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“…my gaze seemed to fracture.” #InTheDarkRoom @FitzcarraldoEds

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Back in 2020, I was happy to make the acquaintance of a new-to-me writer via the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight which I co-hosted with Lizzy. The author was Brian Dillon, and I read his wonderful book “Essayism” as part of that reading event; and I loved his take on the art of the essay, interspersed with autobiographical elements which really resonated, so much that I went on to cover his “Suppose a Sentence” (also from Fitzcarraldo) later in the year.

However, Dillon has a third Fitzcarraldo title, which has been lurking on my TBR since a mad flurry of purchasing during one of their periodical sales. It’s called “In The Dark Room”, a book which was first published in 2005 before being brought out by FE in (I think) 2017; and here Dillon delves more deeply into autobiographical territory whilst exploring memory, trauma and how we process the big events in our life.

Every life is rich with these hidden correspondences between things, submerged collusions between one time and another which are fully expressed only at the moment when one concentrates hard on the object, weighing its presence against the other, lost but still imaginable, things.

As I mentioned in my review of “Essayism”, Dillon lost both of his parents at a relatively young age; and that fact is pivotal to that book. In “Dark Room” Dillon looks back on those experiences to examine how memory works both culturally and emotionally, drawing on his on losses and the way he processes his past to look at the topic more widely. The book is split into sections, such as ‘House’, ‘Photographs’ and ‘Places’; in each of these, Dillon takes a particular lens to explore his past and how his memories of these elements work.

The result is a deep and emotionally complex book, which not only examines how we deal with our past and our memories, but also the effect such early losses can have. Dillon was understandably devastated by losing both parents so young, and only five years apart; and his references to later breakdowns and health problems of his own make it clear that losses like this cannot be easily processed or dealt with. It has to be added to this that there are cultural issues involved, both from the Irish Catholic milieu in which Dillon grew up (and which he seems to reject fiercely now) and also the time – back in the 20th century, we were not always so open with our emotions, or indeed in the way we communicated as families, and there is much which is repressed here.

The skin is a sort of screen on which are projected all the secret and unspeakable fears and desires which we would like to contain (but which we also long to express ). According to this way of thinking, all the psychic flow is in one direction: towards the surface, where the emotional slurry we cannot process is poured out onto this pristine surface, scarring it, discolouring it.

“Dark Room” is not always an easy read; the illness and final death of Dillon’s mother, from a rare and awful disease, when he was sixteen, is heartbreaking. Dillon, his two brothers and his father, seem lost afterwards and his father’s passing five years later leaves them even more adrift. Dillon never pulls his punches or shies away from saying things as they are; and this is a very honest piece of writing, where you’re never in doubt about his feelings or his beliefs. The title can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways, from a reference to the place where photographs (and therefore memories) are processed, and also the oft-felt need of humans to hide away in a darkened room when the real world is getting too much to bear…

So Dillon explores the objects left behind by his parents; the family photographs, capturing moments from his life and moments from before he existed; and deals with the places from his young life which now lodge in his memory with particuar resonances. He draws on Perec, Benjamin, Barthes, Bachelard, Proust and many others; and his meditations on what we carry with us locked in our memories are thought-provoking and fascinating.

I’m not quite sure what prompted me to pick up “In The Dark Room” just at the moment, although I did polyread it alongside the collection of Tove Ditlevsen’s short stories; and it seemed a non-fiction work would be a good choice to go with them. However, I’m very glad I did choose to read this right now; it’s a powerful, memorable, fierce and yet often beautiful piece of writing which, as well as making you think about our processes of memory, also stands as an emotional memorial to his parents. Another outstanding book from Dillon, which I highly recommend.

“…I sense again that sinking sensation; the insistent downward pull.” #TheUndercurrents @FitzcarraldoEds #ReadIndies

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One of the reasons Lizzy was so keen to extend #ReadIndies was the release today of a new book from Fitzcarraldo; and I suspect that if you pop over to her blog you may well find her review of it! (ETA, you can find it here!) As the publisher had kindly sent me a review copy as well, I was keen to squeeze it into my reviewing schedule; after all, as I’ve said previously, #ReadIndies grew out of our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, so it seems apt to cover their books! This particular title is one of their wonderful non-fiction book: “The Undercurrents” by Kirsty Bell.

Bell is a British-American art critic, and in 2014 she, her German husband and their two children had moved into an old building which stands on the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. At that point, Bell’s marriage was in trouble although for some time they’d been papering over the cracks; however, the house itself had issues, and unexplained floods triggered the cracks in the relationship to become unmendable and Bell’s husband left. However, she and her sons stayed in the old house, and the breaking apart of the family unit triggered an exploration of the past of the house as almost a coping mechanism. The result is “The Undercurrents” and the subtitle, ‘A Story of Berlin’ reveals what the book will be about.

Ever since I began this research, I’ve felt my attention snagging on details as I walk or bike around the city. Drawn to things that appear to be missing or don’t quite seem to fit, I start reading every sign I pass. I’m amazed to discover, for instance, that there used to be a public swimming pool right behind the Gleisdreieck. This information is on a sign in a little patch of parkland which another sign tells me it’s called Nelly-Sachs-Park. I look up the name online and discover Nelly Sachs to be a Nobel-prize winning German-Swedish poet and playwright… Through the combination of street sign and Internet, I can darn her back into a historical fabric holed with disappearance, obliteration and active misremembering.

Bell’s house is a rare nineteenth-century survivor and it’s seen many changes; and as she began to deal with the aftermath of her break-up, she distracted herself by exploring the history of the building, its previous occupants and the ever-changing view from its windows. That exploration led onto what is in effect the history of Berlin, and it’s an always fascinating tale. The city itself became the capital of the German Empire in 1871, but Bell’s researches take her earlier than this, and she traces the house back to its building date of 1869. By using the house as the lynchpin of her story, she’s able to follow Berlin (and therefore Germany) through the turbulent changes it went through, most particularly those of the 20th century.

Interspersed with the history she discovers are her tales of researching it and her own autobiographical stories, as well as her adventures walking round the city and physically exploring its past. Her researches drawn on all manner of writers, artists and architects, from Arendt and Benjamin to Bowie; there’s a dangerous list of sources in the back of the book… The sections on Rosa Luxemburg were particularly moving; such an inspirational woman and such a tragic end. Of course, the landscape of Berlin changed dramatically, particularly during the Second World War when much of was razed to the ground; and the post-War period of Cold War division is recalled in chilling detail. The trendy decay of the city during the 1970s and 1980s is something I can remember being very much in fashion, but the effects on the people living in Berlin is explored here and it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs…

Sometimes this whole process feels like a blind grasping, as if guided by a flashlight in the dark. All I can do is assess what is revealed to me piece by piece, and lay these pieces out like patchwork. I am less a historian and more of a seamstress, stitching together scraps of evidence, loose threads and patches of meaning.

“The Undercurrents” is a book full of watery motifs and imagery; and certainly Bell’s house suffers from all kinds of floods and leaks which are hard to explain. The title can be read in more than one way; although Berlin itself is built on a swamp and has a worryingly high water table, there are also undercurrents running through the life of the city itself. Tensions between national groups and ideologies; the difficulties in coming to terms with the Nazi years, which still affect the heirs of those who were part of it; and the conflicts between politicians and planners and the people about how the city should look, which seem to have been running from the 1700s up to the present day.

Bell’s book is beautifully written and constructed, drawing you into her world, her explorations and the history of the city; whether digging into digital and physical archives, or flaneuring her way around the city, she has a fascinating story to tell and I couldn’t put the book down. The building overlooking Berlin is always central to her narrative, and whether she’s calling in a feng shui expert to right the wrongs she feels in the house, or taking part in a ‘family constellation’ exercise to identify problems from the past which may be recorded in the stones (shades of “The Stone Tape” BBC play there!), the health of the house becomes a fixation for Bell.

I’ve only really touched on the surface here of what is a deeply complex, always fascinating book exploring heritage, history, physical location, culture and auto/biography; really, you need to read the book for yourself. It’s a wonderful hybrid of all these elements (and thus, I feel, a very Fitzcarraldo book!) and although I’ve never been to Berlin, “The Undercurrents” certainly challenged some of my assumptions about it and made me feel I had got under the skin of the place a little more. It’s an engrossing, lyrical and unforgettable book; and I was left with the filmic vision of a solitary figure stationary at a window with the vista in front changing in fast-forward as history rapidly takes place in front of her eyes. Bell has produced a wonderful and moving book which challenges our traditional ways of looking at cities and history, and I highly recommend it! 😀

“…the vaguest impression of mountains…” @FitzcarraldoEds #coldenoughforsnow #ReadIndies

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It’s fitting that at least one of my selections for #ReadIndies is from Fitzcarraldo Editions, as the idea for this month of reading (thought up by Lizzy) grew out of our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, back in 2020. Fitzcarraldo are a personal favourite, always bringing out intriguing fiction, non-fiction and works which straddle both categories! “Cold Enough for Snow” by Jessica Au won the Novel Prize, a “new, biennial award…for any novel written in English that explores and expands the possibilities of the form” – and it’s not hard to see why…

Clocking in at 94 pages, “Cold Enough…” could actually probably be described as a novella, but despite its brevity it explores deep themes in a way that lodges in the heart and mind. Its story is that of a mother and daughter, both travelling from separate countries to meet in Tokyo. Here, they explore the city, eating out and walking along canals, visit art galleries and avoid the sudden torrential rains. Ostensibly narrated by the daughter, the narrative in fact dips back and forth in time as memories are shared and explored, with other viewpoints coming to the fore. Family members seem to take over the story at times; memories often seem uncertain; and the journey itself at times seems elusive… Is the story in fact being told by an unreliable narrator – or, indeed, more than one of those…?

The building was cramped and badly lit, and many of the works hung in fussy, elaborate frames. But each still contained a world unto itself, of cities and ports, of mornings and evenings, of trees and parks and gardens and ever-changing light. Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.

Well – “Cold Enough…” is a beautifully written and clever book, and it captures the city and the places visited really vividly. The daughter/narrator has left her partner at home in Australia, where she now lives; the mother is from China, but raised in Hong Kong; Tokyo, therefore, might be considered neutral territory for them to meet. Certainly the daughter seems to have a need for a meeting, though this is unspecified, and she dominates the events she relates. Her mother is a passive, neutral figure; quiet and unassertive, she seems content to follow her daughter through the various locations. However, when the narrative reaches the stage where the daughter leaves her mother at a hotel and goes off hiking, the whole concept becomes much more uncertain, to the point where I started questioning the reliability of my narrator and the reality of much of what she’d been relating.

It was a grey, cold day and we were the only two people in the room. I asked my mother what she believed about the soul and she thought for a moment. Then, looking not at me but at the hard, white light before us, she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting.

I don’t want to say too much more about the storyline as such, and in truth the joy of this book is as much in the telling as what’s told. Au’s writing is elegant and allusive, and her explorations of the past along with the failings of memory is very moving. Both the mother and the daughter have moved on from the places in which they were born, and so finding a place where they can both feel comfortable and reconnect is potentially difficult; Japan seems to offer that place, but much is left suggested rather than said in this evocative book.

As always, Fitzcarraldo can be relied upon to release an individual and memorable book which again seems to suggest that the blue fiction cover might be slightly misleading; Au herself is Chinese-Australian and so it’s hard to avoid thinking of “Cold Enough…” as autofiction. I have no problem with that at all; at the end of the day this is a book which explores family relationships and memories in a way that keeps it lingering in the mind; and if this is what Au can do with her first novel, I’m looking forward to seeing what she writes next!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with many thanks)

“…sickness is flow without time.” #IllFeelings @FitzcarraldoEds

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ME or Chronic Fatique Symptom (CFS) has been a controversial topic and condition for as long as I can recall. On a simple level, many have denied its existence and it’s been dismissed as a psychological condition and not a physical one, with treatments varying dramatically over the decades. However, a new book from Fitzcarraldo Editions explores not only those aspects of the condition, but also the ill health of women over the centuries, their treatment (or lack of it), their recording of their experiences and modern attitudes to health and wellness. The book is “Ill Feelings” by Alice Hattrick, and it’s a powerful, fascinating and ultimately moving read from start to finish.

I should state up front that I am not remotely sceptical about CFS (as I’ll refer to it throughout this post); I know people who are sufferers and have seen the effect it can have, so I know it exists and I’m aware of how devastating it can be (although I am definitely no expert). So I was so interested in seeing what Hattrick had to say in their book, as they also explore how deeply gendered medical treatment can be.

I am piecing together a diary of that time from the scraps that my mother – and I – kept. I am speaking with her, and through her, rather than for her. Much like the mind and the body, my mother and I are not separate. Our illnesses have always been intertwined, snaking around one another.

Hattrick’s mother came down with pneumonia in 1995; she never really recovered from the illness and eventually was given a diagnosis of CFS. Alice was a child, and shortly after became ill too. As both mother and child have similar symptoms without any obvious physical cause, Alice received the same diagnosis as their mother. However, that rather bald statement of fact hides the complex and tortuous route both had to travel to get medical care, to be taken seriously and to manage to live a life where what we consider ‘normal’ daily routines and functions are often impossible because you feel as if you’ve been hit by a ton of bricks.

As well as dealing with the condition, there was also the guilt; the implication that the child’s symptoms were simply a kind of mirroring of the mother’s and that the mother was somehow ‘causing’ the child’s illness. The disbelief is also crushing; the constant frustration of people thinking that either Alice or their mother would actually choose to live like this, to be constantly ill, induces understandable fury. We might flippantly think that we’d like to spend days in bed, but if this was enforced (rather like the having to stay at home during COVID lockdowns, as Hattrick points out late in the book) we’d soon rebel.

Alice explores deeply the history of their mother’s and their own experiences in the medical system, and it makes sobering reading. The treatment of people with CFS over the years seems, frankly, to be hit or miss guesswork in many cases, and crackpot therapies in others. However, whilst telling their story, Hattrick begins to explore further, linking the kind of treatment they receive with that meted out to women in the past – from Elizabeth Barrett Browning through Alice James and up to Virginia Woolf. The various unexplained and undiagnosed ‘nervous’ disorders with which they suffered were subject to all manner of quack doctors and treatments, most of which were totally useless. But of course as they were female, the concept of ‘hysteria’ soon entered the frame, and the women were patronised and infantilised as if their suffering wasn’t real. Unfortunately, this attitude still often prevails, and as Hattrick comes up to date with their look at the treatments offered to CFS sufferers (and similarly, now, to those having to deal with long-COVID) it still seems as if medics don’t know how to help. Pertinently, just as I had finished reading “Ill Feelings”, a newspaper article appeared apparently revealing that two of the treatments routinely recommended for CFS (and decried by Hattrick and other commentators they quote) were no longer to be offered, though this was then wreathed in confusion and controversy.

I imagine my pain much like the map of my peripheral nervous system, spreading out like flames through my body from its centre, like flowers over the back of someone struck by lightning.

“Ill Feelings” digs deep into the methodology behind diagnosis and treatment of CFS, and indeed other conditions generally. As the quest for information goes on, Hattrick queries the whole narrative and definition of illness and whether one is abled or not; unsurprisingly, this often links in with governmental needs to cut the amount spent supporting those who are unable to work owing to various illnesses and conditions, which makes my blood boil as it goes against the whole concept of a state which is supposed to take care of all its members. Hattrick’s anger is also palpable as they negotiate a system which seems to be more interested in convincing them that it’s all in the mind and they can think themself well again – which really seems to me to be nonsense. The women’s history explored here was fascinating too; Alice James in particular seems to have been a touchstone for Hattrick, and I hadn’t made the connection before of how the narratives of James and Woolf in particular were, as Hattrick puts it, “queer crip” ones – a double way to find yourself judged by mainly male medics.

Of course, the phrase ‘ill feelings” is an ambiguous one which as well as referring to the sensations of being unwell can also mean animosity or resentment between people or groups. Certainly, CFS sufferers are entitled to have ill feelings towards a medical system which fails them constantly, and Hattrick’s rage is often bubbling just under the surface. When they relate some of the attitudes they encountered, I’m not surprised. There are times where Hattrick and their mother are at odds, fatigued beyond everything by their condition and unable to cope with the simplest of tasks. Happily, their relationship manages to survive this.

This can only really be a brief look at what is a complex, engrossing, deeply personal book which tackles huge subjects. As Hattrick makes clear, there is *so* much about the human body which we still don’t know, and though medication can deal with the obvious physical illnesses, there are many conditions which are beyond us. In the end, Hattrick seems to conclude that pacing themselves and managing their condition is the best option, which is admirable.

“Ill Feelings” was a fascinating work from start to finish, and it’s a book which defies classification. Part memoir, part history of female illness, part biography of Hattrick’s mother and part exploration of CFS over the decades, it stretches the boundaries of non-fiction and certainly left me thinking that not only are we very, very ignorant of most of what makes us human, we also need to improve the way we support people who are dealing with all kind of conditions we’re still struggling to understand. “Ill Feelings” is an absorbing and inspiring work, and highly recommended.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “Ill Feelings” is published today)

“My body was alive with the sounds…” @FitzcarraldoEds #fiftysounds

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Travelling to another country to live and work, with only a limited knowledge of the language, is a brave and perhaps risky thing to do. However when the culture you’re choosing to embrace is one which is a polar opposite to your own, the shock to the system is immense. That’s what author Polly Barton did, and in a recent release from Fitzcarraldo Editions she tells the story of the time she spent in Japan using elements of the language as touchstones. The result is the fascinating and absorbing “Fifty Sounds”.

Barton moved to a Japanese island at the age of 21; here, she was employed as an English teacher and simultaneously was trying to learn the language. Her travels would lead her to periods in Japanese cities and eventually to a career as a translator from that language. In “Fifty Sounds” she tells the story of that journey, but in a clever and unusual way.

Immersion in a foreign language is a bombardment of sounds, until you decide that you’re going to actually do this thing and learn, and then it becomes a bombardment of imperatives: learn this, learn this, learn this.

The Japanese language is a complex one (and even after reading the erudite explanations in parts of the book, I’m not sure I completely understand its structure…) However, the book is built around onomatopoeic words, which are an important branch of Japanese, and Barton uses fifty of the ‘sound words’ to illustrate the sections of her life. So there will be a chapter entitled “koro-koro: the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor”; inevitably, this deals her struggles with the language, even when she was well into her study; and there’s “pota-pota: the sound of red dripping onto asphalt”, relevant when involved in a car accident; or, more darkly, “bishi-bishi; the sound of being struck sharply and repeatedly by a stick-like object, or (infrequently) of branches breaking”.

It’s a clever way to tell her story, and also in itself gives some hint of the diffulty of dealing with the Japanese language. Barton spends a long time in the country; during her tenure teaching on the island, she has an affair with an older, married fellow teacher, Y, which informs much of the narrative. The relationship adds another level of complexity to her feelings about Japan itself, and it did strike me that she was very vulnerable and young when she travelled to the country. The break with Y, moves to big cities, relationships with women and trips back to England do tend to undermine Barton’s stability, and she becomes clear towards the end of the book that she had desperately wanted to get away from her home country. However, despite her willingness to meld with Japan, that isn’t in the end so easy.

From the point of view of language, Barton’s attitudes are underpinned by her study of Wittgenstein and her knowledge of Barthes. The longer she practices and learns the Japanese language, the more she becomes aware of how it is near impossible to translate without a complete understanding of culture and nuance in both languages. This is probably more pronounced where you have countries and lifestyles that are very, very different; but again and again Barton finds herself stumbling and making basic errors when she thought she had a grasp of Japanese idiom.

Really, you are not just translating ‘two words’, but also a broader cultural heritage leading back decades or centuries which those two words conjure up, and about which the average Anglophone reader or listener knows nothing. In order to truly understand – in order to sense things slotting into place or ‘falling to your internals’ as they say in Japanese – you need more.

And despite her determination to become fluent in Japanese language and culture, she begins to become out of kilter with Japanese society, perceiving herself as large and loud compared to the country’s native population. Eventually Barton comes to the realisation that to completely assimilate would mean losing too much of herself, suppressing parts of her real nature to comply with the cultural requirements of Japanese society. The language is tied up with the bigger issues of cultural difference, and it finally comes as something of a relief to Barton to be with people who have the same expectations and understandings as her.

How I imagine Japan – which is probably very inaccurate… (Tokyo – Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – MuckDiva, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Fifty Sounds” was a fascinating read on so many levels. As someone who is Anglophone and relies on translators to read much of the literature I love, I was absorbed by the discussions of the difficulties of complete understanding and the need to grasp those cultural nuances. And Barton’s story was also an engrossing one; her struggles on a personal and linguistic level, her need to belong somewhere, and her view of Japan always engaging. She doesn’t shy away from approaching the darker side of life in Japan, including oblique references to her own experiences, but is always discreet – and, in fact, the book is dedicated to Y.

So I found “Fifty Sounds” an immersive read from start to finish. The device of using the sound words was brilliant and so interesting to someone with no real knowledge of the Japanese language; the discussions of language itself fascinating; and Barton’s story, and view of Japan, quite unforgettable. Even if you aren’t particularly keen on linguistics, “Fifty Sounds” is a unique and absorbing book and I really recommend it. Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for the book, and it’s not hard to see why.

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

“…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!

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