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“…a matter of responsibility.” #eastweststreet @philippesands

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“East West Street” by Philippe Sands

I’m a great believer in bookish serendipity; I often find that a seemingly random series of events will lead me to a book; and although I may not read it straight away, the right time or circumstances will arise when I know that I need to read this particular volume NOW. That’s kind of what happened to me with “East West Street”; I first came across Philippe Sands when I reviewed the lovely little Pushkin Press volume, “City of Lions”, back in 2016. This consisted of Jozef Wittlin’s essay on the city of Lemberg/Lviv/Lvov/Lwow and was accompanied by a piece by Sands on the city of his ancestors. I hadn’t come across Sands or his work before that book, but it transpired that he was a noted human rights lawyer who was also an author; and his “East West Street” sounded fascinating and very much a book I’d like to read. So I added it to the enormous wishlist…

Fast forward a few years, and at the start of 2020 (a time known as Pre-Covid, when I could still go into book and charity shops…) I stumbled across a copy of “East West Street” in the local Oxfam book shop. I was happy to bring it home at last, but although I was keen to read it, somehow it didn’t make its way to the top of the pile straight away. But it’s been in my sightline a lot recently, the more so because I’ve seen Sands giving some very interesting talks on his work and research on the online literary festival circuit this year. And my recent reads seemed to be pushing me in its direction; including “Paula”, “Stanley Brent” and particularly Stefan Zweig’s “Journeys”, all of which touched on the conflicts of the 20th century in some way. After I finished reading “Paula”, I knew this would be the next book I picked up.

As I mentioned, Sands is a human rights lawyer, known for his work on crimes against humanity; indeed the book is subtitled “On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity”. Its genesis came when he was asked to give a lecture on his work at Lviv University, an invitation he gladly accepted. As he explains in the introduction, his work has been informed by the Nuremberg Trials and the judgements handed down, which were responsible for introducing the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” into the lawbooks. But Sands had an additional reason for wanting to visit Lviv; for his maternal grandfather Leon Buchholz had been born there and this was the perfect chance for Sands to do a little research into family history. However, as Sands prepared his lecture he stumbled upon a fact which seemed not to have been noticed before: the two men who were responsible for the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity reaching Nuremberg, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, had both lived and studied in Lviv. This was the spark which set Sands off on a long journey exploring not only his family history, but also Lviv’s connections with the men who were so important to the Nuremberg trials; and also the effects on the city and its inhabitants by Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of the region.

‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,’ the psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham wrote of the relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent. The invitation from Lviv was a chance to explore those haunting gaps. I accepted it…

So in alternating chapters, Sands traces the lives of his grandfather, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, as well as the people around them and other family members; and he looks at the Nuremberg trial in respect of Frank’s part in it and the struggle to get the new terms accepted by all the countries involved. We find out about grandfather Leon’s life, the fate of many of Sands’ family members, who survived and how; we follow the tortuous path taken by the two men trying to brings their crimes into legal existence, as well as their own personal lives and losses; and we witness (fortunately not too often, but enough to spell out starkly how vile it was) the disgusting behaviour of those in the Nazi regime. Truly, man’s inhumanity to man is shocking and horrifying.

Despite their common origins, and the shared desire for an effective approach, Laterpacht and Lemkin were sharply divided as to the solutions they proposed to a big question: How could the law help to prevent mass killing? Protect the individual, says Lauterpacht. Protect the group, says Lemkin.

The story told in “East West Street” is often dramatic, and although there is by necessity discussion of the legal concepts, this is never dry or dull, as Sands writes so well. In particular, the differentiation between the concepts of “crimes against humanity” (the mass killing of individuals) and “genocide” (the attempt to wipe out a specific ethnic group) might just seem to be technicalities, but Sands makes it very clear how complex that differentiation is. All of the stories told, whether of Sands’ grandfather and family, or the men attempting to bring mass murders to justice, are incredibly powerful and moving; even those with a smaller part in the tale are memorable, and although I am fairly familiar with histories of the Holocaust and the Second World War, I was brought up short sometimes; for example, when Curzio Malaparte made a few fleeting appearances. His presence was unsettling and made me even less sure what I thought of him…

In many ways this a book which is hard to write about in anything but broad terms, because the amount of detail in it is incredible and you really just need to read it yourself! Interestingly, there is often reference in the book to the Wittlin essay; it’s a touchstone for Sands throughout the narrative, although Wittlin’s view of the past of Lviv is perhaps a little idyllic. As I mentioned in 2016, control of the city changed eight times in the three decades between 1914 and 1944 (it’s currently part of Ukraine), and in his essay Sands was realistic about the difficulties faced by Jewish residents; those hardships are clearly spelled out in “East West Street”, and the reader is left in no doubt about the horrors meted out to Jewish people over the years (and indeed decades and centuries). The pogroms in particular were revolting, and the liquidition of the Jewish Ghetto in 1943 was unspeakable.

Market Square, pre-War Lviv (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“East West Street” is one of those books you go on a journey with and which changes your life. It’s a monumental work of scholarship, meticulously presented with notes and maps and copious photos (often quite emotive); and it’s also a deeply personal book which weaves together the fate of Sands’ family, the horrors of the 20th century and the long-term effects of attempts to create justice for all. Sands seems impressively indefatigable in his researches, doggedly following up the most tenuous lead to see where it will take him. One particular aspect which surprised me (although it shouldn’t have, bearing in mind what I think about politics and politicians…) is that strong resistance to the introduction of the term “genocide” came from America – apparently they feared it could be applied to their treatment of Native Americans and their Southern Black population… 😦

Reading this book was definitely a case of right book, right time. In the middle of a global crisis, at a time when we had already been seeing how horribly intolerant we humans are of each other and how right-wing nationalistic behaviour is on the increase, it’s a sobering and timely reminder of how these things can creep up on us and what the results can be. I guess it’s shocking too that Sands is still in demand as a human rights lawyer and that nations have not stopped slaughtering their citizens. However, it’s also uplifting to hear the stories of those people who helped their fellows survive, hiding them, smuggling them out of danger and standing up for their brother and sister human beings. I was in the right frame of mind for “East West Street”, particularly after spending time with Stefan Zweig; and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a fascinating, sometimes harrowing, work, skilfully combining autobiography and history, and Sands has created an absolutely gripping and moving read; one that will certainly stay with me for a long time. I can highly recommend it – one of my books of the year – and I actually can’t wait to read the follow-up, “The Ratlines”.

*****

As I mentioned above, Philippe Sands has made a number of appearances at online literary festivals this year, mostly talking about his current book “The Ratlines”. He’s a fascinting speaker, and some of these sessions are still available online:

Edinburgh book festival – in conversation with Ian Rankin:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4twt7izL8k

Charleston Festival – discussion with Eva Hoffmann:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg2jGrB6yrU&t=20s

Sands also had a wonderful talk with Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival, but you have to register and pay to see these talks now.

The silence of the past and the madness of the 20th century – introducing V&Q Books! @vqbooks

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Something slightly different here on the Ramblings today! I don’t as a rule take part in Book Tours and the like, preferring to plough my own furrow, so to speak. However, when I was approached by a fascinating new imprint, dedicated to publishing works translated from German-based authors, I just couldn’t resist… 😀

V&Q Books is headed up by translator Katy Derbyshire, whose work I encountered most recently with the excellent “Dark Satellites“. An imprint of the German publisher Verlag Voland & Quist, its stated aim is to export what they call ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ – and a very laudable one it is, I think! So the focus is on books written in any language by German-based writers, and three titles have been released initially: “Paula” by Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire; “Daughters” by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe; and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” by Francis Nenik, again translated by Katy Derbyshire. Frankly, all three sounded absolutely fascinating, but I have read two of the titles and am happy to share my thoughts on them here.

Paula

It’s often said that there’s a thin line between love and hate, and that’s certainly demonstrated in Sandra Hoffmann’s intriguing piece of autofiction. The Paula of the title is the author’s grandmother, and much of the family’s life has been informed by silence; a silence represented by the German word schweigen, defined as deliberately choosing to remain silent, rather than just having a quiet moment. Hoffmann’s mother was born in 1946, and Paula had always refused to reveal who the father was. A devout Swabian Catholic (Swabia is a region in south-western Germany), Paula brought up her daughter single-handedly despite the expected slurs; and as Hoffmann is growing up, her grandmother lives with the family, dominating the domestic set-up in many ways with her silence; a silence which damages not only Paula’s daughter but also her granddaughter.

So Hoffmann sets out to try to make sense of Paula’s life, by exploring her own memories, those of her mother and her great-aunt; and she also feverishly scrutinises the family photographs, trying to pin down who could have been the grandfather, and inventing imaginary histories for the men in the pictures. And true or not, Hoffmann gradually peels away the layers of silence and gives her grandmother some kind of story.

It is impossible to invent the truth. Precision is essential. Fiction is the only way to close the gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.

It’s an intriguing work, as fragmented perhaps as memory is, yet compelling reading. Hoffmann’s own memoirs of growing up and the damage caused by the unspoken secrets are often painful, and the controlling, instrusive behaviour of Paula is very hard to take. You feel the anger of the young Sandra, unable to deal with the smothering attention of her grandmother which is perhaps driven by Paula’s own behaviour and experiences in the past. There is baggage between Hoffmann’s mother and Paula which infects the whole household’s relationships, although affects Hoffmann’s brother less; and this does make me wonder what was unsaid in the family about the post-War context (Swabia was overrun by various troops when the Nazis fell) and whether Paula is dead set on protecting her granddaughter from any possible danger.

However, as much as this is a book about Paula, it is also book about Hoffmann, who she is and the kind of person she became. While looking back on her childhood and her family life, she reveals the emotional damage done and her need to try to understand what was unsaid. The suffocating presence of Catholic religion and guilt, the inability to escape her grandmother’s constant supervision, and Paula’s refusal to respect Hoffmann’s personal boundaries, all reveal a troubling upbringing. Her exploration of the past, through memories and photographs, reminded me in some ways of the writing of Annie Ernaux; although Hoffmann has a voice all of her own. The book is described as autofiction, a term that’s becoming increasingly used for the kind of books I read which straddle the divide between the real and the imagined; and it’s certainly apt here, as Hoffmann pieces together what she feels she knows, while imagining what could have been the reality of her grandmother’s life and secrets.

Paula is a multi-layered book which deserves a much more thorough exploration than I can give it here. Suffice to say, it’s a powerful, deeply emotional and complex read and definitely deserves to be in the vanguard of V&Q’s publishing launch.

Journey Through a Tragicomic Century

This rather intriguing book is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner” which sums up rather neatly much of what’s happening in it! Francis Nenik is a pseudonym; the author prefers to remain anonymous, though reveals he was born in the 1980s and lives in Liepzig. Nenik has published widely and a previous work has also been translated by Derbyshire. A man of relative obscurity, then – much like the subject of his book…

Hasso Grabner was also an author, but an extremely obscure one; born in 1911 in Leipzig, he lived through some of the most dramatic periods of the 20th century in Germany, dying in 1976. His work has mostly been forgotten; and Nenik sets out to tell the story of a writer consigned to oblivion.

Memory, as every child knows, is the basis of history. Ideology, however – as will become clear later on – is the form in which history is expressed.

Grabner’s life really does live up to the descriptions of tragicomic and absurd. A communist by belief, he was an anti-fascist fighter and for his pains ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp (and I was slightly shocked by the realisation that such places existed well before the start of WW2). He managed to survive, and during the war was conscripted to a Penal Battalion, supposedly to fight for Germany; nevertheless when stationed on Corfu he still managed to warn local partisans to get Jewish occupants out while they could. Ironically, he was awarded the German Iron Cross after the German withdrawal from Greece… After the war, he ended up in East Germany under communist control, where he lived a life working in industry as well as writing and having regular run-ins with the authorities; he does, of course, end up with a fat Stasi file…

It’s the same old game. Some make history and others re-write it.

Even a brief outline of Grabner’s dramatic life gives you a flavour of what a strange man he was, living through strange times; but what makes this book a particularly outstanding read is the method of telling. The book is described as “narrative non-fiction” and it’s such an entertaining piece of writing! Nenek tells the story of Grabner with verve, the book crackles with snappy commentary and a wry sense of the ironies of history, and it’s about as unlike the traditional biography as you’ll get – which I really loved! The idiosyncratic style complements the content brilliantly here, with the almost conversational narrative really emphasising the stupidity of much of the 20th century; for example, Nenik says obliquely of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany:

However, history ignores the principles proclaimed by the communists, takes a right turn driven by millions on 30 January 1933 and erects its own dictatorship.

Grabner himself emerges as a stubborn man, determined to do things his own way and somehow managing to survive in the GDR despite his inflexibility and refusal to toe the line; and I got the sense that his story was probably just one of so many which could be told about people of the 20th century enduring horrific events (which do appear here, though mostly in a reasonably minor key) and having to remake some kind of existence afterwards.

Memory, that much is clear once and for all, is the basic fabric of history. Ideology, however, is the form in which history is written, struck out, abbreviated.

There’s an interesting coda to the book where Nenik reveals how he came to write it; and that makes fascinating reading too, although I shall say nothing about it because it’s best read when you’ve finished “Journey…” This was a brilliant and compelling read, and I absolutely loved it.

*****

So my first experience of V&Q books has been a really positive one, with two very different but equally fascinating works; and as both authors are new names to me I would never have read them without the prompt of these editions, so kudos to the new imprint. I think this is an excellent initiative, particularly if it’s going to bring previously unheard voices to an Anglophone audience. I have to comment on the actual physical books themselves, too. Obviously, an important part of bookselling, particularly for independent imprints, is branding and V&Q have certainly nailed it with their bright and distinctive design, plus those all-important French flaps! But of course the crucial thing is the content, and on the evidence of my readings so far, V&Q are certainly going to be a publisher to watch!

If you want to get a flavour of the prose, there’s a nice little reading from it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zccoImjOprI&ab_channel=V%26QBooks

 

“At a time of crisis, loneliness is not good” @TeamRedCircle

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One love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

Back in July 2019, I made the acquaintance of the Red Circle Minis. A new initiative from Red Circle Authors, who describe themselves as a home for authors from, or living in, Japan, the Minis are short works that are first being published in English. As they’re usually bite-sizes books, this makes them a wonderful way to explore authors who you might not have come across before. More titles have been released, and the most recent is the longest so far; at 115 pages it really deserves the title novella. And a fascinating piece of writing it is!

The book is “One Love Chigusa” and the author is Soji Shimada. Apparently something of a legend in Japan, he’s probably best known in the UK for his crime fiction (both Murder in the Crooked House and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders are published by the Pushkin Vertigo imprint). However, “One Love…” is a very different kind of book, exploring potential futures and how technology may affect our perceptions…

“One Love” is set in Beijing in the late 21st century; a man called Xie, the story’s protagonist, suffers terrible injuries in an accident. However, technology has reached a point where he can be very much rebuilt (shades of the old TV series “The Bionic Man”, for those with long enough memories). And talking of memories, Xie’s is also rebuilt and he’s given some kind of Quantum memory drive. He returns to his former life and job; but things are looking a little different…

Of course, that’s why the indicator was needed. Perhaps the effects of speech and action were being measured as cash values. People without religion, ideology or faith, only trust money as the measure of worth and value.

Xie suddenly finds that his fellow humans have changed almost beyond recognition. The women have angry red demonic faces; men have indicators on their chests with ever changing numbers. Xie is frightened by the changes and unclear as to what’s going on, becoming driven to thoughts of suicide; until one day he spots one woman, Chigusa, who not only is normal but is also the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. His pursuit of her will consume him (and much of the rest of the book) – but is even she what she seems?

I shan’t say too much more about the plot; but it’s obvious that “One Love…” has many sci fi tropes with the futuristic technologies, the modernistic settings described in Beijing and the AI elements built into Xie. However, underlying these trappings is a story of obsession; Xie becomes convinced that Chigusa is the only person who can save him in his current state; however, there is so much more to the world than he sees and understands, and this is gradually played out through the narrative.

The world was deteriorating rapidly. The news on the Internet was full of terrible incidents… He didn’t know when all this had started to happen. Morality seemed to have disappeared from the world. Making money, winning and losing, dog eat dog – these were the principles of survival. And they were being sharpened up. This was all that mattered now.

“One Love Chigusa” is actually an unexpectedly gripping read; as the tale progresses, the mysteries surrounding Xie’s skewed perceptions and gradual revelations add levels of intrigue to the plot, and there are plenty of twists. One I perhaps had an inkling of, but much I didn’t foresee – which is always satisfying. I did enjoy the book and Shimada’s writing very much, though I do have to say that I felt slightly uneasy with the portrayal of women, particularly Chigusa, who is extremely objectified to a point where it’s really uncomfortable; and when you add that to the fact that Xie basically stalks her it becomes very unsettling. It may be that this was deliberate so as to emphasise Xie’s distress at his changed perceptions and then extreme reaction when he meets someone he sees as beautiful. However, I don’t think it necessarily added anything to the narrative and could definitely have been toned down a bit.

The Minis!

Putting that aside, “One Love Chigusa” is a really fascinating work, full of all sorts of ideas about the effects of technology on we humans, and many intriguing layers. Shimada captures the strangeness of the events and emotions Xie is living through brilliantly, reminding us how many aspects of the world that we use and take for granted every day are actually not really understood by us. The Red Circle Minis are a really wonderful initiative; every one I’ve read has been so different and so good; and “One Love Chigusa” is an excellent addition to the series! 😀

I wrote about the Red Circle Minis for Shiny New Books here, and also reviewed the first three in the series on SNB here. I also covered the second batch here on the blog!

Some thoughts on the @VersoBooks Book Club – plus a little giveaway! :D

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If you follow me on Twitter you’ll no doubt have seen me regularly complaining ruefully about the wonderful offers the left-wing publisher Verso Books often runs; they’ve been responsible for any number of volumes arriving on the TBR, and a quick glance over the shelves revealed I have a surprising number of their books lurking on there! I’m refusing to say how many are hanging about digitally…..

Just a few of my Verso books….

So when they announced not only offers to celebrate their 50th birthday but also a new book club, I was really sorely tempted. In the end I caved in – first off, these two books arrived on the shelves at half price and I was *very* excited! Another Saramago plus a book about walking (of which I do a lot…) – treats!

However, the book club was also appealing. At half price for the first few months, I would get a physical book every month (a choice of two) as well as digital copies of all new releases. Plus the Verso diary and a notebook as well. Blimey – what’s not to love! I’m a big fan of Verso, because their focus is pretty wide – though they lean to the left, it isn’t all just dry politics, they cover art, culture, philosophy, gender studies, architecture, history, sociology, ecology, music, economics, race – you name it, they probably have a book which fits into the category in which you’re interested. And there are so many favourite authors – Sartre, Benjamin, Saramago, Berger – well, you can see why I’m often tempted.

So needless to say I succumbed… I signed up for the Verso Book Club, and the first two months have brought forth the physical delights shown above! The digital delights are – well, there’s tons of them (as you can see from the list below)!! I probably have at least a year’s reading already, which is rather wonderful, and there are lots of titles I’ve wanted to read for ages so that’s a bonus! October’s looking good too…

The observant amongst you might have noticed that there are two copies of “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal” on the stacks above and there’s a good reason for that, which I’ll come to. This was the September Book Club title, and I was very excited about this, as Noam Chomsky is an author I first encountered in my teens and for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’ve begun to dip into this book which looks scarily relevant; the first pages reveal that the Doomsday Clock is now pointing to 100 seconds…

You might recall my coverage of Richard Clay’s excellent radio programme “Two Minutes to Midnight” back in 2018, which looked at our attitude to nuclear annihilation. To realise that we’ve now reached an even closer point is shocking, and you can still catch up with Richard’s programme here – it makes sobering and fascinating listening…

But I digress… Owing to a glitch in their systems, Verso sent out two copies of “Climate Change…” to me this month. I contacted them and offered to return it, but they were happy that I didn’t and so instead I thought I would offer this as a giveaway to anyone who is interested. This will have to be UK only I’m afraid, as overseas postage has shot up horrendously lately. So if you would like the book, please leave a comment and perhaps suggest an independent publisher you recommend that I should support – as I’m most definitely in the state of mind to keep doing that at the moment!

Meantime, if you’re interested in reading thought-provoking books, I definitely recommend you take a look at Verso’s list – there’s an awful lot of good stuff there! As for me – well, I’m thinking I may have to start a dedicated Verso bookshelf… ;D

“Once again a terrific hurricane has broken on the world…” #stefanzweig #willstone

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Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Translated and with introduction, notes and photographs by Will Stone

Do you ever get that feeling where you’ve read so many novels and novellas and short stories that you’re kind of all fictioned out and need a change? That happened to me recently, and I suddenly had the massive urge to read some kind of non-fiction. It’s a genre I do love, from history to philosophy to essays to biography to travel writing, and it’s not as if I don’t have many unread choices on Mount TBR to select from… In the end I turned to Stefan Zweig; I had thought of him recently when Pushkin were promoting his titles and I spent some time tracking down a copy of his “Montaigne”. So I plumped for a slim collection of his writings about his travels, “Journeys” – and it definitely turned out to be the right book at the right time!

My edition of the book has been lurking for a number of years, and is a lovely Hesperus edition from 2011. Translated by Will Stone (who I’ve encountered on the blog before – I do love his translations!), “Journeys” collects together a number of pieces by Zweig on a variety of European destinations he visited, presented in chronological order from 1902 to 1940. Stefan Zweig was of course a peripatetic man, constantly on the move either from temperament or external pressure. As a Jewish man from Austria, the period in which he was living of course necessitated constant relocation, until his final journey to Brazil where he took refuge from the Nazi scourge in Europe. Alas, his stay there was not for long…

Stations and ports, these are my passion. Four hours I can stand there awaiting a fresh wave of travellers and goods noisily crashing in to cover the preceding one; I love the signs, those mysterious messages that reveal hour and journey, the shouts and sounds dull yet varied that establish themselves in an evocative ensemble of noise. Each station is different, each distils another distant land; every port, every ship brings a different cargo. They are the universe for our cities, the diversity in our daily life.

Whether visiting Ostend and Bruges, meditating on Hyde Park, spring in Seville or a food fair in Dijon, Zweig simply writes beautifully. He brings alive the location, considers the architecture and the history of the place, and records his impressions with an experienced traveller’s eye. His early journeys were at a time when the concept of tourism was in its infancy, and he could move from place to place on his own, spend quiet time assimilating his impressions and explore a town or city or area in peace. That, of course, would change…

In truth, Zweig’s writings always had a somewhat elegiac tone which I guess perhaps represented his temperament. However, inevitably this tone changes as the book goes on. There is the First World War and its aftermath; and Zweig visits many places affected by the conflict and decries the effect of war. In fact, his piece from 1928, “Ypres”, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read by Zweig (and I *have* read a number) as he revisits a place he knew before the conflict to see how it is now, and whether there has been reconstruction.

Not a shop exists where they don’t profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps those very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield…

In fact, this particular piece leads on to another issue in a changing Europe, that of the increase in mass tourism, the threat this poses to the places visited, and the modernisation taking place to enable this. Zweig is unhappy about coachloads of tourists turning up, being force-fed a tour of some place of historical significance, buying a souvenir and ticking the visit off their list. This is particularly pointed in somewhere like Ypres, where he titles one section “Jamboree upon the Dead” and I am completely in sympathy with his view; turning a place of massacre into a tourist attraction seems wrong, and this  resonated with the horror I’ve felt when seeing people posting selfies of themselves laughing and posing at Auschwitz. We can’t spend our life wringing our hands over past horrors, but we can remember and respect those who suffered and certainly we shouldn’t be trivialising these places and those victims.

Young Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

But there are lighter moments; his lovely essay of how the British cope during wartime by gardening is a delight. Then there is a piece on the Jewish Shelter in London, a haven for refugees, which is very moving. “To travel or be travelled” attacks the package tour head-on; acknowledging that although journeying on your own involves more planning and risk than having someone else whisk you from place to place on a coach, the rewards are worth it. Only by travelling on your own do you really stand a chance of getting to know a town or city, spending time exploring and perhaps having one of those chance pieces of seredipity when you stumble upon something unknown or unexpected.

Each morning the paper barks in your face wars, murders and crimes, the madness of politics clutters our senses, but the good that happens quietly unnoticed, of that we are scarcely aware.

Stefan Zweig started writing and travelling when it was easy to move around Europe from country to country. He saw that freedom eroded and eventually had to flee the continent to a kind of life which became unacceptable to him. I fear we’re actually regressing into those times again, having had the luxury of free movement for so many years; and it’s chilling to read Zweig state: “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breath quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” His writing is always elegant and beautiful (and as you can see from the amount of post-its, I could have quoted half the book); these pieces are evocative and atmospheric; and the more I read of Stefan Zweig, the less I can understand why his books were neglected for so many years. “Journeys” was a moving and transporting read, and if you’ve never read Zweig you could do no worse than to start here!

*****

I wanted to say a little bit about this edition of the book, because it has so many lovely elements to it. As I said, the translation is by the poet, Will Stone, and as well as rendering the pieces in English he also provides an erudite introduction. There are useful notes and a little biography of Zweig, and most delightfully a selection of Stone’s own photographs of some of the places Zweig writes about. This was an element Stone added to the excellent “Rilke in Paris” and it’s a wonderful idea, helping to bring alive the places the author visited. As I mentioned, my edition is a Hesperus Press one, but “Journeys” is currently in print from Pushkin Press, so I imagine it will also have the extra material as it *is* the Will Stone translation. Definitely most highly recommended…

A life wasted? Discovering the writing of #elizabethberridge

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The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Bookish Twitter is a regular source of distraction and inspiration for me; I reckon a good chunk of the books on Mount TBR are thanks to the lovely folks there recommending new authors and works to check out! Recently, there was a bit of a flurry around novelist Elizabeth Berridge and her name kept turning up and popping into my line of sight. So a little bit of serendipity came into play when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a copy of his reprint of Berridge’s first published work: a novella called “The Story of Stanley Brent”, from 1945.

Berridge (1919-2009) was known as a novelist and critic, publishing fourteen works between 1945 and 1995; yet her profile is not that high nowadays. Persephone have published a collection of her short stories under the title “Tell it to a Stranger”; but much of the Twitter flurry was around striking covers of Abacus paperback editions of her novels. Fellow bloggers have been rediscovering her work with interest, so I was keen to find out what her writing was actually like.

There was a name for everything, it made things less frightening, made you believe that you could be cured.

“Stanley…” is a novella of 75 pages (with very small type, it has to be said…) and it does indeed relate the life story of the titular Brent, opening in the year 1907 when the young man proposes marriage to Ada after a soaking in a rainstorm. They marry; encounter issues when Ada comes up against the realities of being a wife; have children; Stanley is promoted. And as they age, the world changes round them, with the First World War taking away family and friends; the country-like suburbs are absorbed into the cities and towns; and rumblings of events in Germany are darkening the horizon.

Throughout the youngest daughter’s childhood the country round the Brents was slowly swallowed up. Wooden blocks for roads now lay where once the wheat had burnt. Lorries passed continually, laden with bricks and returning with timber cut from the marked off building sites. Bonfires of blackberry bushes, gorse and hawthorn made the autumns mournful and spring a time of no regrowth. Asphalt hid the muddy paths to the station, and roads were made up, pavements laid at the expense of the older residents.

My summary makes the book sound a little simplistic, but it actually isn’t and Berridge is a remarkable skilful writer to fit as much as she does into such a short narrative. Stanley seems a fairly ordinary man, but there are undercurrents; he suffers from asthma which strikes him at times of stress; he often finds himself questioning the point of what he does; and he senses there is more to life than he experiences. As he ages and his health suffers, his marriage becomes very much a shell and it seems that there is little deep communion between the couple (something which was in fact signalled early in the book).

Stanley remembered this now, the shrug, the indifference. The crack entered his heart. The Frenchman seemed so alone – yet he had wife, children, a house, a trade he enjoyed. Wasn’t this enough, and if not why? Fear darkened Stanley’s clear blue, somewhat stupidly innocent blue eyes; shortened, for a moment, his breath. Something else, what was it?

Perhaps Stanley stands for each ordinary man living an everyday life but yearning for more; certainly, at one point he feels a strong bond with his stepfather-in-law, a French musician in exile whose unfinished violin playing perhaps symbolises the lost opportunities in both men’s lives; and who says rather crytpically at one crucial point in the narrative:

“Each man must dance to his own measure.

For a small book, “The Story of Stanley Berridge” is surprisingly affecting. The underlying element of melancholy comes to the fore regularly throughout the book; and Berridge is adept at capturing emotions and events in just a few words. For example, Stanley doesn’t fight in WW1 (he is “turned down”, presumably because of his health) and in passing the narrative comments “A few women gave Stanley white feathers”, imparting so much about that conflict and the emotions which went with it, as well as conveying how Stanley was judged and how he might have felt about not fighting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I don’t know that I’d anticipated quite such a memorable read. Berridge writes so well, capturing the little nuances in daily life, the subtle interactions between characters, and also how the world changed during the period of Stanley’s life. “The Story of Stanley Brent” is a novella you can easily read in one sitting, but I think its title character and his life will stay with you afterwards. And if this is any kind of indication of Berridge’s writing, I’m definitely keen to read more!

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

A powerful and moving book over @shinynewbooks #rosemacaulay @KateHandheld

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I have a review up on Shiny New Books today of a remarkable and powerful book collecting together the war writings of Rose Macaulay – “Non-Combatants and Others”, published by Handheld Books. Macaulay is an author I’ve covered before – her “What Not” was a very intriging book – so I was happy to be able to read and review this one.

The book is subtitled “Writings Against War, 1916-1945”, and its centrepiece is the title novel “Non-Combatants and Others”. It’s a stunning and moving story, first published slap-bang in the middle of the First World War and revealing some of the horror of that conflict. Also included are some marvellous pieces of between the wars journalism, and an emotional short story from the Second World War. It really is an excellent collection which I highly recommend – and you can read my review here!

“…no man is allowed a death certificate without first dying for it.” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #margotbennett

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

“When in doubt, reach for a crime classic”; that could well be my motto here on the Ramblings, as they *have* become such a comfort in recent years, and particularly during the pandemic. I do feel the books have gone from strength to strength, with a wonderfully diverse range of titles being published. And the most recent one I received for review was just as fascinating and engrossing as the others I’ve read, as well as taking a very unusual angle on the Golden Age crime format!

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was Scottish author Margot Bennett’s seventh novel, and she’s a forgotten name in the field of crime writing (and indeed writing generally). However, as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, her books were highly regarded at the time and she was nominated for major crime writing awards. Despite this, her career took her in a different direction, writing for television during the 1950s and 1960s; and her work seems to have been all but forgotten which is a great shame, based on this novel.

Sergeant Young tried the buffet. The tea-lady, who had a contrived shade of red hair, and the new small waist with the old, spreading hips, smoothed one eyebrow with her little finger, and said she’d been talking to a gentleman from Sweden at the time, and she really couldn’t remember a thing, except that poor Mr Lee had looked in to ask about a passenger who wasn’t there. When she mentioned Lee’s name her eyes moistened and she turned away, fumbling until she found a very dainty handkerchief.

The GA Crime genre has its conventions – country house, quirky detective, locked room mystery, cast of suspects; but increasingly with the BL books, the works featured move outside that format and “Fly” is a fine example. Instead of a ‘whodunnit’ or even a ‘whydunnit’, it’s more a case of ‘what-the-heck-has-been-going-on-to-lead-up-to-this-situation?!?!?’ The book opens with the crash into the sea of a small private plane on its way to Ireland; the pilot is lost, as well as three male passengers. However, four men were meant to fly; and it initially proves to be impossible to work out who was on the plane and who didn’t actually fly. Witnesses are vague about what they saw on the day; the fourth man does not come forward to identify himself; and the detectives have to start to dig into the lives and behaviour of the four men to try to work out just what had been going on to cause the group to want to fly to Ireland – and indeed why one didn’t…

Central to the mystery is the Wade family; a widowed father plus two grown up daughters Hester and Prudence. Once the detectives have spent time getting confusing and inconclusive witness statements, they focus on the Wades, to whom all the passengers were known. Eventually, Hester is ostensibly persuaded to provide a narrative of events in the days leading up to the flight, though it is actually told in the third person. And a gripping tale it is too; the ordinary family seem to have been surrounded by so-called friends and contacts with very dodgy connections! The events are gradually explored, the narrative builds up till all is revealed and there are some lovely twists and turns along the way; but more than that I *will* not say, because I don’t want to spoil the reading of this book for anyone!

Words! We have too many words. Word poets talk all the time of love and death. People fall in love and they die, and no amount of poetic advice has ever helped them to do either of those things more successfully.… But they are always interested in money.

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was a compelling and surprisingly moving story, with far reaching elements; and so cleverly written. You’re plunged right into the story from the very start, and events are unclear until Hester begins to reveal the sequence of events. As you read on, there are lightbulb moments when parts of the plot suddenly become clear; and I did have a few suspicions about why particular characters were acting as they were. But there were still shocks are the end which were quite unexpected (but absolutely made sense when you got to them).

There’s a depth to the characterisation which is pleasing; Hester herself is the glue that holds many things together, both in her family and with regard to the plot! And it’s painful at times watching her struggle with her relationship with one of the passengers, Harry; a wastrel poet, she finds him infuriating and irresistible at the same time! In fact, the Wade girls, brought up by their father, were a very engaging pair and I sensed shades of “I Capture the Castle” in their situation of poverty. Bennett had strong left-wing convictions, and she does manage to have a dig here and there at the greed of human being, through the mouths of her characters! The detectives deserve a little mention, too; the team of Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Young, although at some points seeming to take a back seat in the narrative, is an engaging one. The pair have an entertaining relationship, in particular with Young’s apparent vast knowledge of culture and arts, upon which Lewis often has to draw during this investigation!

As I said, this is a hard book to discuss in detail without giving too much away; but it really is a superb entry into the BLCC range. Bennett is an excellent writer, and pleasingly this edition includes a rare short story “No Bath for the Browns” which is quite brilliant! I absolutely loved “The Man Who Didn’t Fly”: clever, twisty, brilliantly constructed and compelling from start to finish, it really was a stellar read. On the evidence of this and the short story, Bennett is a very unjustly neglected author, and I really hope the BL reissue more of her works. Highly recommended! 😀

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

“From dissolution springs forth desire” @LittleToller #RichardSkelton

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Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton

We have all been living through very strange times in 2020, and frankly I see no sign of things getting anything like back to normal. Books have, as usual, been my main coping mechanism – particularly while we have been stuck in place, unable to go anywhere except in our heads. And it’s been impossible to ignore the economic strain being put on smaller publishers during the pandemic, with many struggling to keep their heads above water. I have been buying books directly from them wherever I can, and one imprint I came across fairly recently was Little Toller. Based in Dorset, they publish works rooted in nature and the landscape, both new and classic; and so to support them I was happy to send off for a couple of their works. This was my first experience with them, and the books not only arrived promptly, they’re also attractive and beautifully produced works. I can see myself wanting to explore further… But anyway, let’s get on to my first Little Toller read: “Beyond the Fell Wall” by Richard Skelton.

Skelton is a new name to me; a British musician, his early work was apparently triggered by the death of his wife, as a way to come to terms with his loss. His music has been compared to Arvo Part and Eno, and his work is mostly released via Corbel Stone Press. “Beyond the Fell Wall” is part of Little Toller’s ‘Monograph’ series, and it’s a beautiful and evocative piece of work.

There is something unsettling about living beside ruins. It reminds us, perhaps, of the brevity of the human span, and the folly of ‘civilisation’ in the face of enduring nature.

It’s hard, really, to know where to start in describing this work. Composed while Skelton was living in the Furness Hills of Cumbria, it straddles the line between poetry and prose (which I often think is an artificial one anyway); and explores the landscape of the area as Skelton spends time amongst the paths, streams and, in particular, the dry-stone walls of the region. This is a land with a long history of occupation by man and animal; and Skelton’s meditations reach back into this past, drawing on folklore, myth and language. It’s a heady and beautiful mix, enhanced by illustrations by Michael Kirkman, and rewards slow, meditative reading.

Is there a glimmer, then, of something older – some remnant of profane, beautiful knowledge lodged within the wall’s foundations – in those great hefts of rock, too huge to be shifted?

The thread running through the book, as it does through the landscape, is the dry-stone wall itself. These are all over the land, constructed from stones scoured out by glaciers and deposited there in the past. Nothing holds them together apart from their careful assembly, and they are as subject to entropy as everything else which lives and dies on our planet. Skelton explores how walls came to define the topography of an area, as a human act to try to enclose and restrict. But like everything else human, they will eventually pass on…

These men never grew complacent when there was something to be exploited. These men never fell idle when there was time to kill. The hills rang with their industry, and so they, exclaiming with sheer effort, ushered their own song into being.

As you might have guessed, I absolutely loved this book. Skelton’s poetic, emotional responses and connections to the world, the landscape and its history resonated deeply; and at a moment in time where I think I am more of aware of that natural world and where we sit in it, it was also a timely reminder that humans may well eventually fall by the wayside. “Beyond…” is beautifully written, with explanatory linguistic notes at the back, visually poetic pages which draw on old English field names, and it’s a book which has the effect of pulling you back towards nature. It certainly lingers in the mind and is a work I’ll return to when I’m in need of the solace of the natural world.

Alexey Komarov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

No line drawn, however straight, remains unwavering. All resolve ultimately weakens. Everything tends to disorder.

So my first foray into reading a Little Toller book was a real winner. Now, more than ever, we need to reconnect with nature and try to stop destroying it; books like Skelton’s are a reminder of how much we belong the natural world, are a part of it. A lovely, lovely book and highly recommended!

Embarking on a mind-expanding project – exploring Penguin’s Great Ideas with Seneca! :D

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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
Translated by C.D.N Costa

 

You might remember me having a grumble back in June about the dangers of reading challenges, and how I was currently fighting the urge to start a new project of reading my way through the Penguin Great Ideas little books. This all came up because the new batch out later this month contains some irresistible titles and I was hit by the mad desire to try and improve my mind (ha!) by reading the lot in sequence… Yes, all 120! Now bearing in mind my track record with the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Moderns, that was probably a silly idea. However, during August I *did* manage to get back into the saddle with both of these projects (and I think ‘project’ is the best word to use here as this is going to take me some time…) So feeling emboldened, I have picked up the first book in the series and set forth on my journey – wish me luck….

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

The Great Ideas sequence starts with Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”, and the quote on the front very aptly reads “Life is long if you know how to use it“. A Roman philosopher who lived from approx 4 BC to 64 AD, he was a proponent of Stoicism and as well as his philosophical works was also a dramatist, satirist and statesman. This book contains three works – the title essay, as well as Consolation to Helvia and On Tranquility of Mind. As I believe is common in works of the era (and forgive me if I’m wrong here!), these pieces are all addressed to a particular individual; and they’re drawn from the Penguin volume “Dialogues and Essays”.

… sometimes we are gripped by hatred of the human race.

So – onto the first entry in the book, the title piece. This was addressed to Seneca’s father-in-law Paulinus, and in it he addresses the very human habit of wasting our time… His argument is that if we live our lives wisely and with thought, any life is long enough. Instead of spending all our hours rushing around looking for fame or fortune or approval, or losing chunks of our lives in trivial pursuits, we should spend our time in the present moment, doing things with meaning and purpose. It’s a very timely and sensible philosophy, and I think if we did all pause, take stock and direct our lives sensibly we might be happier. It’s not always that simple, of course, but something to aim for maybe…

… it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those who she has deserted.

The second piece is a letter addressed to Seneca’s mother Helvia. The philosopher had been exiled to Corsica for political reasons, as well as apparently losing his only son; so his letter attempts to console his mother for the death of a grandson as well as the exile of a son. Here, his stoic principles are clearly on view as he assures his mother that he is happy and not suffering, and therefore she should not grieve for him.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of it swiftness, but glide on quietly.

The final essay is one of Seneca’s “Dialogues” and addressed to his friend Serenus who seems anything but serene… The latter is in fact anxious and worried, unsure of his path through life. Seneca advises taking the middle way, steering a course between a life of action and a life of contemplation. He comes up with all manner of sensible suggestions as to choice of friends, austere lifestyle and even ensuring that your collection of books is not just for show! Kind of like Roman therapy, then!

My first experience of both Seneca and Penguin Great Ideas was a really positive one! The Stoic Philosopher really does have some good ideas about how to negotiate the madness of the world, particularly in these turbulent times when so much is changing around us, and his works are full of eminently quotable aphorisms. The translation is excellent and very readable, and the book is a wonderful introduction to Seneca. The book comes with no extra or supporting material, apart from minimal notation within the text, which I assume will be the case with the rest of the GIs; and that’s fine, because I feel these works should be treated as a taster for the author in question. If a reader has been stimulated and their appetite whetted, they can go off and research the author, explore further and even buy a bigger book…

Hey! I think this project could be fun! 😀

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