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And the winning year is……

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…1968!

Those of you who follow Simon’s blog (and that’s all of you, I hope!) will have seen that he’s been busily totting up the votes for a year in the 1960s and announced that, by a narrow margin, 1968 was the most popular – so the next reading week will be the 1968 Club, running from 23rd to 29th October 2017.

I wasn’t fretting too much about which year came out on top, and I confess I was more concerned about whether Simon would be happy, as I always feel his comfort zone is earlier in the century. However, when I had a first look at the books listed online for 1968, there were only a few titles that sprang out initially. But I did a little more research, and began digging around in the stacks, and not only does there look like a surprisingly wide range of titles available from the year in question, but I also seem to have read quite a lot from 1968!

Here is a tantalising hint of some of the books I may be tackling… Although as this is six months down the line, who knows what I’ll actually want to read at the time? Whatever is chosen, I do hope as many as possible of you will join in. So put the date in your diary, do a little research amongst your own books, and read up a bit in advance if you want to – roll on the #1968club! 🙂

A Review for Shiny – reinventing some Soviet authors!

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If you’re a regular reader of the Ramblings, you’ll be aware of my love of every kind of Russian literature; and also of my great fondness from the marvellous Mikhail Bulgakov, author of “The Master and Margarita” amongst others.

So it was a given that I’d be keen on reading a new book from Europa Editions, “Mikhail and Margarita” by Julie Lekstrom Himes, which takes the lives of Bulgakov and his fellow author Mandelstam and constructs a fascinating fantasia, creating an alternative version of their lives which draws in Bulgakov’s great work.

The book is not without its flaws, but it captures marvellously the tense atmosphere of being an artist living under a totalitarian regime – and you can read my full review over on Shiny New Books here!

#1951Club – phew, what a week it’s been! :)

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Well, what a wonderful week of reading we’ve all had with the #1951Club! These reading events (so cleverly devised by Simon) seem to go from strength to strength, and I can’t get over how many titles keep popping up that I wasn’t aware were from the year in question!

I started the week with plans and possibilities and of course went off on several tangents, but I’ve read some really wonderful books. Alas, I didn’t get to all of the ones I wanted, and some of the longer ones and re-reads went by the by. However, there were some fabulous crime reads, as well as some humour from Queneau, some serious stuff from Serge and some darker material from Durrenmatt. So another enjoyable club read!

This week’s reads (Gladys was from the library and Serge is a e-book!)

Simon suggested that we should cast around for suggestions for the next reading week, and we will be looking to pick a year in the 1960s. So if you have any suggestions of a particularly good year, do comment here or on Simon’s blog so we can see what people are keen on and pick a year with some great reads!

I’ll continue to link to posts people point me at on my 1951 Club page here, so please comment and let me know if you’ve posted and I haven’t seen it! Thanks to all for joining in, and here’s to the next club! 🙂

A life spent fighting for a cause #1951Club

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Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
Translated by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis
Glossary and Notes by Richard Greeman
Foreword by Adam Hochschild

My final read for the #1951club is very different from the others; instead of fiction (mainly crime!), it’s an autobiographical work by the author and revolutionary Victor Serge. I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before, covering several of his fictions which I’ve absolutely loved. This book, however, is Serge’s account of his own life, one spent fighting for a cause, and it’s absolutely fascinating. The book is a long one, only completed last night, and it’s left me with much food for thought.

Serge was what you might call a professional revolutionary; born in Belgium to a family of émigré dissidents, it was inevitable that he would grow up following their example, and after his parents split up when he was 15 he was pretty much on his own, joining a socialist group but later being drawn to anarchism. He led a peripatetic life with spells in prison and exile, living in countries from France, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Austria and of course Russia – his spiritual home and the place he eagerly travelled to when the 1917 Revolution took place. He joined the Bolsheviks, having become a little disillusioned with anarchism, and somehow survived the awful conditions of the civil war.

However, Serge’s initial enthusiasm for the new regime was tempered with concern about the turn it was taking. He disagreed with the harshness of those now in power, recognising early that things were moving away from the purity of the initial beliefs and becoming mired in bureaucracy. He was also quick to realise that the Secret Police were corrupt and uncontrolled and that an atmosphere of mistrust and toeing the party line was developing. Bravely, he continued to speak his mind and disagree with those in power, and frankly I found myself often wondering how it was he made it through these times alive.

Serge spent time overseas on foreign missions, trying to help the Communist organisations in other countries bring about revolution. However, his outspoken views and the fact that he aligned himself with Trotsky meant that inevitably his life in Russia was coming to an end. He was constantly monitored, his family harassed and he was exiled to Orenburg for some time in the early 1930s. As the terror in Russia expanded, overseas contacts agitated for his release and he managed to escape with his wife and child to Belgium and then France. Serge then fled Occupied France and the final chapter has him in Mexico pondering on the future; however, I know enough about his life to be aware that he  would spend the final few years of his life there, and there is a short coda about his death from his son Vladimir.

Serge never hesitated to speak his mind, and he could see the flaws of Soviet Russia while other left-wing groups and organisations were in denial. A communist who criticised the communist regime, he was welcome in neither the east nor the west, viewed with suspicion by both sides.  And as Trotsky became more and more of an outcast, Serge was tarred with the same brush and became a marginalised figure.

“Memoirs of a Revolutionary” is a long and involving book, and makes fascinating reading. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and the mistrust that was felt between east and west, but the portrayal of the differences earlier in the 20th century is stark. Communism really was seen as a threat to the western world and like Trotsky, Serge became a stateless exile, hounded from country to country but unable to find a place to live and work.

Parts of the book are by necessity a tragic litany of imprisonment, interrogation, torture and death as, one after another, friends, colleagues and fellow fighters of Serge meet their end from the Party hierarchy. It’s quite chilling to see inside the network of betrayal and mistrust, the constant need to be alert because you’re being followed by enemies and agents, and the defences needed against friendship and intimacy as anyone you meet is a potential assassin.

The book is full of vivid pen portraits of all the historical figures Serge knew and encountered, and it often seems if he is trying to record them for posterity. A constant presence running through the book is The Old Man, Trotsky, to whom Serge’s loyalty never falters even when he disagrees with the elder’s current beliefs.

We were entering a world frozen to death. The Finland station, glittering with snow, was deserted. The square where Lenin had addressed a crowd from the top o f an armored car was no more than a white desert surrounded by dead houses. The broad, straight thoroughfares, the bridges astride the Neva, now a river of snowy ice, seemed to belong to an abandoned city; first a gaunt soldier in a gray greatcoat, then after a long time a woman freezing under her shawls, went past like phantoms in an oblivious silence.

There is some beautiful, evocative writing – Serge can capture place or person deftly in a few lines – and although he keeps bringing himself back to the point, i.e. writing about his life within the revolutionary conflict, the author in him can’t help creeping out. As the introduction points out, Serge was not a writer who could spend hours crafting his prose, returning to it and honing it; he was composing on the run, always pursued by enemies, and this does give his work an immediacy and a vibrancy – I do feel he was a born writer.

Be warned though that this *is* a book with plenty of politics. Although Serge writes wonderfully, and can capture up a place and its atmosphere in a paragraph, at the heart of his narrative is the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party and its betrayal by the post-Revolutionary events. This is a book from 1951 (published posthumously) with depth and historical perspective and it makes fascinating reading; I’m glad I was spurred on to pick it up – it’s a real glimpse into a totalitarian past that has echoes in our modern world.

A late OuLiPan entrant…. #1951club

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The Sunday of Life by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

However much I plan my reading for one of our club weeks, it never quite turns out how I expected it… After wallowing in some wonderful crime books, I didn’t really fancy picking up another one, nor getting into something as long as “Forbidden Colours” or “Log from the Sea of Cortez”. So I started digging around in the stacks to see if I could find anything else from 1951 and I stumbled across this title. Some online sources state the publication date as 1952, but the book itself clearly says 1951 – so that’s good enough for me!

Queneau is a writer I’ve covered before, reviewing his “Exercises in Style” here. That was a rather clever collection of pieces (as you might expect from the OuLiPo literary group) but not really a novel as such. However, “The Sunday of Life” takes a more traditional structure, telling the unusual tale of Valentin Bru and his wife Julie/Julia. The book is set in the 1930s, and Bru is a soldier coming to the end of his term in the army. A young man in his twenties, he attracts the attention of Julie Segovia, owner of a haberdashery shop he walks past regularly. Although considerably older than him, Julia has set her sights on the young soldier and sends her sister Chantal off to find out more about him (which she does, by sleeping with a superior officer!) Bru seems a vague young man, with no real aim in life, and finds himself persuaded to marry an older lady with a decent income, and this he does in due course. However, Julia’s brother-in-law Paul, Chantal’s husband, is not happy as they had lined up their teenage daughter Marinette (who never actually appears in the book, but is constantly referred to in unflattering terms!) to inherit from Julie in due course. There is plenty of family discord going on, although the two sisters do seem attached, and the wedding proceeds with Bru taking a rather ramshackle honeymoon on his own, getting lost in Paris on the way.

Things get stranger, however, as the story progresses. Bru converts the shop and becomes a purveyor of photo frames; he makes friends with all the locals and becomes someone they come to confide their secrets in; Julia seems to develop a kind of clairvoyance just around the same time that a local medium sets up shop; and meanwhile war seems to be brewing in Europe. Paul changes his job and Valentin is re-enlisted in the army, which doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Julie has a health malfunction, and Valentin is sent off to a posting where he tries to become a saint! Let’s face it, their lives really aren’t dull!

“The Sunday of Life” was a real lift in many ways after some of the darker elements of books I’ve read this week; it’s full of wonderful sparkling wordplay and larger than life characters. Puns abound (as well as plenty of very bad language!); and the names of characters are constantly changing, particularly that of Julia and the surname of Paul and Chantal, which often vary from paragraph to paragraph! I could try to quote you some choice parts but I doubt they would work out of context and there are so many it would be hard to choose. I have to say, though, that the translator comes in for some high praise for me, because it must have been very hard to take the work in French and convey the wordplay in a different language!

Underneath all this, of course, are some more serious matters. The war continues to loom larger as the book progresses, and ironically Paul does very well out of it, taking up a business making firearms. Valentin, who is something of an innocent, narrowly avoids many scrapes and seems to live a charmed life. The whole fortune-telling plot seems to be making a point about people’s willingness to be deceived, particularly about the forthcoming conflict – the discussion of, and questioning about, whether there will be a war is a constant thread through the story. There’s also much consideration of the passing of time, with one section particularly focusing on Bru’s relationship with the clock over the road and attempting to capture each minute as it passes. And perhaps that’s the point of the book, to show how people pass their time in life!

The days that pass, which turn into the time that passes, are neither lovely nor hideous, but always the same. Perhaps it rains for a few seconds sometimes, or the four-o’clock sun holds time back for a few minutes like rearing horses. Perhaps the past doesn’t always preserve the beautiful order that clocks give to the present, and perhaps the future is rushing up in disorder, each moment tripping over itself, to be the first to slice itself up. And perhaps there is a charm or horror, grace or abjection, in the convulsive movements of what is going to be and of what has been. But Valentin has never take any pleasure in these suppositions. He still didn’t know enough about the subject. He wanted to be content with an identity nicely chipped into pieces of varying lengths, but whose character was always similar, without dyeing it in autumnal colours, drenching it in April showers or mottling it with the instability of clouds.

I imagine that there are many clever subtexts going on in the book (I’ve read that it’s very Hegelian, but since I’ve never read Hegel I couldn’t comment). Whether or not that’s the case, “The Sunday of Life” is a witty, often slapstick read with a wonderful array of entertaining characters and funny situations, which nevertheless leaves you thinking about what it was trying to say for quite a while after. I’m rather glad I stumbled upon this one as a late entrant for the #1951club as it turned out to be a real joy and another brilliant read for the week!

(Have to add kudos to this old Alma Classic for crediting the translator Barbara Wright on the cover!)

Thrills and spills in a lost world – #1951club

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They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

The author who’s been a constant in most of my reading life is Agatha Christie; I first read her in my teens, collected all her books, and every return visit I’ve made to her work has been a delight. So the first thing I do when we decide upon a year for a ‘club’ is to see which titles of hers were published then, and as she was so prolific there’s usually something I can read! 1951 is no exception, as it saw the publication of her thriller, “They Came to Baghdad” – and what a marvellous read it turned out to be!

A 1980s cover that has nothing to do with the book…

I reckon I’ve read most, if not all, Christie titles, but with the thrillers I’m never quite sure. The latter (and indeed her other crime books) have tended to be overshadowed by her Marple and Poirot oeuvre, which is a great shame, particularly on the evidence of this book. I started “Baghdad” with absolutely no memory of it and no real knowledge of the plot but it took no time at all for me to be completely sucked in to Christie’s wonderful narrative and storytelling powers.

“Baghdad” has a far-ranging plot and features a large cast of characters. Central to the plot, and the heroine of our story, is a young woman called Victoria Jones. An inveterate liar, constantly making mendacious claims to liven up her life or get her another job, as the story opens she’s been sacked yet again. Running into a personable young man, Edward, she’s annoyed to find he’s off to work in Baghdad the next day, and determines to follow him out there despite having only a few pounds to her name. Miraculously, a job materialises the next day and she sets off as a companion to an American lady with a broken arm.

Meanwhile, while Victoria sets off on her adventure, the world has much trouble brewing. A number of other interested parties seem to be converging on Baghdad, and there are even hints that world leaders such as The President and Uncle Joe, will make it to the city. Initially, it isn’t clear who is on which side, although a man called Dakin and his sidekick Crosbie appear to be on the side of the angels. Then there is the great explorer Sir Rupert Crofton Lee, whose role seems ambiguous; Anna Scheele, who seems to have an air of the Mata Hari about her; and Carmichael, an undercover man vital to world security.

To go into the plot in any more detail would probably take as long as the book, and spoil it too. Suffice to say that Victoria has many adventures, from getting a job in Baghdad, being kidnapped and imprisoned, trying to rescue spies, getting roped in by the forces of good and even having a stint in the desert as a fake archaeologist (one of her various aliases is the niece of the famous Dr. Pauncefoot Jones, a recurring character on everyone’s lips who eventually appears). The plot is twisty and turny, full of action and red herrings, hugely enjoyable and very, very entertaining.

Agatha Christie in Syria in the late 1930s

Christie is sometimes condemned as lightweight, but there is an underlying theme of seriousness here that shouldn’t be ignored. 1951 was a year when there were plenty of tensions in the world; the post-War euphoria and sense of rapprochement between East and West at the defeat of Hitler had died down, the Iron Curtain was well and truly in place, and the arms race was seen as a growing threat to the world. Christie was obviously aware of the global situation and has the two sides going for a cautious approach to rapport which is threatened by a third party. It was obviously something she felt strongly about, having lived through two World Wars, and she has the likeable Dakin say at one point:

The delusion that by force you can impose the Millennium on the human race is one of the most dangerous delusions in existence. Those who are out only to line their own pockets can do little harm – mere greed defeats its own ends. But the belief in a superstratum of human beings – in Supermen to rule the rest of the decadent world – that, Victoria, is the most evil of all beliefs. For when you say, “I am not as other men” – you have lost the two most valuable qualities we have ever tried to attain: humility and brotherhood.

The moral message aside, there is so much to love in “They Came to Baghdad”. Christie knows how to pace her book and tell a story, and I ended up staying up much too late to finish it. Her characters are believable and the switch in one particular person’s behaviour entirely convincing; there’s humour too, and some beautiful descriptions which give a strong sense of place.

Victoria, breathing in hot choking yellow dust, was unfavourably impressed by Baghdad. From the Airport to the Tio Hotel, her ears had been assailed by continuous and incessant noise. Horns of cars blaring with maddening persistence, voices shouting, whistles blowing, then more deafening senseless blaring of motor horns. Added to the loud incessant noises of the street was a small thin trickle of continuous noise which was Mrs. Hamilton Clipp talking.

A love of archaeology shows in her descriptions of Victoria helping out and developing a fascination with ancient history; this speaks eloquently of Christie’s own life and her involvement in the expeditions of her husband, Max Mallowan. But one of the strongest elements which came through in my reading of this was the sense of a lost past and a missing landscape; the setting for the story, described and evoked so beautifully by Christie, has no doubt been changed beyond recognition because of war and conflict and this added an extra poignancy to the book.

Surely those were the things that mattered – the little everyday things, the family to be cooked for, the four walls that enclosed the home, the one or two cherished possessions. All the thousands of ordinary people on the earth, minding their own business, and tilling the earth, and making pots and bringing up families and laughing and crying, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. They were the people who mattered, not these Angels with wicked faces who wanted to make a new world and who didn’t care whom they hurt to do it.  

You could, if you chose to, criticise the book I suppose; the plot is probably a little fantastic, Victoria’s escapades unlikely for a girl of her background, and there is the occasional mild racial stereotype. But these are tiny little things when set against the sweep of the story, the cleverness of the writing and the plot, and the sheer enjoyment of reading the book. Christie’s love for the area shines through, her sympathy for and empathy with the people and their way of life is evident, and her desire for a tolerant, kinder world is clear. We could do a lot worse nowadays to take that message on board; but in the meantime, if you want an enjoyable, entertaining thriller, set in an evocative lost landscape, you need look no further than “They Came to Baghdad” – wonderful book!

A Dark Tale of Vengeance #1951club

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The Quarry by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Translated by – alas, I cannot tell you because the silly book doesn’t credit them!!

When I was planning what to read this week, it did appear that there was a danger I’d read nothing but vintage crime fiction (which isn’t in itself a bad thing). One the surface, this book might seem to fall into that category, but rest assured – “The Quarry” is no simple detective novel.

Friedrich Durrenmatt is an author I’ve read once before, in the form of his novel “The Judge and his Hangman”; I have a battered old green Penguin I read some years back and I don’t remember a lot about it, apart from the fact that it was quite dark. However, I picked up this Picador volume collecting his 5 novels last year having read about the second book on Jacqui and Grant’s blogs, and as it was published in 1951 it was ideal for the reading week.

Durrenmatt was a Swiss author, and perhaps initially known more as a dramatist, although it’s his novels that have come to us in translation. The story here, translated as “The Quarry” although it’s also been published under what Marina Sofia tells me is the more literal translation of “Suspicion” is billed as a Kafkaesque detective story and there’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. The book is set in 1948 and features Commissioner Barlach (who was an Inspector in “Judge”), a man at the point of death; fighting cancer, he is recovering from a heart attack when he notices that his friend and physician Hungertobel is shocked by a photo in a copy of Life which Barlach is reading. The photo is a horrific one, of a doctor operating on a patient in a concentration camp with no anaesthetic, and after much probing Barlach finds out that Hungertobel thinks he recognises the man. However, the doctor in the picture is apparently dead and Hungertobel’s acquaintance is the respected medic Emmenberger who runs an exclusive private clinic in Zürich.

It seems impossible that the two men are the same, but Barlach cannot leave his suspicion alone. Calling on his contacts, he learns more about the Nazi doctor Nehle from a mysterious Jewish survivor of the camps known only as Gulliver. Barlach arranges for Hungertobel to have him transferred to the clinic so that he can track down the doctor and find out the truth; but he soon discovers that he may have taken on more than he can handle and met his match.

…one should start sweeping and scrubbing if one discovers dirty spots; but to tear the whole house down right away is senseless and ignorant. For it is difficult to build a new house in this poor hurt world. It takes more than a generation, and when it is finally built, it won’t be better than the old one. It’s important that one can tell the truth and that one can fight for it – without landing in jail.

“The Quarry” is a stark book, and it very much reflects the time it is set in and the time it was published. The war and its effects are still fresh in people’s minds, and the horrific experiences undergone by Gulliver have left physical and mental scars which will not easily heal. The sense of post-War unease reminded me a little of the atmosphere portrayed in “The Lost Europeans“, and it does seem that many who were culpable for their behaviour managed to slip through the net and carry on their lives as it nothing had happened. When Barlach finally encounters Emmenberger the man’s influence over his subordinates is chilling; he’s seen as pure evil and there seems no escape for our detective. Gulliver has had his chance to state his point of view, and now Emmenberger has his, and it really doesn’t make pleasant reading.

I read “The Quarry” almost in one sitting as it was absolutely compelling, and knowing this was the only other Barlach book I couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The end is satisfying (though perhaps in retrospect not entirely unexpected) and the story lingers in the mind for a long time after finishing it. This is a brutal book in some places, but a necessary one – nearly 50 years on from its publication, it reminds us of unspeakable events which we really must make sure are not repeated. So a slight variation to the crime books I’ve read so far this week, and it’s interesting to see 1951 from the viewpoint of writers from different countries – and there may well be other nationalities turning up later in the week.

There are excellent reviews of the book by Grant, Jacqui and Marina Sofia which you can check out.

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