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Taking your life in your hands… @FitcarraldoEds @CritchleyUpdate

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Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley

First up, I should give a kind of trigger warning that the post below by necessity (and fairly obviously, from the title of this book) covers the subject of suicide (and by extension, suicide-by-murder, which I’ll mention later).

And it might not be the kind of book you’d expect to see on the Ramblings, although I have been reading quite a bit of non-fiction/essays and the like recently, particularly in lovely volumes from Fitzcarraldo Editions. This was a title that caught my eye when the publisher had a flash sale a little while back, and I was intrigued. It’s a slim but very powerful meditation on why a human being might consider ending their life, and although I read it in pretty much one sitting it’s definitely a book that lingers in the mind.

Let me say at the outset, at the risk of disappointing the reader, that I have no plans to kill myself… just yet.

Simon Critchley’s book “Notes on Suicide” opens with the bald statement “This book is not a suicide note” and goes on to present a sweeping and fascinating overview of a subject which has vexed many and is often considered taboo. Critchley considers specific cases of people (mostly artistic people of one kind or another) who’ve taken their lives; the laws and moral judgements passed on suicides; the writing and purpose of suicide notes; and whether the whole *point* of contemplating suicide comes down to making a decision as to whether life is really worth living. There is a sense that, as Critchley makes his way through historical attitudes to suicide from the ancients to the moderns (via Hume and Kant and Dorothy Parker), the religious and moral aspects, and the whole phenomenon of suicide notes, he is also using this process to work through his own issues. He situates the writing of the piece in a time and a specific location – on the East Anglian coast, looking at the bleak North Sea – and there is an underlying impression that in seeking to understand the reasons which impel human beings towards self-destruction, he is in fact seeking to understand himself.

Critchley also considers the mystique that often attaches to the act of suicide, the fascination we have with the doomed youth or the troubled genius who cuts off their life early. This false glamour perhaps hides the real torment people feel and also gets in the way of rational consideration of the subject. However, the book *does* wander into particularly knotty territory when it touches briefly on the subject of what Critchley terms ‘suicide by murder’. We’re all aware nowadays of the tendency of certain fanatics to either kill randomly and then take their own life, or use their suicide by bomb or whatever to take others with them. To be honest, I think that’s a whole other line of discussion that should perhaps be considered separately as I think manic killing in the name of some cause or other is very different from making the choice to take your own life.

Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in the sense that writing is a leave – taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to try and see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.

Suicide is an emotive subject, and indeed an emotive word; and depending on your moral standing or your religion, for example, you may have very strong feelings about it.  I should say here that I have had depressive episodes in my life, and one serious suicide attempt in my teens (which were a difficult time for me, mainly because of the death of my grandmother). Nowadays, I think I’m on a fairly even keel but I tend to think that a person’s life is a person’s life; it’s their own business and at the end of the day if they choose to end it because staying alive is unbearable then I can kind of understand it. It *isn’t* great for those left behind (and I can remember an incident decades ago when a colleague of Mr. Kaggsy took his life, and his partner found continuing unbearable and followed him later). It was a tragedy, but how can we judge the depths of other people’s feelings?

To be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself. Incarceration, humiliation, disappointment, disease-the world can do all of this to us, but it cannot remove the possibility of suicide. For as long as we keep this power in our hands, then we are, in some minimal but real sense, free.

It became clear to me as I was reading that there is something of a subtext to the book. All the arguments, religious and moral, about the act of self-destruction are underpinned by the idea of whether a human being has the freedom to take control of their destiny and take their life. Do we have that freedom, or have the religious and moral authorities taken it away? And oddly, if I’m honest, I have to say that there are times in my life when I’ve managed to carry on when I was feeling rotten in the knowledge that there was always the backup position of ending it all…

In many ways this has been a difficult post to write as so many people have strong views on this topic, and the last thing I would want to do is upset or offend anyone. However, I feel that what Critchley brings to his essay on the subject is a calm and rational look at why we might choose to end our lives, a kind of history of the subject, as well as a personal viewpoint of how the subject affects him. His philosophical training gives him the necessary expertise to discuss suicide as a concept and I feel his book is definitely adds much to our understanding of the human condition. Perhaps not to be read if you’ve been affected by the subject – or perhaps it should? Critchley ends his book on a positive note, having reached some kind of calm point himself and actually having decided that life is indeed worth carrying on with; and it may be that his work is what a reader might find helpful if they were in a point of transition themselves. Another thoughtful, and thought-provoking, work from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

*****

As an afterword, suicide as a topic is one that’s vexed all manner of thinkers over the years, including the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. Critchley’s book has as a coda a piece entitled “Of Suicide”, which includes broadly the same text as this little Penguin Great Ideas book. I’ve dipped into the Hume and tend to agree (mostly) with both men’s understanding that no human is going to take their life gratuitously; there is always going to be a reason, although that reason may be a good or a bad one…

“.. the strange codes passing back and forth between audience and stage…” @pawboy2 @FitzcarraldoEds

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It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track by Ian Penman

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently with lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions books; and indeed I amassed several from their back catalogue in a recent flash sale they held, which are sitting prettily on my TBR. However, I was very excited to hear about one recently published volume from the publisher, and they were kind enough to provide a review copy. You might think it’s perhaps not an obvious title for me to read (or you might, given my eclectic taste and grasshopper mind!) So first off, I should really nail my colours to the mast where this book is concerned and give a little background.

Back in my teens/early twenties, I had another coping mechanism alongside books, and that was (and still is, to a certain extent) music. I grew up through Glam and then Punk and then into the 1980s and all the amazing Post-Punk stuff. However, my taste stretches backwards and forwards from those points and can take in anything from Shostakovich to Billie Holiday to Wire to the Manics to my current and recently discovered favourites, Public Service Broadcasting. I followed the music press religiously back in the day, and New Musical Express in its heyday was an amazing publication with some incredible writers on board. The cream of these were the dynamic duo of Ian Penman and Paul Morley, both of whom I still count amongst my favourite authors. They took music journalism off into esoteric and often surreal directions, producing some work that was inventive, unusual, occasionally impenetrable but always entertaining. Since then, I’ve read pretty much every book Morley has put out, but Penman has been more elusive. There was a collection of journalism a couple of decades back (which I have) and he’s continued to write for various publications, including the London Review of Books and City Journal. “It Gets Me Home…” brings together a selection of pieces originally published there, and makes for the most marvellous and stimulation collection.

There’s a clue here to how it is that a lot of supposedly lightweight easy listening, far from being merely diverting kitsch, can contain a whole world of stronger, darker currents. How often it feels, as Apollinaire said of De Quincey, like a ‘sweet and chaste and poisoned glass’.

“It Gets Me Home…” contains eight substantial pieces, each focusing on a different musician or musical culture; ostensibly perhaps they could be regarded as reviews of music books, but they’re really so much more than that as Penman takes those works as jumping off points to consider the life, music and legacy of some of the greats. There’s James Brown, a pioneering and yet complex man; Elvis, about whom you would think there was nothing left to say (but you’d be wrong); jazzman Charlie Parker and crooner Sinatra; and the late Prince, as well as others. These are not subjects that I would, necessarily, read about; but in Penman’s able hands, each essay becomes a stellar piece of reading and writing, and the book is just fascinating.

In Charlie Parker’s 1940s heyday jazz was one of the few spaces where black performers might carve out a life of relative artistic freedom, mostly on their own terms.

As I read through the book, it struck me that Penman has a rare ability to really capture and put into words the effect that music has on us. Our response (or at least mine) is so often a visceral, emotional one that it can be hard to pin down how and why music affects human beings so powerfully. In particular, the twentieth century saw such a massive increase in the influence of popular music owing to modern recording methods, radio and TV and the ability of everyone to have the music they loved in their own homes to listen to whenever they wanted. Penman is particularly astute on the changes that had to be made in the presentation of music when it moved from being seen live in concert or dance halls to being recorded.

For the music business the switch from live music to recorded in the 1950s was as much of a revolution as Hollywood’s changeover from silent cinema to the talkies.

What shines throughout the book is the sheer quality of Penman’s writing; I marked any number of pithy truths and ‘yes’ moments, too many to probably quote here, and his breadth of knowledge allows him to take a wider intellectual view. His essay on the Mod phenomenon is particularly fascinating, recognising as he does the cultural forces involved which many other commentators don’t; and he sensibly decries the modern trend of any kind of musical revival as being entirely sterile when taken away from the context in which it originally developed. He’s spot-on in his discussion of the difference between the lovers of Trad jazz and modernist jazz, commenting that “mods backed the darker horse of existentialism”. Running through the book is Penman’s love of jazz, and haunting the narrative is the discreet presence of the great Billie Holiday, who Penman acknowledges in his introduction should have been central to it; excitingly, he hints that decades of his writing about her may make it into a book and THAT would be wonderful!

Even if you’ve loved this music for half a lifetime, you can find the algebraic lingo of jazz theory about as clarifying as a book of logarithms baked in mud.

The title of this book is drawn from an Auden poem (not a song lyric, as you might expect) and as the blurb suggests, music can be a crucial support when all around is madness (and certainly the world seems very like that nowadays). It can give a sense of belonging; it can speak to our souls; for many it can be a lifeline. As Penman says in his introduction, “When all else fails, when our compass is broken, there is one thing some of us have come to rely on: music really can give us a sense of something like home.”

A Pair of Penmans

I’ve often perceived a snobbery about writing on the subject of popular music, but “It Gets Me Home…” smashes that prejudice with the insights it gives, with the social commentary Penman weaves seamlessly into his essays and with his deep understanding of just how profoundly music is essential to human beings. He’s an extremely erudite man, though never showy, and as he references everyone from the Bauhaus through Camus and Adorno to Anita Brookner, this never feels gratuitous, simply highly relevant and necessary to his exploration of the cultural significance of music. Even if you think you don’t like the artists covered or writings about music, I would recommend you read this marvellous selection of pieces; Ian Penman was one of the first writers I read who made me realise that you could push the cultural boundaries and that it was a good thing to do so – and he’s still doing it! 😀

 

Summer’s End…

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To be honest, I’m not exactly sure which months constitute summer nowadays in our damaged climate; but I always consider the end of that season to be the time when I go back to work after the long mid-year break, and despite having to do that, I am fond of autumn… I generally try to fit in more reading during August while I don’t have the daily distraction of the paying job, traditionally including at least one chunkster, and I’m pleased that this year was no different.

For once, I actually made (modest!) reading plans and actually stuck to them! Admittedly, I was pretty sure I wanted to read the books in question, and they fitted in with a couple of reading challenges. So in the spirit of Andy Miller (!) here is an image of what I read during August (and bear in mind that there still may be reviews to follow as I’m always a bit behind):

I was particularly pleased (as I made fairly obvious!) to read Victor Serge’s Notebooks – strongly tipped for my read of the year. But there wasn’t really a dud amongst them; even the one that made me pause a bit (“The Marquise of O-“) was strange and interesting, and very cleverly written. And I was really happy about getting back to reading so many women writers, especially Women in Translation; this is a wonderful initiative, set up and championed by Meytal Radzinski, and I hope to keep taking part.

So – onward into September and autumn. Do I have plans? Maybe – above are some possibles…  I’m continuing to make a dent in the review pile (all of which are books I actually *want* to read); and I have amassed quite a selection of non-fiction works I hope to get to soon-ish as well (including all the pretty Fitzcarraldo editions which may have made their way into the house after their recent sale – here they are…)

Plus there’s an awful lot of classic crime lurking and any number of charity shop finds, as well as some interesting Russians from Glagoslav. I’m not going to make any specific plans, however, because with work pressures I want to leave myself as free as possible to follow the reading muse. I’m currently in the middle of the wonderful book below by Ian Penman from Fitzcarraldo Editions, but after that who knows? Watch this space!! 😀

Reflections in a camera lens @FitzcarraldoEds #vivianmaier #WITMonth @ReadWIT @Biblibio

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Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett

Well, at last I get to my first book for Woman in Translation month, and in fact the third book by a woman I’ve read in a row – yay! “Vivian” is a recent release from the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the author Christina Hesselholdt is a new name to me although she’s an illustrious and prolific Danish author who’s produced many books and won a number of prizes. This is only her second novel to be translated into English, and I really hope more follow, because on the strength of this she’s definitely an author I want to read!

Bearing in mind that my last read was a novel about a neglected female architect, it’s interesting that I should have chosen to follow it with what’s described as a piece of documentary fiction, the subject of whom was also neglected during her lifetime – the photographer Vivian Maier. Vivian spent most of her life in obscurity, living a seemingly ordinary life as a nanny; however, over a period of around forty years, she constantly photographed street scenes, mostly around Chicago. The bulk of her photographs lay undeveloped for decades; she was an inveterate hoarder, of her negatives, tape recordings, and mounds of newspapers; and it wasn’t until two years before her death, when she was no longer able to pay for storage, that these were sold off and she began to be discovered.

Facts about Maier’s life are sketchy; her parents were French and Austrian immigrants and Maier was born in New York, though she seems to have spent portions of her younger years being shuttled backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. After working for a while in a sweatshop, she took up nannying – presumably this gave her a certain amount of freedom and the ability to pursue her hobby. Maier died in 2009 after a fall; in recent years her work has become known worldwide and her reputation soared. But we still actually know little about what motivated Vivian to live the way she did and take her photographs.

This absence, this lack of detail, allows Hesselholdt space to play with her subject’s story; and while she sticks closely to the facts that are known (as far as I can see from Maier’s Wikipedia page), she expands Vivian’s life to speculate on the reasons for her secrecy, what kind of existence she might have had, and why she chose a single path through life. What’s particularly exciting is the way that Hesselholdt chooses to do this; instead of a simple, chronological narrative, we instead are greeted with a polyphonic structure where the characters relate their story directly to the reader, corralled into order (or not…) by an unnamed narrator who has plenty of views of their own!

Viv
How much of the person behind the camera can be seen in the works? Is one hidden behind them or on the contrary do they unveil you? I think they do. The narrator is the real main character.

Narrator
I can only agree with you.

I knew I was going to love this book from the very first page, with its post-modern structure and not-at-all objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself; her mother, Maria; the parents and children in the various families Maier nannies for (though the narrator does reveal to us at one point that the families and children are a kind of composite construction); phtographer Jeanne Bertrand who lived with the Maier family for some time; other members of the Maier family; and so on. Unlike, say, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, each speaker is clearly labelled so there is never any doubt who’s telling their tale, and the story Hesselholdt weaves for Vivian is a fascinating and often dramatic one. The Maier family is a mightily dysfunctional one, with alcoholism, indifelity, child abuse and madness lurking in the shadows. With autofiction (again!) of course, the reader can never be quite sure how much is real or not – and I have no way of knowing if the Maier family were really that awful – but Hesselholdt creates a compelling narrative and a credible background which would explain why someone like Vivian would choose such a singular path through life and remain in effect so isolated.

The story Hesselholdt tells is absolutely fascinating, and although in some ways seeks to explore and explain Maier, it in fact allows her to remain as mysterious and enigmatic as she was; let’s face it, we humans love a puzzle. It also looks quite deeply at photography as an art and what it captures and tells us about ourselves. The narrator quotes from Montaigne via Gide, reminding us that “every human carries within them the human condition”. The point being made is that we can recognise humans as humans even in images from the past. However, the narrator is not entirely convinced by this, as the static nature of a picture cannot reflect the whole human condition in the way the elasticity of writing can; the narrator is biased towards their own art form.

As you might guess, one of the book’s major strengths is its writing and construction; Hessleholdt allows plenty of humour to creep in, playfully at one point having the narrator and Vivian enter into a snarky dialogue which is breathtaking and funny. There are some newspaper clippings reproduced, which of course reflect Maier’s own obsessive newspaper collecting and filleting; and occasional quotations scattered through the narrative. Hesselholdt also creates a mystery of her own in the form of that narrator; initially taking something of a back seat in the book, as the story continues, the narrator reveals more about themself and I was left wondering whether this was meant to be a representation of Hessenholdt herself, or another layer between reader and author and story, or indeed the author’s comment on the act of writing and narrating. Certainly, her narrator has plenty of their own opinions, even commenting at one point on the autofiction element of the book:

I’m really not fond of documentaries with dramatised scenes, i.e. a fact is related and some actors subsequently perform a scene that illustrates what the narrator has just related. In dark moments I think that I may have strayed into this horrible genre.

It’s all very clever and entertaining, as well as being exceptionally readable and surprisingly gripping. Do you know Maier by the end of it? Probably not, because nobody really knew her (and you could argue that nobody really knows *anybody*); but I was certainly fascinated by the woman and her life, and I may end up down another wormhole.

Vivian Maier self-portrait 1953 – via Wikimedia Commons: Latasa Undagoitia [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Many of Maier’s images are self-portraits, often taken in shop windows or any reflective surface she could find; they show an ordinary-looking woman with a camera slung around her neck, usually staring unsmilingly at her image. She mostly seemed to get away with snapping her pictures because she was in some way invisible (as women often can be if they aren’t the obvious young glamorous attention seekers – particularly as they get older). Her selfies are somehow very moving, capturing and pinning her in time and in the act of plying her trade, completely in control of herself and her image and what she does. There are resonances here with the Sylvia Weil book “Selfies” I reviewed recently, and I understand why Weil chose to discuss an image of Maier’s and feature it on the book cover. Maybe these photographs were her way of stamping her identity on the world, of saying “Remember – I was here”, of not wanting to pass through life without leaving a mark.

I’ve expressed slight reservations about autofiction in the past, but I’ve really had my prejudices challenged with recent reads. “Vivian” in particular, with its clever structure, wonderful writing, playful yet thought-provoking narrative, and all-round fascinating story, is a real winner. It’s such a deep, complex and provocative book that I could say a lot more about it, but this post is already long enough! I’m relatively new to Fitzcarraldo Editions (late to the party again!); but I’ve found every book of theirs I’ve read to be a real winner and “Vivian” is no exception. It’s a wonderful read, highly recommended, and most definitely a book which will feature in my end-of-year best-of!

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

August – a month where I *actually* undertake some challenges??? ;D @Read_WIT #AllViragoAllAugust @kitcaless @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K @FitzcarraldoEds

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I’m breathing little sigh of relief as I’ve actually managed to make it to the summer break from work – phew! Life has been pretty manic lately so I could do with a bit of space to regroup – and catch up with the reading. I’ve failed, of course, to make it through any kind of challenge floating around in the book blogsphere, but I don’t mind really – I tend to plough my own furrow when it comes to reading! However, August does bring a couple of reading events in which I always like to take part, and I’m hoping this year will be no different.

I’m also painfully aware that I’ve been reading a *lot* of books by men recently and that’s perhaps unusual as I *have* tended to read a lot more women authors in the past – perhaps it’s just the way the books have fallen. However, I’d like to redress that this month and to be specific I hope to read at least these four lovelies if nothing else!

All four are by women authors and all sound fascinating, although they don’t all fall into the challenge categories – nevertheless, I want to read them all this month! 😀

Let’s start with “Plastic Emotions”:

which is a very pretty looking book (sorry to be superficial there…) It’s neither a Virago nor a translated work; but it’s by a woman author and about a pioneering woman architect, so I’m going to count it in for getting back to reading more women. The subject of the book is Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, an inspirational woman who I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of before. So I’m looking forward to finding out more about her via Shiromi Pinto’s intriguing-sounding book.

Next up is a book for All Virago/All August (which I never stick to – I couldn’t restrict myself to one publisher for a month!)

Although not a Virago edition, it’s a Virago author in the shape of Vita Sackville-West. I’ve read and loved her work (though much of it pre-blog), and when Simon wrote about “The Death of Noble Godavary” recently and mentioned it was reminiscent of Vita’s book “The Heir” I was sold. Looking forward to this one!

There are two books in translation by women in the pile above, and first up is this from Fizcarraldo Editions:

Again, I’m intrigued and excited about this one. The Vivian of the title is the American photographer, Vivian Maier (who oddly enough featured in the wonderful “Selfies” which I reviewed a while back); and the author is from Denmark and apparently regarded as one of the country’s most inventive and radical novelists. Sounds fab! 😀

Finally, where would we be on the Ramblings without a Russian?!

There has been a flood of wonderful translations of Russian emigré literature recently, much of it from the lovely Pushkin Press; and this one has just recently been issued. It’s the first time this author’s been translated into English (thank you Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg!) and it’s described as a disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles. Sounds amazing, frankly!

So. I have plans for August. Modest ones, I think, as I shall be on a break from work and also going off on my travels to visit the Aging Parent and the Offspring; which gives extra time for reading, especially whilst on trains… The question is, will I *actually* read the books planned?? I have to say that the hardest thing at the moment, looking at these four lovelies, is making a decision as to which one to pick up first…. =:o

… the desperation that washes through me.” @FitzcarraldoEds

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Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper

*(Trigger warning – this post, and indeed this book, discuss themes of breakdown and suicide)*

One of this year’s issues from the lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions, this is an intriguing piece of writing, and one which to a certain extend defies classification. Published in their blue livery, indicating fiction, it takes on the form of a diary or journal and follows the life of an unnamed male narrator. The solitary man lives in a cottage on a solitary Somerset estate which is in the process of being renovated, both by him and other locals. The narrator records the natural life around him, from the changing seasons to the trees and plants, the birds and wild creatures to the moths and butterflies. Initially, it’s hard to place the journal entries in a particular era, as simply the date without a year is given; but as the narrative progresses, references to external world events such as 9/11 are slipped in so that the reader realises this is the early part of the 21st century.

So we share our narrator’s days, as he observes moles tunnelling under his lawn, tries to tackle the cottage’s mouse problem in a humane way and interacts with his neighbours – particularly a woman called Beth, 20 years his junior. The observations of nature are beautiful and the narrative hypnotic and compelling; however, as we read it becomes clear that not all is quite right with our narrator. Cracks in the descriptions of flora and fauna allow comments to slip through which are almost asides but which reveal that the mental state of the narrator is a fragile one, and we begin to realise that he is isolated in the country for a reason, that he has been through or is going through some kind of mental trauma, and that our view of this is only going to be partial.

With neat observations I make myself seem rational and urbane.
Far from true.

As the book moves on, parts of the narrator’s past slip into the writing; his past work; his marriage, over for 20 years; his complex relationship with his family. Beth also appears regularly in the journal and we start to realise that she is more than just a neighbour, and something of a crutch to the man as he works through his issues. There are visits to a therapist; fragments of memory about his parents and the experiences of his youth; and the sense grows that the narrators is damaged by his past. However, off camera events take a dramatic turn; we see the aftermath of an attempt at self-murder; and it is touch and go as to whether our narrator will regain any kind of equilibrium.

I don’t want to say too much more which is specific about this extraordinary book because it would deaden the impact of reading it; that process is vital to the understanding of the narrator, his place in the world and what he’s going through. The gradual revealing of past and current events, the careful building up of the tapestry of his life, is done in a masterly fashion and “Ash…” needs to be read mindfully so as to pick up the nuances stitched into the narrative. It’s also a consciously literary book; it’s laced with telling references to other works and writers, such as Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Virginia Woolf, amongst many others; and these are all discreet hints as to the narrator’s state of mind.

Accept the solitude, I tell myself, if that’s how things currently must be. It’s enough this moment to enjoy the sight of the candle-like blooms on the weeping bird cherry tree, released this year by my cuttings and clearings to flourish near the bench.

“Ash before Oak” is a remarkable and immersive piece of storytelling, and it’s a book in which the gaps are as important as the actual narrative itself. Bravely, the publisher has made use of the white space on page; each new day has a separate page of its own, and some of these only have a single line entry. This emphasises the bleakness of the days when the narrator cannot write, and if the entries had run continuously on from page to page the effect would have been severely diminished.

Although “Ash…” is a book which is extremely beautiful in places, in others it can be excruciatingly sad, charting as it does the complex mental state of a man clearly suffering a breakdown. Nevertheless, there is hope of redemption and a more positive future, with the narrator seeing chinks of light at the end of the tunnel and the ending is upbeat rather than downbeat. More than that I will not say!

I have the feeling that purpose is a spectre of man’s delusion, that it does not, did not, never will exist, that we’ve invented purpose in the hope of easing our burden while, in fact, torturing each other with the prospect. We may, quite soon, impale ourselves on purpose, extinguish the human race in our attempt to conquer meaning.

I mentioned at the start of this post that the book defies classification, and I’m going to have to explain this by delving into the knotty issue of autofiction. I’d not really thought very deeply about this as a genre before; after all, doesn’t every piece of fiction drawn to some extent on the author’s life and thoughts and actions and the events they’ve experienced? “Ash…” is described as Cooper’s first novel in over a decade, which suggests it should be read simply as fiction. It is, however, impossible to read this as anything other than autofiction, since the narrative is peppered with real people, real books and real facts; the narrator is a writer; he shares the same career trajectory as the author, such as spending many years appearing on Antiques Roadshow and having a large collection of art postcards. The narrator’s friends are real people; for example, one who wrote a book mentioned in the journals, which is actually real and available on Amazon; and the curator Jeremy Compston, who appears in the book as the narrator’s friend – Cooper has actually written a biography of him. So, much as I try not to conflate and author and their characters, by the end of this I clearly had.

This did set me thinking a little bit about autofiction in general; and in a weird kind of synchronicity, I read an article by Tim Parks on the subject just after finishing “Ash”. It was a very illuminating piece, pointing out that autofiction has existed back to the time of Dante, and quoting also Tolstoy’s use of his life in his fictions. I ended up thinking that in the past an author would use real life sources but change names, places and probably facts to make the fiction. Nowadays, the reality isn’t cloaked; instead, the *real* events, people and places feature, but still filtered through the novelist’s lens.

And at the end of that, I came to the conclusion that it actually doesn’t matter. Cooper chose to tell his story (and I’m assuming, possibly incorrectly, that it’s a story of *his* breakdown) in a fictionalised way, and that’s fine. It’s a book I found myself reading compulsively, drawn in by the imagery of the natural world around the narrator and the wish to follow his journey to whatever end it reached. In many ways, the book reads as an act of catharsis, of writing out of one’s pain, and the result is really stunning. I think it might be a good time to stop worrying about what’s fact and fiction, and just accept that there is very little written that’s actually true (I reckon most autobiographies are probably very fictionalised, for example!) Because however you want to classify it, “Ash before Oak” is a profound, moving and beautifully written work blending nature and humanity, and another winner from Fitzcarraldo.

(Just in case you’re wondering, the title is taken from a traditional country rhyme predicting the amount of rain we’re likely to have depending on which of the two trees produces leaves first! Yes, we really are obsessed with the weather in this country…!)

If it’s London, there must be books…. @Foyles @secondshelfbks @JuddBooks

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Unfortunately for the shelves in my house, visits to London are inextricably linked with bookshopping, and Saturday was no exception to the general rule… My BFF J. and I managed to miss out on our usual pre-Christmas get-together back in December, and so as it was her birthday yesterday, we decided to have a catch-up, a gossip and a general bimble round London (as she puts it) on Saturday – which turned out to be a relaxing, fun and profitable trip! 😀

The KBR tote came in handy as always….

Inevitably there were bookshops and after we’d done a bit of general browsing (clothes, fabric and art shops!) we decided to give Second Shelf Books a look, as I’d been very impressed by what I’d seen and heard about them (and Ali thought very highly of them on her visit!) We rolled up fairly early (we’re morning birds), wondering if they’d be open and even though they weren’t officially, the very nice person behind the till let us in! And what a lovely place it is! We had a wonderful browse through all the wonderful rarities and first editions, with me eventually settling on purchasing this:

It’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva wonderfully and whose biography of Anna Akhmatova I have lurking and it’s a mixture of novel set in Russia amongst real writers as well as her poetry. So it was most definitely coming home with me… ;D

After interludes for getting vaguely lost, stopping for lunch at Leons (with much gossip and catching up) as well as a very tempting visit to Paperchase, we headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street. They’re a stone’s throw from Skoob (which we managed to resist) and I can’t recommend them enough. Judds is a shop always stuffed with unexpected treats and I was lucky to get out with only these:

I’ve wanted to add Marianne Moore to my poetry pile for yonks and this was at a fraction of the price it is online (bricks and mortar shops win out again!). As for the book on Peake, I’m not sure how I missed out on this when it originally came out, but it’s absolutely stuffed with the most amazing artworks, essays and writings, and a steal at the price. Both J. and I left with copies…

Inevitably, we ended up at Foyles – well, how could we not? – and partook of tea in the cafe, while J. finished reading a book she’d brought with her for me. Yes, she’d managed to procure me a beautiful first edition of a Beverley I needed!

As it comes with a dustjacket, I was doubly pleased and now I can get on with reading the rest of this particular house/garden trilogy of Bev’s! Dead chuffed!

We didn’t get out of Foyles unscathed, needless to say. Although I *did* exercise restraint, picking up and putting down any number of books. J. indulged in some poetry in the form of Roger McGough and Willa Cather (two of her favourites), whereas I eventually settled on these:

I’ve been circling the Gamboni for a while and finally decided to go for this new, reasonably priced edition (the old ones were priced at scholarly book rates…). As for the Kate Briggs, it’s all about translation and I love translated books and I love translators so it’s a no-brainer. Very excited about this one…. 😀

That’s it book-wise. We were in any number of stationery and art shops, and bearing that in mind I certainly think that the small haul I have was very well-behaved of me…

The tea is green with mint (my favourite) which I decided to treat myself to from Fortnum and Mason (yes, really!) We were in there to pick up some favourite marmalade for J.’s hubby, and I decided to treat Mr. Kaggsy to some posh coffee flavoured choc (not pictured). The tea just fell into my hand as I was queuing to pay…

So a fun day out gossiping, playing catch-up and shopping – lovely! It *is* nice to live close enough to London to pop up there (and especially go to Foyles, although those visits always bring a sense of despair at the *mess* of construction that’s going on in the area). Now it’s just a case of deciding what to read next… 😉

However, before I finish this post, there was *one* more book which sneaked into the house at the weekend, and that was a volume I ordered online after reading a review of it here. Kate Macdonald picked up her copy, oddly enough, at Second Shelf, and wasn’t so enamoured with Priestley’s grumbling. However, I’ve found his grumpy narratives oddly entertaining, so I though I’d give it a try! 😀

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