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“…great acts of violence are covered up as legitimate acts of war…” @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary

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Today on the Ramblings sees a return to one of my favourite types of reading matter – something Russian! It’s been a little while since anything from that country graced the blog (well, a week since I directed you to Shiny New Books!), and I always fear dipping into RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency…) Fortunately, one particular publisher is always on hand to help rectify that – the very wonderful Columbia University Press with their Russian Library imprint. I’ve covered a number of their titles (several for Shiny New Books) and they issue some really fascinating works which are not so well known as all the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys that a certain pair of celebrity translators keep going back to again and again and again… (ahem…) Today’s book is a case in point; I’ve never come across either author or title before, but it was an absolutely fascinating read.

“Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” by Alexander Radishchev (here translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman) was first published in 1790, the time of Catherine the Great, and it caused a stir; so much so that the author was initially condemned to death although this was eventually commuted to Siberian exile. So why should what is ostensibly a travel book cause so much uproar, and have such radical results for its author?

Radishchev was born into a minor noble family, and his book recounts a fictional journey between the two great cities of Russia. The path is along the postal route, with the narrator halting at points along the way, encountering many different types during his journey and exploring the good and bad points of Russian society. This framing device allows the author to have his character take a look at the social and economic issues facing the country, including the problem which seems to be the one which usually occupies the Russian intellectual – the evils of serfdom.

How much good can it do you, boyars, that you eat sugar while we go hungry? Children are dying, adults die too. But what can you do – you grieve for a while, you grieve but do what your master orders.

The book’s format is wonderfully flexible, allowing the author to include sentimental stories, poetry, theatrical plots, essays on history, theories on how to best raise children, and of course many meditations on the structure of Russian society and politics, with the corruption that runs through it. All of this makes for a fascinating and entertaining read, and I can see why it was considered so subversive. The author/narrator is particularly concerned with the ethical and moral, and his views on the evils of serfdom were considered very radical at the time. Although the book was apparently seen as a challenge to Catherine the Great, Radishchev did not think of himself as a radical; he simply recorded what he saw. And what he witnessed is actually quite shocking, whichever way he tells it; the serfs had a terrible life, being no more than slaves, and it’s not surprising that anyone wanting change knew that freedom for the serfs was vital.

One particularly striking section is where the narrator dreams of being all-powerful, a regal power ruling over an obsequious court. This power goes to his head and he’s on the point of ordering the invasion of another country when the figure of truth appears in the form of a “Straight Seer and Eye Doctor” to show him the error of his ways. So it’s not surprising that Catherine perceived the book as a threat, is it?

Although medication always traveled with me just in case, it was according to the proverb “each wise man has his share of foolishness”: I was not forearmed against delirium, which is why my head, when I arrived at the postal station, was in worse shape than a wig stand.

“Journey…” was a fascinating read from start to finish (and often unexpectedly entertaining!), and I’m not surprised that it’s considered the precursor of all the subversive literature which followed in Russia, right up to Solzhenitsyn in the 20th century. It’s a text which I believe has been little known to the general reader of Russian literature up until now (certainly I hadn’t heard of it), so it’s particularly pleasing to have it rendered so readably into English by Kahn and Reyfman (I have heard that the Russian here is not always easy to translate). As with all CUP Russian Library titles, there’s an excellent introduction (here by the translators), plus copious supporting notes.

Radishchev (Public Domain – By Unidentified painter – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1265966)

Radishchev did not live a long life; on return from his exile to Siberia he was confined to his estate, but continued to try to work on political reforms in his country. Despite his efforts, he was unable to make changes, and in 1802, after mention of another possible exile, he took his own life. His most famous work, however, remains, as a wonderful insight into the Russia of Catherine the Great, its politics, its social issues and the suffering of the serfs. A fascinating book, and an essential read for anyone interested in the society, thought and literature of the time!

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

 

“She was as familiar with the edge of a scalpel as she was with the tip of a paintbrush” @NottingHillEds #fridakahlo

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Back in 2018, I took a trip to London with my dear friend J. to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition “Making Her Self Up” at the V&A Museum. Kahlo is an artist whose life and work I find endlessly fascinating, and I’ve read much about her over the years. So when Notting Hill Editions revealed they were publishing a new work by Emily Rapp Black entitled “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg”, I was very intrigued; the collision of one of my favourite artists and one of my favourite publishers was always going to be intriguing!

Rapp Black is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a school nurse, and her childhood was dominated by her health; born with a congenital birth defect that resulted in the amputation of her left leg, her essay/memoir explores that experience, how it’s affected her over the years and how she’s drawn on her emotional connection with Frida Kahlo during her life.

Frida painted her corsets to be objects of beauty, even after her body was rent like a garment of grief, even after her back collapsed, even after her leg was gone. She was playful with her pain; she adorned it, advertised it, knowing that there is no story that stops death.

Rapp Black has been an amputee for the bulk of her life; Kahlo became one during her final years. Yet Rapp Black senses a kinship between them, and in the book she explores Kahlo’s life and experiences through her art, her letters, her diaries and her relationships. It’s not hard to understand how Kahlo can be so inspirational; she survived a bout of childhood polio, and then the most shocking, devastating injuries during a bus crash. It’s really unbelievable that she made it through that (I winced being reminded of just how horrible the effects were) and went on to live the full life she did – although she was never able to bear children. But Kahlo had to deal with medical intervention all through her life, as has Rapp Black, so it’s clear that Frida was a touchstone and an inspiration.

As well as relating her experiences exploring Kahlo’s life and work, Rapp Black also tells the story of the life and death of her young son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease. This is a rare degenerative condition I hadn’t heard of before, and Ronan’s life story is absolutely heart-breaking. This element of the book made powerful and emotional reading, and I can’t imagine being able to cope with this kind of loss. During parts of the writing of the book, Rapp Black was pregnant with her daughter, Charlie, and it’s a joy to know her daughter came safely into the world.

The parts of the book where Rapp Black related her own experiences as an amputee were hard-hitting and something of an eye-opener. When she was growing up the technology providing prosthetics was primitive, involving wood and leather straps, and it’s telling (and a little shocking) that it’s taken the involvement of the USA in several wars to enable the provision of modern artificial limbs for amputees. What’s also shocking is the attitudes which Rapp Black has had to deal with over the years, from the nasty to the unthinking to the just-plain-ignorant. I hope I would never have behaved as badly as some of the people she’s encountered, but I will certainly always now try to be sensitive in my dealings.

Throughout “Frida Kahlo…” Rapp Black is fascinated by the artefacts of Kahlo’s life: her corsets, her clothing, her casts. The book, naturally therefore, culminates with Rapp Black visiting the same exhibition as I did in 2018, and seeing all of the personal effects from Kahlo’s life, from the dresses to her combs, and of course the casts and her artificial leg. The exhibition was incredibly moving and Rapp Black’s response to it is profound; to be confronted with the physical presence of the person to whom you’ve related and drawn inspiration from over the years is a one-off experience. Rapp Black’s take on Kahlo is a robust one, refusing to see her as a victim or in any way deficient, and objecting to her life and art being defined only by her pain. Certainly, if you look at the many photos of a confident, smiling, happy Frida, you have to agree.

A woman is embodied, and she is judged accordingly. We want to think that we are beyond this, that we are more than our bodies, but, in the end, we are not. We are both easily reduced to the sum of our parts, but sometimes we are reduced only to our parts. As a woman who wears a permanent machine, I still feel this acutely.

The book closes with Rapp Black seemingly reaching a point of understanding and reconciliation with her body, with which she’s always had a complex relationship. Moving from a point of dreaming of miracle cures and wanting to be so-called ‘normal’, to a place of acceptance, has been a long and often excrutiating journey. “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg” is a beautiful, devastating and unforgettable book and one I’m so glad I’ve read.

(Review copy kindly provided by the published, for which many thanks! As usual, this is a beautiful, cloth-covered NHE hardback with lovely paper and bookmark, and comes with several full colour illistrations of Kahlo’s art and clothing. The book is released, I believe, on 15th June.)

“Only poets are innocent enough to invent such monstrosities” #baudelaire @melvillehouse

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Despite the teetering piles of the TBR, I can never resist procuring new books and they certainly haven’t stopped trickling into the Ramblings recently… They tend to suffer one of two fates: either joining the piles and getting lost in there forever (or for quite a while) or getting picked up and read pretty rapidly. Today’s book is one of the latter; I had been intending to pick up a copy for absolutely ages, as it’s Baudelaire! and prose! but somehow hadn’t. However, I stumbled across a reasonably-priced copy and as I was in the middle of reading some chunky volumes for Shiny New Books, it seemed the ideal distraction between a couple of these. The book in question is “Fanfarlo”, translated by Edward K. Kaplan and released in the Melville House Press ‘Art of the Novella’ series; and it’s fascinating.

As well as being a stunning poet, Baudelaire was also a writer of prose, and I have a collection of his writings on art, as well as “Paris Spleen” and others. However, “Fanfarlo” is rather special as it’s his only piece of prose fiction and was written a decade before his masterwork, “The Flowers of Evil”. An intense 61 pages long, it tells a story which really does seem to mirror that of its author; of an obsessive love affair which will change the life of the protagonist forever.

… Samuel was, more than all the others, the man of failed works of beauty;- a fantastical and sickly creature, whose poetry shines forth much more in his person than his works…

The protagonist is one Samuel Cramer; a poet, dandy and aesthete, he becomes embroiled in a situation with a childhood friend. She is Mme de Cosmelly, and her husband is obsessed with the titular Fanfarlo, a beautiful burlesuque dancer. Cramer is charged with seducing her himself, persuading her away from M de Cosmelly; however, all does not go as planned, and Samuel finds himself falling under Fanfarlo’s spell. Quite what effect this will have on his life and his work remains to be seen…

… he gave her his volume The Ospreys, a collection of sonnets, like those everyone has written and everyone has read, at the age when our judgement was so short and our hair so long.

As I mentioned above, “Fanfarlo” is reckoned to be drawn from Baudelaire’s complex relationship with the dancer Jeanne Duval, and if this is a self-portrait of the poet in his youth, it’s certainly a fascinating one. Samuel is a wonderfully entertaining and very complex character; oscillating between laziness and ambition, constantly drawn to shiny new things and experiences, he seems, in fact, no match for the women he meets. Fanfarlo, though, is a bit of a puzzle; in some ways less defined than Samuel, she’s a sensual and hot-blooded character, and likely to hijack his artistic ambitions. The result of the collision of these two forces of nature plays out in what might be the expected manner, and the narrator/author perhaps seems a little disappointed at this! Interestingly, Mme de Cosmelly is a more rounded character, and Baudelaire allows her to express some very modern and strong views about the education of women, allowing them to be given much more knowledge of the vices of men so they can approach adulthood and a marriage with a clear view of reality.

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Fanfarlo” was such an interesting read, and was enhanced very much by the extra material which is accessible after purchasing the book. I have several of these MHP ‘Art of the Novella’ editions (they’re so lovely) and the publisher describes them as a ‘hybrid book’. There is a link in the back (or a QR Code to scan) which takes you to a PDF containing some wonderful addition information to support the reading of the book. There are images, biographical extracts and discussions of the work itself which make interesting reading in themselves as well as adding to the experience of reading “Fanfarlo”. I don’t know that I’ve actually accessed any of these before, despite, as I mentioned, owning a number of books in the series – that’s something I need to check out soon…

So this acquisition turned out to definitely be worth the wait! I love Baudelaire’s writing and this translation worked well for me (apart from the occasionally Americanism…) The poet seems to love self-deprecation, mocking his alter-ego regularly, although I found myself wondering about how he would feel later on in real life, seeing how his relationship with Duval played out. The prose was very beautiful, and on the evidence of “Fanfarlo” I rather wish Baudelaire had written more fiction… Highly recommended, particularly in this lovely edition with the extra material!

 

The passions of a great Russian author – over @ShinyNewBooks #dostoevskyinlove

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I’ve been lucky enough to read some wonderful non-fiction titles for Shiny New Books recently, including Friday’s “Monica Jones…” and the recent look at Paris during the 1900-1950 period. Today I want to share another marvellous book which knocked my socks off – “Dostoevsky in Love” by Alex Christofi.

Dostoevsky is, of course, one of my favourite authors (Russian or otherwise) and so I was intrigued to see what this book would have to say about him. It turned out to be a brilliantly constructed, totally engrossing and very moving take on the great author’s life, and particularly his loves, using many of Dostoevsky’s own writings. I absolutely loved it – check out my full review here! 😀

Nine years of blogging – oh my!!!! #blogbirthday

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Today, rather amazingly, sees the ninth anniversary of my commencement of the Ramblings – which really is a little mind-numbing (where have the years gone???) I often tend to miss the occasion, randomly stuck in the middle of the year as it is, but something in the back of my mind nudged me this year – which *is* a bit surprising, as during the pandemic era, I have rather lost track of time with one day blurring into another!

I started blogging, really, in response to all the other wonderful book blogs I had started to discover back in 2012. They were a source of such joy, and also great (and very dangerous!) book recommendations. I had also become part of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group community, many of whom had their own blogs, and taking part in group reads and the like fired my enthusiasm to join in with more talking about books.

I think the word ‘community’ represents what I love most about the online bookishness I encounter; whether it’s on blogs, Twitter or Instagram, I just adore sharing my love of the printed word, favourite authors, book hauls, new discoveries or old classics. Books have always been one of the most important things in my life, and so to be able to spend time sharing that bookish love is just wonderful. I always get great joy in interacting via comments, too – so carrying on with my Bookish Ramblings has brought me much happiness over the years.

So thank you to everyone who reads, likes and comments on what I put up here – I’m always happy to hear what people have to say, and long may our love of books continue! 😀

Reclaiming the life of Monica Jones @ShinyNewBooks

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It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I’m a huge admirer of the poetry of Philip Larkin; I’ve written before about first reading his work at school and retaining a love of his poems throughout my life. Behind the scenes, however, he’s a complex and often difficult character; as well as being in serial and simultaneous relationships, his views on race and sex can be problematic and his treatment of his female partners leaves a lot to be desired. One of the women in his life, the one who has the strongest claim to be his muse and who was his eventual partner, has had bad press over the years. Monica Jones knew Larkin the longest, and in many ways sacrificed the best part of her life to him. She’s been satirised and marginalised in ways that leave me very uncomfortable. So I was very pleased to come across a new book which promised to shed new light on her and reclaim a life for her in her own right.

Monica’s book plus my Larkins!

The book is “Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me” by John Sutherland. The latter studied under Jones at Leicester University and so knew her personally. In the book, he gains access to her letters and reconstructs the life of a fascinating, complext, intelligent woman who’s not really been give the credit she deserves. The book is a wonderful and very personal piece of work which I loved, and have written about for Shiny New Books – you can read my review here!

“… the disloyal message of her eyes and lips.” #FarMoreThanFiction #WomenWriters #BLWomenWriters @BL_Publishing

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As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, I don’t generally take part in blog tours, as many of the books I read are backlisted or translated or a bit obscure and the like. However, when British Library Publishing asked if I’d like to take part in a tour for their latest releases in the British Library Women Writers series, I was happy to be involved. I think British Library Publishing are doing sterling work with their beautiful imprints for crime fiction, horror and classic sci-fi, and the Women Writers range is a particular joy. Series consultant Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book is of course a blogging pal, and co-host of our club weeks (which he devised) and I think he’s curated some wonderful titles so far for the series. The book I’m featuring today – “Mamma” by Diana Tutton – has a particular interest for me, as I will explain…

Back in 2012, Simon discovered and raved about Tutton’s novel “Guard Your Daughters“; a number of bloggers (including me!) were inspired to track down copies and read it; and the book was something of a sensation for a while. I loved it (and actually have two old copies somewhere in the house); and more recently it was reprinted by Persephone Books. Tutton only wrote three novels, and “Mamma” was her first, although “Guard Your Daughters” was the book which made it into print first. Her third and final novel, “The Young Ones” was first published in 1959 and is currently out of print. More on her general choice of subject matter later…

“Mamma” was published in 1956, and opens with 41 year-old Joanna Malling arriving at her new home in Tadwych. Widowed at 21 after a short marriage, she’s brought up her young daughter, Libby, single-handed; and before long Joanna finds that Libby is engaged, to Steven Pryde. At 35, Steven is a soldier and quite a lot older than his prospective wife; in fact, he’s obviously a lot closer in age to the woman who will be his mother-in-law. Nevertheless, the marriage goes ahead, despite the husband and mother-in-law not particularly liking or being comfortable with each other. And Joanna thinks that will be that.

However, circumstances (and the forces!) conspire to post Steven to Tadwych and inevitably Joanna’s daughter and son-in-law end up sharing a house with her. As the young couple grapple with the difficulties of married life, trying to understand each other’s needs and temperaments, it seems that in fact Steven has a lot more in common with Joanna than might initially have been thought; and Joanna finds herself struggling with emotions she thought long suppressed . Things are not helped by the fact that her daughter is young, inexperienced and stubborn, bent on moulding her older husband in ways he doesn’t appreciate or want. But any kind of intimacy between the two older characters would be catastrophic – so how with Joanna resolve the clash between loyalty and love?

Well – Tutton really liked to tackle intriguing subjects and there are a *lot* being explored here! There is, of course, the possibility of what would, at the time, have been considered a transgressive relationship. Aside from Joanna’s loyalty to her daughter, it was obviously more acceptable in the 1950s for a man to be 15 years older than his wife than for a wife to be 6 years older than her husband. Even though the latter two would have much more in common, it was still taboo (and probably still is nowadays, to a certain extent – older women being mostly written off as old bags). It’s slightly shocking to see that at 41 Joanna is pretty much considered past it (and at some points thinks that way of herself); but it was ever thus and until attitudes change dramatically will still be the case.

What’s interesting, though, is how subtly Tutton explores this attraction; neither Joanna or Steven are particularly interested in each other to start with. However, as they get to know each other better, they bond over poetry and it’s clear that there is a deep intellectual link developing which cannot exist between Steven and the much younger Libby. It takes a dramatic family event to reveal the truth to them, but even after that there is the fight to suppress their impulses; and a dangerous point where Libby suspects the truth.

Aside from this element, there are a number of side-plots which look at different kinds of relationship. There is Mrs. Holmes, who “does” for Joanna, and has something of a reputation, as well as a number of children who don’t look that alike plus a handsome husband. And Steven’s mother, Mrs. Pryde, is a somewhat bizarre character who attracts speculation about a friendship she has with a young woman. There’s Libby’s best friend, Janet Mortimer, who has all sorts of rational ideas about sex and marriage, plus her ghastly family. It’s fascinating how Tutton uses these supporting characters to explore the types of relationship which can exist; and it’s clear she believes there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

I was intrigued, also, to find out how frank Tutton was in places about matters physical. There are mentions of losing virginity, hints of sex perhaps being not quite as all-consuming as a newly married girl would expect, musings on whether the husband is actually satisfied, and a particularly insensitive (on one character’s part!) discussion of whether sexual frustration makes you go loopy. There’s nothing at all graphic, but I did wonder if this was particularly usual for a novel of the time, and it signaled to me that Tutton was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects. I did perhaps find her working class characters slightly stereotyped, but she was obviously using them to explore the class divide which still existed at the time. Women like Libby and Janet can discuss birth control, taking this into their own hands as best possible (as the Pill would not be in more common use until the 1960s); whereas Mrs. Holmes has presumably less choice in these matters and is turning out children left, right and centre…

As for difficult matters – Tutton may only have written three novels, but each touched on a thorny subject. “Guard Your Daughters” featured a very dysfunctional family, seriously affected by one member with mental health issues and turned out to be quite a dark read in the end. “Mamma” takes on two taboos – an older woman and a younger man, and falling for your son-in-law. “The Young Ones” is apparently about brother-sister incest; so I do wonder if that one will ever make it back into print. Certainly, Tutton was a very interesting novelist!

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Mamma”; Tutton’s writing is excellent, her characterisation quite brilliant and the book was engrossing from start to finish – I couldn’t put it down and ended up staying up far too late to finish it! Diana Tutton’s work has been ignored for too long; “Mamma” is a wonderful and fascinating read and a worthy addition to the Women Writers series; and kudos to British Library Publishing for bringing it back into print!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! As with all of the British Library Women Writers book, there’s a lot of supporting material in the form of facts about the 1950s, a foreword and an interesting afterword by Simon. Lots of lovely bloggers are taking part in the tours for “Mamma” and also “Tension” by E.M. Delafied, as you can see from the graphic above – do go and check them out!)

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