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“…the east takes hold…” #HermannHesse #SingaporeDream

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Despite having more books on Mount TBR than I care to acknowledge, I seem to find myself at the moment in the cast of mind to pick up whatever new volume happens to pop through the door. This is a Bad Habit, I know, as I should be reading all the books I already own, or some of my review copies – but I just can’t make myself read what doesn’t feel right! Today’s post is about a case in point; “Singapore Dream and Other Adventures” by Hermann Hesse was a recent discovery and when it arrived I just couldn’t resist it…

Hesse is, of course, an author with whom I have a long acquaintance; I first read him in my early 20s, have revisited his work many times over the year and even co-hosted a Hermann Hesse Reading Week back in 2016 with Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (you can find details on the page on the blog). As you can see from the image on the page, I thought I already had pretty much everything which had been translated into English; however, I stumbled across mention of “Singapore Dream” earlier this month and went off into a fit of excitement, ordering a copy straight away. The excitement hadn’t dimmed by the time the book arrived, and so needless to say it didn’t even get a chance to get onto the TBR!

Most of the Hesse books I own are older copies/translations from my first splurge of buying his books all those years ago; “Singapore Dream”, however, was issued in 2018 by Shambhala Publications in the USA, and the work is translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn. It collects together, as the subtitle reveals, a series of travel writings from an Asian journey Hesse took in 1911, as well as poems about that period and a short story. Although the blurb on the back of the book claims that none of the works has been translated into English before, the translator’s preface does indicate the short story and a couple of the poems *have* been translated before. That’s by the by, really, because the collection as a whole is a cohesive gathering and gives a wonderful insight into Hesse’s travels as well as his thoughts about the East.

The book comes with a useful map at the beginning, tracing Hesse’s journey from Genoa, down the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, Ceylon, Sumatra and Singapore. It was an epic journey, one he took with a friend, partly as an opportunity to travel and see this part of the world but also to avoid his family’s expectations that he should follow an ecclesiastic route. Hesse may have been drawn to religion but it was not that of his forebears…

As for myself, I want a sarong and brown sarong pants and to go with that, a green velvet cap and a sporty, jacket-length dressing gown of thin yellow silk…

Part 1 of the book contains the ‘Sketches and Essays‘ where Hesse records his journey, his experiences in the various villages, cities and jungles through which he passes, and his thoughts whilst doing so. His prose captures the lush vegetation, the heat, the different cultures and peoples he encounters, his dreams, his doubts and also, very strongly, his dislike of the colonial whites and the effect they’re having on the landscapes he moves through. Hesse is always happier exploring the indigenous cultures rather than sitting playing cards with white settlers, which gives his narrative even more power.

The eleven poems featured are again beautiful and evocative, capturing Hesse’s emotions more deeply as he moves through his journey. I’ve read some of his poetry before and commented at the time on his sense of yearning and melancholy. Certainly that permeates the verse here, and it’s quite beautiful.

My heart clenches with joy,
It beats with love, drunk on the bliss of travel.
(from ‘Arrival at Ceylon’)

The final piece in the book is a short story, ‘Robert Aghion‘, and it really is a triumph, following the adventures of a young clergyman as he travels to India to ‘convert’ the people there to the Word of the Lord. Aghion is singularly unfit for the job, since he has no real missionary zeal and is more interested in collecting the insects and butterlies he finds (Hesse drawing on his own tendencies here, I suspect!); and needless to say, his encounters with the colonial whites are unpleasant. Instead, he finds himself drawn to the native Indian people, dazzled by their multitude of Gods and beliefs which seem to co-exist quite happily, and repelled by Western culture. An encounter with a beautiful Indian girl will play havoc with his emotions – but will East and West be able to break down the societal boundaries which exist between them?

“Singapore Dream” is a wonderful read from start to finish, full of such riches. Of course, Hesse was drawn to Eastern thought and culture, with many of his works exploring beliefs from those countries; “Siddhartha” of course springs to mind, and “Journey to the East”. However, the sketches and essays have an immediacy which draws you in, so that you’re travelling alongside Hesse, experiencing with him what he sees and discovers. The prose is beautiful and evocative, and the landscape and its people come vividly to life. The poetry is gorgeous and the short story impressive; in fact, the latter kept bringing to mind Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” which I read and wrote about in the early days of the Ramblings. In both cases, the authors understand that Western culture really shouldn’t and can’t be imposed on peoples living in other lands with their own ancient cultures, and the efforts of white missionaries will always fail.

Of all the European buildings out here, only the bungalows that have been built in the well-to-do residential suburbs are beautiful. They are fresh, livable, and look charming in their luxuriant park landscape. These bungalows are beautiful because they have perforce been adapted to the needs of the climate and therefore have had to retain the general qualities of the archetypal Malay house. Everything else that the whites have built, and are building here, would have been quite nicely suited to a German railroad station avenue of the eighties.

With any book of this age, there’s always the risk of terminology which can be problematic, and it’s mostly avoided here. There’s one instance of the n-word, but as this is used by a disgusting colonial white man in the short story, I assume it’s deliberate to show how loathsome he is. Hesse condemns colonial attitudes throughout the sketches and the short story (very strongly in the latter), and although his descriptions of other races are perhaps not as sensitively done as we would prefer them to be nowadays, he respects other cultures and quite obviously prefers them to the Western white colonials. There is always the risk of exoticising the East too, but it does seem that Hesse’s love of the culture is genuine. It’s a book which is from 1911 so I think that, compared with so many of his time, he had very forward-thinking views.

As I mentioned, translator Sherab Chodzin Kohn provides an interesting preface, putting Hesse’s journey into context. The translation itself reads well, although there were a couple of aspects which made me pause a little. Obviously, this is an American edition and so there is inevitably the occasional ‘gotten’ to annoy the life out of me, or ‘pants’ for trousers. More of concern was the fact that at one point there is talk of Hesse having a large amount of money to spend and the translator renders this as ‘dollars’. Personally, unless that was actually in the original German (and I have no way of checking), I would have preferred that to be e.g. German Marks, with a footnote giving me some kind of equivalent. I like a translation to still sounds as if I’m reading an author who wrote in a different language, with local terms retained where possible. However, these are minor points, and didn’t get in the way of my reading experience.

So “Singapore Dream” turned out to be a huge treat; a recently-translated work by a favourite author in a lovely edition which was a joy to read from start to finish. I imagine there must be a lot more of Hesse which I’ll never be able to read as it’s not translated, but at least I was able to enjoy this. I can’t remember where I saw mention of it (probably on Twitter or someone else’s blog) – but wherever it was, and from whom, thank you! Reading a new Hesse is a highlight of my reading year! 😀

“I always like a dog, so long as he isn’t spelt backwards.” #guiltycreatures @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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I find myself still playing catch-up with reviews, and the book I want to focus on today is one I read earlier in the month during a really busy time at work. Needless to say, as it’s a lovely collection of Golden Age Crime short stories, it was the perfect read for a time of stress!! British Library Publishing have released a number of crime anthologies, all with a particular theme, and the latest is a fascinating collection called “Guilty Creatures“; subtitled “A Menagerie of Mysteries” it brings together a wonderful range of stories from over the decades, all with animals or birds involved in the action…

The most famous animal participant in classic crime is probably the titular Baskerville Hound in Conan Doyle’s famous story; and of course Holmes also took part in the notorious exchange about the incident of the dog in the night. So it’s no surprise that a Holmes story opens the collection, in the form of “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane“; this is a late outing in the detective’s career, and interestingly is narrated by the great man himself and not his normal chronicler, Dr. Watson. Needless to say, it’s excellent and the conclusion unexpected.

The choice of authors in “Guilty…” is interesting; there are better-known names like Chesterton, Edgar Wallace and Christianna Brand; however there are names which were new to me, such as Headon Hill, Vincent Cornier and Garnett Radcliffe. This made the collection a particularly enjoyable one to read, as I do love to encounter new authors!

The stories range far and wide with all kind of animal taking part, from F. Tennyson Jesse’s “The Green Parrakeet” in which the title bird is the key to uncovering a particularly devious crime. Then there’s Wallace’s “The Man Who Hated Earthworms“, which is a very entertaining tale of a mad scientist; Radcliffe’s “Pit of Screams“, a short, sharp story of a very clever crime; and Josephine Bell’s “Death in a Cage“, which I wouldn’t have worked out in a million years! Her writing is also particularly good, and she captures a sense of place here in much the same way as she did in “The Port of London Murders.” (This is a long quote, but I do find her prose very evocative.)

The fog that November night was thickest in Central and North London. Cars in the Mall, edging blindly about the wide roadway near Buckingham Palace, came to a standstill where the kerbs gave them no help. Queues of traffic formed behind drivers who, mistaking a gap in the pavement for Birdcage Walk, had jammed themselves against the railings. A slow procession moved around Hyde Park. In Knightsbridge the buses went to head to tail, scarcely moving. Further north the fog lay thickly upon Regent’s Park. The canal was invisible even from the bridges over it. No cars coming to the circles of this Park, because the street lamps there are set too far apart to be much use in fog. The unaccustomed absence of traffic joined with the blanket of fog to still all noise. Under the trees the gentle fall of drops from the branches above was startlingly loud.

Chesterton’s “The Oracle of the Dog” was a really interesting and quite dark read; I’ve always found the Father Brown stories a wee bit odd, and in this one the clerical detective managed to solve the puzzle without moving from his armchair; and he also had very strong views about the human tendency to attribute all sorts of powers and emotions to dogs! Brand’s “The Hornet’s Nest” was another treat; featuring her regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, it again flummoxed me till the end, and of the suspects available after the murder of the unpleasant Harold Caxton, I never would have picked the correct one!

Those who are quick in talking are not always quick in listening. Sometimes even their brilliancy produces a sort of stupidity. Father Brown’s friend and companion was a young man with a stream of ideas and stories, an enthusiastic young man named Fiennes, with eager blue eyes and blonde hair that seem to be brushed back, not merely with a hair-brush but with the wind of the world as he rushed through it. But he stopped in the torrent of his talk in a momentary bewilderment before he saw the priest’s very simple meeting.

Inevitably I come to the author I always hope to see in a BLCC anthology, and I wasn’t disappointed here either. H.C. Bailey’s marvellous Reggie Fortune is present in the story “The Yellow Slugs“, which is actually one I’ve read before; it features in a collection I have, assembled by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I wrote about it here. It’s a story in which a pair of youngsters appear to be guilty of heinous crimes, and it takes all Reggie’s skills to get to the truth of the matter which, as I said at the time, is clever, chilling and quite fiendish. Reading the story for a second time, I was impressed all over again; Reggie is a powerful creation, the story is really quite dark, and I know Bailey’s writing is considered an acquired taste, but I rate it very highly. He’s a compelling storyteller, and the Reggie stories I’ve read are some of my favourites.

H.C. Bailey – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

“Guilty Creatures” really hit the spot when I was in need of comfort reading, and crime short stories are often the best for this, as they’re bite sized pieces of soothing reading and wonderfully distracting when real life is too much. This particular collection was a really pleasing one, with an interesting array of authors, and some wonderfully twisty plots. It’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of British Library Crime Classics and I found this one to be a really excellent addition to their range – loved it! 😀

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

“I wasn’t the kind of woman to cry…” @FumdEstampa #spanishandportugueselitmonth

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My second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month is a very different beast from my first; that was early in the month, with the intriguing but baffling “Two Stories” from Sublunary Editions. Today’s book also comes from an indie publisher – Fum D’Estampa – and is a wonderful account of life in Barcelona during the middle of the 20th century. “Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau is translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, and has won an English PEN Award; and in many ways it seems like a bit of a miracle that it’s made it into English at all.

Arquimbau is a somewhat obscure figure; a Catalan writer, journalist, feminist, and suffragist, she was regarded as a major novelist in the 1930s. A prolific journalist, she often wrote on what were controversial subjects for a woman in the Spain of the time; and she was also a prominent figure in left-wing politics. During the fascist dictatorship, which lasted a large part of her life, she was persecuted and outlawed, and it’s only recently that her work has been rediscovered in her home country; according to Fum D’Estampa, this is largely due to the efforts of journalist and writer, Julia Guillamon, and the latter provides a moving coda to the novel.

“Forty Lost Years”, first published in 1971, is narrated by Laura Vidal; we first encounter her in the 1930s when she’s in her early teens and starting to make her way in the world. She comes from a poor family; they live in a ‘concierge cubbyhole’ and her father makes furniture at a workshop; and Laura is quite naive, relying on her elder sister Esperanca, plus friends Herminia and Engracia, to guide her in the ways of the world. But the world she lives in is changing, and as Laura starts working as a seamstress, gradually working her way up in her trade, the Catalan Republic is created and then lost, the Spanish Civil War takes place, World War Two comes and goes, Franco’s dictatorship continues. The eyes of Laura see and reflect the changes; from the idealism of those wishing to make the world a better place to those only concerned with making money and having power; and Laura’s ideals are crushed as she struggles to keep pace with the changes and make sure she earns enough to support herself and her family. As she reaches middle age and onwards, she reflects back on her forty lost years, wondering if her struggles to stay free have been worth it – and what lies next for her is not clear.

…I realized that morality is elastic and that you can stretch it this way or that according to individual need and that the poor who can allow themselves to lead strict moral existences are the exception.

This is why I love translators and translated literature and indie publishers. If it wasn’t for them, I never would have had the chance to read this marvellous book, and it really has lodged in my heart. Arquimbau writes in deceptively economic prose, taking us through the years quickly, witnessing the changes around Laura and exploring the latter’s emotions. Vidal is a compelling character – strong, independent, determined to succeed on her own terms, she has no compunction about using men as necessary to get what she needs. But this is never portrayed as gratuitous as she has her own moral standards; and her refusal to marry for convenience and status sets her against most of her contemporaries. Yet as she finds out, she is capable of love – although perhaps not with the best timing.

Times had changed. A kind of hard-faced attitude dominated the world in which we lived, a blend of hypocrisy and fear.

As a backdrop to Laura’s tale there is the constantly changing political landscape. Cleverly, Arquimbau doesn’t allow this to dominate the story; instead, the events happening in Spain and the wider world affect Laura’s life, but she’s allowed to adapt to them and make her way onward as best she can. There’s a section of the narrative where Laura goes into exile, in the early part of WW2, and she ends up trying to escape Europe like so many did; being caught between the Germans moving through France and the fascist regime of her own country must have been hellish. As she moves around Oran, I was reminded very much of Victor Serge’s descriptions of his own flight from Europe to Mexico; and if Laura’s attempt to flee is based on Arquimbau’s own life then she might well have encountered him had she succeeded in getting away.

Disillusion had made me what I was, a woman who had seen the world and felt hollow inside and expected nothing from life. None of what makes living feel like what you would call ‘life’. Where had my youthful zest gone? Or my hopes of a better world? And my wish to fight? And my desire for justice? What had become of my ideals?

“Forty Lost Years” quite brilliantly captures the passing time, no mean feat in only 137 pages. As well as being a record of her times, the book is also the story of a woman’s life and the changes she undergoes, finding herself suddenly regarded as an old bag when she doesn’t feel like one. The feminist in Arquimbau/Vidal shines through as she refuses to take the easy path; although what the rest of Laura’s life will bring her, we’ll never know.

So my second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit month turned out to be absolutely brilliant, and I really don’t know why this wonderful author hasn’t been translated before. The book comes with a poignant epilogue by Julia Guillamon, exploring Arquimbau’s life, and this includes some evocative photographs which really enhance the narrative of the book itself as well as giving some insight into what Arquimbau had to deal with. Engrossing, inspiring and unforgettable, “Forty Lost Years” is a powerful and often emotional read which takes you through the highs and lows of a woman living through dramatic times. The perfect read for Spanish and Porguguese Lit Month, and a book I highly recommend – kudos to Fum D’Estampa, Peter Bush, Julia Guillamon and all concerned!

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

Penguin Moderns 39 and 40 – searing prose and memorable poetry

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I was reminded that I haven’t read any of my Penguin Modern box set recently by Lisa’s posts on two of the books from the collection – Fernando Pessoa’s “I Have More Souls Than One” and Lorca’s “The Dialogue of Two Snails”, both of which she covered for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. I’ve read and loved the Pessoa, and haven’t yet reached the Lorca – but I decided to press on with the next two books, and intriguing reads they turned out to be!

Penguin Modern 39 – Letter to my Mother by Georges Simenon

Simenon of course needs no introduction; I’ve read tons of his Maigret stories, and love them, as well as a few of his romans durs, as he called his non-Maigret fictions. This, however, is something a little different; “Letter to my Mother” is an autobiographical piece which is indeed in the form of a letter addressed to his mother, written after her death.

Via Wikimedia Commons – By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

By all accounts, Simenon had a difficult upbringing and a complicated, distant relationship with his maternal parent; and in “Letter…” he places himself at her deathbed, recalling the past, trying to reconstruct her early life and fill in gaps – and ultimately to try to understand a woman who gave birth to him, but to whom he’d never been close.

There are two or three billion people on earth… How many have there been since prehistoric times? No one has any idea. What does seem reasonable to suppose is that they’ve always fought and killed each other as they do now, that they’ve always had to fight their neighbours, natural disasters, and epidemics.

Of course, by the time Simenon’s reached this point, it’s too late; there can be no real reckoning and instead he’s left to carry with him all the things left unsaid between them – which is perhaps the point of this work. It’s a stark, often painful piece of writing, but incredibly powerful. The relationships between parents and children are incredibly complicated (I know that from my own experiences) and to lay them bare like this takes a certain kind of courage and also the strength to examine yourself. Simenon is someone who doesn’t seem to shy away from difficult subjects, and this was an unforgettable read.

Penguin Modern 40 – Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams

In contrast to the intensity of the prose in the Simenon, PM40 is verse, and by a poet whom I know I’ve read before – William Carlos Williams. I suspect I read him in my teens, when I discovered a lot of 20th century poets, thought I don’t think I own a book by him, so I probably discovered him in anthologies. The poems in this PM are drawn from a dozen collections, ranging from 1917 to 1962, so do cover a wide range of Williams’ writing.

William Carlos Williams, from his passport photo (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And this is the kind of poetry I love; short, immediate verses which grab and hold the attention, paint little pictures with words, drop beautiful little phrases into your line of sight where they lodge, and which stay with you afterwards.

These

are the desolate, dark weeks
where nature in its barrenness
equals the stupidity of man.

The PM contains what is probably WCW’s most famous verse “This is just to say” (all about the plums in the icebox!), but there are so many other fabulous poems – “These” was particularly memorable. I picked up hints of e e cummings in places, perhaps, but WCW has a wonderfully individual and idiosyncratic way of writing – another PM which I loved to bits!

*****

So two extremely different but equally great Penguin Moderns today – at 58 pages, the Simenon is definitely best published and read as a standalone piece (I don’t know if it always is) so you can read properly, digest and ponder upon it. And a poetry collection of 55 pages is just the right length, as it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by large chunky editions. These two PMs were both excellent entries in the series and hey! guess what! – I’m now four fifths of the way through!!! 😀

“Leisure spreads before my dazzled eyes…” @KateHandheld #RoseMacaulay #PersonalPleasures

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My final post on Rose Macaulay this week takes a look at a forthcoming release from Handheld Press; “Personal Pleasures: Essays on Enjoying Life” comes out on 10th August, and it’s a real treat! I’m not new to Macaulay’s non-fiction writing, as “Non-Combatants” (mentioned on Monday and reviewed for Shiny New Books) collected together some of her journalism from the run-up to WW2. However, “Personal Pleasures” is a very different beast; an anthology of 80 short essays, varying from a page to several, it takes a quirky, entertaining and often lyrical look at the things which brought her joy – many of which will be familiar to readers of the Ramblings!

“Personal Pleasures” was first released in 1935 to an overwhelmingly positive response, and it’s not hard to see why. The subjects she covers range widely; for example, Arm-chair, Canoeing, Christmas Morning, Bed – Getting into it, Bed – Not getting out of it, Flattery, Not going to parties, Reading, Walking, Writing – well, you get the picture! There’s a perfect A-Z of subjects under discussion and Macaulay is never less than entertaining.

Arise, then, from abject and home-keeping sloth. Cease to regard with effeminate distaste those hurdles which stand between you and Abroad, looming high, barred, enthorned, only by the strong to be o’er-leapt. Do tickets, passports, money, travellers’ cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands? A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence, and guile, and the hurdles will be leaped, the dragons passed; snapping your fingers at what you have left undone, you launch yourself into space. (from ‘Abroad’)

Many of the essays build in autobiographical episodes from Macaulay’s past; for example, Astronomy draws on an event from her childhood in Italy; and anyone reading Christmas Morning will be catapulted back to their own childhood and waking up early to feel the items stuffed into their Christmas stocking. Book Auctions and Booksellers’ Catalogues will speak to any bibliophile; and Departure of Visitors will resonate with anyone breathing a sigh of relief at getting their house back to themself… Reading was a particularly interesting piece, again one that any bibliophile would love, and I sensed certain echoes of another author here…

As I mentioned in my piece on Monday, Macaulay cited Virginia Woolf as an influence and it was in these essays, with their playful yet erudite explorations of the things we enjoy, that I most felt that influence. It’s not something I’d particularly noticed in her fictions, but it certainly shone through in the essays, and the end of Reading took me straight back to Woolf’s “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Quirky as ever, Macaulay is happy to toy with our expectations; she often writes about something which she enjoys, then going on to to give us a kind of counter-voice pointing out the problems with something she’s just been celebrating – a kind of yin and yang, which is very true to life. She’s also very witty and I found myself regularly laughing out loud whilst reading the essays. But what’s really a joy about “Personal Pleasures” is the sheer quality of Macaulay’s writing – lyrical, evocative, amusing and moving, these essays are such a treat.

Rose Macaulay pencil sketch (Jburlinson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Personal Pleasures” *is* a very personal book, and the essays come with an excellent introduction by Kate Macdonald, as well as copious supporting notes by Macdonald, with assistance from Emer O’Hanlon, Maria Vassilopolous and Sharon Craig. These are an essential element of the book, as Macaulay’s writing is multi-layered, full of quotes and allusions, and even replete with made-up words! The notes expand and clarify, really enhancing the reading. As Kate Macdonald comments, “the modern reader…is mostly likely to notice a palimpsest of dense allusions and quotations, mostly presented without attribution.” These are testament to Macaulay’s erudition, and the notes provide details of a fascinating range of sources.

You might find “Personal Pleasures” best approached as a book to dip into, although you could of course read it through and you’d get a wonderful range of autobiographical looks at Macaulay’s own life. But however you read it, the book is a treat, a sheer delight from start to finish. This was a wonderful way of finishing off my few days of reading Rose Macaulay, and her glittering writing was really enhanced by the excellent supporting material. Highly recommended!

*****

I do hope you’ve enjoyed spending some time in the company of Rose Macaulay and that I’ve whetted your appetite for her writing. There are so many of her books now available in lovely new editions to there’s no excuse not to get to know her; and if you do, let me know what Macaulay you’ve read and loved!

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

 

Exploring the life and philosophy of a fascinating woman – over@shinynewbooks @PushkinPress

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Today I have a little bit of a digression from my week of reading Rose Macaulay, as I have a new review up on Shiny New Books of a fascinating new book.

The writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt is best known for coining the phrase ‘the banality of evil’; it’s a concept which has caused controversy over the years, but her life and thought make for intriguing reading. This new work “On Love and Tyranny” by Ann Heberlein, translated by Alice Menzies, explores both aspects and is a really thought-provoking read. You can find my full review here!

“… the ghost-hunting passions of a biographer” @KateHandheld #RoseMacaulay #SarahLeFanu

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Well, I do hope that my post on Monday whetted your appetite for Rose Macaulay and her wonderful books. However, as I mentioned, today I’m going to be focusing on a book not by, but about, Macaulay – and an intriguing one at that. “Dreaming of Rose” by Sarah LeFanu is subtitled “A Biographer’s Journal” and it was a fascinating read from start to finish.

LeFanu is, of course, biographer of Rose Macaulay, but she’s also the author of a number of other interesting works (her book “In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction” sounds most intriguing); and as well as this, she was also editor at the Women’s Press, who published a number of volumes of women’s sci fi writing which I recall exploring. The Women’s Press books, with their distinctive design, were always favourite purchases alongside Virago Modern Classics, and I still have a number on my shelves. But I digress…

LeFanu’s biography of Rose Macaulay was published in 2003 by Virago, and the journal entries reproduced in “Dreaming…” run from 1998, when she embarked on the biography, up until December 2002, just before the biography came out. In it, LeFanu explores more than just the process of writing a book about Macaulay and the journal is facinating from start to finish.

Part at least of what attracts me to Rose is her secretiveness.

As I mentioned on Monday, it’s a puzzle as to why Macaulay’s work is not more appreciated, and LeFanu’s explorations of Rose’s life perhaps throw light on this. The latter was certainly an intriguing woman who lived such an interesting life; childhood in Italy, a long-term affair with a married ex-priest Gerald O’Donovan; various religious fluctuations; many travels and a wide range of writing. As I opined, it may well be that the variety of that writing and a refusal to be pigeonholed which has kept her a little under the radar.

The trouble with doing research is that half the time don’t know what it is you’re looking for, or at least what you might want to know, until after you’ve packed up your books and gone home.

“Dreaming of Rose”, however, certainly throws light on a number of different aspects of the writer’s life. The element I found most fascinating, I think, was LeFanu’s explorations of the biographer’s art and her experiences whilst researching her book on Rose. Research in itself can be very appealing, with the thrill of the chase and the unexpected random finds part of the joy of delving into archives. LeFanu captures this aspect quite brilliantly, but also meditates on more problematic issues.

When she begins her research, she imagines many of those who knew Rose are no longer alive; this turns out to be anything but the case, and LeFanu is able to make contact with many people who were part of Rose’s life. However, this creates its own problems, particularly when she meets relatives of those close to Rose; suddenly, she’s dealing with living people and writing about their relatives, needing to find a balance between wanting to know everything and respecting their privacy. We all keep secrets – LeFanu references Dorothy L. Sayers and her son, who was brought up by foster parents – and sensitivity is needed when dealing with anyone’s experience, a sensitivity LeFanu displays. I imagine this must be something that all biographers tackling the lives of recent people have to face, and LeFanu captures the dichotomies she had to deal with brilliantly.

She takes her meditations on the art of the biographer further than this, considering what it is that drives someone to undertake the task of writing about another’s life, and indeed what a mammoth task that is. Citing author Richard Holmes and his pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson, Lefanu understands how it’s possible to become so absorbed in another person’s life that you find yourself almost becoming a part of their story, imagining you’re chasing their ghost. And as she chases after Rose, she visits the locations of events in Rose’s life, seeking for a glimpse of Rose and what she saw.

Part of the biographical urge comes from wanting to experience the world as someone else experienced it, seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Doesn’t it? Wasn’t that the desire that in 1964 drew Richard Holmes to the Cevennes in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine?

“Dreaming…” also captures vivdly the ups and downs of life as a woman writer; LeFanu often finds herself struggling to juggle her home responsibilities with the demands of her work, in a way that a male writer surely never would. When you add in the problems of being a freelance writer, waiting for essential payments to come in for work done, sending out proposals and then having to meet deadlines, it certainly seems that romantic concepts of what it’s like to be an author go out of the window! The book is sprinkled with fascinating references, from memories of the author’s own life, encounters with old friends, comments on the difficulties of times at the Women’s Press, social gatherings with Virago’s Lennie Goodings, and a mention of the much-missed Silver Moon bookshop.

Rose Macaulay pencil sketch (Jburlinson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

LeFanu’s book was originally published in 2013, and has been revised for this reissue; the epilogue, concerning the publication of some letters of Rose Macaulay, is particularly fascinating, and throws another discussion topic into the ring, that of whether a person’s personal letters *should* be published and who has the right to do so. Macaulay had left instructions for all of her papers to be burned unread on her death, so publication of these letters may well have been very much against her wishes; another difficult issue for the biographer to tackle.

I think this is what a biography is meant to be: a folding-in of all the ingredients, the living, the loving, the writing, to make a rich pudding.

“Dreaming of Rose” was a fascinating read from start to finish; as well as divulging so much about her process of researching and constructing her biography, LeFanu’s explorations of a woman’s writing life were extremely revealing. I was left in awe at her achievements with the book, particularly as she had to balance all her different commitments, as well as dealing with the inevitable self-doubt which hits any creative person from time to time. The Handheld Press edition is beautifully presented, as you would expect, with illustrations within the text, a helpful family tree plus lists of Macaulay’s books and works cited. You might think that writing a biography would be relatively straightforward; but as LeFanu reveals it really isn’t, and this wonderful and engrossing work gives a privileged view of the writer at work. If you want to know more about the writing of Rose’s biography or explore the struggles facing women writers this is definitely the book for you – highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thaks! There was a lovely online launch for the book recently, which I was fortunate enough to attend, and a recording of the session is now available online – you can find it here!)

Exploring the writings of Rose Macaulay @KateHandheld @BL_Publishing #RoseMacaulay

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Trends in publishing have always waxed and waned, with authors moving in and out of fashion, some being forgotten for a while and then making a return, while others disappear into obscurity forever. Fortunately, there has been a tendency in the 21st century to revisit many lost authors, bringing them back into print and celebrating their work. One such writer is Rose Macaulay and I want to explore her life and work a little today on the Ramblings.

My Macaulay collection…..

Rose Macaulay is mainly known for her 1956 novel “The Towers of Trebizond”, with its memorable opening line; yet she was an astonishingly prolific writer, publishing novels, poetry, biography and journalism. Virago reprinted a number of her books in its Modern Classics range, but she still seemed to stay under the radar. Yet she was a Dame of the British Empire, highly regarded in her time, and mixed with all manner of intellectuals and luminaries; so why has such a prolific author, renowned for making her living from her writing, slipped out of view?

It’s interesting to note that Macaulay’s Wikipedia entry confirms that she was best known for her last novel, the aforementioned “Towers…” although she had been publishing since 1906. However, her range was broad, she cited Virginia Woolf as an influence, and her work is not easily categorised, which perhaps made it hard for people to evaluate, or indeed pigeonhole, her! Again, her novels took on big topics like pacificism, politics and religion, and this may have affected her perceived readability. However, with the number of strings to her bow, it’s difficult to know why she isn’t a bigger name; and so it’s lovely to see that there’s a resurgence of interest in her books, and much of that must be credited to Handheld Press!

Handheld have reissued a number of Macaulay’s works in their beautiful editions, and seem to taken upon themselves on a mission to raise her profile, which is most laudable! Interestingly, the publisher has been focusing on some of the earlier books, from 1916-1920, and a fascinating selection they are too. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover two of them on Shiny New Books, which I’ll mention below, and the third, “Potterism” was reviewed by Hayley Anderton (from Desperate Reader) on Shiny – you can read her thoughts here.

First up, I read “What Not”, subtitled “A Prophetic Comedy”, and first published in 1918. The book is a fascinating, prescient look at how life could be post-WW1, as the population of Britain tried to rebuild their lives, forging a new path and a new world. It’s a book that pre-empts Huxley’s “Brave New World” and deserves to be recognised for its forward thinking and attempts to explore how humanity could improve itself. It’s also very funny, and if you want to read my whole review, it’s here.

The second Handheld Macaulay I read was “Non-Combatants and Others“, which is a powerful and, again, ahead of its time piece of work. Published in 1916, it was the first anti-war novel to be released (while the conflict was still going on!) and it’s a compelling piece of writing which addresses many issues, including whether we can stand apart from the world and what’s happening in it, or whether we should wade in and try to change things. The novel was enhanced by reading the other pieces included in the book: a collection of Macaulay’s journalism, published between 1936 and 1945, where she reflects upon, and despairs about, what’s happening to Europe. The last piece in the book, a powerful short story “Miss Anstruther’s Letters” (which drawns upon Macaulay’s own life) made for a devastating end to an unforgettable book. Again, you can read my full review here.

Pleasingly, other publishers are also reissuing Macaulay’s books, with the British Library Women Writers series including her “Dangerous Ages” from 1921 (which I’ve still to read, though Harriet at Shiny New Books has reviewed it here); so it seems that the author’s early works are now starting to get the appreciation they deserve. And as someone who loves a pretty book (shallow? moi?) I have to say that both the Handheld and BL editions are gorgeous, though different. Both are beautifully designed and have supporting material; and in the case of the Handheld editions, some excellent scholarly notes and introductions.

The two Handheld releases which I’ve read, as mentioned earlier in the post, have been wonderful; and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been reading another two Macaulay-related books they’re issuing! One is a most fascinating work by Sarah LeFanu, “Dreaming of Rose” which I’ll be covering on Wednesday; and on Saturday I’ll be writing about Macaulay’s “Personal Pleasures”, an idiosyncratic collection of her thoughts on the things which bring her joy.

In the meantime, I do encourage you to dip your toe in and read some Rose Macaulay; she was a marvellous, clever, funny and often profound author who’s a joy to read and who has much to say which is still very relevant to our modern world. And it’s not as if it’s hard to get hold of some very pretty editions of her work… ;D

How translation and interpretation make the world go round – over @shinynewbooks

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today which I want to share with you, and it’s of an absolutely fascinating book – “Dancing on Ropes” by Anna Aslanyan.

As a great lover of translated literature, I am of course eternally indebted to translators. Aslanyan is one of these, but she’s also a public interpreter, and her marvellous book explores the importance the skill of rendering words into another language has for our world. Covering everything from ancient court translators, to the interpreters tasked with making sure everyone understood everyone else at the Nuremberg Trials and right up to AI translation, this is a wonderful and fascinating read which thoroughly absorbed me (and also made me think a lot). You can read my review at Shiny New Books here.

“Oh prose. How strange I am to you.” @sublunaryeds #spanishandportugueselitmonth

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Today I want to talk about my first read for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month; and that is a slim volume I received as part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions. The book is “Two Stories” by Osvaldo Lamborghini, translated by Jessica Sequeira from the Spanish. The author seems to be an unusual and obscure character who only published three books in his lifetime; and this volume comes with an introduction by Cesar Aira, as well as a translator’s note and endnotes – and therein lies a tale…

I’ve read many books in my time – and many strange ones, if I’m truthful. I read a lot of Burroughs in my youth, and also much Kathy Acker. Unusual or fragmented narratives don’t usually flummox me. However, these stories frankly do and I actually don’t really  know how to write about them. The first piece, “The Morning”, is quite stream of consciousness and I soon abandoned looking for meaning and went for enjoying the sound of the words. The second piece, “Just Write Anything!”, has an unusual structure with what appears to be the main text along the bottom of the pages with a parallel text in smaller type running along the top of the page, accompanying and enhancing the bottom text. The writing here explores a homosexuality which could have been problematic in the Buenos Aires of the time, although in often elliptical text.

More than this it’s hard to say, as this is writing which really does defy description. The blurb on the back states that this is an accurate sample of Lamborghini’s work “in much the same way that a bucket of seawater is an accurate sample of the rolling ocean” and that rather gives an idea of how really strange this writing is.

Interestingly, this is also a case where the translator is as much a part of the work as the author it; Sequeira provides copious and detailed notes which are nearly as long as the texts themselves (if not longer) and these are crucial to the reading of these works as there are so many references and the like which could be lost. Sequeira refer to the author as being “an endless experimenter in style” and she’s obviously not wrong there!!

To be honest, there’s not a lot more I feel I can say about “Two Stories”; Lamborghini was obviously an interesting and challenging writer, and very much a Sublunary kind of author! At least I have read *something* for Spanish lit month, and having started my second read for that event, I can report that prose is about as far away from this as you can get! Meantime, if you want to read another take on this book, you can see what Joe from roughghosts said about it here!

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