Home

“Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things” #saramago #spanishlitmonth

32 Comments

All the Names by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Why is it that reading Jose Saramago emotionally wrecks me?? I first encountered him back in 2018, when I read and raved about his “Death at Intervals“; I absolutely adored it, and the ending so floored me that I had to sit down and do some deep breathing… In fact, I may have gone back and re-read it several times! Since then, I’ve amassed several of his books but haven’t yet picked another up; I think possibly I was a little scared in case it didn’t live up to “Death…” However, I was impelled to pick up a copy of “All the Names” fairly recently when I read about it somewhere online; and I wish I could remember where, but anyway, it really sounded like it might have the same effect on me. And when Stu said that special dispensation could be given to reading Saramago during Spanish Lit Month, despite the fact he wrote in Portugese, this was definitely the book I was going to pick up!

Saramago was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and “All the Names” was his thirteenth novel, first published in 1997. It’s set in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of an unspecified city; the Registry is a heirarchical, old fashioned establishment with, it’s impossible not to say, very Kafkaesque (or possibly Gormenghastian) features. Holding the archive of records for the city stretching back endlessly into the past, it’s run on a rigidly ordered structure, with status cascading down from the all powerful Registrar through the different strata of clerks. This kind of bureacracy will be quite familiar to anyone who’s worked in offices or government departments, I’m sure…

There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe…

Our protagonist is one Senhor José, a lowly general clerk on the bottom rung of the ladder; aged around 50 and timid, he’s also the only remaining clerk to live in a hovel attached to the Registry, the last one of a whole set where clerks used to live. His life is existence in the most basic sense, governed by the rules and regulations of the registry to whom he gives his all; and his only hobby is secretly collecting data on famous people. As Senhor José’s home is attached to the Registry and has the only other entrance to it, he’s able to sneak in after hours to collect the data cards on the celebrities. But one night, by pure chance, he picks up an extra record card with the bundle of celebrities, that of an unknown woman. This simple action sends his life off track, as he decides to investigate and track down the woman from the meagre information the Registry holds; and the investigation will cause our poor timid clerk to go off in some very odd directions!

That simple description belies the complexity and sheer genius of “All the Names”, which is just as frankly brilliant as “Death at Intervals”. Saramago’s unique, ostensibly meandering, sinuous sentence structure is well to the fore, and he does, of course, do without most conventional punctuation. I don’t find this makes him at all difficult to read; on the contrary, I think the way he writes has much to do with the impact of his stories, as the cumulative effect of the narrative building up means that his endings are quietly devastating. I also find it a joy to read.

… a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace…

Then there’s his description, and the way he builds up the world in which his story takes place. Here, much is obviously set in the vast labyrinthine structure of the Registry, which is wonderfully conjured and almost a character in its own right. The records are divided into two parts, and of course the section for the dead *will* keep increasing; hence the back wall is constantly having to be demolished (so that the area can be extended) and then rebuilt. This has resulted in a maze-like setting of old papers which is so warren-like that no archivist sets out to explore it without an Ariadne’s thread in the form of a ball of string attached to the ankle so they can find their way back… The regulations are strict, often petty, and work is done with pen and ink, despite progress.

Intriguingly, as we follow Senhor José on his investigations, we see more of the city. He tries to build up a picture of the women, visiting her godmother, breaking into her old school (and having to explore more dusty archives!) and eventually discovering that the Registry has a twin in the city – the Cemetery, which is subject to similar hierarchies to the Registry, and also struggles with a similar problem of expansion, so that its walls have simply been removed and it spreads where it needs to. Here, Senhor José will encounter the physical records of the dead as well as encountering a very singular shepherd in the morning mist and what are probably metaphorical sheep!

It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victims according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the innumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their very natural fear of dying.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the book, because I’ve found that much the joy of reading Saramago comes from having no idea where he will take you, or how he’ll end his story – both of the books I’ve read have had unexpected conclusions which took my breath away. And yet, once you’ve got there, the ending is the right one, and the only possible one.

... the one certainty we have, that we were, are and will be dust, and that we will be lost in another night as dark as that first night.

“All the Names” is, of course, very allegorical; and like “Death…” is more that just an entertaining tale. The whole concept of naming things is very human, and in fact is often equated with an act of creation. It’s also a way of humanising and therefore personalising people, things, places; and remembering names of those missing or lost under totalitarian regimes is a powerful way of keeping them alive in our memories. This, of course, gives the Registry considerable power; and presiding over the various clerks is the unusual and compelling figure of the current Registrar. He’s an intriging figure in his own right; about as far away and out of reach of Senhor José as you would think is possible, nevertheless at points in the book he breaks protocol and addresses our hero directly. It seems he may have an unexpected effect on events. It’s worth noting, too, that name-wise, Senhor José is the only character in the book to have one. Everyone else either has a title, such as the Registrar, or a description, like the lady in the ground-floor apartment, which certainly serves to give our José prominence!

Jose Saramago c. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Once more, I was completely seduced by Saramago’s writing, and I think I’ll have a book hangover for ages now. “All the Names” is such a multilayered book, one with so many hidden depths and which I think is really not about what it initially seems to be. Why *should* a meek clerk develop such an obsession with a woman he’s never seen? One character calls it love, and certainly that emotion seemed me to be at the heart of “Death at Intervals”, much as it is here. I love Saramago’s way of building in deeper issues in a quirky way; for example, in the sections where Senhor José has philosophical conversations with his ceiling! It’s one of those books which you could spend so much time on, trying to pick up every little nuance and reference (now there’s a retirement project for me); but briefly it seemed to me to be an entertaining yet profound exploration of the boundaries between the living and the dead (which become blurred not only in the Registry but also in the Cemetery…) “All the Names” was the perfect read for Spanish Lit Month, and I’m so glad Stu decided to allow Portugese books, because I loved this and it will join “Death at Intervals” on my desert island books list! 😀

“The mirror reflected his image disinterestedly.” #henryparland #topieces @norvikpress

20 Comments

To Pieces by Henry Parland
Translated by Dinah Cannell

You might recall me reviewing back in June a wonderful pair of books for Shiny New Books, issued by Norvik Press. The duo of modernist works by pioneering women authors (Hagar Olsson and Karin Boye) were excellent reads and really opened my eye to a whole strand of Scandinavian literature of which I hadn’t really been aware before. I was so impressed by the books that I felt moved to go and have a look at Norvik’s back catalogue – which was probably a mistake… One book was ordered straight away; another couple are en route; and this is obviously going to be an imprint which very much appeals to me!

The first book I was drawn to is “To Pieces” by Henry Parland, an author I’d not come across before. Born in Vyborg 1908, he had an intriguing background; his early years were spent in St. Petersburg and Kiev, where he spoke Russian and German. Come the Russian Revolution, the family decamped to Helsinki, where he attended first a Finnish School, then a Swedish school and finally the University of Helsinki, becoming a writer in the Swedish language. He was part of the avant-garde in that city, publishing one poetry collection during his lifetime – Idealrealisation (1929) – before dying tragically young of Scarlet Fever in 1930. He had been working on his novel “To Pieces” at the time of his death, which was left unfinished.

It’s striking how many of the Scandinavian avant-garde writers I’ve encountered recently had short lives; Karin Boye took her own life, and Edith Sodergran (who’s in my line of sight at the moment) died of TB at the age of 31. Used as we have been in the modern times to longer lives and effective medicine, it’s a timely reminder of our human mortality. But I digress…

As I mentioned, “To Pieces” was left unfinished on Parland’s death, but as the afterword by Per Stam reveals, the book went through a long chain of publication in various forms before it reached this definitive critical edition in 2005; and that’s the version which has been translated by Dinah Cannell and published by Norvik. The book is a short work (106 pages) and is narrated by a young man called Henry. As the book opens he’s recalling a disastrous love-affair, attempting to reconnect with his death lover Ami by developing photographs he took of her. He talks to these, they seem to talk back, and he goes over the story of their problematic love and constant misunderstandings.

Henry is something of a man at a loss. Struggling to make ends meet, speculating with his money and having to constantly negotiate credit, an affair with a woman like Ami and her expensive tastes is not the best thing for him. They’re drawn together, yet it seems that they have little in common, and the book follows the developments and then reverses in their relationship. When Ami dies of some kind of fever (and this is no spoiler, because she is obviously dead as the book opens) there is an inevitability; and bearing in mind Parland’s eventual fate, a horrible poignancy. Having recounted the end of the affair, the second part of the book sees Henry recalling their initial meeting and how random was the chain of events which led to this. A reminder, perhaps, of how arbitrary life really is.

…if, ignoring the anxious feeling that always grabs me by the scruff of the neck when I let the memory in, I dwell on it for a moment instead and let it expand to fill the full space of my imagination, the shutter-like structures in my consciousness suddenly slide aside as I, unimpeded, move among the events of that summer. All I need to do now is bend down and pick up one situation or another from the ground to feel how it wriggles through my fingers and then, with some reluctance, eventually settles down submissively on the pages of this book.

Simply looked at as a story, “To Pieces” is moving and poignant, and a marvellous portrait of the life of the times; with the loosening of society’s restrictions, visits to the beach, dancing and drinking and cinema-going, this is a world which seems very modern. However, what takes the book to another level is its experimental nature; Parland uses fragments of memories and meditations on photography to explore the relationship between Henry and Ami; and he often imbues objects with feelings and needs in a most engaging way. The writing is particularly atmospheric, with beautiful imagery and metaphor.

Photography, in particular, is a touchstone throughout the book, with Henry using the close study of the photos he develops as a way to reconnect with Ami and see her more clearly than he did in real life. The descriptions of the whole developing process have an almost sensual quality, as if Henry is using this as a metaphor for his love for her. This is one of many elements of modernity in the book; telephones, too, play a major part, with much of the communication between the lovers being phone conversations; and in fact Henry hears about Ami’s death by telephone. It’s often very meta; and frankly, what’s not to love about a book which open with a chapter titled “The writer inspects himself in the mirror”?

Henry Parland in the 1920s (Anonymous Unknown author / Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“To Pieces” is a fascinating book, and despite the label ‘modernist’ is very readable. There are many layers to the story, and Parland provides the book with a motto hinting at a plagiarism of Proust; certainly memory is the thread which runs through the book. Stam’s afterword discusses many of these layers, as well as providing context and the history of the book’s long journey to a finished form. The question has to be asked as to whether, with a first-person narrator called Henry Parland, this is autofiction, and I can’t answer that – it would probably take a biography to reveal the solution, and there *isn’t* much available about Parland in English that I can find. Whether it is or not, “To Pieces” is not only an excellent piece of short fiction, it’s also a study of the process of storytelling, of the tricks of memory, with the narrator often standing back at a distance, stepping outside of his tale to comment on what he’s doing and the way he’s constructing his past. I picked Parland’s book up at random, liking the sound of it; and I’m so glad I did as it was a most enjoyable and stimulating read. It’s a tragedy that he died so young, leaving such a small body of work, but at least we have this book; and I do wish his poetry wasn’t so hard to get hold of… 😦

On My Book Table…9 – lurkers and newbies!

34 Comments

Although I have been reading up a storm lately, the heaps of volumes on the Book Table don’t seem to get any smaller… Some might say ‘self-inflicted wound’, as I *have* been buying a few (ahem!) books recently; and there have also been arrivals from lovely publishers. So I thought a good use of a Sunday morning would be to take stock, shuffle the piles and try to focus on what I should read next!

I have titled this post lurkers and newbies for good reasons! Many of the books on the table have been around for a while waiting for me to get to them, and I want to read them all but do get distracted. And it’s the shiny newbies which do the distracting so I really am my own worst enemy. Anyway, onward to the books!

First up are some of the review books lurking. The pile has gone down a little, but there *have* been incomings. All of these look rather wonderful and I could read any of them right now very happily. I’m pretty sure at least one will be coming off that pile soon! 😀

Next up, Irina Ratushinskaya. I have owned some of her books for a looooong time, though some are more recent finds. I was reminded of her recently after a Twitter convo, and really should read at least one of these soon. She had a dramatic and difficult life during the last days of the Soviet Union; but I’m vaguely worried about finding her experiences upsetting…

What’s in the Book Basket at the moment? you might ask… Four books which have been lurking for varying periods of time. The Larsen sounds marvellous, as does “East West Street” and I really *should* get onto these soon.

This pile is a mixture of Lurkers and Newbies – a fairly random and eclectic mix, but again all sounding marvellous. Some are quite slim, so I could probably make a dent in it fairly soon. There’s Bernhard and Sterne and a book about Solsbury Hill (cue Peter Gabriel) and a lovely Japanese translation – such riches!

Finally, a little pile of what I would describe as Heavyweights, either in size or content. “Baden-Baden” is calling strongly, as is the Bachelard and “Imaginary Cities” (which has been lurking unread for far too long). I could just ignore all the other piles and spend many happy days embroiled in any one of these. Maybe I will – or maybe I won’t!

To be truthful, I *do* know what I’m going to be reading next off these piles; although the actual review of it may not be for some weeks. Because, having been reading so much and relatively quickly recently, I have reviews stacked up for the next few weeks and posts will be coming quick and fast, I’m afraid! I hope you’ll enjoy what I’ve been reading, and do share your thoughts on any of the books which take your fancy – I love a bit of bookish chat! 😀

Penguin Modern Poets 7 – Richard Murphy, Jon Silkin, Nathaniel Tarn

12 Comments

Well. Don’t all faint with shock, but after my agonising back in June about my failure with challenges and the like, I have actually got going again with a project I started back in 2015 (gulp) – that of reading all 27 of the Penguin Modern Poets collections…. I even gave the project its own page on the site (which is still there and you can go and have an explore if this interests you); and I rather foolishly commented “surely it can’t be *too* difficult to read a slim book of 90 poems – can it??” Obvs it was, because I fell off the wagon in 2016; but having got back on again, as well as hitting a reasonably good period of reading, I am now determined to keep going!

So, onward and upward to volume 7, another book which features three male poets: Richard Murphy, Jon Silkin and Nathaniel Tarn. I *think* I’ve heard of Silkin , but I’m pretty sure I’ve read none of these authors; so this will be something of a voyage of discovery for me and as with previous collections I approached this with absolutely no foreknowledge or preconceptions – any biographical details I give below I found out afterwards! 😀

Richard Murphy (6 August 1927 – 30 January 2018)

Murphy was an Anglo-Irish poet, winner of numerous awards over the years, and with several major collections to his name (including one from Bloodaxe Books, so that’s recommendation.) Personal details are sketchy, but he won a scholarship to Oxford, studying under C.S. Lewis. In later life he lived in Ireland, the USA, South Africa and eventually Sri Lanka, where he died in 2018.

The poems featured here are drawn from a 1963 collection, “Sailing to an Island”, and seem rooted in the Irish landscape and people. There are narrative verses covering “The Cleggan Disaster”; long poems exploring the land; and the one which moved me most was “The Woman of the House”, written in memory of his grandmother. I can’t say I was strongly drawn to the works; I need poetry to speak to me and often this didn’t.

Jon Silkin (2 December 1930 – 25 November 1997)

As I mentioned above, Silkin is a name I recognised, and although I’m pretty sure I’ve never read him before, I did respond to his work much more strongly than Murphy’s. Born of a Jewish immigrant family, Silkin had a long and prolific career as a poet; he also founded the literary magazine Stand which published a wide range of writers, and which he edited until his death. His most famous work, perhaps, is “Death of a Son”, which is included here; and I have to admit that this reduced me to a gibbering wreck… Such is the power of words.

…For a cold, Nothern river,
You see the citizens
indulging stately pleasures
like swans. But they seem so cold.
Why have they been so punished:
In what do their sins consist now?

However, there were many other poems which touched me: “Defence”, with its Cold War context, was chilling; and “Astringencies” (quoted above), looking at Anti-Semitism of the past, were remarkably powerful. So I was touched by Silkin’s works and he’s definitely a poet whose work I would like to read more of.

There is a melancholy feel about many of these poems, which this image kind of represents… (via Wikimedia Commons – Berit from Redhill/Surrey, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Nathaniel Tarn (born June 30, 1928)

Tarn is an American poet still with us; born in Paris to a French-Romanian mother and a British-Lithuanian father, he moved to England at the start of World War 2 and eventually emigrated to the USA. As well as a poet, he’s a teacher, essayist, anthropologist and translator, with an impressive range of works to his name.

Grief is so much a now – things cry, believe me,
I have heard them. I have heard their complaint
as the hand and the eye assess them in turn.

At the time of this publication, he was still in the UK and many of these poems are rooted in the British landscape, from Ely to London. Again, his poems are quite immediate, which I liked. “Grief is so Much a Now” particularly appealed, with slight echoes perhaps of e.e. cummings; and I find myself quite keen to explore more of his work to find out how his poetry developed. I believe his works are now published by New Directions, which again is recommendation in itself…

***

I was very happy to get back on board with this reading project, and there *were* some interesting poems featured. Looking back at my review of Penguin Modern Poets 6 I can see that I was a bit underwhelmed by the experience, and I wonder if that’s why I let my reading of these books lapse. However, I think I’ve accepted that not every poet will resonate with me, and so the experience is to explore what poets were considered worth publishing at the time, seeing how they’re regarded now and sometimes discovering someone I really want to read again. I don’t *have* to like every poem or poet in every book – this is a project of discovery after all.

So an interesting experience, and the next volume has one author with whom I’m familiar – so we shall see how my experience with that one goes! 😀

“deep and false waters” – exploring the Sunken Land over @ShinyNewBooks #mjohnharrison

10 Comments

Regular readers of the Ramblings will be well aware of my love of the writing of M. John Harrison – goodness knows, I’ve covered it often enough here! Having encountered his Viriconium stories back when I was in my early twenties, I’ve followed his work with interest (and great joy) ever since. His books are impossible to categorise, which I love; ranging from fantasy and sci fi to more realistic novels and short stories, the consistent thing I find with MJH’s work is that nothing is what it seems…

I was therefore inordinately excited when I found out that MJH’s first novel for seven years was coming out, and completely delighted to be able to review it for Shiny New Books!

M. John Harrison – (c) Hugo Glendinning

I covered Harrison’s collection of short stories “You Should Come With Me Now” (released by Comma Press, who are about to issue a selection of short works from over many decades) back in 2017, and “Sunken” seems to me to share the same elements of strangeness, portraying characters living out their lives in a nebulous world.

Every field, she discovered, had its pylons; every field had its pool. The pylons made a curious muted ringing clatter, like a bottling plant heard on the wind from three miles away. As for the water, some of it looked shallow, some looked deep. Some pools were graced with a pylon of their own, or with a couple of willows or cows; some featured a single moorhen stalking about. When you got close, they all had a recent quality; they were as beachless as if water had been poured into a grassy hollow the night before. They glittered in the glassy light.

“Sunken” is a magnificent read, and as you might guess from the title and cover, water plays a strong part in the narrative… It’s a book I can’t recommend highly enough, a real triumph; so do hop over to Shiny and read my full review here! 😀

Penguin Moderns 29 and 30 – Essays, dreams and ‘camp’ culture..

17 Comments

Well, I’m pleased to report that following my read of Penguin Moderns 27 and 28 (Kathy Acker and Chinua Achebe) I was determined to keep the impetus up and pick up another two of these fascinating volumes. And, delightfully, numbers 29 and 30 were from authors I already know and love, so I had high hopes – which weren’t disappointed!

Penguin Modern 29 – Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag

Sontag has made a number of appearances on the blog, most usually because of an essay mentioning her or an introduction to a book or the suchlike. However, I do have her lurking on the TBR and I loved her essay on Barthes. So I was keen to read the two essays included in this Penguin Modern – the title one, and a second called “On Culture and the New Sensibility“.

One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.

“Notes…” is one of her seminal pieces, taking a look at the whole concept of camp culture, and exploring it in a series of numbered points as a cultural sensibility rather than an ideology. The whole notion of sensibility itself seems crucial to Sontag’s way of looking at things, hinting towards a more fluid, complex response to the world than most -ims allow for. She draws on the wonderful Oscar Wilde, possibly the epitome of classic camp, and explores what actually qualifies as camp and what doesn’t; whether it’s a naive or deliberate thing; and what art forms can actually be camp. It’s quite fascinating, opening up many avenues of thinking which I hadn’t considered before.

A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments.

The second piece was perhaps for me even more interesting, taking as it does its starting point from C.P. Snow’s seminal essay “Two Cultures”. The latter looked at the conflict between the arts and sciences, arguing for that divide to be dissolved, but Sontag is dismissive of Snow’s work. Instead she argues for new definitions of both the arts and the sciences, and that there are fewer differences between them than we might think; particularly in our modern world (she was writing in the 1960s) when mechanical methods of production were infiltrating the art (Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechnical Reproduction” springs to mind too).

Both of Sontag’s essays made fascinating reading; and although I think she might be an author I won’t always agree with, I love her style and her individual take on things. There’s much to think about in these essays, and I suspect I’ll be pondering for quite some time…

Penguin Modern 30 – The Red Tenda of Bologna by John Berger

By contrast, I have read a *lot* of John Berger (although there is still much I haven’t; he was a prolific writer); so I approached this essay, which I hadn’t heard of, with great interest. I call it an essay, but really it’s a work which defies description – and I love works like that!

Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or physical sense – I felt resssured. Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.

So it contains memoir, in the form of the story of his relationship with his favourite uncle, Edgar; a wonderful sounding man with whom Berger obviously had a close relationship, and who runs like a thread through the book. It contains travel, as nephew and uncle go on visits, and then Berger visits Bologna and meditates on his memories of his uncle, food, paintings, and the beauty of the city. He notes the distinctive red colour often used in the city, sets off to buy some fabric in that colour, and encounters his late uncle when he least expects too.

…in the evening Pleasure and Desolation take their evening stroll along the arcades and walk hand in hand.

The narrative of this short work has a wonderful dream-like atmosphere, and Berger’s writing is as beautiful as ever. He creates a nuanced, delicate picture of his uncle and their relationship; and his visions of Edgar after his death seem to imply that those we love live on in some shape or form within our lives. It’s a stunning and moving piece of writing, which was originally published in 2007 and hopefully will deservedly reach a wider audience now. Just wonderful…

*****

So two Penguin Moderns by highly-regarded authors at the top of their game. I’ve found each of the books in the set I’ve read so far to be excellent and stimulating, but these two in particular had me reaching for the post-its on numerous occasions. The Berger alone was worth the price of the set, and that’s high praise… Having got back into the groove with the Penguin Moderns, I can’t wait to see which authors come up in the next pairing! 😀

“Life is but smoke and shadows” #WITMonth #TatyanaTolstaya @DauntBooksPub

21 Comments

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya
Translated by Anya Migdal

You’ll recall me having a grumble back at the end of June about how hopeless I am with reading challenges (although I’m happier with the concept of projects, and *have* got back on board with some during July). However, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, one event I always love to join in with is Women in Translation month; and my first book of translated female writing is a wonderful collection of short works by the amazing Tatyana Tolstaya.

Tolstaya, as her name suggests, has a fairly impressive literary lineage, including both Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. Born in Leningrad, she’s spent portions of her life living in America; and both of the countries appear as backdrops in this selection of short works. I say ‘works’ deliberately, because I think it’s a little simplistic to call what Tolstaya writes short stories. The works featured range in length from a few pages to novella length; some read as essays, some as autofiction and some as pure invention. What’s consistent, though, is the quality; as all are really excellent.

So where to start discussing this collection? Perhaps by mentioning a few favourites. The opening piece “20/20” reveals how the narrator discovered her inner vision and became an author after an eye operation to cure myopia; “Smoke and Shadows” is set in an American university and appears to start out as autofiction but then morphs into something more fantastic; and “A Young Lady in Bloom” is the story of a University student in Soviet Russia making ends meet by working as a telegram delivery girl, a job which lets her see behind the facades put up by the inhabitants.

It was June. Evenings were as bright as day, not at all menacing, but rather beautiful: Leningrad, deserted for the summer; magical streets of Petrogradky Island. On the building walls and above the entryways, mascarons of cats and mermaids, triangular female faces of resounding beauty: downcast eyes, luscious hair, daydreams. Alleyways bathed in crepuscular light, purple-hued lilac trees in the parks and gardens, and in the distance, beyond the Neva River, the spire of the Admiralty building.

Then there’s title piece, a long work which looks back at Tolstaya’s relationship with her house in America, as well as with the previous inhabitants and future tenants; “Without” meditates on how barren the modern world would be if Italy and its culture had never existed; and “The Invisible Maiden” is a beautiful extended piece where a woman narrator looks back over her life and times at the family dacha, the long hot summers, the people she knew and the changes which came. “The Square” takes a quirky look at Malevich’s famous painting, equating it with death; and “Doors and Demons” explores a visit to Paris where everything seems to go wrong…

These are just some of the riches in the book, because there isn’t a dud amongst them; in fact, it’s hard to pull out favourites because I enjoyed them all. Tolstaya has an individual, lyrical voice and beautifully captures her locations and characters. The pieces set in America were particularly striking, as she viewed that country with an outsider’s eyes. And the gorgeous atmosphere and sense of hot summer weather she pinned down in “The Invisible Maiden” was just stunning.

If you’re young lady with a braid, of an age of yearning and expectation, and it’s a white night June evening of unfading light, and no one is sleeping, and there is no death, and the sky seems full of music, it feels right to go stand on this portico, hugging a stucco-covered column, watching the sea of lilac bushes cascading down the steps, and breathing in the scent of its white misty foam, the scent of your own pure flesh, the scent of your hair. Life will deceive you later, but not just yet.

“Aetherial Worlds” was an absorbing read and I found myself completely sucked into Tolstaya’s world. There’s a sense of nostalgia running through the book, as Tolstaya meditates on her past, on lovers lost and family passed on; and indeed a world which has changed beyond recognition. In “Father” the narrator begins to dream of her missing parent as a young man; and there is the feeling of a writer taking stock of her life and remembering things which only now exist in an (a)etherial way, as phantoms of the past.

Tolstaya is an author new to me (though I *had* heard of her best known work “The Slynx”, which I believe is very different to this book). I don’t think I’m ready to tackle her dystopian novel quite yet, but her short works are obviously incredible and I believe there are plenty more available. I’m glad I discovered this book in time for #WITMonth as Tolstaya is a compelling writer whose prose and visions linger in the mind; I shall have to track down more of her short stories for next August!*

*****

* Ahem. If ever evidence was needed as to how my book collection is out of control….

After scheduling this post, I took the Tolstaya off to file it on the Russian shelves and discovered that I already own a collection of her short stories… I had *completely* forgotten this, and I’m 99.9% sure I haven’t read it. So that just shows how rubbish I am at keeping track of what I own; but, hey! I have another Tolstaya to read, so result! 😀

%d bloggers like this: