“Nothing but cliches, cliches everywhere….” @seagullbooks


Party Fun with Kant by Nicolas Mahler
Translated by James Reidel

I don’t as a rule read much in the way of graphic novels; in fact you could probably count them on one hand… (Having said that, one of the most memorable things I’ve ever read is “Maus” which was decades ago and still haunts me). However, when Lizzy very kindly sent me “Party Fun with Kant” recently, I couldn’t resist!

The book is a collection of cartoons by German artist and author Nicolas Mahler; and as you might guess from the title, the focus is on philosophers and their quirks and beliefs. So the book collects together four or five page sections with wonderful titles like “Plato’s Testimony” or “Society Reporter Jean-Jacques Rousseau” or indeed the titular “Party Fun with Kant”. In a few short panels, Mahler aims to pin down the worldview of each philospher as well as making you laugh – and he certainly does the latter!

Each philosopher has their own title page

To a certain extent, of course, your response to the cartoons will depend on how much you know about each philosopher and their theories; and to be honest, I have limited knowledge of some of them. So, for example, “Barthes the Bear” (yes, it’s That Man again!!) means a little more to me than “Epicurus’ Sex Education”. However, somehow that didn’t seem to matter, and I did find the book very entertaining!

Crabby Schopenhauer

Particular standouts were the Rousseau mentioned above; “A Dream Wedding with Simone de Beauvoir”, where her feminist theories destroy any ardour left in the couple; “Schopenhauer’s Driving School”, wherein the philosopher does indeed appear to be as grumpy as I’ve previously experienced; and “Camp Friedrich Nietzsche”, where someone has been mad enough to put old Fred in charge of a group of boy scouts! Interestingly, E.M. Cioran is a name I only came across recently, when reading “Essayism” for #fitzcarraldofortnight; but his cartoon entry is a hoot with his aphorisms appearing in fortune cookies!

Nietzsche out in the woods – no doubt a recipe for disaster!

I love Mahler’s drawing style (kind of a bit Tom Gauld, whom I also enjoy); and the text is ably translated by James Reidel. The book comes with a list of sources for the texts used in the cartoons, which leaves plenty of scope for future exploration too!

So although I’m not necessarily well versed in all the philosophers featured, I did have a great time with this book (only my second ever Seagull title, I think!) And inevitably, I’m afraid, it couldn’t help but send me off to YouTube to search out a couple of clips to share! The first is the wonderful Monty Python folks at the Hollywood Bowl doing the “Philosopher’s Song” – just hilarious!! (WARNING – there’s a bit of bad language lurking!)

What is possibly not so well know is that the often controversial author Christopher Hitchens (whose work I hope to get to soon…) was a huge Python fan, and there is a little clip of him very sweetly doing his own version of the song online too – which I share here for your amusement…

Who knew philosophy could be such a laugh? 😀

Fragments of correspondence from a master #proust


Letters to the Lady Upstairs by Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis

Well. Proust. There’s a lot of Proust on the TBR, most of it very long. However, I was recently in the middle of reading several very loooooong books and as I hinted in my last post, I was suddenly hit with the urge to read something short and finish it quickly. And once I’d read “Nagasaki”, this little collection of letters by Proust perfectly hit the spot!

Between 1909 and 1919, while he was living at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Marcel Proust exchanged letters with his upstairs neighbour, a Madame Williams. This was during the period when he was working on his magnum opus, “A La Recherche de Temps Perdu”; even at the best of times he seems to have been a sensitive man, and any disturbance or noise whilst working sent him into a flap! So the letters began as eloquent requests for silence on a particular day or time; but as they went on, a friendship developed between the two neighbours and led to gifts of flowers or some of Proust’s writings. Both Mme Williams and Proust had to leave the building in 1919 on its sale; the writer died in 1922, with his neighbour taking her own life in 1931.

Only some of the letters have survived, 26 in all, and none of Mme Williams’ letters to Proust. Additional complexities arose when the letters were discovered, owing to the lack of dating; however, much study and scholarship has gone into putting them into what is thought is the correct order. And despite their brevity, they amazingly really do bring Proust to life; the little glimpses of his daily routine, the health difficulties he faced, his sadness and worries during the First World War, all seen through these sweet, formally written yet engaging little notes.

The book is enhanced with illustrations: a couple of reproductions of the letters; a photograph of Mme Williams; a plan of Proust’s apartments. And the supporting material is excellent; an index, supporting notes and a wonderful afterword by translator Lydia Davis where she not only discusses the letters themselves, but also describes the current state of the old apartment (now part of a bank’s premises). The book is less than 100 pages long yet really took me into Proust’s world.

Reading “Letters to the Lady Upstairs” was a real joy, and unexpectedly moving. The letters only came to light relatively recently and only represent a small part of his correspondence with his neighbour; I do hope more are discovered one day. And now I really ought to get on to reading some of his longer works…..

“Humankind is becoming dry and brittle.” #Nagasaki @BelgraviaB #EricFaye


Nagasaki by Eric Faye
Translated by Emily Boyce

The trouble with following as many book blogs I do is, frankly, the number of recommendations and book ideas you get. On top of this, my memory is shocking and I tend to forget who it was who wrote about a particular book. However, in this case I’ve managed to remember that it was Karen at Booker Talk who wrote about “Nagasaki”; and I was so intrigued that I picked up a copy and read it recently when the need to read something short and actually *finish* it took hold of me!

French author Eric Faye has written numerous novels and short stories; interestingly, he’s also a journalist, and “Nagasaki” draws on a real-life news story. Set in the titular Japanese city, it tells the story of meteorologist Kobo Shimura who lives quietly on his own in an ordinary suburban street. A creature of routine, he lives an isolated life, rarely mixing with his younger colleagues and his life proceeds undisturbed until one day he notices something strange. It appears that food and drink are going missing from his fridge; and as he lives in a neighbourhood where residents don’t lock their doors the natural assumption is that there has been an intruder. However, a locked door doesn’t stop the disappearances, and so Shimura installs a webcam to find out what is going on. The results are unsettling, to say the least, and the consequences fairly explosive for both Shimura and the visitor who’s been helping themself to his supplies.

And here I hit a dilemma of how much to reveal about this book. It’s probably fair to acknowledge that the blurb gives away that someone has been living secretly in Shimura’s house; a homeless woman who’s hidden herself in a spare room cupboard. Her actions, taken out of necessity, have a destabilising effect on Shimura and his sense of security in his own home; and the women herself faces an uncertain future.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, as the book retains surprises up to the end. What I do want to mention is the clever use of point-of-view in the writing. The book is initially told entirely from Shimura’s viewpoint, and we see things only from his perspective and sympathise with his outrage about having his privacy violated. However, midway through the narrative shifts and we have parts told by an omnicient narrator and parts from the woman herself which radically change our view of events. That shift of perspective opens up the story, allowing it to take in much more than just the narrow view of Shimura’s life; and we realise that the woman is just as alienated in relation to the modern world as is Shimura concerning his violated territory.

“Nagasaki” is a short novella of 109 pages yet produces so much food for thought. There’s the worrying subject of a nation’s duty to take care of its population; our individual duty to help our fellow humans; our need for solitude and privacy versus our need for companionship; and oddly enough, our wish for resolution. Without giving anything away, the end of the book *is* unresolved and I wasn’t sure (and still am not) whether that was the ending I wanted and needed to this story. There are hints, too, of Nagasaki’s tragic past woven into the narrative and I perhaps would have liked this element to be drawn out more.

Nevertheless, this *is* a novella and such as it is very effective and moving. Despite the ambiguous and perhaps unfinished nature of the ending, I kept thinking about the story long after I’d finished it; and I certainly think in this modern world we need to do more to look after the lonely and the homeless, as well as trying to get back some sense of community and compassion. “Nagasaki” was a thoughtful read and I do recommend you give it a look if you come across it.

Jacqui has also reviewed the book here!

This Little Art and Entertaining Ideas – a Coda… #katebriggs @SharonKivland


Entertaining Ideas by Kate Briggs

If ever a book was going to be guaranteed to give me a book hangover, it was “This Little Art”. I was so immersed in it that reaching the end left me completely boggled, wanting to read but not know what to pick up next. Fortunately, I had a little more Briggs to carry on with…

I thought I had first read about “Entertaining Ideas” on Anthony’s excellent blog, Time’s Flow Stemmed (which I highly recommend!) although I can’t see a review on there currently. However, wherever it was, the book sounded fascinating, so I sent off to France for it and it’s been sitting waiting for its proper reading time – which of course was straight after Briggs’ other book, and it actually made the perfect companion!

“Entertaining Ideas” is subtitled “The Long View” and the latter is the title of a highly-regarded novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which is probably not as well-know as it should be. Briggs takes an unusual look at what is in fact an unusual book – because “Long…” tells the story of its heroine’s life in reverse, starting with old age and moving backwards. Briggs looks at this concept, wondering how to do a ‘short’ reading of a long novel, before going on to consider the whole idea of not only telling a story in reverse, but whether in fact a novel can be *written* in reverse, starting with the ending and moving back to create what comes before.

…Books open up onto and into other books: she describes seeking out a Goethe reference, but not finding it. But finding something else instead, and how this in turn directs her to a different book, and to something else – an unfolding that is as unpredictable as it is unnarratable and unmaterialisable…

In the process, she draws in all manner of writers and thinkers, from Dickens and Poe up to Foucault and Ali Smith. It’s a heady and fascinating mix, and as a coda to “This Little Art” was in many ways the ideal continuation of Briggs’ thoughts on writing. And one element I found particularly fascinating was that I had previously read a book which featured a life told backwards, and it was not this one; it was “Time’s Arrow” by Martin Amis, who was, of course, Howard’s stepson… “Long” was published in 1956; “Time’s” in 1991; which is, I think, very interesting, and according to Briggs, Amis has never made any comment about the connection in structure and theme.

Briggs muses upon whether the response to the two works is conditioned by the subject matter: Howard’s book considers a woman’s life (therefore presumably of less interest to male critics) whereas Amis takes on a large theme (a Nazi’s life) which is therefore automatically treated with more gravitas. Certainly, there has been a resurgence of interest in what is classed as “middlebrow fiction” from the 20th century, but it still probably isn’t take as seriously as perhaps it should be.

Books that send you off to look for other books are a Good Thing….! 😀

For such a short work (58 pages – although the type *is* very small…) Briggs packs in an awful lot of ideas, and I finished this, straight after “This Little Art” with my head buzzing. This is the best kind of writing – the sort which makes you think about books and art and life, and look at things differently. If you’ve read or are going to read “This Little Art” I highly recommend tracking down “Entertaining Ideas” if you can – it makes a wonderful companion piece, as well as being an excellent work in its own right! 😀

Fourteen days of fun! :D #fitzcarraldofortnight @FitzcarraldoEds


Phew! What a fortnight! 😀

I don’t know about anyone else reading along, but I have had a most wonderful two weeks of reading Fitzcarraldo Editions books for our #fitzcarraldofortnight! It’s been fascinating to see what other readers and bloggers have chosen to share, and I’ve really come to appreciate what a wide range of books the publisher issues.

The original idea, really, was to attack some of the books on our TBRs, as both Lizzy and I had plenty of them lurking. At the start of the fortnight, my already-read pile looked like this:

However, that included “Dark Satellites” and “Memory Theatre“, both of which I had finished shortly before our fortnight started, in preparation for it. Now, however, my Fitzcarraldos look like this:

The left hand pile is those I’ve read and reviewed here on the Ramblings; and I only have two titles which I didn’t get to during our reading event. Both are non-fiction, both sound absolutely fascinating and I really do want to get to them soon.

But I’m happy to have read the wonderful titles I have, and there hasn’t been a disappointment amongst them. The fiction is always entrancing, from different countries and with different viewpoints, pushing the boundaries and never predictable. The non-ficton stretches the genre in the same way and has to be some of the most thought-provoking writing around at the moment. It would be impossible to pick favourites, because each book is so different and wonderful; but special mention needs to be made of “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs, which truly deserves all the plaudits it’s received!

My lovely co-host Lizzy (whose idea this event was) has collected together links to everyone’s posts, so do pop over to her site and have a look and see what works others have been exploring. It’s been a wonderful month of reading – and hey! I managed to get some books off the TBR!! 😀

“… a kind of catch or halt or temporary immobilization in the run of culture.” #fitzcarraldofortnight #katebriggs #thislittleart @FitzcarraldoEds


My final read for the #fitzcarraldofortnight is a book I was very excited to read; I picked it up in one of the publisher’s flash sales a while back, and I don’t really know why it took me so long to get to it – thank goodness our reading event gave me the necessary nudge!

The book in question is “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs and I know enough about it to know how highly regarded it is. Briggs is a an author, teacher and translator (hence one of my favourite kind of people), and most notably has translated two volumes of notes for Roland Barthes’ final lectures into English. (There really *is* a thread running through all of my current reading, isn’t there??) “This Little Art” is, then, in simple terms a book about translation – but, goodness, *what* a book!

The point seems to be this: left to its own devices, the path of reading is very rarely chronologically ordered, thematically coherent, limited by language or respectful of borders. Books open out onto, they cross with and follow haphazardly on from one another. Left to its own devices, the path of reading strays all over the place.

The art of translation often seems to me some kind of arcane mystery, practiced by brilliant people who have not only the ability to read in two languages, but also to convert one to the other bringing all the nuances of the original language with it – I think it involves fairies…. “This Little Art”, however, rather brilliantly lets the reader get inside the whole process as Briggs meditates on the art of the title, her own particular experience and method, and the complex relationship between the translator and their specific author.

That relationship is a vital one, and Briggs illustrates this with the experience of two women translators – Helen Lowe-Porter, who was Thomas Mann’s original translator to English, and Dorothy Bussy who not only rendered Gide into English, but also had a long and loving friendship with him. Lowe-Porter coined the phrase “this little art” and her story is fascinating; an intelligent woman, married with a family, her work could almost be regarded as a hobby, yet she took it extremely seriously, committing large portions of her life to it. Bussy, however, was somewhat in love with Gide (although she was obviously not his type) and they maintained a close and emotional relationship over many years, with Gide choosing her as his preferred translator. The connection between them was particularly charged and potent, as Briggs reveals in quotes from their letters which she features.

Interestingly, Lowe-Porter has been much criticised in recent years for the decisions she made and the methods she used when translating; which reminded me again of Constance Garnett’s pioneering versions of the Russian classics. “Square Haunting” nudged my memory of how the Bloomsberries were so responsible for bringing Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et all to the English speaking public, and I know that Garnett’s work is nowadays considered flawed. Yet, as Briggs makes clear, it’s easy to be dismissive of the work of the past, taking an all too arrogant academic outlook on pioneers and discounting the connection they had with the works and the authors. Tastes and fashions and approved methods in translation change. Can we dismiss for example the Maudes, who were actually Tolstoy’s translators of choice, and instead go for a modernised prose translation? It’s a knotty problem, and I digress a little.

Typically, though, the relation you form is with the writer – your sense of the writer – who wrote the book first. If my friend feels the way he does about Calvino (about Calvino and not Weaver), it is because translation makes this possible: it is precisely this chance of forming a reading relationship with a writer writing in another language that a translation, making no official claim to original authorship, also produces.

However, as I read on, it became obvious why Briggs had chosen them as examples of the close association between author and translator; as much of Briggs’ narrative explores her translation of the Barthes lectures and her attachment to ‘her’ author is striking. I mentioned in my review of “Essayism” that much of Dillon’s book was informed by his relationship with Barthes, and I use the term advisedly. In an intense reading experience, I’ve realised, you *do* feel as if you have a personal connection with the author, and it’s something which has happened to me on a regular basis (I have regular intellectual crushes on writers). Briggs also pinpoints this element of the writer-reader relationship, and of course this is enhanced even more when the reader is also the translator of the work into another language. They become not only a reader, but in fact partly the writer of the book. This latter element is something which vexes Briggs throughout the narrative: is the translator also the author? How much fidelity *should* you have to the original text? Should you go for a literal (and potential flat and awkward) version (my view of the P/V renderings…)? Or should you, like Lowe-Porter, point to the overall feel of the translated work and whether this is in keeping with the original? Is perfect translation *ever* possible? And so on.

Reading the same books as someone else is a way of being together. This is the premise of seminars, book-clubs, of so many friendships and conversations. What it is to discover that you’re currently reading the same book as someone else – especially someone you don’t know all that well. The startling, sometimes discomforting, effect of accelerated intimacy, as if that person had gone from standing across the room to all of a sudden holding your hand.

One particular episode which stuck with me and highlighted the complexity of translations was in the section of Brigg’s books where she considered part of Barthes’ last lectures which was concerned with Haiku. It’s not a form of writing I would particularly have connected with the French theorist, but he apparently personaly translated, from English to French, many of those which featured in his last lectures. This leads to a fascinating section where Briggs, instead of trying to translate back, searches instead for the original English versions. But her understanding of what the English should be, based on Barthes’ French renderings, brings no success initially until after a moment of clarity she looks for alternative English words to the ones she initially thinks he means. This really emphasised for me how complex an art translation is, where the choice of a single word matters (and in fact Briggs reveals how she would now change one particular word choice she made in her Barthes’ lecture translations!)

Festooned with post-its – always the sign of a good book! 😀

It does seem to me, from reading this wonderfully discursive, always fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking work, that translation must be one of the most complex and under-appreciated arts going. Which word to choose? What is the background context to the work you’re translating? Should you leave bits out? This latter is a particularly emotive issue, and a charge levelled at many early translators; though it’s preferable to the experience I had when reading a collection called “The Stray Dog Cafe” and discovering that the translator had seen fit to *add* bits to a Mayakovsky poem….. =:o

Do translations, for the simple reason that we need them. We need translations, urgently: it is through translation that we are able to reach the literatures written in the languages we don’t or can’t read, from the places where we don’t or can’t live, offering us the chance of understanding as well as the necessary and instructive experience of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

Anyway – I could ramble on forever about “This Little Art” but I won’t. I shall just say that it is a magnificent, immersive and marvellous book, full of so many insights into not only translating but literature itself and how and why we read. All of the books I’ve read for our #fitzcarraldofortnight have been excellent, but “This Little Art” is really something special (as you can no doubt tell from the amount of post-its…). Even if you’re not particularly interested in translation I think you should read it, because it’s so good; but if you are, oh boy, are you in for a treat! 😀

(For other posts on this book, Lizzy has written about This Little Art here and Simon shared his thoughts here)

A sublime account of some pioneering womens’ lives over @ShinyNewBooks #squarehaunting @francescawade @FaberBooks


In between reading some absolutely marvellous books for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, I spent many happy hours this month reading a fantastic new books from Faber and Faber – “Square Haunting”, by Francesca Wade.

The book is a look at the lives of five inspirational and pioneering women at a point where they intersect; all five spent time living in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury and all had varied and wonderful lives. The book was highly anticipated, and didn’t let me down – it will be one of my books of the year, for sure, and it’s hard not to just turn into a gushing idiot when writing about it! 😀

The women concerned are H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf; and the book is a triumph. You can read my full review here!

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