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An unexpected sympathy for women @almaclassics #101pages

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Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant
Translated by Anthony Brown

I posted a little while ago about a new range of bite-sized classics from lovely Alma Books under the 101 Pages imprint; the publisher had kindly provided a review copy of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” and I had honestly expected to get to it sooner. You know how it is, though – so many books and they keep jostling for attention… However, these little books are designed to be eaten up in one gulp and I did indeed swallow this one down in a single setting one quiet Sunday morning – and an unexpected and interesting read it was…

OK, OK – I’m sorry about all the eating references in that first paragraph, but it’s kind of relevant to the title story of this collection! “Boule de Suif” is one of Maupassant’s best known works, and I’ve seen it translated as “Butterball” before. However, in his fascinating introduction, translator Anthony Brown goes into detail about the linguistic issues behind rendering the French title in English, and in the end opts to retain the original. But as he makes clear, the story itself is ridden with the imagery of food, and even in the description of the heroine, a prostitute of generous physical form.

Anyway. The book itself contains six stories, mostly set in and around Rouen, and the events in “Boule…” take place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Rouen is lost to the Germans and occupied; the citizens adapt to the situation; and eventually a group of ten are given permission to flee to Le Havre by coach. Unfortunately, bad weather causes issues and the travellers are stranded in Totes, Prussian-held territory. Despite their passes, an officer refuses to let them leave; and eventually the travellers realise that unless Elisabeth Rousset (the titular butterball) agrees to sleep with him, they will be stranded indefinitely. The attitude of the travellers to the woman of the night amongst them has been complex throughout; initially they shunned her, until they realised she had enough food for them to eat while they were delayed during the journey. An uneasy tolerance is established, but when it becomes clear that Elisabeth has principles and patriotism, refusing to sully herself with the enemy, they turn against her and bully, cajole and persuade her to give in to the officer so they can leave. Once she has finally capitulated, they shun her.

The author – with a fairly alarming ‘tache!
(Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

So not a pleasant bunch, and Maupassant is scathing in his descriptions of all of the characters in the story, dissecting them mercilessly; the rich, of course, are beyond the pale, but a pair of nuns who should show kindness certainly do not. And the democrat Cornudet is just as unpleasant, only interested in Elisabeth for her body. The one character who comes out of the story with any kind of dignity is Elisabeth herself; she is the one who is kind and shares her food, she is the one who is patriotic and refuses to collaborate with the enemy; and she is the one with the courage to want to stand up to the Prussians.

And this tendency to empathise with the women characters is a thread that runs through this excellent collection of stories. In “The Confession”, the poverty of a country girl’s life contributes to the ease with which she’s seduced by an unscrupulous carter; “First Snow” is a moving story of a woman married to a cold husband in a cold climate; “Rose” is a humorous tale of a very unusual lady’s maid; “The Dowry” is a cautionary tale for the rich bride; and “Bed 29” returns to the 1870 war, dealing with men and women’s different methods of fighting the enemy, and the differing attitudes to both sexes.

“Boule de Suif” is a real gem of a book. These stories are moving, humorous, tough and tragic, and I really wasn’t expecting Maupassant’s sympathies to be so much with his women characters. The only Maupassant story I can be sure I’ve read is “Like Death” (although I do have “Bel-Ami” on the shelves somewhere) and these short works are quite different to that. The 101 Pages books are obviously a great initiative and if the rest are anything like as good as this collection I may have to be adding yet more books to the shelves…. =:o

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“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” #KatherineMansfield @almaclassics

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I spent some time over the summer revisiting the work of Katherine Mansfield, which was pure joy and came about because of two unrelated sources! Firstly, my OH rather cleverly presented me with the DVD which you can see in the picture: a wonderful 6-part BBC series on KM from 1973. With Vanessa Redgrave perfectly cast as Mansfield and the gorgeous Jeremy Brett as a very buttoned-up and intense John Middleton Murry, it made for compelling viewing. Now as you might have picked up, I’m not one for TV, especially not modern rubbish (!) – although I adore a decent documentary as I’ve often made plain. But this is TV from when I was growing up, which often looked more like filmed plays and had what I would call Proper Acting, and it was just brilliant and moving. Annette Crosbie was perfect as Mansfield’s BFF, LM, and the series featured episodes from her life interspersed with dramatizations of her work.

The show was a real treat, and made even better by the fact I had a lovely copy of a new selection of her stories which has just been brought out by Alma Classics. “The Garden Party and Selected Short Stories” is a handsome little volume, and contains some classic KM. The title story is possibly her most famous, but it also contains myriad treats from her other collections too. There’s “Je ne parle pas francais”, where Mansfield slips into the voice of a young French roué; “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, a sharp dissection of two maiden sisters who’ve wasted their life looking after their bullying father; and several stories from “In a German Pension”, which cast a cynical eye on the snobbery and pettiness of boarding house life. And that’s just a few of the treats – the Alma book is a really nice collection and a good way to start to explore her work if you’re interested.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mansfield only ever wrote short stories (and poems and letters and journals, of course!) and that format seems so perfectly suited to her. I’ve seen her stories compared to Chekhov (another master of the form) and I don’t think that’s such a wild pairing. Many of the stories in the book draw on Mansfield’s childhood in New Zealand and they’re moving and evocative; she has a particular talent for capturing the child’s eye view, and revisiting her prose reminded me of why Virginia Woolf stated KM’s was the only writing she had even been jealous of.

My Mansfield shelf…

I finished both book and TV series in a fairly emotional state. I had quite an obsession with Mansfield in my early 20s but hadn’t read her for ages; and of course her life was such a short and tragic one, dying at an early age from TB. The end of the TV show was desperately moving, although it did send me off to check the facts, as I had forgotten that her husband Murry had been present when she died. I dug out my old Alpers biography and found that the TV show had been remarkably faithful to the truth, which set me off again. I have volumes of Mansfield’s letters and diaries on the shelf and I may have to make some return visits to those, as well as exploring the ones I’ve not read yet. Mansfield was a brilliant writer; both Redgrave and Brett are/were fine actors; and all of this added up to a marvellously emotional experience over the summer break.

However, despite him having bought me the DVD, I did actually have to explain to OH who Katherine Mansfield was…. 😀

Review book kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!

Skinny Book Therapy! @almaclassics @almabooks

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What on earth is she wittering on about, I hear you cry! Well, simply that in our modern crazy-busy world it’s often impossible to find the time to read a classic because, frankly, some of them are just *soooo* big! Dickens, Dostoevsky, Trollope, Tolstoy – all produced some amazing books, many of which are my favourites; but they are, honestly, doorsteps. Now I love a brick of a book as much as the next reader, but sometimes I struggle to engage mentally with one, particularly when I’m going through a busy phase at work. However, a useful solution is at hand…. 🙂

I review books from the lovely publisher Alma regularly on the Ramblings, and their Evergreens series of affordable classics is a joy. These feature some truly great authors, from Woolf through Mansfield and back to Austen and the Brontes and so on. The books are always beautiful and often have extra supporting material. Plus they publish pretty new editions of my beloved Dostoevsky on a regular basis so that has to be good…. (note the editions in that *large* TBR pile!)

However, Alma have come up with an interesting new series entitled “101-page Classics” which features books of, you’ve guessed it, 101 pages in length! Now 101 pages is a very manageable size – I can read something that long in one go usually – and so I think this is a fabulous idea! There are 12 titles on the list so far, and the authors are a very nice selection, including Chekhov, Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson and Italo Svevo – so plenty of variety. Alma have been kind enough to provide a review copy of Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” which I plan to read and review very soon, and there’s a serious risk of me wanting to start a special shelf for the 101 books…

Here are a few cover images of some of the forthcoming books – do check these out, especially if you’re nervous of a big fat chunky classic, or embarking on 800 pages from an author new to you – a 101-page Classic could be just the thing to help out…

“Let’s Do It A Dada” @almaclassics #dada

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Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries by Tristan Tzara
Translated by Barbara Wright

What, exactly, is Dada? A good question, really. Dada is everything and nothing; Dada is playful yet profound; Dada is deep as well as superficial; Dada is all of those things or none of those things. Or maybe not… 😀

Striking cover featuring Picabia art, designed by Will Dady at Alma

The Wikipedia definition of the Dada movement describes it as consisting of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. The art of the movement spanned visual, literary, and sound media, including collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.

Tzara was a key figure in the movement and is sometimes credited in coming up with the name for the group. However, the word Dada has a number of different meanings in several other languages and the etymology of the movement’s title is disputed! This volume, from the Calder collection and reprinted in a lovely edition from Alma Classics, contains a number of Dada manifestos written by Tzara over the years, as well as a series entitled “Lampisteries” – and it’s a bracing and stimulating read.

Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation.

The manifestos are mostly short, written usually to be read out loud and yet featuring some fascinating typographical effects. They span the years 1916 to 1921, showing how Tzara’s view of the movement changed and evolved; and although they initially seem a little nonsensical, it soon becomes clear that they are anything but.

What are Beauty, Truth, Art, Good, Liberty? Words which have a different meaning for every individual. Words which claim to make everybody agree, which is why they’re usually written with capital letters.

Tzara rejects the norm, challenges the status quo and states the case for dismantling all the artistic certainties which have gone before. And out of this chaos and nonsense come truths – you read on and suddenly phrases jump out at you, making perfect sense and forcing you to reappraise what you’ve accepted up until now. The manifestos are contrary and contradictory, yet always invigorating.

The miracle. I open my heart to creation.

The manifestos are also surprisingly modern and relevant; a discussion of poetry and art early in the book rings true today, and when instructing how to create Dada poetry, he sets out the use of cut-ups decades before Burroughs and Gysin, then David Bowie, made them fashionable. Tzara’s writings are also surprisingly funny, although I suppose I should have expected this from a movement that wanted to tear up the past and produce a lot of nonsense!

So life is cheap. Death is a bit more expensive. But life is charming and death is equally charming.

The second part of the book contains Tzara’s “Lampisteries” and a translator’s note explains that a lampiste makes lamps, but the word is slang for a scapegoat. However, interestingly enough, to my English-speaking brain the word also suggests lampoon which is quite apt for Dada…

You know very well that this species is only distinguished from others by its mania for writing and reading books.

Tzara’s “Lampisteries” are short, poetic, artistic responses to different art forms rather than a formal ‘review’ and this is again a very modern conceit. He’s pungent and pithy, attempting to get under the skin of whatever he’s writing about, sharing his reaction to it and by doing do so creating another work of art himself. The language is often beautiful and the writing never dull; and the amount of phrases I’ve pulled out is testament to the unexpected depth on display here.

Tzara by Robert Delaunay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I’ve always had an interest in Dada, I hadn’t actually read many works by members of the group (all I can be sure of is having read Breton’s “Nadja” many moons ago); that’s my loss, if this book is anything to judge by. The Alma edition comes with illustrations by Francis Picabia, another leading figure in the movement, and the lovely cover design is by Will Dady at Alma. Translator Barbara Wright was well-known for her translations of French surrealist and existential writing, and has made numerous appearances on the blog for her work with Raymond Queneau’s writings. She obviously did another marvellous job with Tzara’s work, and the book contains details of original publication dates and locations at the end.

Dada was a much too wide-ranging a movement to really do justice in a short review; a quick online search reveals myriad sources and resources, which could create a few dangerous research wormholes in which to get stuck… However, this book is a welcome reissue by Alma and a wonderful place to start if you want to begin exploring the wild, bracing and never dull world of Dada!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma, for which many thanks!)

And just for the hell of it, here’s Blixa and the gang blasting out one of my favourite Einstürzende Neubauten songs that just might have a relevant title….

The Love of a Superfluous Man

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A Nest of the Gentry by Ivan Turgenev
Translated by Michael Pursglove

Russian author Turgenev was a very prolific man (as can be witnessed by the amount of his books I have lurking on Mount TBR – but that’s for another post….) However, despite owning all these works, I don’t seem to have read many of them; just “Smoke”, “Faust” and the short story “Mumu” that I can be sure of. So the arrival of a lovely shiny new translation in the form of a pretty edition of “A Nest of the Gentry” seemed like a good way to get on with reading more of his work.

nest-gentry

“Nest” has been translated under a number of titles, most often it seems “Home of the Gentry”,”A Nest of the Gentlefolk” and even “Liza” after one of the main characters (more on that in that forthcoming post). This new version from Alma Classics comes with a lovely cover and the usual excellent notes and supporting material. And the book itself is an interesting read.

“Nest” was Turgenev’s second novel, published in 1859, and it focuses primarily on Fyodor Lavretsky, a minor landowner. The epitome of the Russian superfluous man, he’s had a fragmented, incomplete education, a fractured upbringing and no real experience of life. So when he comes across the beautiful Varvara, he’s instantly smitten and the two soon marry. However, Varvara is more interested in the money and status she gets from the marriage rather than the somewhat provincial man who’s her spouse, and so the pair rattle around the capitals of Europe with Fedya rarely coming out of his shell; and it isn’t long until he discovers his wife’s infidelity and separates from her completely.

All of this is told in flashback, after Fedya has returned to his “nest”, the family home in the province of O-. Here he encounters a number of relatives, including Liza. During his absence she has grown from the child he knew to a beautiful young woman – pious, artistic and kind-natured, she already has suitors including the self-centred Panshin; she’s also adored from afar by her old German music teacher Lemm.

News reaches Fedya via the gossip columns that his wife is dead, and he desperately sends off for proof. Meanwhile, he and Liza have been growing closer and the inevitable happens. However, there will be several twists in the plot that will prevent a happy ending and it seems that Fedya is destined to be superfluous in more ways than one.

So on the surface this is a fairly straightforward, one might say predictable love story and it was no difficulty to anticipate the twists and turns the story took. However, I think there *is* a subtext here, and that relates to the character of Fedya and his lack of purpose in life. The Superfluous Man was a regular trope in Russian fiction of the time, and it was applied to someone with no real focus or purpose, a loafer or a drifter, obviously with enough money to support him in his chosen lifestyle! At one point, Fedya meets up with his old school friend Mikhalevich, who berates him for having a life lacking in meaning, and it’s true that he *does* seem to drift around in a bit of a fog.

…you’re a loafer, a nasty loafer, and you know it. You’re not just a plain and simple loafer – they lie on the stove and do nothing, because they’re incapable of doing anything. They don’t even think about anything, but you’ve got an active mind – and yet you just lie there. You could be doing something – and you do nothing. You lie on your back with a full stomach and say: this is the life, lying like this, because whatever people do, it’s all rubbish and pointless nonsense.

However, there seems to be an underlying strand dealing with the conflict between Western life and the more traditional Russian ways. Fedya’s return to his ancestral home, his “nest”, brings him back into contact with tradition and the land, and Liza comes to personify this for him. There are pastoral scenes where the two fish and spend time with nature, and perhaps Turgenev is saying that the solution to the problem of superfluity is to live a good life as an honest, hardworking landowner and not to seek meaning in Western culture.

220px-turgenev_perov_scanned

There is some beautiful writing in the book, particularly when Turgenev describes the landscape and the rural settings. And the symbolic return of the prodigal to the house of his late aunt, where he opens the windows to let in the light, cleans and refurbishes and reconnects with the servants is well handled. And yet… I hesitate to be critical, but I found the book to be a little underwhelming, and I can’t put my finger on why. There’s nothing bad I can say about it; the characters were well-drawn and amusing; the story entertaining; and the denouement moving. Perhaps it’s that I found that the love story, which was a little predictable, dominated too much and clouded whatever else Turgenev was trying to say. Certainly, I didn’t engage as strongly with the book as I hoped to and at times found my interest drifting.

Nevertheless, “A Nest of the Gentry” is an evocative book, capturing bucolic rural Russia and its inhabitants well; and it may be that if I read the book again I would respond differently. Certainly, if you want to read this particular Turgenev work the Alma edition is a good one to have as the translation read smoothly and well, and the supporting material is particularly useful. As for the other Turgenev books I have on the shelves – well, I’m off to take some pictures for my next post…

Getting Past Gatsby

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F. Scott Fitzgerald was in the news at the end of last year owing to the discovery of a batch of “lost” stories which are apparently due to be published this year. He was an astonishingly prolific writer, producing stories for magazines on a regular basis, but it’s very much for “The Great Gatsby” that he’s remembered. I first read the book in my teens, after having been seduced by the Mia Farrow/Robert Redford film, and I’ve returned to it several times. And as you can see, I already own several copies…

gatsbys

However, I dipped back into GG recently courtesy of this beautiful review copy of the new Alma Evergreen edition and I’ve really been enjoying re-engaging with the story.

gatsby-alma

Like most of their Evergreens, this has a gorgeous cover, and comes with excellent supporting material on the author’s life and work, as well as a section on film adaptations of his books, plus some photos. It was reading about Fitzgerald’s other works that made me wonder why I’ve got so stuck on Gatsby and never managed to move onto any of his other novels (I have read some of his short stories). I have a huge shelf of his works, many volumes of which I’ve owned since my teens, so there’s absolutely no reason not to pick up another Fitzgerald and get reading. But I found myself wondering if it’s because Gatsby is such a perfect book that I’ve found myself unable to get past it and immerse myself in his other works.

The trouble is, when an author has written a book that’s regarded as iconic, there’s a danger that everything else they wrote will be judged against it. “Gatsby” stands so high in the pantheon of American literature that a reader might think there’s no need to read anything else written by Fitzgerald, and that’s a great shame.

I do, however, have an awful lot of Fitzgeralds on my shelves which are begging to be read:

fitzgerald-spine

And I had forgotten that I own one of the beautiful editions produced by Alma that’s available in their Fitzgerald Collection:

sad-young-men

So there is no excuse for me not to read more Fitzgerald in 2017! However, in the meantime I shall continue to enjoy my Alma Evergreen edition of Gatsby, with its tale of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby and his great love for Daisy Buchanan, and I thought I would share a few favourite quotes with you.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

*****

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

*****

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

Exploring the rather wonderful Bulgakov Collection!

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It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I’m a huge fan of small publishers and there are several whose books I love to read and write about on a regular basis. One of my favourites is Alma Classics, who are always bringing out delicious editions of excellent books (particularly the Russians I’m so fond of) in new translations and with extra material. The publisher has rather wonderfully become something of a champion of the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, producing absolutely lovely versions of his works, and I was very excited to hear that Alma has put together collections themed by author or genre which you can get at very reduced prices! Of course, the Bulgakov Complete Fiction Collection was the one that appealed to me, and it really is a great selection of books:

bulgakov-complete-works-banner-b-format

As you can see there is a wonderful array of titles featured, and the covers are stunning. Alma were kind enough to provide a copy of “The Fatal Eggs” for me to read in the translation by Roger Cockrell (who’s rendered several of the versions here) and I loved getting reacquainted with it! The last time I read the book, I commented on what a strong presence in the book was the city of Moscow:

Moscow was the adopted city of Bulgakov’s heart, and this is very clear from all his fictions. IN FE he captures brilliantly the effect of the events on the populace, utilising all the modern trappings of the city, from newspapers to neon signs. FE is funny, pithy, thought-provoking and unforgettable – highly recommended.

I felt the same again reading this wonderful book, and it really is a treat, painting a vivid picture of the Soviet Union in times of change, with science coming to the fore and the media out of control (somewhat familiar, that last thing….) But all of Bulgakov’s writings are worth reading, and the Alma Collection is a great way to get hold of them, and includes his most famous title, “The Master and Margarita”. The price is pretty good too – although the banner I’ve put in above says £50, when I last looked at the Alma website the price had been slashed so check this out to see if you can snag a real Bulgakov bargain.

The Collections also feature children’s classics, opera, gothic and horror titles, as well as one which appeals to me very strongly – The Complete F. Scott Fitzgerald Collection in absolutely gorgeous covers. It’s so tempting – if only I wasn’t supposed to be buying too many books at the moment… 🙂

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