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“…I was only time flowing through myself…” @FitzcarraldoEds #AnnieErnaux #SimplePassion

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There were all manner of books I would have liked to read for February’s #ReadIndies month (as you can see from the image in this post); and one of them was a very late arrival that I just couldn’t squeeze in. However, as it’s released today, I suppose I could consider it as a late entry for the reading event, especially as it’s from one of my favourite indies, Fitzcarraldo Editions. The author is a recent discovery for me, but she’s a writer of whom I think highly – the book is “Simple Passion” and the author is Annie Ernaux. I’ve covered a couple of Ernaux’s books on the Ramblings, “A Man’s Place” and “A Girl’s Story“; and although these works are only just appearing in Fitzcarraldo editions, they’ve often been written quite a while before. “Simple Passion” is a case in point; it was published in French in 1991 and although Tanya Leslie’s translation is copyright 1993, this is apparently its first UK release.

The title of this work sums up succinctly the subject of the book, although I would perhaps argue that there’s nothing simple about passions – and the book does reflect this! In 48 laconic pages, Ernaux recounts the story of an affair she had with a married man, named only as A, and how the intense passion she felt for him completely took over her life. It’s as if everything else is put on hold; she doesn’t want to go out, she doesn’t want to mix with other people, and her only interests are in the object of her desire or anything she can consider as relating to him. Yet as the man is married, she has no real call on his affections, and the highs and lows of her emotions reflect this uncertain status.

In many ways, the descriptions of Ernaux’s emotions are more like those of someone in the throes of a teenage crush; yet Ernaux is a mature woman with children. However, there’s no predicting where our heart will take us at any time of our lives, and in this book the author sets out to try and capture that state of mind when living for just one other person. Nothing else matters to her except A, and in truth I would say this is more a picture of obsession than just passion. Where the dividing line between the two lies is not for me to say, but Ernaux paints a striking and convincing portrait of a woman for whom nothing else matters but the time she spends with her lover.

… I avoided every opportunity that might tear me away from my obsession – books, social engagements and the other activities I used to enjoy. I longed for total idleness. I angrily turned down some extra work my superior had asked me to do, almost insulting him over the phone. I felt I had every right to reject the things that prevented me from luxuriating in the sensations and fantasies of my own passion.

For two years, the affair with A dominated Ernaux’s life, until work forced him to return to the Eastern European country he came from. The couple later have a reunion, but the pain of the parting has passed and the passion died; and Ernaux realises her feeling for him will never again be what they were when they were in the depths of the affair. Can *any* passion last forever? Probably not – familiarity can breed contempt, and in many relationships the passion probably turns to a different but hopefully deeper and more abiding love. However, Ernaux states that with this book she intended to “translate into words … the way in which (A’s) existence has affected my life” and “Simple Passion” certainly does that. It’s a powerful and affecting read which certainly lingers in the mind, and proof that I really need to read any Ernaux which comes my way!

“Immortality, as we understand it, is a kind of trick…” #ReadIndies @FitcarraldoEds @SashaDugdale

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The focus on the Ramblings today for #ReadIndies is another of my relatively recent discoveries: Fitzcarraldo Editions, an imprint which quickly became a fast favourite and which has provided many of my top reads over the last few years. Their range encompasses fiction, published in striking blue covers, and non-fiction, which appears in white. However, intriguingly enough, I find that when I read one of their books the lines are often blurred – and I regularly find myself querying what is actually fact and what actually fiction… Today’s book may well be a case in point!

The book in question is “In Memory of Memory” by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale; and it’s released in Fiztcarraldo’s white non-fiction covers. However, a recent and fascinating interview with the author on the Punctured Lines blog refers to the book as a documentary novel; well, whatever you want to categorise it as, “Memory…” is a stunning and unforgettable read!

This book about my family is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.

Stepanova is a poet, essayist and journalist, having produced ten poetry collections and three books of essays. As well as winning a number of awards, she’s also the founder and editor-in-chief of the onlne independent crowd-sourced journal, Colta.ru. Sasha Dugdale is already responsible for translating a collection of Stepanova’s poetry, “War and the Beasts and the Animals”, published by Bloodaxe Books (another great indie) and both women have appeared together at events discussing and reading Stepanova’s work.

“In Memory of Memory” opens with the death of Stepanova’s aunt; and the author finds herself left with an accumulation of old postcards and letters, faded photographs, diaries and souvenirs, gathered up over a century of history. As she begins to explore the story of her family as revealed (or partly hidden) by these fragments, she realises that not only does the history relate to her relations, but also to life in Russia during the 20th century. Stepanova’s family is Jewish, and therefore their history is peppered with persecutions and repressions, narrow escapes and tragedies, and it reflects the larger fate of the Jewish people during that period.

This is, however, no straightforward narrative, and Stepanova’s approach is fascinating and unusual. For example, she examines the family photograph through the lens of Sontag and Barthes; she considers the fate of artists like Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva; she relates her own personal journeys to visit locations from her family’s past; and she considers the wider aspect of history itself. This latter element is particularly interesting, as her meditations on what history is, how truthful or not it can be, and the changing relationship we have with the way we record our lives are deep and thought-provoking. The sections on our modern way of charting our every move, photographing everything we do and filling the world with images which may never been looked at again set me thinking deeply about our use of social media and our intense narcissism. In contrast to the way our ancestors lived their lives, it does often seem that we’ve got it very wrong…

However, the way we document our lives is not always so different from those in the past; the example of Charlotte Saloman, whose story Stepanova covers in detail, is deeply moving. Saloman chronicled her life in a frenzied artistic effort, producing 769 paintings in the two years before her murder in Auschwitz. The painterly version of our current obsession with Instagram? Maybe. Then there’s Francesca Woodman, an American photographer who would be roughly my age now, but who took her own life when young, leaving behind a body of nebulous, perplexting work which resists easy definition. And of course there are Rembrandt’s endless self-portraits – another early version of the selfie. As for Mandelstam, he’s a recurring presence in the book, each appearance so desperately moving. “Memory…” does not shy away from the dark elements of 20th century history; even an aside like her comment on the poet Valentin Stenich where she notes darkly, “It’s said that he did not conduct himself with honour at his interrogation. God forbid anyone should find out how we conduct ourselves at ours” is a reminder of just what horrors took place during the relatively recent past.

It’s not only the visual which features in the book, however; there are plenty of written records upon which Stepanova can draw. Interspersed with the main chapters are what she titles “Not-a-chapter” sections; these reproduce letters to and from her various ancestors and these are moving remembrances of her family, often from their younger years when courting or away fighting or working. These perhaps inform the sections where Stepanova queries our treatment of the dead; with our access to recorded history and the endless research resources available nowadays, we can reclaim them and remember them in ways they may never have wanted, instead of allowing them to quietly fade away into distant family memory. With the development in the 20th century of the technology for us to film and record ourselves and our dearest ones, we have given them a kind of fixed immortality which perhaps blurs the lines between past and present. Yet Stepanova queries whether we have lost the ability to recognise the past as the past and learn from its mistakes – something which is very relevant nowadays.

As you might have gathered, “In Memory of Memory” is an often startling and unique book, encompassing art, literature, history and so much more. It’s a work which operates successfully on a number of levels, weaving together personal history and History with a capital H, always informed by Stepanova’s “not obvious”, as she puts it, Jewish heritage. There are juxtapositions of beauty and horror – the stunning art of Charlotte Salomon followed by the stark relating of her fate. The chapter on the Siege of Leningrad in particular shows Stepanova’s skill; here, from a plethora of sources (eye witness accounts, diaries etc) she pieces together the story of Lyodik, her grandfather’s cousin, alongside that of scores of others caught in the siege, from Lydia Ginzburg who left behind her blockade diary to the tragic author Daniil Kharms who died of starvation during the siege. That particular section is remarkably powerful and packs a real emotional punch…

Leningrad during the Siege (Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

At one point in the narrative, Stepanova describes this as the book she was always going to write, regarding herself as her family’s chronicler and stating (perhaps with a nod to Lenin at the Finland Station):

I always knew I would someday write a book about my family, and there were even periods when this seemed to be my life‘s purpose (summarizing lives, collecting them into one narrative) because it was simply the case that I was the first and only person in the family who had a reason to speak facing outwards, peering out from intimate family conversations as if from under a fur cap, and addressing the railway station concourse of collective experience.

Certainly the family couldn’t have had a better writer to record their lives and fates, albeit in such an unusual and inspiring format. As I mentioned at the start of this post, although “Memory…” is published as non-fiction by Fitzcarraldo, Stepanova has herself described it as a novel, and she does indeed query the accuracy and literal truth of any history. Certainly, hindsight can blur our reactions to the past, our memories are often partial and mistaken (another theme in the book) and there are no real absolutes when we look back. We are human and fallible, but the best we can do is to explore the past and draw conclusions from it. What conclusions do I draw from “In Memory of Memory”? That it’s a remarkable, brilliantly written book which provokes all manner of thoughts, questions, ideas and memories in me as a reader as well as keeping me gripped from start to finish. The book is 500 pages long and I didn’t feel there was a word wasted. Intriguingly, translator Sasha Dugdale reveals in her note at the end of the book that the book evolved in its English version as author and translator collaborated together; a tribute to both of their work and they’re obviously another author/translator match made in heaven.

“In Memory of Memory” is an outstanding achievement; a personal history which extends to a wider History as well as an exploration of the culture and life of the 20th century, it’s unlike anything else I’ve read and it’s a book which will really stay with you. It’s full of riches (only some of which I’ve been able to touch upon here), and as you can see, my copy is riddled with sticky notes; I could do a whole post just of amazing quotes from it. However, it’s published today and I urge you to get a copy and read it if you can – a wonderful book and an unforgettable reading experience.

“Patterns coalesce, sometimes by chance at other times by design.” @FitzcarraldoEds #jeremycooper

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Back in 2019, I read a wonderful book from one of my favourite indie publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions; and it was by a completely new-to-me author, Jeremy Cooper. The book was “Ash Before Oak”, and was a kind of autofiction in the form of journal entries by a man living in the country and struggling with mental health issues. It was a powerful and compelling read, so of course I was delighted when an ARC of his new book, “Bolt from the Blue” popped through the door. I was hoping this would be as good a read as his first work of fiction – and I wasn’t disappointed.

As I mentioned in my review of “Ash Before Oak”, Cooper is an art historian and so the art world is very familiar to him. Elements from his experiences there crept into “Ash…”; however, in “Bolt from the Blue”, that milieu takes centre stage, as the book relates the story of the relationship between artist Lynn Gallagher and her mother, via their letters, postcards and emails to each other over the period 1985 to 2018. I love an epistolary novel at the best of times; but this book takes the form to an extra level.

The book opens with Lynn introducing the correspondence, relating how she discovered the letters her mother had kept after the latter’s death. Initially, Lynn is something of a narrator, interjecting comments or descriptions of the postcards she’d sent to her mother; and she seems to dominate the story. However, as the book progresses, her mother starts to come to the fore, and more is gradually revealed about both women’s backgrounds, the events that made them what they are, the reasons for tensions between them and, eventually, the similarities between them.

Lynn leaves home to go to art college in London, leaving her home in Birmingham and her mother behind her. It’s obvious from the tone of the initial correspondence that she was glad to get away to a new life although at the start we don’t know why. Over the decades, Lynn negotiates a complex path through the art world; she’s a strong feminist who refuses to compromise, not only with others’ expectations of her, but also with the money and the corporate structure behind much of the modern art world. The narrative is studded with familiar names – Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin – and also less well-known figures I had to look up, as well as some invented ones. Into this structure, Cooper brilliantly weaves Lynn’s story, her rise to prominence, her search for her own voice as an artist, and the compromises she has to make in her personal life. This story alone is fascinating, as was watching the world change around Lynn as the decades passed (and Cooper did capture the changing times quite brilliantly).

Nothing is ever complete, everything always a version. An illusion to imagine that diligent research and enquiry, about anything or anyone, can produce the whole story. There is no such thing.

But what of Lynn’s mother? The initial impression, of a restrictive, traditional mother seen through a young girl’s eyes, is changed and tempered as the book progresses. Lynn’s mother is a woman with her own past and family issues, with reasons for turning out the way she did, and the relationship between mother and daughter changes significantly over the years, often in unexpected ways. Is there resolution? That’s a thought which calls into question the whole possibility of resolution in human relationships – and certainly the mother-daughter one is fraught with problems.

I don’t want to say much more about the specifics of the book, because I would hate to lessen the impact; but what I will say is that this is another quite brilliant piece of writing by Jeremy Cooper. The epistolary form can be such a clever way of telling a story anyway, and Cooper uses it quite marvellously here. There are often long gaps between messages, leaving the reader to wonder what has caused this (lost letters? arguments? both are possible and hinted at by Lynn’s narration). The story never really evolves in a straightforward linear manner; instead, little pieces leak out into a letter or postcard which reveal something crucial from past or present, giving you little lightbulb moments as you read. There *are* revelations slipping out in the messages – the bolts from the blue to which the title refers – and some of these did make me catch my breath. The characters of Lynn and her mother build and develop as the book goes on, until you have a striking portrait of two women who are actually not always as unalike as you might think from the early letters…

“Bolt from the Blue” is another wonderful book from both Cooper and Fitzcarraldo, and was a completely gripping read from start to finish. If for nothing else than its portrait of the modern art world, it would be a vital read; but as well as that, it’s a quite brilliant portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and captures vividly the difficulty of remaining individual and true to yourself when faced by commercial pressures. Cooper’s insights into the art community are astute, drawn no doubt from his experience; and it’s worth noting that he’s not only written a work on the young British art movement of the 1990s, but also the British Museum’s catalogue of artists’ postcards. This latter element presumably informs the vivid descriptions of the postcards sent between mother and daughter, and adds another fascinating layer to the book.

When I reached the end of “Bolt from the Blue” I felt as if I’d lived alongside both these women, immersed in their lives, and if an author can achieve that, they’re quite brilliant. I’ve probably not done justice to the depth and complexity of the book in this short post, but it’s a remarkable work. Although I’m intending to share more Fitzcarraldos during #ReadIndies month in February, I wanted to post my thoughts on “Bolt…” today as it’s publication day for the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough – a unique and quite brilliant work!

#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony…” #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Tanya Leslie

My second read for Non-Fiction November is (whispers) actually a book I read in October, but as I’m still playing catch-up with reviews and as this one fits into the category nicely, I think we’ll turn a blind eye…. ;D

The book is “A Man’s Place” by Annie Ernaux; the most recent release of her work by the lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions, it’s translated by Tanya Leslie, and was originally published in 1983. Ernaux is a recent discovery for me; I read and was knocked out by “A Girl’s Story” back in August, so was very keen to read the new book, particularly as it springs from the same kind of place as my first read. In “Girl…” Ernaux looked back at dark and defining events from her formative years; here she stays in similar territory, travelling back to convey the life of her father in prose which is apparently simple yet is very revealing.

Ernaux’s father died at the age of 67, two months after his daughter had qualified as a teacher. The family came from peasant stock, with her father having started life as a lowly cowherd. Surviving the First World War, he began working in a factory where he met Ernaux’s mother. Together they managed to move into working class circles, setting themself up as shopkeepers and running a grocery store/cafe in rural France, struggling to make a living. However, the store managed to sustain them, despite the introduction of supermarkets encroaching on their territory, and also provided enough income for them to send their daughter to a good school – a move which would change her life irrevocably.

Maybe I am writing because we no longer had anything to say to each other.

Interestingly, “A Man’s Place” is as much about Annie Ernaux herself as it is about her father. Both parents came from a simple, rural background and inevitably Ernaux grew away from them as she attended school then university, mixing with contemporaries from very different settings. As well as the class issues which arose as Ernaux moved away physically and emotionally from her background, the intellectual gulf was huge and probably unbridgable. In the later parts of the book, when Ernaux visits her aging parents with her small son, it’s as if she’s travelling into the past, to a completely different world.

Ernaux is aware of much of what formed her father and his outlook; and she is also clear-eyed about her paternal grandfather and the influence he must have had, stating:

He was a hard man, nobody dared pick a quarrel with him. Life was not all roses for his wife. His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house.

She also resists adding any kind of gloss to her father’s story, understanding that his life on the land was no kind of idyll. The realities of a rural style of life are not swept under the carpet…

It would be easy to write something along those lines. The relentless passing of the seasons, the simple joys and quiet of the countryside. The land my father worked belonged to others. He saw no beauty in it, the magnificence of Mother Earth and other such myths were lost on him.

As with “A Girl’s Story”, Ernaux’s writing is of course superb. Her narrative is always detached, seemingly unemotional – for example, she relates the death of an earlier sibling in remote terms as if it was someone with no connection to her. Yet underneath the emotions are strong and it’s as if she has to tell her tale as if it was *not* hers, rather than autobiography, to be able to convey her story. Despite the vast differences between Ernaux and her father, there is the feeling that she appreciates his resilience and his simpler approach to life; and in return, despite his lack of understanding of what Ernaux is actually doing with her life, he *is* proud of her.

“A Man’s Place” is a short work – 76 pages to be exact – and yet packs in so much. Ernaux explores not only her father’s place in an ever-changing society, but also his place in her life. She’s quite brilliant at unpicking the nuances of the relationships within her family, while her narrative reflects the radical changes in French society which took place during her lifetime. At the start of the book, the world feels positively mediaeval; by the end of it, we’re in a very familiar landscape of modern trappings and shops and all of the changes the 1960s and 1970s would bring. To have captured all that in so short a book is just genius, I think.

So my second Ernaux book was just as good, and just as haunting and memorable, as my first. She really is a remarkable writer and commentator, able to distance herself from her own experiences and so bring to them a really intriguing perspective. Her books are not always the easiest of reads, in that she looks life and reality straight in the eye; but they’re always enriching, and here Ernaux paints a striking picture of her father and his life which acts as a powerful memorial to the man he was. A remarkable book!

“… funny, learned, vagrant, strange…” @briangdillon @FitzcarraldoEds #supposeasentence

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Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

I first explored the writing of Brian Dillon back in February when I co-hosted the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with Lizzy. His collection “Essayism” was a highlight of the event for me; a marvellous meditation on the art of the essay, blended with autobiographical elements, it was compelling reading and one of those books which resonates and stays with you long after finishing it. So when I discovered that Dillon had a new book coming out in September, with the intriguing title of “Suppose a Sentence”, I was naturally very, very keen to read it!

Beautiful sentences, Gass wrote, are ‘rare as eclipses’. I went chasing eclipses: those moments of reading when the light changes, some darker lustre takes over, things (words) seems suddenly obscure, even in the simplest sentence, and you find you have to look twice, more than twice.

“Suppose…” (which draws its title from Gertrude Stein) takes an intriguing approach to its subject, which is, fairly obviously, the sentence. Working chronologically, Dillon gathers together groups of words he’s recorded in notebooks over the years and explores what makes them so special. They’re sentences which resonated with him for one reason or another, lodging in the brain and demanding to be recorded; and the authors range from Shakespeare at the start (and in many ways I suppose, he *is* the start of things) to a final piece on Anne Boyer. In between the two, in pieces ranging from less than a page to several, Dillon takes in a dazzling array of writers. Donne, De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, Ruskin, Stein, Woolf, Bowen, Didion, Barthes, Sontag – well, you see why I was so keen to read it.

The sentence demands patience; it is like waiting for a photograph to develop.

Dillon’s angle on his sentences varies a little from piece to piece; but one thing this isn’t is a book about only about the structure of a sentence. He does dip lightly into linguistics, but he’s really more interested in exploring the context of his particular choices and the effects they have on the reader. Often the sentence will stretch outside its proper structure, testing the bounds of grammar and how a sentence is *supposed* to be constructed; and as I dislike regimentation in writing I found that refreshing. The sentence can be such a varied form – which is quite clear from this book – and although Proust is not present here, the book did set me off thinking about the complex and labyrinthine structure of his writing which really is an art in itself

Maybe the world of the novel – and maybe the world – is like a densely woven fabric, and the best we can do is pick at its pattern in one place, hoping thereby to comprehend the whole.

Like all good essayists, the personal is present as Dillon explores his relationship to the authors and the sentences, and when they might have appeared in his life. He’s always an engaging narrator, throwing out clever and provocative ideas, and the book ended up being a wonderfully stimulating read. It’s fascinating how focusing on just one sentence can be used to bring such insight into that author’s work; but each set of words, whether short or long, is distinctive and deserving of such close study. The book is riddled with references to favourite writers and their work, making it impossible to pick out favourites; it has to be seen as a whole. I was, however, particularly struck by his reaction to Elizabeth Bowen; her writing about her trip to Italy was for him, like me, a recent discovery. And I had a ‘yes!’ moment when Dillon pointed out how like Montaigne was Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill“; which I hadn’t realised at the time, not having yet read Montaigne himself. However, it also introduced me to some new authors, which will necessitate a little exploring…

… ‘phrase-maker’ ought to be an admiring term of art, not an insult reserved for writers who are judged insufficiently robust, altogether too transported by language.

I have to confess to being someone who is seduced by the power of words, and I love nothing better than a good sentence. To me, much current writing suffers from the loss of a decent sentence; short, staccato phrases don’t usually have the same effect and this is probably why I find a lot of modern books thin and unexciting. I suppose the question has to be asked – how do Dillon’s sentences stand up to scrutiny? Well, I found them to be a thing of great joy; he really knows how to string a good one together himself. And in the same way that Dillon picked out his sentences over the years, I found myself marking his to be saved in notebooks (as you can see from the sheaf of post-its…); a good phrase or expression is always worth recording.

Suppose a Post-it….

So “Suppose a Sentence” was everything I wanted it to be; snapshots of the work of a fascinating range of writers (several new to me); a book about words and their meanings and the effects they can have on you; and a wide ranging look at the sentences our fellow humans have felt the need to pen over the centuries. It’s also very brilliantly structured in a way about which I shall say no more… And it’s one of those very dangerous books which you finish reading with a whole list of works you want to check out (and the notes at the back help with that…) It sent me running off to check I still had some of the below lying about and also is responsible for one of these arriving to swell the tbr…

Suppose an Influence… I had a minor panic when I thought I’d donated De Quincey, but luckily hadn’t. The Hogg I already owned. The Schwob was a gift. The Jaeggy is new…

I’ve read quite a number of Fitzcarraldo Editions this year, and I haven’t been disappointed once. “Suppose a Sentence” comes with a number of (well-deserved) plaudits for its author (and I would agree with John Banville’s description of Dillon as a ‘literary flaneur’). It’s very much a book for lovers of words and reading; and if you like essays, writing, books, language or simply to have your thoughts provoked, then I highly recommend “Suppose a Sentence” – a wonderful read!

“Suppose a Sentence” will be released by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 23rd September; many thanks to the publishers and Clare Bogen for kindly providing a review copy.

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.” #WITMonth #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Annie Ernaux is an award-winning French author whose works have been making their way into the Anglophone world over recent years, most notably in the UK via the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions. Originally pitching her literary talents towards fiction, she switched to autobiographical works and these are the ones which most British readers would recognise – books like “I Remain in Darkness” and “The Years” have garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. Her most recent release via Fitzcarraldo is “A Girl’s Story” and, as an Ernaux virgin, I was very happy to be offered a copy by the publisher to cover for #WITmonth.

From what I’ve read about Ernaux’s books, they don’t mince their words; and “A Girl’s Story” is no exception. It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognise how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

The effects of the summer of 1958 are devastating, and Annie D. (Duschesne, as she was then) loses contact with H. at the end of the summer, and is rejected by the camp when she applies to be an instructor the following year. Instead, she spends time as an au pair in London, where her behaviour is still off-kiltre. She’s a self-obsessed young person, as so many are, with little knowledge of what’s happening in real life and a kind of blindness when it comes to major world events; she’s locked inside her head, fixated on her own emotions.

The cover of the US edition from Seven Stories Press

In itself, “A Girl’s Story” is an important book; in many ways, it could every woman’s story, as most of us have at some point faced abuse from men, whether verbal, physical, emotional or simply derision. As Ernaux comments at one point in the story (when both male and female instructors are mocking a letter of Annie’s which has been found and displayed on a noticeboard):

When I go back over the corridor scene, little by little, the girl in the middle becomes depersonalized, is no longer me or even Annie D. What happened in the corridor at the camp takes us back to time immemorial, all over the planet. Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.

And how many naive young women have become obsessed by an older man who seems to be some kind of ideal, yet has little interest in them and casts them off when they’ve got what they want? But there’s something deeper at work in Ernaux’s writing as she tackles her past. Her narrative form is unusual; she distances herself from her past self, telling Annie D.’s story in the third person as if they were two separate people (which I suppose, in some ways, they are). It seems as if she’s conflicted, unable or unwilling to get into the mindset of the girl of summer 1958, yet trying to do just that. As she wrestles with herself, it’s as if she’s spent the intervening years trying to completely bury her memories and that part of her past and move on. However, the experience has marked her and stayed with her and she’s still unable to let go of it.

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all. What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?

Knowledge is control, I suppose; and by writing about her past and exploring the way memory works, Ernaux is trying to take back control over herself and the way she was perceived, control which she certainly didn’t have at the time. In retrospect, a young girl from a repressed household with a controlling mother, no wordly knowledge and no experience of men was a lamb to the slaughter and never should have been sent to the summer camp. But she was, and she had these vile experiences which had tainted her life, and this is, I suppose, Ernaux’s reckoning with them.

How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, the ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

The things which happen to us when we’re young and impressionable *do* stay with us; and traumatic events like those which were inflicted on Annie D. couldn’t help but have a lasting effect. Fascinatingly, Ernaux traces the start of her writing life back to these events, as if they made her the woman she is – which seems to be a powerful, honest and confessional writer. She also captures the attitudes of the times quite brilliantly; the double standards applied to women, the expectations of their behaviour, and the casual misogyny which existed. “A Girl’s Story” is a vivid, often harrowing and yet inspiring book, as Annie D. suvived the events of the summer of 1958 and moved on to become the author which Annie Ernaux is. “A Girl’s Story” is a multi-layered read, looking not only at the events of the summer of 1958 and how they affected her; it also looks at issues around memory, trauma, blinkered perceptions and how we can totally submit our willpower to another human. It’s a compelling and unforgettable book, a chronicle of its era in many ways, and Ernaux is obviously an author I will need to explore further…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Clare Bogen, for which many thanks!

“…death and the photograph as memento mori…” #indexcards #moyradavey @FitzcarraldoEds

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It’s pretty obvious from my blog posts this year, and particularly my involvement in co-hosting with Lizzy the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, that I’m a huge fan of the publisher’s output. In fact, I credit their books with my rekindled love of the essay format as so many of their non-fiction works have taken that genre and riffed on it in an individual way. So when I read about their recent release, “Index Cards” by Moyra Davey, I was convinced it would be one for me – I mean, anything slated as weaving into its narrative Mary Wollstonecroft, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes (yes, that man again!), to name but a few, is likely to be a book which appeals to me! 😀

Based in New York, Davey is an acclaimed artist, photographer, writer, and filmmaker; possibly most known for her film “Les Goddesses”, which explores the connections between the artist’s family, and the family of Mary Wollstonecroft (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay). Certainly that’s the work of hers of which I’d heard, and the Wollstonecroft women *do* make regular appearances in this book. But what, exactly, *is* “Index Cards”?

The book is billed as a collection of essays, and since that form is an elastic one encompassing all manner of structures nowadays, it’s probably the best one to use. The pieces in the book are dated, ranging from the early 2000s up to more modern times, but the subject matter often travels back in time to Davey’s childhood as well as historical times. Some essays, such as the opener “Fifty Minutes”, read more like a film script or written narration; others are more fragmentary, reading like diary entries or indeed jottings on an index card. Because of that loose structure “Index Cards” can be hard to categorise; but it’s never anything less than a bracing and exhilarating read.

Davey’s main artistic medium is obviously the visual and many of her writings focus on the art of photography, with the changes which have taken place in that discpline over the years. She takes several deep dives into the theory of photography and its changing focus; the morals and ethics of street photography; and looks closely at the work in this field of Barthes and Sontag. Her contemplation of her own films and those of her contemporaries is also fascinating. Davey is honest in these writings; she’s not afraid to interrogate her art and her motivations, discussing her period in analysis, her health issues, her friendships and her emotions about the loss of her son as he grows up and moves on in his life. I felt she revealed an underlying sense of uncertainty about her arts, constantly questioning herself, and her honesty in revealing her doubts was refreshing.

The other major theme which struck me in “Index Cards” was that of reading and writing. On the second page of the book Davey finds herself in a situation which will be familiar to most readers:

I spend most of my time trolling through half a dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if I could only just put my finger on it. Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it. Sometimes I persist with the book, even just through inertia, and it can happen that the writing will suddenly open itself up to me.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in that position… Davey quotes freely from the writers who inspire her, and the list is impressive (with many oddly familiar to me…): Bowen, Akhmatova, Benjamin, Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Barthes, Perec, Calvino, Robert Walser, Jean Genet, Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc are just some of the names making an appearance. Virginia Woolf’s flaneurie of reading is something of a touchstone, and even Larkin and his destroyed diaries appear in passing. Later on in the book she goes on to consider the problem of reading in the modern world, with so much available and distracting our attention from focusing on just one work at a time. Her reading is obviously wide-ranging, with the authors quoted having a particular resonance for her.

I found, and still find the letters oddly comforting for the way they translate thorny life problems into Gertrude-Stein like, droning-on prose. I’ve often thought that diaries and letters are the real modernism: stream of consciousness without the contrivance. (On Jane Bowles’ letters)

At one point in “Index Cards”, while Davey is discussing Sontag’s writings on photography, she comments on its “epigrammatic structure, where ideas, indented with dingbats, accumulate, and indeed follow one another with a sort of loose, fragmentary randomness.” Although Davey she says never connected emotionally with Sontag, intriguingly I felt her own work could well have been described in the same way. In many ways “Index Cards” reads as a Commonplace Book (albeit a very brilliant one) with the randomness and immediacy of a journal; however, despite its apparently disparate nature, there are elements which run through the book; including the constant theme of the drawing of resonances between the life of herself and her family, and those who inspire her. Stories and recollections reappear like a thread running through the narrative of the essays, and the repetition of these elements serves to emphasise their importance to Davey. She quotes Barthes at one point as saying “Note-taking gives me a form of security“, and certainly I can empathise with the need to record events in order to make sense of life itself.

Lots of post-its… maybe I should have made notes on index cards…

Even after reading it and writing about it, I still find “Index Cards” a book which is impossible to pin down and categorise (which is maybe why I loved it so much). It could perhaps be considered a sum of its parts, a book rich with references and full of provocations which throws up many questions which linger in the mind long after finishing it (as can be seen from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy). Davey’s blurring of lines between art forms is fascinating, and I was left with the impression of an artist taking stock of her work in various formats, wanting to leave behind her something which might inspire artists, writers and readers to come in the same way she had been inspired by others. “Index Cards” is a stunning book in all senses of the world, one which resonated with me throughout and a work I will no doubt be drawn back to again and again.

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

“The leaden heart grew entwined…” @FitzcarraldoEds #estherkinsky #grove

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Grove by Esther Kinsky
Translated by Caroline Schmidt

Grief takes many forms, especially after the loss of a parent or a partner. Some bottle up the emotions, some let them all out, and others try to find other ways to cope with, and make meaning of, that loss. There are many forms of catharsis, travel being one and writing another; and these two strands come together in a new book from Fitzcarraldo Editions, “Grove” by Esther Kinsky.

It’s been a few months since I read one of this marvellous publisher’s books; in fact, I haven’t picked one up since Lizzy and I co-hosted our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight (which was such fun). I read mostly non-fiction for our event, so it was nice to turn to one of their fiction titles, and Kinsky is an author they’ve published before (her “River” has glowing reviews). So I approached this with interest!

Esther Kinsky was born in Germany and grew up near the Rhine; for a dozen years she lived in London; and she’s also a poet and translator. As “Grove” opens, Kinsky’s unnamed narrator travels to Olevano, a small village to the southeast of Rome. She’s recently bereaved and has taken herself south during the winter months, settling in a temporary dwelling between the village and the cemetery. With this base, she explores the area whilst attempting to come to terms with her loss. Her heart is heavy, her focus intense, and she obviously feels the loss of M., her partner, deeply.

I stood at the window for hours as if inside a bell jar which had covered me and displaced me to my childhood, when in the afternoons and evenings I often felt incapable of doing anything but look out the window. Save that now beneath my hands on the window ledge I could feel M.’s hands. I didn’t see them like I had that morning, only felt them and wondered if this was what had taught me to forget my own hands

The second section of the book opens with death of the narrator’s father, and as she travels home for his funeral, this triggers more memories. Once again, these are of Italy and the narrator explores past family trips to the country, memories dominated by her father’s personality. He often appears to have been a lost man, both psychologically and literally, and there is an emotional distance between them. The narrative slips between past and present; fragmented images of Communist party gatherings, driving through the Italian landscape and his research into the Etruscan past build up a picture of her younger life. In the final part, the narrator visits the north of Italy at a later date, in search of the location of the garden of Finzi-Contini family (from Giorgio Bassani’s classic novel). However, the garden is not to be discovered, although perhaps the search for it has given the narrator comfort.

The garden of the Finzi-Continis remained a space that was shaped and reshaped by memory and interpretation, an area of loss that refused to be found… It was a place that could be found only by sensing its absence, by recalling what was lost…

“Grove” is a stunning piece of writing; Kinsky is a lyrical author, and her prose explores and captures the landscapes through which she wanders beautifully. Inevitably, the book is a melancholy read because of the subject matter and there is a sense that the narrator is seeking comfort or meaning in the lands she visits. However, she so often encounters bleakness or disintegration, in the form of half-built areas or landscapes being destroyed for modern constructions, that it does make you wonder what solace she found in her travels. She so often seems a displaced person, unable to find where she fits in the world like so many of the refugees she encounters as she journeys through Italy.

Esther Kinsky in 2016 via Wikimedia Commons [Heike Huslage-Koch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

There’s also a sense of the fluidity of time throughout the narrative, as the author explores her past and present; and there’s also a feeling of continuity, with her father’s intense search for the Etruscan necropoli mirrored by the narrator’s focus on, and regular visits to, the many cemeteries she seems to encounter.

Like other works I’ve read from Fitzcarraldo which are published in their blue ‘fiction’ livery, it’s hard not to see this book as some kind of autofiction; the narrator refers to her departed partner as M., and of course Kinsky was married to the literary translator Martin Chalmers, who sadly died quite young in 2014. Although the book is described firmly as a novel, it’s impossible not to see it as very much informed by Kinsky’s own life experiences. However, that’s by the by. Whether novel, autofiction or disguised autobiography, “Grove” is a mesmerising, beautiful and melancholy piece of writing. Her writing is compelling and poetic, and having loved this book I may well have to search out her earlier work, “River”!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. There is an interesting piece on the book and its locations on their blog here.

 

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