treatment, he had given up going to bed, and, half-dead with exhaustion, went out only whenever his work made it imperative.

As for the sequence in the barracks, I admit this was where the book dragged very slightly for me; I can only take so much discussion of military tactics… However, I found myself wondering about Saint-Loup; although often solicitous and kind towards Marcel, there are times where he’s almost detached and ignores his friend. Despite lauding Marcel’s intelligence to his colleagues, I found myself wondering whether Saint-Loup was actually make fun a little of Marcel. The difficulty, as I’ve mentioned before, is that we see everything through the prism of Marcel’s eyes, and he’s not always the most reliable narrator!

Marcel Proust in 1895 – Otto Wegener (1849-1924) – détail / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The rigid social heirarchy also affects women very strongly, perhaps more so than men. Certainly, “Guermantes…” reveals very differing lives for women of differing classes; the contrast between attitudes towards Mme de Guermantes and Rachel is marked, with Marcel very dismissive of women of her type. In many ways the relationship between Saint-Loup and Rachel echoes that of Swann and Odette and reflects the remarkably convuluted system of moral judgements which existed at the time.

It has been said that silence is strength; in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved. It increases the anxiety of the one who waits. Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart; and what barrier is so insurmountable as silence? It has been said also that silence is torture, capable of goading to madness the man who is condemned to it in a prison cell. But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silence is to have to endure the silence of the person one loves!

I mentioned the Dreyfus Affair, a running theme in the story, and one which actually engeders some quite painful discussions. I won’t relate it in detail here, because there’s a substantial Wikipedia entry on it, but basically Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery officer falsley convicted for espionage. The case was a scandal, with Zola famously defending Dreyfus and having to go into exile because of this. French society was divided and the affair revealed a shocking amount of anti-semitism. That’s what I mean by painful; the views expressed by some of the characters are vile, and make difficult reading, although I suppose this reflected the attitudes of the time. Not nice, though; and it made me very saddened that we still seem to be plagued by such intolerance.

Anyway, to get back to the book, “Guermantes…” was a completely engrossing read, and I surprised myself a little by getting so involved in it. Proust writes, of course, beautifully; long, sinuous, complex sentences; incredible detail; and he captures emotions so perfectly. The sequence where Marcel returns unexpectedly from his visit to Saint-Loup and sees his beloved grandmother almost with the eyes of a stranger is quite outstanding, for example; and as I said above, no-one writes obsession quite so well as Proust.

proust hardbacks and paperbacks in search of lost time

Hardback version vs paperback version….

As I mentioned in my short summary, “Guermantes Pt 1” ends with a somewhat understated family drama; the book was of course published in 1920, and part 2 came out a year later, which must have been a bit of a wait for those following the story. However, a rather odd fact came to light when I was checking out the use of a particular term right at the end of the book. I started my journey with Proust by reading the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation which was published in the 1980s, an edition which came in three chunky volumes. I’d been struggling a little physically with it, so when I had some birthday money at the end of last year, I invested in a four volume Everyman edition in hardback which is definitely easier to handle. This is the 1980s version revised again by D.J. Enright, and it was the use of the term ‘rent boy’ which threw me a little, as it seemed a little modern. However, when I went to check with my older version (the term there is ‘renter’, so I suppose the modern phrase is a little clearer), I discovered that the 1980s edition had combined the two separate “Guermantes…” volumes into one story and it just ran on continuously without a break – not even an indication that this had been originally published as two separate volumes and there was a year between publication. I confess to being vaguely miffed about this as I like to read as closely to the original as is ever possible in a translation; and the combining of the two separate books just seemed wrong to me. So I’m kind of glad I switched to the Everyman edition, particularly as that divide allows you to come to terms with the family event which happens at the end of the first book.

That’s by the way, really. I’m just really happy to have reconnected with Proust and his masterpiece (particularly after reading around his work recently, as well as picking up any number of Proust shorter works). It was the perfect book to round off our week of reading from 1920 and I’m so glad the Club nudged me towards this. The work really *isn’t* difficult to read; it just requires time and commitment, and as we’re all likely to have more spare hours at home going forward I may well have chosen the right moment to rejoin “In Search of Lost Time”… ;D

#1920club – “Let us wash the roofs of our eyes in colour; let us dive till the deep seas close above our heads.” #virginiawoolf

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While I was digging about for Virginia Woolf stories to read for 1920, it occurred to me that there might well be some essays from that year which I could read; which then caused a bit of rummaging through the books of Woolf essays I have! As well as a variety of collections (including both Common Readers), I also have the first three volumes of her collected essays; they’re chunky books, and I’m gradually collecting them when I come across a reasonably-priced copy as the completist in me *needs* to have them, but they’re not cheap and I’ve no idea when I’ll get round to reading them! However, luckily Volume 3 covers 1920, so I had a bit of an explore to see what it contained.

This is probably the first time I’ve had a good look at the books, and interestingly it appears that many of these ‘essays’ are actually reviews of books, exhibitions and the like. Which is not a problem, but perhaps made it a little harder to pick out what to read! The books are beautifully presented, though, with notes and sources for each entry, so quite a triumph of scholarship by editor Andrew McNeillie. Woolf was obviously busy in 1920, with 31 entries showing in the contents list for that year, and the subject range was wide – from Kipling to Chekhov, Woolf had an enquiring mind. In the end, I settled on two pieces: “Gorky on Tolstoy” and “Pictures and Portraits“.

I chose to read “Pictures and Portraits” for the simple reason that its opening paragraphs resonated so strongly with me. Woolf describes the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, relating in her usual beautiful sentences how easy it is to visit, gaining access to all manner of wonders inside. Both are places I love and visit on a regular basis whenever I’m in London, and it really hit me hard to realise how long it will be before I can go through those doors again… Her words evoked my visits to both Galleries and reminded me how lucky we are to have the arts in this country; it also made me worry about the arts going forward after this particular crisis. Anyway, the essay itself is a meditation on an exhibition of the works of Edmond X. Kapp, of whom I’d never heard, but I have to say that Woolf’s prose does convince me I should look him up!

National Portrait Gallery by Wei-Te Wong from Taipei City, Taiwan, Republic of China / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

As for “Gorky on Tolstoy”, I guess it’s no surprise that I should choose that one! This is a review of Gorky’s reminiscences of the great Russian author, and it reminds you of how taken the Bloomsberries were with the Russian authors, as well as instrumental in bringing them to an English audience. It’s a short but fascinating review, pulling out some intriguing pieces from Gorky’s book and musing on how well we know or see another person.

So Gorky shocks us at first by showing us that Tolstoy was no different from other men in being sometimes conceited, intolerant, insincere, and in allowing his private fortunes to make him vindictive in his judgements.

Woolf the journalist is a little different from Woolf the writer of fiction; a little more formal, a little more traditional perhaps; but still with those wonderful flights of fancy and unexpected turns of phrase we expect from her. I can see that the best way to read these essays might be to take a dipping approach, even if a chronological one, reading one or two at a time so as to savour them and get the most out of them. Now there’s an idea for a lockdown reading project if ever I heard one! 😀

#1920Club – a great (and neglected!) detective makes his debut! #reggiefortune #hcbailey

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Call Mr. Fortune by H.C. Bailey

As I’ve mentioned before, whenever we have a reading club week I always check out what Golden Age crime is available to read; it’s a genre I’ve always loved, and I’m finding it the perfect kind of escapism for our current troubled times. And 1920 was obviously a good year for great detectives making their debut; on Monday I covered Hercule Poirot’s first case, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”; and today I want to talk about another sleuth making his first appearance, though one whose popularity has not endured as well as Christie’s – Dr. Reginald Fortune, created by H.C. Bailey.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Reggie before on the Ramblings ad nauseum, but I love his stories. A medical doctor, he’s drawn into crime investigation whilst minding his father’s practice; and he most definitely has a talent for sleuthing! This first collection sees a fledgling Reggie investigating a series of twisty cases, and from the start he has his regular sidekicks, Bell and Lomas, on hand. There are six stories in the collection:

The Archduke’s Tea
The Sleeping Companion
The Nice Girl
The Efficient Assassin
The Hottentot Venus
The Business Minister

Each is an entertaining and clever mystery, though it has to be said that Reggie as a character is still developing; Martin Edwards, editor of the British Library Crime Classics series often includes Reggie stories in his anthologies, and describes Bailey’s style as mannered. There’s certainly an element of Wimsey-esque silly-ass-ness, but already hints of the darker elements to come. Reggie may talks like an idiot at times, but he certainly isn’t one…

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. That was Dr. Reginald Fortune’s trouble. He had become a specialist, and, as he told anybody who would listen, thought it an absurd thing to be. For he was interested in everything, but not in anything in particular. And it was just this various versatility of mind and taste which had condemned him to be a specialist. Obviously an absurd world.

On to the individual stories. “The Archduke’s Tea” is an entertaining tale about murder, nobles in exile and married love; here, Reggie’s sympathies are established early on as always being on the side of the victim. The second story “The Sleeping Companion” is ingenious, dealing as it does with a murder which seems sinister and clear-cut, but isn’t. In “The Nice Girl“, Reggie investigates on behalf of a nice nurse of his acquaintance whose paramour is accused of murder; but all is not as it seems.

“I’m not an advocate, Lomas. I’m always on the same side. I’m for justice. I’m for the man who’s been wronged.”

The Efficient Assassin” gives us a tantalising glimpse of Reggie’s college past as he investigates the murder of the estranged father of an old school friend. “The Hottentot Venus” is perhaps the weakest entry in the collection, dealing as it does with a disappearing school girl and some unlikely action aboard a yacht.

The last story in the collection (and possibly the longest – I’ll get on to why that’s hard to judge later…) is “The Business Minister“, and I felt it was definitely the best. In a snowy spring, Reggie investigates a damaging political leak and the murder of an unidentified man. Are the two connected? However could the leak have happened? And is everyone in the story exactly what the appear to be? It’s twisty and absorbing, reaching into the past, and also, incidentally, introducing the woman who will become Mrs. Fortune.

It was a clear cold morning of early spring, and Reggie shrank under his rugs. He had no love for east winds. He thought that there should be a close time for murders. He was elaborating a scheme by which the murder and the cricket seasons should be conterminous, when, at about twenty-five miles from London, they passed a horrible building. It was some distance from the high road, perched on the top of a small hill. It was of very red brick and very white stone, so arranged as to suggest the streaky bacon which might be made of a pig who had died in convulsions. It was ornate with the most improbable decorations, colonnades, battlements, a spire or so, oriel windows, a dome, Tudor chimneys, and some wedding-cake furbelows. Reggie writhed and called to his factotum, who was sitting beside the chauffeur. “Sam, who had that nightmare?” “That must be Colney Towers, sir. Mr. Victor Lunt’s place.”

Needless to say, it was a real joy reading these early Reggie Fortune stories and fascinating to see his first appearances, as the stories in the BLCC anthologies have tended to be later ones. The tales have aged remarkable well, although unfortunately in a couple of places there was the use of racial terminology which is of course unacceptable and a great shame. This might have something to do with the fact that it seems almost impossible to get hold of Bailey’s books…

H.C. Bailey – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Because uncharacteristically for me, I had to resort to reading this as an ebook, a format I really don’t like (and which is why I find it hard to judge the length of stories in relation to each other). I had a quick look at Bailey’s Wikipedia page while I was writing this post and was astonished to see how prolific he was. Not only did he write a mass of crime stories (including many Reggies as well as other sleuths), but he also produced historical/romance fiction and masses of journalism – impressive!

I’ve had this ebook lurking for quite some time now, but I hate the format so much I hadn’t actually read it despite it being Reggie. As far as I’m aware, the only stories currently in print are the ones in the BLCC collections, so it seems if I want to read any more of the adventures of the wonderful Reggie Fortune I shall have to reconcile myself to e-reading. Time to go searching online to see what’s available from Mr. Bailey and Mr. Fortune! 😀

#1920club “… the human face at the top of the fullest page of print holds more, withholds more…” – Woolf’s short stories

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First up today, I need to confess about a rather foolish faux pas I made when I was trailing possible reads for 1920 (and if you read the post you may well know what I mean!) For some unknown reason, I got it into my head that Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” was published in 1920, which is of course rubbish – the book came out in 1925! Nevertheless, there it is in the picture I shared of possibles, so silly me!

I’m not sure if I had actually intended a re-read however; but this did make me wonder what Woolf there *was* from 1920, and a little researching revealed a couple of short stories which I decided to revisit. Both are in a collection of “Selected Short Stories” I posted about a while back, but I thought I would look at these in more detail.

The stories are “Solid Objects” and “An Unwritten Novel“; the latter appeared in “Monday or Tuesday”, and both were issues posthumously in the “A Haunted House” collection. Although written in the same year, these stories have very different subject matter and a very different feel, but both are haunting.

“Solid Objects” is more of what you might call a traditional story, telling of two young men, Charles and John, whose lives diverge in unexpected ways after John finds a stone on the beach which he takes home with him. His fascination with objects becomes a consuming passion and overtakes everything else in his life in a quite chilling fashion. In just over six pages, Woolf weaves a narrative that captures a man’s obsession in beautiful prose.

The second piece, “An Unwritten Novel” is a little more unusual as despite being described as fiction, the reader can’t help but regarding this as a glimpse of Woolf’s mind at play. The narrator is travelling by train to the south coast, just as would have Woolf, and on her journey spins stories around a fellow passenger, inventing a whole life for her based on her appearance alone and what she can read from this and the woman’s face. She gives her a name, a family, a whole background, and these flights of fancy are the unwritten novel of the title. These illusions may be shattered, but for a while the character of Minnie Marsh, developed by Woolf’s genius, exists.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s an intriguing and again beautifully written work, and as it portrays a novelist at work it’s impossible not to conflate it with Virginia Woolf herself. The story seems to arrest Woolf at the moment of creation, allowing us an insight into how her mind works and how her art is formed, which is utterly fascinating.

Woolf’s writing is always stunning and both of these stories reminded me how much I love her prose, her vivid imagination, the fertility of her imagery and her way of sliding off at tangents but never losing her point. Even though the novels which are regarded as her finest were still ahead of her, Woolf was obviously already exploring different ways to write and tell stories, with wonderful results. I’m so glad our reading club made me focus on these two works and I’m getting the itch to start up some kind of Woolf re-reading project – if only there were more hours in the day! 😀

#1920Club – exploring Edith Wharton’s masterpiece

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(As is becoming a regular thing, when Mr. Kaggsy heard we had another club reading week coming up, he offered to provide a guest post – this time on Edith Wharton’s classic “The Age of Innocence” (which I have to confess that I *gulp* haven’t read yet…) I’m afraid he’s got a little carried away – brace yourselves, it’s quite long and goes into quite a lot of detail….)

The Age of Innocence, first appearing in the United States in 1920, is described by a half century later US printing as: “A brilliantly realized anatomy of New York society in the 1870s, the world in which (the author) grew up, and from which she spent her life escaping.” American Edith Wharton (1862-1937) wrote the novel after the end of World War I and the book’s title can be loosely applied to the period in which the story is set, at a time when the city’s ‘old order’ still subsisted. Wharton received the Pulitzer Prize for her book in 1921, it being the first novel written by a woman to win. Her life in Manhattan society during the Victorian era enabled her to present with realism a view of the privileged classes and the restricted circle in which its members conducted their lives.

Before turning to the story, there is some interesting history relating to the book. The Age of Innocence was first serialised in 1920 as four monthly instalments in the Pictorial Review, an American women’s magazine in print from the end of the twentieth-century to the outbreak of World War II. The ensuing hardback was published the same year by D. Appleton and Company, New York. A first edition asking price is now £30,000 for a pristine copy, or one signed by the author, the book originally priced at two dollars. First dust jackets pictured a young Victorian female, thought to be inspired by the child in the 1785 painting by Joshua Reynolds, bearing the same title as the novel. Wharton penned extensive revisions between the serial and book publication, and made even more changes after the second impression.

US hardbacks: D. Appleton & Company 1920 first edition; Grosset & Dunlap 1920s (by arrangement with Appleton); Modern Library 1943.

With 2020 being the novel’s centenary year, new anniversary editions are to be found, with no doubt a continuing plethora of Kindle types and other renderings. Given also that The Age of Innocence is out of copyright, the modern era affords endless opportunities for reprints and digital versions in the public domain, hence a flurry of new runs in recent years, or, latterly, print on demand and ‘self published’ offerings. Numerous assorted versions have appeared, either as audio or academic studies, in collections including the author’s other works, or as translations in various countries.

There have also been screen and stage presentations of the story. In 1924, The Age of Innocence was filmed as a silent movie, followed by a Broadway theatrical production in 1928. The play ran for six months, with over 200 performances, and is still performed today. This was followed by a Hollywood screen version in 1934, an RKO film adaptation based on both the novel and the play. The script was almost a complete rewrite, its pace brisk and scenes quite ‘talky’, while length was only around 80 minutes, leading to subtleties and nuances being lost. This first screen presentation with sound was creditable enough, with a level of sincerity and an ending which was contemplative, avoiding the fashion for a ‘tearjerker’. Edith Wharton died three years after the film, in France; whether she saw it, or the silent version, or how she might have regarded them, is not known.

In 1993, director Martin Scorsese brought to the screen a faithful and plush adaptation of the novel, with the trio of main characters portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska and Winona Ryder as May Welland, she being Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Scorsese dedicated the film to his actor father, who died the same year as the film’s release. The script borrows extensively from the novel, the characters liberally speaking lines of dialogue from the novel. Throughout the film a narration extracted from the book is spoken by actress Joanne Woodward, providing a feeling of nostalgia, as if looking back on events. The movie could rightfully be called definitive, being Oscar nominated for its screenplay. The length was almost double that of its 1934 predecessor, allowing the camera time to study lingering looks conveying a player’s thoughts, or to glide over many elegant interiors and atmospheric outdoor scenes. A slower and gentler tempo offers a more refined treatment of the multi-layered story. Almost no detail is spared and the lavish production has been rated as one of the best page-to-screen adaptations, perhaps Scorsese’s masterpiece. Between the two movies, Edith Wharton was honoured on a US postage stamp, in 1980.

And so to the novel, with an assurance that no substantive ‘spoilers’ appear in this review, nor are any of the later plot elements revealed. The story, penned in around 100,000 words, is largely divided into two equal halves, entitled Book I and Book II, the latter carrying a belated powerful revelation; arising from this, the last part of the book is reflective. In this way, The Age of Innocence encompasses the past history and continuing lives of the two main family clans, the ongoing events and later, in retrospect, the unfolding of events during future years.

As will become apparent from the author’s treatment of her main protagonist, she clearly knew lawyer Newland Archer better than he ever did himself. The novelist’s study of him is crafted with insight and sincerity, and as the central figure he is seen in three successive guises. An early first reference is to a former time, involving a younger man’s affair with a married lady, since ended. The story proper now takes place, charting Archer’s life as a person embroiled in the fashionable structure of New York’s high society, but feeling drawn to a more free and easy lifestyle, one he imagines “common” people and foreigners enjoy. His restless feelings and stirrings cause him privately to react against the class system in which he has been raised, but of which he seems inescapably a part. Inevitably, as the novel commandingly portrays, there comes a time when someone such as Archer has made his choices, that of enjoying or enduring the life for which he has opted, whether willingly, or regretfully. The third phase of Archer’s life, and the novel, is reflective, now that he and the reader have experienced all the events which have taken place, or, in the end, did not happen.

North American hardbacks: Engage limited 1000 copies Canada 2016; Inkflight ‘centenary’ limited 100 copies Canada 2019; Scribner 100th anniversary US 2020.

The late nineteenth-century upper class values of delicacy and propriety are those which the novel’s illustrious New York family members resolutely observe. The formidable men and women protect the dynastic name, in the cause of duty, even to the exclusion of their own happiness; the scourge of scandal outweighs any desire to venture beyond the bounds of propriety. There is much regard for tradition and history and the novel’s title can be seen as an ironic comment on the polished outward behaviour of the city’s two main illustrious families. They are hailed as “the very apex of the pyramid”, while their internal dealings are kept private and concealed, in particular to maintain and protect a woman’s honour. Subjects of etiquette and convention are matters of pride, but they belie hypocrisy and artificiality. Thus, to the relief of Archer’s family and that of his fiancée May Welland and her household, his recent affair has been brought to an end and without any public exposure, allowing dignity and good taste to be kept to the fore.

The story embracing New York high society as it does, the opening setting is that of an opera, the venue being approved of as “small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to.” Here, the preserving of class values is at risk of being undermined, such is the refusal of the upper echelons of society to mix with those from the lower reaches of the city. Archer of course arrives at the opera fashionably late: “New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early.”

Across the theatre Archer can see his fiancée, the sheltered May, seated in her family’s private box, which he visits. His future romantic partner presents as a vision in virtuous white, the male visitor contemplating “her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” However, Archer is then smitten at first glance by a lady introduced as his fiancée’s cousin, “… a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds.” It soon transpires that the pair knew each other as children, he having once stolen a kiss from her. Countess Ellen Olenska has just returned from abroad, having unconventionally left her Polish count husband, turning her back on an abusive marriage. Thereupon, despite Archer being betrothed and the titled lady, ‘spoken for’ in law, an early passion is ignited within them.

US paperbacks: Scribner 1968; Collier 1992; Signet Classics 2008.

The forthcoming experiences of the male protagonist and the two women who will impact on his life are, however, not the only important elements of the tale. Locations, secondary characters, tradition, death and dishonour, create a fascinating and essential background, notably one in which the author herself matured. Archer’s own mother has an unshakable view as to her son’s betrothal and how marriage should be conducted, but mainly from the point of view of continuing the family’s good name: “There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose. Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable – and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous – that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.”

An approaching social occasion serves to have Archer more formally introduced to the free-spirited Madame Olenska, while elsewhere at the event May Welland is about to spread the word that she has become engaged to him. In contrast to the prospective bride, Ellen Olenska’s boldness is on view for all to see: “It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.” In time May appears, spotted by Ellen, who covers the moment: “‘Ah, here’s May arriving, and you will want to hurry away to her,’ she added, but without moving; and her eyes turned back from the door to rest on the young man’s face.” Clearly Ellen is enjoying Archer’s company and not caring about social niceties

Soon May is encircled by several males, allowing nascent feelings within her intended and her cousin to continue developing unhindered. Archer is content to carry on conversing with his present company and does not mind May being temporarily waylaid. ‘Oh,’ said Archer, ‘I have so many rivals; you see she’s already surrounded. There’s the Duke being introduced.’ ‘Then stay with me a little longer,’ Madame Olenska said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress.”

After one or two later meetings, despite the difficulty in arranging what could be judged an indecorous rendezvous, the clandestine couple cannot ignore their strong mutual attraction. Ellen wishes to commence divorce proceedings and consults the legal firm at which Archer is employed. Conveniently, if ill-advisedly, he takes on the role of her lawyer, and here rises an additional obstacle. If he were to follow his feelings, betraying his fiancée May on one hand, and on the other becoming romantically involved with his client, it would mean prejudicing not only his social standing, but also his legal career. To complicate matters further for him, there is another apparent male suitor on hand for the countess.

UK paperbacks: Penguin 1994 film tie-in; Wordsworth 1994; Oxford University Press 2008.

To Archer, Ellen is a fantasy of freedom and escape, the feminine ideal, while May is the quintessence of established New York society. The two women represent, individually, a ‘decadent’ Europe and ‘innocent’ America, while the bastions of decency stand in the way of any reckless behaviour, leaving only private thoughts as a conduit to explore possibilities beyond the social order. “How quaint, how rosy-hued and idealistic it all was,” the narrator attests. The main players are confined inside their rituals, the family and social precepts having no real substance or meaning. The emphasis is on marital duty, avoiding any scandal, maintaining privacy and tradition. Even immediately after a wedding, it is a tradition that a matriarchal figure gives the wedding breakfast, thereby sealing the newcomers inside the circle of two now joined families.

Within this suffocating environment, Archer and Ellen are emotionally both lovers and kindred spirits. “Each time you happen to me all over again,” the countess reveals to her forbidden paramour. In the days ahead, the male confidante and aspirant wooer is invited to visit Ellen in her newly rented “peeling stucco house with a giant wisteria throttling its feeble cast-iron balcony… far down West Twenty-third Street… It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and ‘people who wrote’ were her nearest neighbours.” Although the invitation is not necessarily unusual in itself, Archer declines to mention it to May. Moreover, the evening he spends in Ellen’s company allows their relationship to evolve, although the meeting is brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of a person who could stand in the way of Archer’s developing, but seemingly impossible, expectations: “He was not sorry for the denouement of his visit: he only wished it had come sooner, and spared him a certain waste of emotion. As he went out into the wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent, and May Welland the loveliest woman in it.” He later buys May flowers and asks her out for a walk in the park.

In essence, the author is the observer and storyteller, chiefly assuming the persona of Newland Archer. Skilfully, she reveals the lawyer’s inner feelings, as he appears outwardly to be conducting his client’s matrimonial business. He is additionally conflicted by the risk of Ellen’s wider family name becoming besmirched by virtue of her divorce, affecting Archer’s own impending marriage to a member of the same extended family. Thus the troubled lawyer takes it upon himself to dissuade the countess from pursuing a divorce, perhaps a selfish act, or perhaps unconsciously to make her ‘free’. However, her halted intentions and thereby remaining married fail to stem his love for her. Moreover, when May hears of the stayed proceedings, she believes it is out of love for her that her betrothed has prevented the divorce. Archer resolves that the only way out from the maze in which he feels trapped is to advance his own wedding date and prevent in the meantime his remaining ‘vulnerable’. From this point on he is beleaguered by an accumulation of concerns: societal niceties, legal obligations to his firm, longings for his client and his own family considerations, not least of all his fiancée.

As time passes, Archer strives to focus upon his romance with May, becoming less troubled with Ellen’s possible divorce, or any chance that she might remarry. “Since their last meeting he had half-unconsciously collaborated with events in ridding himself of the burden of Madame Olenska. His hour alone with her by the firelight had drawn them into a momentary intimacy on which (events) had rather providentially broken.” And yet, in truth, the afflicted lawyer cannot bear thoughts of his client being courted by other men. Even from a distance, the countess later moving away, the now disunited couple still share feelings in notes, Ellen wishing Archer was with her.

UK paperbacks: Virago 1992; Penguin Classics 1996; Oxford World’s Classics 2008.

Book I progresses, with travel and later private meetings occupying future events. As events unfold, approaching half way through the book, we have not heard the last of Archer’s original affair, that which he conducted before he became associated with either May or Ellen. Only one person is clear on her plans, May favours a long and typical engagement, followed by a full wedding ceremony. During the period of impending marriage, Archer cannot help but fantasise about being married to Ellen, were it to be possible, while he sees marrying May as more of an impending fate, a loveless society union. Thus the legal, matrimonial, societal and family constraints, not least of all the tentacles of tradition, remain locked in play as Book I begins to draw to a close.

Book II’s outlook is concerned with hoped-for wedlock, assorted family gatherings, excursions and pastimes. Ahead await possible European travels and the occasional Grand Tour, all of which may serve to leave behind the earlier days of the Metropolis and its characters’ lives and loves. Meanwhile, the privileged classes fill their liberal free time with fashionable pursuits. “…Archery… which had hitherto known no rival but croquet, was beginning to be discarded in favour of lawn-tennis; but the latter game was still considered too rough and inelegant for social occasions, and as an opportunity to show off pretty dresses and graceful attitudes the bow and arrow held their own.”

The Age of Innocence in many respects presents as an elegy to the time in which Edith Wharton grew up, a society of wealth and class, hidebound by its own self-imposed order. As for the story’s denouement, the momentous revelations which conclude events are delivered briefly and effectively. There follow some closing reflective pages, from which questions form in the mind of the reader, thoughts dwelling on possible different outcomes; which of course is how it should be.

(Phew! Thanks for that, Mr. Kaggsy – possibly the longest post ever on the Ramblings!! I did consider splitting it into two parts, but then thought it was better left as one piece. I expect whatever appears tomorrow will be a little bit shorter…. :D)

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