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“I live continually in a reverie of the future.” #edgarallanpoe #baudelaire

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Edgar Allan Poe is an author who is perhaps unfortunately pigeonholed because of the fame (or indeed notoriety!) of his horror stories. Tales like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, poems like “The Raven”, fall squarely into the kind of writing which is normally read at this time of the year. And I have to confess that I do love his dark, troubling stories and his melodramatic verse! However, his writing does range more widely than this and he’s been responsible for journalism, essays, a scientific prose-poem and of course some of the earliest examples of detective fiction.

I’ve read a lot of his work over the years, but my eye was caught recently on Twitter when someone mentioned a little collection called “The Unknown Poe”. An anthology initially published in 1980 by New Directions, and gathered together by Raymond Foye, it brings together not only some of what they call ‘fugitive wiritngs’ by Poe, but also some marvellous writings on the man by luminaries such as Andre Breton and Charles Baudelaire. The result is a most wonderful collection which I devoured and absolutely loved!

And so, being young and dipt in folly
I fell in love with melancholy

The Poe section contains some fascinating pieces, from a selection of letters, through some poems rarely seen and extract from his ‘Marginalia‘. There are also prose pieces, “Prose, Essays & Reviews” and these were particularly interesting; ‘The Imp of the Perverse‘, which explores that inexplicable human trait of perversity, is perhaps the best known, but it was fascinating seeing him give his thoughts on authors such as Shelley and Shakespeare. After reading all of these pieces, I really feel I want to dig out what Poe I have, and then check out whether there’s any kind of collected edition available; the diversity of his writing is impressive.

OUR PRESENT EXISTENCE

It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.

The icing on the cake for me, though, was the supporting material collected in the second section, entitled “The French View“. Here, Foy brings together some writings by Baudelaire on Poe which are exemplary, and as well as throwing light on Poe, also demonstrate the influence the older writer had on the younger. These two substantial pieces were, I believe, forewords to translations of Poe’s work which Baudelaire made into the French, and his enthusiasm and reverence for Poe are clear.

It will always be difficult to exist, nobly and productively, as a man of letters, without facing defamation, slander by the impotent, the envy of the rich, that envy which is their punishment! – or the vengeance of bourgeois mediocrity. But what is difficult in a restrained monarchy or in a regular republic, becomes nearly impossible in a kind of lumber yard where every town sergeant polices his own opinions to the profit of his own vices – or his own virtues, for they are one in the same; – where a poet or novelist in a slave society is a detestable writer in the eyes of an abolitionist critic, where one does not know which is the greater scandal, sloppy cynicism or imperturbable Biblical hypocrisy. (Baudelaire)

The other pieces, by Huysmans, Valery, Lallarme and Breton, are much shorted but equally fascinating and, in their references back to Baudelaire and then Poe, they clearly demonstrate the lineage of influence down from an American author much misunderstood in his own country but revered in Europe. Baudelaire in particular is very harsh about America and its (lack of) culture, chastising the country for not recognising the genius they had in their midst; and, in fact, he goes on to berate society in general for trying to produce a bland and homogenised literature. It’s bracing and fascinating stuff!

As you can see from the amount of post-its sticking out of my book, this small volume (117 pages) was absolutely packed with writing which had my brain buzzing. (It also has a few very nice illustrations…) I’ve tended with Poe to read mainly his stories, but I definitely want to explore the rest of his writing more after reading this. As for Baudelaire, again I have volumes of his prose non-fiction lurking on Mount TBR and they really do need to come off it sooner rather than later! “The Unknown Poe” was an utterly wonderful read, and thank you to whoever happened to mention it on Twitter – I’m so glad I read it! 😀

“Around midnight she had been awoken by a gentle knocking…” #GermanLitMonth #MmedeScuderi

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November, apart from everything else going on, is German Lit Month, this year hosted by lovely Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume 2) – you can find out more on her site here. This is an event I always like to take part in, and I was determined to do so this year; there’s also Non-Fiction November and Novellas in November, and pleasingly today’s slim volume counts for the latter of those two events! As you may have noticed from my October round-up, I did actually finish this book last month – but as usual I’m playing catch up with reviews! Anyway, on to today’s book, which is “Mademoiselle de Scuderi” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Andrew Brown for my Alma Classics 101 Pages edition; and Lizzy is also responsible for this as it was her review of the book which convinced me I should read it…

Hoffmann is, of course, famous for his fantasy and Gothic horror stories, often collected as “Tales of Hoffmann”; and “Scuderi..” was first published in 1819, becoming an instant success. It’s apparently still one of Hoffmann’s most highly regarded works and its not hard to see why. The story is set in Paris, during the reign of King Louis XIV, and the city is in the grip of a crimewave. A band of thieves appear to be attacking citizens and stealing their jewels, often resorting to murder to get hold of the booty. Alongside this, a series of poisonings has taken place, and the king has established a special court to investigate the crimes. Unfortunately, the man tasked with investigating has more zeal than sense, establishing a reign of terror and not really getting to the bottom of the things.

Enter Mademoiselle de Scudéri, an elderly poetess who is a favourite of the king and his mistress. One night, a frantic young man comes to her house and pleads to see her, but her maid keeps her from seeing the poetess. The young man escapes into the night, leaving a piece of jewellery behind him; and thus Mme de Scuderi is drawn into the plot which will turn out to be much more complex than you might initially think! The piece of jewellery turns out to has been made by the master craftsman Cardillac; but how has it got to the young man and the Mme de Scuderi? Who *is* the young man? Who is behind the crimes? And will Mme de Scuderi be able to ensure that justice is done?

Despite its short length, “Scuderi…” is packed with action, and has a wonderfully conjured historical setting! It’s been hailed as one of the earliest examples of a murder mystery, and it’s not hard to see why; there’s a lot of detecting and investigating done in the story, albeit not in the traditional Golden Age manner and within the societal structure of France of the time. But there’s also plenty of drama, romance, Gothic terror and also the fear of injustice. Certainly, the king’s investigators are thorough and brutal, and once they have a culprit they believe is guilty they’re immoveable. It takes all Mme de Scuderi’s talents to get to the truth of things and the denouement is perhaps unexpected but very satisfying.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first Hoffmann I’ve read and I really enjoyed it; brimming with drama and atmosphere, it was a wonderfully distracting little novella and evidence of Hoffmann’s skill as a storyteller. I also sensed undercurrents, as it’s possible to read into Hoffmann’s narratives criticism of a way of rule which depends so much on the whims of a monarch, as well as the moral of the investigator who is anything but willing to consider an alternative to his conclusions. The portrayal of the ‘criminal’, too, is fascinating, with quite a lot of psychological depth. All in all, this was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, and it’s definitely left me keen to read more of Hoffmann’s work!

I’m counting this read for two events in November – the aforementioned German Literature Month, and also Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746Books and Bookish Beck! 😀

October reads and the #1929Club – what a month it was!- and what’s coming next?? 😊📚

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Well – that *was* a month of reading! As well as general bookishness, I ended the month co-hosting the latest of our reading Club weeks with Simon, and 1929 turned out to be a brilliant choice! Here are the books I finally read during October, and as you can see, many of them were from the year in question!

No duds again, which is always pleasing, and some real stunners in there. Revisiting a couple of my favourite French authors, Colette and Cocteau, was a wonderful treat, as was reading a chunkster from John Cowper Powys. Thanks *so* much to everyone who joined in with the #1929Club and if I haven’t linked to your post on my dedicated page, please do leave a comment and I’ll do so!

So where will we go after 1929? Well, Simon and I put our heads together, and Simon suggested we look at the 1940s as we’ve only done a couple of Clubs from that decade; and he proposed actually going for 1940 itself. I was happy to agree as there are some marvellous books from that year. So from 10-16 April 2023 we will co-host the #1940Club! We do hope you will join us! 😊😊

So what’s coming up in November? Well, it’s a month full of events: Novellas in November, Non-Fiction November, German Lit Month and Margaret Atwood Reading Month, to name just a few. Add to that my monthly read of The Dark is Rising sequence and the LibraryThing Virago monthly reads, and potentially the whole of November could be taken up with events.

Truth be told, I may not join in with all of those, depending on my mood, but for the moment, this is a pile of the books which are currently taking my fancy:

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed that two particular books appear on both piles… That’s because as soon as I’d gathered the pile of possibles, I immediately flung myself into them, and as they were both slim I finished them before the end of the month! 🤣🤣 What comes next remains to be seen – I’m not sure where my reading mojo is going right now!

Anyway, those are the books catching my eye at the moment – what do you plan for November? Are you joining in with any of the events above???

“…I’ll live in my own world until the end…” #WolfSolent #1929Club

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My final read for the #1929Club is a bit of a chunkster, and much longer than I would probably normally read for one of our Clubs. However, I was reading the other books I chose ahead of the club, and they turned out to be quite slim on the whole; so I had the time to take on a bigger book, and the fact that I had a couple of days off work poorly, when I did manage to read a bit, probably helped. The book is “Wolf Solent” by John Cowper Powys and it’s a fascinating, absorbing and complex work!

Powys has appeared on the Ramblings before, as Mike Walmer has reissued a fascinating pair of his shorter works (see here and here for my thoughts on them). However, I’ve had Powys’s books on my shelves since my teens, when I picked up a copy of his “A Glastonbury Romance” in a Cheltenham book shop. It languished for decades, and possibly even got donated and then a fresh copy repurchased – with the number of books which have gone in and out of the Ramblings over the years, it’s often hard to be sure. Anyway, at some point I gathered copies of the four books which are known as his ‘Wessex novels’ – this one, plus “Glastonbury”, “Weymouth Sands” and “Maiden Castle”. Yes, as you will see from the image above, I have two copies of “Wolf…”; the first is the original smaller Penguin Modern Classic I first picked up, and the one I actually read on the left, which is physically bigger and a bit more easy to read and handle. Frankly, it needs to be, because “Wolf Solent” is 634 pages long…

As the book opens, Wolf Solent, a 35 year-old man, is travelling to his home town of Ramsgard, Dorset; the book is firmly set in the West Country, with Ramsgard based on Sherborne; Blacksod, a place which will feature in the book, is modelled on Yeovil, with Dorchester and Weymouth both making appearances. Wolf had been living in London with his mother, working as a history teacher in London, the pair having split from his late father many years ago. Solent junior had lost his job after a wild outburst in his class; and he’s been offered a job as a kind of literary assistant to the local squire of King’s Barton, who’s preparing a somewhat scurrilous book on lurid local legends and history. There is also the hint that he wishes to be away from London, with its squalor, its modern civiisation – and, in fact, away from his mother…

…it seemed to Solent as though all the religions in the world were nothing but so many creaking and splashing barges, whereon the souls of men ferried themselves over those lakes of primal silence, disturbing the swaying water-plants that grew there and driving away the shy water-fowl!

So Wolf arrives in Ramsgard and immediately falls in with some interesting locals. There is the Otter family, with whom he is initially staying: brothers Darnley and Jason will occupy much of the narrative. Then he meets Selena Gault, an astonishingly ugly woman who was the last lover of his profligate father; T.E. Valley, the local clergyman, known as Tilly-Valley to all, and something of a bag of nerves; the Smith family, including Mattie, who will turn out to have a strong connection to Wolf, plus Olwen, her young charge; Malakite, the bookseller and his daughter Christie; and the Torp family, with beautiful daughter Gerda slaying Wolf’s emotions from the minute he sees her.

Those are the main characters, but of course the book is rich with them, from Roger Monk, the squire’s strange manservant to Bob Weevil, Wolf’s rival for Gerda’s affection. And then there is James Redfern, a character in absentia who somehow hovers over the narrative all the way through; because before Wolf took on the post of assisting the squire, Redfern held that position, and he appears to have died in mysterious circumstances. There are whispers and sidelong glances, glimpses of hidden secrets, and Wolf himself wonders constantly about Redfern. Nevertheless, he settles in to his work, marries Gerda, and copes with the fact that his mother has decided to return to Ramsgard to join him. This is complication enough in what is a difficult situation; because whilst adoring Gerda, Wolf is also in love with Christie; and Christie’s home life is difficult enough because of the incest which took place between her father and her now absent older sister. Add in a half sister of Wolf’s, a constant lack of money and Wolf’s emotional state, and you end up with a highly charged book!

I have to say, though, that that fairly simplistic outline of some of the plot elements of “Wolf Solent” simply doesn’t do it justice; this is a complex and involved novel which explores much more than the shenanigans of a west country town. There is, of course, a reason why the book is named after the main character, because we do see things entirely from his viewpoint. Solent is an extremely troubled, complex man, locked inside his head and in effect fighting with two different sides of his nature. He finds it hard to cope with reality and when the world is too much, slips off inside his head to what he calls his ‘mythology’; though whether that will be strong enough to help him survive Dorset is another matter. Cleverly, Powys creates occasions when his protagonist picks up that things are not as he perceives them, and that other people see him very differently from how he sees himself. This dualism in his nature is a battle between his physical side, which loves the sensuality of his relationship with Gerda, and his intellectual side which adores Christie and the cerebral love they have. I suppose the solution would have been for him to find a lover with beauty *and* brains, but perhaps that would be too much for him to expect!

His mind withdrew into itself with a jerk at this point, trying to push away a certain image of things that rose discomfortably upon him – the image of a countryside covered from sea to sea by illuminated stations for airships, overspread from sea to sea by thousands of humming aeroplanes! What would ever become of Tilly-Valley’s religion in that world, with head-lights flashing along cemented highways, and all existence dominated by electricity? What would become of old women reading by candlelight? What would become of his own life-illusion, his secret ‘mythology’, in such a world?

Again, that’s perhaps too simple a reading of this book, because in places the narrative is deeply philosophical. Wolf has a strong connection with the natural world, which is reiterated over and over in the book; and his battle between what he believes are good and evil, both within himself and in the world, are often calmed by his contact with nature. A character comments on how much he walks, and indeed he seems to be constantly out in the country, as if the physical act of movement helps both his body and his mind. Powys himself had issues with the trappings of progress and modernity, which are reflected in Wolf’s attitudes, particularly towards the end of the book; and there is the inevitable risk of conflating character and author, which isn’t lessened by the coincidences between Powy’s life and that of Wolf Solent!

The duality of Wolf, however, is what the book pivots on, and he does spend much of his time torn between loyalty to his (living) mother and (dead) father; in fact, he often has conversations in his head with the latter. He’s strongly influenced by both, yet constantly vacillates, chastising himself for not behaving like one or the other. Certainly both appear dominant characters, and there are times when you want him to strike out on his own and break away from both parents!

That’s what you do, Wolf. You look the other way! You do that when your feet take you to the Malakite shop. You’re doing that now, when you carry this naughty book back to that old rogue. Why do you always try and make out that your motives are good, Wolf? They’re often abominable! Just as mine are. There’s only one thing required of us in this world, and that’s not to be a burden … not to hang round people’s necks!

It has to be said that Powys does write beautifully (even if his narrative is a little prolix at times…); and he can conjure up atmosphere, setting, emotion and tension quite wonderfully. His prose evokes the English countryside, particularly a part of world with which I’m familiar, and although the modern world was encroaching on everywhere by 1929, Ramsgard and its environs are still holding on to old traditions, despite the presence of planes and trains. Interesting, I started to read “Wolf Solent” some years back, and never got very far; and I suspect that I had no idea of the kind of book to expect. However, having read the two short works Mike Walmer issued, I feel I had much more of a handle on how Powys’s writing would be, as he touches on issues of modernity, dualism and, frankly, the whole point of living in these books. I sensed similar themes bubbling under the surface of all three works, and they were all recognisably by the same man with the same beliefs.

I think I’ll draw this post to a close here, as it’s impossible to explore all of the themes and meanings of this deeply interesting book in one short(ish) blog post. However, I will say that I found my reading of “Wolf Solent” a fascinating, thought-provoking and very stimulating one; I was able to read the book over a period of about ten days, living alongside Wolf and his fellow characters, and I was totally engrossed. I did wonder if I was biting off more than I could chew taking on a book this long for the #1929Club, but was pleased to prove to myself that I still have the reading stamina to absorb a chunkster. So my final read for our club was a real winner – hurrah!

*****

As an aside, I looked up the book after I’d finished drafting this post, and found from the Wikipedia entry that in fact it was initially even longer (!) and that six chapters running to 318 pages had to be removed/condensed prior to the book’s initial publication. This is extremely intriguing, and references to the content of the missing sections even more so. Apparently there has been no attempt to combine these back into the published text as there are plot variations in the sections removed which would make for inconsistencies – I guess it would take Powys coming back to life to sort them out and that’s not going to happen! Luckily, though, if you have a JStor account, you can read the missing sections online as the Powys Society has published them in their journal – so I may have to do a little investigating… 😉

 

“…the true world of childhood must prevail…” #1929Club #cocteau #lesenfantsterribles

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As I hinted in my review of “Letter to the Americans” earlier in the month, there was every chance of me returning to another Jean Cocteau book before too long; and truth be told, I have been planning to read “Les Enfants Terribles” since we decided on the #1929 Club six months ago. I first read the book in my early twenties and it was one of those pivotal books of my life, leading me to a lifelong love of the man and his art. I was a tiny bit nervous about revisiting a book which had meant so much to me after so long a gap, but I needn’t have been – it’s just wonderful!

“Enfants”, here in a wonderful translation by the esteemed novelist Rosamund Lehmann, was one of only a handful of novels Cocteau published; and in fact he only published one more novel during his lifetime. To be honest, it’s a novella rather than a novel, and it tells the story of the titular children, siblings Elisabeth and Paul. They have no father; their mother is ill and bedridden, with the eldest of the two, Elisabeth, taking care of her. Paul attends school, where he is obsessed with the powerful figure of another schoolboy, Dargelos; and completing the set-up is Gerard, another of Paul’s school friends, who is obsessed with the siblings.

There was snow that evening. The snow had gone on falling steadily since yesterday, thereby radically altering the original design. The Cité had withdrawn in Time; the snow seemed no longer to be impartially distributed over the whole warm living earth, but to be dropping, piling only upon this one isolated spot.

The book opens with snow descending on Paris, and the schoolboys have a snowball fight; an iconic moment, as I’ll mention later. Paul is wounded by a snowball thrown by Dargelos, and carried home; and from then on Elisabeth cares for him as well. The siblings have an unnaturally strong bond, still sharing a bedroom and retreating into their own world, symbolised by the Room, which is their refuge, a haven they’re created as a form of survival. Often they quarrel, but underneath the bond is unbreakable. Gerard is gradually allowed access to their world, although more as an audience than anything else. As the siblings grow older, things change around them – their mother dies, Gerard’s uncle steps in to support them financially, and there is even a marriage. Nothing, however, seems to change the structure of the siblings’ life. But the introduction into their circle of Agathe, who so closely resembles Dargelos, will change the Room forever with catastrophic consequences.

Elisabeth crossed the dining-room and went into the drawing-room. Here too the snow had been about its magic work. The room hung in mid-air, miraculously suspended, changed, unfamiliar to the child who stood there, stock still, staring, behind one of the armchairs. The lamplit brightness of the opposite pavement had printed on the ceiling several windows made of squares of shadow and half-shadow curtained with arabesques of light; upon this groundwork the silhouetted forms of passers-by circled diminished as in a moving fresco.

For a book of its length (my Folio Society edition runs to 117 pages), “Enfants” is a powerful and memorable piece of writing, and I understand why it affected me so strongly when I first read it. Cocteau’s writing is stunning and lyrical, and despite the darkness of the subject matter, it has great beauty. Cocteau was a visual artist, and his writings have a filmic quality, with vivid set pieces ready to be transferred to a movie setting. It’s not surprising, therefore, that “Enfants” was indeed filmed in 1950 by Jean-Pierre Meville, starring Nicole Stephane and Edouard Dermithe, and you can either find it on DVD or track down a copy online. However, a pivotal scene from the book, that of the snowball fight with Dargelos, features in one of Cocteau’s earliest films, “The Blood of a Poet”, and that whole moving picture is itself a surreal treat, featuring many tropes which would end up in Cocteau’s later cinematic works.

Paul marvelled at the fact of their encounter; but his sudden clairvoyance was confined to one sole area, that of love. Otherwise a greater marvel might have felled him utterly: namely, Fate the lacemaker implacably at work, holding upon her knees the cushion of our lives, and stuffing it with pins.

What I loved most about “Enfants”, I think, was the way the narrative simply sucked me into its world and took me along with it. I empathised completely with the siblings and their wish to build their own world, with their own heroes and villains, and ignore the sordidness of the outside world. I was very much of that mindset myself when I first read the book, creating a world for myself filled with books and art and clothes and design from the past which appealed to me, pulling it all together into a kind of personal mythology. “Enfants” spoke to me very strongly at the time as the siblings were doing much the same thing; and I still relate to it nowadays, as I try to fill my everyday existence with literature and paintings and creativity and things which make me happy in the face of the relentness nastiness of real life. Whether it’s an obsession with fountain pens or nature or books or mid-century modern design, these things help to keep me happy, and I saw this in the lives of the siblings; because the bleakness of their background and the forces around them hit me more this time round.

Hollow, leaden, buoyant, Elisabeth advanced along the corridor, her white wrap, billowing round her ankles, seeming to float her onward like a cloud: one of those foamy cloud-cushions devised by primitive painters to bear some Being of the angelic order. Only a faint humming persisted in her head; and in her breast nothing any more but an axe thudding out its mortal strokes.

Impoverished, cooking and cleaning and caring for a sick mother, with no father figure for support, the siblings live in a precarious world, which is why I guess they constructed the Room around them, for support and survival. Their life is full of the potential for tragedy, and indeed events do lead inexorably to a dramatic climax; but it’s hard to see that they would ever have been able to live a normal existence. Life throws them a few chances and they take them; but the unnaturally strong bond between the two will eventually bring their downfall.

They lived their dream, their Room, fancying they loathed what they adored.

I’ve wanted to re-read “Enfants” for many years, and I’m so glad the #1929Club gave me the courage to do so, because it was a wonderful and hypnotic experience. Cocteau apparently wrote the book in the midst of a phase of opium addiction, and there are indeed some beautifully written, hallucinatory sequences. Yet it’s also a book about how we cope with life and the world around us, about the strength of sibling relations and about the structures we build around us for self-preservation. “Les Enfants Terribles” is a dark and stunning and beautiful book which has haunted me from the time I first read it – and it still does!

*****

I wanted to say also a little about the edition I read, which was a beautiful copy from the Folio Society. My original read, all those years ago, was a lovely vintage Penguin Modern Class, which as you can see from the photo below I still have!

But I didn’t want to risk any damage, as older Penguins can be fragile, so I chose to revisit the book with the Folio copy I picked up some years back – and that was a lovely experience too. The Folio is a gorgeous hardback with a stunning cover design, and has an extra treat inside. The Penguin contains many illustrations by Cocteau for the book (I haven’t counted them…) but the Folio instead gathers all the illustrations together at the end, and this is the complete set of drawings for the book, originally published by Cocteau together in 1934.

These are just wonderful – a real treat – and so if you are planning to read “Enfants” I do recommend tracking down a copy of the Folio – it can be found online at remarkably reasonable prices….

*****

Without wanting to make this post interminable, you can find some interesting uploads of Cocteau’s films online to give you a taste of his work – here are some clips from “Blood of a Poet”:

and here is “Les Enfants Terribles”:

And finally, in the 1980s, when I was first discovering French art and literature, the wonderful David Sylvian released a song which is still one of my favourites and which references many of the artworks I love!

“…something that left its trace…” #1929Club #passing #nellalarsen

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When I was casting around to see what books I had on the TBR which would fit for the #1929Club, I was really pleased to discover that “Passing” by Nella Larsen was published that year. It’s been languishing unread for too long, after I picked it up following rapturous praise on a number of blogs I trust; yet somehow the time was never right for it. However, with our club week, it seemed like I was meant to read the book now – and what a powerful and unforgettable one it is!

Nella Larsen was born of mixed heritage, having a Danish mother and father believed to be a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean. She made a career in nursing, but it seems always felt caught between cultures; despite writing two successful novellas she disappeared from the literary scene after a divorce. She returned to nursing for the rest of her life which, on the basis of this novella, is our loss – Larsen really could write.

“Passing” tells the story of two women of mixed heritage – Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Both are pale skinned and could pass as white – hence the title – and Clare has chosen to trade on that, marrying a rich white man as a way out of her harsh and impoverished background. Irene, however, has stayed in the world of her upbringing, marrying Brian, a doctor, with whom she has two sons. She seems comfortable in her world, but as the book opens she receives a letter from Clare which takes her back to their encounter two years ago…

Chicago. August. A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain. A day on which the very outlines of the buildings shuddered as if in protest at the heat. Quivering lines sprang up from baked pavements and wriggled along the shining car tracks. The automobiles parked at the curbs were a dancing blaze, and the glass of the shopwindows threw out a blinding radiance. Sharp particles of dust rose from the burning sidewalks, stinging the seared or dripping skins of wilting pedestrians. What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows.

In Chicago, the two women accidentally meet, years after their childhood together, growing up in the same neighbourhood. Irene seems calm and self assured, yet she’s wrong-footed by Clare; the latter has an edge, flirting with danger (and, actually, just about everyone she talks to), and the social engagements Irene has with Clare leave her determined she never wants to see her old friend again. For Clare really is playing with fire, as her husband Jack Bellew is an outspoken racist, happily expressing his disgust for anyone of colour, and in the most offensive terms. Frighteningly, he even has the nickname “Nig” for his wife Clare, although he has no idea of her mixed background.

As the story moves into its second section, we discover more of Irene’s life, and it seems that she is living in just as precarious a fashion, although for different reasons. Husband Brian is something of an enigma, itching for a change in life and location, and it takes all Irene’s wiles to control him. Then Clare re-appears – and the effects for all will be devastating…

I won’t say more about the plot because for a novella, “Passing” really packs in so much! Larsen’s writing is excellent and she captures her characters quite brilliantly. The gradual exploration of both women’s characters had me adjusting my view of them both as I went on; each in their different way living in a constructed world which couldn’t last. The tension builds to a dramatic climax, which completely took me by surprise; and the ending, perhaps a little nebulous, certainly left me wondering how the characters would pick up the threads of their lives again.

As well as being a story about race, “Passing” also seems to me to be more widely about the faces we present in public, the image we create of our lives, and the secrets we keep behind closed doors. The racial element is powerful – Bellew’s vile outpourings are crude and offensive; and the tension between white and black environments is something which Irene wants to shelter her children from, with her husband thinking they need to know the realities. In the end, both women are living a kind of lie, albeit different ones, and the collision of their two lives causes havoc.

“Passing” was a memorable book, one I’m glad I finally picked up, and one which will stay with me. Larsen was no doubt writing from experience, coming from that mixed background herself, and there is a strong ring of authenticity to her story. I would like to hope that we’ve moved on from the kind of intolerance shown in the book, but alas I feel that we haven’t. “Passing” is a reminder of where lack of empathy between human beings can lead, as well as a powerful exploration of women’s lives in 1920s America, and it was a brilliant read for the #1929Club!

“a poetic echo awakened in me…” #sido #colette #1929Club

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Our club reading weeks often given me the excuse to revisit favourite authors; more often than not it’s Agatha Christie, who was so prolific during the 20th century; but today I’m returning to one of my most beloved authors – the wonderful French writer Colette.

As I’ve no doubt mentioned here before, I first read her in my early 20s, during a voyage of literary discovery when I came across and devoured so many of the authors who changed my way of looking at, and thinking about, the world. Colette’s reputation has probably risen and fallen over the years, at least in countries outside her native France, but she’s possibly become better known nowadays following the recent film of her life. I have a shelves full of her works, as you can see, and I was very happy to find that her “Sido” was first published in 1929… 😀

My Colette collection…

Many of Colette’s works were what would now be called autofiction, but “Sido” is actually a work of memoir, containing as it does three pieces looking back on her family – the titular work, “The Captain” and “The Savages” (my edition also contains “My Mother’s House”, first published in 1922) “Sido” is translated here by Enid McLeod, and although short is a quite beautiful and lyrical reminiscence of her past.

Colette starts by setting her mother firmly in her landscape; the house and the garden are central to Sido’s existence, her country life one that she loves, and her relationship with Paris wary. She surveys her territory, the elements that surround her and is the fixed, central point in Colette’s life. Sido battles with the elements, tends her loved ones, garden and animals, and is capable of praise or criticism, whenever it’s needed. Her daughter regards her with awe and, it’s very clear, misses her when she finally marries and leaves for the City of Light.

She knew that I should not be able to resist, any more than she could, the desire to know, and that like herself I should ferret in the earth of that flowerpot until it had given up it secret. I never thought of our resemblance, but she knew I was her own daughter and that, child though I was, I was already seeking for that sense of shock, the quickened heart-beat, and the sudden stoppage of the breath – symptoms of the private ecstasy of the treasure-seeker. A treasure is not merely something hidden under the earth, or the rocks, or the sea. The vision of gold and gems is but a blurred image. To me the important thing is to lay bear and bring to light something that no human eye before mine has gazed upon.

“The Captain” is a pen-portrait of Colette’s father, Sido’s second husband and a man who obviously adores his wife. A war-hero, he lost his leg fighting in the Second Italian War of Independence and worked as a tax collector in village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, where the family lived and Colette was born. As seen through the young girl’s eyes, he’s defined by his passion for Sido, and although the latter rules the roost around the home, The Captain is always treated with respect.

As for the savages, Colette’s brother and half-brother, her portrayal of them is tender and moving, particularly as one was no longer with them when she wrote this piece. She looks back on their childhood, their games and fights and differences and closeness. And poignantly she relates a recent meeting with the one grown brother and how he had not necessarily taken the path expected, although both siblings were still close. It’s as powerful a piece as the other two and evidence, if it were needed, of what a superb writer Colette was.

The three pieces collected here as Sido are such beautiful, evocative pieces of writing that I found myself transported back nearly 100 years while I read them, to rural France with its village life and closeness to nature. Colette herself always had a strong attachment to the animal and vegetable world (something I recognised in the first book of hers which I read, “Break of Day”); and that stayed with her even during her long life living in cities.

I’ve seen it reported that Colette idealised her past, tweaking her memories to present things as she wanted to remember them; well, that’s perhaps something we all do to an extent. Whether she did or not, “Sido” is a gorgeous, lyrical work which conjures up her past, her family and a lost way of life – totally unforgettable and a perfect re-read for the #1929Club!

Lost on the high seas – a guest post for the #1929Club!

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As is now customary, Mr Kaggsy has offered up a guest post for our reading club week and it’s a classic book which was also a very successful film. I suspect it’s a title which many are familiar with, and which will also turn up on other’s blogs this week – so let’s see what he has to say about it! 😀

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes (originally published as The Innocent Voyage).

A hurricane on the island of the title sets off events which in turn shape, change, or even end, the lives of this stirring tale’s main players. The Bas-Thornton family have left late-Victorian England to set up home in Jamaica. The parents and their five young children are ill-prepared for a Caribbean cyclone which destroys their property and devastates the plantation around it, while the terrified family and locals take refuge in a cellar.

The aftermath is such that the Bas-Thorntons decide to send their offspring back to Blighty, the girls and two boys having just witnessed death and heartbreak at first hand. The young group members, John, Emily, Edward, Rachel and Laura, are joined by two Creole minors, Margaret and Harry. And yet the sailing away from parents and island home is seen by the children as an adventure, a journey which will become ever more exciting and fateful when they are taken by pirates.

So begins the ‘innocent voyage’, the story being recounted by an undisclosed narrator. This standpoint allows the unnamed onlooker to observe events and characters, without being a participant in any of the goings-on or interactions. The journey proceeds as envisaged, until the ship is met by an unknown vessel and boarded by its crew, their leader claiming to be on legitimate business. However, the men are clearly pirates, intent on looting.

While transfer of booty is in progress, the youngsters hop over to the raiders’ craft, eager to explore. As a result, when the pillagers cast off the children are still on board, soon to face the appointed skipper of the vessel, Captain Jonsen. From this point onwards the true adventure begins, the young landlubbers now either unwanted stowaways to be disposed of, or kept for sale or ransom. Alarmingly, a later report from the previously attacked ship mistakenly informs the parents of the missing children that their waifs have been murdered.

Harper & Brothers 1929 US first edition; Chatto & Windus 1929 UK; Modern Library 1932 US.

Captain Jonsen puts in to the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia, for shore leave and to conduct business. However, a tragic occurrence serves to put the ship and its occupants back under sail. This is, appropriately, a watershed moment in the story, with the ‘adopted’ children henceforth leading whatever will be their lives at sea, and Emily coming to the fore. This is also a convenient point to dock and provide information about the book’s author.

Richard Hughes (1900 – 1976) spent more than a year contemplating the idea for his first novel and penning the opening chapter, after he had heard a tale of children being captured by pirates. The book was published in the United States in 1929 and in the same year in Britain, under its altered title. In his Oxford university years Hughes met with fellow students such as Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley and T. E. Lawrence. He worked as a journalist and was widely travelled. After becoming married and having five children, he eventually came to write film scripts – for Ealing productions over ten years – as well as publishing more books. In the Thirties he had moved to South Wales and for a while had Dylan Thomas staying with him. Hughes received an OBE in 1946 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In his final years he retired to North Wales, where he died at home in 1976. He had been churchwarden of Llanfihangel-y-traethau, the village church, and was buried there. ‘Innocent Voyage’/’High Wind’ was his most famous novel, made into a major film in 1965 – as covered below and pictured on US and UK tie-in paperback covers.

Signet 1961 US; Penguin 1965 film tie-in UK; Signet 1965 film tie-in US.

The book’s story really comes alive with an account of the children’s time at sea, living alongside pirates. Their ship is described vividly, both when becalmed in high temperatures, or being thrown about by a heavy sea. Of the former condition, Hughes with his nautical experience, writes: ‘The heat was extreme. The ropes hung like dead snakes, the sails as heavy as ill-sculptured drapery. The iron stanchion of the awning blistered any hand that touched it. Where the deck was unsheltered, the pitch boiled out of the seams.’

No less graphic, but now comical, is the account of a rolling deck: ‘The schooner lying over as she did, her wet deck made a most admirable toboggan-slide; and for half an hour (the children) tobogganed happily on their bottoms from windward to leeward, shrieking with joy, fetching up in the lee scuppers, which were mostly awash, and then climbing… to the windward bulwarks raised high in the air, and so all over again.’

The play enjoyed by the minors brings forth a rebuke from the captain, whose vulgar words shock his young passengers: ‘… Jonsen at the wheel said not a single word. But at last his pent-up irritation broke… “If you go and wear holes in your drawers, do you think I am going to mend them?”… “And I’ll not have you going about my ship without them! See?” (The children) could hardly believe so unspeakable a remark had crossed human lips.’

Emily becomes the main character in the chronicling of the voyage, particularly at the end, when presented as a witness in the eventual piracy trial. Wishing not to say anything to condemn the alleged captors of herself and siblings, she struggles to give an account of what she has seen or experienced. Sadly she has been coached as to what she must testify and so feels painfully disloyal to Captain Jonsen, who became a guardian to her, however unsuitable. A fatal incident which occurred further assails Emily’s conscience, although she has no notion of what severe punishment awaits the accused.

The girl’s time at sea is over, a new school awaiting her entry. The closing words of Hughes’ unrevealed narrator contrast the youngster’s weeks without discipline and her return to a much more proper existence: ‘… (she) with the other new girls was making friends with the older pupils. Looking at that gentle, happy throng of clean innocent faces and soft graceful limbs, listening to the ceaseless, artless babble of chatter rising, perhaps God could have picked out from among them which was Emily: but I am sure that I could not.’

Penguin 1968 UK; Harper & Row 1972 US; Panther 1976.

US writer and literary critic Isabel Paterson described the book in her 1932 Modern Library version introduction as ‘… a tragi-comedy of Good and Evil, to which each reader must supply his own moral.’ This aspect is portrayed to an ample extent in the 1965 film (there have also been radio and stage adaptations). Shot in CinemaScope, the big screen photography and direction convey both the high seas elements and contrasts between ethical and instinctive behaviour, the children sometimes even teasing the superstitious crew for mischievous fun.

There is an extraordinary performance by Deborah Baxter in her first screen appearance, having not long turned ten. Her interaction with lead Anthony Quinn, as Jonsen, is remarkable and the young Baxter portrays perfectly Emily’s range of emotions. Given that the film version had to appeal to a wide audience, some of the book’s less agreeable moments could not be directly included; however, the humanity of Jonsen, and his comical side, is well drawn. The touching portrayal of his doomed character as he manages to deliver a final wink to Emily across the tribunal floor is almost paternal.

Of the book, Isabel Paterson resolved that there was ‘… no lack of incident, tragic, comic, grotesque. But throughout it is the might-have-been, the moral implications, that stop the breath’, she also highlighting the ‘profound study of the growth of consciousness in the mind of a child’. Indeed there are darker moments among the chapters, but the simplistic reactions of the children always temper the seriousness of the situation, their young minds never appreciating the gravity.

#1929Club – some previous reads! 😊📚

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As usual with our Club reading weeks, I thought I would take a look back at some previous read from our current year of 1929; it’s really a bumper year, and when I started compiling a list of books I realised I had read quite a few from 1929. I shan’t cover them all, but here are a few favourites!

“Grand Hotel” by Vicki Baum

I actually reviewed this wonderful book for Shiny New Books back in 2016, and absolutely loved it! It was a runaway hit at the time, and made into a successful film starring Greta Garbo. The book pulls together a number of stories, all set in and around the titular hotel, and Baum’s writing and control of her material is stunning. You can read my full review here, and I rather wish I’d had the chance to revisit this one.

“Eve in Egypt” by Stella Tennyson Jesse

“Eve…” was one of Michael Walmer’s rediscoveries, and I covered this is 2018 when he reissued it. Stella was the sister of the more well-known F. Tennyson Jesse (author of “A Pin to See the Peepshow”) and this lovely book is a cross between a frothy 1920s romance and a travelogue, and was a real treat to read. More about it here!

“Speedy Death” by Gladys Mitchell

I got my fingers burned with this one… I had lined myself up to start the week re-reading “Speedy Death” by the great Gladys Mitchell, her first Mrs. Bradley title. Then something niggled in the back of my head, I checked the Ramblings, and found out that I had already covered this quite some time ago… (2014 to be precise!) So that plan went out of the window! Looking back, I did love this to bits, though – a remarkable debut for author and character, and you can see what I thought of it here.

“Clash” by Ellen Wilkinson

“Clash” was a random find in a charity shop in Leicester, and turned out to be a real stunner! Wilkinson was a left-winger from a working-class background, a Labour politician who joined in the Jarrow March when she could. “Clash” tells the story of a woman trade union organiser and the choices she has to make. It was an unforgettable read, and another title I would happily have revisited for this week! More here!

“Hudson River Bracketed” by Edith Wharton

Another Virago book, though this time from across the pond. Telling the story of a young American coming of age and dealing with all that life can throw at him, it’s a beautifully written book. It also deals with class and the struggle to make a living, so I suppose there *is* a bit of a link with “Clash”. There is a follow up to this that I have a copy of, and one day I will get to it… Meanwhile, you can read my full review here.

“Buchmendel” by Stefan Zweig

Back in 2014 there was a bit of a kerfuffle about Stefan Zweig, with some questioning his status and claiming he only wrote about trivialities. Well, I challenge anyone to read “Buchmendel”, a short and poignant tale which captures the horrors of anti-semitism, and not be convinced of his greatness. Zweig was a wonderful and powerful author, and you can see what I thought about the furore here.

*****

Well, I shall stop here. These are only a few of the many 1929 books I’ve previously read, some pre-blog (e.g. “David Golder” by Irene Nemirovsky) and others on the blog (“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley). It certainly must count as one of the best years for books we’ve chosen (if not *the* best!) – what books have been your favourites from 1929???? 🤔😊

Kicking off the #1929Club with the *other* AC!!

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Yes, you read that correctly! Instead of starting our reading week with the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, I’m exploring a different Golden Age crime author! Christie is always a name I turn to, but I wasn’t feeling either of this year’s possible titles; so I turned to Dean Street Press and their stellar collection of reissues! They were kind enough to provide a copy of one of their 1929 books – “Water Weed” by Alice Campbell – and it turned out to be a fascinating read!

Campbell (1887-1955) had an interesting background; hailing originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and later to Paris. Here she married the American-born artist and writer James Lawrence Campbell, and just prior to WW1 they moved with their first child to England, where they settled and had two more children. “Water Weed” was Campbell’s second book, and it’s an accomplished one!

Longer than the average GA crime novel (at 281 pages) it weaves in a number of different strands which makes it all the more satisfying as a read. The story follows the adventures of a plucky young American, Virginia (Ginny) Carew, who’s on a trip to London. Here, she and her father run into an old friend, Glenn Hillier, but Glenn is changed; from a cheerful, hearty young American, he seems to have turned into a nervy, unsettled person. It soon becomes clear that the problem lies with an older woman, with whom Glenn is besotted; known as the Cuckoo, she and her children, Pam and Henry, live in luxury in the English countryside, and before long Ginny is down for a visit.

However, the country house is anything but an idyllic setting; there are tensions between any number of characters, suspicious retainers, and both Pam and Henry have their quirks. Things build up to the inevitable murder, and further drama occurs because Glenn is a suspect and then disappears, suspected of suicide. Can Ginny get to the truth of things? And is she in danger herself? More than this I will not say, but any potential reader can be reassured that there are twists and turns and drama aplenty!!

Campbell is a really interesting writer and despite my flippant comparison with Christie, both are very different authors. And there’s actually quite a lot to unpack from this book, as I picked up a number of layers! I feel that Campbell brings a different perspective to GA writing, maybe because of her cosmopolitan background, and although the primary focus is on the mystery, it’s not just a whodunnit. Instead, she explores what we would now call mental health issues, healthy and unhealthy relationships and the psychology behind what’s going on. Christie does that too, of course, but perhaps not in the detail that Campbell displays here.

There’s also a surprisingly frank focus for the day on sexual matters and the extreme tendencies of some of the characters! Nothing graphic, of course, but sexual attraction is not underplayed, and Glenn can admit to a love affair, Cuckoo’s preferences can be baldly revealed and the devastating effects of her behaviour on her family clearly spelled out. I sensed also, perhaps, that Campbell was making a contrast between clean, healthy young Americans and decadent, warped Europeans – but maybe I’m reading a little too much in there!

So my first experience of reading Campbell was a fascinating one. She’s an excellent writer and has created here a beguiling blend of mystery, drama, romance and the adventures of Americans in Europe. The story builds to a tense climax, and doesn’t downplay the physical results of assault. Campbell’s heroine Ginny is feisty and convincing, and the story’s ending is a satisfying one. I’m so glad that the #1929Club gave me a chance to discover this author, and thanks again to Dean Street Press for kindly providing a copy – do check out their site for a wonderful collection of reprinted classics! Your TBR may have to expand a little to cope… 😉

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