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“…at least once in his life he would be a beautiful person…” #gogol @ColumbiaUP #russianlibrary

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It’s been a little while since we had any Russians on the Ramblings, isn’t it? ;D So today is the perfect day to take a look at a shiny new volume which has just been released in the rather wonderful Columbia University Press Russian Library imprint – “The Nose and Other Stories” by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Susanne Fusso.

Gogol is one of my favourite authors, and he’s made any number of appearances on the Ramblings – most recently when I reviewed a new version of his classic play “The Government Inspector” and a collection of essential stories from Pushkin Press. I’ve also revisited his magnum opus, “Dead Souls” and loved a beautiful little edition of one of his stories, “The Night Before Christmas“. You might think, therefore, that I would be all Gogoled out and a new collection would hold no appeal – but you would be very, very wrong! 😀

“The Nose…” is branded as “the first major English translation of his stories in more than twenty years”. Pushkin Press might argue with that, but I guess the word ‘major’ is the qualifier here, as the Pushkin volume had five stories, whereas the Russian Library goes for nine. The books have four stories in common – three of which are probably Gogol’s most famous – but the variances are interesting, and I’ll be posting in a couple of days about Gogol books and collections generally.

However, “The Nose…” contains a fascinating and fairly wide-randing selection of Gogol’s stories, and of most interest to me was the inclusion of works I hadn’t read before – and in one case, a story I’ve never seen translated! So I thought that it might be interesting if I looked at those here, as they really are a wonderful set! For info, the works included in the Russian Library volume are:

The Lost Letter
Viy
The Portrait (1835 version)
Nevsky Avenue
Diary of a Madman
The Carriage
The Nose
Rome (A Fragment)
The Carriage

Gogol’s works are often split into two categories: his Ukraine stories (more country and village settings) and his Petersburg works (later stories with that urban setting and plenty of alienation). This collection focuses mainly on the latter though some early works are included; and it’s the titles in bold that are my focus here.

The Philosophers’ voices were a whole octavo lower; there was nothing in their pockets except strong shag tobacco. They didn’t store anything up, but just devoured whatever came their way right on the spot; sometimes you could smell their pipes and vodka so far off that a tradesmen walking by would stop and sniff the air like a hunting hound for a good long while.

The Lost Letter was published in the 1831 collection “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” and is set in the Kiev area of Ukraine. Like many of Gogol’s early works, it contains elements of the supernatural and it’s narrated by an old sexton, Foma, who tells the tale of his grandfather’s encounters with devils on a journey to delivery an important letter to the empress. It’s a lively and dramatic story, funny and atmospheric at the same time, and somewhat sets the scene for what comes next…

Viy (from 1835) is another dark story, full of witches and devils, and it really makes quite spooky reading. A young student Philosopher Khoma Brut is tormented by a witch riding on his back; he eventually manages to throw off by chanting exorcisms, and he beats her with a stick. He thinks he is free of her, but is mysteriously summoned by a powerful Cossack; the latter’s daughter is dying and wishes Khoma to pray for her for three nights in a row. Despite his best efforts, Khoma is unable to get out of this and ends up spending three nights in a church with the woman’s corpse, calling on all the powers of good to protect him. What happens in the church is vividly and chillingly portrayed – Gogol really *could* write the forces of evil very effectively…

The Portrait is another work in a similar vein, and interestingly Fusso has chosen the 1835 version. She explains in her fascinating foreword that the later version in the 1842 edition of Gogol’s works was extensively revised by the author and he toned down many of the supernatural elements. However, the 1835 original presented here was a wonderful read; split into two sections, the first relates the story of a young artist Chertkov; a promising painter, just learning his trade, he stumbles across a portrait of a man at an auction house. The painting is compelling, but not in a good way; portraying a money lender, the eyes of the man seem to burn out of the canvas, alarming all who see it. Chertkov nevertheless buys it and it comes home with him (though not in a conventional manner…) It seems as though this portrait is possessed in some way, and it will have dramatic and catastrophic effects on Chertkov. The second section of the story reveals the history of the painting and how it came into being; and once again, the forces of evil are vividly and scarily portrayed. Each of these three tales really chill the blood…

His life was reaching the years when everything that breathes of impulse begins to shrink within a person, when the powerful violin bow reaches the soul more faintly and does not twine about the heart with piercing sounds, when contact with beauty no longer transforms virginal powers into fire and flame, but all the burned-out feelings become more open to the sound of gold, listen more attentively to its alluring music, and little by little, imperceptibly, allow it to put them completely to sleep.

Of course, larger than life, surreal and supernatural elements appear in Gogol’s later works; “The Nose” itself is a case in point, where that organ becomes detached from its owner and takes up an existence of its own. However, social satire and commentary also crept in, with “Diary of a Madman” being a particularly poignant study of the gradual mental deterioration of an impoverished clerk. “Nevsky Prospekt” (as I know it, though titled “Nevsky Avenue” in this collection) has more social commentary, too, as Gogol tackles the illusions abroad on the streets, as two men with very differing temperaments encounter women who may not be what the seem.

However, the last piece I want to consider is one which I’ve never seen translated before, and that’s Rome (A Fragment), published in 1842, the same year as “Dead Souls”. It’s a piece unlike anything else I’ve read by Gogol, I think, and I absolutely loved it. There’s minimal plot as such; the story opens with a carnival vision of a beautiful Roman woman, observed by a twenty-five year old Roman Prince, lately returned from several years in Paris. The tale goes on to relate the Prince’s past; his disillusion with the place of his birth; his initial love of, and the rejection of, Paris with its glittering modern lifestyle; and his return and reconciliation with Rome.

Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

“Rome” is beautifully written, a really gorgeous love-letter to the city, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read by Gogol. Although he writes marvellous prose, his focus is often dramatic or satirical, but here it’s anything but. The contrast between the modern city of Paris (and the descriptions make it seem remarkably current) and the ancient city of Rome, with all its history, is very finely drawn and actually brings both settings alive quite vividly.

Rome, of course, was a place Gogol lived; from 1836 to 1848 he spent much time travelling Europe, including Paris, and eventually settling in Rome. He adored Italy and its culture, and it’s obvious from this piece that his soul felt attached to it; whether by something spiritual, aethetic or a combination of both, it’s quite clear his heart belonged to Rome and that comes out in the reactions of the Prince on his return to his city. Of course, Gogol was deeply religious and so Rome would also appeal to him on that level. But whatever elements drew him to Rome, the result was a most beautiful, vivid and evocative piece of writing. Whether it was actually a fragment, or intended to just stand as a tribute to the city I guess we’ll never know; but I am so glad to have read it!

So “The Nose…” is a really wonderful collection of Gogol’s writings, and essential for any lover of his work I would say. The fact it contains the early version of The Portrait as well as Rome really is a bonus, and the introduction and extensive supporting notes are an excellent resource too. The translation reads in a very Gogolian way to me (although I have to say I never find myself happy with the odd Americanism – ‘gotten’, for example – but then the book *is* an American one!) The Russian Library books I’ve read so far have been a really wonderful array of works from one of my favourite countries, and “The Nose and Other Stories” is a very welcome addition to the range! 😀

Coming soon – the #1956Club!! :D

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Just a little heads up today that the #1956Club will be starting in just over a week’s time!

In case you’ve not encountered one of the Clubs before, this is an event dreamed up by my co-host, Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book. There’s no registration or any kind of formality; we just encourage people to read, discuss and share thoughts on books published in the year we choose – and the more discoveries there are of unexpected and brilliants works, the better!

Now, when we picked 1956, we both felt it was something of a bumper year; and exploring further in recent weeks I’m amazed by the number of fantastic books from 1956. So much so that I’m really going to have trouble deciding what to actually read! An initial rummage round the shelves revealed these:

Some possible reads for 1956…

There are great books in there, some of which I’ve read (and would love to re-read) and some of which are new to me. Choices, choices. However, since pulling those out I’ve discovered I have even more 1956 books in the stacks:

And yet more…

I actually really don’t know where to start reading! And this is only scratching the surface as I know I have more from 1956 in the house somewhere..

Anyway, we do hope that as many of you as possible will join in. Do read and post and discuss your reads; I have a set of dedicated pages, one for each year we’ve done, and will add links on the 1956 page when it appears, so do leave a comment with a link (or indeed let us know what you’ve been reading in the comments if you don’t have a platform). 1956 promises to be a marvellous week of bookishness, so do join in. What are you planning to read?

On My Book Table… 10 – a variety of external influences!

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(NB – none of these books is actually *on* the table in the pictures below, but never mind….)

I am nothing if not susceptible to suggestion when it comes to books, and I’ve long lamented the bad (good!) influence of Book Twitter. Specific books themselves, too, have often been responsible for other books arriving at the Ramblings; and there does seem to have been a fair amount of that happening lately… I *have* been sharing pictures on Twitter, but I thought it might be nice to update on the blog some of the more recent arrivals – plus some bookish subscriptions I might just have happened to take out…

The “Philosophy of Walking” effect…

One recent subscription which I took out was to the Verso Book Club, and I shared some thoughts about it here. I offered a little giveaway of a spare book and that will go out to Clare Topping, so I hope she enjoys it! However, one book I ordered from their amazing 50% off sale was “The Philosophy of Walking” by Frederic Gros. It called to me strongly recently and I couldn’t resist (and a review will follow eventually…). However, it’s that most dangerous of things, a book which creates all manner of ideas and lists of other books you want to read; it even has suggested further reading in the back! Now the effect of the body of the book was bad enough – I ended up hauling this little lot off various parts of the TBR…

Interestingly, the Wordsworth ties in nicely with the Romantics three part documentary which is on TV currently (I had been dying for lack of decent documentaries…) However, I also have added substantially to the wishlist, and wasn’t able to resist sending for this lovely thing:

In another piece of bookish synchronicity, the photograph on the cover of this edition is by the early pioneer of the art, Nadar, who featured in Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life“…

Nerval is an author I’ve been aware of for decades; in fact, the little edition of “The Chimeras” you can see in one of the images above was one I acquired in the 1980s. However, I hadn’t looked at it for absolutely ages, and as I was particularly moved by his story in “Philosophy…” I decided I needed to read more. Truly, this book is a *really* bad influence!!

The Harvill Leopard books

There’s been a really interesting convo going on over on Book Twitter, and I wish I could remember who started it (although I know that Caustic Cover Critic was in there at the beginning)! However, the subject was the Harvill Leopard range of books, a numbered series issued between 1998 and 2005. Now, I own a few of these (and they’re lovely) – mine are mainly Russians, but they also issued a lot of Perec. Somehow, the subject of a complete list of the releases came up which caused a lot of interest, with bookish people pitching in. The very industrious Tim of Half Pint Press revealed that he had a spreadsheet he was attempting to compile (as there seemed to be no complete list). This led to loads of research, lots of chat and in the end Tim setting up the wonderful resource which is 300oddleopards! As well as a complete list (as far as can be gleaned at present) there are also pictures of back and front of as many of the books as he’s been able to gather, with lots of us joining in and sending images of our books!

I had great fun pulling out some titles I hadn’t seen for a while (a few of them are above) and was happy to help with pulling together the site. It’s a wonderful initiative – do check it out if you have any interest in these books and authors, though I can’t promise it won’t be back for your bank balance and shelf space….

Bookish Subscriptions

I can’t remember the last time I actually joined up to any kind of bookish subscription; back in the day, I was in a good number of book clubs, but these fell along the wayside before the turn of the millennium and I haven’t signed up for one since. However, there have been any number of recent temptations, and of course the above-mentioned Verso Book Club!

And during lockdown, I did become very aware of the struggles facing smaller publishers and bookshops. I tried to shift my buying habits to support them (some Little Toller purchases resulted) and another couple of interesting presses caught my eye. One of these was Sublunary Editions, who I first stumbled across on Twitter (as I mentioned in my post on publisher Joshua Rothes’ intriguing book, “The Art of the Great Dictators“). They offer a subscription service, they have some wonderful sounding works coming up and so I succumbed – and this was my first delivery!

What’s so interesting about Sublunary is that their works come in a fascinating array of formats; there are more conventional books (although these are often not…), but the package also includes texts on separate sheets as well as art cards. It’s all rather wonderful and I’ll post more as I read my way through them. I’m looking forward to what comes next! 😀

My second subscription was recommended by a lovely Tweeter when I was offering the Verso giveaway; and it’s an initiative to publish more Catalan literature in translation by Fum d’Estampa Press. My reading of Catalan writing is probably non-existence so this was a good way to widen my horizons as well as obtaining some very pretty books – here are the first two:

Fum d’Estampa are on Patreon and they have a number of different levels of subscription (as is often the case of Patreon – I seem to spend a fair bit of time on there lately, as I also support the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, which I can highly recommend). Anyway, the books themselves are quite lovely and I’m looking forward to exploring further.

As for current reading and what’s actually *on* the Book Table? Well, I’m presently reading and loving the new collection of M. John Harrison stories, “Settling the World”, from the wonderful Comma Press (as you can see from the sidebar) and it’s excellent. Coming up soon – well, October of course will be time for the #1956Club, so I think I’d better start exploring some titles from that year! 😀

“…I seemed always to be on the verge of an important revelation…” @ajlees @NottingHillEds

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Back in 2019 I read a fascinating book from one of my favourite publishers, Notting Hill Editions; I’ve commented before on the wonderful range of books they produce, often unusual and slightly left-of-centre works which don’t necessarily fit into any category, and this was one of them. It was a marvellous and stimulating book called “Mentored by A Madman” by A.J. Lees, and I absolutely loved it. Lees is a Professor of Neurology at The National Hospital, London but he’s also no mean author! “Mentored…” looked at his life and career through the filter of the influence of William S. Burroughs; and now NHE have released an equally fascinating book by Lees: “Brazil That Never Was“.

Saint Helens was a throbbing, pulsing place full of work. Everything was for use and nothing for ornament. Salt of the earth, salt of baptism, salt of wages, salt of preservation, salt that gave lucidity. Time was spent, not killed. Its families lived from pay packet to pay packet, made to do with what they had been given and took life as it came.

As with “Mentored…”, “Brazil…” is rooted in autobiography; as a youngster growing up near Liverpool during the 1950s. Lees would regularly visit the docks with his father and was transfixed by the ships from Brazil unloading their cargoes and then sailing off again to strange, faraway lands. His fascinating with all things Brazilian was further fuelled by a book handed to him by his father: “Exploration Fawcett” told the true story of one Colonel Henry Fawcett, a British explorer who’d disappeared in 1925 while searching for a lost city in the Amazon.

The Oakwood Library became my sanctuary. Its grand drawing rooms, with picture rails and sunburst stucco ceilings, were lined with hardback books, fresh and stale, fat and thin, large and small. I roamed the shelves, following paths that fascinated me, and taking in the scent of wisdom. The hours flashed by in minutes as I sat on the ledge of the bay window absorbing the colourful stories of the dead. Cocooned in this place, I was able to divine the Atlantic from a grain of salt.

As can be seen from the above quote, Lees was one of those children for whom the library was a vital part of their young life (and I empathise strongly with that!) The book captured the young boy’s imagination; the concept of there being places in the world still undiscovered was a heady one and it stayed with Lees so much that he began to explore the story of Fawcett’s life and adventures. His researches soon revealed there was more to Fawcett’s life than the book had hinted at; and “Brazil…” is not only the story of Lees’ detective work and what he found, it’s also the tale of his own trip to Brazil in the footsteps of his hero.

The history of Fawcett’s travels and beliefs is in itself fascinating and often gripping; he was a man with contacts, even trying to involve such luminaries as T.E. Lawrence and H. Rider Haggard in his schemes. Lees gained access to family members as well as collections of papers and records from all manner of sources, and discovered there was much more going on behind the scenes than just an attempt to find lost civilisations; the occult was involved, as well as a sect who believed in special beings who co-exist with humans. Fawcett, his family and his friends all seemed to accept that there were life forms who moved on separate planes and his strange beliefs would affect any number of people connected with him.

Author photo via the publisher’s website

As I said, Fawcett’s story alone is gripping; however, what lifts this book to another level is Lees’ narration, telling of his personal interest in the events and recalling how the tale of Fawcett’s adventures affected his own life. Lees is a wonderful storyteller; he writes beautifully and atmospherically; and his chronicle of how he dug deeper with his research into Fawcett’s expeditions is absolutely fascinating. However, one of the elements I loved best was the reminiscences of his childhood; these were so wonderfully evocative that they really brought alive his experiences of growing up in the middle of the 20th century. That world is in many ways as lost as the world Fawcett was searching for, and I loved the way Lees brought it to life again.

The once beautiful waterfall was reduced to a litter-strewn muddy trickle. Manaus was a metastasis in the earth’s green lung, a conflagration of billowing smokestacks created by Man’s insatiable appetite for self-combustion. On its edgeland, the disconnected trees in the charred clearings seemed to be crying in pain. They were like street children, isolated, damaged and struggling to survive.

Following Lees on his explorations, both physical and mental, is an exhilarating experience. He obviously had a wanderlust, perhaps inherited from his teacher father, and in the end was moved to visit Brazil himself, although it was very different from the Brazil which had been in his head. An almost Burroughsian experience in the jungle leads him to the conclusion that it *is* still possible to travel into uncharted territory nowadays – but the kind of journey is a mental one, deep inside yourself, rather than a physical one.

“Brazil That Never Was” is a stunning book, and one which will stay with me for a long time. The wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection makes for a heady and affecting read, and I found myself going back to read passages which had resonated strongly the first time over. Andrew Lees is not only an author with a tale to tell, but one who tells it quite brilliantly. The Brazil he dreamed of in his childhood may never have actually been a real place, but it existed in his mind and will always exist in this wonderful book. Highly recommended!

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

“…a matter of responsibility.” #eastweststreet @philippesands

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“East West Street” by Philippe Sands

I’m a great believer in bookish serendipity; I often find that a seemingly random series of events will lead me to a book; and although I may not read it straight away, the right time or circumstances will arise when I know that I need to read this particular volume NOW. That’s kind of what happened to me with “East West Street”; I first came across Philippe Sands when I reviewed the lovely little Pushkin Press volume, “City of Lions”, back in 2016. This consisted of Jozef Wittlin’s essay on the city of Lemberg/Lviv/Lvov/Lwow and was accompanied by a piece by Sands on the city of his ancestors. I hadn’t come across Sands or his work before that book, but it transpired that he was a noted human rights lawyer who was also an author; and his “East West Street” sounded fascinating and very much a book I’d like to read. So I added it to the enormous wishlist…

Fast forward a few years, and at the start of 2020 (a time known as Pre-Covid, when I could still go into book and charity shops…) I stumbled across a copy of “East West Street” in the local Oxfam book shop. I was happy to bring it home at last, but although I was keen to read it, somehow it didn’t make its way to the top of the pile straight away. But it’s been in my sightline a lot recently, the more so because I’ve seen Sands giving some very interesting talks on his work and research on the online literary festival circuit this year. And my recent reads seemed to be pushing me in its direction; including “Paula”, “Stanley Brent” and particularly Stefan Zweig’s “Journeys”, all of which touched on the conflicts of the 20th century in some way. After I finished reading “Paula”, I knew this would be the next book I picked up.

As I mentioned, Sands is a human rights lawyer, known for his work on crimes against humanity; indeed the book is subtitled “On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity”. Its genesis came when he was asked to give a lecture on his work at Lviv University, an invitation he gladly accepted. As he explains in the introduction, his work has been informed by the Nuremberg Trials and the judgements handed down, which were responsible for introducing the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” into the lawbooks. But Sands had an additional reason for wanting to visit Lviv; for his maternal grandfather Leon Buchholz had been born there and this was the perfect chance for Sands to do a little research into family history. However, as Sands prepared his lecture he stumbled upon a fact which seemed not to have been noticed before: the two men who were responsible for the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity reaching Nuremberg, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, had both lived and studied in Lviv. This was the spark which set Sands off on a long journey exploring not only his family history, but also Lviv’s connections with the men who were so important to the Nuremberg trials; and also the effects on the city and its inhabitants by Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of the region.

‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,’ the psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham wrote of the relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent. The invitation from Lviv was a chance to explore those haunting gaps. I accepted it…

So in alternating chapters, Sands traces the lives of his grandfather, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, as well as the people around them and other family members; and he looks at the Nuremberg trial in respect of Frank’s part in it and the struggle to get the new terms accepted by all the countries involved. We find out about grandfather Leon’s life, the fate of many of Sands’ family members, who survived and how; we follow the tortuous path taken by the two men trying to brings their crimes into legal existence, as well as their own personal lives and losses; and we witness (fortunately not too often, but enough to spell out starkly how vile it was) the disgusting behaviour of those in the Nazi regime. Truly, man’s inhumanity to man is shocking and horrifying.

Despite their common origins, and the shared desire for an effective approach, Laterpacht and Lemkin were sharply divided as to the solutions they proposed to a big question: How could the law help to prevent mass killing? Protect the individual, says Lauterpacht. Protect the group, says Lemkin.

The story told in “East West Street” is often dramatic, and although there is by necessity discussion of the legal concepts, this is never dry or dull, as Sands writes so well. In particular, the differentiation between the concepts of “crimes against humanity” (the mass killing of individuals) and “genocide” (the attempt to wipe out a specific ethnic group) might just seem to be technicalities, but Sands makes it very clear how complex that differentiation is. All of the stories told, whether of Sands’ grandfather and family, or the men attempting to bring mass murders to justice, are incredibly powerful and moving; even those with a smaller part in the tale are memorable, and although I am fairly familiar with histories of the Holocaust and the Second World War, I was brought up short sometimes; for example, when Curzio Malaparte made a few fleeting appearances. His presence was unsettling and made me even less sure what I thought of him…

In many ways this a book which is hard to write about in anything but broad terms, because the amount of detail in it is incredible and you really just need to read it yourself! Interestingly, there is often reference in the book to the Wittlin essay; it’s a touchstone for Sands throughout the narrative, although Wittlin’s view of the past of Lviv is perhaps a little idyllic. As I mentioned in 2016, control of the city changed eight times in the three decades between 1914 and 1944 (it’s currently part of Ukraine), and in his essay Sands was realistic about the difficulties faced by Jewish residents; those hardships are clearly spelled out in “East West Street”, and the reader is left in no doubt about the horrors meted out to Jewish people over the years (and indeed decades and centuries). The pogroms in particular were revolting, and the liquidition of the Jewish Ghetto in 1943 was unspeakable.

Market Square, pre-War Lviv (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“East West Street” is one of those books you go on a journey with and which changes your life. It’s a monumental work of scholarship, meticulously presented with notes and maps and copious photos (often quite emotive); and it’s also a deeply personal book which weaves together the fate of Sands’ family, the horrors of the 20th century and the long-term effects of attempts to create justice for all. Sands seems impressively indefatigable in his researches, doggedly following up the most tenuous lead to see where it will take him. One particular aspect which surprised me (although it shouldn’t have, bearing in mind what I think about politics and politicians…) is that strong resistance to the introduction of the term “genocide” came from America – apparently they feared it could be applied to their treatment of Native Americans and their Southern Black population… 😦

Reading this book was definitely a case of right book, right time. In the middle of a global crisis, at a time when we had already been seeing how horribly intolerant we humans are of each other and how right-wing nationalistic behaviour is on the increase, it’s a sobering and timely reminder of how these things can creep up on us and what the results can be. I guess it’s shocking too that Sands is still in demand as a human rights lawyer and that nations have not stopped slaughtering their citizens. However, it’s also uplifting to hear the stories of those people who helped their fellows survive, hiding them, smuggling them out of danger and standing up for their brother and sister human beings. I was in the right frame of mind for “East West Street”, particularly after spending time with Stefan Zweig; and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a fascinating, sometimes harrowing, work, skilfully combining autobiography and history, and Sands has created an absolutely gripping and moving read; one that will certainly stay with me for a long time. I can highly recommend it – one of my books of the year – and I actually can’t wait to read the follow-up, “The Ratlines”.

*****

As I mentioned above, Philippe Sands has made a number of appearances at online literary festivals this year, mostly talking about his current book “The Ratlines”. He’s a fascinting speaker, and some of these sessions are still available online:

Edinburgh book festival – in conversation with Ian Rankin:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4twt7izL8k

Charleston Festival – discussion with Eva Hoffmann:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg2jGrB6yrU&t=20s

Sands also had a wonderful talk with Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival, but you have to register and pay to see these talks now.

The silence of the past and the madness of the 20th century – introducing V&Q Books! @vqbooks

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Something slightly different here on the Ramblings today! I don’t as a rule take part in Book Tours and the like, preferring to plough my own furrow, so to speak. However, when I was approached by a fascinating new imprint, dedicated to publishing works translated from German-based authors, I just couldn’t resist… 😀

V&Q Books is headed up by translator Katy Derbyshire, whose work I encountered most recently with the excellent “Dark Satellites“. An imprint of the German publisher Verlag Voland & Quist, its stated aim is to export what they call ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ – and a very laudable one it is, I think! So the focus is on books written in any language by German-based writers, and three titles have been released initially: “Paula” by Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire; “Daughters” by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe; and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” by Francis Nenik, again translated by Katy Derbyshire. Frankly, all three sounded absolutely fascinating, but I have read two of the titles and am happy to share my thoughts on them here.

Paula

It’s often said that there’s a thin line between love and hate, and that’s certainly demonstrated in Sandra Hoffmann’s intriguing piece of autofiction. The Paula of the title is the author’s grandmother, and much of the family’s life has been informed by silence; a silence represented by the German word schweigen, defined as deliberately choosing to remain silent, rather than just having a quiet moment. Hoffmann’s mother was born in 1946, and Paula had always refused to reveal who the father was. A devout Swabian Catholic (Swabia is a region in south-western Germany), Paula brought up her daughter single-handedly despite the expected slurs; and as Hoffmann is growing up, her grandmother lives with the family, dominating the domestic set-up in many ways with her silence; a silence which damages not only Paula’s daughter but also her granddaughter.

So Hoffmann sets out to try to make sense of Paula’s life, by exploring her own memories, those of her mother and her great-aunt; and she also feverishly scrutinises the family photographs, trying to pin down who could have been the grandfather, and inventing imaginary histories for the men in the pictures. And true or not, Hoffmann gradually peels away the layers of silence and gives her grandmother some kind of story.

It is impossible to invent the truth. Precision is essential. Fiction is the only way to close the gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.

It’s an intriguing work, as fragmented perhaps as memory is, yet compelling reading. Hoffmann’s own memoirs of growing up and the damage caused by the unspoken secrets are often painful, and the controlling, instrusive behaviour of Paula is very hard to take. You feel the anger of the young Sandra, unable to deal with the smothering attention of her grandmother which is perhaps driven by Paula’s own behaviour and experiences in the past. There is baggage between Hoffmann’s mother and Paula which infects the whole household’s relationships, although affects Hoffmann’s brother less; and this does make me wonder what was unsaid in the family about the post-War context (Swabia was overrun by various troops when the Nazis fell) and whether Paula is dead set on protecting her granddaughter from any possible danger.

However, as much as this is a book about Paula, it is also book about Hoffmann, who she is and the kind of person she became. While looking back on her childhood and her family life, she reveals the emotional damage done and her need to try to understand what was unsaid. The suffocating presence of Catholic religion and guilt, the inability to escape her grandmother’s constant supervision, and Paula’s refusal to respect Hoffmann’s personal boundaries, all reveal a troubling upbringing. Her exploration of the past, through memories and photographs, reminded me in some ways of the writing of Annie Ernaux; although Hoffmann has a voice all of her own. The book is described as autofiction, a term that’s becoming increasingly used for the kind of books I read which straddle the divide between the real and the imagined; and it’s certainly apt here, as Hoffmann pieces together what she feels she knows, while imagining what could have been the reality of her grandmother’s life and secrets.

Paula is a multi-layered book which deserves a much more thorough exploration than I can give it here. Suffice to say, it’s a powerful, deeply emotional and complex read and definitely deserves to be in the vanguard of V&Q’s publishing launch.

Journey Through a Tragicomic Century

This rather intriguing book is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner” which sums up rather neatly much of what’s happening in it! Francis Nenik is a pseudonym; the author prefers to remain anonymous, though reveals he was born in the 1980s and lives in Liepzig. Nenik has published widely and a previous work has also been translated by Derbyshire. A man of relative obscurity, then – much like the subject of his book…

Hasso Grabner was also an author, but an extremely obscure one; born in 1911 in Leipzig, he lived through some of the most dramatic periods of the 20th century in Germany, dying in 1976. His work has mostly been forgotten; and Nenik sets out to tell the story of a writer consigned to oblivion.

Memory, as every child knows, is the basis of history. Ideology, however – as will become clear later on – is the form in which history is expressed.

Grabner’s life really does live up to the descriptions of tragicomic and absurd. A communist by belief, he was an anti-fascist fighter and for his pains ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp (and I was slightly shocked by the realisation that such places existed well before the start of WW2). He managed to survive, and during the war was conscripted to a Penal Battalion, supposedly to fight for Germany; nevertheless when stationed on Corfu he still managed to warn local partisans to get Jewish occupants out while they could. Ironically, he was awarded the German Iron Cross after the German withdrawal from Greece… After the war, he ended up in East Germany under communist control, where he lived a life working in industry as well as writing and having regular run-ins with the authorities; he does, of course, end up with a fat Stasi file…

It’s the same old game. Some make history and others re-write it.

Even a brief outline of Grabner’s dramatic life gives you a flavour of what a strange man he was, living through strange times; but what makes this book a particularly outstanding read is the method of telling. The book is described as “narrative non-fiction” and it’s such an entertaining piece of writing! Nenek tells the story of Grabner with verve, the book crackles with snappy commentary and a wry sense of the ironies of history, and it’s about as unlike the traditional biography as you’ll get – which I really loved! The idiosyncratic style complements the content brilliantly here, with the almost conversational narrative really emphasising the stupidity of much of the 20th century; for example, Nenik says obliquely of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany:

However, history ignores the principles proclaimed by the communists, takes a right turn driven by millions on 30 January 1933 and erects its own dictatorship.

Grabner himself emerges as a stubborn man, determined to do things his own way and somehow managing to survive in the GDR despite his inflexibility and refusal to toe the line; and I got the sense that his story was probably just one of so many which could be told about people of the 20th century enduring horrific events (which do appear here, though mostly in a reasonably minor key) and having to remake some kind of existence afterwards.

Memory, that much is clear once and for all, is the basic fabric of history. Ideology, however, is the form in which history is written, struck out, abbreviated.

There’s an interesting coda to the book where Nenik reveals how he came to write it; and that makes fascinating reading too, although I shall say nothing about it because it’s best read when you’ve finished “Journey…” This was a brilliant and compelling read, and I absolutely loved it.

*****

So my first experience of V&Q books has been a really positive one, with two very different but equally fascinating works; and as both authors are new names to me I would never have read them without the prompt of these editions, so kudos to the new imprint. I think this is an excellent initiative, particularly if it’s going to bring previously unheard voices to an Anglophone audience. I have to comment on the actual physical books themselves, too. Obviously, an important part of bookselling, particularly for independent imprints, is branding and V&Q have certainly nailed it with their bright and distinctive design, plus those all-important French flaps! But of course the crucial thing is the content, and on the evidence of my readings so far, V&Q are certainly going to be a publisher to watch!

If you want to get a flavour of the prose, there’s a nice little reading from it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zccoImjOprI&ab_channel=V%26QBooks

 

“At a time of crisis, loneliness is not good” @TeamRedCircle

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One love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

Back in July 2019, I made the acquaintance of the Red Circle Minis. A new initiative from Red Circle Authors, who describe themselves as a home for authors from, or living in, Japan, the Minis are short works that are first being published in English. As they’re usually bite-sizes books, this makes them a wonderful way to explore authors who you might not have come across before. More titles have been released, and the most recent is the longest so far; at 115 pages it really deserves the title novella. And a fascinating piece of writing it is!

The book is “One Love Chigusa” and the author is Soji Shimada. Apparently something of a legend in Japan, he’s probably best known in the UK for his crime fiction (both Murder in the Crooked House and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders are published by the Pushkin Vertigo imprint). However, “One Love…” is a very different kind of book, exploring potential futures and how technology may affect our perceptions…

“One Love” is set in Beijing in the late 21st century; a man called Xie, the story’s protagonist, suffers terrible injuries in an accident. However, technology has reached a point where he can be very much rebuilt (shades of the old TV series “The Bionic Man”, for those with long enough memories). And talking of memories, Xie’s is also rebuilt and he’s given some kind of Quantum memory drive. He returns to his former life and job; but things are looking a little different…

Of course, that’s why the indicator was needed. Perhaps the effects of speech and action were being measured as cash values. People without religion, ideology or faith, only trust money as the measure of worth and value.

Xie suddenly finds that his fellow humans have changed almost beyond recognition. The women have angry red demonic faces; men have indicators on their chests with ever changing numbers. Xie is frightened by the changes and unclear as to what’s going on, becoming driven to thoughts of suicide; until one day he spots one woman, Chigusa, who not only is normal but is also the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. His pursuit of her will consume him (and much of the rest of the book) – but is even she what she seems?

I shan’t say too much more about the plot; but it’s obvious that “One Love…” has many sci fi tropes with the futuristic technologies, the modernistic settings described in Beijing and the AI elements built into Xie. However, underlying these trappings is a story of obsession; Xie becomes convinced that Chigusa is the only person who can save him in his current state; however, there is so much more to the world than he sees and understands, and this is gradually played out through the narrative.

The world was deteriorating rapidly. The news on the Internet was full of terrible incidents… He didn’t know when all this had started to happen. Morality seemed to have disappeared from the world. Making money, winning and losing, dog eat dog – these were the principles of survival. And they were being sharpened up. This was all that mattered now.

“One Love Chigusa” is actually an unexpectedly gripping read; as the tale progresses, the mysteries surrounding Xie’s skewed perceptions and gradual revelations add levels of intrigue to the plot, and there are plenty of twists. One I perhaps had an inkling of, but much I didn’t foresee – which is always satisfying. I did enjoy the book and Shimada’s writing very much, though I do have to say that I felt slightly uneasy with the portrayal of women, particularly Chigusa, who is extremely objectified to a point where it’s really uncomfortable; and when you add that to the fact that Xie basically stalks her it becomes very unsettling. It may be that this was deliberate so as to emphasise Xie’s distress at his changed perceptions and then extreme reaction when he meets someone he sees as beautiful. However, I don’t think it necessarily added anything to the narrative and could definitely have been toned down a bit.

The Minis!

Putting that aside, “One Love Chigusa” is a really fascinating work, full of all sorts of ideas about the effects of technology on we humans, and many intriguing layers. Shimada captures the strangeness of the events and emotions Xie is living through brilliantly, reminding us how many aspects of the world that we use and take for granted every day are actually not really understood by us. The Red Circle Minis are a really wonderful initiative; every one I’ve read has been so different and so good; and “One Love Chigusa” is an excellent addition to the series! 😀

I wrote about the Red Circle Minis for Shiny New Books here, and also reviewed the first three in the series on SNB here. I also covered the second batch here on the blog!

Some thoughts on the @VersoBooks Book Club – plus a little giveaway! :D

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If you follow me on Twitter you’ll no doubt have seen me regularly complaining ruefully about the wonderful offers the left-wing publisher Verso Books often runs; they’ve been responsible for any number of volumes arriving on the TBR, and a quick glance over the shelves revealed I have a surprising number of their books lurking on there! I’m refusing to say how many are hanging about digitally…..

Just a few of my Verso books….

So when they announced not only offers to celebrate their 50th birthday but also a new book club, I was really sorely tempted. In the end I caved in – first off, these two books arrived on the shelves at half price and I was *very* excited! Another Saramago plus a book about walking (of which I do a lot…) – treats!

However, the book club was also appealing. At half price for the first few months, I would get a physical book every month (a choice of two) as well as digital copies of all new releases. Plus the Verso diary and a notebook as well. Blimey – what’s not to love! I’m a big fan of Verso, because their focus is pretty wide – though they lean to the left, it isn’t all just dry politics, they cover art, culture, philosophy, gender studies, architecture, history, sociology, ecology, music, economics, race – you name it, they probably have a book which fits into the category in which you’re interested. And there are so many favourite authors – Sartre, Benjamin, Saramago, Berger – well, you can see why I’m often tempted.

So needless to say I succumbed… I signed up for the Verso Book Club, and the first two months have brought forth the physical delights shown above! The digital delights are – well, there’s tons of them (as you can see from the list below)!! I probably have at least a year’s reading already, which is rather wonderful, and there are lots of titles I’ve wanted to read for ages so that’s a bonus! October’s looking good too…

The observant amongst you might have noticed that there are two copies of “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal” on the stacks above and there’s a good reason for that, which I’ll come to. This was the September Book Club title, and I was very excited about this, as Noam Chomsky is an author I first encountered in my teens and for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’ve begun to dip into this book which looks scarily relevant; the first pages reveal that the Doomsday Clock is now pointing to 100 seconds…

You might recall my coverage of Richard Clay’s excellent radio programme “Two Minutes to Midnight” back in 2018, which looked at our attitude to nuclear annihilation. To realise that we’ve now reached an even closer point is shocking, and you can still catch up with Richard’s programme here – it makes sobering and fascinating listening…

But I digress… Owing to a glitch in their systems, Verso sent out two copies of “Climate Change…” to me this month. I contacted them and offered to return it, but they were happy that I didn’t and so instead I thought I would offer this as a giveaway to anyone who is interested. This will have to be UK only I’m afraid, as overseas postage has shot up horrendously lately. So if you would like the book, please leave a comment and perhaps suggest an independent publisher you recommend that I should support – as I’m most definitely in the state of mind to keep doing that at the moment!

Meantime, if you’re interested in reading thought-provoking books, I definitely recommend you take a look at Verso’s list – there’s an awful lot of good stuff there! As for me – well, I’m thinking I may have to start a dedicated Verso bookshelf… ;D

“Once again a terrific hurricane has broken on the world…” #stefanzweig #willstone

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Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Translated and with introduction, notes and photographs by Will Stone

Do you ever get that feeling where you’ve read so many novels and novellas and short stories that you’re kind of all fictioned out and need a change? That happened to me recently, and I suddenly had the massive urge to read some kind of non-fiction. It’s a genre I do love, from history to philosophy to essays to biography to travel writing, and it’s not as if I don’t have many unread choices on Mount TBR to select from… In the end I turned to Stefan Zweig; I had thought of him recently when Pushkin were promoting his titles and I spent some time tracking down a copy of his “Montaigne”. So I plumped for a slim collection of his writings about his travels, “Journeys” – and it definitely turned out to be the right book at the right time!

My edition of the book has been lurking for a number of years, and is a lovely Hesperus edition from 2011. Translated by Will Stone (who I’ve encountered on the blog before – I do love his translations!), “Journeys” collects together a number of pieces by Zweig on a variety of European destinations he visited, presented in chronological order from 1902 to 1940. Stefan Zweig was of course a peripatetic man, constantly on the move either from temperament or external pressure. As a Jewish man from Austria, the period in which he was living of course necessitated constant relocation, until his final journey to Brazil where he took refuge from the Nazi scourge in Europe. Alas, his stay there was not for long…

Stations and ports, these are my passion. Four hours I can stand there awaiting a fresh wave of travellers and goods noisily crashing in to cover the preceding one; I love the signs, those mysterious messages that reveal hour and journey, the shouts and sounds dull yet varied that establish themselves in an evocative ensemble of noise. Each station is different, each distils another distant land; every port, every ship brings a different cargo. They are the universe for our cities, the diversity in our daily life.

Whether visiting Ostend and Bruges, meditating on Hyde Park, spring in Seville or a food fair in Dijon, Zweig simply writes beautifully. He brings alive the location, considers the architecture and the history of the place, and records his impressions with an experienced traveller’s eye. His early journeys were at a time when the concept of tourism was in its infancy, and he could move from place to place on his own, spend quiet time assimilating his impressions and explore a town or city or area in peace. That, of course, would change…

In truth, Zweig’s writings always had a somewhat elegiac tone which I guess perhaps represented his temperament. However, inevitably this tone changes as the book goes on. There is the First World War and its aftermath; and Zweig visits many places affected by the conflict and decries the effect of war. In fact, his piece from 1928, “Ypres”, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read by Zweig (and I *have* read a number) as he revisits a place he knew before the conflict to see how it is now, and whether there has been reconstruction.

Not a shop exists where they don’t profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps those very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield…

In fact, this particular piece leads on to another issue in a changing Europe, that of the increase in mass tourism, the threat this poses to the places visited, and the modernisation taking place to enable this. Zweig is unhappy about coachloads of tourists turning up, being force-fed a tour of some place of historical significance, buying a souvenir and ticking the visit off their list. This is particularly pointed in somewhere like Ypres, where he titles one section “Jamboree upon the Dead” and I am completely in sympathy with his view; turning a place of massacre into a tourist attraction seems wrong, and this  resonated with the horror I’ve felt when seeing people posting selfies of themselves laughing and posing at Auschwitz. We can’t spend our life wringing our hands over past horrors, but we can remember and respect those who suffered and certainly we shouldn’t be trivialising these places and those victims.

Young Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

But there are lighter moments; his lovely essay of how the British cope during wartime by gardening is a delight. Then there is a piece on the Jewish Shelter in London, a haven for refugees, which is very moving. “To travel or be travelled” attacks the package tour head-on; acknowledging that although journeying on your own involves more planning and risk than having someone else whisk you from place to place on a coach, the rewards are worth it. Only by travelling on your own do you really stand a chance of getting to know a town or city, spending time exploring and perhaps having one of those chance pieces of seredipity when you stumble upon something unknown or unexpected.

Each morning the paper barks in your face wars, murders and crimes, the madness of politics clutters our senses, but the good that happens quietly unnoticed, of that we are scarcely aware.

Stefan Zweig started writing and travelling when it was easy to move around Europe from country to country. He saw that freedom eroded and eventually had to flee the continent to a kind of life which became unacceptable to him. I fear we’re actually regressing into those times again, having had the luxury of free movement for so many years; and it’s chilling to read Zweig state: “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breath quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” His writing is always elegant and beautiful (and as you can see from the amount of post-its, I could have quoted half the book); these pieces are evocative and atmospheric; and the more I read of Stefan Zweig, the less I can understand why his books were neglected for so many years. “Journeys” was a moving and transporting read, and if you’ve never read Zweig you could do no worse than to start here!

*****

I wanted to say a little bit about this edition of the book, because it has so many lovely elements to it. As I said, the translation is by the poet, Will Stone, and as well as rendering the pieces in English he also provides an erudite introduction. There are useful notes and a little biography of Zweig, and most delightfully a selection of Stone’s own photographs of some of the places Zweig writes about. This was an element Stone added to the excellent “Rilke in Paris” and it’s a wonderful idea, helping to bring alive the places the author visited. As I mentioned, my edition is a Hesperus Press one, but “Journeys” is currently in print from Pushkin Press, so I imagine it will also have the extra material as it *is* the Will Stone translation. Definitely most highly recommended…

A life wasted? Discovering the writing of #elizabethberridge

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The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Bookish Twitter is a regular source of distraction and inspiration for me; I reckon a good chunk of the books on Mount TBR are thanks to the lovely folks there recommending new authors and works to check out! Recently, there was a bit of a flurry around novelist Elizabeth Berridge and her name kept turning up and popping into my line of sight. So a little bit of serendipity came into play when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a copy of his reprint of Berridge’s first published work: a novella called “The Story of Stanley Brent”, from 1945.

Berridge (1919-2009) was known as a novelist and critic, publishing fourteen works between 1945 and 1995; yet her profile is not that high nowadays. Persephone have published a collection of her short stories under the title “Tell it to a Stranger”; but much of the Twitter flurry was around striking covers of Abacus paperback editions of her novels. Fellow bloggers have been rediscovering her work with interest, so I was keen to find out what her writing was actually like.

There was a name for everything, it made things less frightening, made you believe that you could be cured.

“Stanley…” is a novella of 75 pages (with very small type, it has to be said…) and it does indeed relate the life story of the titular Brent, opening in the year 1907 when the young man proposes marriage to Ada after a soaking in a rainstorm. They marry; encounter issues when Ada comes up against the realities of being a wife; have children; Stanley is promoted. And as they age, the world changes round them, with the First World War taking away family and friends; the country-like suburbs are absorbed into the cities and towns; and rumblings of events in Germany are darkening the horizon.

Throughout the youngest daughter’s childhood the country round the Brents was slowly swallowed up. Wooden blocks for roads now lay where once the wheat had burnt. Lorries passed continually, laden with bricks and returning with timber cut from the marked off building sites. Bonfires of blackberry bushes, gorse and hawthorn made the autumns mournful and spring a time of no regrowth. Asphalt hid the muddy paths to the station, and roads were made up, pavements laid at the expense of the older residents.

My summary makes the book sound a little simplistic, but it actually isn’t and Berridge is a remarkable skilful writer to fit as much as she does into such a short narrative. Stanley seems a fairly ordinary man, but there are undercurrents; he suffers from asthma which strikes him at times of stress; he often finds himself questioning the point of what he does; and he senses there is more to life than he experiences. As he ages and his health suffers, his marriage becomes very much a shell and it seems that there is little deep communion between the couple (something which was in fact signalled early in the book).

Stanley remembered this now, the shrug, the indifference. The crack entered his heart. The Frenchman seemed so alone – yet he had wife, children, a house, a trade he enjoyed. Wasn’t this enough, and if not why? Fear darkened Stanley’s clear blue, somewhat stupidly innocent blue eyes; shortened, for a moment, his breath. Something else, what was it?

Perhaps Stanley stands for each ordinary man living an everyday life but yearning for more; certainly, at one point he feels a strong bond with his stepfather-in-law, a French musician in exile whose unfinished violin playing perhaps symbolises the lost opportunities in both men’s lives; and who says rather crytpically at one crucial point in the narrative:

“Each man must dance to his own measure.

For a small book, “The Story of Stanley Berridge” is surprisingly affecting. The underlying element of melancholy comes to the fore regularly throughout the book; and Berridge is adept at capturing emotions and events in just a few words. For example, Stanley doesn’t fight in WW1 (he is “turned down”, presumably because of his health) and in passing the narrative comments “A few women gave Stanley white feathers”, imparting so much about that conflict and the emotions which went with it, as well as conveying how Stanley was judged and how he might have felt about not fighting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I don’t know that I’d anticipated quite such a memorable read. Berridge writes so well, capturing the little nuances in daily life, the subtle interactions between characters, and also how the world changed during the period of Stanley’s life. “The Story of Stanley Brent” is a novella you can easily read in one sitting, but I think its title character and his life will stay with you afterwards. And if this is any kind of indication of Berridge’s writing, I’m definitely keen to read more!

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

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