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

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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! 🙂

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

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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

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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.

However.

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?????

Three things… #4 – Revolutions, plus difficulties with older books…

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Time for another 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. The book I’m currently reading has influenced what I’m currently watching (as there is still a dearth of documentaries, alas…), and this ties in also with my thoughts on some bookish and not so bookish things at the moment. So here goes!

Reading

I’m currently deeply immersed in “The Race to Save the Romanovs” by Helen Rappaport, which I’m going to be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Give my interest (alright, obsession) with all things Russia, it’s inevitable that I’ve read a *lot* of books over the decades about the last Tsar of Russia and the fate of his family. This particular volume promises new insights, specifically into the failure of any of the other Royal houses in Europe to intercede and come to the aid of their relations, and it’s intriguing reading so far. This is actually the first of Rappaport’s books I will actually have finished; I bailed out of her book on Lenin fairly early as I sensed an underlying inability to really accept the concept of someone devoting their whole life to a cause which undermined the narrative for me. However, we’ll see what this book brings! Although Rappaport is acknowledging the huge and fatal flaws of the regime, I *am* sensing a slight bias, and so I turned to some vintage viewing:

Looking

Mr. Kaggsy is something of an enabler when it comes to DVDs, and one box set he gifted me a while ago was the complete BBC series “Fall of Eagles” from 1974, which I’m gradually making my way through. A classic drama from what I tend to think of as the golden age of TV (!), it tell in 13 parts of the collapse of the three main royal dynasties in Europe at the time of the First World War and Russian Revolution. It’s stuffed to the gills with marvellous actors (Patrick Stewart perfect as Lenin; Barry Foster actually *is* Kaiser Wilhelm) and I remember being enthralled when I was just a wee thing, freshly captivated by the Russian Revolution. Revisiting it has been a wonderful experience; so after reading a bit of the Rappaport, I watched the episode “Dear Nicky” which deals with the pre-war correspondence between the Tsar and the Kaiser against a backdrop of suffering and unrest in St. Petersburg, and was reminded of a number of things:

1. Just how good the series was – the acting!
2. How it was also even-handed in that the royals were shown as flawed and the people were shown as suffering.

Which led onto…

Thinking

… well, thinking about revolutions generally. I have to say up front that I deplore violence (well, as a vegan, I would.) However, we live in a world which is unequal and unfair, and frankly it’s hardly surprising that the people often have to take up an aggressive stance against those in charge when the latter are exploiting and enslaving them. Russia was a case in point, and I’m finding my reading of the Rappaport book a little problematic because although I can’t condone the violence meted out to the Tsar’s family, neither can I countenance the violence done to the Russian people. It will be interesting to see what I finally conclude.

And as I’ve blogged recently, I’ve been incubating a possible reading project of French Revolutionary fiction. Well, it started as fiction, but might not end up being limited to that, as a few internet searches have thrown up a very tempting list of possible books. Some of which may have slipped quietly through the letterbox when Mr. Kaggsy wasn’t paying attention….

The revolutionary French are obviously breeding…

One in particular really caught my eye because of its focus on women’s involvement; when I posted about “The Declaration of the Rights of Women” by Olympe de Gouges earlier in the year, I commented on the fact that I’d been looking for the female voice int he French Revolution. I also alluded to the figure of Théroigne de Méricourt, who I’d heard mention of in Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, where he credited her with urging on the men who were hesitating to storm the Tuileries Palace. I found very little about her in the books I have relating to the Revolution, so the fact that she features in this recent arrival is rather nice…

I must admit I feel inclined to pick it up and start reading straight away, but the problem is, it’s only one of a number of Big Books about Inspirational Woman that I have lurking…

All of these are crying out to be read instantly, but there isn’t enough time. Plus the French Revolution books are massing offstage… And as I hinted in the heading to this post, some of the older titles are really giving me issues. If you go off to search for a more obscure old book, like a Victor Hugo or a Joseph Conrad which *isn’t* one of the well know titles, you end up being offered weird, expensive reprints on the online sites. (I found this when I was looking for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on Edinburgh, and ended up buying a very old copy instead – but that’s by the by…) I would like to have actual *physical* copies, as I really hate reading on a screen, but as you might have guessed by the glowing screen in the picture further up this post, I have had to resort to Project Gutenberg. Really not my preferred way of reading, but beggars etc etc as they say… Anyway, onward and upward with the Romanovs – hopefully by the time I’ve finished that, I’ll have more idea of what I want to read after it! 😀

#1944Club: we made it to the end – but where next….?

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Well, what a week of reading that was!  I don’t know about everyone else, but I read some absolutely fantastic books from different genres, as well as revisited some old friends, and it’s been marvellous fun! Thanks to everyone who posted, commented, shared bookish thoughts and got involved (and thanks to Mr. Kaggsy for his guest post, which did take the pressure off a bit during a particularly hectic week at work while I was trying to juggle the blog and real life…) Only six months to the next Club…

On the subject of which, Simon and I were having a chat about the picking of the next reading year, and he came up with the idea of throwing things open to our readers/commenters/participants! So – what year do *you* think would be a good one to feature for our next Club? We’re not even restricting this to decades, though to be honest Simon and I both seem comfortable with the period between 1920 and 1979  so if your year is in that bracket we would probably be more favourable…. 😀

So leave a comment and make a suggestion, either here or on Simon’s blog. We’d like you to make a case for your chosen year, rather than just giving us a date, as we’d love to know why you want everyone to read books from a particular year. How will we choose the ‘winner’? That remains to be seen, but we look forward  to hearing your nominations!

In the meantime, after all last week’s intense reading and reviewing and posting, I ought to have a lie down really – but there are plenty of books vying for my attention and I’m not quite sure what I’ll pick up next. I shared this image on Instagram recently, and certainly any of these would be particularly appealing:

There are also a reasonable number of review books lurking, and then there’s a little idea I have in the back of my head…. As has been obvious on the Ramblings over the last year or so, I’ve developed quite an interest in iconoclasm and the French Revolution (ahem!) A chance glance at a newsletter from Oxford World Classics recently brought “The Scarlet Pimpernel” to my notice, and an idea sort of began to germinate… What if I curated my own French Revolutionary *fiction* reading list? Could it be a project? Are there enough interesting titles? Do I *dare* set myself another challenge and then just fail? Of course, I read “A Tale of Two Cities” back in the day – but since this idea first popped into my head, the pile of possibles in the house has grown a little… (gulp)

It’s only a little pile at the moment, and I’m sure there are plenty more titles that could be added to the list…. (no! no! I do *not* need to buy any more books!!!) We shall see – I may or I may not. Watch this space to see what turns up next! 😀

Rebuilding the Parisian Landscape @ShinyNewBooks @HoZ_Books

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It’s probably been fairly noticeable over the past year or so that I’ve developed quite an interest in the French Revolution (as well as the side aspect of iconoclasm during that conflict…); so when the opportunity arose to review a new book from Head of Zeus about the reconstruction of Paris during the 1800s, I was of course very interested indeed….

“City of Light” by Rupert Christiansen is a beautiful hardback book, lavishly illustrated and full of fascinating information about the knocking down of the mediaeval street plan and the building of the boulevards in Paris. It also puts the changes very firmly in context, clarifying much of what can be a very complex period of French history. The book raises a number of issues, and it struck a number of nerves with me. I find myself very conflicted about the amount of razing to the ground and rebuilding that happens nowadays, particularly when it’s done with little regard for the humans that have to live and work in the areas concerned.

By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And the changes taking place around Charing Cross Road and Soho in London I actually find really upsetting. When I first started visiting the area in the late 1970s/early 1980s, there were so many parts that had been unchanged for decades; you could wander down a little side street and find a cafe with 1950s formica tables and small glass coffee cups and saucers; and it was easy (and entertaining!) to get lost in the back streets of Soho. However, so much of that character has been knocked out of the area in the name of progress; and when I met up with my brother (plus Middle child and Partner) in January, he was cursing the gentrification of Soho, and how difficult it was for us just to find a damn pub to grab a quick drink in… I know where he’s coming from!

So this is a book that looks at a historical landmark that is still very relevant to what’s happening around us today. My review is at Shiny here, so please do pop over and have a look.

 

“Art is a mask that covers the face of nature” – a journey back to twenties Moscow with Curzio Malaparte @nyrbclassics

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The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

Sometimes I find that I read a book that’s so involving, so thought-provoking and which worms its way into my brain so deeply that I actually find it hard to know where to start writing about it. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those books; I’d never heard of it but I knew I wanted to read it the minute I saw the blurb in the NYRB catalogue; and now I’ve finished it, I’m struggling to know where to begin. But let’s try….

Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front, but this work is an unfinished gem which has only just been made available in English, thanks to the sterling work of translator Jenny McPhee. Left unfinished on Malaparte’s death in 1957, it was put together from material abandoned in 1950 and never returned to, and it’s unique and utterly fascinating.

Set in Moscow in 1929, the book is narrated by Malaparte himself – whether a fictionalised version of the author, or meant as kind of autobiography is not clear. Malaparte states in his foreword “everything is true” but whether it is, or whether events and people are filtered through the author’s memory, beliefs and sensibility is, in the end, unimportant. What matters is the message the book is trying to get across.

So we are introduced to Malaparte the narrator, in Russia to research books on Lenin (which he did indeed publish) In Moscow he encounters Society (with a very definite capital S) in a post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia. And despite that revolution, things don’t seem to have changed much for the better; because the rich strata of boyars, nobles and Tsars have been replaced by Soviet boyars, high-ranking functionaries with all the privileges available and Stalin. Malaparte ranges between shocked and amused, watching the nouveau riche of Soviet times disporting themselves at parties and functions, while they dream of a lavish Parisian lifestyle, and noting how little changes in any country after a revolution has taken place and then things settle down again.

I spoke to her of Paris. Of the city’s gray and turquoise colors, of the autumnal pinks, the golden leaves of the maronniers, the horse chestnuts along the Seine, of the mist that rises in the evenings along the river, of the leaves crackling beneath the feet of the passersby, of the Tuileries Gardens.

Often accompanied by a juvenile side-kick, Marika, Malaparte roams Moscow, watching as the city is demolished and rebuilt. He wanders the streets with Bulgakov, ruminating on the lack of religion in the Soviet land; visits Mayakovsky’s room shortly after the poet’s suicide, and laments his loss; drops in on Litvinov and ponders the lack of miracles in Moscow; and always has a cynical eye on the fact that one group of the rich has been replaced by a new group of the rich. He’s unsparing when it comes to his portraits of the elite, pinning them down in beautiful but cruel prose.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multishaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

The star of the book, however, is the constantly changing Moscow, being rebuilt around him.The cover image, detail from “New Moscow” by Pimenov, is particularly apt, as it shows a modern, skyscrapered city with shiny new cars and fashions; a new world being dragged out of the old timbered city. Malaparte bemoans this wanton, wholesale destruction, particularly whilst ambling with Bulgakov, but I expect the people who had been dealing with the Moscow housing crisis and living through the privations of the 1920s would have been very, very happy indeed to have a roof over their heads. The vivid descriptions bring to life the changing landscape and Malaparte’s wonderful writing really captures the atmosphere of transition.

The complete Pimenov image

However, underlying all this is his meditation on the state of the revolution and how the communist dream has gone sour. There is a constant sense of doom; a feeling that the revolutionary ideals are in peril and it’s worth bearing in mind that the Great Terror was just around the corner (and in fact there are indications of this starting during the book). Malaparte’s narrator-self is looking back at 1929 from a decade and a half later with the knowledge of what came later, and can see that the executions which have begun are only a hint of what will happen during the 1930s. There is a thread which runs through the book concerning the rotting, mummified corpse of Lenin – indeed the final chapter deals specifically with death under Communist rule – and it’s impossible not to see Lenin’s remains as analogous to the rotting heart of Communism.

All of us in Moscow were united in praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways, but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire: He was master, dictator…

Particularly striking for me (bearing in mind my current sphere of interest….!) were the constant parallels Malaparte drew with the French Revolution. This was another conflict which ended up replacing one elite with another, and also descended into wholesale bloodshed. Malaparte almost seems to imply that any revolution is doomed, and that may well simply be because of greed and human nature. The French conflicts are forever lurking in the background, present in references as wide-ranging as the poetry of Andre Chenier or the prose of Proust.

Malaparte

I have to confess that I found the sections which featured Bulgakov and Mayakovsky (two of my great literary loves) particularly affecting. I’ve no idea whether Malaparte actually met them and whether his encounters are based on anything like fact, but there’s an underlying sadness emanating from both men. Bulgakov looks for Christ in Moscow, while Mayakovsky wrestles with his demons and eventually is defeated. Malaparte is moved to defend him against charges of corruption by his visit to America, lamenting the loss of a great man.

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

“The Kremlin Ball” is a fascinating and unique work. The narrative is fragmentary, although how much of this is because of the unfinished nature of the work is not clear. Characters come and go, their names undergoing subtle variations; there are repetitions of descriptions; and all of this reflects Moscow itself, undergoing changes of its own and in as much of a state of flux as the narrative itself. The writing is often beautiful and evocative, and whether the book is fiction masquerading as memoir, or memoir which has been fictionalised is unclear; but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. Malaparte paints a vivid and compelling portrait of a city and its denizens at a point of change, capturing figures who would go on to be statistics in the history books, while pondering on life, revolution and religion. It’s a heady and intoxicating mix, and I think a second reading would bring out many more resonances. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those haunting books which changes your perspective on a time, a place, a thought, a belief; it’s a shame it was never finished, but how lucky we are to have what remains of it.

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers by Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

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