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Flaming June – and onwards into July!!

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When I say ‘flaming June’ I could of course be implying two different meanings! Flaming as in it was very hot, which it was; and flaming in the sense of the British English use to express annoyance! June for me was both of those things; too hot, because I’m not good with high temperatures, and busy again so I didn’t get to read as much as I wanted to. What I read I loved, though, and here they are:

No disappointments at all and quite a variety, from short stories (crime and modernist), novels new and old, non-fiction and translated lit. The re-read of “Gormenghast” was pure joy and kept me sane when things were very manic at work!

I have, of course, now completed the #Narniathon, which was great fun, even if I found “The Last Battle” a bit sad. Others will be going on to read an interesting sounding work about the Narnia books, but I am going to pass on that as I don’t have the book and I’m trying to avoid acquiring more; though I will follow their thoughts with interest!

As for what I *do* plan to read, well, I’m going to keep that as loose as possible. Annabel has an Italian Fortnight coming up at the end of the month, and so I shall try to join in with that. There is, I think, a Paris in July event knocking about somewhere online, but it will depend on my mood as to whether I take part. Also Stu usually hosts a Spanish/Portuguese Lit event so if that’s going ahead I may try to take part. What I *do* want to do is to make a dent in the mountainous TBR as on the imminent pile are some very interesting titles:

First up, an inviting pair of review books – Orwell and Golden Age Crime are two of my favourite things to read, so I hope to get to these soon.

Spark is also a huge favourite, and I’m intrigued by Lange – I love interesting women authors, so either of these would be a great choice for July.

Irina Mashinski’s book sounds quite marvellous, and I can’t wait to get to it – it’s definitely one title I’ll be prioritising in July!

I’m currently reading the Letters of Basil Bunting alongside whichever other book I have to hand and it’s a fascinating volume; so far much of the correspondence has been addressed to Ezra Pound, and this really is something of a treasure trove.

My current read, along with the Bunting is this:

Yes, I’m finally making an attempt to read Brookner properly! Only a little way in but so far I’m impressed – watch this space for progress reports!!!

Apart from that, I’ll just keep on picking up the books which take my fancy as that’s what works for me. I hadn’t *planned* to re-read “Gormenghast” in June, for example, but when the reading mojo calls, you just have to follow it! Do you have any plans for your July reading??

Exploring a still relevant political tract – over @ShinyNewBooks :D

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I have another review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s of a book which you might not have been aware of, or considered reading. The titled is “A Spectre, Haunting: On The Communist Manifesto”  by China Mieville, and it makes absolutely fascinating reading.

Mieville is, of course, best known for his fictions; however, he wears his left wing heart on his sleeve, and produced a wonderful narrative history of the 1917 Russian Revolution on its 100th anniversary. Here, he takes a seminal political tract, “The Communist Manifesto”, and examines its meanings and relevance, both past and present. It’s a wonderful book, brimming with ideas and anger about the inequalities in our society. I highly recommend it, and you can read my full review here.

“The dream is ended: this is the morning.” #Narniathon #TheLastBattle

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Well, I can hardly believe it, but I’ve stuck to the schedule for Chris’s Narniathon and have made it to the final book in the series – “The Last Battle”, first published in 1956. Alas, as I’ve mentioned before, this is not my original copy from my childhood as that’s currently AWOL (though hopefully somewhere in the house); I have substituted with this cheap and temporary copy with a modern cover and I can’t say I like it much – anyway, onward and inward as they say! ;D

As the book opens, Narnia is in decline; Aslan appears to have deserted his land, and the last King, Tirian, is full of excitement when a rumour reaches them that the lion has returned. However, he soon discovers how wrong things are going when he hears that trees are being felled and sold to Calomen as well as talking beasts enslaved – all apparently on the orders of Aslan. It soon becomes clear that this is no true Aslan, simply an imposter which needs to be dealt with quickly. However the Narnians appear to be outnumbered by the Calormenes, faith in Narnia and its king has fallen by the wayside, and Tirian has no option except to call for help from the children who came from our world in the country’s past. Amazingly, Eustace and Jill appear from nowhere; and the battle is on to save their beloved Narnia from betrayal and colonisation. The Last Battle will indeed be a mighty one…

I must admit to approaching this book with a little trepidation… Although I recall not being over-fond of “The Horse and His Boy“, I also remember finding “The Last Battle” hard to take because it’s so sad at the beginning. Seeing Narnia in decline, the horrors of occupation and the dominance of those with vested interests is very painful (and actually still very resonant nowadays). Although things take a turn for the better when the true Aslan appears, the loss of the world we’ve become used to is very moving (and having Digory there at start and finish a lovely touch). Lewis’s writing is still stellar, though; in the same way as he painted some marvellous word pictures with the creation of Narnia in “The Magician’s Nephew”, he deals with its end equally brilliantly, leaving you quite stunned and emotional. Having almost all the human characters together is wonderful, though I’m sure I’m not alone in regretting Lewis’s dismissal of Susan; presumably she’s being used to reject the idea that religion is something childish you should grow out of, but it does come across as a bit of a betrayal of her, and a tad misogynistic.

Re-reading these books now, I certainly found this one to be the most overtly religious of the series. It’s quite obvious what Aslan’s Country is meant to represent, and here Lewis does conjure a beautiful land containing all the countries you might ever want to see. It’s clever to portray this as the *real* version of all worlds too; but I’m not well-versed enough in theology to know if his shadowlands and real world concepts are original. There are a number of explorations of what I would call faith or lack of it, too; the dwarfs are a case in point, declaring “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs” and stubbornly refusing to recognise the reality around them. Then there’s the fearsome god Tash; an evil figure, it’s made clear that only bad actions can be done in his name, and any good actions supposedly taken on behalf of Tash are actually in Aslan’s name.

Getting to the end of any immersive series of books, ones where you’ve lived rather than read them, is always an emotional experience, leaving you feeling a little bereft. I certainly always felt so with these books when I was young – and also with the “Lord of the Rings” series. In both cases, I’ve gone through phases of finishing them and going right back to the start to relive the experience; and having now got to the end of the #Narniathon I can still feel that pull to do so… It’s been quite wonderful revisiting this series of books, which were so important to me in my younger years and still are! Thanks to Chris for setting up the #Narniathon – I most likely wouldn’t have gone back to these right now without it, and it really has been a heck of an experience!

“The only India I’ve carried with me is my mango tree.” #StillLives @RenardPress

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Today I’m happy to be taking part in another Blog Tour for lovely Renard Press. This time it’s for a book I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up as I don’t, as a rule, read a lot of modern fiction. However, the book, “Still Lives” by Reshma Ruia, is a fascinating and very moving read which perhaps took me a little outside of my usual comfort zone – always a good thing! 😀

“Still Lives” is mostly narrated by PK Malik, a businessman born in Bombay who headed off to make a new life in America when he was young. However, bumping into an old friend en route, in Manchester, he was persuaded to stop off; and the journey never continued, with PK settling in Manchester and starting up a successful company. Now 55, with a wife Geeta and teenage son Aman, his luck is on the turn with business rivals out-doing him, a stale marriage and a son with little prospects. The book follows his mid-life crisis, his struggle to know what to do to make the best of his life, and the effects on his fragile family life.

Inevitably, PK meets another woman; in his case, Esther, the wife of one of his business rivals; and a fairly sordid affair takes place. This obviously can’t last, and as the truth comes out, affecting both partners’ families, events spiral into tragedy and a heartbreaking conclusion.

The plot might initially sound a little familiar, but “Still Lives” digs much deeper than just the bones of the plot I’ve laid out. Ruia is obviously intent on exploring her characters’ sense of identity and belonging, and the cultural issues they face are there from the very start. PK thinks he has assimilated, moving to a more affluent area and attending business events, but there’s always the feeling that under the surface he doesn’t really fit in and he’s often met with racism. For Geeta things are starker; she’s obviously desperately homesick and the move to the new house tore her away from the community and friends she’d made in Manchester. All of her attention is focused on her much-loved son, the only child she’s managed to bear to term, and her affection for him is smothering and cloying. As I read on through the story, it became clear that from the hints of Aman being ‘special’ there was more to his needs than at first met the eye.

It has to be said that PK is often a character with whom it’s very hard to sympathise; his narrative is so self-centred, his attitude towards his wife judgemental and ofter cruel, and his betrayal unforgiveable, especially when you see the effect it has on his family. Yet there are times when you understand his frustration about the way his life has turned out and the loss of his early dreams, although none of that justifies his behaviour. Esther, with whom he has his fling, has her own issues but is as needy and self-obsessed as PK and tellingly can’t even get Geeta’s name right. There is a clash of cultures between the two and, it has to be said, of class in the moneyed sense; her husband is on the ascendant whereas PK is on his way down, and so their affair really seems to have no future at all.

As for Geeta, she’s no fool, and the narrative is punctuated by her letters home to her sister where she often reveals her awareness of the situation. These work as a welcome counterpoint to PK’s self-obsession, her voice calling into question his actions and his beliefs. His insensitivity is infuriating; his harsh judgement of his wife whilst failing to understand her loneliness, her longing for her homeland and the reason why she clings to certain cultural areas of the city is blinkered. Both husband and wife, however, are equally blind when it comes to the reality of their beloved son, Aman; by using that word ‘special’ and refusing to really engage, they block the kind of support which would help him. His story, for me, was the biggest tragedy of all, and the climax of the book absolutely destroyed me.

So “Still Lives” turned out to be an absorbing, moving and unexpectedly powerful read; Ruia explores all manner of issues surrounding culture, belonging, alienation and the lies we tell ourselves to be able to carry on with our daily lives. The Malik family and their story really came alive for me in this book, and Aman in particular will haunt my thoughts for quite some time. Another winner from Renard Press, then, and a book I’m very glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone to read! 😀

“Now the truth would be told” #thepumpkineater #penelopemortimer

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As I’ve mentioned previously, the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is hosting this year a monthly themed reading project of books from our collections; I’ve managed to take part in a few of the themes so far, and June’s choice is books by Virago authors, but issued by a different publisher. That opens up all manner of possibilities, and as I hinted in my May round-up post, I was considering picking up “The Pumpkin Eater” by Penelope Mortimer. Reader, I have done so! and I find myself wondering just why it took me so long to read her, because on the basis of this book, I really need to search out some more! 😀

“The Pumpkin Eater” was published in 1962, and was Mortimer’s fifth published novel. Born in Wales, her upbringing was scarred by the sexual abuse of her father; and after a first marriage to Charles Dimont they divorced and she then married barrister and author John Mortimer, although this relationship eventually foundered. She produced journalism, biographies and novels, as well as having six children; and “Pumpkin…” may well be her best-known novel as it was made into a successful film with Ann Bancroft (who features on the cover of my edition).

The book opens with the narrator, known throughout only as Mrs. Armitage, visiting a male psychiatrist; to say he seems less than interested is an understatement. Her marrige to Jake, a successful screenwriter, is her fourth and it’s on the rocks. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that he’s been having affairs; the couple’s time together is limited anyway by the demands made on the narrator by her children. Curiously, the number of children is never stated specificially, but simply reckoned to be an unusually large collection, by various husbands, and it does seem as if Mrs. Armitage is obsessed with maternity.

Gradually, the narrator becomes more and more unsettled, the sessions with the psychiatrist don’t help and things come to a head when Mrs. Armitage becomes pregnant yet again. Jake cannot cope – slightly reasonably, he points out that he had been hoping that as the younger children grew up, they could actually have more time on their own together – and Mrs. A. is persuaded to not only have an abortion, but also a sterilisation. She doesn’t cope with this well, either physically or mentally, particularly when another infidelity of Jake’s comes to light – and it’s touch and go as to whether she and her marriage will survive.

“Pumpkin…” is a fascinating read on a number of levels, and a particularly interesting book to come to straight after the Brackenbury. The fact that the narrator is only ever known as Mrs. Armitage is telling; she’s obviously a woman defined by her marriages and also by her children, that numerous and sprawling brood. The psychiatrist at one point wonders if she has an issue with sex and constantly bearing children is her way of justifying it; and although this is based on nothing I picked up in the book, I did wonder if Mortimer’s own childhood abuse informed this. The book was written at a time when, as I stated in my post on “A Day to Remember to Forget”, women’s lives were expected to be fulfilled by home and children; however, Mrs. Armitage is quite obviously neither happy nor fulfilled, and like Felicity Ridgley hasn’t got the options for which women would soon be fighting.

Only the three at boarding school remained apart, cut adrift, growing old under their old names… Slowly, little by little, almost imperceptibly, I let them drift until only our fingertups were touching, then reaching, then finding nothing. Our hands dropped and we turned away.

The book is also a vivid portrait of the mores of the time, as well as the sheer hatred that some men obviously felt for women. The circles Jake moves in are full of people having affairs, and the bitterness which follows is nasty; Conway, in particular, is a vile character, intent on making not only his own wife (who’s had a fling with Jake) suffer, but also Mrs. Armitage. The latter’s operations and subsequent physical issues are starkly portrayed (although not graphically) and little real understanding or consideration seems to come her away, apart from a brief reunion with one of her ex-husbands.

It’s fair to say that “Pumpkin…” can feel like a melancholy read at times; it covers complex issues of mental health, emotional breakdown, marriage difficulties and crises of self-identity. Yet the book does not end without hope, and although Mrs. Armitage may never have the perfect life a 1960s housewife was meant to, she does have a kind of resolution. And the children, flitting in and out of the narrative, are something of saviours, particularly one of the older ones, Dinah. A younger woman engaging with the changes happening in society around them, she perhaps represents a future for women different to the proscribed role her mother has had.

I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened…let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! You’re too weak! Get out! Come back!…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easily when they take away love.

“The Pumpkin Eater” is a moving and provocative book, and I found it impossible to read without thinking it was informed by the author’s own experiences; even a cursory glance at the outlines of Mortimer’s life leads to the inevitable conclusion that the book is extremely autobiographical. I presumed that the use of only Mrs. Armitage for the narrator’s name was strongly symbolic, reflecting her only existing in relation to her husband, and it’s intriguing that she was given a name for the film. As I hinted above, I was inevitably drawn to make comparisons with the Brackenbury I read recently, and although nearly a decade separates them, the older women characters seem to have little choice or agency, whereas there is hope for the younger ones. Mortimer’s writing is excellent, capturing her narrator’s state of mind quite brilliantly, and there are some particularly lyrical passages involving the children. I’m really glad the VMC group decided on this month’s challenge, as Mortimer is an author I’ve meant to get to for ages. “The Pumpkin Eater” is a powerful portrait of a woman’s life and her identity crisis, and an unforgettable read.

For more thoughts on the book, you can check out HeavenAli’s lovely review here.

A scintillating dialogue between artists – over @ShinyNewBooks

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I’m sharing today a review I have over on Shiny New Books of a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking book. It’s “Letters to Gwen John” by artist Celia Paul, and in it the latter initiates a narrative between herself and the lauded artist Gwen John in the form of letters. Despite the fact that John cannot, of course, reply, Paul sprinkles her book with extracts from writings by John and others who knew her, as well as some truly gorgeous illustrations from both artists. This is a wonderful book which illuminates the life of the woman artist, particularly when she’s so often judged in relation to the men in her life, and it’s a stunning and memorable read. I loved it, and you can read my full review here.

“… how infinitely hard to go on living.” #rosalindbrackenbury @spikenard65

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As I hinted in my post about my Penguin Modern Stories project, I do often wonder why it is that some authors fall out of fashion, whereas others continue to be read long after they were first published. There doesn’t always seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, and that’s certainly the case with regard to the author I want to share with you today. Rosalind Brackenbury is a novelist who is still writing nowadays, but Mike Walmer has reprinted several of her early novels, including the first one “A Day to Remember to Forget”. Originally released in 1971, it’s set in the late 1960s and explores a day in the life of a young couple and the man’s family; it will an eventful day indeed, and the small domestic crises will build to dramatic effect while family (and local) secrets are revealed.

Lucy and Philip, described in the blurb as a ‘progressive young couple’, have found a house they want to buy and settle in; the fact that Philip is still at university and money is tight seems irrelevant, and having settled on their house they go to visit Philip’s conservative suburban family, the Ridgleys, for his mother’s 50th birthday. George, the father is a bit of a traditional patriarchal bully; Felicity, the mother an OCD nervous wreck; and elder brother Andrew is a conventional married man who has his wife and small child in tow. Felicity is in a state of agitation, juggling constant catering, anxiety about everyone’s needs, wanting to dote on her younger son and struggling to cope with her birthday. Philip is quarrelsome and prickly, and his main reason for visiting seems to be to announce that he and Lucy are going to get married and get his inheritance from his grandfather for the house. A visit to a next door neighbour, old Mrs. Fletcher, brings a little respite, but she has baggage of her own relating to her late husband, also called Philip. As the day progresses, the tensions expand and Lucy is left wondering whether she is making the right choices.

“A Day…” is a compelling and really wonderfully written book, it has to be said; Brackenbury is brilliant in capturing the essence of a day in September, with a summer coming to its end and all the family tensions simmering and coming to a head. People lash out verbally; there’s much eating, drinking and attempting to paper over the cracks; and both Philip and Lucy push against the conventions but find themselves struggling to identify what they really want. The story of Mrs. Fletcher and her past loves and losses, set against Philip and Lucy’s tale and Felicity’s younger experiences, build up a picture of women’s lives and loves over the decades; and although superficial things have changed, it does feel as if the underlying issues and conflicts are still there.

Noise, chaos, the misuse of property, her fears; she had in some measure passed them on to her sons. And the scheme of things, the safe plan and the ordered day, these were what took away the fear; she must love propriety, details. Tidy drawers of linen, pots of jam on the shelf, labelled.

Interestingly, although the book seems focused on Lucy and Philip, I couldn’t help feeling that much of the story was pointing towards the experiences of Felicity Ridgley. Maybe, like “Anna Karenina”, I would have found the young lovers’ story most compelling if I had read this book years ago. As it was, I found myself empathising with Felicity’s plight despite her smothering and intense behaviour. Lumbered with a husband who dominates and frightens her, one son for whom she has no real interest and a second who she dotes on to an unhealthy degree, she’s a person with no resources to fall back on when things go wrong. She’s very much the product of a class and period when women were supposed to find satisfaction in the home and family; but as has been proved time and time again, this really is not enough and women needs interests, careers and outside friends. As it is, it seems that at 50, her life is really pretty much over.

Life embraced the young, tolerated the middle-aged, did not want to know about the old.

For Felicity, it’s too late as she’ll never unlearn her conditioned upbringing; but for Lucy I couldn’t help but wonder if a new way of living would be possible for her. The lure of marriage and conventionality is there, and despite her and Philip’s protestations that things will be different for them, this particular reader was not entirely convinced – his behaviour is not always as progressive as he might want to believe. And as the book comes to a close, Lucy does seems to be seriously doubting if this is the future she wants. The couple’s vision of their life together is not a realistic one; it’s a chimera, really, with no actual detail of what they want their future to be or practical plan to achieve it. I must admit I ended the book fearing that whatever path they chose would not necessarily end well – they were both so very young (Lucy is 19) and had much growing up to do before deciding what they really wanted to do for the rest of their lives.

Once again, I can’t applaud Mike Walmer enough for reissuing a book; on the evidence of her first novel, Rosalind Brackenbury is a marvellous writer who definitely deserves wider exposure. Although commentators on this one have focused on the fact it is of its time, it does much more than just capture a point in the 20th century when lives and norms were transforming. “A Day…” explores memory, family dynamics, filial tensions, male/female relationships and a topic which seems to regularly turn up in my reading – how well we can ever really know another human being. Having loved my first experience of reading Brackenbury’s work, I’m pleased to note that I have more treats in store – Mike has reissued her second and third novel, and they might just be lurking on the TBR… ;D

*****

Thanks must go to Mike Walmer for kindly sending a review copy and waiting so patiently for me to get to it! You can also read Helen’s excellent review of the book here.

Sidling up to a new Penguin reading project…. #PenguinModernStories

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I really don’t like to make things easy for myself, do I? Having successfully finished my project of reading all 51 of the Penguin Moderns (the 50 in my box and the extra Mishima) you would think I would like to relax and contemplate the various Penguin projects I haven’t touched for ages, planning to get back to them. Alas, not so….. I blame author of the excellent “White Spines“, Nicholas Royle, who I follow on Twitter; during May I noticed that he was tweeting daily with an image of the date made up in book titles e.g. 25.05.2022 would have three different volumes of Penguin Horror Stories – nos. 25, 5 and 22! Intriguingly, on some of the dates, Royle featured a set of books I’d never come across – Penguin Modern Stories…

I exchanged a few tweets with Royle and he kindly posted a photo of all 12 volumes in the set. It seems that these are from the late1960s/early 1970s, and perhaps followed on from the Penguin Modern Poets which began in the 1960s; however, that series ran for 27 books, whereas the Modern Stories finished at 12. Was there less of an interest in short stories? Did readers prefer poetry? Who knows, as there doesn’t seem to be much documentation available. The blurb on the back of Book 1 says “This volume is the first of a new series designed to bring new short stories by both well-known and exciting new writers to the wide public they deserve. Penguin Modern Stories will be published four times a year”. Which is a laudable aim! However, looking at the range of authors featured, I was intrigued and set about searching online.

When I casually mentioned these books to my BFF J. she was as intrigued as I had been, particularly when we could see that Plath and Rhys were featured authors. I tracked down volumes 1 and 2; J. found a load more online; and then I sourced the final missing two. So now we have a set of 12 between us and I’m hoping reading them will be a manageable project!

The books appear to come with a little more information than the Poets did, and from my initial quick explorations it seems that this may be first time of publication for the stories. So that’s interesting, and reading these volumes will raise lots of questions for me about the changing fashions in writing and reading, why some authors’ work survives and others disappear by the wayside, and what kind of audience there would be nowadays for something like this. You could argue that things like Granta have overtaken a venture like the Penguin Modern Stories, but I think they must have been quite groundbreaking releases at the time.

So, onward and upward with a new reading project! I shall be putting up another dedicated page just for these books, and linking any reviews on it. I *will* also be trying to reboot the other stalled projects – so watch this space and see whether I manage to get going with the various Penguins! 😀

“…his heart had opened, awakened for a long time to come.” @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary #homewardfromheaven @Bryan_S_K

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An imprint I always follow with interest is the Russian Library arm of Columbia University Press. They’ve released all manner of wonderful titles, many of which I’ve covered here on the Ramblings; and so I was intrigued when I saw they were issuing a work by an author new to me, Boris Poplavsky. “Homeward from Heaven” was his final work, considered his masterpiece, and here it’s translated by Bryan Karetnyk, who’s been responsible for bringing so much Russian emigre literature into English (particularly the marvellous Gaito Gazdanov).

Poplavsky sounds like he was something of a character, to say the least: from a wealthy Moscow family, he fled Russia after the revolution and settled down in Paris in 1921. He died tragically young, at the age of 32 from a drug overdose, and has been described as an ‘enfant terrible’. Certainly, on the evidence of this work, he sounds like a man drawn to extremes and also one with a divided self.

“Homeward…” actually follows on from an earlier work, “Apollon Bezobrazoff”, and that character does appear in this novel However, the focus here is mainly on a young man called Oleg; a Russian emigre in Paris, he’s following religious study yet is drawn to the darker, seamier side of life. His most regular companion is the aforesaid Apollon and the two men travel to the south of France where they live rough over the summer, existing on what they can beg borrow and steal, while Oleg pursues his obsession with the beautiful Tania.

…Oleg did not forget the sea, he would never forget it, although after Tania‘s betrayal, it sung to him not of happiness and life, yet sing it did, unrelenting and unembraceable, without words, the blinding witness to so many summer dramas and pointless confrontations. The footprints that Oleg left in the sand were washed away before all the others.

She’s somewhat unreachable, however, with a succession of boyfriends, and Oleg returns to Paris in the autumn where he then pursues a relationship with another woman, Katia. Despite this being a more successful liaison, Oleg seems unable to settle, constantly wracked by existentialist doubts. The return of Tania sees a rupture with Katia; but will his reunion with Tania be any more successful.

As translator Karetnyk’s excellent introduction clarifies, “Homeward…” was actually unfinished at Poplavsky’s death, and he explains how he drew on the original typescript for his translation. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes challenging read, and combines Oleg’s inner mologues with Apollon’s gnostic-style deliberations, set against vividly conjured backdrops of the Paris and south of France of the period, with its bohemian cast of emigres. Oleg’s conflicted nature is strongly on display, and the narrative focuses on his divided self, travelling from exalted regions of religious thought to a more prosaic, down to earth daily life. At one point close to the end, Apollon asks how his journey homeward from heaven has gone, and if the book is at all autobiographical (which I suspect it is), the answer might well be ‘not very well’….

The corners of the room slowly vanished amid the darkness. The window was a perfect pale blue, and across the street golden specks appeared as lights in the neighboring building were switched on.

Oleg, it has to be said, is not always a particularly likeable character. Oscillating between bullish masculinity and the febrile emotional state of an adolescent, he seems to struggle to come to terms with the world. He’s immature, often overwrought, and his treatment of women, as evidenced in some of the more explicit passages, leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless the book is compelling reading, with some beautifully lyrical writing, stream-of-consciousness prose sections and a most marvellous sense of place. The feeling of dislocation so common in emigre fiction is strongly present, and I kept being reminded of what those Russians who chose to flee had been through; which no doubt strongly influenced their art and their mindset.

As with all Russian Library editions, there is the previously mentioned introduction and excellent supporting notes to shine a light on any of the more obscure references in the text. “Homeward…” is a vivid, sometimes dark yet often exhilarating read, and I did finish it saddened that Poplavsky’s life ended when it did so that he was not there to carry on the story of his protagonists. The translation by Bryan Karetnyk reads beautifully and it must have been quite an undertaking to render some of the more complex passages into English! I’m happy to have finally been able to make the acquaintance of Poplavsky and his writing, and may have to nip off and see if anything else is available for the Anglophone reader…. ;D

(ARC kindly provided by Columbia University Press, for which many thanks – the book is out today!)

“… only writing can save them…” #lovenovel @VQ_Books

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Back in 2020, I read and shared my thoughts on two novels by a new publisher, V&Q Books; these were “Paula” and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” (which you can read about here), and both were fascinating reads. V&Q have gone from strength to strength, and recently were kind enough to send me one of their latest titles – “Love Novel” by Ivana Sajko, translated from Croatian by Mima Simic. I’m not sure if I’ve read anything Croatian before, so that’s an exciting first; and the book itself is striking and very memorable.

“Love Novel” is the story of an unnamed married couple struggling with life and their relationship in an unnamed European country. The man is an unemployed Dante scholar attempting to write; the woman is a fairly average actress who made the mistake of not only falling for the man, but also giving up her regular job at the theatre to look after the couple’s baby. The strain of lack of money, an unstable location and the fact that they have nowhere to turn is bringing their relationship to the brink and it’s not clear whether it (or them!) will survive.

The publicity blurb describes the book as a “Furious anti-love story” and that’s not far from the truth. The couple are suffering from lack of sleep, the strain of dealing with a small child (mostly being borne by the woman) and there is a sense that the pair didn’t really know each other than well before the pregnancy and marriage came along. So they circle each other, lash out and struggle to stay sane enough to make a living. The man finds himself drawn into a public protest against the authorities; and their neighbours add pressure by expecting them to contribute to improving the appearance of the block of flats. A brief period where they both manage to grab temporary jobs brings a little respite; but not for long; and it soon becomes clear that the little family unit can’t stay in their small flat for much longer… What will become of them is anybody’s guess.

It has to be said that “Love Novel” is not necessarily an easy read; seeing two characters in extreme emotional conflict is painful to say the least. What makes the book stand out so much, however, is the writing; Sajkno’s narrative with its long, fluid sentences drags you into a maelstrom where you experience the whirlwind of the couple’s emotions first-hand. It’s intense and immersive writing, and does leave you a bit breathless. The narrative very cleverly doesn’t take sides, allowing you to see events from both male and female perspective; and though both have their faults, you can’t help but hope they’ll find a way through…

So my third read of a V&Q turned out to be a really powerful and thought-provoking work. It’s a book which is of its time, capturing the pressures and the fragmented lives being lived in what the blurb calls late capitalism; but it also highlights the eternal differences between men and women, society’s expectations of both and the sheer difficulty of one human being understanding another. Forcefully and brilliantly written, “Love Novel” is a book which will demand your attention and one you’ll struggle to put down!

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

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