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Exploring love, grief and loss with Julian Barnes

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Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Over recent years I’ve been rediscovering my love of the writing of Julian Barnes; and so he’s made several appearances on the Ramblings, although pleasingly I still have plenty of his books unread. This is one of them, and I have no idea why I particularly felt the strong need to pick it up when I did. But I had that urge, in the middle of a crisis when I was undecided as to what to read next, and I’m glad I did. It’s an often painful read, and a powerful one; but beautiful and honest too.

“Levels of Life” is a non-fiction work, tagged on the back as “biography/memoir” and that’s a fairly accurate description. The book takes as its structure three levels – its sections are entitled “The Sin of Height”, “On the Level” and “The Loss of Depth” – and uses this construct to explore initially the lives of Nadar, a pioneer ballonist and aerial photographer; Colonel Fred Burnaby, another balloonist given here a fictional passion for Sarah Bernhardt (who was also a devotee of dirigibles); and then finally he exlores his own grief and emotions at the loss of his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh.

Kavanagh died in 2008 from a brain tumour, 37 days after diagnosis of her illness. That bald statement along reveals what a cruel, shocking and unimaginable time it must have been for Barnes to live through. Yet the writer in Barnes needs to explore not only his own emotions and his own loss, but also the human condition and what it means to love. Nadar cared tenderly for his wife for years after heart attacks and strokes; Colonel Fred here never really recovers from the love of Sarah; and Barnes was quite obviously devastated by the loss of the love of his life.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.

“Levels of Life” is obviously a raw and never easy read; Barnes is always honest and unflinching in his look at himself, his grief, his process of mourning and his reactions to others. It could perhaps be considered unusual to structure a book on your own personal grief this way, but I think Barnes was trying to make his story and his emotions more universal. And it’s as if he can only deal with the topic obliquely, skirting around his subject by exploring other people’s lives before approaching the autobiographical section from an angle. That’s understandable; a loss like this takes time to come through (if you ever really do), and although Kavanagh died in 2008, the book is dated at the end “20 October 2012” (four years to the day from her death).

Apart from “A Life with Books“, a lovely little pamphlet I read just over a year ago, my experience of reading Barnes has all been fiction. Branching out into his non-fiction works has been something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time; and although this was a hard book to read, it was also a beautiful and moving one. Barnes captured quite brilliantly that sense of loss of a close loved one; the fact that it’s not only their physical presence which has gone, but also the shared experiences, the personal in-jokes and the structure of a joint life lived. The initial sections of the book were fascinating and moving in themselves, and a clever way to approach Barnes’ exploration of his own loss.

The more I read of Julian Barnes’ work, the more I realise just what a wonderful writer he really is. To be able to take your grief and loss, and then turn it into a work of great beauty is very special; and apart from anything else, “Levels of Life” is a moving and emotional tribute to his wife and his love for her. Not an easy read, as I said; and selecting the right time to read it in your own life is important. But it’s a powerful and unforgettable work, and I’m glad I chose to read it right now.

Stories from the Home Front @PersephoneBooks #AllViragoAllAugust

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I imagine that most readers of the Ramblings are well aware of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, hosted by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson. It’s a thing of great joy, a product of the pure love of books and reading; and I’m probably not the only listener whose book stacks have been swelled by recommendations from the chaps and their guests… They have a Patreon offshoot called Locklisted, which is also wonderful fun (and incorporates the excellent input of their producer Nicky Birch); and on one of these recent episodes listeners were treated to Andy reading a story from the recent Persephone Books collection, “English Climate: Wartime Stories” by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was just fab…

Now, I love a beautiful Persephone book, but I don’t automatically buy every one which comes out; I haven’t got the shelf space, nor the time to read them all, frankly. And although I love STW’s writing, I already have a Virago collection of her short stories; so I imagined I might already have some (or all!) of these and hadn’t intended to urgently get a copy of the new book. However, the story Andy read (“My Shirt is in Mexico”) was just so good that I felt I needed to investigate further; which I did, only to discover that I don’t think I have *any* of these stories already, and also that some have never been reprinted since original magazine publication. Needless to say, I had to send for a copy…

And when it arrived, it occurred to me that it would be ideal to read for “All Virago/All August”, a challenge which we member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics undertake annually. Yes, I know it’s not a Virago…. But we do allow other books of a similar ilk, so can include Persephones, Furrowed Middlebrow and the like books (and presumably the new British Library Women Writers too!) I do often try to include a translated Virago to mop up #WITMonth as well, but alas it was not to be this August. Anyway! On to the book…

… Mrs Campion was standing on her top step, staring vaguely at the sky and shaking a duster without energy. She had pale green eyes, pure as a kitten’s, and they looked so much at variance with her small, anxious, sallow face that one had the impression they must have been given her by some rich admirer with more connoisseurship than discretion.

“English Climate” collects together twenty-two of STW’s stories which were published between 1940 and 1946; they’re presented chronologically, which is an effective method because it allows us to watch the change in behaviours and attitudes as the war progressed. STW and her companion, Valentine Ackland, spent the war years in a cottage in Devon, and so were in prime position to observe many of the foibles of those in the country during the conflict; and indeed many of the stories have that kind of setting.

As with any collection of short stories, I sometimes find it hard to know quite how to write about it; so I’ll do what I usually do and pick out some particular stand-outs. “From Above” (1941) tells of a couple still living in London, and their contrasting feelings about the threat of their house being destroyed by a bomb; Mr and Mrs Campion react very differently, in ways which reveal their real feelings about their relationship and their life together. “Noah’s Ark” (1941) looks at a pair of misfit evacuee children and the effect of the new people they encounter on their coping mechanism. “Setteragic On” (1941) is a very clever story which takes as its subject the effect of specific privations and shortages on the general populace.

Then there’s “Scorched Earth Policy” (1942) which explores the burden of possession and the increasing fear of invasion which took over the British people as the War progressed. “England, Home and Beauty” (1942) is a short, sharp tale demonstrating the difference of the sexes and revealing that British women were quite prepared to take part in meeting any invasion attempts. And the title story, from 1943, was quite devastating for me (though not in any way you might expect); although I imagine what happens is meant to be symbolic of the destruction of culture by conflict.

In spring it is the duty of every village schoolmistress to foster a love of nature and kindness to animals. While encouraging the children to gather wild flowers for the Easter church decorations, she must remind them not to uproot primroses and violets, or tear up bluebells, or break off boughs from fruit trees, or trespass into the Manor woods after daffodils. In Spring too she must avail herself of young lambs and birds’ nests as the ideal means of approach to a reverent understanding of biological processes, and also prevent the children from stealing birds’ eggs, cutting the wings off fledglings, and throwing stones at valuable pedigree calves. For years Mrs Pitcher had hated spring.

Well, I could go on. There isn’t a dud story among them, and what was particularly fascinating was the different angles STW took. Some of the stories are less directly war-related, simply exploring the psychology of people in extreme and unusual situations (so, of course, somewhat relevant to how 2020 has been for many of us…) She’s an acute observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women; and her commentary on the foibles of everyday life is sharp and often very funny.

So “English Climate” turned out to be the perfect read for All Virago/All August and thank goodness Backlisted nudged me into picking up this collection. Sylvia Townsend Warner was such a marvellous writer, and these stories capture so well the changing emotions and times of the War period. I can’t recommend the collection highly enough; and it makes me very happy to realise that I have plenty STW books on the shelves unread… ;D

“…towards an essential flower garden.” @NottingHillEds #jamesfenton

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Although I’m an intermittent (and not always successful!) gardener, I do love a good gardening book. I’ve spent many happy hours in the company of Beverley Nichols and Vita Sackville-West, admiring their efforts and mammoth gardening achievements; though I’m afraid that my fingers are anything but green, and most of my minor attempts at improving my small patch have met with varying degrees of success… However, “A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed” by James Fenton promises a different and refreshing approach from those intricately planned and spectacular displays you see in the more ‘professional’ gardens; so I was, of course, keen to see what the book had to recommend… ;D

The point is not to make things harder. The point, to recap, is to look at the flower garden at the beginning of the season as if it were a vegetable garden and ask simply: What do I want to grow this year? Forget design for a moment. Design has become a terrible, stupid, and expensive tyrant. The emphasis here is all on content.

“A Garden…” started life as a series of columns back in the Guardian two decades ago; and Fenton took as his credo his wish to move away from gardening as almost a military exercise, involving rigid planning and laying out, as well as strict guidelines and trends. Rather than have a regimented plot, Fenton advocates planning your garden annually in much the same way as a vegetable gardener plans out his allotment – what do I actually want to eat/grow this year? Before the fashion for manicured and extremely controlled landscaping took hold, that’s probably the way most home gardens grew – and it’s certainly the way I’d like to plant in mine!

(On Venus Navelwort): Gray-leaved and with spikes of white flowers, this twelve-inch annual brings with it thoughts of broderie anglaise, white needlework on white, the underwear of the high minded.

As Fenton points out, so many people are spending a fortune on trees, shrubs, plants and expensive features; when in fact some simple packets of seed can provide beauty and also usefulness in a garden. So the book has 12 chapters, covering such groupings as colour, size, flowers for cutting, poppies and herbs. Fenton thinks that with 100 packets of seed, often no more than £1 each, a gardener can produce stunning results, and in each chapter he lists his suggestions according to the categories chosen. These are usefully listed at the end, as well as books and tools which may be of help and some basic tips.

(Of the growing of chives): Obvious, yes, but it is better to be obvious (and have a supply of chives) than to be subtle (and purchase plastic packs at irritating prices). And besides, it is traditional to have chives growing by the kitchen door.

However, apart from being a sensible and wise book, blowing away all the hyperbole around gardening, “A Garden…” is also a wonderfully entertaining read owing to Fenton’s lovely turn of phrase, and slightly sharp asides; the book really is a joy. He’s happy to puncture pretentions, has a down-to-earth attitude towards growing things and recognises the sheer fun in planting something and seeing it grow. The section covering the trend towards wanting to create a meadow in your garden was particularly interesting, and Fenton came up with an intriguing idea of planting a micro meadow which I’m sorely tempted to try…

Snapdragons! (Off2riorob (talk) / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

During lockdown, many of us have turned to our gardens as a source of solace and pleasure; suddenly, what we have locally seems very important. Because of this, “A Garden…” has apparently seen quite a surge in its popularity and I can well understand that, because not only is it a useful guide to the kind of seeds to plant to get lovely results, it’s also a wonderful and entertaining read. And although the results might not be as spectacular as something that Vita or Beverley would produce, I’m sure they would approve! If you have any interest in gardens, growing things or just entertaining writing about the subject, this is highly recommented – a lovely book!

***

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! As an aside, my copy came with a bonus packet of snapdragon seeds – now, I don’t always get results from seeds (though I *did* recently plant some amaryllis seeds and they seem to be doing something, so fingers crossed…) So the snapdragons have been duly planted and we shall see if the Fenton influence will work – watch this space for updates! ;D

“…he became scribe and secretary to his mind…” #fleurjaeggy #thesepossiblelives

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These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor

Reading books is a dangerous thing. Not only does it keep your mind exercised and in a constant state of stimulation, it also tends to make you perpetuate that state by suggesting ideas for more books you might want to read… Well, certainly that’s the case for me when I read something like Brian Dillon’s excellent “Suppose a Sentence”. As I said in my review, it’s one of those perilous books which has a list at the end and sends you off in all sorts of interesting directions to explore other works and authors. One particular book which caught my eye was “These Possible Lives” by Fleur Jaeggy (a Swiss author who writes in Italian – so perfect for #WITMonth) Although I have a fiction book by her unread, this very slim collection of essays sounded impossible to resist – so I didn’t…

Every morning Mrs. De Quincey inspected the children, perfuming them with lavender or rose water, and then icily dismissed them from her presence until lunch. Dreams of “terrific grandeur” settled on the nursery.

“These Possible Lives” is just 60 pages long, and contains three short essays which look at the lives of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob. In short and strange sentences, Jaeggy manages to conjure a whole life, but in prose which is entirely individual and quite remarkable. Her writing is compressed and concise, her juxtapositions unexpected, and yet the book is incredibly lyrical.

Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street, coasting to a stop on the corner of Oxford Street in front of his little friend Ann.

De Quincey will, of course, be familiar as the author of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”; the poet Keats needs no introduction; however, Schwob, a French symbolist writer who influenced Borges and Bolano, is probably less familiar. Jaeggy’s pieces have no typical biographical structure, give no hard and fast details of dates and events and work; instead, they present impressionistic glimpses of the three men at points in their lives. Time jumps forwards with no warning and death approaches; in many ways, as Dillon has commented, this is as much about their deaths as their lives. There *are* facts, but not necessarily presented in a joined-up fashion. You could, I suppose, refer to them as precis of a life, but that’s doing them an injustice. Somehow, despite the brevity of essays, Jaeggy manages to convey the sense of a long and full life, well lived, even in cases such as Keats who died so young.

On the evidence of this work, Fleur Jaeggy is obviously a remarkable writer. I’ve seen her writing described as austere, but I think that’s not quite the word I would use here. Despite her concision, there’s an odd richness in her prose; and the rapid shifts and unusual connections she makes create a surprising depth in her narrative. And her sentences; they really are something else, as Brian Dillon made clear in his chapter on her writing in “Suppose a Sentence”! “These Possible Lives” is an extraordinary, brilliant and memorable book, with writing that quite took my breath away; and I really shall have to get to Jaeggy’s fiction work soon…

“…in a hot climate I find it agreeable to have smooth cheeks.” #paulhogarth #russia #alaricjacob

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A Russian Journy by Alaric Jacob and Paul Hogarth

I’ve no doubt commented before on the dangerous effect of bookish Twitter; I do like to hang out there, as bookish types are such fun, but they *will* keep drawing my attention to interesting-sounding books… I often manage to forget where recommendations come from, but in the case of this book I’m sure! Retroculturati regularly features images by the wonderful artist Paul Hogarth, most notably covers of Graham Greene paperbacks (some of which I actually own…) However, Hogarth’s works featured in any number of books, and when I happened to realise he’d illustrated a book with the title “A Russian Journey”, investigation was warranted… ;D

It transpired, in fact, that Hogarth not only illustrated the book, he also travelled around Russia with its author, Alaric Jacob, in 1967. Now, I’m a sucker for books which take you travelling in Soviet Russia, so of course I had to see if it was available at a reasonable price (I didn’t have high hopes, it must be said…) Amazingly, I was able to procure a copy in really good nick, with nicely intact dustjacket, for a tenner – result! Bearing in mind how often I’ve been disappointed by inaccurate descriptions of second hand books I’ve bought, this was a pleasant surprise! Anyway, on to the book…

Published in 1969, the book (which nearly shares its title with Steinbeck’s record of his journey through Russia with the photographer Capa) is subtitled “From Suzdal to Samarkand” and follows the trials and tribulations of the two men as they attempt to negotiate Soviet bureacracy and travel round the country. Jacob had a history with Russia, having lived there off and on between 1943 and 1947. His connection with Hogarth went back to nearly that time, and both men had always intended to make a joint picaresque journey round the country, recording their adventures in words and images. That had become harder and harder with the Cold War intervening, but finally in 1967 they made their trip. The result is this book, which is not just entertaining; it’s a wonderful snapshot of life both in and out of the Soviet Union at the time and raises some interesting thoughts.

The book comes will a lovely hand-drawn map at the front showing the places Jacob and Hogarth visited; and interestingly they never got east of the Ural Mountains, though they travelled south a lot into Asian Soviet Russia – Samarkand and Tashkent – as well as dropping into Kiev in Ukraine and heading into Georgia to track down Stalin’s homeland. As they travel, Jacob reflects on the changes he’s seen since 1947 and the contrasts between East and West, while Hogarth beavers away drawing wonderful images of the places they go. The pair encounter all manner of people native to each of the areas, and their interactions are always thoughtful and human. Despite the attempts at control by Intourist, the two intrepid travellers go where they want to go and see what they want to see and the results make fascinating reading.

The narrow road from the airport passed through wooded country before joining a great motorway. In the fields on either side we saw wooden cottages all bearing television aerials even though most of them seemed not to have been painted for years and some had crazy roofs and eaves on the verge of collape. Harsh electric light burst out of each house and lit up the surrounding snow. In a landscape untidy and forbidding each cottage stood out as an outpost of human warmth and jollity in the wintry waste. I was forcibly reminded of the madness of Hitler and his generals in trying to overrun and occupy thousands of square miles of such country in the depth of winter. At that time no lights ever shone over the snow: ruin and desolation lay all around. Presently we passed a memorial, composed of anti-tank barriers painted the colour of blood, which marks the sport where Guderian’s tanks were halted on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the historical point at which the narrative is poised; for Jacob, the Second World War is still a relatively recently memory, an event fresh in his mind, and many of his meditations in the book are informed by his experiences during that conflict. He’s able to see the changes which have taken place, particularly in Moscow, during the two decades since he visited and rue some of these; yet he’s realistic enough to know that change has to happen to improve conditions for those living there.

And Jacob’s politics are intriguing; he obviously leans to the left, believing at that time that the future would be best served by a move to socialism or Marxism, or at any length away from the mess that capitalism already was. He’s critical of England, referencing Iain Nairn’s “Subtopia” and regarding the country as restricted and claustrophobic. His attitude towards Stalin is – well, interesting really, as he does seem to not exactly apologise for him, but believe that the Soviet system can still be one which works. I guess that’s a viewpoint which wouldn’t really hold water nowadays…

Nevertheless, the travelling itself is marvellous, as the two men buzz about over Russia by train or plane, experiencing all the frustrations of trying to get sensible transport information out of Soviet flunkies who seem to want to make things difficult for the foreigners. The men encounter a fascinating range of Soviet citizens, many of them artists who are excited to make contact with fellow creators from the West; and also young people who are disillusioned with the Soviet regime and can’t understand Jacob’s enthusiasm for it. You get a real picture of what living in the USSR was like and what the people felt, and so the book is a fascinating snapshot of life there at the time, and also Western views.

It has to be said, too, that the book is often a very funny read; Jacobs is a drily witty narrator, and tales of their epic eating and drinking sessions were a hoot! The men were also plagued by recurring run-ins with intrusive Polish jukeboxes playing awful state-approved pop music, and poor Hogarth found the constant eating and drinking just too much; as Jacobs comments at one point:

I said that anyone who had read Churchill’s War Memoirs ought to know that no one lacking a strong head and a good digestion should ever submit himself to Soviet hospitality.

There’s also a fascinating amount of name-dropping and referencing; the men run into Pablo Neruda in passing, attempt (and fail) to find Kim Philby, see Mayakovsky’s death mask and pass the grave of Griboyedov. But underlying much of the narrative is Jacob’s memories of WW2 and the depredations suffered by the Russian people while beating off Fascism. It’s something he finds hard to forget and it informs his attitudes throughout.

A stunning image by Hogarth of Lementov’s house in Tiflis – plus an example of the marginal drawings.

As for the illustrations, well they’re just wonderful. I love Hogarth’s style and the book is stuffed full of his impressions of Russia, whether full page (or two page) colour illustrations, or small sketches tucked in the margins. It really is a joy, and if he turns out to have illustrated a book on Paris I think I’ll die happy!

“A Russian Journey” turned out to be a marvellous, atmospheric read which really took me back to the time it was written. I was quite young when it came out, yet in the decade that followed this book I can recall how close the War still seemed then. There were still old air raid shelters in a nearby piece of woodland; structures that needed to be demolished or rebuilt from wartime bombing; and a sense that, in my provincial town, we were being dragged from the 1950s and 1960s into a shiny new world. I’m not sure that promise was fulfilled, but whether the Eastern alternative was any better is not something I can judge. However, I absolutely loved this book and it will sit happily on my Russian shelf next to Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archive and Fred Basnett’s Travels of a Capitalist Lackey and Laurens van der Post’s Journey into Russia and John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal. Hmmm. I sense the dangerous possibility of a new collection of Soviet travel writing in the wings…. ;D

Retroculturati has an excellent post about the book here, which also gives more background information about it.

ETA: Jane asked in the comments if she could see the map, and here it is:

Not drawn by Hogarth, but still a very nice hand-drawn one – I’m very fond of maps… ;D

“I am a flame, searching and bold.” #edithsodergran @BloodaxeBooks

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On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems by Edith Sodergran
Translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellerstrom

As I mentioned in my review of Henry Parland’s “To Pieces”, back in the summer I was introduced to two wonderful books by Scandinavian Modernist women authors: Chitambo by Hagar Olsson, and Crisis by Karin Boye. I’d read the latter’s excellent dystopian novel Kallocain earlier in the year, and all three of these works were ones I reviewed for Shiny New Books. I must admit that I’d not been particularly aware of this particular group of Modernist writers before; but as I said, the discovery of these books led to me exploring the back catalogue of Norvik Press, their publisher, more thoroughly. I did love Parland’s only novel (and I’m still trying to track down his poetry). But I was also pointed in the direction of poet Edith Sodergran (a close friend of Olsson) and, susceptible as I am to bookish suggestions, I had to send off for a translated poetry selection and also a collection of her letters. I don’t know if I’ll get to the letters in time for #WITMonth; but I *have* read the poems, and I absolutely loved them!

Like many of the Scandinavian authors I’ve been reading, Sodergran had a short life; born in 1892 in St. Petersburg, she died at the age of 31 from tuberculosis. An intelligent woman, fluent in several languages, she was also a keen photographer. And despite her illness, she published four collections of verse in her lifetime, with one being released after her death; “On Foot…” gathers poems from all of these. It’s a slim, dual language volume which draws mostly from her first collection from 1916, and it reveals some wonderfully moving and memorable verse.

Here, take my hand, take my white arm,
take my thin shoulder’s longing…
It would be strange to feel,
for one night, a night like this,
your heavy head on my breast,
(The Days Grow Cool)

Sodergran’s poems are mostly short, rarely longer than half a page; and yet the contents are wonderfully evocative. Her work reflects on nature, the stars and the universe, and sometimes the place of women in that world. The impression is of a solitary poet; men do not seem to be allowed to get close. These are what I think would be called visionary poems, rejecting traditional structures and instead considering simply what it is to exist. Reading the poems was a moving and meditative experience. Soderberg seems to speak from the heart, and her words certainly resonated with mine.

The poems are translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellerstrom; and Morling provides a useful afterword which puts Sodergran in context, reminding us that she wasn’t really appreciated until after her death. It also reminded me of a fact I’d become aware of in my recent reading of these authors, and that is the proximity of the Scandinavian countries to Russia; many of the authors seem to have either been born or educated in St. Petersburg, and their countries had strong connections with their monolithic neighbour. This also gave them a certain vulnerability because of the volatile state of Russia during the First World War, Revolution and Civil War. These events affected Sodergran’s life, and those of her contemporaries, in a way I had’t appreciated before.

Beautiful sisters, come high on top of the sturdy cliffs,
we are all women warriors, women heroes, women writers,
eyes of innocence, heavenly brows, rose larvae,
heavy surf and birds adrift,
we are the least expected and the deepest red,
tiger spots, taut strings, stars without vertigo.
(Violet Sunsets)

So I loved my first experience of reading Sodergran very much. This book is published by Marick Press in the US, and I wondered whether there were any other collections available in English. Well, it transpires that Bloodaxe published her complete poems back in 1984, but this is only currently available in digital format which is really annoying; because it’s translated by David McDuff, who was also responsible for last year’s “Kallocain” and whose translations I trust. I mention this because I *do* have slight reservations about this selection.

Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / No restrictions (via Wikimedia Commons)

For a start, and it’s a small matter, Sodergran often ends her lines or verses with three dots (just as I often do my sentences…) – which can be seen from the original poem on the left page (this is a dual language edition). However, the translators render this on the right hand page with the translation as a dash – and I really don’t understand why, because the effect to me is very, very different. Similarly, they give the title of the posthumous collection in English as “The Country that Isn’t”; whereas Wikipedia shows it as “The Land which Is Not”. I speak no Swedish, so I have no idea which would be most accurate, but I prefer the Wiki version… I confess to thinking that I’d like very much to read the McDuff translations; but I don’t know that that will be happening any time soon.

Anyway, I am so pleased to have made the acquaintance, albeit briefly, of Edith Sodergran; an ideal discovery for #WITMonth. I’m also delighted that I have a collection of her letters lurking on the TBR, issued by Norvik Press; I doubt I will get to this during August but will try not to leave it too soon to get round to reading it!

*****

A Little Coda…

I’ve left the post above as I originaly wrote it; but I was a bit rattled by my uncertainties about the translation, and also the inabiity to track down the McDuff complete poems; so I did a little digging…

Like so many books during this weird pandemic period, if you search on Amazon they offer you digital versions or very high priced copies; and I have to say that my whole experience of online book buying during this time has changed dramatically. I’ve shifted to Hive, or gone directly to the publishers where I can; anything rather than be ripped off like this. I tried Hive, Wordery, Book Depository and eBay in search of a reasonably priced copy of the Complete Poems, but to no avail. And then I had a lightbulb moment – and zipped over to the site of the publishers, Bloodaxe. Lo and behold, the book could be got from them at normal cover price so I duly ordered it, and here it is with “On foot…”

And now the story takes *another* twist, because I have had a quick look at the McDuff and compared, in particular, one early poem, titled in “On foot…” as “The Day Grows Cool” and in “Complete” as “The Day Cools”. Sure enough, McDuff renders the three dots as three dots when they are such in the original, which makes me very happy and I *don’t* know why Morling/Ellerstrom messed with this. But I was also struck by one particular couplet, which is Swedish is:

Du kastade din kärleks röda ros
I mitt vita sköte –

Morling/Ellerstrom render this as:

You threw your love’s red rose
Into my white womb –

However, McDuff gives this as:

You threw the red rose of your love
Into my white lap –

To me, the use of lap or womb is quite a significant difference and allows for very different interpretation of the couplet. So as I speak no Swedish, my only recourse was Google Translate; and depending on what time of the day you put the phrase in and on what device, it comes up with either word as an option! Which just goes to show, really, what a complicated thing translation is!! I wonder if any of my Ramblings readers speak Swedish and can bring any thoughts to the debate??

Anyway – the bottom line is that I’m very happy to have tracked down the Bloodaxe book, and as I always enjoy David McDuff’s translations I shall read this feeling assured that I am in capable hands! And of course, the lesson to be learned is to always check out the publisher’s site to see if you can get the book directly from them!

“… funny, learned, vagrant, strange…” @briangdillon @FitzcarraldoEds #supposeasentence

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Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

I first explored the writing of Brian Dillon back in February when I co-hosted the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with Lizzy. His collection “Essayism” was a highlight of the event for me; a marvellous meditation on the art of the essay, blended with autobiographical elements, it was compelling reading and one of those books which resonates and stays with you long after finishing it. So when I discovered that Dillon had a new book coming out in September, with the intriguing title of “Suppose a Sentence”, I was naturally very, very keen to read it!

Beautiful sentences, Gass wrote, are ‘rare as eclipses’. I went chasing eclipses: those moments of reading when the light changes, some darker lustre takes over, things (words) seems suddenly obscure, even in the simplest sentence, and you find you have to look twice, more than twice.

“Suppose…” (which draws its title from Gertrude Stein) takes an intriguing approach to its subject, which is, fairly obviously, the sentence. Working chronologically, Dillon gathers together groups of words he’s recorded in notebooks over the years and explores what makes them so special. They’re sentences which resonated with him for one reason or another, lodging in the brain and demanding to be recorded; and the authors range from Shakespeare at the start (and in many ways I suppose, he *is* the start of things) to a final piece on Anne Boyer. In between the two, in pieces ranging from less than a page to several, Dillon takes in a dazzling array of writers. Donne, De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, Ruskin, Stein, Woolf, Bowen, Didion, Barthes, Sontag – well, you see why I was so keen to read it.

The sentence demands patience; it is like waiting for a photograph to develop.

Dillon’s angle on his sentences varies a little from piece to piece; but one thing this isn’t is a book about only about the structure of a sentence. He does dip lightly into linguistics, but he’s really more interested in exploring the context of his particular choices and the effects they have on the reader. Often the sentence will stretch outside its proper structure, testing the bounds of grammar and how a sentence is *supposed* to be constructed; and as I dislike regimentation in writing I found that refreshing. The sentence can be such a varied form – which is quite clear from this book – and although Proust is not present here, the book did set me off thinking about the complex and labyrinthine structure of his writing which really is an art in itself

Maybe the world of the novel – and maybe the world – is like a densely woven fabric, and the best we can do is pick at its pattern in one place, hoping thereby to comprehend the whole.

Like all good essayists, the personal is present as Dillon explores his relationship to the authors and the sentences, and when they might have appeared in his life. He’s always an engaging narrator, throwing out clever and provocative ideas, and the book ended up being a wonderfully stimulating read. It’s fascinating how focusing on just one sentence can be used to bring such insight into that author’s work; but each set of words, whether short or long, is distinctive and deserving of such close study. The book is riddled with references to favourite writers and their work, making it impossible to pick out favourites; it has to be seen as a whole. I was, however, particularly struck by his reaction to Elizabeth Bowen; her writing about her trip to Italy was for him, like me, a recent discovery. And I had a ‘yes!’ moment when Dillon pointed out how like Montaigne was Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill“; which I hadn’t realised at the time, not having yet read Montaigne himself. However, it also introduced me to some new authors, which will necessitate a little exploring…

… ‘phrase-maker’ ought to be an admiring term of art, not an insult reserved for writers who are judged insufficiently robust, altogether too transported by language.

I have to confess to being someone who is seduced by the power of words, and I love nothing better than a good sentence. To me, much current writing suffers from the loss of a decent sentence; short, staccato phrases don’t usually have the same effect and this is probably why I find a lot of modern books thin and unexciting. I suppose the question has to be asked – how do Dillon’s sentences stand up to scrutiny? Well, I found them to be a thing of great joy; he really knows how to string a good one together himself. And in the same way that Dillon picked out his sentences over the years, I found myself marking his to be saved in notebooks (as you can see from the sheaf of post-its…); a good phrase or expression is always worth recording.

Suppose a Post-it….

So “Suppose a Sentence” was everything I wanted it to be; snapshots of the work of a fascinating range of writers (several new to me); a book about words and their meanings and the effects they can have on you; and a wide ranging look at the sentences our fellow humans have felt the need to pen over the centuries. It’s also very brilliantly structured in a way about which I shall say no more… And it’s one of those very dangerous books which you finish reading with a whole list of works you want to check out (and the notes at the back help with that…) It sent me running off to check I still had some of the below lying about and also is responsible for one of these arriving to swell the tbr…

Suppose an Influence… I had a minor panic when I thought I’d donated De Quincey, but luckily hadn’t. The Hogg I already owned. The Schwob was a gift. The Jaeggy is new…

I’ve read quite a number of Fitzcarraldo Editions this year, and I haven’t been disappointed once. “Suppose a Sentence” comes with a number of (well-deserved) plaudits for its author (and I would agree with John Banville’s description of Dillon as a ‘literary flaneur’). It’s very much a book for lovers of words and reading; and if you like essays, writing, books, language or simply to have your thoughts provoked, then I highly recommend “Suppose a Sentence” – a wonderful read!

“Suppose a Sentence” will be released by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 23rd September; many thanks to the publishers and Clare Bogen for kindly providing a review copy.

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.” #WITMonth #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Annie Ernaux is an award-winning French author whose works have been making their way into the Anglophone world over recent years, most notably in the UK via the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions. Originally pitching her literary talents towards fiction, she switched to autobiographical works and these are the ones which most British readers would recognise – books like “I Remain in Darkness” and “The Years” have garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. Her most recent release via Fitzcarraldo is “A Girl’s Story” and, as an Ernaux virgin, I was very happy to be offered a copy by the publisher to cover for #WITmonth.

From what I’ve read about Ernaux’s books, they don’t mince their words; and “A Girl’s Story” is no exception. It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognise how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

The effects of the summer of 1958 are devastating, and Annie D. (Duschesne, as she was then) loses contact with H. at the end of the summer, and is rejected by the camp when she applies to be an instructor the following year. Instead, she spends time as an au pair in London, where her behaviour is still off-kiltre. She’s a self-obsessed young person, as so many are, with little knowledge of what’s happening in real life and a kind of blindness when it comes to major world events; she’s locked inside her head, fixated on her own emotions.

The cover of the US edition from Seven Stories Press

In itself, “A Girl’s Story” is an important book; in many ways, it could every woman’s story, as most of us have at some point faced abuse from men, whether verbal, physical, emotional or simply derision. As Ernaux comments at one point in the story (when both male and female instructors are mocking a letter of Annie’s which has been found and displayed on a noticeboard):

When I go back over the corridor scene, little by little, the girl in the middle becomes depersonalized, is no longer me or even Annie D. What happened in the corridor at the camp takes us back to time immemorial, all over the planet. Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.

And how many naive young women have become obsessed by an older man who seems to be some kind of ideal, yet has little interest in them and casts them off when they’ve got what they want? But there’s something deeper at work in Ernaux’s writing as she tackles her past. Her narrative form is unusual; she distances herself from her past self, telling Annie D.’s story in the third person as if they were two separate people (which I suppose, in some ways, they are). It seems as if she’s conflicted, unable or unwilling to get into the mindset of the girl of summer 1958, yet trying to do just that. As she wrestles with herself, it’s as if she’s spent the intervening years trying to completely bury her memories and that part of her past and move on. However, the experience has marked her and stayed with her and she’s still unable to let go of it.

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all. What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?

Knowledge is control, I suppose; and by writing about her past and exploring the way memory works, Ernaux is trying to take back control over herself and the way she was perceived, control which she certainly didn’t have at the time. In retrospect, a young girl from a repressed household with a controlling mother, no wordly knowledge and no experience of men was a lamb to the slaughter and never should have been sent to the summer camp. But she was, and she had these vile experiences which had tainted her life, and this is, I suppose, Ernaux’s reckoning with them.

How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, the ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

The things which happen to us when we’re young and impressionable *do* stay with us; and traumatic events like those which were inflicted on Annie D. couldn’t help but have a lasting effect. Fascinatingly, Ernaux traces the start of her writing life back to these events, as if they made her the woman she is – which seems to be a powerful, honest and confessional writer. She also captures the attitudes of the times quite brilliantly; the double standards applied to women, the expectations of their behaviour, and the casual misogyny which existed. “A Girl’s Story” is a vivid, often harrowing and yet inspiring book, as Annie D. suvived the events of the summer of 1958 and moved on to become the author which Annie Ernaux is. “A Girl’s Story” is a multi-layered read, looking not only at the events of the summer of 1958 and how they affected her; it also looks at issues around memory, trauma, blinkered perceptions and how we can totally submit our willpower to another human. It’s a compelling and unforgettable book, a chronicle of its era in many ways, and Ernaux is obviously an author I will need to explore further…

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

“Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things” #saramago #spanishlitmonth

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All the Names by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Why is it that reading Jose Saramago emotionally wrecks me?? I first encountered him back in 2018, when I read and raved about his “Death at Intervals“; I absolutely adored it, and the ending so floored me that I had to sit down and do some deep breathing… In fact, I may have gone back and re-read it several times! Since then, I’ve amassed several of his books but haven’t yet picked another up; I think possibly I was a little scared in case it didn’t live up to “Death…” However, I was impelled to pick up a copy of “All the Names” fairly recently when I read about it somewhere online; and I wish I could remember where, but anyway, it really sounded like it might have the same effect on me. And when Stu said that special dispensation could be given to reading Saramago during Spanish Lit Month, despite the fact he wrote in Portugese, this was definitely the book I was going to pick up!

Saramago was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and “All the Names” was his thirteenth novel, first published in 1997. It’s set in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of an unspecified city; the Registry is a heirarchical, old fashioned establishment with, it’s impossible not to say, very Kafkaesque (or possibly Gormenghastian) features. Holding the archive of records for the city stretching back endlessly into the past, it’s run on a rigidly ordered structure, with status cascading down from the all powerful Registrar through the different strata of clerks. This kind of bureacracy will be quite familiar to anyone who’s worked in offices or government departments, I’m sure…

There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe…

Our protagonist is one Senhor José, a lowly general clerk on the bottom rung of the ladder; aged around 50 and timid, he’s also the only remaining clerk to live in a hovel attached to the Registry, the last one of a whole set where clerks used to live. His life is existence in the most basic sense, governed by the rules and regulations of the registry to whom he gives his all; and his only hobby is secretly collecting data on famous people. As Senhor José’s home is attached to the Registry and has the only other entrance to it, he’s able to sneak in after hours to collect the data cards on the celebrities. But one night, by pure chance, he picks up an extra record card with the bundle of celebrities, that of an unknown woman. This simple action sends his life off track, as he decides to investigate and track down the woman from the meagre information the Registry holds; and the investigation will cause our poor timid clerk to go off in some very odd directions!

That simple description belies the complexity and sheer genius of “All the Names”, which is just as frankly brilliant as “Death at Intervals”. Saramago’s unique, ostensibly meandering, sinuous sentence structure is well to the fore, and he does, of course, do without most conventional punctuation. I don’t find this makes him at all difficult to read; on the contrary, I think the way he writes has much to do with the impact of his stories, as the cumulative effect of the narrative building up means that his endings are quietly devastating. I also find it a joy to read.

… a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace…

Then there’s his description, and the way he builds up the world in which his story takes place. Here, much is obviously set in the vast labyrinthine structure of the Registry, which is wonderfully conjured and almost a character in its own right. The records are divided into two parts, and of course the section for the dead *will* keep increasing; hence the back wall is constantly having to be demolished (so that the area can be extended) and then rebuilt. This has resulted in a maze-like setting of old papers which is so warren-like that no archivist sets out to explore it without an Ariadne’s thread in the form of a ball of string attached to the ankle so they can find their way back… The regulations are strict, often petty, and work is done with pen and ink, despite progress.

Intriguingly, as we follow Senhor José on his investigations, we see more of the city. He tries to build up a picture of the women, visiting her godmother, breaking into her old school (and having to explore more dusty archives!) and eventually discovering that the Registry has a twin in the city – the Cemetery, which is subject to similar hierarchies to the Registry, and also struggles with a similar problem of expansion, so that its walls have simply been removed and it spreads where it needs to. Here, Senhor José will encounter the physical records of the dead as well as encountering a very singular shepherd in the morning mist and what are probably metaphorical sheep!

It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victims according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the innumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their very natural fear of dying.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the book, because I’ve found that much the joy of reading Saramago comes from having no idea where he will take you, or how he’ll end his story – both of the books I’ve read have had unexpected conclusions which took my breath away. And yet, once you’ve got there, the ending is the right one, and the only possible one.

... the one certainty we have, that we were, are and will be dust, and that we will be lost in another night as dark as that first night.

“All the Names” is, of course, very allegorical; and like “Death…” is more that just an entertaining tale. The whole concept of naming things is very human, and in fact is often equated with an act of creation. It’s also a way of humanising and therefore personalising people, things, places; and remembering names of those missing or lost under totalitarian regimes is a powerful way of keeping them alive in our memories. This, of course, gives the Registry considerable power; and presiding over the various clerks is the unusual and compelling figure of the current Registrar. He’s an intriging figure in his own right; about as far away and out of reach of Senhor José as you would think is possible, nevertheless at points in the book he breaks protocol and addresses our hero directly. It seems he may have an unexpected effect on events. It’s worth noting, too, that name-wise, Senhor José is the only character in the book to have one. Everyone else either has a title, such as the Registrar, or a description, like the lady in the ground-floor apartment, which certainly serves to give our José prominence!

Jose Saramago c. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Once more, I was completely seduced by Saramago’s writing, and I think I’ll have a book hangover for ages now. “All the Names” is such a multilayered book, one with so many hidden depths and which I think is really not about what it initially seems to be. Why *should* a meek clerk develop such an obsession with a woman he’s never seen? One character calls it love, and certainly that emotion seemed me to be at the heart of “Death at Intervals”, much as it is here. I love Saramago’s way of building in deeper issues in a quirky way; for example, in the sections where Senhor José has philosophical conversations with his ceiling! It’s one of those books which you could spend so much time on, trying to pick up every little nuance and reference (now there’s a retirement project for me); but briefly it seemed to me to be an entertaining yet profound exploration of the boundaries between the living and the dead (which become blurred not only in the Registry but also in the Cemetery…) “All the Names” was the perfect read for Spanish Lit Month, and I’m so glad Stu decided to allow Portugese books, because I loved this and it will join “Death at Intervals” on my desert island books list! 😀

“The mirror reflected his image disinterestedly.” #henryparland #topieces @norvikpress

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To Pieces by Henry Parland
Translated by Dinah Cannell

You might recall me reviewing back in June a wonderful pair of books for Shiny New Books, issued by Norvik Press. The duo of modernist works by pioneering women authors (Hagar Olsson and Karin Boye) were excellent reads and really opened my eye to a whole strand of Scandinavian literature of which I hadn’t really been aware before. I was so impressed by the books that I felt moved to go and have a look at Norvik’s back catalogue – which was probably a mistake… One book was ordered straight away; another couple are en route; and this is obviously going to be an imprint which very much appeals to me!

The first book I was drawn to is “To Pieces” by Henry Parland, an author I’d not come across before. Born in Vyborg 1908, he had an intriguing background; his early years were spent in St. Petersburg and Kiev, where he spoke Russian and German. Come the Russian Revolution, the family decamped to Helsinki, where he attended first a Finnish School, then a Swedish school and finally the University of Helsinki, becoming a writer in the Swedish language. He was part of the avant-garde in that city, publishing one poetry collection during his lifetime – Idealrealisation (1929) – before dying tragically young of Scarlet Fever in 1930. He had been working on his novel “To Pieces” at the time of his death, which was left unfinished.

It’s striking how many of the Scandinavian avant-garde writers I’ve encountered recently had short lives; Karin Boye took her own life, and Edith Sodergran (who’s in my line of sight at the moment) died of TB at the age of 31. Used as we have been in the modern times to longer lives and effective medicine, it’s a timely reminder of our human mortality. But I digress…

As I mentioned, “To Pieces” was left unfinished on Parland’s death, but as the afterword by Per Stam reveals, the book went through a long chain of publication in various forms before it reached this definitive critical edition in 2005; and that’s the version which has been translated by Dinah Cannell and published by Norvik. The book is a short work (106 pages) and is narrated by a young man called Henry. As the book opens he’s recalling a disastrous love-affair, attempting to reconnect with his death lover Ami by developing photographs he took of her. He talks to these, they seem to talk back, and he goes over the story of their problematic love and constant misunderstandings.

Henry is something of a man at a loss. Struggling to make ends meet, speculating with his money and having to constantly negotiate credit, an affair with a woman like Ami and her expensive tastes is not the best thing for him. They’re drawn together, yet it seems that they have little in common, and the book follows the developments and then reverses in their relationship. When Ami dies of some kind of fever (and this is no spoiler, because she is obviously dead as the book opens) there is an inevitability; and bearing in mind Parland’s eventual fate, a horrible poignancy. Having recounted the end of the affair, the second part of the book sees Henry recalling their initial meeting and how random was the chain of events which led to this. A reminder, perhaps, of how arbitrary life really is.

…if, ignoring the anxious feeling that always grabs me by the scruff of the neck when I let the memory in, I dwell on it for a moment instead and let it expand to fill the full space of my imagination, the shutter-like structures in my consciousness suddenly slide aside as I, unimpeded, move among the events of that summer. All I need to do now is bend down and pick up one situation or another from the ground to feel how it wriggles through my fingers and then, with some reluctance, eventually settles down submissively on the pages of this book.

Simply looked at as a story, “To Pieces” is moving and poignant, and a marvellous portrait of the life of the times; with the loosening of society’s restrictions, visits to the beach, dancing and drinking and cinema-going, this is a world which seems very modern. However, what takes the book to another level is its experimental nature; Parland uses fragments of memories and meditations on photography to explore the relationship between Henry and Ami; and he often imbues objects with feelings and needs in a most engaging way. The writing is particularly atmospheric, with beautiful imagery and metaphor.

Photography, in particular, is a touchstone throughout the book, with Henry using the close study of the photos he develops as a way to reconnect with Ami and see her more clearly than he did in real life. The descriptions of the whole developing process have an almost sensual quality, as if Henry is using this as a metaphor for his love for her. This is one of many elements of modernity in the book; telephones, too, play a major part, with much of the communication between the lovers being phone conversations; and in fact Henry hears about Ami’s death by telephone. It’s often very meta; and frankly, what’s not to love about a book which open with a chapter titled “The writer inspects himself in the mirror”?

Henry Parland in the 1920s (Anonymous Unknown author / Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“To Pieces” is a fascinating book, and despite the label ‘modernist’ is very readable. There are many layers to the story, and Parland provides the book with a motto hinting at a plagiarism of Proust; certainly memory is the thread which runs through the book. Stam’s afterword discusses many of these layers, as well as providing context and the history of the book’s long journey to a finished form. The question has to be asked as to whether, with a first-person narrator called Henry Parland, this is autofiction, and I can’t answer that – it would probably take a biography to reveal the solution, and there *isn’t* much available about Parland in English that I can find. Whether it is or not, “To Pieces” is not only an excellent piece of short fiction, it’s also a study of the process of storytelling, of the tricks of memory, with the narrator often standing back at a distance, stepping outside of his tale to comment on what he’s doing and the way he’s constructing his past. I picked Parland’s book up at random, liking the sound of it; and I’m so glad I did as it was a most enjoyable and stimulating read. It’s a tragedy that he died so young, leaving such a small body of work, but at least we have this book; and I do wish his poetry wasn’t so hard to get hold of… 😦

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