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“the unforeseen adventures of the eyes…” #FranzHessel #1929Club #WalkinginBerlin #WalterBenjamin

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For some reason, I don’t seem to be able to get 1929 out of my head! We had such a successful reading week with the #1929Club, but there were so many books I didn’t get to, including a couple which were on the immediate TBR. One of those was “Hill”, which I’ve since read and loved and wrote about here; and another was “Walking in Berlin” by Franz Hessel. I’d actually had the book on my radar for sometime, before stumbling across it serendipitously in the local Oxfam; needless to say, it had sat on my TBR ever since, and if I’d realised it was from 1929 I might well have grabbed it for the club. However, as it happened to fit for German Lit Month AND Non Fiction month, it seemed the ideal title to pick up just now; and an unexpected connection nudged me even more strongly to start reading, as I’ll explain!

My particular edition of “Walking in Berlin” is translated by Amanda DeMarco and published by Scribe Publications; however, when I was noodling about online, I discovered that the same translation had been issued in the US by MIT Press with an additional essay from a friend of Kessel – a certain Walter Benjamin… Although my copy doesn’t have the essay, I was fortunately able to source it online, and it did enhance my reading of the book!

Franz Hessel (1880-1941) was a German author and translator, responsible for bringing three volumes of Proust’s epic work into the German language alongside his friend Benjamin. As far as I can see, “Walking in Berlin” (described as a collection of essays exploring the concept of flanerie) is the only one of his works which has been translated into English. Hessel was of Jewish heritage, fleeing Germany for France in 1940. Unfortunately things were no safer for his family there, and Hessel died in 1941 after a session in a concentration camp.

“Walking in Berlin” records Hessel’s impressions of, and feelings about, his native city; and in a chatty, conversational style he guides the readers around the sight of Berlin, the historical monuments and parks, the outlying areas, the cabarets and night clubs and boulevards. He observes his fellow citizens, reflects on the architecture of the city, the changing landscape and the march of progress. This is a city (and a country) at a mid-point between the two world wars, and although Hessel didn’t know what was to come, there is oddly little reflection of the political landscape (a point picked up in the notes and foreword, and it does seem that Hessel had his head in the sand just a little…)

Although Hessel’s book title contains the word ‘walking’, he does not always go by foot; and in fact in one extended entertaining chapter entitled “A Tour” he is transported around the city with a group of tourists, experiencing Berlin as they would see it, although with sly little mentions of places and attractions he would know about as a resident. But however he goes, he is a flaneur and a wanderer with the randomness that those terms imply; and that drift through the city allows us some wonderful perspectives on the place.

Tauentzienestrasse and Kurfurstendamm have the important cultural task of teaching the Berliner to be a flaneur, unless this urban pastime should at some point become unfashionable. But maybe it’s not too late. The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, café terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield the words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new. To correctly play the flaneur, you can’t have anything too particular in mind.

Lest you think that Hessel is only mingling with the rich and famous, I can assure you that’s not the case. We are, after all, in Weimar Berlin, and there are all manner of clubs, cabarets and seedy bars where he encounters a wide variety of residents. And although he often expresses a hankering after lost parts of the city and a perhaps more genteel past, he is quick to condemn what he feels is ugly statuary or architecture. He contrasts the rich and poor, noting the shabby conditions in some part of the city. And despite his obvious love of Berlin, I did feel that he was doing his best to look at it as an observer would.

All in all, “Walking…” was a wonderfully engrossing and distracting read; Hessel’s writing is excellent, often lyrical, always entertaining, with an informal and intimate tone which makes him an excellent companion whilst ambling round the city; I found myself thinking what fun it would have been to roam the streets of Berlin beside him. The book is beautifully translated by DeMarco, and comes with useful footnotes which, alas, were often ruefully pointing out the loss of some landmark. I can see why Benjamin rated this book so highly and I’m so glad it was finally translated; a marvellous writer, a life sadly cut short and I do wish there was more available in English by him.

“…on this earth, does every action have to lead to suffering?” #NovNov22 #hill #jeangiono @nyrbclassics

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Last month’s 1929 Club had a wealth of wonderful titles to choose from, and inevitably I ran out of time before I could read everything I wanted to from the year. What was particularly frustrating, however, was realising that books I had on the TBR were from that year and I hadn’t spotted this!. “Walking in Berlin” was one book I missed, which I really should read soon; and another was one which lovely JacquiWine gave me last Christmas, and had been glaring at me ever since. So as it was also a novella, I decided that now would be the perfect time to pick it up – and I did actually read this during our club reading week but am still playing catch up with the reviews!

“Hill” by Jean Giono and translated by Paul Eprile (NYRB, *when* will you name the translator on the cover!!!) was the author’s first published work. A mainly self-educated man, he lived most of his life in south-eastern France and having survived WW1 and Verdun he became a life-long pacifist. As far as I can tell, much of his work is rooted in nature and landscape, and certainly in “Hill” those aspects play a very powerful part.

Set in a small hamlet in Provence, the story is based around the handful of people who live there; in four little white houses live twelve people (and there is Gagou, a simpleton who turned up from nowhere). Gondran and his wife Marguerite have her father, old Janet, living with them; there are Jaume and his daughter Ulalie; and the households of Mauras and Arbaud. The small village is isolated, with the inhabitants depending on the products of their own hard work for survival. But there have been bad omens: a suspicious black cat has been seen locally; a storm passes over and leaves the village silent; and Janet’s health is declining, whilst he raves and predicts disaster. So when the fountain runs dry, it seems that he may have been right…

As the villagers struggle to cope with the lack of water, it seems that the elements are ranged against them, and the villagers feel threatened by the very landscape around them. As Janet’s health deteriorates, the black cat moves into his house and the village is threatened by another catastrophe. Is the very land turning against them? And what drastic action might they have to take to appease it?

This kind of thing, it always starts with somebody who sees farther than the rest of us. When someone sees farther than the rest of us, it’s because there’s something a little out of kilter in their brain. Sometimes it could be by nothing at all, just by a hair, but from that moment, it’s all over. A horse, it’s no longer a horse. A blade of grass, it’s no longer a blade of grass. Everything we can’t see, they see. Outside the shapes, the outlines we’re familiar with, for them there’s something extra floating around, like a cloud.

For a slim novella, “Hill” certainly has a lot packed into it, and one of the most distinctive elements was Giono’s writing. In his world, nature is almost a sentient being, and whatever the villagers do to it (whether cutting down a plant or killing a lizard) will have repercussions and possible reparations. His vision is in many ways ahead of its time, recognising that humans are part of an interconnected nature, and certainly that’s a view of the world which many more would accept nowadays.

Earth and nature are portrayed as almost a physical entity against which man may have to fight, and Giono also demonstrates how dependant we humans are on the vagaries of climate; that’s something we’re being reminded of nowadays, but in a smaller setting like the village here, lack of water or crops that won’t grow or other existential threats are more immediate, and the superstitious nature of the villagers make this even more complicated. It’s a sobering read which really did remind me how small we are in comparison to nature, but it also made me angry again at how much of a mess we’re making of this planet.

As I mentioned, Giono’s writing is distinctive and really memorable; and he brings the natural world alive, almost anthropomorphising the earth by the way he writes about it, which I felt brought the relationship between humans and the land into much sharper focus. It’s also a very lyrical way of writing, and the narrative was completely compelling. Although this is a short work (I’m counting it as a novella for this month), it’s brimming with both human experience and thought-provoking ideas. The descriptions of the land around the village are stunning, and the book is gripping from start to dramatic finish.

When I picked this book up to read it, I really had no idea what to expect as it was my first Giono; and I was blown away by it. Really, it’s quite a singular work – I’m not sure I’ve read a book like it – and it’s certainly left me keen to read more of the author’s writing. Giono was obviously a highly talented author and I have Jacqui to thank for my introduction to his work – loved this book!

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???

“…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.

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… 😉

Launching on Monday – it’s time for the #1929Club!! 😊😊📚📚

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We’re counting down to the start of the next of our Reading Club weeks, which I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, and kicking off on Monday is the #1929Club!!! 😊😊

For those of you who are new to this, the Club Reading Weeks were dreamed up by Simon and the idea is that we spend a week reading, discovering and discussing books from a particular year. These reading events happen every six months, and anyone can join in – all are welcome! We post on our blogs, or discuss on Twitter, Instagram, any other platform you may have, or indeed in our comments sections! I will have a dedicated page for linking to posts and discussions, and you can have a look at previous years to see the wealth of discussion and wonderful books which were shared.

So do join in if you can – the Club runs from Monday 24th to Sunday 30th October, and 1929 looks to be a year with a wide range of marvellous titles to choose from! Keep an eye on our blogs for links and posts, and let’s all share the love of 1929 – it should be great fun! 😊

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