“My body was alive with the sounds…” @FitzcarraldoEds #fiftysounds


Travelling to another country to live and work, with only a limited knowledge of the language, is a brave and perhaps risky thing to do. However when the culture you’re choosing to embrace is one which is a polar opposite to your own, the shock to the system is immense. That’s what author Polly Barton did, and in a recent release from Fitzcarraldo Editions she tells the story of the time she spent in Japan using elements of the language as touchstones. The result is the fascinating and absorbing “Fifty Sounds”.

Barton moved to a Japanese island at the age of 21; here, she was employed as an English teacher and simultaneously was trying to learn the language. Her travels would lead her to periods in Japanese cities and eventually to a career as a translator from that language. In “Fifty Sounds” she tells the story of that journey, but in a clever and unusual way.

Immersion in a foreign language is a bombardment of sounds, until you decide that you’re going to actually do this thing and learn, and then it becomes a bombardment of imperatives: learn this, learn this, learn this.

The Japanese language is a complex one (and even after reading the erudite explanations in parts of the book, I’m not sure I completely understand its structure…) However, the book is built around onomatopoeic words, which are an important branch of Japanese, and Barton uses fifty of the ‘sound words’ to illustrate the sections of her life. So there will be a chapter entitled “koro-koro: the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor”; inevitably, this deals her struggles with the language, even when she was well into her study; and there’s “pota-pota: the sound of red dripping onto asphalt”, relevant when involved in a car accident; or, more darkly, “bishi-bishi; the sound of being struck sharply and repeatedly by a stick-like object, or (infrequently) of branches breaking”.

It’s a clever way to tell her story, and also in itself gives some hint of the diffulty of dealing with the Japanese language. Barton spends a long time in the country; during her tenure teaching on the island, she has an affair with an older, married fellow teacher, Y, which informs much of the narrative. The relationship adds another level of complexity to her feelings about Japan itself, and it did strike me that she was very vulnerable and young when she travelled to the country. The break with Y, moves to big cities, relationships with women and trips back to England do tend to undermine Barton’s stability, and she becomes clear towards the end of the book that she had desperately wanted to get away from her home country. However, despite her willingness to meld with Japan, that isn’t in the end so easy.

From the point of view of language, Barton’s attitudes are underpinned by her study of Wittgenstein and her knowledge of Barthes. The longer she practices and learns the Japanese language, the more she becomes aware of how it is near impossible to translate without a complete understanding of culture and nuance in both languages. This is probably more pronounced where you have countries and lifestyles that are very, very different; but again and again Barton finds herself stumbling and making basic errors when she thought she had a grasp of Japanese idiom.

Really, you are not just translating ‘two words’, but also a broader cultural heritage leading back decades or centuries which those two words conjure up, and about which the average Anglophone reader or listener knows nothing. In order to truly understand – in order to sense things slotting into place or ‘falling to your internals’ as they say in Japanese – you need more.

And despite her determination to become fluent in Japanese language and culture, she begins to become out of kilter with Japanese society, perceiving herself as large and loud compared to the country’s native population. Eventually Barton comes to the realisation that to completely assimilate would mean losing too much of herself, suppressing parts of her real nature to comply with the cultural requirements of Japanese society. The language is tied up with the bigger issues of cultural difference, and it finally comes as something of a relief to Barton to be with people who have the same expectations and understandings as her.

How I imagine Japan – which is probably very inaccurate… (Tokyo – Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – MuckDiva, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Fifty Sounds” was a fascinating read on so many levels. As someone who is Anglophone and relies on translators to read much of the literature I love, I was absorbed by the discussions of the difficulties of complete understanding and the need to grasp those cultural nuances. And Barton’s story was also an engrossing one; her struggles on a personal and linguistic level, her need to belong somewhere, and her view of Japan always engaging. She doesn’t shy away from approaching the darker side of life in Japan, including oblique references to her own experiences, but is always discreet – and, in fact, the book is dedicated to Y.

So I found “Fifty Sounds” an immersive read from start to finish. The device of using the sound words was brilliant and so interesting to someone with no real knowledge of the Japanese language; the discussions of language itself fascinating; and Barton’s story, and view of Japan, quite unforgettable. Even if you aren’t particularly keen on linguistics, “Fifty Sounds” is a unique and absorbing book and I really recommend it. Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for the book, and it’s not hard to see why.

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

A disappointing excursion to the Channel Islands… :(


If you’re a regular visitor to the Ramblings, you’ve probably gathered that I don’t as a rule read many books which would be called bestsellers; in fact modern fiction rarely appears here unless it’s translated! So you might have been vaguely surprised seeing “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” appear on the TBR in my recent Book Table post; and I was actually a little taken aback too, when Mr. Kaggsy presented it to me as a little gift. Whilst I was impressed that he’d actually found me something I don’t own and hadn’t read, it wasn’t really a title I’d ever considered reading. But as it was a gift, it would have been churlish not to give it a go – and it was very much in contrast to the book I’d been reading which was all about creatives in Paris between 1900 and 1950!

“Potato Peel..” has an intriguing backstory; the book was written by Mary Ann Shaffer, but then completed by her neice Annie Barrows when Shaffer realised she was suffering from a terminal illness. It had always been Shaffer’s ambition to see her book in print, so it’s rather lovely that family completed it for her. The book is an epistolary one, a format I usually like, which tells the story of Juliet, author of a successful wartime newspaper column, who’s struggling with writing in the immediate post-War period. By a somewhat unbelievable series of events, she fetches up on Guernsey, bonds with the residents, and learns about their past. It’s a light read, if I’m honest, that I whizzed through in one setting, and is a book which in many way confuses me.

Bookertalk has written eloquently here about why she didn’t like the book, and I’m in agreement with what she says. I didn’t personally find the writing particularly sparkling, and the characters were fairly interchangable; but my main problem was the fact that I felt there were almost two books here, and they didn’t go well together.

The Channel Islands were occupied during World War 2, and suffered greatly under Nazi rule (as did any occupied territory, really). Juliet sets out to write about one local person’s story under the jackboot, and as she digs out the islanders’ stories there is some really dark material, which you would expect. However, the love story itself is trite and predictable and for me, the light tone of Juliet’s adventures and the romance don’t sit comfortably with the darkness of the war themes. Perhaps in different hands the book would have worked better, but here I felt it didn’t and I actually felt uncomfortable when contrasting the occupation sections with what in effect is a plot that could have come from a lightweight romance novel. The characterisation is broad-brush; the newspaper reporter Gilly Gilbert was particularly hard to stomach; Juliet’s slimy boyfriend frankly unacceptable; and the eventual love interest, Dawsey, could have been a lump of wood…

Guernsey Castle Cornet (Unukorno, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

So in the end this wasn’t a book for me, despite Mr. K’s good intentions! It filled an afternoon when I was feeling too whacked after a heavy week at work to read anything serious, but in the end I just felt disappointed by it. I know some love the book; equally others feel strongly that it’s not great. I fall into the latter camp, so I’m afraid this one will go off to the charity shop when they’re collecting again! ;D

On My Book Table… 11 – regrouping!


Well – that was a week that was, as they say! The #1936Club was such a success, but very busy and I went off at a tangent reading books for it, when I really should have been dealing with some of the other lovely titles on Mount TBR. So as I haven’t shared what’s on the book table for a while, I thought it was time to take stock and regroup – as well as sharing some gratuitous book pictures! 😀

First of all, let’s take a look at the bookish arrivals so far this month. I *am* trying very hard, as usual, to be restrained – but it doesn’t always work, and these are a mixture of review books and purchases, with one gift!

The review books are the two BL titles and the Orwell (which you’ll obvs have seen me review last Sunday!) British Library books are always beautiful and I could happily spend a few weeks reading nothing but them. The du Maurier was one I came across in a recent book on Literary Paris in the first part of the 20th century; I’ll be reviewing the latter for Shiny New Books, but “I’ll Never Be Young Again” intrigued… Showa, Stepanova and Proust were purchases; and “The Guernsey Literary….” a gift from Mr. Kaggsy at Easter. I’m still amazed at how he manages to track down books I’ve not read…

Next up, review books:

Yes, there are a lot of them. No, that is by no means all of the review books I have in the house… Some are for Shiny New Books and some for the blog; all are very, very appealing. Which will I get to first? Who knows….?

Of course, a section of the Ramblings is devoted to the various Penguin challenges I have set myself, and I have a neat little pile of the next books to be read in each of the various categories:

Technically speaking, these are all short and should be easily read in one sitting. But my reading is driven by mood so I do need to decide where my whims are taking me next!

Talking of challenges, I am vaguely committed to a couple of external reading events over the next month or two, involving these:

On the left we have the first in the Chronicles of Carlingford sequence by Margaret Oliphant. There’s a read-along of these starting on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, and I’m going to try really hard to get onboard, as I’ve been meaning to read these stories for ages. On the right is a collection of stories by lovely Olga Zilberbourg, which she kindly sent me a while back. I keep getting sidetracked when I go to pick it up, but a Twitter readalong in May may well be helpful…

Finally, there’s this little pile:

“Fifty Sounds” is a review copy from Fitzcarraldo and I suspect it may be what I read next. The Arendt biography is also for review; and that whole pile is calling to me very, very strongly… Of course, not all of these piles are on the book table at the same time – it would collapse, frankly – but every one is so appealing and shouting for attention. As I’ve said before, so many books and so little time… Watch this space to find out which book wins the Battle of the Book Table!!! ;D

#1936Club: the ones that got away – and where next…?


Phew! That was an amazing week of reading, wasn’t it? I can’t help feeling that 1936 was such a bumper year that we could easily have filled a fortnight with books!! I’m really happy with what I read – GA crime, Beverley, Nabokov, Japanese lit and Orwell – very me!!

Inevitably, however, there were plenty of books I would have liked to read and didn’t get the time for – and here are just a few!

As I mentioned previously, I could easily have done a week of just reading Golden Age crime – so many brilliant books were published in 1936, and maybe I’ll have to have a classic crime week at some point in the future! I would have liked to spend time with Simenon and Gladys Mitchell but alas, it was not to be…

I would also have loved to read some of these – in particular, “Greengates” has been lurking on the TBR too long. Graham Greene is always a joy, too, and he has a fiction title from 1936. But there are only seven days in a week and only so many hours a day I can read (I *do* need to sleep), so alas it was not to be! But there were so many other titles – books I already own, like “Locos” by Felipe Alpau, “South Riding” by Winifred Holtby, “The Thinking Reed” by Rebecca West and “St. Joan of Arc” by Vita Sackville-West, none of which I can be sure I’ve actually read. Then there’s ones I *have* read, like “War with the Newts“, “Death at the President’s Lodging“, “Novel on Yellow Paper” (pre-blog), “Confession of a Murderer” and “Bookshop Memories“. The list could go on forever – such a bumper year!!

I even printed out a text copy of an out-of-print Reggie Fortune collection, but ran out of time!!!!!

Anyway – we do hope you’ve enjoyed taking part in the #1936Club and I will continue to add links to my dedicated page. So if I haven’t spotted your post, do let me know in comments and I will add you to the links! Thank you, 1936, for some wonderful reading!

Of course, you might be wondering which year we’ll feature in six months’ time… 😀 Well, Simon and I had a chat, and he suggested we whizz forward to the 1970s for the next club; and so (drum roll, please!), in October we’ll be time-travelling forward 40 years from this club to – THE 1976 CLUB!

Of course, it’s a very different year and a very different world from 1936; and initially, I wondered what kind of titles I would be thinking about reading. However, it didn’t take me very long to track down a number of books which are already on the shelves and some of which are unread… So here are some possibles for those of you who like to plan ahead!

I was pleased by the variety on offer after just a quick rummage – and in fact feel like reading some of these now, so will have to exercise a little restraint. What will you read for 1976? Do join us! 😀

#1936Club – “…money, like murder, will out.” #georgeorwell


My final read for the #1936Club is one which took me a little by surprise! My love of George Orwell and his work must be quite clear from even a casual glance at the Ramblings. I have numerous paperback editions of his work, as well as a lovely boxed collection which Mr. Kaggsy presented me with many moons ago. So when we decided on 1936 for the club, and I realised his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was published that year, I thought it would be perfect for a re-read – as I had, I thought, read all of his fiction.

Aspidistra x 2!

Well – a quick dig on the shelves made me question myself; because rummaging revealed that I had *no* paperback edition of “Aspidistra”, only the nice hardback in the set, and I was sure I’d never read that copy. Then I started to actually explore the text and it didn’t seem familiar at all… So now I’m beginning to think that somehow I’d missed reading “Aspidistra” over the last few decades and that my encounter with it here is a first-time read – how exciting is that!!!

My posh hardback edition.

Anyway, I was faced with reading my posh book, which always stupidly makes me a bit nervous. However, fortune stepped in, in the form of Oxford University Press’s Word Classics series (I have quite a few of these – it’s always a toss-up whether to get an OWC or a Penguin Classic of a particular book, and I sometimes pick up both!) OUP have just issued a beautiful new set of Orwells in their OWC range, and were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Aspidistra” – what perfect timing!!

In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

On to the story. “Aspidistra” was Orwell’s third novel (fourth published full-length work) and its epigraph, dealing as it does with all things fiscal, sets the tone for the book. Money really is the root of all evil, or at least the problems besetting the main character, Gordon Comstock, and many of those he encounters. Gordon is in effect the last of the Comstocks; a fairly feeble family who have gradually died out through mediocrity, the only members left are Gordon, his sister Julia, and the occasional aunt or uncle. Gordon’s mother and sister have scrimped and saved to get the young man an education, feeling that he has a chance to make something of himself. But Gordon has always been aware of the poverty in which his family have existed, the fact that he is of the wrong class and that those with money look down on them while living lives of ease. And so as the book opens, we encounter him having chucked up a reasonable job with decent pay in an advertising agency, and now slumming it by working in a bookshop and living in fairly unpleasant digs.

Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.

Gordon is really not a happy man; his girlfriend Rosemary declares that she loves him but won’t sleep with him, which he puts down to money; he’s published a book of poems “Mice”, which was well reviewed but failed to earn him much; he’s struggling to write more, but his mood swings aren’t helping; and his friendship with the wealthy Ravelston is complex, poisoned once more by money. Money, money, money – that *is* very much what Gordon bangs on about all of the time, and bearing in mind the time when the book was written, he does have a point.

Lovely new OWC edition!

Britain in the 1930s was a land of extremes; the rich were trying to hold on to money and status, while the poor were struggling dreadfully. There was no welfare state, and some of the poverty portrayed in the book is devastating. I know other readers have perhaps had difficulty in warming to Gordon, but I think without insight into his circumstances, it’s hard perhaps to understand why he’s in the state he’s in.

Gordon also puts much of his situation down to lack of sex, and the book does discuss this issue a fair bit. In the 1930s contraception was relatively primitive (and presumably also cost quite a bit) and so any kind of sex life brought risks, particularly for the women involved. Gordon might seem to be being a bit selfish in his desire to sleep with Rosemary, but my reading of him is of a damaged, depressed man who lacks human warmth in his life, and I think he’s representative of many at the time.

Marriage is only a trap set for you by the money-god. You grab the bait; snap goes the trap; and there you are, chained by the leg to some ‘good’ job till they cart you to Kensal Green. And what a life! Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra. Pram-pushing and sneaky adulteries. And the wife finding you out and breaking the cut-glass whisky decanter over your head.

So Gordon and Rosemary attempt a day out in the country, on not very much cash, and that doesn’t go well at all. In our modern world, where sex is everywhere, it’s somehow shocking that the couple’s only chance for a physical relationship is if they go off into the woods for the day… Then Gordon has a windfall, and this is where things get really problematic, as events spiral out of control and he ends up in an even worse situation. He *could* go back to his old job, but refuses on principle – he doesn’t want to be sucked into the money world, tied to work and the 9-5 grind just to earn enough to live and have an aspidistra (the symbol for him of normality and conformity) in his front window like the rest of the respectable world. His stubbornness is infuriating at times, although you can understand his feelings. However, a crisis will come along and change everything – but how will Gordon respond?

There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

I don’t want to give away any more plot elements, because “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is such a wonderful and fascinating book. I just can’t believe I hadn’t read it before! Orwell apparently always regarded 1936 as a pivotal year in his life: he visited the north, which led to “The Road to Wigan Pier; he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with all that brought; he broke through as a novelist, with “Aspidistra…” bringing him in some income; and from that point on he regarded his work as to be to fight against fascism in all its forms, which led to seminal works like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen eighty-four”. He apparently dismissed “Aspidistra” but I think he shouldn’t have, because I feel it does explore very deeply and bitterly the pernicious effects of poverty. Gorden is angry and indignant; his sister Julia works all hours of the day just to survive; Rosemary is no richer either; and the degradation of some of the boarding houses in which Gordon stays is just awful. I believe “Aspidistra” draws on some of Orwell’s own life experiences, and of course he was well aware of what it was to be down and out, both in Paris and London! He may seem to be going on a bit about the evil of money, but we only have to look around us, in a world which is still anything but equal, to see that he has a point…

The next seven months were devastating. They scared him and almost broke his spirit. He learned what it means to live for weeks on end on bread and margarine, to try to ‘write’ when you are half starved, to pawn your clothes, to sneak trembling up the stairs when you owe three weeks’ rent and your landlady is listening for you. Moreover, in those seven months he wrote practically nothing. The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought.

The end of “Aspidistra” is interesting, although I’m loath to discuss it in detail because of spoilers. It might be the only logical one, and it does suggest perhaps that Gordon has been going through some kind of breakdown from which he *does* recover. The themes are often dark, the portrait of London between the wars often grimy and gritty, and the living conditions squalid. However, the book is not without its humour: Orwell’s portrait of the advertising business, with its corny slogans and ghastly advertising campaigns, has not dated, and his contempt for it is palpable! He definitely seems to feel that slavishly following the media is a Bad Thing (that’s a pretty modern attitude, too) and complains about the populace being so easily influenced. Well, not much changes.

My lovely Orwell box set

So I ended up thoroughly impressed with this Orwell which I hadn’t read, and yes, convinced again that he really was a genius. He captures brilliantly the post-war era, the struggles of the poor, the difficulty of coping on a few bob a week, and how the class system in England cripples the country and prevents it moving forward (hmmmm – familiar, that….) Although an early novel, it still features Orwell’s regular preoccupations, and I found the characters quite rounded too. His women characters were believable: sister Julia (interesting choice of name) with her self-sacrifice, and Rosemary, a well-defined character in her own right, caring for Gordon but often struggling to understand his principles. The latter, of course, can only be held successfully by people with money; if you’re poor, they go right out the window! I finished the book several days ago, and I’m still thinking about the many elements and issues it raised – such a thought-provoking read. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was the perfect way to end my reading for the #1936Club – what a week it’s been and what an amazing choice of books there was from the year!

(Emma has also read the book for the club, and you can read her post here!)


I though I’d also share a few separate thoughts on the new OWC edition of “Aspidistra”, as my hardback from the box set comes with limited notation which is mainly to do with textual variations. As this edition originally hails from 1987, much of the landscape of Britain and the terminology would be quite familiar to the reader then. However, getting on for 35 years later than that, there’s the need for a little more explanation and the new edition has excellent notation which explains many terms which might seem strange or exotic to a younger, modern reader! Additionally, there is detail on the money of the time; as that subject underpins the story, it certainly is important that the reader understands ‘old money’ (I can just about remember it…) The notes are provided by Benjamin Kohlmann, who also supplies an excellent introduction which discusses the book in the context of the 1930s – it definitely is a book of its time and that needs to be remembered, I think, to get the most out of it. Sensibly, readers are advised to treat the foreword as an afterword if unfamiliar with the plot, and I wish all books would remind us of that before we embark. There’s a bibliography and a chronology, and so really there’s all you need. As you’ll guess from my review, I really loved “Aspidistra…”; and I think if you plan to read it, the OWC would be the perfect edition to choose!

#1936Club – a witty and entertaining novella from a legendary Japanese author… #tanizaki


Some Japanese fiction for the #1936Club today, in the form of a novella from one of the masters of writing from that country – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. I’ve owned this particular book for decades (I have a variety of Kodansha Editions books on my shelves), but as far as I can tell, I’ve never read it. So what better time to pick up “A Cat, A Man and Two Women“, translated by Paul McCarthy? My edition is from 1991, and interestingly at that time the trend seems to have been not to mention the translator on the cover of a book – I’m glad this is now changing…

Anyway – in 1936 Tanizaki was working on a massive translation project, that of bringing “The Tale of Genji” into modern Japanese; and as McCarthy’s introduction discusses, the writing of a novella length tale like this must have been a lovely contrast to his larger work. And “A Cat…” is certainly a more modern tale… The story is a domestic one, focusing on Shozo, a lazy man, his ex-wife Shinako, his current wife Fukuko, and the cat Lily. In truth, though, I did think the title might be better given as “A Cat, A Man and Three Women”, as Shozo’s mother does have quite a bit of influence on events…

As the novella opens, Fukuko has been unsettled by a letter from her predecessor, in effect warning her that Shozo loves the cat Lily more than anything else in the world, and to watch out because her days are numbered too. Shinako suggests that Fukuko gets Shozo to hand the cat over to his first wife. Fukuko is supicious and inclined to be dismissive; however, as she observes Shozo with Lily, her jealousy is aroused and a whole series of events are set in motion which will affect all of the participants. Will Shozo part with Lily? Is Fukuko likely to stay in this marriage for long? Will Shinako get Shozo back? And what will happen to the cat?

(She) asked herself how she could ever have hated this lovely, docile little creature. The woman she had been came to seem to her now a very mean and nasty sort of person – a real monster, in fact.

“A Cat…” is a quite brilliantly written book, mainly because of its constantly shifting perspectives. We see a character or event from Fukuko’s point of view and think we have a handle on what’s going on; then the narrative shifts to Shozo’s gaze and suddenly things seem very different. Shinako has a particular take on events, but a return to Shozo’s point of view reveals her as apparently very mistaken. And Shozo’s mother adds another angle to the mix…

It’s a very clever way to tell the story as the changing viewpoints build up a picture of the various participants, and also reveal quite how mistaken many of them are in their perceptions of the other characters. Of course, the one viewpoint we don’t really get is Lily the cat… Various emotions and motivations are ascribed to her by the human characters, but we see her actions rather than thoughts and frankly can’t help feeling sorry for her, being used as a pawn by the humans. However, it does seem that it’s only in relation to Lily that the human characters develop real emotions and empathy, which says much about the tangled web the man and the two women have woven!

Tanizaki is known for producing longer works like “The Makioka Sisters”, so a shorter work like this is perhaps unexpected, and certainly a treat! The novella is very witty in places, with the author regularly skewering his characters’ motivations. It also reveals much about Japanese life at the time, and as McCarthy points out in his introduction, is unusual in that Tanizaki sets his work amongs ordinary, working class people as opposed to the more moneyed classes he often writes about. “A Cat, A Man and Two Women” was a wonderful read, and proof, if it was needed, that I really need to dig more of those unread books off the shelves!


#1936Club – some short stories by a Russian prose master #nabokov


One of my aims during any of our club weeks is to read as many books as possible that I already own; and I actually think I may succeed with 1936! In today’s post, I want to focus on three short stories I’ve recently read by a prose master – Vladimir Nabokov. He’s another who’s often featured on the Ramblings, but I haven’t picked up one of his works for a while. There are no novels from 1936, but a rummage around online and in my very large “Collected Stories” volume revealed three short stories which are probably from our year. I say probably, because there’s always a vagueness about publication dates; however, these are identified as 1936 in several places so I’ve read them and shall count them!

The three stories are “The Circle“, “Spring in Fialta” and “Mademoiselle O“; the first two were written in Russian and translated (I believe) by Dmitri Nabokov and the author; the final story was originally written in French and I’m unclear about translation though it may have been by Nabokov himself.

One is always at home in one’s past…

Where to start with the stories? Nabokov is such a brilliant writer that I feel a little inadequate trying to cover his work, and these three stories may be short but they’re little gems of genius. The first two stories, in fact, have thematic similarities in that they’re both suffused with a sense of nostalgia and look at lost loves over a period of time. “The Circle” is quite marvellously constructed and explores a young man’s fascination with the daughter of local gentry, and how their lives touch again at a later date. In “Spring in Fialta“, the first-person narrator recalls his encounters over the years with the beautiful Nina, in the old country and then the various new ones. Each of these stories is dripping with atmosphere, full of longing for the past, and chock-full of emotions of exile. The final story, “Mademoiselle O“, is one that Nabokov acknowledges as drawing directly from his life, and is his portrait memoir of a governess who was with him and his family for a number of years.

…he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words, a title he valued higher than that of a writer; personally, I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other; and I remember once saying to him as I braved the mockery of his encouraging nods that, were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely on memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.

What the three stories have in common, apart from marvellous writing, is a really aching sense of loss. Nabokov and his characters are obviously haunted by their past, and it continues to control their present in many ways. But what hit me most when reading these stories was the sheer brilliance of Nabokov’s writing; his prose and descriptions are just stunning, the construction of the stories brilliant, and the way he deals with the time shifts in his stories magisterial. “The Circle” has a particularly clever structure, about which I will say nothing because I urge you to read his short stories – the man was a genius, dammit!!!

Reading short stories always presents problems, particularly when you’re faced with a massive collected volume; if you read the lot through, you risk losing the individuality of each story; but if you decide to just pick and choose randomly, you might lose focus or let the book slip off the immediate TBR. So having a reading event like the #1936Club was the perfect impetus to get me picking up Nabokov’s short works, and I’m so glad I did. These stories were absolutely stunning, and I shall have to try not to leave it too long before I get back to his longer works!

Exploring British modernism – over @ShinyNewBooks :D


As if there isn’t enough excitement going on at the moment, what with the #1936Club and all, I have a new review up today on Shiny New Books which I want to share with you!

The book in question comes with the rather long title “Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists” and it’s written by Caroline Maclean. She takes a look at a group of creators based in the Hampstead area of London during mainly the 1930s, including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and any number of others who moved in and out of their orbit, extending even to European luminaries like Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus.

“Ancestor 1” by Barbara Hepworth at the University of Birmingham (Francisclarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The book is a fascinating read, particularly if you have an interest in Modernism. I know it’s not for some – I’ve heard, for example, the sculptures of Hepworth and Moore described as “quite nice” and “inoffensive” which is faint praise… I personally like the Modernist ethic in buildings and furnishings, and I’m fond of abstracts too, so I really enjoyed reading this. The book is not without its flaws – in many ways, it suffers from trying to fit too much information into too short a work – but it’s definitely a wonderful introduction to the subject. You can read my review here!

#1936club – a favourite pair of authors write a very unusual book… #ilfandpetrov


One of the interesting parts of previous reading weeks has been the opportunity to revisit books from the particular year we’ve chosen to focus upon. 1936, however, is proving to be a bumper year in many respects, and as far as I can tell an awful lot of my reading from that year is a long time pre-blog. This means, alas, that my memories are going to be little fuzzy about what I read and when! So instead I wanted to focus today on a pair of authors I’ve been reading since my early teens and a work they released in 1936.

My Ilf and Petrov collection

The authors are Ilf and Petrov, and they’ve only made fleeting, oblique appearances on the Ramblings. Best known for their Soviet satires “The Twelve Chairs” (1928) and “The Golden Calf” (1931) (as they’re titled in my 1960s editions, both translated by John Richardson), their real names were Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrovich Kataev. The latter was, in fact, the brother of Valentin Kataev who’s featured on the blog a lot, and Yevgeni changed his name to Petrov to avoid confusion with his brother.

As well as producing their two satirical novels, Ilf and Petrov wrote theatrical plays and screenplays, humorous short stories and satirical articles for magazines. However, I wanted to focus here on one of their activities from the middle of the 1930s… You see, in 1935 Ilf and Petrov were able to visit the USA, taking a road trip across the Depression-hit country, and they published a book on their trip, translated as “Little Golden America” – and here is my edition:

I have to say I’m very fond and proud of my copy, although I can’t actually be sure when I found it; but I suspect it was in 2006 or 2007, for reasons which will become clear! It wasn’t easy to track down, and mine is a 1946 edition of a book which Wikipedia says was released in 1937; although interestingly the copyright page indicates differently:

And as you can see, according to the front of my “Little Golden America”, the text was first published in 1936 as “One Story America”; and further research reveals that sections of the book were published in Ogoniok/Ogonek magazine in 1936 as a photo-essay. That piece was reproduced as a book in 2006, which I also happen to have:

And the book itself gives further information about the history and publication of the record of Ilf and Petrov’s American trip:

The book itself is a beautiful edition and absolutely fascinating; the photos and the text are wonderfully evocative, really bringing to life the America of the time. The thirties were such a strange time in many ways, with extreme poverty for some, the rise of right-wing ideologies and a sense of change and uncertainty. The fact that Ilf and Petrov were allowed to travel abroad during what was a repressive time in Russia still astonishes me, but the result was this fascinating snapshot of the past.

My editions of the Ostap Bender satirical novels!

I loved Ilf and Petrov when I first read them in my teens; and when I rediscovered them in the 2000s I was just as affected by their wonderful writing. Both men died sadly too young: Ilf of TB just after their return from American, and Petrov in a plane crash when he was acting as a front-line correspondent in the Second World War. However, they left behind them a body of work which ensures they’re not forgotten, particularly the two satirical Ostap Bender novels. I’m glad the #1936club has nudged me back to reconnecting with their work, and alhough I don’t think I’ll actually read any of their books this week, I shall most definitely try to keep them in my line of sight! 😀

#1936Club – a guest post takes on a master of science fiction!


As has become a tradition for our clubs, Mr. Kaggsy has offered up a guest post, and for 1936 has taken on a titan of classic science fiction writing. Here he considers The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells – and explores whether in this case the film or the book is better!

I weighed “The Shape of Things to Come” (TSOTTC) as one might an ancient pyramid: not needing to look at the structure for long, having swiftly understood and appreciated its form. But pondering how it got there, what went into its construction, who was in charge of the building, why it was wanted, how long it took to create and how long ago, would be more in one’s thoughts than dwelling on the artistic nature of the shape. Aspects of TSOTTC felt a lot like that: reverence as to the mind behind so much detail and imagination, prophecy even, appreciation of the feat involving the near 160,000 word fictional treatise, but pondering what was the point of it, whether to entertain, impress, or warn, certainly not to excite or energise. Would I want to go back to see the earlier pyramid again, and would I wish to read TSOTTC once more – both drew the same answer, being no less in my admiration, but feeling no pull towards ever wishing to visit them again.

Contrast the cinema film, with its truncated title “Things to Come” (1936; screenplay by Wells), a futuristic vision, by which I was captivated at a young age. The fault is no doubt mine, but from the pages of the book I formed no mental pictures, sensed no emotion; the notion of ‘unputdownable’ a remote fancy. But plough on with the work I did, finding it a strange mixture of non-fiction and imagination. Having enjoyed so many of Wells’s past writings, on completion of TSOTTC I was left questioning whether this was a ‘blueprint’ for a future world order, a sincere entreaty to coming generations to act while there is still time, or a conclusion that there is no hope for our descendants. Wells reportedly meant the story more as a ‘discussion’ than a work of fiction, perhaps also seeing his involvement with the later movie as a ‘propaganda’ exercise, rather than a true science fiction presentation.

First edition Hutchinson 1933; Macmillan 1936 US.

The simple answer is to quote Wells, as the ‘narrator’ of the tome, the main character, having come into possession of a journal written in 1930 by a recently deceased colleague, scholar, or scientist, what you will: “I have decided to publish the facts and the substance of this peculiar cooperation of ours. I have been holding back a manuscript, or rather a collection of papers and writings, entrusted to me. It is, or at least it professes to be, a Short History of the World for about the next century and a half.” The documentation left behind becomes a ‘book within a book’, divided into separate main sections, which proceed as the author/narrator himself ‘reads’ the content. There is no breaking away, discussing the subject matter with a colleague, or old friend, just a compulsion to discover the ‘secret’, if there is one. The idea of ‘dreaming the future’ appeals to Wells’s character, he no doubt wanting to experiment and see whether the declared ‘time travel’ is possible. And so the content within unfolds as “THE DREAM BOOK OF DR. PHILIP RAVEN” an introduction followed by “BOOK THE FIRST.”

Before proceeding further, it is worth looking at Wells and contemporaries. He worked with Julian Huxley – brother of “Brave New World” (1932) author Aldous Huxley – on the epic 1930 non-fiction book “The Science of Life” (1929/30). Wells’s novels and non-fiction often embraced history, with social commentary. TSOTTC was published in 1933 and some years later Wells produced “The New World Order” (1940), promoting global cooperation to establish lasting peace. The writers at the time, as men of science, could be regarded as visionaries, philosophers, or some kind of proponents of futurism, even eugenics. Wells’s TSOTTC could be seen as the forerunner to his “Science” work, or perhaps at this earlier stage he preferred to ‘hide’ behind a fictional spokesperson writing under the guise of ‘dream power’, enabling the future to be seen and how or if the world manages in the end to save itself by reaching a settled state of harmony. Whether the aim was to compete with his fellows, or to remain a popular and prolific writer, or earnestly to provide a warning at a time when the threat of war was growing, is for conjecture. For my part, I didn’t find that the mode of reporting the writings of a deceased dreamer worked especially well; a straightforward science fiction tale of a mysterious book of the future might have been more engaging.

However, it is the lengthy ‘dream book’ of Dr. Philip Raven – a diplomat for the League of Nations – as studied by his fictional reader, which falls to be reviewed. His history of the world, from the early twentieth century to the year 2106, is presented posthumously through his visions. There are and have been people who believe their dreams manifest something outside of their own imagination; indeed the past was full of prophecies and claims of ‘out of body’ experiences. With this in mind, Wells’s book is difficult to take in, if the basic premise of dreaming the future is not handled in an interesting fictional way. Instead there is much regurgitating of the dead dreamer’s notes, with no real accompanying ‘story’. Moreover, a fair amount of the content would nowadays be out of step with modern popular and political views, or sensitivities of the world’s countries and differing governments or religions.

Cresset Press Wells’s screenplay 1935; film poster 1936.

The basis of Raven’s seeing the future is to write down, after coming out of deep sleep, the dreamer’s “premonitions in the dozing moment between wakefulness and oblivion”. Based on his mental observations the process goes as far as seeing events, “As if one was looking at a moving picture on the page.” The writings are not dismissed as imagination, but professed to be a real ability to witness goings-on far into the future. Of course the downside is there being no guarantee that a listener would believe the claimant, or accept that his experiences were real; sadly, the dreamer being departed, no laboratory testing and corroboration would apply.

As an aside, a book I enjoyed long ago was “Bid Time Return” (1975), by Richard Matheson, made into a popular movie “Somewhere in Time” (1980). The novel presented a man speaking from his brother’s manuscript, telling how the sibling either projected himself back in time to a past age, or became ever more mentally ill as the possibly imagined illusion progressed. The fictional premise was not dissimilar to that of Wells, with the main character either travelling back to a former age, or simply believing events to be real under self-hypnosis. In TSOTTC the experience is an envisioned window into the future, but with the possibility that the dreamer is under a mistaken perception. Of course this is not the essence of the book – foreseeing potential changes to the world in the decades ahead, or far beyond. However, that said, if the premise requires too much belief being suspended the result can be dissatisfaction, the text a mixture of historical stream of consciousness, part polemic or part warning. Wells’s first novel “The Time Machine” (1895), offered a more literal and sci-fi excursion into the future, spanning many centuries. Amusingly, the writer himself became a character in the film “Time After Time” (1979), in which he actually invents the time machine, although his plans are usurped by Jack the Ripper in a bid to escape justice.

TSOTTC’s “BOOK THE SECOND – THE DAYS AFTER TOMORROW” records how “…the old order of the nineteenth century, the Capitalist System as it was called, came to disaster in the second and third decades of the twentieth century …” A good deal of the future years present war, battles between nations and global conflicts. BOOK THE THIRD – THE WORLD RENASCENCE: “The world was not able to unify before 1950 for a very simple reason: there was no comprehensive plan upon which it could unify…” Asia had been “Westernized, in Turkey, India, China, and Japan.” In addition “The New Model of Revolution” also embraces advances in technology. BOOK THE FOURTH – THE MODERN STATE MILITANT: Disappointingly, “…Raven left this very vital part of his story obscure and confused while he went on to the very last part of all…”; and so on the last section.

BOOK THE FIFTH – THE MODERN STATE IN CONTROL OF LIFE: The final ‘book’ encompasses the “Creation of a New World”, following the “Age of Frustration”, the days of the existing order, the “Era of the Modern State” now coming to an end, although there is almost half a century left in the ‘revelations’. Again I was reminded of another futuristic catastrophe movie, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (1961), when the newspapers, awaiting the world’s fate, print two alternative headlines: “World Saved” and “World Doomed”. Whether TSOTTC was intended as a sincere prediction of a future hell or solution, or an imaginative piece of science fiction, neither in my view achieved its aim. No doubt, given the very times in which the book was written, it might have then been more alarming. TSOCC, now approaching a century on, makes a plea for openness, in place of revolt, tyranny, insurrection, religious clashes and all the connected suffering. The ‘dream’ foretells that this harmonious state is going to happen anyway, so why not start bringing about now what lies ahead in any event.

Wells presented an unsettled mixture of history and fiction, the notion of a possible universal language and goal, across the globe. Perhaps one day the world will indeed be forced to coexist and end its planet-harming actions, although the onward trends of monopolising, protectionism, weapons development and sales, and so on, may make that a slender hope. There is no ‘crime and punishment’ in Wells’s dreamer’s vision, only an inevitable and permanent ‘readjustment’: “…social adaptations, as the confluence of wills supersedes individual motives and loses its present factors of artificiality, the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will. We in our time are still rising towards the crest of that transition. And when that crest is attained what grandeur of life may not open out to Man!”

Macmillan 1945 US; Corgi 1967 paperback.

The author has posed the struggle existing since time immemorial, goodness over evil – or perhaps in today’s case, ecological necessity. Raven’s manuscript ends abruptly and the reader/narrator asks, “ Was it a dream book or was it indeed, as he declared and believed it to be, a vision of the shape of things to come?” Like some sage visitor from outer space, shrugging when looking at the faults of Earth’s inhabitants, a message ‘from the future’ is delivered: “When the existing governments and ruling theories of life, the decaying religious and the decaying political forms of to-day, have sufficiently lost prestige through failure and catastrophe, then and then only will world-wide reconstruction be possible.” Sadly, George Orwell’s Winston Smith (“Nineteen Eighty-Four”; 1949) had a different expectation, writing in his forbidden journal: “If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated. The Party could not be overthrown from within.”

Thus TSOTTC. written as a kind of non-fiction account of a fictional state of affairs, pleads for “…devoted men and women who will try out and establish and impose a new pattern of living upon our race.” Ultimately the book’s conclusion is almost as if Wells leaves the reader to decide whether the reported dream is to be taken as a dark forecast, or dismissed as bunkum. The writer’s deceased diplomat has envisioned from the 1930as all the events which will occur far into the future. Leaving aside the irritating implausibility of such a boundless feat, the account of Raven’s dream did embrace the approaching threats of world war, unspeakable weapons and climate dangers. Ironically, when retrospectively considering TSOTTC, the only issues which can be brought into play are the factors affecting our planet now, which paradoxically means that if curing the present cannot be achieved, there is no point in vexing about the future.

The “Things to Come” (1936) movie, with its screenplay by Wells, was the most expensive British production at the time; albeit monochrome, future home releases offered colourised versions. The climax sees an angry multitude storming a rocket about to take Man off the planet to forge a new world, the Art Deco film set resembling that of the “Flash Gordon” serial out at the same time. The wise elder (actor Raymond Massey) is asked, “Is there never to be an age of happiness?” He declares in reply that mere rest is “… enough for the individual man… but for Man no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquer after conquer… all the universe or nothing.” His indictment is that by not aspiring to rule new worlds, humans will matter “no more than all the other animals”. In a peculiar way, the film answered Wells’s dreamer’s question for him, that there will only ever be competition and no peace; the conquerors feeling that doing nothing is a waste of their very existence. However, I prefer the continuing conflict to that of Winton Smith’s dystopia, that of the “Party” ruling with an iron hand forever, being invincible and inhumane. In fairness, TSOTTC drew much credit for its prescience, ahead of the world war which arrived at the end of the 1930s, and in respect of other technological revolutions.

Phew! A very thorough look at Wells’s book and the film it spawned – thank you, Mr. K!

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