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Pioneering Modernist women – two wonderful new releases over @ShinyNewBooks @norvikpress #WITmonth

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Today I want to share with you two reviews I have up at Shiny New Books; the books I cover are a wonderful pair of Modernist works which are newly translated and completely fascinating!

The books have been published by Norvik Press, an imprint coming out of the Department of Scandinavian Studies at UCL, London; and their backlist, I have to say, is very, very tempting… Anyway, the books I’ve read and reviewed are from two inspirational women authors: Karin Boye (whose “Kallocain” I’ve also covered for Shiny) and Hagar Olsson (who’s a new name to me). The lives of both women are fascinating in their own right, and the works they produced are ground-breaking, innovative, explorative, complex, stimulating and fabulous reading. You can read my thoughts on Boye here and Olsson here – do check them out and read the books if you can; they’d be ideal for August’s #WITMonth! 😀

Reading challenges and me….

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It’s probably fairly clear to anyone who reads my ramblings regularly that I’m an utter failure when it comes to reading challenges – either joining in with those run by others, or with the self-imposed ones I set myself in a flurry of enthusiasm and then allow to fall by the wayside… In fact, the only reading event I usually manage to stick to is the bi-annual reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book; and that’s with a lot of organisation and forward planning… And I was reminded recently that I devised (back in 2015!!) the project of reading all 27 books in the Penguin Modern Poets series, released between 1962 and 1979. In fact, I even have a page on the blog for it…

My Penguin Modern Poets collection!

However, if you have a look you will see I stalled early, at book no. 6, which was back in 2016 – which is pretty feeble. However, despite that utter failure, I am still fighting the urge to approach another reading project; it was this which reminded me of the Poets, and it came about when I saw (on Twitter, I think) that Penguin are releasing set 6 of their Penguin Great Ideas series in September – and it includes Perec and Calvino and Camus amongst many other rather wonderful authors!

My Great Ideas…

A quick hop onto Wikipedia revealed details of the 5 earlier sets, and I hadn’t quite realised how many there were; but I knew I had the whole first set and assorted volumes from the later ones. So of course I had to make a list, which is fatal for any book addict; because immediately you want to start collecting the whole lot, ticking them off merrily as you acquire them (well, I do, anyway…)  Looking down the checklist, there is a fantastic range of titles, all of which I’d be happy to read. And a lightbulb ping moment in my head said “You could read them as a project, you know…” Of course, we know how badly I do with these things, and so it really *isn’t* a great idea (ha!). Still. I’m tempted – and trying to fight against it. You can see from the image above that although I have all the first set, I only have a few of the later ones, so that would be a lot of purchasing and a lot more shelf space needed. No, it really isn’t a good idea…

Penguin Moderns box set and Little Black Classics pile

This also reminded me, of course, that I still have the Penguin Moderns box to make my way through, and I had been doing quite well, getting up to book 26 a year ago; and then I stalled… I *have* been galvanised to pick these up again, and have some reviews coming up next month of later volumes. However, as you can see from the picture, there are also the Penguin Little Black Classics, and I haven’t read all of them either. Yikes!

Anyway, I am going to try to take up the Poets Project again, and so I dug them out on Sunday to see what I had, where I was and generally take stock. This kind of necessitated a shuffle of the general poetry shelves which were slightly in disarray, and looked even worse when I started moving things about:

Poetry mid-shuffle

It was a useful exercise though; after having a bit of a crisis, I decided to shelve them alphabetically and put anthologies at the beginning, and after removing the Russians they fitted in quite nicely. Here’s the back row:

And here’s the front row:

This is, of course, not all the poetry in the house. The Russians are mostly on the shelf below; Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are upstairs; and there are various Bloodaxe/Morden Tower anthologies lurking on other shelves. And probably others if I looked properly. Anyway, this is the next Penguin Modern Poets volume in the series:

Watch this space to see if I finish it! As for the Penguin Great Ideas – I think I’m going to be battling the concept of a project for a while; I’ve already sent off for one of the ones I don’t have, and will definitely be investing in more in September. Oh dear, oh dear….

Faber Stories – the Women! #djunabarnes #celiafremlin #mariannemoore @faberbooks

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Following on from my last post, about an entertaining pair of slim volumes in the Faber Stories series, today on the Ramblings I’ll be considering a trio of offerings from some very different women authors. Two are names I’ve read before; one is a writer I’m very keen to explore further; all are very thought-provoking!

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes

Barnes is a celebrated modernist author, best known for her novel “Nightwood”. I own several of her works, and read at least that one back in the day; but frankly I can recall nothing about it, so I was interested in reacquainting myself with her writing. The three stories in this book were the only oneswritten by Barnes under the pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe, and they appeared in a variety of publications. This is the first time they’ve been published together, and so kudos to Faber for gathering them up for us; their titles are “The Diary of a Dangerous Child”, “The Diary of a Small Boy” and “Madame Grows Older: A Journal at the Dangerous Age”.

Each story features a character wrestling with burgeoning sexuality of one type or another, and there are undercurrents in each story. Whether a fourteen year old girl planning to become a virago, a young boy being tempted by his father’s mistress or an older woman falling in love and wondering whether she can be bothered with it, each of these tales subverts expectations and wrong-foots the reader. I found them wonderfully entertaining, vaguely reminiscent of Leonora Carrington although slightly less melancholy – I may have to dig out my Barnes books…

Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore

When I was up in London for a day out just over a year ago (sob…) I picked up a collection of Marianne Moore’s poetry in the wonderful Judd Books. She’s another one of those poets I’ve wanted to explore for ages, and the collection was reasonably priced and irresistible. This, however, is prose; and not new stories as such, but retelling of the fairy tales popularised by Charles Perrault. So we meet, in the originals, “Puss in Boots”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella”; and of course these are very different from the sanitised modern cartoon versions.

Puss is a wiley moggy, lying and tricking his way to status and gaining his master a princess and a castle. The princess in “Sleeping Beauty” is not actually awakened by a kiss, and is married to the prince in secret – a prince who has family skeletons of his own. And Cinderella goes to the ball more than once before losing her slipper! Moore provides an introduction explaining her love of fairy tales, and this was an unexpected and enjoyable distraction.

Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin

Celia Fremlin is an author I first read pre-blog, when I picked up a copy of her Virago title “The Hours Before Dawn”. It’s a stunning thriller which takes place in an ordinary domestic setting, with the protagonist struggling with exhaustion from bringing up children and trying to work out if her suspicions about a lodger are correct. It’s one of those books you don’t forget, and a short story of hers which featured in a recent British Library Crime Classics anthology was just as effective. So I had high hopes of this collection of two spooky stories – and I wasn’t disappointed. The titles are “The Hated House” and “The New House”, and each takes a different slant on the complex mother-daughter dynamic. In the first, a teenager revels in being left on her own for once, as her overbearing and quarrelsome parents go away for a visit. In the second, the narrator, guardian of her sister’s child, is concerned for her neice’s safety as she prepares to marry and settle down in her own home. Neither story has the outcome you might expect.

Fremlin was an exceptional author; she captures the sense of creeping dread you can have when on your own, or when you have unspecific fears, quite brilliantly. In the first story she really gets inside the head of her teenage protagonist; and she’s brilliant at the unreliable narrator. I made sure I read these in daylight because they’re most unsettling…

I’ve seen Fremlin compared to Highsmith and Jackson; and the blurb on this little Faber describes her as long-neglected. If she is (and I know a number of fellow bloggers rate her highly), she really shouldn’t be. If you want a taste of her writing, this is a good way to get it; and I think I really will have to track down more of her works.

*****

So my three female Faber Stories reads were just as good as the two male reads; truly, these are lovely little books and a great selection of authors – at least in the ones I’ve read. There *are* still a number of others which were issued (I recall seeing them in Waterstones in those Times Before when we could go out book shopping….) Time for a little online exploring… ;D

Faber Stories – the Men! :D #brianaldiss #milankundera @faberbooks

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today – short books! I must admit that when I finished reading the Malaparte, I was unsure as to where to head next; I really hate it when I get into one of those moods when I can’t commit to something substantial. However, whilst rummaging in the shelves, I rediscovered a selection of slim Faber Stories books which were issued to celebrate their 90th birthday last year. I guess the highest-profile release was the previously unissued Sylvia Plath story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” (which I covered here); but there were a number of other intriguing titles and I had five on the shelves. I raced through them all in a day, with great enjoyment, and thought I would touch on them briefly over a couple of posts. For simplicity, I’ve divided them up by author gender, and so today it’s the turn of the men! 😀 The writers couldn’t be more different, but both of these little volumes were very punchy and effective reading.

Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss is an author who’s no stranger on the Ramblings – I was very taken with his “Report on Probability A“, loved his tale of a young man’s bookselling days in “The Brightfount Diaries“, and have been most impressed by the short story collection into which I’ve dipped over the years. “Three Types…” brings together three short later works: “Happiness in Reverse”, “A Single-minded Artist” and “Talking Cubes”.

Oh, sadness is just happiness in reverse. We humans have to put up with it. Just being human is an awful burden to bear.

The subject matter ranges from the quirkiness of a lonely man causing havoc by creating a new species, through an artist finding contentment in an unexpected solitude, to a couple revisiting a past encounter with the aid of a modern technology. I was impressed all over again by Aldiss’s writing and his imagination; he’s so skilful at subverting your expectations, and often what starts as a seemingly simple tale ends up as something completely different and much stranger. Reading this has rather made me want to go back and read some of those other Aldiss books lurking on the TBR…

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

On to a completely different author. Kundera is a French-Czech author, hailing from the latter country but now writing in French. He’s probably best known for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1984), but the one story included here is from 1969 and was published in the “Laughable Loves” collection in 1974. It’s a clever and moving story, telling of a reunion between a man and a woman who had briefly been lovers 15 years earlier. The woman had been older and married; she’s now a widow. The younger man finds himself an ageing bachelor. And despite the age difference, and the fact that the woman is now effectively an *old* woman (and we know how they’re regarded as not really women any more…), there *is* still an attraction. The story cleverly plays out in alternating chapters from the point of view of each character, and it’s clear their viewpoints and motivations are different. It’s inevitable that they’ll sleep together, equally inevitable that the encounter will end in disgust; but for a short time, the author allows them their illusions.

“Let the Old…” is a very clever, very effective story, brilliantly told; and quite moving, dissecting the motivations and emotions of the two participants. There *will* be no happy ending, but perhaps some kind of comfort for both. Very impressive, and as I know I have at least *one* unread Kundera in the house, I must try to track it down…

*****

Faber have been a favourite publisher of mine since my teens; I had collections of Dickinson and e.e. cummings and Plath in their imprint, which are still with me; and they have such a rich and wonderful history of books published. The Faber Stories really are lovely little books and a great way to make the acquaintance of new authors.

Next time on the Ramblings – the Faber Stories Women’s Edition! 😀

A unique take on the memoir format – over @ShinyNewBooks @BelgraviaB #georgesperec

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If you’re a regular follower of Shiny New Books (and I do hope you are – there are some marvellous book reviews there, and it will be very bad for your TBR…); anyway, if you are, you might have seen my Bookbuzz piece back in April which looked at the playful yet serious work of the Oulipo literary group. Their shining star is most probably the great French author, Georges Perec, and so I was very excited to discover recently that Gallic Books were bringing out a new edition of his “I Remember“; a book only translated in 2014, and not published in the UK until now!

Perec was a prolific author, producing all manner of varied works which took in differing formats and constraints; and by the time of this work he’d already dipped into oblique memoir with his book “W, or The Memory of Childhood“. “I Remember” takes a very unusual angle whilst dealing with memory and the past, and is absolutely fascinating; to find out more, you can check out my review here! 😀

“It begins with barking, monsieur, and finishes with biting.” @nyrbclassics #malaparte

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Diary of a Foreigner in Paris by Curzio Malaparte
Translated by Stephen Twilley

Talk about contrast… My last read was a lovely, escapist set of pieces by J.B. Priestley. So of course my grasshopper mind immediately takes me to something completely different – the diary of an Italian author revisiting his beloved Paris in the aftermath of World War 2! Curzio Malaparte has appeared on the Ramblings before; I read and loved and reviewed his book “The Kremlin Ball” back in 2018, and it was one of my reads of the year. So I was, of course, very excited to hear that NYRB were bringing out his “Diary of a Foreigner in Paris”, particularly as it was set in that particulary city and that particular time – both of which are fascinating.

I said of Malaparte in my “Kremlin…” review: “Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front…” Those books I mentioned are called “Kaputt” and “The Skin”, and from what I know of them I think they might be a little hard for me to stomach. “Diary…”, however, continues the kind of writing in “Kremlin…”; that is, autobiography which may or may not be true!

In periods of revolution, war, famine, epidemics, and other scourges, all peoples turn nasty, very often against their own nature. What happens to individuals happens to peoples: evil, misfortune, and hunger turns them into wolves. But with the return of serenity, nature regains the upper hand, and goodness and kindness return.

Intriguingly, “Diary…” seems to have had almost as complex a history as “Zoo…”, having been published in French and Italian editions, after Malaparte’s death. There are again differences between the two versions, and the NYRB edition admirably brings both together into as coherent a whole as possible. There are dated entries in two sections, for 1947 and 1948, plus a long section of undated entries at the end; so kudos are due to translator Stephen Twilley for bringing this all together.

The Paris that I rediscover is a Paris between two revolutions. I am a foreigner, writing this diary so that it can be published not in my country, which it lacks the spirit necessary to understand and appreciate certain things, but in France.

Malaparte’s “Diary…” notably covers his *return* to Paris; for this was his first trip back to the city for fourteen years, and he was obviously keen to get away from Italy and back to a city he patently loved. So he looks up old friends; wanders the streets and mingles with people from all strata of society; and observes the changes which have taken place during the cataclysmic conflict.

I observe the sad and stunned mask of Jean Cocteau. In his ‘Difficulte d’etre’ he speaks gently, with affectionate detachment, about his face, about the crease or wrinkle in the middle of his face. I don’t see any wrinkles in his pale and gray mask, but something silvery, gossamer, quivering, as if he had just passed through the forest and emerged with impalpable spiderwebs on his face.

However, the return visit is not without problems for Malaparte. For a start, he’s regarded with suspicion by many former friends and colleagues; seen as a collaborator, because of his initial support for Fascism and Mussolini, the fact that he switched sides does not seem to help endear him. And the city and the people have changed; a new generation of young people, influenced by the world view of writers like Sartre, are coming to prominence, and Malaparte simply cannot relate to them. He finds Sartre a fraud; Camus hostile; and the fleeting glimpses of Cocteau present a character almost without substance. In the end, Malaparte seems to relate more to animals than people, gaining his greatest pleasures from howling to the dogs of Paris during the night…

It’s a new race coming up in Europe, invading nations and inundating everything. It’s the race of young petty bourgeois who are disgusted with the bourgeoisie, who don’t have the courage to think of themselves as proletarian, to mix with the workers, to break the ties that bind them to their class, the past, their comforts… The legitimate representative of this class, of this unconfident, cowardly, soft, discouraged race, is Sartre.

“Diary…” was an unusual book, and one that was in many ways a little harder to get close to than “Kremlin…” There’s a similar feeling of melancholy running through it, owing to the devastation wreaked on Paris and its people during the war. Malaparte is quite judgemental, possibly because of the hardships he experienced during the war himself; nevertheless, I was a little surprised to see his negativity towards people for being badly dressed, tired or the like. Paris suffered unimaginably during occupation; perhaps not as badly as for those stuck in the Siege of Leningrad; but even so, to expect things to have returned to a pre-war normality which existed in the 1920s and 1930s is perhaps a little unrealistic. And Malaparte is obviously a man not attuned to the changes taking place and the wish of the younger people to build a new reality; he harks back often to golden days of the past, the men he knew during WW1 and WW2, and there’s a poignancy in his yearning for lost times and places and ways.

I like this hidden love for the new ideas; for the new France, the new glory. However, nothing material binds me to this old France (this old Italy, this old Europe) that I’ve seen – that I’m seeing – die.

There were times when this slightly judgemental attitude rubbed a little, and I found myself wanting to chastise the author for his lack of sympathy. However, I forgave him much simply because of the wonderful quality of his writing! Malaparte really was a remarkable and individual prose stylist; his descriptions soar, his evocations of place and person are vivid, and to be frank those parts of the books were the best for me. Malaparte is keen to discuss his philosophies of life and France, and those were interesting, particularly when they touched on Chateaubriand (who’s still lurking in my TBR); but the book shone when he was conjuring up a night in Paris, a grand actress or memories of his meeting with Mussolini.

Malaparte (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Malaparte’s stories… are made from nothing, but he tells them well.

The introduction by Edmund White describes Malaparte as a mythomane, and certainly with any of his books the reader would be advised to regard all facts as suspect and subject to interpretation! He’s an ambiguous figure, because of his constant shifts of loyalty and his playing with the truth; but what’s not in dispute is his stunning writing and sparkling prose. Whatever his ultimate motives in writing his works, he’s worth reading for the beauty of his narrative and his wonderful evocation of time and place. Malaparte was at this point in his life, as the quote on the back of the book from Barry Gifford quips, a man-apart from the modern world, very much an outsider observing a place he had once loved deeply (and probably underneath it all, still does). His bracing mix of memoir, philosophy and most probably fiction makes for a fascinating look at post-war Paris, as well as giving us a look inside the mind of a very ambiguous and complex man!

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

Dreams, detective stories, long trousers and the Marx Brothers! #jbpriestley #delight

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Delight by J.B. Priestley

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been indulging in some polyreading – and this is the reason why! “Delight” is a book I picked up on a whim a little while back; I’d read Simon’s review of it, and thought it sounded perfect. I love Priestley’s rather grumpy writing persona (which I explored in a wonderful collection of his essays from Notting Hill Editions), although this promised to be less of him grumbling and more of him celebrating what gives him pleasure. And if ever a book lived up to its name, this one did!

First published in 1949, “Delight” contains one hundred and fourteen short pieces where Priestley reveals a particular aspect of life which does indeed bring him delight. This can be anything from a gin and tonic plus packet of crisps, through dreams, tennis and detective stories, to Not Going (out); and there’s a lovely piece on the Marx Brothers (whom I also adore)! It’s a funny and entertaining concept, all realised in Priestley’s wonderfully lugubrious prose, and it was indeed a real delight dipping into it.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For dipping is what you need to do with a collection like this; because attempting to read the whole lot in one go would really dilute the effect and spoil the fun. So I read this alongside “Zoo…”, and they made perfect and constrasting companions. Priestley comes across as a down-to-earth, commonsense man, which is particularly refreshing in these days of lies and obfuscation; and his celebration of simple pleasures captures what is in many ways a lost world. However, although he’s happy to present a fairly genial exterior, several of the pieces do look a little deeper; Priestley wears his socialist heart on his sleeve, as a champion of the struggling classes; and there’s a very moving piece on old photographs and how they capture someone frozen in time.

One of Tabitha Wykenham’s delightful illustrations !

My copy of “Delight” is a beautiful 70th anniversary edition which was issued by Great Northern Books (and bought with my hard-earned pennies). It’s a gorgeous hardback, printed on quality paper, and enlivened with some lovely little colour illustrations by Priestley’s granddaughter, Tabitha Wykenham. So as an object, it’s also delightful!

Rather than witter on about how lovely this book is, I’ll end this post by sharing a few favourite quotes from it. I do feel that dipping may be the way forward when I’m struggling to engage with anything of substance and structure, and this was certainly perfect lockdown relaxation reading! 😀

*****

On the joys of grumbling: The feminine view appears to be that grumbling only makes things worse, whereas I have always held that a fine grumble makes things better. If, for example, an hotel gives me a bad breakfast, I have only to grumble away for a few minutes to feel that some reasonable balance has been restored: the grumble has been subtracted from the badness of the breakfast. So it is no use crying to me “Oh – do be quiet! It’s bad enough without your grumbling.” My mind does not move along these lines. If I have not had a good breakfast, I argue, at least I have had a good grumble.

On the joy of reading snugly inside during bad weather: There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

On the compulsion to shop: … spending money in shops has gone on so long that it is now an instinctive activity. Drawing free rations is not a substitute for it, which is something Communist governments often fail to understand.

On the joy of detective stories as escapist: As thoughtful citizens we are hemmed in now by gigantic problems that appear as insoluble as they are menacing, so how pleasant it is to take an hour or two off to consider only the problem of the body that locked itself in the study and then used the telephone.

“We play the fool in this world in order to be free” #victorshklovsky @Dalkey_Archive

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Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
Translated by Richard Sheldon

I took the unusual step (for me, anyway) of doing a little polyreading recently. I used to be able to do this regularly, but more recently have struggled with more than one volume on the go, preferring to devote all my energies to one book at a time. However, the nature of the books I was reading leant themselves to polyreading, and one of them was this unusual and fascinating volume from Dalkey Archive Press.

Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) is possibly best known as a theorist (his “Theory of Prose”, published in 1925, is considered a seminal work). However, he was also a critic and pamphleteer; his critical writings on film were amongst the first to take the form seriously, and as he was a close friend of the great Eisenstein, I wish Shklovsky’s book on the filmmaker had been translated… I initially came across Shklovksy during the madness of my first flush of obsession with Mayakovsky; he was a friend of the poet and his book “Mayakovsky and his Circle” was one I picked up (I think) in the wonderful Collets International Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. As well as all this, it transpires that Shklovsky also wrote fiction; so I felt I really needed to read one of his books and “Zoo” sounded just fascinating. A little purchase receipt from the lovely LRB Bookshop (how I miss it…) tells me I bought it in 2016; yet another case of me buying a book and then losing it somewhere on the TBR for ages…

Then I was mesmerized by you.
I know your mouth, your lips.
I have wound my whole life around the thought of you.

Anyway! “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love” (first published in Berlin in 1923) is an unusual beast and probably needs some context. Ostensibly, it’s a epistolary novel, with the author writing to the woman of his dreams, Alya. The latter, however, has forbidden him to write to her about love and so instead he’s forced to fill his missives with anything from Boris Pasternak to the Grand Order of Monkeys. Alya replies occasionally, and unfortunately it does seem that the banned subject *will* keep creeping into the letters…

All well and good, but there’s a lot more going here than might first be seen. The book was published while Shklovsky was living in exile in Berlin (alongside many other Russian creatives) and the ‘Alya’ figure is actually Elsa Triolet; an author in her own right, and the sister of Lily Brik, Mayakovsky’s great muse. Wikipedia states of Shklovsky that he wrote a number of semi-autobiographical works disguised as fiction, and they’re not wrong!

To live in any real way is painful.

So the book obliquely tells the story of Shklovsky’s love for Elsa (who would go on to later marry French poet Louis Aragon, as well as having a distinguished literary career and becoming the first woman to win the Prix Goncourt, in 1944). However, it also offers a vivid glimpse of Berlin in the 1920s and the lives of the Russian exiles. All manner of them flit through its pages for the author to ruminate upon; and he also meditates on any number of theories about art and literature, and the characteristics of the Hispano-Suiza sportscar! It’s an entertaining and unusual mix, and really not like anything else I’ve read.

The content of this letter obviously escaped from some other book by the same author, but perhaps the compiler of the book deemed the letter indispensable for reasons of variety.

Producing this issue of “Zoo…” was not a straightforward matter, as translator Richard Sheldon reveals in the detailed commentary and notes which accompany the book: it went through a number of editions from 1923 to 1964, and each seems to have contained different versions of the contents. The Dalkey Archive edition contains everything, including the author’s prefaces from the later editions and all manner of elided text; a real achievement of scholarship.

My other Shklovsky book…

Stylistically, Shklovsky’s prose is perhaps unusual too. The letters are often written in a declamatory style which reminded me very much of Mayakovsky’s poetry, and the lines between forms were obviously being blurred at the time. The narrative is sometimes fragmented and digressive, and the experimental nature seemed to me to reflect the development of modernist literature of the times. The meta elements are fascinating, with Shklovsky even at one point in the book referring to a book he’s currently writing, called – “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love”!

My whole life is a letter to you.

“Zoo…” was a fascinating read; discursive, evocative, and unexpectedly full of the love for Alya which the author has been forbidden to express, it really did capture a lost time and a place. I’ve seen comment online that the book is best read for the first time without constant reference to the notes, and that’s probably good advice; they *are* copious and useful, but distract a little from the narrative flow. I’m not sure if I actually ever read Shklovsky’s book on Mayakovsky, but having experienced his writing in “Zoo…” I do feel very inclined to pick it up soon!

The struggles of the ‘New Woman’ #SarahGrand

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The Yellow Leaf by Sarah Grand

One of the joys of belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, and exploring that particular imprint, is the sheer range of women authors and the books to be encountered. One name I’ve been aware of for ages is the author Sarah Grand, known in Virago circles for her work “The Beth Book”. It’s a *long* book – over 500 pages – and I recall reactions on the group being mixed; so that, despite Grand being a pioneering feminist author, I’ve never had the courage to pick up a copy of the book. However, when Mike Walmer revealed recently he was releasing one of Grand’s shorter works, a novella called “The Yellow Leaf”, I realised this was the perfect way to explore her writing without having to commit to a chunkster… ;D

“The Yellow Leaf” was first published as a serial in 1893, and in book form a year later, and it tells the story of three young women and their different paths through life. As the book opens, our narrator (who is a rather unwordly person) is travelling by train on her own for the first time to visit an old school friend in the country. On the journey she encounter Adalesa, the cousin of her school friend, also on a visit to the same place. The two girls bond, and Adalesa’s forthright ways are in contrast to the more reserved nature of the narrator; and when the girls arrive at the country house of Lady Marsh they are met with a stifling, repressive atmosphere as well as some very conventional attitudes about how women should behave. Evangeline, the cousin and school friend, is charismatic, yet soon revealed as entirely self-centred and focused on obtaining a good marriage.

… They are not womanly pursuits. You will not be fit for the duties of a wife and mother by-the-by if you injure your constitution now.

Her mother Lady Marsh is infuriating, full of ridiculous ideas about women’s education and the detrimental effects on their brains – I confess I wanted to slap her most of the time. Initially, our narrator is charmed by Evangeline, but soon begins to have her doubts; feelings which have already been expressed by Adalesa. As the first part of the narrative comes to a climax, the three young women prepare to attend a ball, at which will be attending a young man who is of significance to one of them. To find out how things play out, you’ll just have to read the book….

Part two, the shorter of the sections, revisits the country house a good number of years later, when the women are no longer young. Travelling back to see the ageing Marshes, the narrator and Adalesa have moved on, forging lives and careers; but will they find Evangeline changed, and what effect will the reunion have on all of them?

When one is young, one is never satisfied. One looks back and lives those delights over again; but at the time we did not understand, and so lost the full flavour. Later one has realised how precious it is just to be alive; and then, I think, it is that one begins to live.

I shall say no more about the plot, but I have to say I did find the book fascinating. It’s fairly easy to recognise the narrator as representing Grand herself, with her “New Woman” viewpoint and her determination to make a career for herself writing. The contrast between the views of the older ladies and their resistance to change and advancement for their sex, as opposed to the views of the narrator and Adalesa, is striking; and if it represents the real attitudes of the time, it’s shocking to think of the battle all the pioneering women and Suffragettes had to gain recognition. Both the narrator and Adalesa have grown and matured as people, and the point is fairly heavily made that this is a healthy option for a woman, as opposed to the infantilisation of those who follow the ridiculous, old fashioned beliefs.

Sarah Grand by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I say heavily made, because I recognise that one of the criticisms of “The Beth Book” is that it does tend to be hampered by the didacticism in it; Grand is an author who was using her work to make a very necessary point about the status of women. However, in a shorter work like “The Yellow Leaf”, that didacticism is not overpowering, as Grand has to let her plot develop and has a limited space in which to do so. The result is a gripping read which explores the changing state of women on the eve of the twentieth century and the restricting attitudes with which they had to grapple, as well as the destructive effects of those attitudes on a woman’s development. It’s also a very dramatic tale and I didn’t quite foresee the climax!

So my first experience of reading Sarah Grand was a very positive one, and I’m glad I started with this one rather than “The Beth Book”! Grand had a fascinating and inspiring life, making her living from her writing and cutting her own path through life. “The Yellow Leaf” is an eye-opening glimpse of what it was like to be a New Woman and kudos to Mike Walmer for bringing it back into print.

“The Yellow Leaf” is from Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint, a series of classic short works in hardback (I’ve reviewed other entries in the series here and here). Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy

“Rome seemed an often-shaken kaleidoscope” #ATimeInRome #ElizabethBowen

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A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen

It must be fairly obvious to anyone following me on social media that I’ve been on a bit of a Bowen Binge recently… I love the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, and I do have all of her novels plus the collected short stories. However, I was nudged in the direction of her non-fiction when I shared my Bowen shelf on Twitter; and I discovered that she was a prolific author of essays, reviews, broadcasts and all manner of works. Additionally, there was an enticing-sounding volume in the form of “A Time in Rome”; and I was fortunate enough to manage to procure a copy via the wonderful Hive website, so I could go vicariously travelling with Bowen for company…

I say travelling, by which I mean visiting Rome; however, there’s a certain amount of time travelling involved too, as this is no simple, straightforward narrative of a journey and the sights of the city. Instead, Bowen takes a perhaps unusual angle, and though anchoring her book in the city and her extended stay there in early spring 1958, she uses this as a launching pad to explore the city’s long and turbulent history, through its architecture and its people.

This book is not even my footnote to your guidebook; it is my scribblings on the margins of mine. I claim to be little help to anyone else.

“Time” is divided up into five long chapters, with titles ranging from “The Confusion” to “The Set Free”. In each of these, Bowen takes a particular element of her Rome and riffs on it; for example, “The Confusion” starts with her sense of disorientation on arrival, when she’s put in a hotel room which doesn’t work for her, and explores her attempts at grounding herself and finding her way around the city. She discusses the city’s architectural past, as well as its political history and the ever-changing rulers and regimes, and each angle is fascinating; her dismay at the complexity of the family relationships of some of the Roman Emperors is palpable! As she rambles, she constantly comes across the juxtaposition of old and new; Rome in the late 1950s is constantly changing, as it has over the centuries, and her explorations of the fate of many of what we regard as now fixed monuments reveals layers of history.

Gasworks, slaughter-houses, rubbish dumps, cattle markets, an abandoned shooting gallery, a defunct racecourse, duststorms of demolition, skeletal battles of construction, schools, asylums and hospitals, squatters’ villages, marble-works, and other relics of pleasure or signs of progress crop up according to where one goes. Each demands to be taken into the picture. Crazy or neat, no structure is out of use; if it has lapsed from one it has found another.

The changes Rome was undergoing in the post-WW2 period were obviously dramatic, and it has to be remembered that Bowen was visiting a place which had been through much during that conflict, switching sides halfway through and being bombed on a regular basis. So the city was, like so many in that period, going through yet another process of rebuilding and reinvention, and Bowen meets this on many of her travels, while musing on the city’s past and present.

But the core of the revolution is public transport – I know of no system more far-reaching than Rome’s, more energetic or more capacious: hilarious buses, electric road-railways zooming into the hills in ascending spirals, small eager trains darting from stop to stop across reclaimed marshlands or to the coast. One way or another, thousands hurl themselves forth…

The chapter entitled “The Smile” was a particularly powerful one, exploring subterranean Rome and then its gardens. This leads to an extented section on Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, with whom Bowen seemed to feel a strong connection. Her description of Livia’s life and achievements is an evocative and often powerful one, and this particular part of the book really struck me. It has to be said that Bowen’s writing is often exquisite; and in the passages on Livia, who comes to represent Rome’s ‘smile’, it soars to Woolfian heights.

However, Bowen is not without her lighter moments, and her dry wit often reveals itself – her short and punchy comment on a particular era made me laugh:

On the Middle Ages, I cannot find it too tempting to dwell at all. One could feel that they were endured by mankind in order that they might fascinate the historian…

And she posits a dizzying array of reasons for wanting to *leave* the wonderful city she’s visiting, which reflects the often turbulent political set up of the past:

Reasons for getting out are among the constants of Roman history – danger from personal enemies; an exposed conspiracy; civil disturbance; noxious weather; pestilence; persecution or pogrom; need to tone up in fresh air or reflect in calm; spleen; fashion; annoyance by barbarians; banishment; military or administrative duties; care of country estates; health; imminent scandal; financial crisis. A whole range, back through how many centuries, between desire and compulsion.

She also reveals her human side, confiding at times how tiring wandering round Rome can be, leaving the visitor with sore feet; and revealing her difficulty in adjusting to the idea of the midday siesta when everything comes to a halt.

Rome 1950 (via Flickr – Nathan Hughes Hamilton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/10370497245)

Reading “A Time in Rome” was a wonderfully involving and distracting experience; Bowen’s prose is beautiful, often impressionistic, and repays slow and thoughtful reading. The book’s heady mix of her thoughts on the city as she experiences it, together with her exploration of the past, is wonderful, and I’m not sure I’ve read another work like this. Up until now I’ve only read Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, which I absolutely; but having encountered her non-fiction voice in this marvellous book, I really want to read more…

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