Home

#1976Club – time from a little poetry from a prose master! #borges

3 Comments

I’ve written quite a bit about Borges lately, exploring books by and about him; and for the 1944 Club club I was able to read his “Ficciones”, which was a great joy. So when we decided on 1976 I had a look to see if there were any works by the great man from that year, and although there was no fiction I could find, he did publish a poetry collection called “The Iron Coin”. Now, I’ve read plenty of Borges’ prose but none of his poetry as far as I can recall, so this seemed an ideal book to explore for the club. Unfortunately, I don’t have the full collection, but I do have a book of his “Selected Poems” which does feature some from “Iron…” so I figured I would take a look at these to see what Borges poetry is actually like.

The anthology I own is a dual language one, and it contains eleven poems from “The Iron Coin”, plus Borges’ prologue; this in itself is fascinating reading with any number of provoking comments jumping out at the reader:

The steely music of the Saxon language is no less agreeable than the delicate musings of the Symbolists. Each subject, however, occasional or thin, imposes on us its own aesthetic. Each word, though weighed down by the centuries, opens up a blank page and posits the future.

The actual verses themselves are rendered by a variety of translators (indicated by initials) and range over history, authors, composers and Borges’ father, amongst other, and are short but beautifully written. I guess these were all dictated to one of his various amanuensi, and there are some really affecting lines in the works. A few quotes might give you a flavour of what I’m talking about:

The sea was always his. By the time his eyes
First took in the great waters of the high seas
He had already longed for and possessed it
On that other ocean, which is Writing.
(from “Herman Melville”)

I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
(from “Remorse”)

“You are Not the Others” is also a powerful piece of work but you need to read the whole poem so I encourage you to search it out! 😀

Via Wikimedia Commons

Borges’ poetry is the kind I respond well to, with an immediacy and also with beautiful imagery and wordplay. Having read this selection from “The Iron Coin” I’m now not only keen to dip into more of my selected volume, but also wonder if the individual collections are available in full. Certainly Borges was an amazing wordsmith who could turn his talents to all forms of writing and reading these poems has been one of the pleasures of the #1976Club! 😀

#1976Club: “I am ideally happy” – exploring more of Nabokov’s short stories

18 Comments

Well, I’m definitely on a roll this week with books from my stacks! Another author I’m always looking for an excuse to read is Vladimir Nabokov; and for our last club in April (1936) I managed to find three stories by the great man from that year. 1976 is much later in his career, but I discovered that in that year a collection of his earlier stories was released. The book is called “Details of A Sunset and Other Stories”, and it gathers together thirteen of his short works, all written in Russian between 1924 and 1935. At the time, Nabokov was living in Berlin, Paris and Riga as an expat, and the stories were published individually in various emigre publications. Later, the stories were translated into English by the author and his son, Dmitri, and published in this collection in 1976. Although I don’t have that volume, I *do* have his Collected Stories so I was able to read the individual stories in the order he collected them – and it was, as usual, pure joy to interact with his wonderful prose.

In case you have the same Collected edition as me, the stories from “Details…” are these:

“Details of a Sunset”
“A Bad Day”
“Orache”
“The Return of Chorb”
“The Passenger”
“A Letter that Never Reached Russia”
“A Guide to Berlin”
“The Doorbell”
“The Thunderstorm”
“The Reunion”
“A Slice of Life”
“Christmas”
“A Busy Man”

I’ve commented before on Nabokov’s prose, and indeed he’s considered one of the last century’s major literary stylists; and I find that the writing on display in his short stories often takes the breath away. The ones featured in this volume are no exception, and the settings range from the emigre cities to his homeland of Russia, with several taking the reader back in time or exploring the fates and emotions of those in exile. There are glimpses of emigre life, with all its hardships, and nostalgic looks back to life in Russia pre-revolution, for example in “A Bad Day”, where the protagonist struggles to fit in with other young people at a birthday party. “The Doorbell” tells of the reuniting of a mother and son in Berlin which leads to disillusion for both; similarly, “The Reunion” finds two brothers meeting after a huge gap and finding themselves on different sides of the political divide and with nothing in common.

It is night. At night one perceives with a special intensity the immobility of objects – the lamp, the furniture, the framed photographs on one’s desk. Now and then the water gulps and gurgles in its hidden pipes as if sobs were rising to the throat of the house. At night I go out for a stroll. Reflections of streetlamps trickle across the damp Berlin asphalt whose surface resembles a film of black grease with puddles nesting in its wrinkles. Here and there a garnet-red light glows over a fire-alarm box. A glass column, full of liquid yellow light, stands at the streetcar stop…

Other stories veer off into different territory, with Nabokov exploring multiple layers and meanings. The title story is a tour-de-force where a young man, Mark Standfuss, is abandoned by his fiance and meets his fate without even knowing what has happened to him, all filled with allusions to colours, giving it an almost painterly feel. “A Slice of Life” and “The Return of Chorb” both concern lost loves and the different ways people deal with that loss. “Christmas” deals with a different kind of loss, that of a son, with the father attempting to come to terms with his grief on Christmas eve. And “The Busy Man” is a kind of fable which almost made me think of the work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, where the protagonist, Grafitski, has convinced himself that a prediction of his death is true and then wastes his life making preparations to try to avoid the prediction coming to pass.

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century , wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform.

By Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The stories in themselves are inventive, clever and unforgettable, but it’s Nabokov’s style which often lifts them above the norm. His prose is precise, beautifully constructed and conjures his settings and characters quite brilliantly. Witty, clever and atmospheric, these are tales which linger in the mind, leaving you wondering about the protagonists, their lives before and after the events related, and their eventual fates. Many of the stories were from the start of Nabokov’s writing career and demonstrate just how much he’d defined his style at that early time. He really was a marvellous writer, and I’m so glad the #1976Club gave me the chance to read more of his short stories! 😀

#1976Club – a guest post considers some classic horror!

16 Comments

As is now a tradition, Mr. Kaggsy has volunteered to provide a guest post for our club reading week, and he’s providing one of his long-form looks at a book I would probably never want to go near – The Omen, by David Seltzer.

Hardback Arthur Baker 1976, UK (without “The”); paperback Futura 1976, UK.

Probably most people have heard of the “Omen” movie, or novel, or both; the franchise also gave rise to a host (no pun intended) of ‘sequels’, which can be ignored for the purposes of this review. The original paperback details stated (punctuation as written): “One night in Rome Robert Thorn, American diplomat, exchanges his still-born son for a new-born orphan. Only Thorn and the priest who arranged the unofficial adoption could tell the difference. Kathy and Robert Thorn called the child Damien. Five years later in England Damien’s Nanny dies tragically … a ferocious black dog and an officious new Nanny mysteriously appear, to guard the child … Kathy Thorn is badly hurt in a fall and a wild-eyed priest tells Thorn that Damien is the spawn of the devil. In an agonizing and frenzied search that takes him to Rome, Jerusalem and back to London, Robert Thorn begins to unravel the horrible truth A powerful, spell-binding story of a child who is not a child and a man who must become less than a father and more than a man.”

Briefly on the subject of the movie, the child Damien was played by Harvey Stephens, then aged five; he would reappear, thirty years older, in a lower-rated 2006 version under the same title. The 1976 original starred Gregory Peck (with royalties, by far the highest paid performance of his career), Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton and several other well-known actors. The production and cast became reportedly ‘cursed’, owing to a spate of misfortunes. This did not hurt the film’s reputation and the 666 “number of the beast” phenomenon entered popular culture as a result of high box office figures and publicity. The essence of the plot was to leave open whether the boy was truly evil, with supernatural forces in play, or whether his father was becoming increasingly unbalanced. Equally it could be argued that events manage to dispose of certain ‘enemies’, without the boy necessarily ‘commissioning’ their deaths. On that note, no major spoilers will be given here on in, as to the movie or the book, both script and ensuing novelisation being by David Seltzer, who also wrote the 2006 remake script and novelisation.

The 1976 book was penned after the first film production. Seltzer reported being asked to write a story similar to “The Exorcist” (1973), a movie he had seen. He also admitted to having done work with scholars on the Book of Revelation and amassing political knowledge for a documentary on JFK. However, he expressed having no belief in the supernatural, merely setting out to produce a tale of evil goings-on, in effect a hellish fantasy. Other writers had trodden a similar path: Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1967; movie 1968) and the aforementioned “The Exorcist” (William Peter Blatty, 1971). However, Seltzer’s concoction was not to be directly about demonic possession, more a scary piece of fiction relying on building a sense of dread. Thus the central character Robert Thorn is presented as an American ambassador, as such a well-rounded figure, knowledgeable in worldly matters and supposedly resistant to fancy. However, Seltzer paints him as “an instinctive speculator”, his early in-flight musings showing his fertile mind willing to explore metaphysical possibilities:

At any given moment there are over a hundred thousand people in airplanes in the sky. It was the kind of statistic that intrigued Thorn, and as he read it in the skyliner magazine he instantly cleaved the human population between those on the earth and those in the air… What the statistic meant was, that if suddenly the earthbound population were to be annihilated, there would be over a hundred thousand of them left aloft, sipping martinis and watching movies, unaware that all had been lost.

Thorn is on his way to join his wife Kathy in Rome, she being about to deliver a child, having so far been unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Although a birth occurs, the new arrival does not survive for long, Thorn’s visit becoming one of support and sadness, particularly as Kathy will be unable to bear a child again. Their lifelong partnership and strong desire to be parents influences Thorn’s mind when he learns of a foundling in the hospital needing a family. And so Seltzer sets the scene of a mystery infant being ‘adopted’ by the bereaved couple and taken out of the country with no questions asked. The diplomat is posted, with his wife and new child, to London and given a historical country residence with staff.

Paperback Signet 1976, US; Editions J’ai Lu 1977, France.

By the time Damien, so-named by his parents, reaches his fourth birthday, a party is arranged and some interested press representatives attend. One inquisitive paparazzo is curious about the boy and begins a personal campaign to discover any family secrets. His inkling introduces the theme of all being possibly not what it seems, a state of mind which will gradually infect Thorn as well. At the party a horrific fate befalls a staff member, witnessed by all, and in due course an unexpected nanny arrives to look after the child, at a time when his parents are busy with international duties. The apparent mental imbalance of the recently deceased person might also be seen as a convenient occurrence, allowing the ‘replacement’ to take up her position; more such coincidences will follow.

A rivalry between mother and nanny begins to develop and the boy seems to be more fond of the new woman’s company. At a later point, Damien is taken for a walk in the nearby woods by his carer and at night Thorn believes he can see two lights like eyes among the trees. These could belong to a fearsome dog which it becomes known is owned by the nanny. Kathy herself is from Russian immigrant parentage, her father having killed himself, and she feels neglected, helpless, while her son does not give her maternal joy and her husband is a pressured diplomat. Presently there is a funeral, giving rise to a dramatic incident with the young boy being terrified by a church. In another more normal setting, swans on a pond being fed appear to swim away when he approaches. Against a background of relations deteriorating with the nanny, Thorn suffering guilt about his original dark deed with the baby in Rome, and the increasing interest of the press photographer, the pace of the story builds. A new figure might be about to reveal the sinful birth circumstances, while the photographer’s prints seem to show a mysterious blemish above Damien.

Paperback Futura 1978, UK; movie poster 1976.

Thorn has to travel to the Middle East and in an unoccupied moment reads a bible, learning of a “contemptible one” who will steal the Earth and bring universal conflict. The brief interlude introduces biblical prophecies, although Thorn’s own visions and nightmares might be a product of his troubled mind. Nevertheless, events build up, with manifestations of warnings and possibly connected grisly deaths. As an aside, a scene of Damien on a wheeled toy moving quickly towards Kathy balancing on a stool is a memorable sequence in the movie.

A birthmark on the child may reveal a demonic link. Possibly his time of entry into the world and planetary alignment at that point may be revelatory, or no more than simple astrology and coincidence. Thorn’s further religious researching, a biblical storm, a pack of ferocious dogs, all seemingly point to satanic prophecies. Secret writings, an excavation in Israel and a hidden city of caverns, suggest hallowed ground. The Good versus Evil aspect extends to Thorn’s own perceived predicament, whether he should – or even could – kill his ‘child’, especially if his fears are in his imagination. Either way, events build inexorably to a climax.

Nowadays it is said that “things were different in the Seventies”. Back then strong demonic, psychic or religious horror was a growing phenomenon in the cinema, the era starting off with “The Devils” (1971), or the abovementioned “The Exorcist” (1973), and stretching towards the end with more mainstream “The Sentinel” (1977) and “The Fury” (1978), along with more “Omen” offerings. Seltzer’s story poses the question whether the child whom Thorn took as his own could actually be the Antichrist, the Devil’s own son. Ultimately the book, at under 200 pages, could have been more absorbing and intellectually stimulating, had it been longer, perhaps allowing the suspense to build Hitchcock-style. Of course the book was simply a novelisation, a movie tie-in, but the story and events could have created a classic horror novel.

Phew – thanks (I think!) Mr. K. – I shall probably have nightmares now…

#1976Club – “…the essence of self is words…” #williamsburroughs

28 Comments

It’s become a tradition of mine during our club reading weeks to not only pull books from the mountainous TBR, but also try to read a variety of different kinds of work. So far this week I’ve focused on classic crime and highlighted some previous reads from 1976. Today is the turn of an author I read a lot of in my youth but who’s only featured a little on the Ramblings – William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs is best known as one of the triumvirate of American Beat authors, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. A scion of the wealthy Burroughs adding machine family, he was a writer, visual artist and drug addict who’s now regarded as a major postmodern author. His works are often complex, and he helped popularise the cut-up technique which went on to be widely used, most notably by David Bowie. Burroughs was a controversial figure for many reasons: his sexuality, his drugs use, his killing of his wife in a shooting accident, and the extreme imagery in his writing. Yet as I commented on my review of his Penguin Modern, he can be “readable, entertaining, often funny and sometimes moving”. I haven’t read any of his heavier titles for decades, but I thought I would check to see if there were any of his writings available from 1976, and indeed there were.

The seventies for Burroughs were a strange time; hunkered down in his New York dwelling, ‘The Bunker’, he produced a number of experimental pieces, and I found two of these from 1976 hidden away in a collection I have called “The Burroughs File”. The works are “The Retreat Diaries” and “Cobble Stone Gardens” and so I figured the #1976Club would be a good time to reacquaint myself with Burroughs in provocative mode…

If I’m truly honest, these are not Burroughs at his easiest. “Retreat…” draws on a dream diary kept by the author when on a Buddhist retreat. By neccessity it’s a fragmentary work, filled with the strangeness and incoherence of half-remembered images that haunt the mind when asleep. Often beautiful sentences and phrases jump out, but there’s no single coherent narrative (although it *is* clear that Burroughs doesn’t agree that a Buddhist can make a good novelist, as he obviously intends to follow his muse whenever it appears, regardless of the strictures of the retreat!) In constrat, “Cobble Stone Gardens” (which is dedicated to the memory of the author’s parents) is much closer to Burrough’s more challenging works. Often scatalogical, full of startling and sexual imagery, it’s not for the faint hearted; yet, as with his other writings, there’ll be a sudden sentence or phrase which will jump out at you and stick in the mind. Part of the book seems to be fragmentary memories of his childhood, and I believe the original edition came with some very odd photographic illustrations…

Burroughs in 1983 – Chuck Patch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Both of these pieces originally appeared in small publications, and were gathered with a number of others in “The Burroughs File”, along with some reproductions of scrapbook entries plus commentary by James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ companion and amanuensis. The whole collection is worthy of exploration, giving a fascinating insight into the mind of a true maverick, a one-off writer who can be challenging and rewarding to read. His influence is wider than you might expect (as my review of “Mentored by A Madman” by Andrew Lees makes clear); and if you like a little challenge in your reading I can recommend him (although this is not necessarily the best place to begin). I’m really glad that 1976 has taken me in the direction of reading some Burroughs – a reminder of my reading roots and also of the need to not always take the easy reading option!

#1976club – focusing on some previous reads!

38 Comments

As is usual during our Reading Weeks, I always like to focus on volumes I’ve read in the past – either pre-blog or during the life of the Ramblings. Although I’m sure there are more than these few which I’ve encountered before, above are a few titles.

“To Loud A Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal was a dark story I read back in 2018,and I found much of value in it, despite the harsh treatment of books, commenting “There are probably many allusions I missed and commentary on the state of Prague or living under Soviet rule that I didn’t pick up on, but that didn’t detract from the sheer impact of the storytelling or the dramatic, if perhaps inevitable, ending… Reading a book about the destruction of books and the written word is perhaps an odd choice for someone like me who loves them both; but we should never forget how fragile and vulnerable books are, yet how important they can be as weapons against tyranny, and how we need to protect them.” Still agree with that…

 

Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” was a book I encountered back in 2016. It’s not always an easy read, but a fascinating one. I said at the time “I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.”

Finally, there’s “Definitely Maybe” by the remarkable Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which I loved to bits in 2014. It was my first encounter with their work, a wonderfully clever mix of science fiction and quite obvious Soviet satire of which I remarked, “How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche.” 

As for pre-blog reads, I do have some titles which have lurked in the stacks for decades….

The Solzhenitsyns were both purchased in the 1970s, in fact possibly 1976; I was having a huge phase of reading his work at the time, and I still rate him after all these years. “Lenin in Zurich”, a fragment from a larger work, was one of my favourites… As for Virginia, “Moments of Being” was acquire during my first phase of reading her in the early 1980s. I had to have everything I could find by her, and one day will do a complete re-read!

There are of course other books I’ve read from 1976 – two titles which spring to mind are “A Stitch in Time” by Penelope Lively and “Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice, both of which I think may still be in the house somewhere – in fact, I wouldn’t have minded re-reading either of these too, had I been able to dig them out, but it was not to be…

Anyway, those are some of my previous reads from 1976 – what titles have you read from the year, and are you planning to revisit any of them??? ;D

Miss Marple delves into the past to launch the #1976club! :D

51 Comments

It’s always a joy to find that one of our club weeks is a year which contains some Agatha Christie titles (and she had such a long writing career that it’s often the case!). I’m a lifelong lover of her books, and so frankly any excuse for a revisit suits me. 1976 is a particularly poignant year, however, as Christie had sadly died in the January; and so the posthumous release of “Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Final Case” was something of an occasion. I still have my original paperback, bought at the time, and picking it up was a bit of a trip into the past.

“Sleeping Murder”, like “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” which had been released shortly before Christie’s death, had actually been written some decades before publication. During World War 2, because of the precariousness of life, Christie had written the last stories of her two great detectives in case she didn’t make it through the conflict. In the end, of course, she did, so the two stories were kept on standby until the 1970s. This potentially throws up some contradictions, but Miss Marple’s final outing is a joy from start to finish.

The book opens with a young woman, Gwenda Reed, arriving in the UK from her home of New Zealand in search of a house. Recently married to Giles, who will follow her soon, she’s excited to be making a new life in a new country. Chance (or fate?) leads her to a house called Hillside which feels instantly as if it will be home. Having bought the house and moved in, Gwenda begins to get her home ready for her husband’s arrival. However, as she explores Hillside, she has a number of uncanny experiences where she appears to know things about the house of which she can’t possibly be aware. Making her escape to London for a break, she stays with the novelist Raymond West and his wife; and it is on a visit to the theatre that some words from a play trigger a vision of a murder from the past. Is it real or imaginary? Fortunately, West’s Aunt Jane is on hand to help investigate and find a solution – although her advice from the start is to “let sleeping murder lie”, as a number of revelations could spell danger…

   ‘You are two very nice and charming young people (if you will allow me to say so). You are newly married and are happy together. Don’t, I beg of you, start to uncover things that may – well, that may – how shall I put it? – that might upset and distress you.’
Gwenda stared at her. ‘You’re thinking of something special – of something – what is it you’re hinting at?’
‘Not hinting, dear. Just advising you (because I’ve lived a long time and I know how very upsetting human nature can be) to let well alone. That’s my advice: let well alone.’

More I will not say because too much revealing of this plot in advance would really spoil the reading of it! Christie is an author who never disappoints me, and although her later works didn’t quite reach the high standard of her early ones, I always enjoy them. However, “Sleeping…” *is* in fact an early work as it was written during the 1940s, and the plotting and atmosphere is excellent. The book features one of my favourite Christie tropes, that of the investigation of a murder in the past which just won’t go away; and the extra element of mystery behind Gwenda’s background as well as her almost supernatural reaction to a house she’s never seen before add little frissons of terror at times – Christie really could add those little spooky touches so well.

As for the murder and the solution, I had a faint glimmering of who the killer was as I read on through the book, and I suspect this is a memory of previous revisits rather than any great detecting abilities on my behalf. “Sleeping Murder” has a complex and often dark plot, with hints of some most unpleasant undercurrents, and a really nasty killer. The denouement is very satisfying, Miss Marple a wonderful sleuth as always, and the book features little cameos of St. Mary Mead and Jane Marple’s friends, all of which rounds things off nicely. There *is* an oddity in that one short paragraph or two which open a chapter were later re-used in a Tommy and Tuppence mystery; this was much later in Christie’s writing career and so it may be that she just liked the piece and re-used it, or it may be that she had forgotten. It plays no real part in the Marple story, but is pivotal to the T&T mystery so in the end it really doesn’t matter!

So, a wonderful start to the #1976Club reading week! I raced through “Sleeping Murder” with much enjoyment and happiness – Golden Age crime is always my comfort reading, and Christie always a treat. “Sleeping Murder” was a fine way for Miss Marple to bow out; clever, sometimes chilling, eminently readable and a great reminder that you should never take older women for granted… Let’s hope the rest of 1976’s books are this good! 😀

A welcome reissue from @BL_Publishing #BLWomenWriters #FarMoreThanFiction

26 Comments

Back in the very early days of the Ramblings, I wrote about a wonderful Virago Modern Classic – “The Love Child” by Edith Oliver. I was on a bit of a voyage of rediscovery with VMCs at the time, and this one had been highly recommended by Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s been out of print for many years, but I’m very happy to see that Simon has managed to help it back into print via the British Library Women Writers series for which he’s series consultant- which is marvellous news!

As I wrote at the time, “The story concerns Agatha Bodenham, whose mother dies leaving her on her own, with no resources to fall back on as she has led a dull, lonely, reclusive life and has no close friends or nearby family. We see her unable to relate to her aunt at the beginning of the book and it is obvious she is unable to deal with people at all – we would probably described her as “emotionally damaged” nowadays. Agatha, in her loneliness, conjures back into life her make-believe childhood friend, Clarissa, who is everything that Agatha is not – spontaneous, lively, curious and mercurial. Initially, only Agatha can see Clarissa but gradually, as Agatha’s love suffuses her, Clarissa becomes real to everyone.

Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the rest of the book revolves around Agatha and Clarissa’s intense love for each other, the destructive effect of the incursion of outsiders, and a very poignant but not unexpected ending. The book is beautifully written, very readable and surprisingly complex. Clarissa represents in some ways Agatha’s repressed maternal love, an outlet for the emotion that she has never been able to express. She also in some ways is the person Agatha might have been, had she been brought up in a different environment and allowed to blossom instead of having her growth stunted.

This is a remarkably good book and Olivier’s handling of the various emotions between the two main characters and those who circulate around them is masterly. She’s very good at conveying the intense feelings they have and the differences (and also similarities) between Clarissa and Agatha. In different ways, each only exists because of the other and so any exterior influence is bound to destroy the bond between them with catastrophic effect.”

My view of the book hasn’t changed over the years – it’s a beautifully written and evocative work, and I was happy to have the chance to revisit it. I commented in my original post that it was such a shame the book was out of print, so it’s wonderful to see it available again in a stunning BLWW edition.

Both editions are lovely in their own way!

The new release comes with the usual excellent supporting material of preface, 1920s facts and a mini biog of Olivier. And as well as an intriguing afterword by Simon, the book also includes some wonderful extracts from Olivier’s autobiography which add an extra level of interest to what is a marvellous book. “The Love Child” was Olivier’s first novel, and I suspect is still her best known, probably because Virago chose to focus on it. Like all of the BLWW books, as well as telling a compelling and moving story, “The Love Child” shines a light on women’s lives in the past, the choices available to them, society’s expectations and the emotional effect of these elements. This is a superb addition to the range and highly recommended from here! 😀

A lost novella from a feminist icon – over @ShinyNewBooks! #simonedebeauvoir

20 Comments

I have a new review up on Shiny New Books today which I’d like to share with you, and it’s of a fascinating and moving novella which has recently surfaced from an author who’s been something of an idol of mine for much of my life – Simone de Beauvoir.

Beauvoir is of course probably best known for her “The Second Sex” and her series of memoirs, but I absolutely love her fiction too. “The Inseparables” was never published in Beauvoir’s lifetime, but it tells the story of a pivotal friendship in her life, one she also revisited in “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter”. The novella makes wonderful reading, and this edition is enhanced with some lovely additional material. Do pop over and have a look at my review – it’s here! 😀

“…a full-time, tenured woman member…” #katefansler #viragocrime

32 Comments

As I posted at the end of August, I stumbled upon some lovely acquisitions whilst rummaging in second hand bookshops for the first time in 18 months! Like the bulk of the books making their way into the Ramblings, they’ve snuck onto the TBR, and usually the likelihood of me reading them promptly is small. However, one of the new arrivals looked intriguing and appealing; and as it was short and crime fiction, it seemed ideal for my mood of needing comfort reading – though, as enjoyable as this book was, it doesn’t exactly fit into the category of cosy crime!!

“A Death in the Faculty” by Amanda Cross was published by Virago in their Crime Fiction range in 1986, although the original publication date was 1981. Cross was actually the pseudonym of the academic Carolyn Heilbrun, and under that name she produced a series of crime novels featuring her academic detective, Kate Fansler. This particular book is sixth in the series, so I was kind of jumping in with no knowledge of previous events; though in the end that didn’t really matter.

Fansler is a rich American professor from a good family who somehow seems to have ended up detecting, as well as being married to an unconventional detective. As the book opens, Harvard’s foundations are shaking as they’re being forced to take on a female Professor in order to receive a million dollar legacy. That woman is Janet Mandelbaum, an old friend of Kate’s from graduate school with whom she’s lost touch. However, things do not seem to be going well as Janet is part of a scandalous incident involving alcohol and a radical feminist from a local collective. Janet sends for suppport via Sylvia, a mutual friend, and Kate finds herself drawn into the world of Harvard, its traditions, and actually the corruption which exists in any large, old organisation run by men… She also encounters the women of the collective who are equally unhappy about the situation, and Kate finds herself trying to find out who might be hostile enough to a female professor to take such extreme action. However, when a murder takes place the situation becomes altogether more serious and Kate is up against a number of competing groups all with their own agends as she tries to solve the mystery of who killed her old friend.

“Faculty” was an interesting read on a number of levels, not least because of the era from which it came. Fansler herself is a well-drawn character; an academic feminist like her creator, she has to deal with the disapproval of her rich family, the inherent sexism of the systems in which she works, and also the judgement she gets from the various radical feminists she meets. I’m old enough to recall the second wave of feminism which was running in the early 1980s, and then (just as now) there were extreme viewpoints. The more radical wing regarded anyone who had anything to do with men as in effect collaborators, and espoused the view that all women should be political lesbians. This, I have to say, was where I parted company with them because as far as I’m concerned, anyone’s sexual preferences are their own business (as long as we don’t get into icky, illegal stuff). So Kate has to win the trust of the women in the collective, while trying to find out about the various male academics who might be in the running as murderers. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but she does manage it – and there *is* an eventual solution.

If I’m truly honest, much as I enjoyed this book, I think the mystery element is actually not the dominant part of it. Cross seems to me to be using her detective and her plot as props upon which to hang a lot of dicussion of feminist issues, and the actual resolution of the murder is a teeny bit underwhelming. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book; I did, very much, and that may well because it took me right back in time to when this kind of dialogue regarding feminism was current. Janet herself, the central character and victim, has an interesting attitude in that she wants to be accepted as an academic, not a *woman* academic, and she does have a point. However, in 1981 I think things were certainly not at the stage where that was possible (and frankly I’m not sure that we’re there yet…) Kate, an academic herself, understands that feeling but is more realistic and aware of the pitfalls for women in academia; and her meetings and discussions with the collective women are a fascinating look at the issues of the time.

Harvard 2009 (chensiyuan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have to confess to being a bit of a sucker for a campus novel, and “Faculty” in some ways harks back to Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” which tackles women in academia too, as well as having a crime. There’s some very sharp commentary on academic politics, as well as exploration of constant daily misogyny women faced (and still do), whether covertly or in the attitudes of men who think it’s ok to grope a woman whenver the mood takes them. Cross writes well, captures her setting and characters beautifully, and explores the issues so interestingly. There were also plenty of literary references and in-jokes which were amusing distractions; for example, an aspect of the mystery hinged on Yvonne Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx which was at one time published by Virago! So this was a satisfying read on the many levels on which it operates, and I did enjoy watching Kate look at Harvard and its environs with a witty, cynical eye. Cross/Heilbrun herself was an intriguing woman, and I’d rather like to explore more of her Kate Fansler books to see where she went with the character. But for the time being, I’m very glad I picked this up on a whim – a great read! 😀

“… we all live on history’s Unwitting Street” #sigizmundkrzhizhanovsky #joanneturnbull @nyrbclassics

22 Comments

As anyone with a mountainous TBR knows, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s arrived, what’s to be read next and, actually, what book you’re really in the mood to pick up. A case in point is the book featuring on the Ramblings today; the most recent release from NYRB Classics by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “Unwitting Street” ( translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov). I bought it as soon as it came out and was so excited about the fact there was a new collection of his very individual and idiosyncratic writings available. Why, therefore, has it languished unread for so long???

There’s no good reason apart from the usual ‘so many books, so little time’; but suddenly, for no apparent reason, I realised this was the book I HAD to read right now – and it was a wonderful experience from start to finish. SK is an author with whom I’m very familiar, having read the four other books NYRB have issued, all wonderfully translated by the same team, as well as an earlier collection. SK was an author who languished in obscurity for much of his lifely, so his rediscovery is a joy. His stories are quirky, unusual and very individual; his take on life idiosyncratic; and his voice distinctive.

The grass of oblivion likes to be watered with tears: this helps it to grow.

“Unwitting…” collects together 18 short works, set in the Soviet world of the early 20th century, and they’re surreal, moving and memorable. The blurb on the back indicates that these stories are perhaps more playful than his other works in translation; well, yes, sometimes – SK is always playful, I feel, but there are dark and quite profound themes in some of these stories which really do take the breath away…

The first story in the collection, “Comrade Punt”, perhaps sets the scene for the rest of the book, with its tale of a pair of trousers able to take on a life of their own when their usual occupier dies – pretty much because of Soviet beauracracy. Short fables like “The Flyelephant” and “A Page of History” play with our preconceptions; and “The Slightly-Slightlies” starts as a tale of illusions but moves into darker territory when the illusions are dropped. “Journey of a Cage” uses the device of a parrot in a cage being passed from hand to hand to show the dramatic changes taking place in Russia of the time. In a similar fashion, “The Grey Fedora” follows the titular hat on its journey from head to head, ecountering all sorts of people on the way. “Death of an Elf” explores musical inspiration, as does “The Mute Keybord”, and chess turns up in a number of the stories. Then there’s “The Life and Opinions of a Thought” in which a philosopher’s idea fights against being written down.

But the dusk – for now – was otherwise engaged: unbidden, slipping into the hall unheard, it first gingerly touched all the corners, contours, and edges of things. Quietly pressing its gray fingers to window ledges and sills, the corners of the table, the sinuous outlines of men and chessman, the dusk tried to unsettle them. But the things, sealing up their edges, lines, and corners, resisted. Then the dusk’s gray muscles tensed and contracted, its fine cindery fingers clutched at contours and edges more fiercely and tenaciously. And the fastenings gave way: dropping lines, ledges, and planes, the shapes of things loomed up, contours swayed, corners came apart, freeing lines: things began to stream and quietly seep into one another. They were not: as of old.

All of the stories are clever, funny, quirky and so wonderfully written; and SK has a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That particular element always gives his writing a completely individual voice as far as I’m concerned – I’m not sure I’ve ever read prose like this. I’ve seen SK compared with Kafka, Borges and Calvino, and I would certainly agree that he’s a one-off as they are, taking the reader into uncharted territory and twisting their expectations. The blurb describes these stories as ‘philosophical and phantasmagorical’, a description with which I’d agree, but despite that playful element highlighted above there are most definitely dark themes running through the book. I was particularly hit by the story “God is Dead” which explores what actually happens to humanity when they cease to believe in God and so in effect that entity *does* die. It’s a breathtaking piece of fiction delving into human futility and left me quite stunned at the end. I think ‘philosophical’ is definitely the word to apply to SK’s works because you come away from them pondering deeply and with your thoughts and perspectives on life quite changed – well at least, I always do….

SK, via Wikimedia Commons

In some ways I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick up this wonderful collection, although I’m a firm believer in the right book at the right time – and maybe this was just its time! Whatever – “Unwitting…” was a wonderful, engrossing and entertaining read from start to finish, and a thought provoking one at that. Thank you whoever rescued SK’s writings from the archives, thank you Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov for giving him a voice in English, and thank you NYRB for publishing them – my life is enriched by SK’s books!

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: