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“… I ride and ride and I never arrive.” #JapaneseLitChallenge14 #mishima

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Having had an underwhelming experience with my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I didn’t want to let January pass without trying another work from that country; particularly as I’ve read some marvellous books from Japan. An old favourite is Yukio Mishima, an often-controversial figure; and I was delighted when previously untranslated works starting appearing recently in new English versions. So I decided to cheat! I say cheat, because the book I read was no 51 in the Penguin Modern series of bite size loveliness – and I am supposed to be reading the series in order!! However, the Mishima was issued after the box set came out so that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

The work in question is “Star” and it’s a novella-length work first issued in 1961, in a short story collection of the same name. In contrast to many of his major works, which look back to a golden past in Japan, “Star” is set firmly in the present. It tells of Rikio “Richie” Mizuno, a young actor at the height of his fame who’s nevertheless suffering from insecurity, disillusioned with fame and the film world. Despite being surrounded by hysterical young adoring fans, his most important relationship is with his personal assistant, Kayo. The latter is older that Richie, and considered unattractive; yet she offers the actor emotional and physical support, keeping him grounded in some kind of reality.

… threads of permanence cling to the underbelly of all formulaic poetry. It comes as a false shadow, the refuse of originality, the body dragged around by genius. It’s the light that flashes from a tin roof with a tawdry grace. A tragic swiftness only the superficial can possess.

Aside from the complexities of acting while surrounded by screaming fans, another problem occurs when a struggling actress inveigles her way onto the set and into the film. Things go wrong when she proves not to be up to the task of acting the part, and takes dramatic action. Needless to say, the PR people use this to their advantage, leaving Richie just as full of self-doubt as ever…

Real love always plays out at a distance.

“Star” may be a short work, but it’s just as brilliant and full of impact as any of Mishima’s longer works. Richie is the pefect Mishima character; struggling with the hollowness at the heart of his fame, losing sense of reality because of the number of different personas he has to adopt, his life feels empty and he’s assailed by doubt and ennui. The constant wearing of (metaphorical) masks has detached him from the reality around him; and the intense and unlikely relationship with Kayo is more real to him than anything else. Despite the fact that this anchors him, he acknowledges that the relationship is just as much of an illusion; and the couple can sit and calmly discuss the prospect of his suicide, as if this is a logical end to which his life is headed.

A star is more of a star if he never arrives.

Needless to say, reading this wonderful novella from Mishima has restored my faith in my love of Japanese writing. Inevitably, because of the author’s complex relationship with his country and fame, it’s hard not to imagine him drawing from his own life and feelings when writing “Star”. Mishima had himself recently had a go at movie acting and it apparently proved not to be to his taste; so presumably much of that experience was funneled into this story. It’s a compelling, beautifully written work, and I can’t understand why it’s taken so long for it to appear in translation.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

Like my encounter with another recently translated book, “The Frolic of the Beasts“, reading “Star” has reminded me what a stunning writer Mishima was and how I really need to revisit his other works. And rather wonderfully, I also have another previously untranslated work of his sitting on the TBR…. ;

“Star” is translated by Sam Bett, who apparently has received kudos for his work – to which I would like to add my thanks and praise! Any previously untranslated Mishima is very welcome in this quarter!!!

“Patterns coalesce, sometimes by chance at other times by design.” @FitzcarraldoEds #jeremycooper

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Back in 2019, I read a wonderful book from one of my favourite indie publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions; and it was by a completely new-to-me author, Jeremy Cooper. The book was “Ash Before Oak”, and was a kind of autofiction in the form of journal entries by a man living in the country and struggling with mental health issues. It was a powerful and compelling read, so of course I was delighted when an ARC of his new book, “Bolt from the Blue” popped through the door. I was hoping this would be as good a read as his first work of fiction – and I wasn’t disappointed.

As I mentioned in my review of “Ash Before Oak”, Cooper is an art historian and so the art world is very familiar to him. Elements from his experiences there crept into “Ash…”; however, in “Bolt from the Blue”, that milieu takes centre stage, as the book relates the story of the relationship between artist Lynn Gallagher and her mother, via their letters, postcards and emails to each other over the period 1985 to 2018. I love an epistolary novel at the best of times; but this book takes the form to an extra level.

The book opens with Lynn introducing the correspondence, relating how she discovered the letters her mother had kept after the latter’s death. Initially, Lynn is something of a narrator, interjecting comments or descriptions of the postcards she’d sent to her mother; and she seems to dominate the story. However, as the book progresses, her mother starts to come to the fore, and more is gradually revealed about both women’s backgrounds, the events that made them what they are, the reasons for tensions between them and, eventually, the similarities between them.

Lynn leaves home to go to art college in London, leaving her home in Birmingham and her mother behind her. It’s obvious from the tone of the initial correspondence that she was glad to get away to a new life although at the start we don’t know why. Over the decades, Lynn negotiates a complex path through the art world; she’s a strong feminist who refuses to compromise, not only with others’ expectations of her, but also with the money and the corporate structure behind much of the modern art world. The narrative is studded with familiar names – Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin – and also less well-known figures I had to look up, as well as some invented ones. Into this structure, Cooper brilliantly weaves Lynn’s story, her rise to prominence, her search for her own voice as an artist, and the compromises she has to make in her personal life. This story alone is fascinating, as was watching the world change around Lynn as the decades passed (and Cooper did capture the changing times quite brilliantly).

Nothing is ever complete, everything always a version. An illusion to imagine that diligent research and enquiry, about anything or anyone, can produce the whole story. There is no such thing.

But what of Lynn’s mother? The initial impression, of a restrictive, traditional mother seen through a young girl’s eyes, is changed and tempered as the book progresses. Lynn’s mother is a woman with her own past and family issues, with reasons for turning out the way she did, and the relationship between mother and daughter changes significantly over the years, often in unexpected ways. Is there resolution? That’s a thought which calls into question the whole possibility of resolution in human relationships – and certainly the mother-daughter one is fraught with problems.

I don’t want to say much more about the specifics of the book, because I would hate to lessen the impact; but what I will say is that this is another quite brilliant piece of writing by Jeremy Cooper. The epistolary form can be such a clever way of telling a story anyway, and Cooper uses it quite marvellously here. There are often long gaps between messages, leaving the reader to wonder what has caused this (lost letters? arguments? both are possible and hinted at by Lynn’s narration). The story never really evolves in a straightforward linear manner; instead, little pieces leak out into a letter or postcard which reveal something crucial from past or present, giving you little lightbulb moments as you read. There *are* revelations slipping out in the messages – the bolts from the blue to which the title refers – and some of these did make me catch my breath. The characters of Lynn and her mother build and develop as the book goes on, until you have a striking portrait of two women who are actually not always as unalike as you might think from the early letters…

“Bolt from the Blue” is another wonderful book from both Cooper and Fitzcarraldo, and was a completely gripping read from start to finish. If for nothing else than its portrait of the modern art world, it would be a vital read; but as well as that, it’s a quite brilliant portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and captures vividly the difficulty of remaining individual and true to yourself when faced by commercial pressures. Cooper’s insights into the art community are astute, drawn no doubt from his experience; and it’s worth noting that he’s not only written a work on the young British art movement of the 1990s, but also the British Museum’s catalogue of artists’ postcards. This latter element presumably informs the vivid descriptions of the postcards sent between mother and daughter, and adds another fascinating layer to the book.

When I reached the end of “Bolt from the Blue” I felt as if I’d lived alongside both these women, immersed in their lives, and if an author can achieve that, they’re quite brilliant. I’ve probably not done justice to the depth and complexity of the book in this short post, but it’s a remarkable work. Although I’m intending to share more Fitzcarraldos during #ReadIndies month in February, I wanted to post my thoughts on “Bolt…” today as it’s publication day for the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough – a unique and quite brilliant work!

“…your infernal fog is doing things to my nerves…” #johndicksoncarr @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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From one piece of pure escapism to another – although this book is very different to my last read, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”! John Dickson Carr has appeared on the Ramblings many times, of course – and most recently because the British Library have been releasing his Inspector Bencolin mysteries in lovely new editions. Bencolin is not Carr’s best-known detective, only featuring in five novels and a handful of short stories; but those works are wonderfully entertaining, and I’m so happy they’re being made available.

The latest release, “The Lost Gallows” is the third Bencolin release from the BL, but the second in the Bencolin series; and it finds the great detective, plus his sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, in London. The men are staying at the rather gloomy and macabre Brimstone Club, alongside an old friend of Bencolin’s, Sir John Landervorne. Also at the club is the unpleasant (and very rich) Egyptian gentleman, Nezam El Moulk, together with his retinue. However, all is not well; events from the past are coming back to haunt and threaten El Moulk; a ghostly hangman known as Jack Ketch is making appearances; and the lost gallows of the title has been seen in Ruination Street, a mysterious place which cannot be found anywhere in London. Stir in Jeff’s old flame Sharon Grey (who featured in the first book of the series), murder and mayhem and a car driven by a corpse, dark corridors, mysterious models or shadows of gallows which pop up everywhere, and plenty of chills, and you have the perfect recipe for one of Carr’s stories – which to be honest, are often like a cross between a mystery and a ghost story, and no less satisfying for it!

I love JDC’s writing – he does of course specialise in the locked room mystery with his other great detective, Gideon Fell; and there are certainly locked room elements in the Bencolin stories. These are early works, and Carr tends to lay on the melodrama, which I don’t mind at all, and the stories are spooky and gripping. “The Lost Gallows” was particularly dark, drawing on events back to the First World War, and the settings (particularly the Club, but also London itself) oozed dark atmosphere. The denouement was very dramatic – Carr really knows how to ramp up the tension – and Bencolin of course was triumphantly right in his solution of the crime.

An early, and somewhat grimmer, edition of the book…

Of course, this *is* a vintage murder mystery; and I do have slight reservations about the portrayal of El Moulk. He was less cliched than you might expect from a book of this age, but I did wonder whether having a non-English person in this negative role was necessary. Another subsidiary character is portrayed using terminology we wouldn’t nowadays, but neither of these characterisations were too strong so I was ok with the book. And frankly, Carr is hard on a lot of his characters, whatever their origin – he does like to lay it on with a trowel at times! 😀

As well as the main story, there is also a rare Bencolin short story included called “The Ends of Justice”. This dates from an earlier period to “Gallows” and is an interesting, if stark and dramatic, adjunct to the main book. As Martin Edwards reminds us in his useful introduction, Carr was an author still learning his craft; and he does tone things down slightly in later works! Nevertheless, I found this book to be an absolutely gripping read; I was completely bamboozled and had no idea of whodunnit or how! I’m really enjoying encountering Carr’s Bencolin mysteries and I have my fingers crossed that the British Library will release the other titles!

High jinks with a legendary royal personage! #queenvictoria

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If there’s one thing to be said about Mr. Kaggsy, it’s that he does know how to hunt me out obscure and entertaining books! 😀 I featured this particular volume in my birthday/Christmas round-up, and it’s a title and an author who are both new to me – “The Day they Kidnapped Queen Victoria” by H.K. Fleming.

The author himself seems completely obscure; the blurb in the book says he was born in the UK in 1901, emigrated to the USA and had experience in the American Government and newspaper world. However, a quick look online reveals absolutely nothing more, and the only evidence of any works by the man is the appearance of second-hand copies of this one plus one other title! This seems to suggest a less than illustrious writing career!! Nevertheless – onward and upward with the book itself.

First published in 1969, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria” travels back in time to the reign of the monarch in question; the widowed Victoria has been staying at her beloved Balmoral and is preparing to travel to Ayrshire to unveil yet another statue of her late husband, Prince Albert. Her errant son, Prince Edward (known to all and sundry as Bertie) is being dragged along rather unwillingly to take part; it’s quite clear that Victoria is less than happy about his wayward behaviour and dodgy contacts. However, as her train steams away, it’s discovered that the telegraph wires have been cut and that a plot is afoot. Enter a group of Fenian revolutionaries… They’ve soon hijacked and taken control of the train, with Victoria inside it; and things get worse when a truckload of explosive is installed alongside the queen’s carriage. Will the combined powers of Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Brown, Benjamin Disraeli, the eccentric cleric Charles Anderson and the might of the British forces be a match for the wily and fanatical revolutionaries? And where does a rather colourful character called ‘Skittles’ Walters fit in?

The concept of the book is intriguing, and it must be one of the earliest examples of the use of real historical characters in fiction; something which is quite common nowadays. And Fleming manages to create a very authentic atmosphere, with lots of humour and excitement; Victoria is portrayed as quite a tough character with hidden resources; and Skittles is great fun. The plot rattles along nicely with several moments of tension (although I suppose the modern reader is a little hampered by the knowledge that Victoria didn’t die in an exploding train, so some suspension of disbelief is necessary). The denouement is satisfying, if perhaps a little sudden and underplayed, but cleverly done by the various forces involved! Fleming writes well and the book was an enjoyable piece of escapism.

MediaJet (A Photograph of a Photographic Portrait,captured by me sometime in 2009), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

However, I have to be honest and say I have a couple of reservations. First off, I know little about the Fenian movement, so can’t comment on how the revolutionaries are portrayed here. But bearing in mind how badly Ireland has been treated over the decades by England I might well find myself sympathising with the Fenians rather than the Victorians… (although I should say that I’m not a fan of violence.)

My other reservation is from a reader’s point of view. The book ends in quite a satisfactory manner; however, the author felt it necessary to put in a final paragraph which is totally unecessary and might well be considered to spoil the story completely! There are few reviews of this book online, but those I’ve seen have felt exactly the same – so I whilst I can recommend this as a fun and escapist read, I would say you might not want to read that last part! Kudos, however, to Mr. Kaggsy for finding me such an obscure and interesting book; but I do wish Fleming had had an editor to advise him about the ending!!!

Penguin Moderns 35 and 36 – Marlon and melancholia…

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After the excitement of considering revamping the Penguin Projects, it seems only fitting that I should continue to move on through the various collections I have; and after the disappointment of my first foray into Japanese Literature Month, I thought I would return to the Penguin Moderns to try to ensure a good read – which these two certainly delivered!

Penguin Modern 34 – The Duke in his Domain by Truman Capote

Capote is an author with whom I’m fairly familiar (and who probably needs no introduction); I read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” back in the day, and loved and admired both. In particular, I find his journalism compelling, so I was particularly keen on reading this short work: a profile of the young Marlon Brando, marooned in a Kyoto hotel whilst filming “Sayonara”. First published in 1957 in the New Yorker, the piece makes absorbing reading.

As Capote reveals, he had first run into Brando in the actor’s early years appearing on stage in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Then, Brando had been at the start of his career; here, he’s at the top of his game, a box office certainty, and in many ways an enigma. Whether attempting to write his own screenplays, studying the various philosophy books strewn around his room or juggling his entourage, Brando remains basically unknowable, completely enigmatic. Capote observes and records, as the perfect journalist would do, and really captures the time and place and the mystique.

What struck me, too, as I read this Modern, was the strong impression I got from it of Japan; a stronger impression, I have to say, than I got from “The Housekeeper and The Professor”…. Which I suppose tells you much about the quality of Capote’s writing. An excellent entry in the Penguin Moderns collection and a nudge to me to read more of Capote’s non-fiction!

Penguin Modern 36 – Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow

The next Modern is an author I know of but have never read – Saul Bellow. A Canadian-American author who won all manner of literary prizes (including the Nobel), I guess maybe “Herzog” is his best known work. First published in Esquire in 1958, and in book form a decade later, “Leaving the Yellow House” is an evocative and beautifully written story of a woman and a house and the West.

The main character is an older woman called Hattie, who lives on her own in the Yellow House near a desert town by Sego Desert Lake. Hattie is a hard-drinking character with a past; and a car accident and injury forces her to attempt to face up not only to what’s happened in her life so far, but also whether she has any future. Her only friends are a few local neighbours, some of whom will help and some who will take advantage; and as the story progresses we explore Hattie’s past with the various men in her life, her complex relationship with her friend India, and her drinking. That latter element has become the most important part of her life (in fact, certain flashbacks hint it might always have been), and I ended the story wondering what would eventually become of Hattie.

“Leaving the Yellow House” is a title with a double meaning as you’ll see if you read this story; and I do recommend it highly. It’s beautifully written, very evocative and captures the area in which Hattie lives vividly. Bellow obviously deserved all the awards he received, and this was a brilliant introduction to his writing.

*****

So once again, a pair of great Penguin Moderns featuring two titans of American writing.  Re-encountering Capote was a real joy, and discovering Bellow a revelation. And that’s basically what I’m hoping to get out of these little books – renewal of acquaintances or an introduction to new writing. Perfect!  ;D

#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

….in which I experience a rare reading failure…. #JapaneseLitChallenge14

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The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Well, it’s rare that I experience a reading failure, as I always try to choose books I think will give me *something* or that I’ll engage with. However, my first read of 2021, a book I chose for the Japanese Literature Challenge, turned out to be not one for me. The book in question is “The Housekeeper and The Professor” by Yoko Ogawa, and it comes highly rated; I’ve seen any number of glowing reviews, and bloggers I follow love it. I don’t, and I’ll try to explain why.

Plotwise, the book is initially intriguing; a young woman is employed as a housekeeper for an ageing professor of mathematics; the latter has memory issues following an accident decades ago, and can only retain memories from the last 80 minutes after which things are wiped clean and his memory starts again. Anything from before the accident is fine, so he still has his mathematical skills, but day to day living is problematic. The Housekeeper is employed by his sister-in-law, referred to throughout as The Widow, and the other character in the story is the housekeeper’s son. He’s nicknamed Root because his flat head reminds The Professor of the square root sign; and the book follows the bonds that develop between the three main characters, while The Housekeeper copes with having to reintroduce herself to her employer every morning…

So far, so good – the premise of the book *is* appealing. However, I had a number of issues which in brief are:

1. I failed to engage with any of the characters; the writing felt flat, the main protagonists underdeveloped and I felt detached from the whole reading experience.
2. The plot was again underdeveloped; there was far too much unsaid and unexplored, and several hints were so low-key you could miss them. Without giving too much away, there was a situation with The Widow and The Professor which could, and should, have been expanded – I think my feelings boil down to the fact that this book was very undercooked and could have been much more than it actually was.
3. I understand why the author gave the characters titles, not names, as I imagine they were meant to represent that part of Japanese society – an esteemed Professor, a lowly Housekeeper – but that didn’t help with the distancing effect.
4. In many ways, I often felt that the setting of Japan was irrelevant to the book and it could have been anywhere – I never got a strong feeling of being in Japan.
5. Baseball and Maths…. Much of the plot (and the book) hangs on the twin prongs of baseball and maths. The Professor sees the world in terms of numbers and attempts to transmit this to The Housekeeper and Root. And strangely, for an uneducated person who’s had to bring herself up, she grasps compex formulae and sees the beauty of numbers. The book is riddled with formulae which lost me – I’m not mathematical and tbh this left me cold – and I found this element too prominent. As for baseball, the Professor and Root are obsessed by it (fair enough); but it becomes again the most important thing for the little pseudo-family, and dominates the book to the point that I completely switched off.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. You might wonder why I actually finished the book, but I found it so slight that I read it in a day; I kept hoping it would develop into something stronger, but it didn’t. The end frankly peters out and I was left wondering what had been the point? If Ogawa was trying to show that the most unlikely combination of people can form a kind of family group, she could have done so without being so heavy on the maths and baseball, and in fact what happens in the book could be told in novella length. There was so sketchy a backstory for the characters that I could find nothing to latch onto; they seemed like stereotyped cardboard cut outs to me. And much more should have been made of The Widow. There *were* some nice touches to the story; the fact that The Professor had little scraps of paper attached to his clothing to remind him of important things; the occasional hint to events in the past which had led up to the current situation; but these were not enough to compensate for the rest of it.

Enough. This was not a book for me, and I’m just glad that I didn’t spend longer with it. I accept that it may just be me; my expectations may have been too high and I could have been anticipating a completely different book; and I know many love it. But I found it slight, underdeveloped and completely underwhelming. I don’t often write negative reviews, but this was an unfortunate start to my Japanese Literature Month reading, and I wanted to at least share my thoughts. If you’ve read the book and felt differently, do tell me why! As for my copy, I shall pass it on to my old friend J. who is a bit of a Japanophile – maybe it will work better for her! 😀

“…I’m attracted to the lake, like a seagull…” #Chekhov @AntonSKorenev

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The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Translated and adapted by Anton Korenev

It’s been a little while since we had any Russians here on the Ramblings, so what better way to greet a grey January than with some time spent with that country’s greatest playwright – Anton Chekhov! (I don’t think anyone would argue with that sweeping statement, although Russia has some amazing authors who’ve written plays). Here I must make a confession – despite having read and loved many, many of Chekhov’s short stories, I can’t be sure if I’ve ever read any of his plays… (*gasps of horror from the audience*) So when I was offered the chance to read a new translation of “The Seagull” I did of course jump at it… ;D

The new version is translated/adapted by Anton Korenev, a Russian director and actor who is also an attorney in New York. His original intention was to present the play in theatres; the pandemic, of course, has rather got in the way of that plan… However, his version is published this year and he was kind enough to offer an ARC of the book – which I was very keen to read!

Chekhov described his play as a comedy with “…Many conversations about literature, little action, and five poods [181 pounds] of love.” As the publicity material goes on to reveal, “Medvedenko loves Masha, Masha loves Treplev, Treplev loves Nina, and Nina loves Trigorin, all while Shamrayev loves Polina Andreyevna, Polina Andreyevna loves Dorn, Dorn loves Arkadina, and Arkadina loves Trigorin.” Phew! That is indeed a lot of unrequited love!

Life should be portrayed not as it is, and not as it should be, but as it is being imagined in dreams.

The play takes place on the country estate of Pyotr Sorin. His sister, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, is in residence along with her young lover, the writer Boris Trigorin. Irina’s son, Treplev, has written a new modern play which is being staged in the grounds, Nina, a young woman from a neighbouring estate, is taking the leading role. The performance does not go well, leading to all sorts of fallings out, and the love triangles continue to become more complicated, getting even more tangled when two characters actually find themselves in love with each other! But jealousy, fickle feelings and reality will get in the way of any real happiness and the death of a titular seagull will foreshadow later tragedy.

Once there’s love in the heart, it should be thrown out.

I have to say first of all that I was surprised to find “The Seagull” described as a comedy, because although there *is* humour in it, there’s a lot of darker stuff. Obviously there’s a staggering amount of high emotion in the play, with everyone yearning after someone who has no interest in them. This can be, and often is, humorous, but it leads to some real heartbreak and unhappy relationships. Then there’s the issue of whether it’s better to have commercial or artistic success; Irina is a famous actress, ageing but still convinced of her talent; whereas Nina is younger and determined to make her name in new, modern works. Which kind of success is best? And of course this leads onto another topic, the huge difference between the characters’ perceptions of their lives and work, and the reality of this. Nina is young and idealistic; Irina older and theoretically more experienced; both, however, fool themselves over the truth of their life. The writers are no better off, experiencing disillusionment throughout the play, and it’s not a spoiler to say that there is tragedy of many kinds at the end. Trigorin, in particular, struggles with his need to write; everything he encounters instantly enters into his world of fiction and the compulsion to convert each new experience this way stops him actually living.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

“The Seagull” in written form is a relatively quick read, yet leaves so much to think about (as I would expect from Chekhov). There’s an overarching sense of melancholy, despite the humour, and I felt a huge empathy for all the characters and their dilemmas. This being a Russian drama, there was never going to be a happy ending but the sacrifices made by many of the characters were immense. As for the seagull? Let’s just say it’s very symbolic…

I’m not sure, really, why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading a Chekhov play, because I love his fiction! And as this is the first play for me, it’s perhaps difficult for me to comment directly on the translation as I don’t speak Russian. However, the play read beautifully, there was nothing which felt anachronistic and the whole thing had a very ‘Chekhovian’ feel to me – so I take that to mean that it’s a good rendition! 😀 I have to thank Anton for kindly offering me an ARC of “The Seagull”, because it’s finally pushed me to read one of the great Russian author’s plays – and a wonderful experience it was! Highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher; you can read more about it here)

Shuffling the stacks – and revamping the reading projects!

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Post-Christmas, with all the new bookish arrivals, I got into that slightly overwhelmed frame of mind, with all the books all over the place and clamouring for attention. As I shared on social media, I decided to have a bit of a reshuffle – this always tends to clarify the mind as well as reminding me what books I actually own! But there was an added impetus to this, as a Twitter conversation with Retroculturati had reminded me that I had two boxes of Penguin collections somewhere in the house… A bit of digging about revealed them and this is what I found:

Penguin Great Loves box set

Penguin English Journeys box set

The observant amongst you will be aware of my Penguin Reading Projects: I’m gradually making my way through the Penguin Moderns box as well as the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Great Ideas. These are not projects that will be completed any time soon… However, the temptation to add the English Journeys and Great Loves to my Penguins was immense and after a lot of shuffling I ended up with this:

Please excuse my rubbish photography skills – the unit is not lopsided, I’ve just made it look so….

I was pleased to discover that all the various Penguins for the projects fit nicely on this little bookcase and this will help me keep my mind clearer about them. To look more closely at each shelf:

The top shelf has my Penguin Modern box set, alongside the Little Black Classics. I’ve read a lot of the latter, but I by no means own them all. So that’s going to be a long-term project!

Next up the middle shelf. This houses the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Great Ideas. Once again, I am far from owning all of these! Another project is actually going to be getting hold of all of the missing books!

Finally, on the bottom shelf, we have the Penguin English Journeys and the Penguin Great Loves. Both fit nicely on the shelf, with a bit of space, which is very convenient…. Because the conversation I had with Retroculturati started when they shared an image of some Penguin Great Journeys books, and I wasn’t sure if I’d come across that set. A quick online search revealed that they might be another series I would be interesting in reading. And as I had a Christmas gift card lurking – well, this happened:

Ahem. I’ve only got four of the titles so far (with one more on the way) but I think this will be an equally lovely set of books to make my way through. This one and the English Journeys are particularly appealing during these times when we’re not allowed to travel!!

So now the bottom shelf of the case looks like this:

And pleasingly, there’s plenty of space to fit in more Great Journeys. Having done all this, I suppose at some point I’ll have to update my Penguin Projects pages to reflect the new sets. Gulp – I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew! 😀

“The water is always murky…” @nyrbclassics #Gide #Marshlands

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Marshlands by Andre Gide
Translated by Damion Searls

The first proper book review on the blog for 2021 is actually for a volume I finished at the tail end of 2020. After fighting my way out of the “Underland” book hangover, I actually sped through a few books quite quickly – one of which was “Marshlands” by Andre Gide.

Gide is a writer already present on my shelves; in fact I have mainly old Penguins of his works, most of which date back to being purchased in the 1980s! Despite having owned these for ages, I can’t actually be sure if I’ve read any; so there’s a certain typical irony that I should actually end up reading a shiny new book by the author instead of those on my shelves. However, having loved this one, it may be the spur I need to go to read more Gide in 2021!

Andre Gide (1869-1951) was a prolific author, producing novels, short stories, poetry, plays, travel writing and autobiography during his long career. A winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947, he’s considered by many the greatest French author of the 20th century (which is no mean claim when you consider what talent the country produced during that 100 year period). His writings seem to range far and wide, and his politics are fascinating – for example, he was brave enough to speak out about where Russian Communism had gone wrong after visits to that country in the 1930s. However, “Marshlands” is a book from the early part of his career; first published in 1895 under the French title “Paludes”, it’s now being reissued by NYRB in a sparkly new translation by Damion Searls.

“Marshlands” is a book about a man writing a book called ‘Marshlands’… which kind of gives you the idea right from the start that is is a satirical work! The sub-version of ‘Marshlands’ is about a reclusive man who lives all alone in a stone tower, studying the marshes. However, our narrator/author is anything but reclusive; instead he spends all his time as a social butterfly. Whether visiting friends, receiving friends, making himself available at the lovely Angela’s salon, or taking an abortive trip out of Paris with her, he seems to spend a *lot* of time mixing, and very little writing! When asked by friends what he’s doing, he of course attempts to explain that he’s writing ‘Marshlands’, but the plot is vague, and his fellow socialites seem unable to grasp the point. Whether our author does either is debatable…

Silence, man of letters! First of all, I only care about the insane, and you are frightfully reasonable.

If “Marshlands” is a reliable portrait of the Paris literary period of the time, it’s frankly a miracle that *anything* got written! The constant flitting from occasion to occasion, whilst declaiming one’s artistic trials and tribulations, is very funny indeed. Gide gives his narrator an almost deadpan tone, the fictional author quite convinced of his genius and importance; attributed which are on display by most of the characters, in fact; and the narrator seems incapable of recognising his friends’ dismissive attitude towards him and his work!

I said nothing as usual. When a philosopher answers you, he makes it impossible for you to understand in the slightest what you had asked him.

The satirical element alone would be enough to make this a wonderful read; however, the meta elements appealed too, with Gide very cleverly building in the different levels of a book about an author writing a book, and even including extracts from the ‘Marshlands’ written by the narrator – which certainly served to convince me that he was nowhere near as good an author as Gide himself!

It’s nerves, I think; they come over me every time I make a list.

“Marshlands” turned out to be a wonderfully playful and entertaining portrait of a man who thinks he’s busy and involved, but in fact really seems to be fighting off ennui. There are so many clever elements to it; for example, the fact that the narrator keeps a planner to try to organise his life, but if he fails to live up to something he intended, e.g. getting up at 8 a.m, he just alters the planner to make it fit what actually happened! As he says at one point:

I arrange facts to make them conform to the truth more closely than they do in real life.

Which I suppose is a statement you could apply to most fiction writers…

Unknown author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anyways, as they say; if I haven’t read any Gide before this, that’s my loss, because it really was a clever, funny and intriguing read. The book comes with an interesting foreword by Dubravka Ugresic (and I had to applaud her when she stated “There is no one single favourite book for a bona fide lover of literature”.) It’s translated brilliantly by Damion Searls; I say ‘brilliantly’ because I think, from his comments in his ‘Translator’s Note’, that he’s done a good job of compromising at a sensible point between sticking to old-fashioned language which might have been more of Gide’s era and bringing in too many modernisms. The book was a great end to 20201, a brilliant and very funny read; and hopefully 2021 really *will* be the year I read more Gide! 😀

*****

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. I should say, too, that this edition comes with some excellent extra material, in the form of two excised scenes, a later afterword by Gide and several other items – so it’s definitely the version to seek out!

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