On the biographical trail of great authors… #footsteps #richardholmes #romantics


As a reader, random bookish serendipity is one of my favourite things in the world; that accidental stumbling across a book or author which turns out to be an utterly brilliant read and sends you off down several rabbit-holes exploring other books and authors. A recent and stunning example of this was my discovery of “Footsteps” by Richard Holmes; the author and his writings made repeated appearances in Sarah LeFanu’s “Dreaming of Rose”. Her recounting of Holmes’s experiences on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson sounded irresistible, and when I looked a little more deeply, the other writers making appearances in the book ranged from Mary Wollstonecraft through Shelley and co to Gerard de Nerval. Needless to say, obtaining a copy became essential and so I did, and picked it up as soon as it arrived – it didn’t even get the chance to say hello to Mount TBR…

Richard Holmes is a name I thought was new to me (more of which in a future post); an esteemed biographer, winner of numerous awards, and Fellow of the Royal Academy, he certainly seems to have had a very illustrious career. “Footsteps” is subtitled “Adventures of a Romantic Biographer”, and many of Holmes’s biographies have indeed been members of that group; Coleridge and Shelley have had individual works about them, and he’s also written books about the Romantics as an entity. This book, however, was published in 1985, and in it Holmes looks back on four pivotal years in his own life; periods where he began his journey towards becoming a biographer and followed the trail of some of the characters who fascinated him the most.

So the first section, “1964: Travels” covers the time when the young Holmes followed the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes with his poor donkey (I wrote about that here). Holmes is obviously still feeling his way towards what he wants to do with his life, and as he travels he attempts to write poetry, reflects on Stevenson’s travels and writing, and meditates. Part two, “1968: Revolutions” finds Holmes witnessing the rioting in Paris and casting his mind back to the French Revolution; searching for an eye-witness, he discovers the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft who saw much of what happened, and he sets out to explore her life.

Section three, “1972: Exiles” finds Holmes in the post-sixties decades trailing Shelley and his cohort through Europe to Shelley’s final resting place in Italy. Here, Holmes is particularly drawn to Claire Clairmont and her relationship with the poet; and he’s becoming more adept at digging into the past and exploring it deeply, using his biographer’s skills to uncover things others might have missed. Finally, part four “1976: Dreams” deals with the tragic French author Gerard de Nerval; Holmes is particularly drawn to consider Nerval’s friendship with Gautier, his apparent madness and the times through which he was living. This section did make particularly powerful reading…

Needless to say, I was absolutely enthralled from the start of “Footsteps” to the final words; what a wonderful and truly engrossing read it is. It’s actually also quite a hard book to classify, as it encompasses so much. There’s the autobiographical element, where Holmes looks back at these important times in his own life, which are fascinating in their own right. Then there’s the biographical angle, with the stories of the various authors he’s tracking relayed through the prism of Holmes’s interpretations. And finally, of course, there’s the whole subject of the art of biography; how to write it, how to get inside your subject’s head, how to interpret past events when crucial documentation is missing, and whether to stand back and be objective or use your imagination to ‘see’ the life story of your subject, almost stepping into fiction. All of these elements are brought together quite brilliantly into a dizzying piece of writing which is quite unforgettable.

As I mentioned, “Footsteps” is from 1985; and although I’m no expert on the art of biography, I imagine Holmes’s approach was very groundbreaking at the time. With our current fad for following in the footsteps of the Brontes, or tracing Jane Austen’s trail, Holmes really can be said to be ahead of the game with his search for those authors he loved, immersing himself in their landscapes to give him a better understanding of their lives. His methods are perhaps unorthadox (or certainly may have been at the time), but he captures quite brilliantly the frustration at not being able to pin down the past; having glimpses when it almost seems as if the boundaries between then and now are dissolved; but they aren’t of course and this can leave the biographer bereft.

… all these inward emotions were concentrated and focused upon one totally unforeseen things: the growth of a friendship with Stevenson, which is to say, the growth of an imaginary relationship with a non-existent person, or at least a dead one. In this sense, what I experienced and recorded in the Cevennes in the summer of 1964 was a haunting.… an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present. And in this experience of haunting I first encountered – without them realising it – what I now think of as the essential process of biography.

The book also demonstrates how partisan and personally involved a biographer can be, particularly in his determination to find out the truth about the Shelley/Clairmont relationship! “Footsteps” is also a book which is as much about the times Holmes is living through and their resonances with the past; the line back from 1968 to 1789 is often drawn nowadays, but I don’t know how much it was at the time. Holmes is an engaging narrator, not afraid to reveal his fears and doubts, and the book is a self-portrait of him as a proto-biographer, feeling his way into his craft.

I found “Footsteps” to be an absolutely fabulous read; a heady blend of autobiography, biography, travel and meditation, it’s haunted me for days after finishing it. It’s also had a very bad effect on the TBR, unfortunately; the first casualty is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose “Travels With a Donkey…” I already own in multiple copies…

Multiple Stevensons…

But as “Footsteps” reveals, there is also a published copy of the actual journal Stevenson kept, from which Holmes quotes liberally. A quick online investigation revealed a reasonably-priced copy and I sent off for it – with some trepidation, as it was incredibly cheap, and the seller was one who’s provided tatty books in the past. Lo and behold, it arrived and was in marvellous condition – so that was a result!

A bargain at £3.79 including postage…

As for the other dangers; well, the Romantic authors are ones already well represented on my shelves, although frantic searching after finishing “Footsteps” revealed some unpleasant gaps. But this warrants a separate post, which will follow in a day or so when I get a little more organised! In the meantime, I will just say that “Footsteps” is an absolutely magnificent book which will definitely be amongst my reads of the year. If you have any interest in biography, autobiography or any of the authors covered I highly recommend it – and thank you to Sarah LeFanu for pointing me in its direction! 😀

On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!


After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

“Soon after the fifth workman had fallen through the ceiling…” #janecarlyle #theaholme @persephone books


There’s a lot to be said for escapism at the moment, and a good amount of my reading lately has been wallowing in classic crime (always so soothing). However, there are lots of other options for comforting reads, including a good deal of 20th century women’s fiction from publishers like Virago and Persephone. I haven’t read any of the latter’s books for a little while, although I love their subtle grey covers and their choice of authors; and in fact they publish one of my all-time favourite happy reads, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”. Anyways, I was lucky enough to be gifted with a Persephone book token just before Christmas, thanks to lovely Cate at the Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing group; and it took me quite a while to decide which Persephone to pick as there are so many choices. In the end, I went for one which I’d been thinking about reading for an age, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful, involving, distracting and, in the end, moving read: “The Carlyles at Home” by Thea Holme.

The history of the book itself is interesting; Holme was an actress, often in roles produced by her husband Stanford; and later in their marriage Stanford was curator of the Carlyles’ home in Cheyne Walk, where they both lived. Thomas Carlyle was, of course, the great essayist and author of the classic account of the French Revolution (which is still lurking in the stacks in all its bulk, shouting at me to read it); his wife Jane has perhaps been a somewhat neglected character, although is now regarded as a fine writer in her own right because of her prolific correspondence. Although both were born in Scotland, much of their life together was spent in the Cheyne Walk house and Holme’s book draws on her privileged knowledge to tell the story of the Carlyles’ time at that location, with much focus of Jane.

I have to declare up front that I was always going to be fairly partisan about this book: not only was I entrance by Virginia Woolf’s “Carlyle’s House” essay, but I’ve actually visited the house, with my BFF J. on one of our rambles round London. So I was particularly keen to read Holme’s account and learn more about Jane, a strong woman whose reputation seems to have been very much eclipsed by that of her husband.

The couple moved from Scotland to London when Jane was 33, and her role seems to have been to run the house smoothly and keep the noise of local fowl, dogs, building works or frankly anything else from disturbing her husband while he worked (and from Holme’s narrative, it sounds as if his writing was a constant trial and strain). As well as running the house, dealing with visitors, making clothes for her husband, having an ongoing issue with servants and dealing with her own ailments, Jane oversaw a constant stream of house improvements designed to reduce the strongest homeowner to a jelly. Alongside this she kept up the voluminous correspondence on which her reputation now rests, as well as maintaining a close friendship with the author Geraldine Jewsbury and meeting luminaries such as Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. Frankly, I think she was something of a superhero!

….Carlyle could not write, could not think, could not sleep or concentrate on anything except giving vent to his rage, if he heard certain sounds. He was selective: cocks and pianos were his chief enemies. A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in his wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.

Holme’s book is fascinating and structured in perhaps an unusual way. Instead of taking a linear look at the Carlyles’ lives, she instead divides her chapters up by subject – “Seven Maids”, “Neighbours and Nuisances” and “Clothes” are just some of the titles. Drawing on her access to Jane’s letters and diaries she gives a marvellous insight into life at the time. The amount of time spent dealing with bedbugs makes you shudder, but Jane was no wimp: at one point when Cheyne Walk was being plagued by burglars, Holme relates that Jane went to bed with a pair of loaded pistols beside her! It’s clear that the marriage was often volatile, with Jane finding it easier to get major jobs around the house done when she sent Thomas away on a vacation of a few months; and that latter fact has often yielded rewards in that there are letters between the two Carlyles upon which Holme can draw.

Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The letters and diaries quoted by Thea Holme reveal a woman who was lively, entertaining and often funny; Jane can take any kind of domestic drama and turn into something humourous, even the much-quoted tale of the housemaid who gave birth in a cupboard while Mr. Carlyle and Miss Jewsbury were taking tea, with only a thin wall between them! There were also some wonderful insights into Carlyle’s writing process and I hadn’t been aware that the manuscript of the first volume of “The French Revolution” had been burned by accident; that must have been some re-write…

Thea Holme brings the story of the Carlyles to life wonderfully; the domestic details, the descriptions of the country round Chelsea (because it *was* in the country at the time), the specifics about the daily chores of the time, all remind you quite how hard things were back then and how we do take our mod cons for granted. The various house alterations sound unbelievably stressful; and I must admit I was surprised to hear the house described as bright and cheerful at times. When we visited, I was astonished at how small it seemed for the household which lived there, with dark wood everywhere making it seem even more closed in…

But that’s by the by. “The Carlyles at Home” was a wonderful (and distracting when I needed it!) read; I became so involved in Jane Carlyle’s life that her death at a relatively young age was an emotional shock. Carlyle was apparently wracked with guilt and although he outlived her for a good number of years, he very much retired from society. The Cheyne Walk house is now owned by the National Trust (for whom Stanford Holme worked as curator) and you can visit it (when we are able to move about more freely again…) Thea Holme’s book was a fascinating read, a real delight from start to finish; I’m so glad I used my token for it, and I’m so glad that Persephone republished it! 😀

A left-wing look at the French Revolution – and jokes! @mrmarksteel


Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel

I’ve been dipping in and out of the French Revolution quite a lot over the last year or so; and it’s quite clear from the start that this is often a grim affair with heads rolling and blood flowing left, right and centre. So humour is not something you’d expect to associate with that era and conflict, is it? Nevertheless, you’d be mistaken if you thought there were no laughs available, as I found when I picked up this random and unexpected find at the charity shop…

Mark Steel is a well-known comedian in this country, doing stand-up and appearing on TV and radio, as well as writing books and newspaper columns. His left-wing views are well-known, and he was a long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party. However, I wasn’t aware he had an interest in the French Revolution, so this book was something of a welcome surprise.

First up, it needs to be understood that this is a book with an agenda, and it never hides that. As Steel argues, most of the histories of the French Revolution have a bias against it, decrying the violence and deploring the loss of the aristocracy. The main revolutionaries are parodied, insulted and described in frankly bizarre and over-the-top terms; and the real social change which was desperately needed and was brought about by the conflict is usually dismissed. Steel displays his left-wing credentials plainly, quoting Clash lyrics at the start of the chapters and making plenty of attacks on those in power then and now, and the results is a refreshing alternative to all the hysterical misinformation chucked at the Revolution.

Steel’s mission is also to make the Revolution approachable, understandable and funny; as the blurb says, “the Revolution was one of the most inspirational event in human history – a moment when ordinary people became extraordinary and changed the world. It deserves better jokes.” And actually, it is very, very funny indeed, particularly when Steel uses a modern analogy to point out how daft something was, or takes one of his regular sideswipes at the stupidity of modern politics or our relics of the monarchic system.

Aside from the humour, though, the book manages to be very informative in a completely accessible way. Steel clearly knows his subject (the list of further reading at the end makes that plain!); he follows the progress of the conflict, paints often quite moving portraits of the main players, and discusses why things went pear-shaped enough to allow Napoleon into power and then the restoration of the monarchy (albeit in a truncated form). It’s always vastly entertaining reading and I kept thinking how much more fun history would be if it was taught like this. I also kept laughing out loud while I was reading the book, which must have irritated Mr. Kaggsy no end…

(Musée Carnavalet [Public domain])
Robespierre – variously described by his enemies as repulsive, green-veined, ugly and having the face of a tiger… But he voted *against* introducing the death penalty!

I was particularly interested in Steel’s take on Marat, Danton and Robespierre, and the ridiculously bad press they got. He makes a particularly good case for the rehabilitation of the latter (who seems to have been a man of the people, very much in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn), and indeed he’s pretty even-handed in his treatment of all concerned. Steel doesn’t condone the bloodletting (who would?) but seeks to understand the reasons for the descent into terror. He covers the various ends of the main players with empathy and allows all of them some humanity.

You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to no one and the Earth itself belongs to everyone. (Rousseau)

But the issues concerned are always at the centre of the book, and Steel pauses regularly to remind himself (and the reader) just how far things moved on and just how radical the changes were. The book puts the Revolution in the context of the Enlightenment, and against the background of total control by the monarchy and the Catholic Church. The King had previously been beyond all criticism, appointed by God and answerable only to him presumably; which makes the actions of the sans-culottes and the changes which took place in France unbelievably far-reaching. Many of the revolutionaries’ ideas and ideals (particularly Robespierre) seem to have anticipated theoreticians like Marx, and it’s quite clear that the French Revolution was in many ways the conflict that started the modern world.

“Vive La Revolution” is not only a subversive – and seriously funny – slice of popular history, it also sheds much light on the world we live in nowadays. The regular parallels Steel draws between the past and our present world are telling, making it clear how much has changed but also how much has remained the same. We still have a royal family in this country; class is still a major issue, no matter how much it is claimed that it isn’t; and the gap between the haves and have-nots widens every day. “Vive…” came out on 2003 and I would be very interested in seeing an updated version and finding out where Steel thinks we’ve gone in the interim.

So this was a wonderful, funny and very rewarding read which shed some left-wing light on the French Revolution, and also gave me a list of books to read and books to avoid… I think it’s an important contribution to the historiography of the Revolution, too, as there has been so much right-wing commentary and revision of the viewpoints of the past, that Steel’s clear-eyed stance on just how radical and important the conflict was is really refreshing. “Vive La Revolution” was one of those accidental finds that turned out to be quite brilliant, and if you want a great introduction to the French Revolution, with built in laughs, this would be a good book to start with!

(NB – there is a dearth of quotes in this post. I could have quoted *tons* of it, funny and serious, but in all honesty it’s better experienced as a whole, and I urge you all to go out and read it!)

Three things… #5 – Revolutionary humour – plus swathes of poetry


It’s a little while (October, actually) since I had a go at the “Three Things” meme created by Paula at Book Jotter (this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking). However, I found myself pondering on poetry as well as serendipitous book finds so I thought it was time for another…
I’m currently deeply involved in this chance find from the Oxfam which I posted about recently. Mark Steel is a left-wing comedian and the book is his take on the French Revolution. It’s absolutely brilliant so far, combining wit and history in a very winning way. A fuller post will follow!
Looking (at)
Not at lot in terms of programmes – we still seem to be suffering from documentary drought though I have high hopes that this will improve soon! 😉 Meantime, I spend far too much time watching arty/crafty videos on YouTube when I should be reading (but am frankly too tired). And anything with the Scottish countryside in it…. I *have* come across any number of wonderful examples of women’s art on Twitter too, proving that you *can* find good things on social media platforms…
Yes. I have been pondering on poetry a lot lately. I picked up another interesting slim volume from Salt recently. Then there was the Elizabeth Bishop collection. And last week saw three more poetry volumes sneaking in – these are they:
As usual with me and books, there is a *reason* for each of these making their way into the Ramblings. The Soviet Poets was sitting looking at me in the Oxfam on Saturday (I tend to find myself at the poetry shelves first nowadays) and it had *me* written all over it. It’s one of those Progress Press USSR editions which I sort of hoover up if I come across them; it’s a bilingual edition and I’m hoping to discover new Russian poets.
As for the Adrienne Rich, she’s a name I’ve always been aware of and much like Elizabeth Bishop suddenly kept appearing in my sight line. I ordered a cheap copy online and was let down by the reseller; so in a fit of grumpiness I sent for a shiny new Norton Critical Edition with poetry and prose, hoping this will be a good Rich primer. I think this may be my first Norton Critical Edition and it’s awfully pretty – I mean, on a superficial level, isn’t that cover gorgeous????
Then there’s Mr. Tessimond, and thereby hangs a tale. As far as I’m aware I’ve never heard of him before. However, I stumbled across mention of his poem One Almost Might whilst doing some non-poetic research and when I checked it out online was a bit blown away. A little digging revealed an obscure but intriguing life and a collected volume which now resides at the Ramblings. Strangely when I opened the book at random the first poem I came to seemed oddly familiar, so maybe I have read him in the past…
So there are increasing amounts of poetry infecting the Ramblings, and I particularly seem to be encountering female poets – maybe they resonate with me more strongly? Certainly I have the substantial collections above sitting there looking appealing, but I keep wondering whether I should be exploring the work of Marianne Moore, or maybe Mary Oliver – they keep hitting my eye line too. I do find myself drawn more than ever to poetry nowadays; it seems to be touching me more deeply than other forms of writing, perhaps as a response to the unsettling and often unpleasant times we live in. Even when I opened up the huge but lovely Primo Levi box set recently it was his poetry which was calling. So if nothing else, at least I can feel that I’m well stocked for the rest of my life with collections of verse…. 😁
Previous “Three Things” memes:

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D


Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!


The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!

I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…


2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

“Those who have faith, have need of nothing else!” #frenchrevolution


The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France
Translated by Frederick Davies

For some reason, I seem to have been finding myself a little unfocused over the last couple of weeks when it comes to reading. Some books I’ve been drawn to read straight away, but then I seem to find myself flailing around trying to decide where to go next. Book hangovers don’t help either…. I think it’s partly the manic time of year (work is horrendous) and also a plethora of lovely books to choose from.

Anyways, as they say – I decided to fling myself with wild abandon (ok, gently) at the French Revolution pile and settled on Anatole France’s “The Gods Will Have Blood”. Written in 1912, the book comes highly talked up and apparently has resonances with conflicts that occurred in the 20th century. Well – it was *interesting*, but a book not without problems and one that I would argue doesn’t always live up to the hype…

Anatole France is an author I’m pretty sure I haven’t read before (although I *did* own one of his books in the past, though I suspect that might have gone back to the charity shop in one of my periodic clear outs). France won the Nobel Prize in 1921; his reputation as a person and an author seems to have varied over the years, though very laudably he supported Zola during the Dreyfus Affair; and as a man of letters wrote across genres, producing anything from poetry, prose, plays and memoirs to a number of variants of criticism. “Gods…” was one of his last novels, and it’s more literally translated sometimes as “The Gods are Athirst”. This Penguin Classics version perhaps goes for a more inflammatory title, bearing in mind the subject matter, but I’m not sure it’s any better or worse than the other.

The sole destiny of all living beings seems only to become the fodder of other living beings fated also to the same end.

That’s by the by, really; what of the subject matter? Central to the story is Evariste Gamelin, a young painter living in Paris during the aftermath of the 1789 revolution. Evariste is a strong and strident supporter of the Jacobin regime; Marat and Robespierre are his gods; and as he becomes drawn more deeply into the administration of the new leaders, his fanaticism increases in inverse proportion to his compassion and kindness. At the start of the book he is a good man, in love with Elodie, the daughter of Jean Blaise, a print maker. At the end of it, he has become some kind of monster, ready to be devoured by the savage regime he has helped create and perpetuate.

The story is populated with a number of characters, all struggling to survive and carry on some kind of normal life during extraordinary events. Most interesting, perhaps, is Maurice Brotteaux who lodges above Evariste and his mother. Brotteaux is an intellectual, scraping a living from making puppets, and it’s tempting to see him as representative of the author. He’s cynical, susceptible to a beautiful woman, an atheist and somewhat to one side of the main run of the French people (Jacobins, aristocrats and religious types). Despite all that, he’s one of the most moral people in the book, helping a vulnerable monk and a troubled prostitute, and eventually becoming enmeshed in the vicious campaign of violence into which Paris is descending.

You live in a dream; I see life as it is. Believe me, my friend, the revolution’s become a bore: it’s lasted too long. Five years of rapture, five years of brotherly love, of massacres, of endless speeches, of the Marseillaise, of bells ringing to man the barricades, of aristocrats hanging from lamp-posts, of heads stuck on pikes,, of women with cannons between their legs, of little girls and old men in white robes on flower-bedecked chariots, the prisoners, the guillotine, semi-starvation, proclamations, cockades, plumes, swords, carmagnoles, it’s all gone on too long! Nobody knows anymore what it’s all about! We’ve seen too much, we’ve seen too many of these great patriots raised up for us to worship only for them to be hurled from your Tarpeian Rock – Necker, Mirabeau, La Fayette, Bailly, Petion, Manuel and all the rest of them. How do we know you’re not preparing the same fate for your new heroes?… Nobody knows any more!

What of Evariste himself? In many ways, his character may be part of the slight issues I had with the book. He’s rigid, in many ways narrow-minded and I actually didn’t find either himself or his lover, Elodie that sympathetic. However, sympathetic characters are not always a necessity and I reminded myself that France was using him as a tool in this book, to show how a reasonable and good person can be corrupted. At the start of the story he’s living with his mother, for whom he provides, and is capable of acts of great kindness; but his personality traits mean that inevitably his fervour for change will overwhelm his good points. The book throws up so much food for thought: is an ideal more important than a family link? Does terror beget terror, and is it ever justified? Is a pure love ever possible between people who don’t possess like minds? Does power always corrupt? Some of Evariste’s mental monologues are quite chilling and to watch his relationship with Elodie degenerate as he becomes more embroiled in death is not pleasant.

Gamelin was beginning to turn punishment into a religious and mystical ideal, to give it a virtue and merit of its own.

Despite the power of some of its portrayals, I do have some caveats about “Gods…” For a start, the writing seemed a little uneven, with the language veering from lyrical to melodramatic, and taking in long passages of philosophical musing. “Gods…” is very much a book of ideas and France’s need to discuss beliefs sometimes got in the way of the story. The characterisation often seemed underdeveloped, and again there was an unevenness, with important personages (for example, Evariste’s sister Julie) being brought into the story quite late on. It did sometimes seem that France was unsure as to whether he was writing an adventurous story of the Revolution, a political and philosophical treatise or a bodice-ripping pot-boiler; certainly there was a warped sensuality to some of the characters, which I get was intended to reflected strange events, strange times and the brutalising effect of violence – but it still jarred a little.

Storming of the Bastille (Jean-Pierre Houël [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

As for the Revolution itself, to be honest that was oddly muted and often seemed to be happening offscreen. Although the book was peppered with historical characters from David to Danton to Marat to Robespierre to the Austrian woman, the events were not particularly strongly delineated, so you would have to be fairly well versed in the French Revolution to really fully engage with the book. And the notation was quite limited, which was a bit of a shame because even with what I’ve read about the period I felt I could have done with a little more support.

Anatole France (Atelier Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the book *does* have many strengths, in particular its portrayal of the dread of living under the constant threat of denunciation and the guillotine. The horror is visceral and very real, and the parallels with what would come next under Stalin (or indeed any terror-driven regime you could name nowadays) are striking. Much is made of France’s prescience; well, I feel it’s probable that his view of the corruption which exists under any regime was informed by his experiences during the Dreyfus Affair. Yes, the events he describes in his book very much anticipate events following the Russian Revolution and Civil War (even down to the concept of children denouncing their parents), where just as much blood must have been spilled in the name of a cause as was during the French Revolution(s); but let’s face it, we’re a species that is very happy to kill for an ideal…

But “Gods…” captures a real sense of what it was like to live under that kind of terror and regime, and how under even the most impossibly circumstances human beings will still try to get on with their lives. France creates a wonderfully sympathetic character in Brotteaux; Evariste’s sister Julie was also a stand-out creation for me, and I would have like to see her make her entrance earlier in the book – I found her a nice antidote to the insufferable Elodie, who seemed no more than a shallow sensualist. However, despite my reservations, “The Gods Will Have Blood” was a powerful read which has very much lingered in my mind for days after I finished it. As a portrait of the consequences of rigid and unswerving belief, which inevitably lead to a loss of human empathy and compassion, it’s exemplary and France’s achievements here do outweigh the flaws. And if nothing else, reading this book certainly got me thinking that I must attack the very loosely constructed French Revolutionary reading pile soon, and in a slightly more focused way! 🙂

A character in need of a new author @nyrbclassics #germanlitmonth


Charles Bovary, Country Doctor by Jean Amery
Translated by Adrian Nathan West

Well – I’ve managed to clamber out of the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole for the time being (although I *am* still reading Baudelaire’s poems!), and I’ve been sidetracked rather unexpectedly off to France. Yes, I know I have a pile of French Revolution books lurking, and yes I know that this one wasn’t on it (it’s a lovely review copy from NYRB). But there are unexpected resonances with 1789 in what is really a rather unusual work…

Amery himself is a fascinating character; born Hans Maier in Vienna (his father was Jewish and his mother half-Jewish, half Catholic), he fled the Nazis to France and then Belgium, where he joined the Resistance. Surviving torture and Auschwitz, he went on to write under the pen-name Jean Amery and probably his most famous work is “At the Mind’s Limits”, a collection of autobiographical essays looking at his state of being as a Holocaust victim and survivor. “Charles Bovary…” might seem to be a very different kind of book, but there are certainly parallels.

The book is subtitled “Portrait of a Simple Man” and takes up the story of the titular doctor after the death of his wife, Emma, the main protagonist of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. The initial pages, a heartbreaking monologue from Charles depicting his grief at her death, are actually acutely painful and difficult to read; here is a man’s suffering laid bare, with the loss of his wife almost too much for him to cope with. The child has lost her mother; the husband his wife; and Charles Bovary is revealed as a man almost obsessed with his love for Emma and his physical need for her. This grief leads him to meditate on the events which led up to her death; her infidelities; his failures as a man and a husband; and his inability to give her the kind of love and romance she craved. However, Amery takes the book in an unusual direction by blending these monologues with essays of his own on the whole Bovary story; and he begins to state a case for Charles having been given a very raw deal by his creator.

The lines between Charles and Amery become blurred, and the latter clearly has issues with Gustave Flaubert and his portrayal of the cuckolded M. Bovary as a pathetic and laughable creature who deserves what is meted out to him. Not only does Amery find Charles unconvincing as a character, calling into question Flaubert’s art and the claims made for it as realist fiction; he also sees Bovary as anything but realistic and goes on to critique not only Flaubert’s writing but also his intellectual heritage and legacy, finding him a lesser artist than his protegé Maupassant.

At the heart of Amery’s issue is his belief that Charles Bovary could never have existed as Flaubert portrayed him. He reminds the reader that Flaubert was an incorrigible haut bourgeois who was dependent on his father’s money, whereas Charles was a petit bourgeois self-made man; yet the latter is portrayed as a clod even though he had fought against his limitations and made his way in the world. Amery offers alternative, much more convincing scenarios of how such a man would have been, how he would have behaved in the situations Flaubert created, and finds the latter’s imagination to be very wanting. Taking a wider view of French fiction, he even takes Flaubert to task for nothing less than betraying the French Revolution in denying Charles the rights fought for during the conflict of liberté, égalité, fraternité, “the undying principles of 1789” as he reminds us. Amery rails against Charles’ passive acceptance of lesser status as unworthy of a man who is the product of a country which had killed its monarchs, arguing that a more convincing rendering would have been of a man who knew that he was equal to any other.

What we see before us is a man from the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philiipe. The great adventures of the French nation have come to an end; the universal allure of the Revolution, the imperial-pathetic escapade of Napoleon 1, the Grand Armee dreamer, have run their course. In Waterloo, the eagle, rapacious hunter and heraldic seal, is beheaded; only once more will he rise from the ashes as the outsized general with the oddly small mouth uttering phrases that are the grandest, most solemn literature, before flying off and vanishing forever in the heavens.

In many ways, Amery believes the creation and ultimate fate of Charles Bovary was Gustave Flaubert’s reckoning with the bourgeoisie from which he never escaped. However, his re-working requires acceptance of the possibility of a very different Charles Bovary: one who would have been capable of being a passionate lover; one who could have sent his wife’s lovers packing; one who could have answered back those who bullied him during his life; and one who was so physically obsessed by the beauty of his wife that masturbation and necrophilia crop up as subjects in Amery’s revision of his character.

Do you need to have read “Madame Bovary” to fully appreciate Amery’s book? Well, yes… I read it some time ago and my memories are minimal, so I did check out a plot summary online – which is probably not sufficient to take in all the nuances of the original or to appreciate all Amery’s points. And I need to add a caveat I think. Flaubert’s book is focused on a female character and her needs; this aspect is perhaps diminished by Amery’s reading of it and it’s a focus for which Flaubert should be congratulated. In an era when women’s choices were still very restricted he gave female desires a voice. For the story which Flaubert wanted to tell it was necessary for Charles to be stolid and stupid; although Amery in some ways disputes the point of “Madame B…” as in the end there is a predictable inevitability in the fact that the transgressing women has to be punished in a way that will satisfy the moralists.

“Charles Bovary…” was an intriguing, if at times complex, read. The book is very much an intellectual exercise and your response to it will depend on how willing you are to follow Amery down his path and accept his reinterpretation and reworking of the characters of Gustave Flaubert. Certainly, it’s a fascinating piece of work which left me with much to think about as well as many questions about how much we trust our authors – and whether we should be a lot more critical of how they treat their characters!

Review kindly provided by NYRB, with many thanks to Emma O’Bryen.


I’m claiming this book for German Lit Month too; I hadn’t realised till I picked it up that Amery wrote in that language, so that makes three unexpected and unplanned entries for the reading month. Not like me to manage to participate…. 😉

Additionally, after finishing “CB”, it occurred to me that I had owned a copy of “At the Mind’s Limits” and that I had probably purged it in my recent attempts to downsize the amount of books in the house. However, I had a dig and found that it was still lurking in a donation box:

It had been sitting on my Primo Levi shelf for some time; I’m not sure if I have the moral and intellectual courage for it at the moment, as the world we’re living in seems so full of intolerance and hatred that I’m rather afraid I will see the present reflected in the past. But we shall see; it’s certainly been reprieved from the donate pile…

Loving my local library (redux) – plus the Oxfam lowers its prices! #bookfinds #library


Things really *do* never go as planned, do they??? Like so many bookish types, I try to control the flow of incoming books as we get closer to the C-word time of year as I know lovely friends and family will be gifting me with them. And I had intended to do a very small post (if at all!) this weekend featuring a modest pair of arrivals which had made their way into the Ramblings this week:

The Owen Hatherley book is one I was very excited to receive from the publishers. I’ll be covering it for Shiny New Books; I’ve read a number of his books and he’s an incisive, funny and fascinating commentator. The Friedrich Ani was a result of a giveaway on the lovely Lizzy Siddal’s blog – I have won two books there recently, which is quite unprecedented, as I *never* win things! It’s a beautiful Seagull Books crime novel and I’m *so* pleased. So that seemed quite modest for a week’s arrivals…

However, I’m still in that Baudelaire-Benjamin wormhole and I amused myself mid-week by having a look at the local library’s online catalogue to see if there was anything interesting lurking. I was having an itch to amass more of their works, one in particular, and I wondered whether anything would be available to borrow which would scratch that itch without buying more books. I had low expectations, and the local Big Town didn’t have anything in stock. However, a wider search revealed that Bury St. Edmunds, of all places, seems to be a hotbed of rebellious thought and critical theory, as they had the specific book I was after as well as a number of Other Interesting Titles. Who knew?? Anyway, I placed reserves on four books and expected to wait a while for the library service to get them over here. However, an email pinged into the inbox today informing me that all four had arrived and were ready for collection, which was speedy and surprising, and meant that I ended up lugging these four round town with me today…

Despite the weight, I’m pleased to be able to explore these four volumes. Obviously, Benjamin on Baudelaire is what was exercising my brain most, but “Baudelaire in Chains” is a biographical work which sounds intriguing… The Modernism book also sounded good, and Adorno is one of the authors mentioned in “The Grand Hotel Abyss” which I’ve started dipping into also, so this seemed a good way to have a look at his writing and see if I want to explore further.


As usual on Saturdays, I fell into the Oxfam bookshop to see if anything new was on the shelves, as the stock has been moving a little faster than usual of late – and this might have happened…

Someone has obviously been donating a lot of Julian Barnes and since my love of his writing has been rekindled recently, I really couldn’t ignore these. Particularly as they were marked at 99p each. It seems that my grumpy comment about their increasing prices may have been a little premature, as across the board they didn’t seem too pricy today. As for the Robb… Well, I actually had a copy of this before, then donated it in a fit of madness and clearing out books, and then thoroughly regretted it, particularly after I enjoyed his “The Debatable Lands“. So again, a no brainer, and only £1.99. Four books of such interest at less then a fiver ain’t bad.

And coming across the Robb reminded me that a couple of weeks I hauled home a few books from the Oxfam and then shoved them on a shelf and forgot all about them. Here they are, with an Interesting Other Title on top which snuck in through the front door one day:

The Alexis de Tocqueville is one of two titles by that author I’ve picked up recently to add to the French Revolution pile. I was pleased to get this particular edition, because the translator is Stuart Gilbert, who rendered the version I own of my favourite Camus novel, “The Plague”, and I like his style. And as I said, the other three were from the Oxfam and Very Reasonably Priced. The Eric Newby is one of the few I don’t have by him – I love his travel books and his wonderful self-deprecating style. The Robb is mentioned above and I’m so pleased to have these two volumes. And “Walking in Berlin” is a book I heard about when it came out and *so* wanted to read, but didn’t get round to doing anything about. It was never going to stay on the Oxfam shelves…

So. I’m not doing too well at stemming the incoming flow of books. But do you blame me?????

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