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Surreal, strange, satirical – and very, very entertaining! @AmpersandPubLtd

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Yes, I’m still on the little books – well, I do like things which are small but perfectly formed!! Ampersand, as well as kindly sending me “The Sisters” plus two other lovely book in the classics range, have also provided a further two classics – not an obvious pairing of authors, perhaps, but both remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking!

The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

Swift, of course, is the author of “Gulliver’s Travels” (which has a significant part to play in part one of the Utopia documentary – probably still on the iPlayer, if you haven’t caught it yet) and he was very well-known for his satire. “Battle” is often appended to “A Tale of a Tub” but here gets to stand apart and be appreciated in its own right. The dispute in question is between Ancient and Modern literature, and Swift took up his pen in defence of Sir William Temple (for whom he was working as a secretary). Temple had written an essay on the subject, declaring that the Moderns were merely standing on the shoulders of giants, and much controversy followed. Swift took things a little further, however, and his imagery of Ancient learning encased in books chained down in libraries certainly had me grinning.

Now, it must be here understood, that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines.

Charles Jervas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The book is full of humour and allegory, parodying heroic works, but with the books mustering their forces and leading the battle. The concept of a book of Homer astride a horse, slaying authors and critics left and right, is certainly fun, but like all satire Swift has many layers to his work. Inserted into the middle of the story is a parable of a bee and a spider; the former gathers from nature and creates something new like the Ancients, whereas the spider absorbs and regurgitates (often unpleasant substances) like the Moderns. Modern critics were included in with the latter, and so Swift was presumably aiming his satire very specifically…

It’s all great fun, and a reminder what a wonderful writer Swift was. Definitely worth checking out!

The Stories and Adventures of the Baron d’Ormesan by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Elliot Koubis and Iris Colomb

Apollinaire is, of course, best known for his poetry (and I’m *still* convinced I should have a collection of his works in the house somewhere). However, until I had a look at the Ampersand site, I don’t think I was aware that he’d also written prose; and this collection brings together all of his short stories about a very slippery character known as the Baron d’Ormesan.

Guillaume Apollinaire [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Baron started life as a classmate of the narrator; however, he reappears in the latter’s life reinvented as the Baron d’Ormesan with a rather intriguing career. His apparent occupation as a tour guide is in fact a kind of flaneury, maybe even an early form of psychogeography, although it isn’t long before the Baron’s criminal tendencies show through. He continues to flit in and out of the life of the narrator in ever more outlandish forms with a series of  adventures culminating in an almost sci-fi tale of holographic projection – which is rather the undoing of things. The interim stories take in thieving, murder and cannibalism and the larger than life character of the Baron is very, very entertaining.

… I thought about this long-lost friend, whose habits and imagination, although invariably unsettling, had always captivated my interest. The fondness which had drawn me to him when he was my fellow classmate at school, and his name was simply Dormesan; the many times we met and I was able to appreciate his peculiar character; his lack of scruples; a certain chaotic erudition, and a most agreeable kindness or spirit; all of these things made me feel, occasionally, something akin to a desire to see him again.

As I was reading these stories, something was niggling at my brain; and I eventually realised there was an elusive quality about them that was vaguely reminiscent of Blaise Cendrar’s “Dan Yack” stories: the fantastical exploits, the lack of morality in the main character, the ever-more extreme escapades as the book went on. And interestingly, when I had a little search online it appears that the men were indeed acquainted… Maybe the times conspired to have a certain kind of story coming to the fore, and it seems that Cendrars also influenced Apollinaire’s poetic style too ! Who knew? (Well – not me, obviously….)

These two lovely little editions from Ampersand really did make fascinating reading. I love being able to read obscure classics which have slipped out of the mainstream, and both Swift and Apollinaire are fine authors. If you haven’t already checked out Ampersand I’d highly recommend their books – both aesthetically and for the content! 🙂

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“Misfortune had stricken them into a strange apathy” – dark deeds from @AmpersandPubLtd

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The Sisters by an unknown author

I rambled recently about some lovely little lost classics which had been republished by the independent press, Ampersand. I have a couple more of these lurking in the TBR, to which I’m very much looking forward; but I was also intrigued to see the variety of subjects they cover, from new fiction through pulp, politics, crime and art, plus much more. One particular range which caught my eye was entitled ‘Lost and Found’ – there is only one book so far under this heading, and it’s a novella/short story which doesn’t appear to have seen the light of day since its original publication in 1829. “The Sisters” was published anonymously in “The Literary Souvenir” and it’s a 47 page long slice of dramatic Gothic which definitely deserves its republication.

The book is set in the North of the country (bringing instantly, of course, images of the Yorkshire Moors to mind), and as the story opens we are told of the collapse and decay of two great estates. The rest of the tale is how that decay was brought about, and how love of the sisters of the title led to the destruction of lives and locations. The sisters are Marion and Edith; the latter is younger and livelier, but the elder has depths and attracts the love of two local young men. Vibert is penniless but honest and true; Marcus is a proto-Heathcliff, dark and brooding and damaged. As my Offspring used to say, End Well It Will Not….

“The Sisters” is a dark and dramatic piece of writing, a fascinating transitional work which bridges the gap between Austen and the Brontes. It’s worth remembering that Gothic romances had been so popular in the 18th century (from Anne Radcliffe and the like) that Austen was able to spoof them in “Northanger Abbey” (written in 1803 but not published until 1817) That kind of Gothic work drew heavily on the apparent supernatural, and perhaps the genre reached its peak of notoriety with the controversial “The Monk”. However, as the world moved on towards Victorian times, a work like “Wuthering Heights” (published in 1847) had a different focus; there was still the hint of the supernatural but the book was much bleaker, more about dark human behaviour. “The Sisters” sits in that divide and reflects the shift in society’s behaviour and the changes to come.

By Edmund Morison Wimperis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The excellent introduction by Joan Passey expands on this aspect of the story, and puts the work very much in context. She sees society on a cusp, and the decay and destruction which is prevalent in the story is a reflection of the differing social expectations; almost as if an old way of life was crumbling just as much as the old country houses. It all makes fascinating reading (and thankfully Passey sensibly warns against reading her introduction before the story).

But apart from its historical significance, “The Sisters” is also a great little read; gripping and dark, it’s worthy of sitting alongside its more famous siblings. Ampersand has published it as a very pretty little hardback, with their trademark, very nice on the eye, off-white paper and a lovely atmospheric cover image. I’m greatly enjoying exploring the publisher’s catalogue and I’m very keen to see what comes up next in the ‘Lost and Found’ section! 🙂

Review copy kindly provided by Ampersand, for which many thanks!

Imps and Immortals – treats from an independent publisher @AmpersandPubLtd

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Tree-based publishing has had something of a resurgence recently, despite rumours of its demise at the hands of e-reading; and much of this, to my mind, is down to the increase in smaller, independent publishers. They excel in producing unusual, innovative and unexpected works, and many of these are classics – lost or forgotten ones, previously untranslated ones, or just plain unusual ones. Needless to say, I’m a fan; I blog regularly on books from the indies, so I was excited to see a name new to me on Simon’s blog recently – Ampersand Press.

Aren’t they cute?????

Ampersand are truly independent, in that they have their own printing press (shades of the Hogarth Press there!) and it was their classics imprint which particularly caught my eye. They have an intriguing range of short works available and were kind enough to provide two titles for me to have a look at – both of which turned out to be excellent reads! The books are dinky little editions, about 5 inches square, and with striking cover illustrations; and I particularly like the colour of the paper they use; it’s off-white so easier for my slight astigmatism! So here are some thoughts on the two I’ve read.

Fagu Malaia by Robert Louis Stevenson

You might have noticed that I’ve developed a thing about RLS recently (not helped by my visit to Edinburgh) and I have several of his works on the shelves that I’m intending to read. However, this short work really hit the spot! “Fagu Malaia” is more commonly known as “The Bottle Imp” and it’s one of Stevenson’s best-loved tales (as well as the name of an online Scottish literary magazine). As the introduction reveals, though, the story was written in Samoa and originally published in the Samoan language. The Samoan title given here is most directly translated as “The Cursed Bottle” and this little edition is complemented by two Hawaiian folk songs.

RLS image c. the lovely National Library of Scotland

So what of the story? Well, it’s a gripping and intense read: the tale is of Keawe, a man with no money but who craves a beautiful house. He buys the titular bottle, and the imp it contains who will grant his every wish. He does indeed get the luxurious lifestyle he wanted, as well as a beautiful wife he adores. However, the bottle comes with a catch – if the owner dies in possession of the bottle, they will burn eternally in hell, and the bottle can only be sold on at a price less than was paid for it. The scene is set for an emotional tale of love and loss, the bottle changing hands hither and thither, and a race against time to see who will actually possess the bottle when the value is so low that it can’t be sold on any more…

Stevenson was a hell of a storyteller, that’s for sure! “Fagu Malaia” is dark, entertaining and exciting and made compelling reading – ideal for something enjoyable to be read in one sitting. Now I *really* want to read more RLS!!

The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley

As with RLS and his wonderful “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, I’ve read Shelley’s most famous work – “Frankenstein”. However, despite having other works by her on the shelves I’ve never picked them up (do you sense a pattern here?) So this collection of three short pieces was just the ticket.

The collection is introduced by Dr. Tabitha Kan, who is fierce in her defence of Shelley as actual author of “Frankenstein” (I had obviously missed that there was any kind of controversy…) and interestingly, all of the stories featured have a common thread with that work – the concept of life after death. Not for nothing is the book subtitled “and other tales of monstrous animation”. The title story deals with a mortal man who has drunk a mysterious elixir which extends his life; “The Reanimated Englishman” has apparently been frozen in suspended animation for a century and a half; and we never find out how “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman” came back to life; but like all of these characters, he’s not that happy…

Because although we might all dream of living forever, Shelley takes on the realities behind that dream and shows how it would become a nightmare. Our loved ones would age and die while we wouldn’t; we would age mentally and be out of keeping with our times; or we would come back to a world that had changed beyond all recognition, to spend our time lamenting the loss of the life we once knew.

Death! Mysterious, ill-visaged friend of weak humanity! Why alone of all mortals have you cast me from your sheltering fold? O, for the peace of the grave! the deep silence of the iron-bound tomb! that thought would cease to work in my brain, and my heart beat no more with emotions varied only by new forms of sadness!

All of these dark, haunting and yet beautiful stories prove how unsuitable humankind is for immortality; and they also prove that Mary Shelley was not just a one trick pony and that I really *should* get one of her other books down off the shelves…

I seem to have developed a tendency for reading short works lately (which may be as much to do with being in the middle of a hideously busy phase at work as anything else); and despite their brevity, these little classics have much to say about human beings and the human condition, as well as being exceptionally pretty and very entertaining. I can see that there may well be future Ampersand Classics featuring on the Ramblings and there is serious risk of another collection building up…

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