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Exploring Zoshchenko’s wonderful Russian satire @ColumbiaUP @shinynewbooks #zoshchenko #borisdralyuk

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I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to review some wonderful volumes in the Columbia University Press Russian Library over the past year or so for Shiny New Books; and I’m delighted that my review of a very special book is up today over at Shiny!

Mikhail Zoshchenko is one of Russia’s best-loved satirists; his “Scenes from a Bathhouse” is probably the title most known in English (and I do have a copy somewhere in the stacks…). “Sentimental Tales” is a newly selected and translated collection of linked tales, rendered beautifully in English by Boris Dralyuk, and it’s a real treat.

The Russian Library books are beautiful to look at and contain some marvellous gems – although I think this might be the jewel in the crown so far! You can read my review on Shiny here, and I can’t recommend this one enough! 🙂

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Plans? What plans?? #WITmonth

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It’s no great secret that reading plans and I don’t get on that well together. More often than not if I make a schedule, join a challenge or even just try to think a few books ahead to what I’ll be reading next it all tends to go straight out of the window while I follow some random reading whim. However! August is Women in Translation month and I *do* always try to join in with that one – particularly as I read a lot of translated work and a lot of women’s writing!

So here is a little pile of possibles off the TBR which may attract my attention during this month. You’ll see one book which ticks the box for another August event – All Virago, All August, a little challenge by the members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. This takes in Viragos, other books by Virago authors and Persephones too, and although I don’t commit to reading only those for the month I do try to enjoy at least one title. And the Triolet counts for WIT too so that would be ideal. Although a re-read of the Colette is very tempting. And I love Tsvetaeva at the moment so her diaries would be fab. And the others sound great too…

However, this is the book I’m currently reading and loving, and so as it will be the first book I finish and review in August, it will also definitely be my first WIT book!

Unfortunately, there are other volumes vying for my attention… As I was having a rummage for WIT titles I came across a few others which caught my eye:

The Spark, of course, would tie in with HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration. The Baudelaire is Baudelaire and therefore needs no explanation. And the Malcolm Bradbury was mentioned on the From First Page to Last blog and I recalled I had a copy which I have now found! It’s set in a university and since I find universities and academics endlessly fascinating (probably because I never went to one…) it sounds like I really might enjoy it.

And then there are the review books lurking:

And don’t they look pretty and appealing, and I wish I could read them all in one go… Fortunately, I shall be doing some train travelling this month which may mean that I can get through a few of these titles while on the road (or the rails…). Come to think of it, Catherine the Great’s letters would count for WIT month as well, wouldn’t they??? 😀

So lots of choices again, alas. Are you planning any Women in Translation books this month, or any Viragos? Are you a planner or do you just follow your reading whims? Do tell! 🙂

Postcards from the edge

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A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp

Angela Carter and I have had a somewhat up and down relationship recently. I was always convinced I loved her work, but my reading of “The Passion of New Eve” shook that conviction a little. However, good relations were restored when I had a wonderful reading experience with “Fireworks”, and so I’m now once again convinced that I really do enjoy her books!

I do still have a number of Carter titles lurking, but for some reason this little book caught my eye recently – why I picked it up at this particular moment in time I have no idea, but it turned out to be the perfect read at the perfect time.

Susanna Clapp, Carter’s friend and literary executor, had received a number of postcards from the author over the years, and after Carter’s death she revisited these. Using them as a jumping off point, she recreates the woman she knew in what are in effect a series of snapshots, stimulated by the postcards themselves. Some of the postcard images are reproduced in the book (albeit in black and white) which adds an extra element.

What emerges is a moving and surprisingly detailed portrait of the Angela Carter that Clapp knew; with all her faults, idiosyncracies, humour and insight on show, the book gives us a privileged peek into Carter’s personality. The book is only 103 pages long, but somehow feels as if it reveals the real person behind the public persona; the short reminiscences build up a remarkably vivid portrait of a strong and striking woman. And Clapp reminds us of what a transgressive writer Carter was, spelling out just how radical her prose and her concepts could be:

Let us allow Bluebeard’s last victim to be rescued not by a man but by her mother. Let us load the prose with red stains and howls, wet lips and shudders, and make evident what is buried in the stories we read to our children. Let us take the girls of traditional fairy tale and give them some force of character…

Her political affiliations are shown, too, and one particularly outstanding quote reminds us that in the 1980s Carter was saying very prophetically,

The worst things are things we probably don’t know about. They’re to do with surveillance and they’re to do with the Secret Service, and they’re to do with the inaccessibility of information…

Plus ca change…

Susannah Clapp does not shy away from showing us Carter in her last days, as her health failed on the way to her tragically early death; and the final sequences relating her funeral and memorial are desperately poignant. However, what remained with me most strongly from reading this little gem of a book is the image of a fiercely intelligent, yet somehow vulnerable woman who lived life her own way and created the books she wanted to create. It’s an essential read for anyone who loves Carter’s work and has definitely increased my eagerness to get more of those books of hers off the shelves.

“Let’s Do It A Dada” @almaclassics #dada

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Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries by Tristan Tzara
Translated by Barbara Wright

What, exactly, is Dada? A good question, really. Dada is everything and nothing; Dada is playful yet profound; Dada is deep as well as superficial; Dada is all of those things or none of those things. Or maybe not… 😀

Striking cover featuring Picabia art, designed by Will Dady at Alma

The Wikipedia definition of the Dada movement describes it as consisting of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. The art of the movement spanned visual, literary, and sound media, including collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.

Tzara was a key figure in the movement and is sometimes credited in coming up with the name for the group. However, the word Dada has a number of different meanings in several other languages and the etymology of the movement’s title is disputed! This volume, from the Calder collection and reprinted in a lovely edition from Alma Classics, contains a number of Dada manifestos written by Tzara over the years, as well as a series entitled “Lampisteries” – and it’s a bracing and stimulating read.

Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation.

The manifestos are mostly short, written usually to be read out loud and yet featuring some fascinating typographical effects. They span the years 1916 to 1921, showing how Tzara’s view of the movement changed and evolved; and although they initially seem a little nonsensical, it soon becomes clear that they are anything but.

What are Beauty, Truth, Art, Good, Liberty? Words which have a different meaning for every individual. Words which claim to make everybody agree, which is why they’re usually written with capital letters.

Tzara rejects the norm, challenges the status quo and states the case for dismantling all the artistic certainties which have gone before. And out of this chaos and nonsense come truths – you read on and suddenly phrases jump out at you, making perfect sense and forcing you to reappraise what you’ve accepted up until now. The manifestos are contrary and contradictory, yet always invigorating.

The miracle. I open my heart to creation.

The manifestos are also surprisingly modern and relevant; a discussion of poetry and art early in the book rings true today, and when instructing how to create Dada poetry, he sets out the use of cut-ups decades before Burroughs and Gysin, then David Bowie, made them fashionable. Tzara’s writings are also surprisingly funny, although I suppose I should have expected this from a movement that wanted to tear up the past and produce a lot of nonsense!

So life is cheap. Death is a bit more expensive. But life is charming and death is equally charming.

The second part of the book contains Tzara’s “Lampisteries” and a translator’s note explains that a lampiste makes lamps, but the word is slang for a scapegoat. However, interestingly enough, to my English-speaking brain the word also suggests lampoon which is quite apt for Dada…

You know very well that this species is only distinguished from others by its mania for writing and reading books.

Tzara’s “Lampisteries” are short, poetic, artistic responses to different art forms rather than a formal ‘review’ and this is again a very modern conceit. He’s pungent and pithy, attempting to get under the skin of whatever he’s writing about, sharing his reaction to it and by doing do so creating another work of art himself. The language is often beautiful and the writing never dull; and the amount of phrases I’ve pulled out is testament to the unexpected depth on display here.

Tzara by Robert Delaunay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I’ve always had an interest in Dada, I hadn’t actually read many works by members of the group (all I can be sure of is having read Breton’s “Nadja” many moons ago); that’s my loss, if this book is anything to judge by. The Alma edition comes with illustrations by Francis Picabia, another leading figure in the movement, and the lovely cover design is by Will Dady at Alma. Translator Barbara Wright was well-known for her translations of French surrealist and existential writing, and has made numerous appearances on the blog for her work with Raymond Queneau’s writings. She obviously did another marvellous job with Tzara’s work, and the book contains details of original publication dates and locations at the end.

Dada was a much too wide-ranging a movement to really do justice in a short review; a quick online search reveals myriad sources and resources, which could create a few dangerous research wormholes in which to get stuck… However, this book is a welcome reissue by Alma and a wonderful place to start if you want to begin exploring the wild, bracing and never dull world of Dada!

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

And just for the hell of it, here’s Blixa and the gang blasting out one of my favourite Einstürzende Neubauten songs that just might have a relevant title….

Surreal, strange, satirical – and very, very entertaining! @AmpersandPubLtd

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Yes, I’m still on the little books – well, I do like things which are small but perfectly formed!! Ampersand, as well as kindly sending me “The Sisters” plus two other lovely book in the classics range, have also provided a further two classics – not an obvious pairing of authors, perhaps, but both remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking!

The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

Swift, of course, is the author of “Gulliver’s Travels” (which has a significant part to play in part one of the Utopia documentary – probably still on the iPlayer, if you haven’t caught it yet) and he was very well-known for his satire. “Battle” is often appended to “A Tale of a Tub” but here gets to stand apart and be appreciated in its own right. The dispute in question is between Ancient and Modern literature, and Swift took up his pen in defence of Sir William Temple (for whom he was working as a secretary). Temple had written an essay on the subject, declaring that the Moderns were merely standing on the shoulders of giants, and much controversy followed. Swift took things a little further, however, and his imagery of Ancient learning encased in books chained down in libraries certainly had me grinning.

Now, it must be here understood, that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines.

Charles Jervas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The book is full of humour and allegory, parodying heroic works, but with the books mustering their forces and leading the battle. The concept of a book of Homer astride a horse, slaying authors and critics left and right, is certainly fun, but like all satire Swift has many layers to his work. Inserted into the middle of the story is a parable of a bee and a spider; the former gathers from nature and creates something new like the Ancients, whereas the spider absorbs and regurgitates (often unpleasant substances) like the Moderns. Modern critics were included in with the latter, and so Swift was presumably aiming his satire very specifically…

It’s all great fun, and a reminder what a wonderful writer Swift was. Definitely worth checking out!

The Stories and Adventures of the Baron d’Ormesan by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Elliot Koubis and Iris Colomb

Apollinaire is, of course, best known for his poetry (and I’m *still* convinced I should have a collection of his works in the house somewhere). However, until I had a look at the Ampersand site, I don’t think I was aware that he’d also written prose; and this collection brings together all of his short stories about a very slippery character known as the Baron d’Ormesan.

Guillaume Apollinaire [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Baron started life as a classmate of the narrator; however, he reappears in the latter’s life reinvented as the Baron d’Ormesan with a rather intriguing career. His apparent occupation as a tour guide is in fact a kind of flaneury, maybe even an early form of psychogeography, although it isn’t long before the Baron’s criminal tendencies show through. He continues to flit in and out of the life of the narrator in ever more outlandish forms with a series of  adventures culminating in an almost sci-fi tale of holographic projection – which is rather the undoing of things. The interim stories take in thieving, murder and cannibalism and the larger than life character of the Baron is very, very entertaining.

… I thought about this long-lost friend, whose habits and imagination, although invariably unsettling, had always captivated my interest. The fondness which had drawn me to him when he was my fellow classmate at school, and his name was simply Dormesan; the many times we met and I was able to appreciate his peculiar character; his lack of scruples; a certain chaotic erudition, and a most agreeable kindness or spirit; all of these things made me feel, occasionally, something akin to a desire to see him again.

As I was reading these stories, something was niggling at my brain; and I eventually realised there was an elusive quality about them that was vaguely reminiscent of Blaise Cendrar’s “Dan Yack” stories: the fantastical exploits, the lack of morality in the main character, the ever-more extreme escapades as the book went on. And interestingly, when I had a little search online it appears that the men were indeed acquainted… Maybe the times conspired to have a certain kind of story coming to the fore, and it seems that Cendrars also influenced Apollinaire’s poetic style too ! Who knew? (Well – not me, obviously….)

These two lovely little editions from Ampersand really did make fascinating reading. I love being able to read obscure classics which have slipped out of the mainstream, and both Swift and Apollinaire are fine authors. If you haven’t already checked out Ampersand I’d highly recommend their books – both aesthetically and for the content! 🙂

Why a visit to London is *very* dangerous for a bibliophile… #bookfinds

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Those of you who follow me on social media might have noticed I shared a little photo of a pile of books in the lovely Foyles cafe yesterday. I met up with my dear friend J. for a day out to celebrate the start of the summer break (a little tradition we seem to be developing), and by that point we were hot and laden with books. I’m afraid this is going to be a bit of a book haul post, as we *both* got a little carried away!

The joy of train travelling is being able to read – I devoured this marvellous book over the outward and return journey!

Often we meet up with a tight agenda of an exhibition to see and specific places to go, but yesterday we’d kept things loose. I had specifically said I wanted to pop into the British Library – apart from the fact it’s just a place of worship for anyone who loves books, they had a little display in their Treasure Room devoted to Karl and Eleanor Marx. Both are fascinating figures, and I recall in my teens seeing a rather wonderful BBC drama on the life of Eleanor. So we started at the BL (after a stop for coffee and stationery in Tottenham Court Road) and the Treasure Room was just wonderful. I found it ridiculously exciting to see Marx’s Reading Room slip from all those decades ago and the whole room itself is inspirational. As I pointed out to J., there was a perfect trio of manuscripts for us on display next to each other in one of the cases – Woolf, Peake and Plath. Such an inspirational place to visit, and we managed to successfully get out of the shop without purchasing after spending some time admiring a lovely display of British Library Crime Classics!

In keeping with our plan of no real plan, we ambled off and J. suggested that as we were quite close to Skoob Books we could drop in. It’s a dangerous place which I’ve only visited once, but I couldn’t resist the idea. However, as we flaneured our way in the general direction of the Brunswick Centre we happened upon a likely looking bookshop I don’t think I’ve been aware of before – Judd Books in Marchmont Street. It would of course have been rude not to go in and so we did. And this was the result for me…

The shop is a mixture of second-hand and what look to me to be remaindered books, including a lot of US editions, and was oh! so tempting. I was distracted by a number of titles, but ended up with the two above. I couldn’t not come home with the Orwell – ’nuff said. As for Khodasevich’s poems, that one was a must. I’ve only stumbled across him recently and whilst havering away trying to decide I flicked through the book. A stunning poem called “Look for Me” hit me in the eye and I was sold. It’s a beautiful hardback Overlook/Ardis edition in dual language, with translations by Peter Daniels, and so even though I can’t read Russian I can gaze in awe at the beauty of the cyrillic script while appreciating the efforts of Daniels. J. was very happy with Judd as well as she tracked down a lovely hardback edition of Willa Cather’s letters from her wishlist. So we thought this was a propitious start and drifted on in the direction of Skoob.

And as you can see, I didn’t get out unscathed… The Machado de Assis was a no-brainer as I’ve really enjoyed all of his books I’ve read so far, plus it’s a pretty little Peter Owen edition. The Maigret has a relevant year to an upcoming event (!) – plus will also give me a chance to try one of the new translations. I thought I was getting off quite lightly until I saw the Penguin Russian Writing Today anthology on my way to the till. Oh well…. J. was even happier than earlier as she found a nice edition of a Cather novel she doesn’t have – it was a Cather kind of day for her.

After this it was a bus to Foyles for tea and regrouping. Foyles itself (and its tea!) is always such a delight, and I was sorely tempted by a gigantic biography of Eleanor Marx (a Verso edition) but decided that my shoulders wouldn’t take it. J. however was seduced by a Thames and Hudson book on Frida Kahlo (we’re visiting the V& exhibition later in the year) so added to her bulging rucksack. We decided to take a break from bookshops and trotted (well, strolled at a very leisurely pace) down Charing Cross Road to make a detour into the Cas art shop (again, I bought nothing although J. invested in some art materials) and then on into the National Portrait Gallery.

This was just a flying visit, as we both have a fondness for the wonderful Allan Ramsay self-portrait that hangs there and always pop into the NPG to say hello. As the heat was increasing, we decided to bus back up to Tottenham Court Road and got distracted again by a shop called Hema – a new one to us, but it had Stationery Which Could Not Be Resisted – oh dear… After more drinks and sitting down, we decided we were too close to the LRB bookshop and the craft shop next door to say no, and paid both a visit. Again, I succeeded in restraint, but our decision to drop by the lovely Bloomsbury Oxfam was not so successful…

I thought the two Bowles books I own comprised her meagre published output, but not so it seems. This lovely volume from Sort Of collects stories, plays, sketches and letters. Again, not to be resisted…

We had just about reached our limit of endurance of heat and heavy bags, but I was still vaguely irked that the only options for books about Eleanor Marx were mahoosive. So I persuaded J. into Bookmarks, the left-wing bookstore over the road and hurrah!

Bookmarks publish a little series of “Rebel’s Guide” books and one of their subjects was indeed Eleanor Marx! It was the last copy left and of a much more manageable size!

So these were my bookish purchases yesterday:

And I don’t regret a single one! However, the story doesn’t end there, because J. arrived with some books for me which were charity shop finds she’d read and was passing on to me. However, she didn’t tell me she was bringing six.… And unfortunately I hadn’t brought a backpack so she very bravely and stoutly carted them round all day until we exchanged books at the end of the day (I had brought one for her to borrow) – now that’s friendship. And here they are:

There are only five in the picture as one of the six was a return of my copy of Guard Your Daughters which J. had borrowed.

Phew! Four nice BLCCs and a lovely Virago edition of Gertrude Stein – how wonderful! But how heavy!! They took a bit of lugging home, I can tell you…

The blog’s trusty tote guarding the books while I have a meal in Leon!

Fortunately, I had come armed with my trusty KBR tote – a gift from Middle Child which always goes to London with me, and which although small is perfectly formed and manages to hold a surprising number of books; and also enables effective smuggling of them past OH who was feeling vaguely tense at the arrival of the six from J. There was a reason for this, as a package had arrived while I was away gallivanting containing these:

I think the BL are going into overdrive, but I’m always delighted to have review books from them – these two are out in September, and I’m very keen to read them, as Symons’ books were about a lot in my younger years. However, I can empathise a little with OH’s concern – he muttered something about having to build an annexe to the house and he has a point. I think this summer will need to see a little more pruning of books….

But all in all it  was a lovely (if warm) day out in London. It’s always wonderful to meet up with an old friend, and J. is great company. I need to put in a word for the Leon chain of restaurants too – a recent discovery for me and to which I was introduced by J. I paid two visits yesterday – one so that J. could get a late breakfast, and one for a meal later before journeying home. Their vegan options are excellent and well worth a visit!

Meantime, I need to have another bit of a book shuffle – oh dear…. =:o

Penguin Moderns 11 and 12 – Myths, injustice and unexpected beauty

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And onwards I go, into the second fifth of the Penguin Modern boxed set! I thought I’d leave things a little while so as not to get jaded with just reading short works, but after the bulk of “The Aviator” these (and the recent Maigret) were a pleasant contrast. Again, two books with not much in common, but nevertheless powerful works despite their slim size.

Penguin Modern 11 – The Legend of the Sleepers by Danilo Kis

Kis is another author I’ve read before, and in fact I reviewed the collection from which the two stories featured here are drawn “The Encyclopedia of the Dead“) back on 2016. Kis was a Serbian writer and “Dead” was his final work, initially published in 1983. It’s a varied collection, taking in myths and legends, fantasies, realism and stories which deal with the art of words. The two texts chosen for this Penguin Modern are the title story and “Simon Magus”, both of which have a common theme of re-telling ancient legends.

By Marina Kalezić [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

As I commented when reading the full collection, the stories are full of allusion and references, multi-layered and beautifully written; in fact, the language in “Sleepers” is particularly striking with its flowing repetitions creating memorable images. I had intended back in 2016 that I’d go on to read more of the Kis I have on Mount TBR; that never happened, but this is a reminder that I really should…

Penguin Modern 12 – The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison

And now an author new to me. Ralph Ellison is an American author best know for his book “Invisible Man” (which I’m sure I have a copy of *somewhere* in the house). Like so many writers, he’s one I’ve always meant to read but never got round to, so I was happy to be poked with the Penguin Modern stick into making his acquaintance.

By United States Information Agency staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

PM12 contains four of Ellison’s shorter works – the title story, “Boy on a Train”, “Hymie’s Bull” and “In a Strange Country”, and they’re all absolutely stunning. I suspect I may possibly have come across “Hymie’s Bull” at some point in my reading life, as it was vaguely familiar, telling as it does the tale of some men hopping freight trains across America and the violent men they meet along the way who are out to stop them. “Boy on a Train”, an ostensibly simple tale of a widow and her two boys travelling home in a segregated train was desperately poignant (and I suspect, from a quick look at Ellison’s Wikipedia entry, may draw on his own life.) “The Black Ball” is a fascinating story, highlighting a complex distrust of the white man, as a black worker struggles to accept that a white union man has any interest in helping him.

The sun was a big globe in the west that seemed to drop away like a basketball toward a basket, and the freight seemed to be trying to catch it before it got there. You could see large swarms of flies following the freight cars like gulls over a boat; only the noise they made was lost in the roar of the train. In the field you could see a flock of birds flying away into the sunset, shooting off at an angle to rise and dip, rise and dip, sail and pivot in the wind like kites cut loose from their strings.

However, I think it’s “In a Strange Country” that will stay with me the most. Parker, an African American sailor, comes ashore in Wales and encounters white fellow countrymen who attack him. Yet he finds tolerance and acceptance amongst the Welsh, who take him into their world, sharing their love of music with him. It’s a stunning, powerful story of how humanity can transcend differences, and how a love of something deeper than stupid national boundaries can bring people together. It had me in tears, to be honest, and felt terrifyingly relevant in this day and age.

Ellison writes beautifully; his prose is lyrical, readable, evocative and he’s obviously the master of telling a bigger tale in the short story form. You find yourself raging at the injustices but celebrating the fact that there must be hope, demonstrated by unlikely bedfellows finding a kind of common ground. A really excellent addition to the Penguin Moderns, and I’m particularly glad to have read this one.

*****

So Penguin Moderns 11 and 12 were a particularly stunning pair, featuring two very disparate yet individual voices. Kis is a writer deserving wider reading, and Ellison obviously justifies the high regard in which he’s held. What a treat these unassuming little pastel coloured books are turning out to be!

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