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Penguin Moderns 15 and 16 – Luscious prose and evocative journalism

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I haven’t left it too long between pairs of Penguins this time, possibly because I was particularly keen on reading one of them, and possibly because I felt the need of something brief after a fascinating but dense doorstop of a Russian book. So without further ado:

Penguin Modern 15 – Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector

Lispector needs no introduction, I’m sure, to readers of the Ramblings. I’ve written about her before here, and although I’ve only read the one work by this celebrated Brazilian author, it was memorable and stunning and I’ve always meant to read more. So this Penguin Modern, with three short pieces, was an ideal way to ease back into Lispector’s work.

Rio de Janeiro – Estátua da escritora Clarice Lispector e seu cão Ulisses no Leme. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil) via Wikimedia Commons

The book contains three stories – the title one, “Love” and “Family Ties“. All concern women’s lives, all are beautifully written, and all are utterly memorable. The first story is that of a young lady who indeed daydreams and gets drunk. Her husband and children almost seem incidental; instead she lives in a haze, detached and somewhat alienated from her family, only really moved by a glamorous rival when she’s out drinking with her husband and a business client. “Love” tells of Ana, another married woman with children; stuck in a passive, content routine, an unusual chance encounter on a tram shakes her out of her complacency and threatens her everyday existence.

She had pacified life so well, taken such care for it not to explode. She had kept it all in serene comprehension, separated each person from the rest, clothes were clearly made to be worn and you could choose the evening movie from the newspaper – everything wrought in such a way that one day followed another. And a blind man chewing gum was shattering it all to pieces. And through this compassion there appeared to Ana a life full of sweet nausea, rising to her mouth.

Family Ties” in particular is a triumph; the central female character, Catarina, is seen in relation to her mother, her husband and her son, all of whom have different views of her and depend on her in different ways. Once again a seemingly happy existence is not what it seems, and Lispector dissects human relationships with frightening precision, laying bare in a few sentences the tenuous nature of love and life.

There was no escape… And there was no way not to look at it. What was she ashamed of? That it was no longer compassion, it wasn’t just compassion: her heart had filled with the worst desire to live.

This was a stunning addition to the Penguin Moderns series; Lispector is such a wonderful writer, and each hypnotic story lingered in the mind after. The language is often gorgeous, and I’m left wondering why I’ve left it so long to go back to Lispector’s work. After all, I think I might well have her complete stories lurking somewhere… 🙂

Penguin Modern 16 – An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuscinski

In complete contrast to book 15, Penguin Modern 16 is a collection of short journalistic pieces by Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski, who was known also for poetry and photography. The four pieces collected in this book are all set in post-War Poland, a country that seems as far away and exotic as any distant regime.

By Mariusz Kubik, http://www.mariuszkubik.pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The title story sees the author visiting a small village dance, where future marriages will be decided; “Danka” tells of temptation and a clash between modernity and old-style religion; “The Taking of Ezbieta” is a striking piece which relates the effect on the parents when their only daughter is seduced into taking the veil; and in the final story, “The Stiff“, Kapuscinski joins a group taking the coffin of a miner back to his family.

That woman and that man did not have much of a life, although they gave it their lungs and their heart. After that, they tried to fight. But when solitary people try to fight for their cause, it is only at that moment when they naively forget that right must yield to might. In the end, that moment always passes. And what’s left is what’s left.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this particular PM, but I don’t think I anticipated such striking, evocative and memorable pieces. The post-War Poland which Kapuscinski captures is indeed a strange place, struggling to move into modernity but hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of the past. Some of the conditions seem incredibly primitive for the 20th century, as if the little villages and towns had been missed by progress and lost in time. Kapuscinski’s writing is clever and at times sharp; his anger, for example, at the grievous hurt done to her parents by Elzbieta and the nuns is not far below the surface. Another excellent addition to this collection and another author I want to explore more of!

*****

I was really impressed with this pair of PMs and made an interesting discovery when I was looking up Kapuscinski online; one of the titles of his books sounded familiar, and when I went and had a dig in the stacks, I did indeed own it – a gift from youngest child some Christmases ago!

It sounds absolutely fascinating, and chimes in a little with my mindset at the moment. So hopefully that one will be coming off the stacks soon too! 🙂

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Rediscovered Russian modernism @ShinyNewBooks

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I wanted to share with you my latest review over at Shiny New Books; I seem to have developed a reputation as their Russian specialist, as once again I’m considering a lost classic from that country!

Tynianov’s book is an intriguing one which doesn’t seem to have been fully translated in the past. A historical novel, which tells of the death of the famous Russian writer Griboyedov, it’s a complex and multilayered book. I *did* have some reservations, particularly about the lack of notation and supporting material, but nevertheless it’s an interesting read. You can check out my full review over on Shiny!

“The burden of knowing” #TwoMinutesToMidnight #armageddon

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Gods of Metal by Eric Schlosser

Have gone to the trouble of ransacking the shelves to find the Eric Schlosser book I own (see my post here!) I felt it was only fair to actually *read* the book reasonably soon, particularly as it’s been languishing on the shelves for over three years. The timing felt opportune after listening to Richard Clay’s stimulating programme on the nuclear threat, “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which I blogged about extensively) and I was in the right frame of mind for some hard facts. And Schlosser certainly provides those.

“Gods of Metal” was published in 2015 as a Penguin Special, alongside a new edition of John Hersey’s seminal “Hiroshima”, to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Schlosser is an investigative journalist, probably best known for “Fast Food Nation” (although “Two Minutes…” referenced his book “Command and Control” which also sounds fascinating); those journalistic skills are certainly on show here. “Gods…” explores the world of nuclear resistance in the USA through the Plowshares movement, and their actions are brave and terrifying in equal measure.

The fact that an eighty-two-year-old nun had broken into a high-security nuclear-weapons complex seemed unbelievable. But to some people familiar with the security arrangements at Y-12 the intrusion was the logical result of mismanagement that had plagued the facility for years.

In 2012, a small group of people broke into a high-security weapons complex in Tennessee; unfortunately, they gained access unimpeded; fortunately they were peaceful protesters. Schlosser relates the history of the Plowshares group, a movement inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker newspaper, and which has spawned dissenters over many decades. Their belief in peace and disarmament is paramount, and they’re willing to be jailed in the most shocking conditions for their cause. Schlosser follows the three protesters from the moment of their break-in to their eventual imprisonment and aftermath, whilst considering the state of nuclear control in the USA as well as the increasing arms race from developing countries. And it’s really scary stuff…

Little Boy [the bomb dropped on Hiroshima] – a crude and highly inefficient atomic bomb, designed in the 1940s with slide rules – contained about 140 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and almost 99 per cent of it harmlessly blew apart as the bomb detonated. And, when that happened, two-thirds of the buildings in the city were destroyed and perhaps 80,000 civilians were killed. The amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a terrorist bomb with a similar explosive force could fit inside a small gym bag.

As Schlosser is at pains to point out, the nuclear threat comes not simply from a conflict (and a really big war is going to end up with Mutually Assured Destruction, so one would hope that the major powers are still trying to avoid this – although that wasn’t necessarily the case when this book was published). There is the fact that smaller countries are developing nuclear capability, but without necessarily the proper controls; and the more weapons there are, the higher the probability of an accident. Then there’s the ideal of a nuclear terrorist threat which is mind-bogglingly awful, and when you consider how relatively easy the carnage of 9/11 was, the concept doesn’t seem so unlikely.

By Lgmelby [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But possibly the likeliest threat (and this was highlighted in “Two Minutes…” as well) is from incompetence or accident. As Schlosser reveals, the various nuclear sites are run by a series of commercial agencies (G4S at one point, FFS!!!) and these are shown again and again to be totally motivated by money and to be failing the most basic security tests. What is particularly terrifying is the ease with which the Plowshares activists gained access to the sites; the security was abysmal and had they wanted to actual take drastic action, they really could have.

For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind.

“Gods of Metal” (the phrase is how the activists refer to the missiles) is a stunning mixture of the factual and the personal, which makes it particularly compelling and very affecting. Schlosser writes beautifully, and whatever you might think of the Plowshares activities and beliefs, you can’t help but admire their commitment to their convictions and their willingness to go to jail for them. And Schlosser’s slim book (120 pages) packs a real heft (I wonder if it’s perhaps “Command and Control”-lite, and whether I need to explore that book too…) The facts are stark and Schlosser’s warning of the real danger we live with every day is chilling. After listening to “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which will still be here on the iPlayer for a little longer) I was convinced we were walking around with blinkers on; I’m even more convinced of that fact after finishing “Gods of Metal” and I can see why it was released alongside “Hiroshima” (kudos to Penguin Books for that). It’s a worthy companion piece to that work, and it’s about time that more people read these works and started paying attention to what’s going on in the world around them.

A journey into the hearts and minds of three poets #tsvetaeva #pasternak #rilke @nyrbclassics

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Letters: Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke
Edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky
Translated by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt and Jamey Gambrell

I have been on something of a roll with Russian poets recently, and in particular with my exploration of the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. Renowned for her verse, she also wrote prose, letters, diaries, a play – truly a multi-talented genius. Her “Moscow Diaries” made absorbing reading during #’WITmonth and I was impelled to send for a nice new NYRB Classics version of this collection – a grouping of letters between Tsvetaeva, Pasternak and Rilke over a short period of time in Summer 1926. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I had an old Oxford World Classics version from many moons ago, but splashed out on the new version because the old one is tatty. However, it was the right thing to do, as the NYRB edition is significantly expanded from the Oxford edition, with extra material and essays, as well as additional pictures. Nevertheless, these do suffer from not being in a plate section but simply on ordinary book paper and so I’ll most likely keep both!

All my “interests in history”, my absorption in actuality, in fact all to which I have been disposed lately, has been shattered to pieces by Rilke’s letter and Marina’s poem. It’s as if my shirt were split down the front by the expansion of my heart. I’m punchdrunk. Nothing but splinters all about me: there are kindred souls in this world – and how extraordinary they are! (BP)

In 1926 the three poets concerned were in different parts of the world. Pasternak was in Soviet Russia, struggling to work, dealing with his wife’s ill-health and no doubt failing to cope with the demand of Soviet Realism. Tsvetaeva was in exile in France with her husband and children, suffering from poverty and alienation from her fellow emigres. Rilke was in Switzerland and entering a final, fatal illness. Pasternak and Tsvetaeva had not met for years; Rilke was something of a poetic god as far as they were concerned, and he was rumoured to be already dead. However, chance (in the form of Pasternak’s painter father, Leonid) intervened. The latter had been friends with Rilke in the past, and hearing that he was alive and well wrote him a letter. He mentioned his poet son, whom Rilke had heard of and spoke of in his reply to his old friend. The effect of Boris was shattering, as he had had a brief encounter with the elder poet when he was a child; and to find that his hero knew of his work was stunning. At the same time, Boris had read Marina’s latest poem “Poem of the End” which had sparked an intense response, and he had written to her about her work and the effect it had had on him. Pasternak junior wrote to Rilke, thanking him for his response, mentioning Tsvetaeva (who also revered Rilke) and asking the older poet to send Marina some of his books. Thus the scene was set for an intense, complex and emotionally charged three-way correspondence which took place over that summer.

What survives of the correspondence and supporting materials has been pieced together in exemplary fashion by Yevgeny and Yelena Pasternak (son and granddaughter of Boris) along with Konstantin M. Azadovsky. The long introduction is in its own right a remarkable piece of work which puts the poets, their lives and work brilliantly into context; but in framing the highly charged letters of the poets they do an exemplary job.

Life is a railroad station; soon I will set out – for where? I will not say. (MT)

I long to devour the whole gigantic globe, which I have loved and wept over, and which surges all about me, travels, commits suicide, wages wars, floats in the clouds above me, breaks into nocturnal concerts of frog music in Moscow’s suburbs, and is given me as my setting to be cherished, envied and desired. (BP)

Needless to say, this was not always an easy correspondence, and there was plenty of scope for disappointment, misunderstandings and high (as well as low!) emotions. Pasternak seems to have been affected most by the correspondence and events; seizing on Tsvetaeva’s poetry and her letters, he seems to regard her as something between muse, soul mate and poetic inspiration and declares himself not only spurred on to write, but willing to run away to her. The language used by all three poets is the language of lovers (although they do not meet), and Boris in particular repeatedly professes his love for Marina. Somehow, all three poets click on a high, exalted level, and the epistolary encounters and declaration of love were of profound importance to all three poets. Rilke himself seems delighted to have discovered like minds – that constant search for a soul mate, for someone who understands, runs through the letters – and enters into the correspondence with an uncustomary frankness.

The revelation which you are for me and will forever remain suddenly arose before me as it had numberless times before. (BP)

However, things are not all plain sailing. There were delays in the receipt of letters, the difficulties of explaining one’s meanings, and the difficulties of dealing with the quotidian alongside the imagined and the emotional, all of which caused problems and misunderstandings. Pasternak, in particular, has emotions like a rollercoaster and regularly plummets from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. When he declares himself willing to come to Tsvetaeva and for them to take off to visit Rilke, he seems prepared to abandon all in search of this dream, and the intense emotional and intellectual infatuation seemed to inform his life and work during that period. Poetry is all, and for Pasternak in particular, Marina personifies the poetic muse.

I loved you as in life I had only dreamed of loving, long, long ago, loving to eternity. You were beauty in the absolute. (BP)

By Max Voloshin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That high level of intensity is never going to be sustainable in the real world; and as the summer wore on, Tsvetaeva in particular was beset with money worries, the fact that the émigré community regarded her with suspicion and the realities of daily life as a mother of two children. And then, of course, at the end of the year Rilke’s fatal illness came to its inevitable conclusion. Boris and Marina had never managed to make the journey to see him, and when they finally met many years later much water had flowed under the bridge and their lives had already gone through irreversible changes. Tsvetaeva would commit suicide in 1941; Pasternak died in 1960 of cancer. Their poetic legacy, however, lives on stronger than ever.

Across all the worlds, all the nations, along all the roads
Always the two doomed never to meet.
(Rilke)

“Letters: Summer 1926” is a rare and unprecedented glimpse into the minds of three poets at differing stages of their career; the insight it gives into their thoughts on poetry, their ways of working and their beliefs is priceless and it reveals an incredible intensity of feeling between Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke. The tragedy is that they never met, although part of me thinks that might be safer and that they might have found a real, human encounter to be a little less cerebral than their correspondence.

What we began with remains unalterable. We have been placed side by side – in what we do with our lives, in what we die with, in what we leave behind. That is our destiny, a decree of fate. It is beyond our will. (BP)

The letters and commentary are enhanced in this edition with two essays by Tsvetaeva on Rilke, translated by Jamey Gambrell (who also rendered the poet’s “Moscow Diaries”). They’re essential reading for anyone with an interest in Marina as they shed much light on her beliefs and also her émigré life.

Do you know what I want – when I want? Darkness, light, transfiguration. The most remote headland of another’s soul – and my own. Words that one will never hear or speak. The improbable. The miraculous. A miracle. (MT)

The position of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva in the world of letters is not in doubt nowadays; Rilke I think tends to be more known for his only novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”; however examples of all three poets’ work appear throughout the book which gives real insight into their conversations about their art. “Letters…” is an absolutely fascinating, engrossing and moving read, and I came out of it wanting to read nothing but works by the three poets for the next month of so (alas, ain’t going to happen…) One book I *do* have which I would like to spend some time with, however, is Pasternak’s “Safe Conduct”; this is referenced repeatedly through “Letters…” and when I popped online to check it out, Amazon informed me I’d bought a copy back in 2013. Handy that…

A glimpse into the heart and soul of a poet as intense and detailed as this is rare; “Letters: Summer 1926” is essential reading for anyone who loves even one of the three poets, but I also think it would be fascinating for anyone who wants to see the agonies a poet goes through to create their art. Emotionally draining, but vital…

The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

“We command reverence for the rights of poets” – #mayakovsky #borisdralyuk @InsertBlanc

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Slap in the Face – Four Russian Futurist Manifestos
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

I got very squeally and excited last month when I finally treated myself to a copy of a lovely little book/chapbook/pamphlet/whatever you call it which brought together several pieces of writing involving my beloved Mayakovsky! “A Slap in The Face of Public Taste” was the manifesto of the Russian Futurist movement, first published in 1912; and it’s from that piece of writing that this collection takes its title.

The Russian Futurists were a group of poets and artists who adopted the Futurist movement of Marinetti which “espoused the rejection of the past, and a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry; it also advocated the modernization and cultural rejuvenation.” There were a number of sub-groups and one called Hylaea issued “Slap”, which was signed by David Burlyuk, Aleksandr Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Viktor Khlebnikov. I’d come across “Slap” before in my readings of Mayakovsky, but never the three following manifestos, with the final one “A Drop of Tar” being from December 1915 and signed by Mayakovsky alone.

“Slap” is a fascinating collection of words, showing the gradual development of the Futurist artists over the years, and Dralyuk translates the manifestos with the verve and originality with which Mayakovsky and co wrote them. They were determined to break down the constraints surrounding their art, jettisoning all that had gone before, and declared that Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky should be tossed overboard “from the steamship of modernity”. That kind of thinking was symptomatic of the Futurist movement, although some (Mayakovsky in particular) introduced a political element which might well have been missing from the work of some of those poets and artists more interested in formal experimentation.

Entertaining as the manifestos are, much of the appeal of this book comes from the extra material included. For a start, it’s a lovely thing in its own right; printed in colour on quality paper, “Slap” is heavily illustrated with images by Mayakovsky, Goncharova, Larianov, Burlyuk and others, as well as reproductions of the covers of the original journals in which the works appeared. Innovation was at hand everywhere, with one journal even having a wallpaper cover!

The icing on the cake, however, is the conversation reproduced in the back of the book between translator Boris Dralyuk and Saul Alpert-Abrams. The discussion is fascinating and erudite, throwing much light on the futurists’ poetry as well as giving useful context if the reader isn’t familiar with the period. Interestingly, they draw comparisons between translation and issuing a manifesto, and it’s fair to say that both are optimistic acts!

I haven’t come across the publisher Insert Blanc Press before but laudably they seem to focus very much on experimental literature. Here, they’ve produced a fascinating, beautiful and instructive object which I’m so pleased to at last have on my Mayakovsky shelf!

P.S. Did I mention it’s bilingual?? I can’t read Russian but I love looking at the cyrillic! 😀

The richness of a poet’s vocabulary is his justification

Eleanor Marx is *Not* Fine…. #eleanormarx #feminism #marxism

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I had a lovely trip to London at the start of the summer break with my BFF J. (and you probably recall the book shopping and the results of that lack of control…); and part of the visit involved dropping in to the British Library to see a little display of Karl and Eleanor Marx items. Karl, of course, I first read decades ago when I picked up The Communist Manifesto, with a little trepidation, and was relieved to find I didn’t feel thick and it made perfect sense. His daughter Eleanor had I think been on my radar long before that; I stumbled across the Russian Revolution when we studied it at school, and around that time there was a BBC drama based around Eleanor’s life which I watched. This obviously focused on the dramatic and romantic side of her life, and it seems to often be the tendency that people remember the scandal and her suicide rather than her achievements.

Anyway, I spent some of my time in London mooching around bookshops (nothing new there…) trying to see what Eleanor Marx books might be available. As I said at the time, there was a massive biography from Verso that was originally published by Virago in two volumes; but it was humongous and I couldn’t really justify it (or, indeed, carry it…) However, a visit to lovely left-wing bookshop Bookmarks (which was shamefully attacked by right-wingers not long after) revealed a small but perfectly formed volume called “A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx” by Siobhan Brown. Part of a short series of guides published by Bookmarks themselves, it seemed the ideal way to find out more about Eleanor. Well, maybe…

The book is 57 pages long and sets out to reclaim Marx’s politics from her personal life. On the plus side, it’s concise, puts her life in context, gives a good outline of her work and acts as an excellent introduction to Eleanor Marx’s achievements. She was living in interesting times: much of the life and work of the Marxes was informed by events in France; the Paris Commune of 1871 had a profound effect on left-wing thinking in Britain, and Eleanor translated a first person account by Propser-Olivier Lissagary, amongst other things.

She was very much ahead of her time with her anti-imperialistic outlook and her recognition of the political division between working-class and middle-class feminists with their differing focus and needs. However, I’m not sure I concur with her assertion that women’s interests were best served by them taking part in a working-class revolution alongside men and not one of their own; if that was the case, I think we wouldn’t have needed the Suffragettes and the various waves of feminism that recurred through the twentieth century. I’m afraid I don’t agree that all men of any class are necessarily going to agree to live, work, earn and revolt on equal terms with women – even in the twenty-first century. But that’s just cynical old me.

By Grace Black (National Portrait Gallery, London) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Rebel’s Guide…” was interesting in many ways, and it gave me a strong sense of the world and events Marx lived through, and occasionally her part in them; but the problem was I got no real sense of the woman herself, and the book was too wide-ranging in its focus, not really pinpointing her achievements enough for my liking. There was a tendency to set the political scene, relate the events of the time (and these were all fascinating) and then mention Marx’s involvement as almost an afterthought. I can understand the need to redress the imbalance of coverage only being of Marx’s personal life, but this went so much in the other direction that she appeared a little ghost-like in her own book, popping up here and there to become involved in the action but not really taking on enough of a presence.

So I enjoyed “The Rebel’s Guide…” for what it told me about the political and social world of Marx’s time and for the outline of her active life that it gave me; but I think I will have to look further to see if I can find something else that will give me a more wide-ranging look at Eleanor Marx’s life and work. This was an interesting little book, but not quite what I expected to read! 😀

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