Home

Kissing May goodbye and thinking about June! ;D

30 Comments

As well as being the last day of May, today is a Bank Holiday in the UK and also the Summer Half Term in schools. So I’m hoping to get a little time to rest, relax and read – which will be quite perfect! Looking back on May, it’s been a manic month in real life, but I *have* managed to read some lovely, lovely books and here they are:

I’m really happy about the books I read, and there were no disappointments so I count that as a result! Impossible to pick favourites, but the Dostoevsky and Plath/Sexton biographies were both pretty outstanding.

As for June, I’m currently keeping my options fairly open. However, one thing I *am* certain about is that I’m taking part in a blog tour for one of the new British Library Women Writers titles – and that post will be up on Wednesday. Spoiler alert – I loved the book – tune in to see what I thought of it!

There are, of course, numerous challenges floating about in the blogosphere, most notably “20 Books of Summer”, hosted by Cathy from 746Books. I’ve always steered clear of this, not because I don’t think it’s a great event – it really is a good one! And I think I would have no trouble completing it because I’ve been known to read close to that many books in a month. The issue I would have is sticking to a list – I am notoriously bad at that, even failing when I make my own plans, which is why I mostly stick to my random reading trends following my whims. However, there *are* a good number of books I’m circling with an intention to read soon, and here are some:

Barthes and Derrida are calling; but there’s Stepanova and bell hooks – all so tempting….

This impressive pile has some of the chunkier volumes which are lurking, and I’ve been wondering about making them some kind of summer reading project; perhaps a low-pressure intention to dip into Whitman and “Aurora Leigh” over the summer holidays and just enjoy them, maybe reading alongside other books.

There’s also the ginormous pile of review books which never seems to get any smaller! Here’s a towering heap of them and they all sound absolutely marvellous too!

But for now, there’s June to get through, so I shall continue to let my grasshopper mind guide me on my reading journey! What plans do you have for June and summer reading? 😀

“…being a bit more Baudelaire…” – Sylvia Plath’s adventures in Paris @Mr_Dave_Haslam

34 Comments

I’ve commented before on what a bad influence Book Twitter is on my TBR, but if I’m truly honest I really don’t mind. I’ve come across some wonderful books thanks to my random wanderings online, and today’s post is about a case in point. I first stumbled on mention of this book somewhere on Twitter and because of the subject matter was instantly intrigued! The book is “My Second Home: Sylvia Plath in Paris, 1956” by Dave Haslam; and being a bit of a Plath addict, it was of course a must!

Haslam is a writer, broadcaster and DJ, renowned for over 450 DJ sessions at the famous (notorious?) Haçienda nightclub in Manchester. As well as writing for publications like the New Musical Express, The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and The Times, he’s also published five full-length books. “My Second Home” is what he calls a mini book, part of a series called ‘Art Decades’ and as well as being a moving read, it’s also a beautifully produced little book. Published by Confingo Publishing in a limited edition, it explores a pivotal time in Plath’s life – and I couldn’t put it down.

Before her first trip to Paris, in a letter to her mother, Sylvia said she yearned to see ‘the blazing lights and wonders of (the) city’. Paris, to Sylvia, was a mythical place which promised light and delight and deep experiences. Maybe we all have such places in our minds. Where we imagine uncaging ourselves and discovering the secrets of life.

In 1955/6 Plath’s life was in flux; she was in Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship, and trying to adjust to the contrast between 1950s America and 1950s Britain. Her relationships were also in flux; she’d spent Christmas 1955 in Paris with lover Richard Sassoon, often referred to as her ‘man that got away’. However, when she returned to the city for Easter 1956, Sassoon had done a bunk and basically broken off the relationship. Things were complicated by the fact that not long before decamping to Paris, Plath had had her fateful first meeting with Ted Hughes, subsequently spending the night before her departure to France with him in London. Haslam’s book follows Plath through that Easter visit to Paris, drawing on her letters and journals, and painting a picture of a woman enjoying her freedom, exploring the city, contemplating having flings with casual acquaintances and pondering her future.

“My Second Home” is beautifully written; Haslam captures wonderfully the sense of how Plath was feeling, her joy at being in Paris and her sense of adventure. Being a single and attractive woman in Paris in 1950s was not without risk, but Plath negotiated things carefully, relished meeting up with old friends and making contacts with strangers. In the end, having missed a number of letters which had been forwarded to Cambridge by mistake, she returned to Cambridge and Ted; we know how that played out, but Haslam captures quite brilliantly Plath at a turning point where the future wasn’t yet written.

That’s it though. Fate, decisions, a conversation with a stranger, a moment of irresponsibility, someone hearing your faint cry. And opportunities, choices, decisions. Richard, Ted: do the missing letters hold any clues? What’s being said? What decisions have been made? Questions were falling like rain on the Paris rooftops.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this lovely little book, but it was a real treat. Haslam puts Plath firmly in context, exploring briefly her life before Paris, and summing up the aftermath. He also gives hints of what was happening in the wider world, allowing us a kind of time travel back to 1956 so we can almost wander through Paris by Plath’s side. This is the Paris captured in the film “The Red Balloon”, something of a touchstone in the book, and it’s a Paris I would have loved to see. Although Haslam is even-handed in his portrayal of Plath and those in her life, I sympathised with his obvious annoyance with Hughes’s portrayal of Plath’s Parisian adventure; particularly in his “Birthday Letters” poem about the time the couple stayed in Paris together. Haslam takes issue with Hughes’s later version of events, his viewpoint that his interpretation of Paris was the best one whilst belittling Plath’s experiences; Haslam disagrees, touchingly allowing Plath her Paris.

‘I felt downright happy,’ she wrote in her journal. She describes how a calmness came over her that Sunday morning, an awakening. It’s a beautiful moment, Plath’s realisation of liberation and belonging: ‘I had as much right to take my time eating, to look around; to wander & sit in the sun in Paris as anyone’.

I read “My Second Home” in one sitting and absolutely loved it; for 57 pages I was in Paris with Plath, seeing it through her eyes, and it was a wonderful experience. I finished the book feeling as emotional about Plath as I always do, and thoroughly impressed by Haslam’s achievement with the book. It left me with the beautiful image of Plath tripping through the City of Light in her lightweight ballet pumps, happy and proud to be living her life – and that’s how I would like to think of her. A lovely little book and recommended for anyone who loves Plath.

The shining stars of the City of Light – over @ShinyNewBooks

19 Comments

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today which I want to share with you, and it’s a book which turned out to be a particularly interesting read! Paris, the City of Light, holds a great fascination for me, as do its writers and artists. So when I was given the chance of reviewing a book which explored the creatives passing through Paris in the first half of the 20th century I jumped at the chance – and this is it!

Twentieth Century Paris (1900-1950) – A Literary Guide for Travellers by Marie-José Gransard takes a look at the city in what was a golden age. From Josephine Baker to Jean Cocteau, James Baldwin to Ernest Hemingway, the place was bursting at the seams with brilliant, creative people. It wasn’t all glitter, though, as characters like Jean Rhys and George Orwell found poverty did not go down well there.

The book is a fascinating read, and made me wish for a time travel machine! You can read my full review here. 😀

“… some girls are so silly…” @spikenard65 #fmmayor

29 Comments

It’s been marvellous to see over recent years the resurgence of interest in, and republishing of, many neglected women writers of the 20th century. Virago, of course, led the way with their Modern Classics, launched in the 1980s; Persephone and Furrowed Middlebrow are more recent imprints; then there’s the freshly launched British Library Women Writers series which is going from strength to strength. Michael Walmer, whose books you’ll have seen featured on the Ramblings a number of times, is also responsible for some lovely reprints of unjustly ignored books; his Zephyr series of attractive hardback editions, which I’ve covered before, has featured some intriguing writers like Sarah Grand, Henry Handel Richardson and Elizabeth Berridge, all of whom produced excellent works. His latest release in the series is from another woman author, one who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries and has been released in VMC – F.M. Mayor. The book is a short piece entitled “Miss Browne’s Friend” and it certainly makes intriguing reading.

At just over 30 pages, this is more of a short story than anything else, and it was first published in four parts between June 1914 and March 1915, not long after her first novel, “The Third Miss Symons” had been released. “Miss Browne…” takes as its subject the relationship between the titular lady and a young woman called Mabel Roberts. Set just before the first World War, the story takes place in a time where unmarried women who’d reached a certain age and were obviously not going to marry and settle down became what Barbara Pym would later call ‘excellent women’. Helping to support family members and involving themselves in good works was seen as suitable occupation for them; because, being of a certain class, they would not be expected to do any kind of paid job, and something was needed to fill their time.

So into Miss Browne’s life comes Mabel; of a different class to her benefactor, she has had a Bad Start in life and fallen into what the blurb calls ‘dubious ways’. Miss Browne is charmed by Mabel’s pleasing looks and helps her to find a position as a maid so that the young woman can turn her life around. However, all does not go to plan, and as time goes on, Mabel moves from post to post, with the reports of her behaviour by her employers contrasting sharply to how she appears to Miss Browne. Can the latter help Mabel take a better path in life, or will the younger woman slip back into her bad ways?

Mayor’s story captures so much in so few pages, which is pretty impressive. In particular, the contrast between the two women of completely different backgrounds and class is brilliantly portrayed. Miss Browne is hopelessly naive, with little experience of the kind of world in which Mabel lives and moves; and Mabel, with her disingenuous behaviour and clever ways, can easily persuade Miss Browne that she is the wronged one, not her employers. You can’t really condemn Mabel, though; because as the book makes clear, whatever class you come from, the options for women during this period of time are very limited. Mabel would no doubt appreciate the Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, because she does – and who can blame her? Meanwhile, poor Miss Browne, well-meaning but blind to the reality of Mabel’s true nature, stumbles on, trying to do her best but never really understanding what it’s like to start life as Mabel did, and to have to deal with what life throws at you when you have no money and no prospects.

“Miss Browne’s Friend” is an enjoyable read which really shows how narrow women’s lives were at the start of 20th century. The various Suffragette and feminist movements over the years would gradually change things (although we are still having to fight for women’s rights in the 21st century); but it’s interesting to look back and at least see how far we’ve come. Mayor’s story is a fascinating read and a vivid little window into the past – highly recommended!

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

 

A book of inspiration for ‘grammar vigilantes’!! #hyphensandhashtags @NonFictioness

44 Comments

I seem to be spending quite a lot of time with non-fiction reading lately; I do think that sometimes, when life is a bit frantic, I don’t always have the mental energy to engage properly with fiction and I’ve spent many happy reading hours recently with all manner of non-fiction. “Hyphens and Hashtags” by Claire Cock-Starkey was a book I was particularly interested in reading; I read her lovely “Library Miscellany” back in 2018, and it was absolutely fascinating. Cock-Starkey is the author of a number of non-fiction works, and here she takes a look at the punctuation and symbols we use every day in written communication. As well as being a really interesting read, there was much I learned which I didn’t know before!

Here I should declare a particular interest: my dad worked in the print trade for much of his life, initially setting metal text by hand and then transitioning to computer typesetting when that came in. So the nuts and bolts of getting language onto a printed page really have a fascination for me. If you add to that the fact that I did a secretarial diploma course when I was young and learned to touch-type on old manual typewriters, then nice shiny new electric machines, it becomes obvious that I really am the ideal reader for a book about making marks on paper and understanding their meanings!

“Hyphens…” starts off with a section that looks at puncutation marks and their history; and it’s quite fascinating to follow the development of the various marks into the standardised forms we use now. Cock-Starkey then goes onto explors glyphs (hash tags, asterisk, pound signs etc), maths symbols and those endangered or lost forms we don’t use any more. Interestingly, she covers the Tilde in this section (one of these ~) and I recall these being commonplace in the early days of the Internet, and a friend of mind having to explain to me what one was! Apparently this endangered sign is possibly being rescued by use on Twitter, which is nice! So many of the symbols are fluid in meaning, often being reinvented for different usage as the world changes. And it was lovely (for personal reasons…) to see acknowledgement of the influence of typesetters in codifiying the use of signs over the years!

I really enjoyed my journey through our written signs and symbols; the book is surprisingly wide-ranging, reaching all the way back into history (ampersands in Pompei!!) and considering the future of the various marks we make, and how we use them. “Hashtags…” is very readable and stuffed full of fascinating facts – I was particularly interested in the influence of the Humanists on the standardisation of punctuation, which I’d not read about before. It’s a book which you could either dip into, or read straight through – either works, although there is perhaps a little repetition if you do the latter, though it’s not a problem.

Metal_movable_type.jpg: Willi Heidelbachderivative work: Daniel., CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a number of Bodleian Library books over the years, and they’re always beautifully produced; this particular edition is a compact hardback with nice thick paper and a lovely clear typeface which is a pleasure to read. You might not really have thought much about the punctuation marks we use every day, but as “Hyphens and Hashtags” reminds us, they’re absolutely vital, particularly for us readers. Without them, everything we read would just be an endless sea of words with no breaks or boundaries – and although some modernist authors might have aimed for that effect, by and large we certainly need our punctuation! This is a lovely book and a fascinating read – highly recommended!

“I believe…that the future belongs to ghosts…” #maelrenouard @NYRB_Imprints

28 Comments

There are a number of imprints which turn up regularly on the Ramblings, and NYRB is one of those; as a rule, I tend to read their Classics range, although their poetry is sneaking in now and again; and today I want to share some thoughts about a recent release from their main imprint. The book is “Fragments of an Infinite Memory” by Maël Renouard – and the subtitle of “My Life with the Internet” gives some idea of what it’s about.

Renouard is a novelist, essayist and translator who’s taught philosophy at the Sorbonne; and as he reveals, is old enough to remember the time before the Internet, but young enough to have embraced it and absorbed it into his life. Here he gathers together a wonderful and thought-provoking series of writings which range far and wide whilst exploring the effect the Internet has had on human beings – and it really is a fascinating read.

Today, images come one after another, devour each other, replace each other pitilessly, as if to outmatch the boundlessness of our desire.

“Fragments…” is split into eleven numbered sections, which I would hesitate to designate as chapters, or even essays, as each branches off in many different directions. There are memoirs of the early days of the Internet; quotes from friends reflecting on their feelings about it; spoof historical sections referencing the ‘Book of Face’; projections of how we might adapt to technology in the future; and so much more. Because of the author’s memories of pre-technology times, he’s able to take a long view on how humans have been changed by their increasing interactions with the digital, and I found some fascinating resonances in these sections. Renouard’s musings on memory chimed in very much with my reading of “In Memory of Memory” by Maria Stepanova, with both authors exploring how humanity’s constant recording of the present is turning into a giant respository of information which will be accessible to all in the future.

Who hasn’t gone on the Internet looking for past loves and friends not seen for years? Time lost in search of lost time.

Renouard also explores the more potentially problematic nature of the Internet; how it’s hard to remain invisible nowadays, how we can track old friends and colleagues; and how we now seem to feel the need to share so much of ourselves online. Conversely, it’s also possible to create an online presence of someone who doesn’t actually exist… There is a whole section on photography which again ties in with Stepanova’s discussion of this, and Renouard is aware of how we lose the immediacy of the moment we’re in by constantly recording it on our phones. Whether lamenting the loss of non-digital processes, considering the possibilities of AI or discussing the concepts of immortality, Renouard is never less than fascinating.

In the Internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years.

Although the author initially seems to treat the internet as some kind of stand-alone external global memory, exploration reveals that is not the case. Mr. Kaggsy, who has a long memory, is fond of pointing out that the Internet is only a load of massive servers; despite Renouard’s occasional assertions that you can find anything you want on it, it’s not a mass repository of all knowledge and all history because it is a human creation and only reflects what is uploaded to those servers. Mr. K and I will often recall a song or a TV programme from the past, and find no mention of it online; the Internet is as fragmentary as our human, grasshopper minds, full of scraps of often random or pointless knowledge retained heaven knows why, but certainly by no means complete…

In Stalin’s time, you got rid of a person by erasing every last trace of him. Today this task is accomplished by exhibiting every last inch of him to public view.

“Fragments…”, here translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, was originally published in 2015 in French and so of course the Internet Renouard discusses has obviously changed markedly in those years; technology certainly never stands still nowadays. This is not a work that I feel intends to draw one overall conclusion; however, its series of observations, musing and explorations delves quite deeply, setting you off on all manner of trains of thought, and you can see by the number of places I marked how fascinated I was by the book! 😀

Map of the Internet – Matt Britt, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Internet and how it affects us is a huge topic, and Renouard’s exploration of the subject is multi-faceted and really would repay re-reading; it’s a book I’d like to return to and spend time dipping back into. It can’t be disputed that we humans have been irrevocably changed by the advent of the online experience, and a quick glance at any group of people in the streets glued to their phones only serves to reinforce this. What reading a book like this encourages you to do is at least *think* about how you’re interacting with the Internet and maybe take back a little more control. We live in a digital age, and that isn’t going to change; but maybe at least we can try and keep control in our hands, and not with the machines!

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

Some thoughts on Daphne du Maurier for #DDMreadingweek

32 Comments

This week has seen HeavenAli’s wonderful initiative of the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week – and I have to confess up front that I shall once again fail to read a book in time to join in… It’s not as if I don’t have two possible titles lined up, both of which I’m eager to read, and here they are:

Both have elements which make me very keen to read them: “I’ll Never Be Young Again” is du Maurier’s second novel and sounds quite fascinating. She adopts a male narrator’s voice and parts are set in Paris, so that’s of course right up my street. And “The Glassblowers” is set in the French Revolution so once again it’s ideal reading. Alas, time and other reading commitments are against me this week, so I shall have to save them for the right moment…

My first encounter with Daphne du Maurier was actually a long, long time ago when I read “The House on the Strand” in my teens. My edition, which I don’t think I have any more, looked like this:

Although it’s decades since I read it, I have happy memories of the book and have often considered revisiting it; though there’s always the risk of a disappointment when re-reading after such a long break. But apart from this, I’m *fairly* sure I’ve not read any other novels by du Maurier, particularly her most famous titles “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn” – which is a little shocking really. The trouble is, the plots are so well known, that I can never be sure…

However, I *did* very much enjoy “The Breakthrough“, one of du Maurier’s short stories which I read as part of my Penguin Moderns set:

You can read my thoughts here, and I must admit that I’d be keen to read more of her short works; this was a particularly striking story and it impressed me very much.

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying reading everyone’s posts on Daphne du Maurier and if you check out Ali’s blog she has a dedicated page for the week which will no doubt send you off in all directions seeing what everyone has been reading. I do hope she decides to do a DDM reading week next year – if I get organised far enough in advance I might actually manage to take part! ;D

“..it was secret and nobody could trick her out of it.” #Zilberbourg2021 #LikeWater

25 Comments

As a rule, I am totally rubbish at taking part in, and sticking to, any kind of reading challenge. Whether it’s someone’s reading week, or a readalong, or just making my own plan and following it through, I pretty much always fail. So when I approached a recent Twitter readalong – which I really *did* want to take part in! – I had little confidence I would see it through. However, I’m pleased to report that not only did I stick to the schedule, but also that this turned out to be the perfect way to read the book in question! 😀

The book is “Like Water and Other Stories” by Olga Zilberbourg, her English-language debut published in 2019 by wtaw press. Zilberbourg was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, but grew up in what reverted to St. Petersburg in 1991 and now lives in California. As well as publishing three Russian-language collections of stories, she serves as a consulting editor at Narrative Magazine and as a co-facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop. She also runs the excellent Punctured Lines blog with Yelena Furman, taking a feminist look at literature from the former Soviet Union. For clarity’s sake, I should say that Olga was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, for which I am *very* grateful. I sensed that it would be my sort of book, and it certainly is, and so to have a copy directly from the author is a real treat – thank you, Olga. The Twitter readalong was organised under the hashtag #Zilberbourg2021 by Reem @PaperPills and the reading schedule was put together by Kim @joiedevivre9 – thank you both, ladies, for the motivation!

“Like Water” collects together a series of short works, varying in length from half a page to several pages long. In these, Zilberbourg explores a real range of tales and right from the start the stories are stunning. The collection opens with Rubicon which slips through time and place, as well as introducing an element which will recur – the mixtape and its importance in the courtship rituals of the young! Evasion takes a quirky look at ageing, equating it with growing in size. Helen More’s Suicide, a longer piece, explores why we live and choose to die; and Dandelion is a wonderful story, and one which puts you inside the mind of a writer, sending their work off into the wider world.

The forty-year-olds required higher ceilings, taller furniture. An occasional forty-year-old, nostalgic for her childhood, tried dating a twenty-something, but the romance was physically difficult to sustain. She had to crouch down to him, and he could not, on his own, open the door to her fridge and take out the pot of beans.

Other stories, like My Sister’s Game, explore the pains of coming of age; Therapy. Or Something. is a quite devastating look at a smothering parent (and as I have a complex relationship with my mother, it certainly made me squirm). Dr Sveta was a particularly powerful story, drawing on Russia’s Soviet past, and revealing just how little choice women had under that regime. Many of Olga’s stories feature women torn between two cultures, fighting the expectations of society (and their own family); and the pressures this puts on the characters were tellingly revealed. Whether set in Russia or America, all of these women narrators are negotiating a complex path through life, and their struggles are very relatable (even when the stories twist off into more surreal territory).

“Like Water” turned out to be such an excellent read, and I’m so glad Book Twitter came up with this readalong! What was particularly brilliant about reading the stories in this way, a set amount of pages each day, was that it allowed time to savour the writing and let the tales settle in the mind. “Like Water” is a particularly varied collection of stories, and even had I read it all in one go I think there would have been no danger of them running together. However, the scheduled gap allowed even more time to think back and appreciate the brilliant storytelling. And as well as everything else, having this very doable schedule to work to allowed me to read a non-fiction work alongside “Like Water” (more of which in a later post!) and so that was a double result!!

As you might have guessed, I loved this collection; Olga’s stories are funny, human, clever, sad, as well as being very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I mean it as a compliment when I say that at times I picked up hints of Tolstoya, another author straddling two continents; although Zilberbourg’s voice is completely individual and her style very much her own. Whether writing about childhood in Russia, struggling as a working woman in America, dealing with unexpected anti-Semitism, or discovering differences in the immigrant experience, Olga takes a clear and vibrant look at things, and it’s always terrific reading. I know I’m not alone in my love for this collection, and I highly recommend it!

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

20 Comments

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

22 Comments

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!

 

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: