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Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

A Selection of Bloomsberries in Full Flood!

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Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

As I admitted here recently, I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal that there are books on Mount TBR that have been there for over 30 years – and Aldous Huxley’s “Crome Yellow” is one of them… I picked up his collection of short stories, Mortal Coils, last month on a whim, and loved it so much that I decided to follow it with CY. I confess I was attracted to CY all those years ago because it’s regarded as such a roman a clef; a thinly veiled portrait of many of the Bloomsbury group, and all set in a house based on Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The narrator, poet Denis Stone, is modelled on Huxley himself; the painter Gombauld on Mark Gertler; Mary Bracegirdle on the artist Dora Carrington; and so on.

crome

CY is still being written about in these terms which in many ways is a shame, because this tends to obscure the book a little and make it hard to read without referencing the apparent source of the characters; and it’s a very good read in its own right.

The book opens with Dennis travelling down to Crome, a typical English country house of the period, to visit the Wimbushes. Priscilla is an eccentric woman, something of a patron of the arts and artists, and rushing from one fad to another – the current passion being for horoscopes and mysticism. Her husband Henry is lost in family history, and enlivens the narrative with a couple of wonderful tales of Crome’s previous inhabitants.

Also staying with them are a motley collection of guests and as soon as Denis arrives it becomes clear that he’s suffering from a passion for Anne, niece of the Wimbushes. However, he’s almost incapable of expressing any feelings in words and stumbles around trying to find the chance to confess his love. Meanwhile, Mary is trying to decide who she should resolve her issues about sex with, trying to decide between Gombauld and Denis as a likely partner. Anne seems somewhat detached from all men and simply wants Denis to be a friend. Then there is the wonderfully-named Mr. Barbecue-Smith, writer of fashionable books who manages to write 1,500 words an hour by going into a kind of trance and getting in touch with his subconscious. Mr. Scogan is a believer in a scientific future, and when the discussion about free love is taking place Huxley puts some remarkably prescient words in his mouth:

An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature’s hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

It’s a way of reproduction to which Huxley would return in “Brave New World”.

huxley

“Crome Yellow” is satire at its best, and if it is a glimpse of early Bloomsbury characters, it catches them at the time when Victorian standards were collapsing, with people incapable of really deciding where to go next. Huxley is cruellest to Priscilla, in his physical description of her and also his lambasting of her various crazes; he’s also quite hard on Mary with her desire to resolve the sex question in a clinical manner. However, he can be forgiven because he doesn’t spare himself, giving Denis plenty of insecurities about his writing and his successes (or not!) as a writer and a man. And Huxley’s preoccupation with the process of writing is evident here, as it was in “Mortal Coils”.

Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language, he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them!

Denis leaves Crome at the end of the book in a flurry, having failed in his love life and also feeling a failure as a writer. “Crome Yellow” was a clever, funny and in some ways touching read (I always find anything involving Carrington desperately moving); and it was more evidence of Huxley’s skill as a writer. Now, if I could only find where I’d put my copy of “Point Counter Point”….

Shuffling off…..

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Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley

It’s confession time. Although I have a sizeable chunk of books by Aldous Huxley on my shelves, most of which have been there for over 30 years (gulp), I’ve never actually read any of them…. Which is pretty poor, really, as I love 20th century literature and I love the Bloomsberries, so Huxley ticks both boxes. Simon has been reading and reviewing Huxley recently, which brought him back to the forefront of my mind – so when I was hesitating between books recently, I grabbed this collection of his short stories and just started reading!

Huxley, of course, is well-known for a number of things apart from being associated with early Bloomsbury – his Wikipedia entry says: Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer, philosopher and a prominent member of the Huxley family. He was best known for his novels including Brave New World, set in a dystopian London, and for non-fiction books, such as The Doors of Perception, which recalls experiences when taking a psychedelic drug, and a wide-ranging output of essays. Early in his career Huxley edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories and poetry. Mid career and later, he published travel writing, film stories and scripts. He spent the later part of his life in the US, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death. In 1962, a year before his death, he was elected Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist. By the end of his life, Huxley was widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in seven different years.

COILS

“Mortal Coils” is a collection of 5 short stories, published shortly after Huxley’s success with “Crome Yellow”. The first, “The Gioconda Smile” is famous, and I had the feeling I may have read it somewhere before… Nevertheless, it’s an excellent tale, the story of Janet Spence, who has the smile of the title, Mr. Hutton and his invalid wife (plus his variety of lovers!), with a murder and plenty of twists built in. It’s an excellent piece, and deservedly lauded!

Then there is “Permutations Among the Nightingales” a very funny little playlet (you could almost consider it a comedy sketch, I suppose); it follows the romantic shenanigans of a (various) group of people staying in a hotel, and you could almost see it as prefiguring the bedroom farces of later years. I laughed a lot, anyway!

“The Tillotson Banquet” is about the word of art and art collectors; Spode, an aptly named young man writing about the arts, discovers that Tillotson, a famous painter from the 1800s, is still alive, albeit decrepit and destitute. He and his patron decide to throw a benefit lunch for the painter, which again somewhat descends into farce – though not without making a few pithy points about trends in art on the way.

The penultimate story, “Green Tunnels” is set in Italy, where young Barbara is staying with her father and some dull neighbours. Bored out of her mind, she sees a glimpse of romance with a local dashing Italian, but all is not as she perceives it…

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946

And finally, “Nuns at Luncheon”, a really clever and brilliantly told story. The narrator is lunching with Miss Penny, a famous journalist (and something of a character). She relates a story over lunch about a nun who nursed her when she had appendicitis and who ended up disgraced while trying to convert a criminal; but the story itself becomes irrelevant as the narrator and Miss Penny discuss how the story would be told by a novelist and in effect deconstruct the whole writing process. It’s witty and very smart, and actually rather ahead of its time, and features some wonderful imagery:

Miss Penny threw back her head and laughed. Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains; an agreeably literary simile. And her laughter was like brass, but that had been said before.

You might have guessed that I found my first experience of reading Huxley a wonderful one, and I’m asking myself why it took me so long to read him! His prose is lovely; witty and yet evocative, he nails a character brilliantly in a few words, and catches the essence of a place just as easily. His portrayal of Barbara’s bored teenage mind in “Green Tunnels” was particularly impressive. Huxley’s one of those writers who tells his story in a deceptively humourous manner, because underneath he’s always got a point to make or something to tell you about human nature. “Mortal Coils” was one of the best short story collections I’ve read recently, and I have to say that “Crome Yellow” is calling rather loudly from the shelves…

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It’s worth mentioning that while reading this book I was reminded of their fragility. My copy is an old orange Penguin that I’ve obviously had for ages (it has one of the book plates I used in the 1980s in it!) and the pages are getting very brown and crumbly – so much so that bits came off in my hand two or three times and I was a little afraid to keep reading it. If there was only a way to preserve fragile paperbacks for a bit longer…. 😦

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