A little more library love…


That heading is a bit of a giveaway, I suppose – yes, it’s time for more pictures of books…. 🙂 Not that I suppose anybody who drops in at the Ramblings will mind, and I like to keep singing the loud praises of libraries – what would we do without them, I often ask myself.

I picked up a few titles recently, all of which have Very Good Reasons for me borrowing them.

I was bemoaning on a recent post the fact that there was so little available by Bruno Schulz. Then, whilst browsing the library catalogue, I discovered there was a Collected Works, so I of course had to have a look to see if it contained anything I hadn’t read. Well, it weighs a ton and I had to haul it round town with me… However, it has letters and artwork as well as the stories so I shall have a bit of an explore.

As for the Russians – well, Steiner’s “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” is kind of essential for me and Steiner has been getting a lot of love on Melissa and Anthony‘s blogs, so I really needed to have a look. The Tsvetaeva is just so I could see whether any of her Mayakovsky poems have been translated into English. I suspect not, although there *is* a fragment in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry …

Now for some Golden Age crime, courtesy of my BFF J. She’s taken to sending me books (not that I’m complaining – ta muchly!) and these three have arrived so far this year. So kind, and ones I haven’t yet read!

Aren’t they enticing?

And yet *more* GA Crime has arrived in the form of review copies from the lovely British Library in their Crime Classics range. This is another author new to me and I can’t decide which one I want to try first…

Last but not least, I confess I *did* actually pick  up a couple of books (yes, actually bought them though I’m trying not to…) The little Swiss travel book came from The Works and just sounded fun. The Pasolini was from a charity shop for £1 so it would have been rude not to. So yes, I’m definitely going to have to abandon sleeping very soon…. =:0


The “lost book” authors


Reading a book about books is a dangerous exercise for any bibliophile, but “In Search of Lost Books” creates its own issues as it’s about books that don’t actually exist any more – or which may indeed have never existed. However, that book *did* send me off down the trail of wanting to dig out the volumes I own by the authors featured in it, and it turned out that I have a surprising amount of works by these particular writers – which may be why the book spoke to me so strongly. So, as someone who’s never averse to pictures of other people’s books, I thought I would share a few of mine here.

However, gathering all of these together *wasn’t* an easy exercise, as my ‘library’ seems to have become more randomly scattered around the house recently. I haven’t been able to locate everything I think I own, and I found that, as I suspected, any shelf-rummaging exercise throws up a huge number of queries, problems and exclamations – along the lines of:

Why is Joan Didion double-shelved behind Aldous Huxley?
Did I *really* buy all those books in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series and read hardly any of them?
Where *is* my copy of “A Moveable Feast”?
Oooooh, look – I have a book called “The Faber book of Utopias”!! I wonder if I ever read it…?
Why have I got two copies of “Under the Volcano”?
Where *is* my copy of “Ulysses”?
Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t anything else available by Bruno Schulz.
Hurrah! There’s my lovely Allan Ramsay book which I haven’t been able to find for ages.
Why have I got so many copies of “Anna Karenina”?

And so on…

The serious difficulty in laying hands on a specific book shows how things have got out of hand with my ‘library’ and I can see I’ll need to take some serious action soon, maybe over the summer holidays, to just try and get things into a sensible order where I can locate titles with ease – and possibly even catalogue them sensibly. However, for now, here are some photographs of lovely, lovely books!

So – in no particular order – here is a selection of my books by and about Sylvia Plath. Yes, there are a lot…

I actually did a longer post a while back with more pictures. The pile has expanded since then, as I now have the enormously huge volume 1 of her letters too…

In contrast, we have Bruno Schulz. All that survives of his work is these shorter fictions, here all collected in one volume and I’ve reviewed and loved them.  As I grumbled above, it’s such a shame that nothing else of his written work survives.


Then we have Malcolm Lowry. I think my Lowry reading is all pre-blog, but I recall being entranced by “Under the Volcano”. His other work is good, though nothing lives up to his major novel.

Ah, Papa Hemingway. Source of much frustration in rummaging through the stacks, as I *know* I have a copy of “A Moveable Feast” because I’ve read and reviewed it and wouldn’t have got rid of it. It wasn’t with these two, wasn’t with my Gertrude Steins and wasn’t with my Fitzgeralds. Who knows where it is in the house – probably with the copy of “Fiesta” I suspect I still have (there were two in the house at one point….)

Let’s get serious now, with the Russians – or at least Gogol, who often *isn’t* serious! I have quite a pile of Gogols, surprising perhaps as there isn’t a lot available in English. This one is probably the prettiest.

I am ashamed that there is P/V translation in this pile, but it was 10p from the library discards and I think it has stories I couldn’t get anywhere else – well, non-Russian speaking beggars can’t be choosers. And yes – I’m afraid there are three copies of “Dead Souls”.

Last but not least Walter Benjamin. I’ve only read a little of his work (“Unpacking My Library” definitely) and I want to read more but never get round to it. I’d rather like his Arcades Project but I think I should read these before getting any more.

So there you have it – a little book p*rn to liven your day up. Although works by these authors have gone missing at least in most cases we have a reasonable amount of surviving work with which to console ourselves – and let’s face it, a good book can solve most ills… 😉

Manuscripts *do* burn…


In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

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

Recent Reads – The Complete Fictions of Bruno Schulz


Oh boy! You couldn’t get two books further apart than my last read (Templeton) and this one! There are coincidences surround the Schulz – I stumbled across it in the Oxfam, and thought it sounded intriguing, and then it turned out to be on Philip Roth’s list of books from the other Europe. The *other Europe* is just about right, as this has to be one of the most out-there books I’ve read… Some words about Schulz first, though:

Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892 – November 19, 1942) was a Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher born to Jewish parents, and regarded as one of the great Polish-language prose stylists of the 20th century. Schulz was born in Drohobych, in the Austrian sector of the Partitioned Poland, and spent most of his life there. He was killed by a German Nazi officer. (Wikipedia)


Like so many of the European writers I’ve read recently (Zweig, Roth and others), Schulz suffered at the hands of the Nazis and it’s a great loss he died so early. “The Fictions of Bruno Schulz” contains just that – all of the stories written during his life that were originally published in two volumes, together with one or two pieces not originally published. The first collection, entitled “The Street of Crocodiles”, was published in 1934, and brought him some measure of fame. The second, “Sanatorium under The Sign of the Hourglass” came out in 1937 – and after that, Schulz’s life must have become more and more difficult, as the Nazi iron grip spread over the continent.

Schulz’s works are in essence mainly a series of inter-related stories of varying lengths. The majority of them are narrated by a young boy/man, given the name of Joseph in some of the stories, and starting out to read the first story you get the impression these are autobiographical sketches. However, as the narrative of the tales takes off into surreal realms, you soon realise that this is no simple re-telling of a young life in Galician Poland! Instead, the story soars off into fantastic realms, as do all the following. We are introduced to Joseph’s family, who run a store which seems to deal mostly in fabrics (these will recur through the story). There are brothers and sisters, mother, aunts and uncles, plus a variety of shop assistants (who reminded me very much of the kitchen boys in Mervyn Peake’s “Titus Groan”). However, two characters stand out and will feature strongly in the narratives – Father, and the maid Adela.

And it’s father who goes through most of the strange experiences in the book – dying several times, changing into a cockroach or a crab, shrinking to dust, dying again and ending up in the Sanatorium of the title, to name but a few. And the world Joseph lives in, whether exaggerated for effect, or filtered through a strange child’s sensibility, is an ever-changing and dramatic one. Schulz conjures up vividly the midday heat of summer, where all is still and dusty and surprisingly bleak; or the time a huge gale comes to the town, so destructive that it’s impossible to leave the house, or go into certain parts of it. In fact, the elements are often given a life of their own, and one that recurs most frequently is darkness. Things are particularly strange at night, and in the story “Cinnamon Shops” Schulz captures brilliantly that nightmare quality of being out at night and lost in a city that isn’t as we thought it was. This is the landscape of dreams and hallucinations, and the lines between what is real or surreal, literal or metaphorical, are constantly blurred.

“For ordinary books are like meteors. Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame. For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes. With bitter resignation we sometimes wander late at night through the extinct pages that tell their stone dead messages like wooden rosary beads.”

It’s actually hard to say in simple terms what these stories are about as they’re so rich and strange. In broad terms, it seems as if Schulz takes a simple past and transmogrifies it into something fantastic. The writing is dazzling, the metaphors expansive; I can see why commentators have compared his work to Kafka and Proust, but in the end creates a world very much of his own, albeit a sometimes disturbing one. The strangeness is added to by Schulz’s illustrations to the second book which are equally unnerving.


Yet, I do have slight reservations. Despite, or perhaps because, of the dazzling and surreal narrative, the vivid and startling imagery, I did find myself struggling in places; it’s perhaps a little difficult to connect emotionally with the characters. And just because the writing is surreal doesn’t mean you can’t care – for example, I read Leonora Carrington’s “The Hearing Trumpet” some time ago, and also that went into very odd territory, I was very much involved with the characters and their fate. Here there is a detachment, a feeling akin to being stuck in a dream and unable to run away, but also the knowledge that where you are isn’t real.

“And the process of sleeping is, in fact, one great story, divided into chapters and sections, into parts distributed among sleepers. When one of the stops and grows silent, another takes up his cue so that the story can proceed in broad, epic zigzags while they all lie in the separate rooms of that house, motionless and inert like poppy seed within the partitions of a large, dried-up poppy.”


Nevertheless I’m glad I’ve read Schulz and I have to agree with John Updike’s assessment of him as a great transmogrifier of the world – he’s certainly changed my view, and I will never look at certain things in quite the same way again. And actually, the more I think about it, the more this *isn’t* the strangest book I’ve ever read. In my time I’ve read Mervyn Peake, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Ernst Junger, Kafka, Proust…. plenty of so-called difficult writers. Schulz is a one-off, a writer out on his own, but his work is mesmeric and its images will haunt me forever. A challenge, yes – but one worthy of taking up!

Restraint? Pah! What’s that?


And from that title you might guess that a few more volumes have edged their way into the house from the local charity shops…..

Well, from one in particular actually – the Oxfam of course. I didn’t actually go into most of the stores this week, but I did intend to pop in to the Oxfam because I’d spotted a Virago Traveller the previous week – but as I didn’t have my trusty purple notebook, in which I list all my Viragos, with me, I was stuck. Turns out I didn’t have it, so “Travels in West Africa” by Mary Kingsley came home with me.

And here are its friends!

First up is a 99p bargain:

I enjoyed “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” so much that I want to read another Verne, and this is a title I also remember from a film!

I’ve also had Marias on the to-be-explored list for a while, so a nice copy of “The Infatuations” (a hardback, no less!) was impossible to resist.

The final book is a bit of an oddity:

I’ve never heard of Bruno Schulz before – but this is a Picador (and I like their books) and seems to be the only work of his which survived (as he’s another tragic war victim). A bit of a risk, but it may be good and I love discovering new authors.

Pretty good for just over the cost of one new paperback. Now I just to clear a bit of shelf space….. :s

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