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“…you’ve made the world…” @sublunaryeds #rilke

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I have to confess to having been in a little bit of a reading slump recently; I read very intensely the wonderful book “Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me”, which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books, and it left me with such a book hangover that I’ve struggled to know what else to pick up. “Adolphe” was a pleasant distraction, and after that I decided to let my grasshopper mind settle for a little while on some poetry – a slim and fascinating collection by that wonderful versifier, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Here I need to add another confession; although I’ve read Rilke’s fiction and letters as well as a book about his time in Paris, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down with his poetic works… Which is a bit shocking, really.  So “The Voice and Other Poems”, translated by Kistofor Minta and part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions, was just right to pick up at the moment and rectify this.

This dual language collection brings together what the translator describes works which contrast with Rilke’s “thing-poems”; I’m of course not well-versed (hah!) enough to comment, but what I can say is that the works here were very beautiful and memorable. Most are drawn from the collection “The Voices”, where the poet speaks in the voice of others, such as the beggar, the blind man, the orphan, the leper and so on. Particularly striking was “The Song of the Suicide”:

They hold out the spoon to me,
The spoon of life;
No, I want and I want no more,
Let me spew myself up.

Other works are drawn from “The Book of Images” and “New Poems (1907-19080”; all somehow suggest people struggling and suffering yet somehow surviving; and all linger in the mind. “The Prisoner” was another standout, with its opening lines:

My hand has only one
gesture – I frighten them off with it;
Onto ancient stones,
drops fall from dank rocks above.

A work like “Girl’s Lament” demonstrates that very little changes in the world, as children quarrel and pick sides in their games; and “The Song of the Widow” was heartbreaking:

…we both had nothing but patience;
but Death has none.
I saw him coming (how wickedly he came),
and I watched as he took and took:
there was nothing that belonged to me.

I often find poetry very hard to write about, and I couldn’t honestly say I understand the meaning behind all of these verses. However, I did love reading them, once again wallowing in the beautiful sound of words. “The Voices…” has really whetted my appetite for Rilke’s poetry and I think instead of reading round the edges of his writings, I need to dive in and explore much more of his verse. This was the perfect read for an unsettled brain!

“Love is but a luminous point…” #adolphe #benjaminconstant @riverrunbooks

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Books tend to come into the Ramblings from all sorts of directions; a case in point being the title featuring on the blog today. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant is a work from 1816 which was reissued in 2021 by riverrun editions. My copy came via (I think) a Twitter giveaway and it turned out to be a fascinating read! Constant himself is an intriguing figure; a political activist and writer on political theory and religion, he was involved in the French revolution of 1795, then spent much time over the following decades switching allegiance to and from Napoleon, fleeing France and returning to it, and even supporting Louis Philippe I during the revolution of 1830! A very lively life indeed!

“Adolphe” was Constant’s only novel to make it into print during his lifetime, and has a somewhat convoluted history. After its publication in 1816, the author faced all kinds of accusations that the book was based on real people and events, and it was seen as a kind of act of revenge on his previous lover, Madame de Stael. The book had originally been published in French in 1816 by the Bond Street bookseller, Henry Colburn; the 1816 English translation by Alexander Walker was issued in 1817 in Philadelphia; and the version here is based on that edition. As well as the original text itself, it also includes prefaces to the second and third edition, plus a passage excised from the 1816 edition and restored to that of 1824. A book with a complex time-line, then!

On to the work itself. “Adolphe” presents itself as a ‘found’ text, handed to a stranger who then decides to publish it. The first person narrator, Adolphe himself, tells the story of his affair with his older lover, Ellenore; the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***, she has worked hard to get herself slightly accepted by society, and has children with the Comte. Into her life comes the alienated Adolphe, melancholy and introverted; and inspired by the affair of a friend, he decides that he should try his hand at seduction, settling on Ellenore. To be honest, she’s not the obvious choice; ten years older than him, and yoked to the Comte by bonds of loyalty and the many travails they have gone through, she does resist him at first. And the more she resists, the more he convinces himself he loves her. Inevitably, once he’s won through her reserve and she’s fallen in love with him, his ardour cools. Thus begins the emotional tug-of-war between the two which will lead to her leaving her security behind, to Adolphe vascillating between the demands of lover and family and duty, and ultimately to tragedy. More than that I will not say…

Whoever had read my heart in her absence, would have taken me for a cold and unfeeling seducer. Whoever had seen me at her side, would have believed he discovered in me a lover inexperienced, interdicted, and impassioned. They would have been equally deceived in these two opinions. There is no complete unity in man; and scarce anyone is entirely sincere, or entirely deceitful.

“Adolphe” was an intense and engrossing read, full of angst and emotion and duels and high dudgeon! I was reminded in places of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the authors of the time didn’t shy away from dealing with deeply romantic scenarios; in fact, it’s notable that we read much more about the emotions and the angst of the characters, with the settings and locations getting scant mention. The focus is on humans and their passions; the setting could be anywhere.

The riverrun edition is edited, with a preface by Richard Sieburth and this too makes fascinating reading. He provides background information about Constant, his relationships with women, and the inspiration behind “Adolphe”, all of which adds to the reading experience. He also draws parallels with the Byron/Shelley menage who were at the time writing at the Villa Diodati, which was unexpected. Most interestingly, he makes a strong case for the Walker translation being the best one to read; although there have been more recent versions (Leonard Tancock in 1964, and Margaret Mauldon in 2001), Sieburth is of the opinion that Walker’s is a more accurate rendering, and notes that the later translators have for example added quotation marks to the speech in the novel, whereas Constant explicitly excised these from both editions of the book he oversaw. That kind of sells me on this version…

So a slightly unexpected arrival, and one which turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing and transporting read. The book is only 128 pages long, which is probably just right for prose at such an intense level; the characters and their fate linger in the mind; and the emotions which spark back and forth between the two protagonists do seem very modern and recognisable… “Adolphe” is an excellent read and if you fancy spending some time with it, I do recommend this edition!

 

Drama, humour and mystery in the early days of the war! #BLCC @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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In complete contrast to my last read, today on the Ramblings I’m heading off to WW2 London with another marvellous release in the British Library Crime Classics range. Truth be told, a good number of my favourites have been set during that conflict, and the blessing of having crime fiction into which you can escape is something Martin Edwards picks up in his excellent intro. More of that later, maybe – but now onto the book, which has an interesting history of its own…

“Murder’s a Swine” was first published in 1943, and was the second crime book from Nap Lombard; the first was “Tidy Death” in 1940. However, fascinatingly, Nap Lombard was actually a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team – Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. Johnson would go on to be a successful novelist in her own right, later marrying the writer C.P. Snow; Stewart seems to have sliped into obscurity. However, on the strength of this mystery, they made a formidable writing team!

The protagonists/sleuths of “Swine…” are Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; and the setting is the ‘phoney war’, that period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to April 1940 when war had been declared but nothing much seemed to be happening apart from a lot of messing around with blackouts, sandbags and air raid wardens. In the middle of this set-up, Agnes, whose husband is away in the army, stumbles on a dead body hidden in the sandbags of their building’s bomb shelter. Fortunately, Andrew turns up on leave, as hot on the heels of this discovery, one of their upstairs neighbours is terrorised by the sight of a pig’s head at her fourth-floor window! This is followed by threatening messages signed “Pig-sticker”, and the amateur sleuths can’t help but get involved. Luckily, the wonderfully-named Inspector Eggshell is happy to have them on board, although Andrew’s cousin is not. The latter, Lord Winsterstone, ironically nicknamed by the Kinghofs “Lord Pig”, is something high up in Scotland Yard and is furious at them getting involved!

As the two detectives sleuth away, it becomes clear that someone in their block of flats is likely to be the guilty party. An old family feud is revealed; there is another death plus more and more frights and threats. But who *can* the culprit be? Madame Charnet, a deaf Frenchwoman, seems unlikely; Mr. Warrender, who works in Government, appears very respectable; and Felix Lang, the trainee doctor, surely has to be too scatty to behave in such a sinister way… With Andrew coming and going according to the vagaries of the army, Agnes getting herself into all sorts of scrapes, Eggshell beavering away behind the scenes to try to get to the truth, the entrance of a lovely young legatee, and Lord Pig attempting to control his temper and get the better of the Klinghofs, there really wasn’t a dull moment in the story! It builds up to a wonderfully dramatic climax (which is perhaps a tad unorthadox, but nevertheless really enjoyable), and the book left me wishing there were more Nap Lombard tales to read!

Waterloo presented its usual appearance of war-time excitement. Tired men in khaki and blue trailed the kit towards the platforms, wives and sweethearts roamed in search of their lovers through the bands of fog. In the buffets glasses and thick china rattled and clattered. The smoke from a thousand cigarettes rose to the vaultings above. Porters swung the trolleys wild just in time to miss the heedless lounger. Men and women kissed and clung, oblivious to the sifting crowds. Mothers, with nodding, wailing babies awake too late, sought their men folk.

One particular joy in “Swine” was the wonderful portrayal of the Klinghofs; as Martin Edwards mentions in the intro, there’s more than a hint of Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man” (which is a huge favourite of mine) and their drinking, verbal repartee and obvious affection for each other is quite lovely (there’s even a sly reference to Myrna Loy, who played Nora in the films). Agnes is a particular standout; given by the author(s) plain looks but an outstanding voice and legs, she’s plucky and game for any adventure. The supporting cast is wonderful too, with Eggshell a real favourite; and watching Lord Pig failing to outdo the Klinghofs was hilarious. In fact, humour is a strong element of the book; although that doesn’t stop there being a corresponding darker side. The villain is really villainous; a right nasty piece of work, and there are times when I was on edge because of the genuine peril in which the heroes and their allies found themselves!

“Murder’s A Swine” has to count as one of the most enjoyable British Library Crime Classics I’ve read; and I *have* read a lot of them, and I *have* loved most of them, so the bar is high. But the combination of wartime setting, fiendishly clever mystery (I didn’t guess….), brilliant characterisation, plus laugh out loud humour balanced with creepy terror, made this one a real winner. I so wish that the Nap Lombard pair had created more books relating the exploits of Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; but they didn’t, so I can only hope that at least the British Library will release their other title as a Crime Classic! As Martin Edwards concludes, this kind of escapist, entertaining mystery must have been a wonderful distraction during the War, and he’s definitely right that it is during a pandemic too…

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

April reading – and whence May??

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I really *don’t* know where April went to; I do think that living under a pandemic has done something weird to time. Nevertheless, it is now May and so I think I’ll have to regroup once more and consider what shape my reading will take this month!

April itself was, of course, brim full of (mostly) good books, and here’s what I actually read during the month:

As you can see, there are a number of chunky ones! Several were for the #1936Club (though I hasten to point out I did *not* read the whole Nabokov short story collection!); and I have a couple of titles to review for Shiny New Books. There was, of course, one dud for me, but c’est la vie – mostly I enjoy what I choose.

Looking forward to May, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to read next. I finished the “Monica Jones….” book last night and have a bit of a hangover, and probably want something of a change. Plus I have a number of review books in the stacks demanding attention, and they’re all very appealing:

Mainly chunky review books…
This one is calling strongly!
Some lovely titles from the British Library

These are some other options – what I’ll pick I don’t know!

Is there anything here which takes your fancy or which you’d recommend??? 😀

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