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“some indelible trace of their story” #georgesperec #ellisisland

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I don’t know about you, but for me there are certain authors that I wil read absolutely anything by – and Georges Perec, a relatively recent reading discovery is one of those. I have stacks of his works on my shelves and have read just about everything which has been translated into English. So needless to say, I was inordinately excited when I discovered that a new work would be available! That book is “Ellis Island”, a slim volume from New Directions, and I sent off for it as soon as I found out it was available.

“Ellis Island” has a fascinating genesis: the text has its roots in a screenplay Perec wrote for a documentary film on the place made by Robert Bober. This was the first documentary made by Bober, a French-Jewish director and author; and Perec provided not only the commentary of the first part of the film, he also conducted the interviews in the second part. The current volume contains a translation of “Ellis Island” by Perec’s friend and fellow Oulipan, Harry Mathews, as well as number of photographs of the island itself and people passing through it. It may well be that these are also featured in the film, but I haven’t seen it and there are no credits in the book…

I doubt that anyone visits Ellis Island by chance these days.
People who passed through it have a little desire to return –
their children or grandchildren do it for them, looking
for traces of the past. What had been for the others a place
of trials and uncertainties has become for them a place
of recollection, a pivot of the connections that identify
them with their history.

And the text does make absolutely wonderful reading; in words which straddle poetry and prose, Perec explores the history and the symbolism of Ellis Island, its importance to those attempting to escape from dangerous situations and repressive countries into the ‘land of the free’; and also the reality behind those symbols. Because of course, it was never that easy to make your way into the USA, with many refugees being turned away and sent back to the country in which they had faced great peril. The streets of American were not paved with gold, and intolerance and prejudice existed there as much as anywhere else in the world.

How can you grasp what is shown, what wasn’t photographed
or catalogue or restored or staged?

How do you get back what was plain, trivial, routine,
what was ordinary and kept happening day after day?

Perec is a man who seemed to be fond of producing books which are lists (“An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” springs to mind); and there are elements of that in “Ellis…”. That way of writing works really well, with Perec producing hypnotic sequences which capture the sheer variety of people attempting to flood into the USA, and also the fact that persecution was taking place everywhere in the world. Images he creates linger, particularly from his visits to Ellis Island whilst filming, when the place had decayed and was then reimagined as a museum. He also explores his response to the location through the prism of his identity as a Jewish person, and how Bober’s Jewishness differed from his. Certainly, the thought of that persecuted people fleeing to American to escape the horrors of 20th century Europe is profoundly moving…

they had given up their past and their history,
they had given up everything for the sake of coming here
to try and live a life they were forbidden to live
in their native land:
and now they were face to face with an inexorable finality

“Ellis Island” comes with a fascinating afterword by Monica De La Torre which discusses the whole topic of immigration in light of more modern developements in the USA, particularly under the recent regime which chose to consider walling itself off from its neighbours. This also serves as a useful reminder of how the world has changed since Perec visited back in 1978…

what I find present here
are in no way landmarks or roots or
relics ut the opposite: something shapeless, on the outer edge of
what is sayable…

As I said at the start of this post, i would read absolutely anything Perec wrote; but putting that fact aside, I found “Ellis Island” a surprisingly lyrical and very beautiful piece of work, which as well as capturing the symbolic nature of the place also explored deeply the themes of wandering and homeland and how it feels to be running from danger and looking for a safe place. As the book reminds us (though not from Perec’s own mouth), his father was killed in the War fighting against Germany and his mother perished in Auschwicz. I always feel these facts lie under or beneath everything Perec wrote and ran through his life. If I had any criticism of the book to make, it would not be of Perec’s words; however, I did feel it could have benefited from some notation, photos credits and a little more context. I went into this fairly blind, and although that allowed me to encounter the prose with no preconceptions, some notes at the end might have helped when I’d finished.

Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Café de la Mairie – 18 October 1974 – photo c. Pierre Getzler

However, putting that aside, needless to say I loved this. Like so many of Perec’s works it deals in memory, how our past informs our present, how accurate what we recall is and how we can never really leave the past behind. In some ways, reading this had me making connections with Maria Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory” – truly, our recollections can be tricky things.

Anyway. I aim to read everything by Perec which makes it into English so I’m always happy when something new appears. “Ellis Island” was a real treat for me, and let’s home more of Georges Perec’s work becomes available in a form suitable for we Anglophone readers! 😀

“Our being for the moment is centred…” #virginiawoolf @RenardPress

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Well, I said yesterday on this very blog that I would spend some time dipping into the words of the wonderful Virginia Woolf – and indeed I did. As I shared on social media, I felt that the lovely little pamphlet of her essay “How Should One Read a Book?”, which arrived recently as part of my Renard Press subscription, would be the ideal choice. And it was – proof, if it ever was needed, that Woolf was a stunning essayist.

Woolf’s essay dates from 1925, and as a note at the front explains, was based on a paper read at a school. It was originally published in “The Common Reader: Second Series” and Renard issued it as a World Book Day Special, which I think is a brilliant idea. What’s equally brilliant, of course, is Woolf’s writing; whenever I return to it, I find it takes my breath away and I can’t believe how her prose soars.

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

In the essay, Woolf explores how best to be a reader, advocating following your own path and loving whatever you happen to love, despite the pressure to only read works of which others approve. It’s a credo with which I can wholeheartedly agree – and the essay ends with a much-quoted paragraph that gets my emotions every time (and no, I’m not going to quote it here – you really do need to read this essay yourself if you’re a booklover!

I shan’t go on any more about how brilliant the essay is, because it’s Woolf which in my mind equal genius. Instead, I shall share a couple more sentences and urge you to track down a copy of this (and indeed anything by her). Virginia Woolf left an incredible legacy, and we readers are all the more fortunate because of it.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.

…merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.

(on reading biographies)

Four score years… #virginiawoolf

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How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

As I mentioned in my recent review of Alexandra Harris’s excellent little book on Virginia Woolf, I was quite shocked to realise that it’s 80 years today since she took her own life by walking into the River Ouse, fearing another bout of what she called ‘madness’. Woolf has been part of my reading life for half that time, and she’s one of the most important writers to me. I’ve read all of her novels, many of her essays, her diaries and her letters, as well as umpteen books about her and the milieu in which she moved. I can’t imagine my life without her work.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And I get very emotional about her; when I visited a major exhibition based around her life at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2014 (along with Middle Child and my old friend J.), her final letter to Leonard was almost too much. So today I will remember her for her genius, her wit and her truly unique writing; and I will spend a little time dipping into her words, which certainly changed the way I thought of literature.

“Miriam, bless her, looked extremely odd.” #nancyspain @ViragoBooks #deathgoesonskis

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Back in 2014, I made the acquaintance of Nancy Spain who at the time seemed to be something of a forgotten author. Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, when she was a regular figure appearing on TV and radio, her writings seemed to have fallen out of fashion. However, I picked up some second hand copies of her books after hearing about her from Simon at Stuck in a Book; and I had great fun with her mystery novel “Poison for Teacher“. As well as this, I have “Not Wanted on Voyage” in an old green Penguin Crime edition, and Ali has read and enjoyed that too.

However, at the end of 2020 it appeared that Spain was going to be making a bit of a comeback, as Virago have started to publish some of her books in shiny new editions; and I was fortunate enough to be treated to one of these from my lovely Virago Secret Santa (thank you!) The title is “Death Goes on Skis”, and it was the fourth of her novels, first published in 1949.

Fairly obviously from the title, the book is set not in Britain, but overseas, where Natasha Nevkorina, the Russian ballerina, and her husband Johnny DuVivien, have travelled for some skiing. In fact, a whole coterie of fascinating characters have journeyed to the wonderfully-named country of Schizo-Frenia to enjoy life on and off piste. These are centred round the handsome playboy, Barny Flaherte, who’s accompanied by his wife Regan, their two obnoxious children, the governess Rosalie and Barny’s cousins. Also in attendance is the famous actress Fanny Mayes, who is also Barny’s mistress, and is travelling with her dull husband Ted Sloper. Making up the party is Natasha’s fellow amateur sleuth, the famous review artist Miriam Birdseye, who has a pair of colourful young men called Roger and Morris in tow. Needless to say, there is high emotion at play here, with jealousies springing out all over the place, Barny playing the women off against each other, and lots of high dudgeon. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, when one of the party is found dead after falling out of a first floor bedroom window – but did they fall or were they pushed?

“Death” is, like “Poison”, a screamingly funny piece of writing; Spain’s humour is broad brush and laid on heavily, bordering on farce at times, and it’s great fun. Her writing is full of all sorts of wordplay and punning, and the story basically progresses in a series of funny scenes. If I’m truly honest, at a lot of times in the book, the actual murder plot seems secondary to Spain’s humour (which is always enjoyable, if not always politically correct). However, the story does build to a surpringly dark climax which I’m not sure I entirely expected, although looking back there were several things which signposted it.

Their eyes shone with health and the first stages of alcohol poisoning.

One of the strengths of the book is the supporting characters, and they’re quite brilliantly drawn, and very, very funny. Natasha and Johnny have the latter’s daughter Pamela with them, and she’s a straight-talking and entertaining teenager. Barny’s cousins are a wonderfully contrasting pair, too – Kathleen is weak, over-emotional and in love with her cousins, whereas Toddy is usually drunk, wears a succession of what would be called ‘mannish’ outfits and is constantly in search of money. Roger and Morris are a humorous double-act as well, camply following Miriam about and acting as a bit of a Greek chorus.

When Toddy Flaherte wandered downstairs at about four o’clock that afternoon she was wearing a smart Tyrolean youth’s jacket of black leather, fiercely trimmed with silver buttons. Kathleen had given her fifty French francs for a drink, and until she could see Barny that evening she was quite broke. However, she was quite defiant, too. At each bend on the staircase she did a little dance with her feet, like a clog dance, scraping on the coco-nut matting that is common to every hotel in Schizo-Frenia. It protects the polished floors from the ski-ing boots of the English visitors.

Intriguingly, “Death” was published just before “Poison”, which came out the same year; and in the latter, Natasha and Miriam seem much closer than in this book. In fact, Miriam doesn’t have that huge a role in it, with Natasha and Johnny taking on much of the action. I suspect it might be worth trying to read the books in order if that’s at all possible, as certainly the state of the DuVivien marriage at the end of this book and the start of “Poison” seems to be in an ongoing state of flux!

Nancy Spain as pictured on the back of my copy of “Poison for Teacher”

However, as I said about “Poison” and is again the case with this one, it’s the humour which is a delight; slapstick in places, laid on with a trowel and very, very funny. I did think that the book could possibly have done with a little judicious editing, as there were times when I wanted the plot to move on a tad more quickly. I remember “Poison” as being reasonably fast paced, and “Death” occasionally got lost in its humorous set pieces. But that’s a minor quibble really, and my second read of Nancy Spain confirmed that she was a very funny woman and it’s such a shame she died so young.

I believe Virago plan to reissue more of Nancy Spain’s novels, which is wonderful news because she really has been unjustly neglected. This new edition has an introduction by Sandi Toksvig, for whom Spain was an inspiration, living her life as a lesbian on her terms when it was still not acceptable to do so. I’m very happy to see Spain becoming more well-known and if you want a wonderful mash-up of humour and detecting, you can’t really go wrong with her books! 😀

“… a fortress against the triviality of the outside world…” #booksaboutbooks

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I seem to have spent quite a lot of time in March with Golden Age crime, spying and the like; so I thought for contrast I would turn to a couple of comfort reads Mr. Kaggsy gave me for Christmas! The books in question are both about books and reading, although they’re surprisingly different – one takes a fairly wide view about the history of our relationship with reading and why it’s so important to humans, and the other is more of a personal memoir of how books have helped her get through her life. They are “The Bookseller’s Tale” by Martin Latham, and “Dear Reader” by Cathy Rentzenbrink – and both were fascinating!

First up, “The Bookseller’s Tale”. Latham has been a bookseller for 35 years, currently I believe in charge of Waterstones in Canterbury; and before that he taught and he’s also the author of other books. He draws on his experience to explore the relationships we strange human creatures have with books. From comfort reading and what books bring us in times of adversity, through the history of Medieval Marginalia, to whether you write on your books or not, the perils of being a book reader in the Ancien Regime of France, collecting, libraries, travelling book peddlers – well, you name it, and Latham seems to cover it! The breadth of his knowledge about books and their history is impressive, but as well as covering all manner of obscure angles, he also brings the personal touch to “Bookseller…” During his time working in bookshops he’s encountered all manner of people from strange types lurking in the erotica section to highly-strung authors and he has some fascinating stories to tell!

Girls and women have faced specific challenges to reading: imposed concepts of womanhood, censorship, husbands, clergy, housework and more. Men have been terrified – not too strong a word – of their being sexually gratified by books, or politically or spiritually spiritually liberated by books. Probably the biggest threat though was if they got themselves educated by reading. The reasoning is clear: more reading = less housework, and less devotion to the husband as a source of wisdom and gratification.

“Bookseller…” is absolutely stuffed to the gills with history and information, and really does make fascinating reading. There are occasions when there will just be a number of paragraphs one after the other with snippets of facts, and it risks slipping slightly into what Mr. Kaggsy would call a ‘list book’. But this is a minor criticism; there was so much to enjoy about the book, and as well as doing nothing to help my obsessive need for books, it’s added terribly to the wishlist….

In contrast, “Dear Reader” by Cathy Rentzenbrink, which is subtitled “The Comfort and Joy of Books’, takes a far more personal look at things. Rentzenbrink also has had a career in bookselling, and this informs the book; however, she’s also the author of The Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartache, works which both deal with the devastating loss of her brother at a young age, and her ways of dealing with the grief. That loss also informs “Dear Reader”, and in it the author explores the support she gained over the years from reading.

When the bite of real life is too brutal, I retreat into made-up worlds and tread well-worn paths. I don’t crave the new when I feel like this, but look for solace in the familiar.

That support is something which which I can really identify, as books have always been my coping mechanism; so I really empathised with Rentzenbrink as she related the events of her life, how books helped her, and which particular works of specific types she recommended. The book was a quick read, but very moving in places and I felt for her when she reached for old favourites as an antidote for a particularly bad point in her life. What worked less well for me, if I’m honest, were the sections with the lists of titles – these were quite short, and I had heard of and read the majority of the books, but perhaps these were aimed at a less experienced reader than me! However, the book really captured the different decades Rentzenbrink lived through, the changing fashions and mores and ways of behaving – and of course the trends in books and bookselling, which was another fascinating element.

… the act of reading itself… became a life raft, allowing me to stay afloat and keep my head above the water. Often people can be a bit snooty at the idea of books as a form of escapism, but I believe this is one of the great powers of literature: to comfort, to console, to allow a tiny oasis of – not exactly pleasure, but perhaps we could think of it as respite, when we feel we might otherwise drown in in a sea of pain.

So these two books were the perfect distraction from modern nasty real life, and perhaps a good reminder of how books can be a real lifeline when you need them most. Our relationship with books has always been a very intense one, and I still find it hard to articulate quite why the written word is so important to me. But they are – as someone I don’t care to name any more once said, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more.” I often feel like this, and I’m happy to add these two lovely volumes to my shelf of books-about-books – you do all have one of those, don’t you???? ;D

“…the pink lights of the boulevards…” #johndicksoncarr @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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Well, I’m afraid I’m continuing with the comfort reading here on the Ramblings… I’ve managed to tear myself away from the joys of George Smiley for a while, and instead launched myself merrily into another British Library Crime Classic. Well, you can’t go wrong with them, can you? They’ve been publishing the John Dickson Carr “Bencolin” titles at a rate of knots, and this is the fourth one so far out of the five novels (you can read about the others here, here and here). “The Corpse in the Waxworks” is subtitled “A Paris Mystery” and was first published in 1932; it’s also been published as “The Waxworks Murder”, and this volume also includes the final Bencolin short short, “The Murder in Number Four” from 1928.

And once again we’re back in slightly macabre, melodramatic locked-room mystery territory! The action is centred around the Musee Augustin Waxworks in Paris, and as the story opens Mlle Duchene, a young society woman, has been found dead in the Seine. She was last seen the night before, heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the waxworks; and shortly afterwards another young woman, a friend of Odette Duchene, is found brutally murdered in the waxworks itself. Odette’s fiance is distraught; her friend Claudine Martel’s parents likewise; and Bencolin begins to investigate. He’s joined by his usual sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, who is also our narrator; and soon the men begin to suspect there is much more to this affair than simple nasty murder.

As in previous books, Bencolin is pitted against an old adversary; in this case, one Etienne Galant, a grotesque and arrogant man who owes part of his unpleasant appearance to a previous run-in with Bencolin. Galant declares he has no connection with any murders, and indeed has a perfect alibi for the time concerned (part of which includes being seen by Bencolin and Marle in a club!) However, behind the seemingly civilised surface of Paris there is the presence of Club of Coloured Masks where the demi-monde spend much of their time, and innocents can easily be lured to depravity. Does Galant have any connection with the club (which, conveniently, is right next to the waxworks)? How did the girls die, and why? Does their other female friend, Gina Prevost, have anything to do with the mystery? And is Mlle Augustin, daughter of the waxworks’ owner, as innocent as she seems? It will take all of Bencolin’s intelligence and Marle’s reckless courage to find out the solution!

British Library Crime Classics are the perfect escapist reading right now, and the Bencolin mysteries are particularly satisfying. As I’ve mentioned before, Carr’s prose and storytelling is wonderfully over-the-top, and he always manages to mix in so many spooky elements that I sometimes get a bit twitchy reading his books at night! There are plenty of creepy bits in this one, and the gruesome waxworks, with their rumours of moving figures in the dark, add to that aspect of the story. There are plenty of impossible crime elements, with locked doors, no exits and obscure motives. There’s also often a sense of real peril; Carr is very good at creating threatening villains and dangerous situations where we really fear for our protagonists’ safety. Jeff Marle, in particular, often seems to be setting himself up for a fall, and has many a narrow escape by the skin of his teeth. As for the mystery and its solution, well that again was very satisfying. I was miles away from knowing who was the guilty party, although once I knew the answer it was of course completely clear and completely logical! 😀

It was very hot in here, though electric fans tore blotches and rifts in the smoke. A blue spotlight played over the tangled shadows of dancers in darkness; it made ghastly a rouged face which appeared, dipped, an then was swallowed by the heaving mass. Moving in rhythm with a long-drawn bray and thud, the orchestra pounded slowly through a tango – that music which rips the bowels from a concertina and then sinks to whisper of brass. Another brassy cry of horns, another rise, stamp, and fall, and the murmuring dancers swished in time, the shadows reeling on the blue-lit walls

One thing I particularly love about JDC’s Bencolin books are the strong sense of place you get. The last I read was set in London, and he captured the feel of that city brilliantly. Here, Paris comes alive most vividly, with its grand boulevards and seedy backstreets. In a way reading these books is a form of travel in time *and* place – which is something I’m much in need of at the moment. His descriptive passages are wonderful, and I’m rather sorry there’s only one more Bencolin title left to read – which I do hope the BL will bring out soon to complete the set!

Carr wrote four earlier short stories featuring Bencolin, and these have been included in the BL re-releases; so the Bencolin collector can hopefully amass the full collection! The story included here “The Murder in Number Four”, is set aboard a train travelling to Paris, and involves smugglers, murder and Sir John Landervorne, Bencolin’s old friend and colleague. This is a very ingenious locked-room mystery, with an unexpected solution – one which is perhaps slightly unfair, as I don’t think the reader could be expected to get it! Enjoyable, nevertheless!

So “Corpse…” was another satisfying and very distracting read. I don’t quite know how I would have managed during lockdown without the comfort reading and escapism of GA crime, and the BL books have been a real lifeline. The quality continues to stay high, and fingers crossed for the final Bencolin book arriving soon! 😀

“He knew mankind as a huntsman knows his cover…” #JohnLeCarré #GeorgeSmiley

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Ahem. I suppose it was inevitable, really, that as I loved my first experience of reading John le Carré, I wouldn’t want to leave it too long before reading his second novel, “A Murder of Quality“. I picked up both books at the same time, and frankly was so enthralled with the first one, I simply picked this one up and carried on reading about George Smiley as soon as I’d finished “Call from the Dead!”. This second work of le Carré’s is the one Jacqui recommended to me as a classic murder mystery as opposed to a spy story, and she’s right. Although the background of the characters is the world of espionage, there’s no spying here – just a delicious mystery to be solved. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

“A Murder of Quality” was published in 1962, and finds George Smiley slightly at a loose end after the events of the first book. However, he’s contacted by an old colleague from wartime action, Ailsa Brimley (known to George as Brim); now working at the ‘Christian Voice’ publication, she’s received a slightly disturbing letter from a member of the family whose patronage of the paper goes back a long time. The woman in question, Stella Rode, is the wife of an academic at Carne School, a place with a long and illustrious history; but she fits into the place no better than her husband does, as they are both of the wrong class and the English Public School system is built on that… Stella appears to be a women committed to Good Works, throwing herself into helping the community and attending non-conformist Chapel regularly. This latter in itself created problems, as Carne is strongly Christian in its outlook; but even so, why would she believe that her husband wanted to kill her?

However, before George can respond to Brim’s call for help, Stella Rode is found brutally murdered. Fortunately, Smiley knows one of the masters at Carne, Fielding, the brother of a wartime colleague of them both, and so he’s able to arrange a visit to the school to do a little quiet investigating. Suspicion initially falls upon a homeless woman known as Mad Janie; however the physical evidence doesn’t support this. Then a schoolboy is murdered in a hit and run accident, and George has two murders to try to solve. As he starts to dig deeper, trying to find out what Stella Rode was really like, he comes up with some intriguing facts which turn his view of the case on its head…

And once again I shall say no more about the plot! However, I can say that Jacqui was totally correct when she thought that I would love this book which really is a wonderfully written and plotted classic crime novel! It’s a joy to see Smiley bring his espionage skills into use as a detective, and he really makes an engaging sleuth – in fact, I think le Carré could have gone off in a whole different direction with his books and had Smiley the detective instead of Smiley the spy. “Murder…” is as brilliantly written as “Call…” and it’s clear le Carré was a writer of great skill and power. He’s also a drily witty author…

The coffee lounge of the Sawley Arms resembled nothing so much as the Tropical Plants Pavilion at Kew Gardens. Built in an age when cactus was the most fashionable of plants and bamboo its indispensable companion, the lounge was conceived as the architectural image of a jungle clearing. Steel pillars, fashioned in segments like the trunk of a palm tree, supported a high glass roof whose regal dome replaced the African sky. Enormous urns of bronze or green-glazed earthenware contained all that was elegant and prolific in the cactus world, and between them very old residents could relax on sofas of spindly bamboo, sipping warm coffee and reliving the discomfort of safari.

One particularly fascinating element of the book is the portrait of Carne itself and its heirarchy; the Rodes suffer very much from their lack of status, with the husband’s Grammar School education being looked down upon, and Stella’s inability to fit in undermining their standing even more. John le Carré is particularly biting when writing about the whole Public School set up, and in a couple of afterwords to my edition makes it quite clear that he hates the Old School Tie and all it stands for. I would certainly agree with him; our country is still suffering from the fact that those in power are there because of their connections, not because of their ability…

“A Murder of Quality” was just as much of a delight to read as “Call for the Dead”; le Carré’s writing is excellent, his plotting brilliant and his characterisation spot on. One of the things I love is how he draws in little connections everywhere; for example, Smiley’s ex-wife is known to some of Carne’s staff which leaves our unlucky detective open to some snide little digs. And although the links with the past are perhaps less pronounced than in the first book, they’re still there with Brim and Fielding’s brother; the Second World War was still a relatively recent event when le Carre was writing.

John le Carré [Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons]If you’ve not read le Carré, I can highly recommend him on the strength of the two books I’ve read so far. And although the temptation is strong to start with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”, probably his best-known book and certainly his breakthrough one, I’m very glad I started at the beginning. I feel I’ve got to know George Smiley and some of his colleagues quite well already; and the hardest thing now is going to be stopping myself from going on a real le Carré binge and just reading nothing else! Very tempting – though I should really tackle the TBR a bit first…

#Dewithon – sharing the contents of my Welsh bookshelves!

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If, like me, you follow Paula’s lovely blog, BookJotter, you’ll be well aware that she’s hosting the Dewithon – a March-long Wales Readathon, celebrating Welsh culture and writing. Now, I’m Scottish by birth, but have spent dozens of holidays in Wales and I love the people and the landscape and the art. I always fail miserably to get involved with the Dewithon, and I suspect that might be the case again this year; however, I *do* have a good number of Welsh books on my shelves, and so I thought it might be nice to share them here!

Of course, the first thing to do was to try to get them all together, which was no mean feat and caused Mr. Kaggsy and I a bit of strain. But here they are as best I could display them all together. Frankly, I didn’t realise I had so many Welsh books…

As you can see, there’s quite a variety of reading there, so I here’s a little more detail about some of them. First up, I have a rather nice collection of R.S. Thomas books and here they are:

In case you’re wondering, the two illustrated children’s books and the card with the birds on are all by Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge, RST’s wife. I wrote about his poems to her here, and they’re so powerful. One of my favourite poets, and here’s a close up of the spines of the books.

Next up is the other poetic Thomas from Wales – Dylan!

Yes, as you can see I *do* have two copies of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” – I just love it, and the Edward Ardizzone illustrations are perfect. However, what’s bugging me at the moment is that I know I have a chunky Wordsworth edition of Dylan’s poems somewhere in the house, but I can’t lay hands on it. It wasn’t with the Welsh books and it’s not with the poetry books, so who knows where it might be lurking….

Another old favourite on the Welsh shelves is from someone who isn’t actually Welsh – George Borrow. These are the books of his I own:

Borrow (1803 – 1881) actually hails from the part of the world I currently live in, but had quite a wild life, and went on many tours abroad and in the UK. “Wild Wales” resulted from a visit to the country in question, and I read it decades ago. And yes, there are two copies because they have different covers and illustrations and one is a special edition…

Here are the spines, and the two other fragile old books are “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye” – which have nothing to do with Wales, but live alongside my “Wild Wales” editions!

Next up, a much more modern author – playwright and poet Patrick Jones:

Jones is a fascinating writer and these are some of my editions of his work – there are others lurking in the house, and I suspect they may be in a box somewhere with my Manic Street Preachers collection. The reason for that is that Jones is the brother of the band’s bassist, Nicky Wire. Jones is a powerful poet and his spoken word albums are favourites too – must dig them out again soon…

As the Welsh are of course such a poetic race, let’s take a look at some Welsh poetry books I have:

As you can see, there are quite a few. Most of these are gifts from Mr. Kaggsy over the years (and I think “Odd Corners…” has got into the wrong pile…); but the Idris Davies is a volume I picked up on one of our North Wales holidays. I loved visiting the area, and it was wonderful to be able to pick up obscure titles you couldn’t get in England during those pre-internet days. Happy memories…

As you can see, I own two books by Saunders Lewis, who was a most intriguing figure. A political activist, poet, dramatist, historian and literary critic, he was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, and there was a plaque to him on a wall in Pwhelli, a town we often used to visit. Yes, one of these books is in Welsh – I had a vague idea of trying to learn the language once, but that was as successful as my attempts at Russian… As for “Monica”, I’ve heard this was quite a groundbreaking work, so I really ought to get on to reading it.

The rest of my Welsh books are fairly random, so let’s just taken them as they come!

These are again lovely books about Wales which mainly came from Mr. K, the Book Enabler. Old and new, all fascinating, and all from pre-blog times! I really should stop buying new books and just read and enjoy the ones I already own!

Another pot-pourri – more gifts from Mr. K. The short stories collection looks rather appealing at the moment.

And finally some *really* random bits and pieces! “Miners Against Fascism” came about because of the Manics influence I seem to recall. The Llyn Peninsula was the area we used to visit, hence the booklet. And Turner is always a joy, as are his images of Wales.

So there you have it – all the books from or about Wales that I can lay hands on at the moment. I suspect there are more in the house – for example, I’m sure there are some Viragos – but frankly gathering all this lot together has worn me out. As I mentioned above, I’m probably not going to get to reading anything Welsh this month – but if I start planning now, with these as prompts, I might manage to take part in 2022! 😀

(As an aside, this is the first post I have put together using the damn block editor, as for some reason classic editor seems to have disappeared overnight and blocks have been forced upon me. I hate them, and just hope that this post comes out looking ok….)

“…he knew his enemy.” #johnlecarré #georgesmiley

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This time of the year is when I always fear my reading mojo will come up against a brick wall; it’s my busiest period at work (budgeting and financial year end) and so I’m often too exhausted to read at the end of the day. Inevitably, in periods of stress, I turn to comfort reading – although what I call ‘comfort reading’ will not necessarily be what others think of! Mostly it’s classic crime; however, I have been skirting round a particular author for a while now and this seemed a good time to embark on a reading of his work. The author is John le Carré, best known for his George Smiley spy books; and I was finally spurred on by a conversation with fellow blogger JacquiWine, who is a huge fan and was very encouraging and enabling when it came to the concept of reading le Carré! The spy genre is not completely unknown to me – I have read and very much enjoyed Eric Ambler, for example, and also the spy novels of Agatha Christie. However, it’s obviously *classic* spy writing I’m drawn to, and Jacqui was very reassuring when it came to convincing me le Carré fell into this category!

Being the pedant I am, I do of course feel the need to read in order… So despite the fact that le Carré‘s second novel, “A Murder of Quality” is actually a murder mystery rather than a spy novel (so theoretically more appealing to me), I wanted to begin at the beginning, and that is with “Call for the Dead”, published in 1961. The book introduces le Carré‘s best-known protagonist, George Smiley, and begins with a chapter introducing him – and by the end of that, I was totally hooked on le Carré‘s writing!

The book is set in post-war London, and Smiley works for the Circus, a fictional division of the secret service. Like many of his colleagues, he has wartime experience of spying and a network of contacts that reaches back over the decades. As the book opens, a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, has committed suicide; unfortunately, he’s just been the subject of a routine security check by Smiley… Although the latter had cleared Fennan, the waters are a little muddy: an anonymous letter had been received concerning Fennan’s previous membership of the British Communist Party; Fennan has been on edge; and after Fennan’s death, Smiley receives a letter the man had sent suggesting a further meeting, which doesn’t tie in well with a suicide.

As Smiley starts to investigate, his suspicions grow, particularly of Fennan’s wife Elsa, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. What *is* the significance of the alarm call received from the telephone exchange? Why is the suicide note typed? Aided by a police contact, Inspector Mendel, and one of his subordinates at the Circus, Peter Guillam, Smiley starts to investigate – as much as to prove his obnoxious boss Maston wrong as anything else! However, as he begins to dig deeper he runs across some very dubious characters abroad in London, and realises that the case may have roots stretching back to his wartime activities…

Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a relentless battle against the stigma of suburbia. Trees, fertilized and controlled into being in every front garden, half obscure the pokey “Character dwellings” which crouch behind them. The rusticity of the environment is enhanced by the wooden owls that keep guard over the names of houses, and by crumbling dwarfs indefatigably poised over goldfish ponds. The inhabitants of Merridale Lane do not paint the dwarfs, suspecting this to be a suburban vice, nor, for the same reason, do they varnish the owls; but wait patiently for the years to entail these treasures with an appearance of weathered antiquity, until one day even the beams on the garage may boast of beetle and woodworm.

And more than this I shall not say! All I will say is that experiencing the plot unwind and watching Smiley unravel things was completely compelling and a pure joy! I read the book (which is only 148 pages) in a couple of sittings because it was one of those works you really can’t put down; and it was *sooooo* good! For a start, le Carré writes brilliantly, bringing alive the setting and the characters quite marvellously. The seedy post-war London settings were wonderfully conjured, the characters vivid and alive, and I found myself transported back in time and location.

However, what’s also outstanding is his plotting; I love a story that has tendrils reaching back into the past, or chickens that come home to roost, or an old crime which gets solved later. There are so many aspects in this clever and complex plot that draw on this kind of element that it was a perfect read for me. All the characters were beautifully drawn, from Mendel to Maston, as well as the more minor characters on the wrong side of the tracks in post-war London. I do hope some of these will return as I love a series of books with an ensemble cast!

And I have to make special mention of George Smiley – what a character! Already, in only his first appearance, he springs from the pages perfectly formed and I absolutely love him! He’s no cardboard cutout James Bond type; instead he’s a flawed and recognisable human being, trying to do his best in difficult circumstances and in a murky world, and I can see I’ve got huge treats ahead of me following his career. My only previous knowledge of him was the fact that the late great Alec Guinness played him; but there were unexpected elements in the book, particularly the short-term relationship with his wife. I find myself wondering if that’s something which will recurr….?

John le Carré [Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons]

Anyway, as will be quite clear from my ravings, I am a le Carré convert (and thank you *so* much Jacqui, for nudging me in the direction of reading these books!) I can see myself spending quite a lot of time in ensuing weeks in the company of George Smiley and Co, as on the basis of “Call…” le Carré could well be the perfect pandemic escapism I need! 😀

(If you want to read more about the early Smiley stories, Jacqui has an excellent post here!)

“…I was only time flowing through myself…” @FitzcarraldoEds #AnnieErnaux #SimplePassion

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There were all manner of books I would have liked to read for February’s #ReadIndies month (as you can see from the image in this post); and one of them was a very late arrival that I just couldn’t squeeze in. However, as it’s released today, I suppose I could consider it as a late entry for the reading event, especially as it’s from one of my favourite indies, Fitzcarraldo Editions. The author is a recent discovery for me, but she’s a writer of whom I think highly – the book is “Simple Passion” and the author is Annie Ernaux. I’ve covered a couple of Ernaux’s books on the Ramblings, “A Man’s Place” and “A Girl’s Story“; and although these works are only just appearing in Fitzcarraldo editions, they’ve often been written quite a while before. “Simple Passion” is a case in point; it was published in French in 1991 and although Tanya Leslie’s translation is copyright 1993, this is apparently its first UK release.

The title of this work sums up succinctly the subject of the book, although I would perhaps argue that there’s nothing simple about passions – and the book does reflect this! In 48 laconic pages, Ernaux recounts the story of an affair she had with a married man, named only as A, and how the intense passion she felt for him completely took over her life. It’s as if everything else is put on hold; she doesn’t want to go out, she doesn’t want to mix with other people, and her only interests are in the object of her desire or anything she can consider as relating to him. Yet as the man is married, she has no real call on his affections, and the highs and lows of her emotions reflect this uncertain status.

In many ways, the descriptions of Ernaux’s emotions are more like those of someone in the throes of a teenage crush; yet Ernaux is a mature woman with children. However, there’s no predicting where our heart will take us at any time of our lives, and in this book the author sets out to try and capture that state of mind when living for just one other person. Nothing else matters to her except A, and in truth I would say this is more a picture of obsession than just passion. Where the dividing line between the two lies is not for me to say, but Ernaux paints a striking and convincing portrait of a woman for whom nothing else matters but the time she spends with her lover.

… I avoided every opportunity that might tear me away from my obsession – books, social engagements and the other activities I used to enjoy. I longed for total idleness. I angrily turned down some extra work my superior had asked me to do, almost insulting him over the phone. I felt I had every right to reject the things that prevented me from luxuriating in the sensations and fantasies of my own passion.

For two years, the affair with A dominated Ernaux’s life, until work forced him to return to the Eastern European country he came from. The couple later have a reunion, but the pain of the parting has passed and the passion died; and Ernaux realises her feeling for him will never again be what they were when they were in the depths of the affair. Can *any* passion last forever? Probably not – familiarity can breed contempt, and in many relationships the passion probably turns to a different but hopefully deeper and more abiding love. However, Ernaux states that with this book she intended to “translate into words … the way in which (A’s) existence has affected my life” and “Simple Passion” certainly does that. It’s a powerful and affecting read which certainly lingers in the mind, and proof that I really need to read any Ernaux which comes my way!

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