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“I have sometimes seen what man thought he saw!” #Rimbaud #VictorSegalen @BlackHeraldPres

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One of my favourite things about bookishness is the unexpected joy of random discoveries. Most of this used to take place when I would be rummaging through a second hand bookshop, or exploring a well-curated indie store. However, nowadays it’s Twitter and blogs which often send me off exploring unknown books and authors, and today I’m posting about a work which I discovered from a mention in my Twitter timeline. I can’t recall who it was who mentioned it, but my interest was piqued because the author had been mentioned by another Tweeter! That author is Victor Segalen, and the work is an essay called “The Double Rimbaud”, translated here by Blandine Longre and Paul Stubbs.

Segalen’s name had originally come to my notice when Damian Kelleher shared a picture of one of his books on Twitter; I’d not come across him previously, and he was a man of many talents – according to Wikipedia, a “naval doctor, ethnographer, archeologist, writer, poet, explorer, art-theorist, linguist and literary critic”. I’ve already acquired two of his books which are sitting on Mount TBR, but this essay intrigued; Rimbaud is a poet I’ve read and loved during the pre-blog years, and so I was interested in Segalen’s take on him, particularly as his essay apparently explores the contractictions of Rimbaud’s life. Basically, after a youth spent in writing his seminal poetry, living rioutously and almost being killed by a shot from his lover, Verlaine, he then renounced his art and spent the rest of his life travelling and working in a variety of trades. The disjuncture between the two halves of his life is startling and it’s this rupture which Segalen explores.

Let us not try to understand. In art, more often than not, understanding is a peurile and a naive game, the admission of a slackened sensitivity, the intellectual revenge of a beholder afflicted by artistic anaesthesia. The one who does not understand and who obstinately tries to understand, is, a priori, the one who cannot feel.

Going from being the scandal of the Parisian literary world to a businessman is a bit of a dramatic transformation, and one it’s hard to understand looking back from here. Segalen is also puzzled and his essay seems to be wanting to decide which was the true Rimbaud – poet or man of affairs? I sense that Segalen is trying not to judge Rimbaud but regretting that he abandoned his craft; and as a poet himself, Segalen seems to wish that Rimbaud had not repudiated his work and had continued to write. Segalen was able to talk to people who’d known Rimbaud in Djibouti and who had heard nothing about his poetry; and he seems to find a fellow spirit in the poet whilst ruing Rimbaud’s change of course.

Segalen can’t help wondering, in the end, whether if Rimbaud had returned to Paris, his writing muse would have returned and the poems would have once more flowed forth; or indeed, if Rimbaud was simply suppressing his verse, and external forces might have resulted in his poetry returning. That was not to be, however, and Rimbaud died in Marseille, at the age of 37, after a period of illness.

“The Double Rimbaud” makes fascinating reading, not only because of Segalen’s meditations on the two Rimbauds, but also for his insights into the poet’s work (he opens the essay by discussing various parts of it). Segalen does seem pretty obsessed with Rimbaud (and he wouldn’t be the first or last !); but perhaps is not able to accept that a person *can* change dramatically; they *can* repudiate their youth; and they can travel a different road from the one originally envisaged. That was what Rimbaud chose to do in the end, but at least he left behind a wonderful body of work.

So Segalen turned out to be an interesting writer to explore (his own prose is quite beautiful), and I’m glad I have those other books of his lurking. Kudos must go to Black Herald Press for publishing a translation of this essay into English for the first time; and their back catalogue looks intriguing too! 😀

Ten years of the Ramblings – oh my!!!!! 🎂🎂🎂 #bloganniversary

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Rather incredibly, today marks 10 years of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings!! On 6th June 2012, I took my first tentative steps into the world of book blogging, not really having any idea of what I was doing but just wanting to connect with other book bloggers and give back some of the joy of reading and sharing thoughts about books. The years seem to have flown by in many ways…

During the lifetime of this blog, I do feel I’ve learned to engage with books more deeply; certainly having to write about them has made me concentrate more on what I’m reading rather than just gulping books down. I’ve read and written about some marvellous books, some beloved authors and fortunately not had too many bookish disappointments!I

I’ve also, most importantly I think, had wonderful interactions with other readers and with authors and translators; sharing thoughts on books, having those discussions and sometimes differences of opinion (but always good natured!), has been a real joy. I don’t meet many bookish types in real life, so to be able to have these exchanges has been a real boon! Thanks to all of you who’ve visited, engaged and commented over the years – I always love to interact with other readers!!

A little message Mr. K sent me – he knows my taste in classic detection!! 🤣❤😊

There are often reports of the death of the book blog; I’ve no idea if that’s true or not, but whatever the case I shall continue to Ramble away here about the books and authors I love as long as I get pleasure from it. Here’s to the next ten years!! (if I make it that far….🤣)

Penguin Moderns 49 and 50 – ending the series with stunning prose and provocative non-fiction…

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Well, I’ve done it! I have read the last two books in the Penguin Moderns box set and have finished my reading of the series!! It’s been a brilliant and enjoyable experience – but what did I make of the final two volumes??

Penguin Modern 49 – Lance by Vladimir Nabokov

Let’s face it, I was always going to be on safe ground here, as Nabokov is an author whose work I’ve read and loved a lot! This particular Modern collects together three of his works – The Aurelian, Signs and Symbols and the title story – and they really are a varied and fascinating selection.

‘Aurelian’ is an old-fashioned term for a lepidopterist (and Nabokov was one of those); and this story tells of Paul Pilgram, a morose butterfly/moth collector who runs a failing shop and has never been able to afford to travel abroad hunting the flying creatures. His hopes are raised by a fortunate sale; but will reality get in the way? “Lance” is a very different beast, a skewed sci fi tale wherein a descendent of the narrator gets to travel to the stars – or does he? All is cloaked in mystery, hints and Arthurian allegory. The third story, “Signs and Symbols”, concerns an ageing couple and their very mentally ill son who lives in an institution; a planned visit to him is aborted; the couple receive wrong number phone calls; and again the narrative is full of riddles.

I am somewhat disappointed that I cannot make out her features. All I manage to glimpse is an effect of melting light on one side of her misty hair, and in this, I suspect, I am insidiously influenced by the standard artistry of modern photography and I feel how much easier writing must have been in former days when one’s imagination was not hemmed in by innumerable visual aids, and a frontiersman looking at his first giant cactus or his first high snows was not necessarily reminded of a tyre company’s pictorial advertisement.

This being Nabokov, the language of the stories is quite stunning, if occasionally obscure. The opening paragraphs of “Aurelian”, describing the little town from the point of view of a trolley bus journeying along its streets, is remarkably unusual and vivid. “Signs and Symbols” is, of course, laden with these things, and I did find myself looking at just about every word and wondering what it was signifying! Once more, it’s quite brilliant of course, and the kind of story you want to read all over again. “Lance” is a little more obscure, and is apparently the author’s last short story; it attacks sci fi and plays with the genre’s tropes and although I’m not sure I understand it all, it’s again beautifully and vividly written. Even when he’s being tricky, I do love reading Nabokov.

Penguin Modern 50 – Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry

The final Penguin Modern couldn’t be further away from the Nabokov; it’s some non-fiction work by the American poet Wendell Berry, and is thought-provoking if perhaps a little problematic for me.

Berry is described online as “an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer”, and seems to be known as much as for his environmental work as for his poetry. “Why…” is a short piece first published in 1987 where Berry outlines his reasons for continuing to write in analogue form (pen/pencil and paper, then typewriter) and ignoring all recommendations he receives to get a computer. The rest of the book is taken up with letters the publication received arguing with him, his responses to those letters and a further piece expanding on the controversy it seems to have raised.

Thing is, I entirely get his stance; he’s an advocate of simple living, being off grid as much as possible and avoiding excessive consumption to help save the planet. It’s a laudable position to take, quite prescient, although in some ways I think we’re past that point now. The obsession with social media, being online and connecting digitally would be hard to reverse now unless a major environmental catastrophe happened; and in fact the digital was something of a lifesaver during the lockdowns, helping people to cope with the potential mental health issues that isolation brought.

I think my reservations come on two counts; one criticism made of Berry’s original piece was that he related writing his works on paper and then having his wife as collaborator typing these up for him, which was attacked by feminists. Although he defended this by saying their marriage was a partnership and in effect it was none of anyone’s business, his later piece came across as a little dismissive. He basically said why would women want to join the rat race as well as men; however, women might perhaps want to create their own art, rather than facilitate a partner’s, and his response was simplistic I feel. The second problem was actually his tone; he did come across as quite patronising, and although I respect (and agee with most of) his thoughts on how we should live and the effect we are having on the planet, I don’t think he got these across particularly well. He never really engaged me or enthused me with his narrative, and I ended the book feeling vaguely disgruntled with him. So whilst I applaud his aims, I didn’t gel with his method of delivery!

***

So I finished the Penguin Moderns box with once more two very different writers! If there’s one thing this series of books has done, it’s introduce me to authors and subjects I never would have read. It’s been a pleasure and a joy to read them all; and I’m sorry to come to the end of the box. However, I do have a number of other Penguin reading projects which I really need to get off the blocks (as you can see from the Penguin Projects page); and there may be the possibility of a new addition to the list – watch this space… ;D

Exploring exile and displacement – over @ShinyNewBooks

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today which I’d like to share with you, and it’s of a fascinating and very timely work by William Atkins – “Exiles: Three Island Journeys”.

In the book, Atkins explores the lives of three political exiles: Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, a Zulu king who was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic; Louise Michel, a French radical of the Commune, who was shipped off to New Caledonia in the South Pacific; and Lev Sternberg, a Ukrainian revolutionary who was sent to the notorious Sakhalin, off the coast of Siberia. Besides looking at their experiences, as Atkins retraces their journeys he considers the whole notion of exile, as well as encountering his own issues. It’s a really thought-provoking read and you can find my full review here – do take a look! 😀

May – another swine of a month…

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Yes, I suppose that’s a bit of a clickbaity headline but May really *was* exhausting and stressful when it came to the day job… 🙁 I was up against a lot of horrible deadlines and struggled to get uninterrupted time to actually do my job; and as I work in a school, the emotional effect of the awful events in Texas was strong. As you can see from the pile of books I read, I deployed my usual coping mechanism…

So if nothing else, May really was a bumper reading month. There wasn’t a single dud amongst them – each book was marvellous in its own way, and my brain feels thoroughly stimulated and saturated with images and ideas and memorable tales. Not all of these are reviewed yet, and some will be up on Shiny New Books, so look out for reviews and links this month!

Heading into June, I am as usual making very limited plans (which certainly seems to work and keeps me reading what I want, when I want and loving it!) There will, of course, be the final book in the Narniathon, The Last Battle – this is the copy I’ll be reading:

I can’t say that I’m particularly fond of the cover, but my original version is MIA somewhere in the house. We are in the process of having a major declutter and re-organise of the Offspring’s old rooms and so I am hoping it will turn up to be reunited with its fellows, but in the meantime needs must…

The only other event I’m currently trying to follow is the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group with our monthly themed reads. I have failed to keep up with the last two months, but June’s choice is books by Virago authors but published by another imprint. I have this fragile old Penguin Penelope Mortimer and may try to get to it during June as she’s an author I keep meaning to read.

Apart from that, I’m intending to read these two titles next – the Poplavsky is coming out this month from Columbia University Press in their Russian Library series and looks to be a wonderful example of Russian emigre writing. The Brackenbury is a reissue from Michael Walmer and she’s been getting quite a bit of attention recently which reminded me I really should read her!

Apart from that I’ll be keeping things loose – where the reading whims take me, that’s where I shall go! What about you – do you have reading plans for June??

 

A mammoth and rather wonderful history of crime fiction! @medwardsbooks #TheLifeOfCrime

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Golden Age (and before!) crime books; I started my addiction when I read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in my early teens, graduating to whatever vintage crime writing I could get my hands on. Sayers was probably my next crime obsession, after watching the Ian Carmichael BBC adaptations, and then I moved on to Allingham, Crispin, Simenon, Mitchell – well, you name them, I may well have read them.

So when I was approached to take part in a blog tour for a new release from the redoubtable Martin Edwards, I really couldn’t refuse. Edwards is, of course, series consultant for the British Library Crimes Classics, an imprint which has brought much joy to crime fiction lovers with its marvellous re-releases of classic, out of print works. As well as that, he’s a fine crime author in his own right, and obviously has a deep knowledge of his subject. That knowledge has been brought to bear in his new book, a hefty and glorious celebration of crime writing and writers entitled “The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators”.

The topic is, of course, as enormous as the book; and as Edwards points out in his introduction, there hasn’t been a decent study of the genre since Julian Symons’ groundbreaking “Bloody Murder”. I’ve read that book (I think it may still be in the house somewhere), and it *was* fascinating, though quite selective; “Life…”, however, takes things to a different level with 724 pages which explore crime writing from an early (and perhaps unexpected) genesis, right up to Scandi-crime, modern PIs and even a look at diversity in the genre.

On his epic journey through the development of the crime novel, Martin takes in the usual suspects – Poe’s pioneering tales, Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Roderick Alleyn, Peter Wimsey – as well as drawing in modern detectives like Rebus. There’s psychological fiction, the American police fiction genre, domestic and theatre variants – really, this is a book of riches. Edwards’ knowledge of the subject is vast, and I found the chapters on Dashiell Hammett (a long-time favourite), Maigret and European crime and of course Agatha Christie particularly interesting. There were names new to me, and needless to say I’ve ended up with lots of lists scribbled in a notebook…

An element of the book I absolutely loved was the breadth of the titles and authors it covers. One chapter in particular looks at ‘Borges and postmodernism’, and makes fascinating reading. I’ve read and loved much Borges, and he often slips into mystery territory, although always with his own distinctive twist to it. In this chapter, Edwards explores Borges’ background, his writing and his influence on later writers – and this section had a particularly bad effect on the wishlist! The book covers thrillers, noir, locked room mysteries, British police, US police, ironic mysteries, humour and radio shows. Bad boys like Raffles get a chapter of their own, and I would struggle to find anything he’s missed out! Edwards’ erudition is dazzling and I was mightily impressed by the range of his knowledge about books generally.

However, despite its huge size, “Life..” is an easy and extremely enjoyable read. Edwards has split his topics into short and manageable chapters, each with its own section of notation at the end. I think this is a brilliant way to do it, because the notes add so much to the narrative, but having them all in a big lump at the end wouldn’t have worked. This way, you can read a chapter and its notes, write down all the new books and authors you want to explore, and then move onto the next section – wonderful, and it makes the book very dippable! There’s also a select bibliography (dangerous…) plus three different indices to help you navigate titles, names and subjects.

There were so many treats in “Life…”, whether Edwards was exploring the groundbreaking “Caleb Williams” or post-war spy fiction; his comprehensive look at the genre was a treat from start to finish. It’s impossible to convey the range of works he looks at in a blog post, and I can’t applaud more vigorously the amount of work which must have gone into this book – it’s an absolute triumph! With a subject as wide-ranging as crime writing, it might be thought impossible to produce a definitive study; however, with “Life..” I think Martin Edwards has succeeded and produced a wonderful guide to the genre from its inception to its current iterations. It’s a mighty achievement and essential reading for anyone who loves crime fiction in all its forms. I could go on forever about how good this book is, but I really think you should just go and read it – it will keep you happily occupied for hours!

The creation myth… #Narniathon #MagiciansNephew

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Well, we’re up to book 6 of the Narniathon, and I’m quite pleased with myself for sticking to this particular event. Of course, it does help that the books are quite short, but it’s been such an enjoyable experience! Anyway, this month’s episode in C.S. Lewis‘s Narnian adventures, “The Magician’s Nephew” contains what you might call the creation myth of that land, and it was always one of my favourite stories; so I was keen to see how I found it nowadays!

Of course, as we are reading in publication order, some might protest that we should have read this book first. However, the opening paragraph convinces me again (if I needed it) that reading in publication order is the way.

This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows all the comings and going between our own world and the land of Narnia first began.

Now for me, that opening presupposes a knowledge of Narnia and all that had gone before in the previous books. If I’d read this first, I would have been most puzzled indeed. I expect there are plenty of opposing arguments which could be flung at me, but I shall stick to my guns and am happy to have re-read in what I think is the correct order!

Anyway, to return to “Magician’s…” Lewis goes on to set his scene quite wonderfully, stating:

In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road. In those days, if you were a boy you had to wear a stiff Eton collar every day, and schools were usually nastier than now. But meals were nice; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain. And in those days there lived in London a girl called Polly Plummer.

Polly will be one of the main protagonists of this story, along with her next door neighbour, Digory Kirke; the latter is staying with his aunt and uncle, the brother and sister Andrew and Letty Ketterly, and things are not going well. Digory’s mother is also staying and she’s very poorly. If that wasn’t bad enough, Uncle Andrew is a strange and unpleasant man, and frankly Digory is having an awful time. Polly proves to be a good friend, and the children decide to explore the attic of their houses; as they live in a row of terraces, these are all joined and so the children in theory can walk from one end of the terrace to the other. However, they miscalculate and leave the attic into Uncle Andrew’s study.

Here, the real adventures begin, as this most peculiar man has been meddling with magic he really doesn’t understand and has made some magic rings. Having tested them on disappearing guinea pigs, he now wants a more communicative subject to try them out and tricks Polly into putting one on and vanishing. Digory is forced to go after her to try to rescue her, and they find themselves in The Wood Between the Worlds, a tranquil place full of ponds. Using the magic rings, the children can jump into those ponds and be transported away to new worlds. From here they explore other lands, encounter a sinister witch and then witness a world being born. However, evil and temptation are threatening them and the new land of Narnia; will the children have the strength to do the right thing, can they get back to their own world, and will Digory’s mother survive?

As I thought back over the plot of this book, I realised just how much Lewis had incorporated into his story, how engrossing it was and how the pace never flags for a moment!! The sheer richness of the book is mightly impressive, and there are so many wonderful elements – the rampages of the witch, Jadis, round Victorian London; the treatment of Uncle Andrew by the talking animals of Narnia; the darkness and bleakness of Charn; and all of these are enhanced by Pauline Baynes’ marvellous illustrations. The book succeeds in mingling elements of classic Victorian children’s fiction with its adventures, and the magical world of Narnia, and it’s a marvellous read from start to finish.

I found the religious elements quite noticeable in this story, but again this wasn’t a problem; the ‘Adam and Eve’ figures of the new world, the temptation of the apple, the opposing evil figure are all familiar from biblical stories. Yet Narnia has an identity of its own, and some of the writing is so beautiful; the sequence where Aslan literally sings the world into being is stunning and moving. The story ends with happy resolution and what is perhaps a warning from Lewis about the way our world is developing into a dead land like Charn:

… you are growing more like it. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things. And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware.

“The Magician’s Nephew” is a wonderful, powerful piece of storytelling, and as you can probably tell I absolutely loved revisiting it after all these years. I don’t know about Aslan, but Lewis’s world-building skills are just marvellous – Charn, The Wood Between the Worlds, London in the past and Narnia itself are brilliantly realised and it was a wrench to leave this story. The last few pages link the story back to “Lion…” in a way that would only make sense if you’d already read the book; and I suspect I may end up after the next instalment wanting to go back to the beginning of the Narnia stories and read them all over again, just like I always feel with the “Lord of the Rings” books. The Narniathon really is a most wonderful experience!

Exploring the concept of the mid-life crisis… @NottingHillEds

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If there’s one thing I find you can rely on it’s that Notting Hill Editions books are going to be an interesting read! I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of their releases over the years and whether it’s Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, George Perec, Ian Nairn, A.A. Milne or A.J. Lees (to name just a few I’ve read), you’re guaranteed an interesting and stimulating read! Their latest release, “Midlife: Humanity’s Secret Weapon” by Andrew Jamieson, is no exception in that it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking look at a condition which is specific to humans – the Midlife Crisis.

It’s fair to say that this has become something of a cliche, usually exemplified by men buying sportscars and having affairs, or women having nervous breakdowns and taking up with toyboys. However, as Jamieson points out, humans and killer whales are the only mammals who have a post-reproductive life that lasts longer than their reproductive life. In the case of the whales, it can be clearly seen that they have a value in helping find food for the group; it’s not so clear why humans live so long, particularly with the attitudes of the young towards the old… So psychotherapist Andrew Jamieson sets out to explore the knotty topic, taking in a lot of great thinkers as well as his own personal experience on his journey.

Our middle years can be difficult ones; having the first part of your life making your career, defining yourself, perhaps settling down and having a family, you suddenly find yourself doubting the value of all of that. Your children grow up and move on, your relationships seem stale and you long to be young again. These feelings can be completely debilitating and bring about the ending of marriages, abadonment of careers and mental illness. Society fetishizes the young with older people (particularly women) made to feel redundant. Jamieson tackles the issue by exploring his own midlife turmoil and that of those close to him, as well as his patients; he draws much of his analysis of the subject from the life and work of Jung who went through a massive midlife crisis of his own.

Jungian theory is not something I’ve really come across before, but Jamieson explains the subject clearly and concisely, as well as relating Jung’s experiences and the complexities of his relationship with Freud. The midlife crisis is a kind of rite of passage through which we need to pass to reach a settled place in our later life; there we’ll have the knowledge and the wisdom we’ve learned to steer our tribe through difficult situations. Intriguingly, Jamieson reveals several times where prominent figures have proved crucial to our species, from leading America safely through the Civil War, via discovering radioactivity to defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those elder humans have passed through their crisis and gained the gravitas to lead, discover and advise; and Jamieson actually believes that our species may be hitting its own mid-life crisis at the moment. Whether we can get through it remains to be seen…

The sections of the book where Jamieson explores the various triggers for these crises was fascinating, and he and his patients often have to dig deep (right back to issues with infant bonding) to pull out what’s troubling people and work through it. It’s obviously a valuable therapy to have, but I did feel that perhaps the majority of people are not going to have access to this. With waiting lists as they are, getting therapy from the NHS is not going to be a quick process, and many of us cannot afford to go private. So I guess a lot of people will have to find their own way to work through their crisis…

“Midlife” was a fascinating book, full of much that was new to me, and I really enjoyed its mix of history, biography and science. Alas, I am probably to be regarded as past my midlife crisis now (I think I had it when the Offspring grew up and I suddenly realised I’d lost a big chunk of my life to child rearing!); but I wish I’d had access to this book at the time because I do feel it would have offered me much wisdom and guidance. As it is, if you’re reaching the point of your own middle years, you might find Jamieson’s book quite useful… ;D

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

“…out of my guts, like one condemned to die, I write…” #MarinaTsvetaeva @archipelagobks

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When Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog mentioned he’d like to host an Archipelago Books reading fortnight from 9th-23rd May, I was reminded that I do have one of the publisher’s books on the TBR, and thought now would be a good time to pull it off the stacks. I think the reading fortnight is not going ahead, but nevertheless I thought I would share my thoughts about the book anyway. It’s a collection of verse by one of my favourite Russian poets, Marina Tsvetaeva, and it’s called “Moscow in the Plague Year”, translated by Christopher Whyte.

Tsvetaeva is a long-time favourite, and I although most of my reading of her poetry was pre-blog, I found “Letters: Summer 1926” which collected together letters between her, Pasternak and Rilke particularly moving. “Plague…” is a very special volume, however, representing as it does the first English translation of verses she wrote during the years of the Russian Revolution subsequent famine. Tsvetaeva was stranded in the city for most of that period with her two young daughters, as her husband was away fighting against the Reds, and she endured unimaginable privations and tragedies. Despite that, verse continued to pour from her pen and the collection of those writings makes stirring, often emotional, reading.

The poems are sometimes fragments, sometimes longer sequences, but all uniquely Tsvetaeva. Despite the horrors of daily living, which seep into the poems, she can write about love, attraction, the heartache of loss, her children, rings, dancing and the past. It’s worth remembering that Tsvetaeva was born into a rich, upper class family – as the afterword stages, she and her sister could have been ladies-in-waiting at court – so to go from that kind of background to scraping out an existence and trying not to starve in a freezing cold attic is a shock to the system. Despite that, and the tragic loss of one of her children, she survived and went on to continue living and working until 1941.

Dying, I’ll regret the gypsy songs.
Dying, I’ll regret my […] rings,
cigarette smoke, sleeplessness, a flock
of weightless verses underneath my hand.

“Moscow…” makes wonderful reading, although I have a couple of caveats; I would for a start have appreciated some notation. Despite my knowledge of Tsvetaeva and the period, for some of the poems I felt I needed a little more context. Although a note at the end indicates that the poems were pulled from a number of sources to produce this volume of works from the period in question, I would have liked a little more bibliographical information, particularly on which verses had been previously published, which were the ones left in manuscript at her death and so on. I sensed a little uneveness in the collection and I did wonder if this was the mix of published and unfinished works.

These are minor issues, though, as the main thing is to have more of Tsvetaeva’s work available in English. Deeply personal, often lyrical and fanciful, and full of wonderful imagery, the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are stunning and memorable. I’m so glad that I was nudged into reading this book right now, and I’m reminded that I have an unread Virago collection of her prose lurking somewhere in the stacks – must see if I can pull it out soon… 😉

“Book-collectors – they are as deep as the sea.”@BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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It’s been a little while since I featured a British Library Crime Classic on the blog, but I wanted to share my thoughts today on a recent release from the publisher which is a rather special one. The book is “Death of a Bookseller” by Bernard J. Farmer and it’s the 100th release in the series – what a milestone! And it’s an apt choice for a celebratory release, being set as it is in the arcane world of second hand book selling, particularly as the BL have brought back into print so many titles which had disappeared into obscurity and couldn’t even be found to purchase in a used state! So I approached this book with interest, particularly drawn in by the lovely image on the cover.

Originally published in 1956, “Death… has been out of print for decades and has apparently been much sought after by collectors. Author Farmer had a lively life, including a stint in Canada as well as time spent in the police force (which probably informs his strong sense of the kind of way a policeman should behave). He was a book collector himself and wrote a number of mysteries featuring his protagonist, Jack Wigan, who in this book is a Sergeant. As the story begins, Wigan encounters a drunken man on his way home. This is Michael Fisk, a book dealer who is celebrating the discovery of a signed copy of Keats’ “Endymion”. Wigan escorts Fisk home and the two become friends, with Wigan subsequently taking up book collecting in a minor way as a hobby. However, when Fisk is found stabbed in his library, the CID call upon Wigan to help the investigation, as his friendship with the victim and knowledge of books will be of use. A suspect is identified; there is circumstantial evidence against him; and a jury find him guilty, with a hanging scheduled.

However, Wigan is not convinced that the man is guilty. The evidence seems too slight, the man’s motive not quite right and Wigan’s judge of character leaves him to doubt that the condemned prisoner could do such a thing. However, he’s up against a hard-nosed DI who’s convinced the verdict is right and Wigan has no authority whatsoever to investigate. But he’s a persistent man, and employing the help of a ‘runner’, Charlie, he tries to dig deeper. The pair are running out of time, and the case seems no clearer – will they be able to find out the truth and make sure the right man goes to the gallows?

“Death…” is an entertaining and, towards the end, quite gripping story! Wigan is an engaging sleuth, although hide-bound by procedure; however, the action steps up a bit when Wigan gains an ally in Charlie, and even more so when one of the second-hand booksellers also gets involved. Ah, the booksellers! They’re a fascinating lot, and I would love to know if they’re at all based on any real-life individuals or firms! There are the honest dealers, the large auction houses and also the individuals chasing down rare copies to sell on to the rich.

One particularly lively character is Ruth Brent, employed to search out rare editions for an American client (who also makes an appearance); neither of these two is that honest or above breaking the law. Then there’s the wonderfully eccentric Searle Connington who lives with his strange sister and has the imagination to see how the killer may be tracked down. And throughout the narrative are books; rare editions, banned and arcane witchcraft books, the Keats, and a lot of G. A. Henty, the children’s author who was apparently a great favourite of Farmer’s. Having a glimpse into the world of book-dealing over half a century ago is quite fascinating, and I wonder if it’s still like that?

“Death of a Bookseller” was a marvellous choice for the 100th British Library Crime Classic. The plotting is great, the setting wonderfully evoked, the rare books mentioned quite tantalising, and the race against time did have me on the edge of my seat! I enjoyed watching the straightforward Wigan doing his detecting, and the contrast between him and the more sophisticated types in the book collecting world was well done. However, the introduction of Connington as detecting ally was inspired and added much to the narrative – so entertaining!

So I must congratulate British Library Publishing and series consultant Martin Edwards on the success of the Crime Classics; they’ve certainly brought much joy and distraction for me when I needed it, particularly over the difficult last couple of years. “Death of a Bookseller” is a worthy addition to the series and if you love GA crime and books, this is definitely one for you! 😀

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