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“some indelible trace of their story” #georgesperec #ellisisland

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I don’t know about you, but for me there are certain authors that I wil read absolutely anything by – and Georges Perec, a relatively recent reading discovery is one of those. I have stacks of his works on my shelves and have read just about everything which has been translated into English. So needless to say, I was inordinately excited when I discovered that a new work would be available! That book is “Ellis Island”, a slim volume from New Directions, and I sent off for it as soon as I found out it was available.

“Ellis Island” has a fascinating genesis: the text has its roots in a screenplay Perec wrote for a documentary film on the place made by Robert Bober. This was the first documentary made by Bober, a French-Jewish director and author; and Perec provided not only the commentary of the first part of the film, he also conducted the interviews in the second part. The current volume contains a translation of “Ellis Island” by Perec’s friend and fellow Oulipan, Harry Mathews, as well as number of photographs of the island itself and people passing through it. It may well be that these are also featured in the film, but I haven’t seen it and there are no credits in the book…

I doubt that anyone visits Ellis Island by chance these days.
People who passed through it have a little desire to return –
their children or grandchildren do it for them, looking
for traces of the past. What had been for the others a place
of trials and uncertainties has become for them a place
of recollection, a pivot of the connections that identify
them with their history.

And the text does make absolutely wonderful reading; in words which straddle poetry and prose, Perec explores the history and the symbolism of Ellis Island, its importance to those attempting to escape from dangerous situations and repressive countries into the ‘land of the free’; and also the reality behind those symbols. Because of course, it was never that easy to make your way into the USA, with many refugees being turned away and sent back to the country in which they had faced great peril. The streets of American were not paved with gold, and intolerance and prejudice existed there as much as anywhere else in the world.

How can you grasp what is shown, what wasn’t photographed
or catalogue or restored or staged?

How do you get back what was plain, trivial, routine,
what was ordinary and kept happening day after day?

Perec is a man who seemed to be fond of producing books which are lists (“An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” springs to mind); and there are elements of that in “Ellis…”. That way of writing works really well, with Perec producing hypnotic sequences which capture the sheer variety of people attempting to flood into the USA, and also the fact that persecution was taking place everywhere in the world. Images he creates linger, particularly from his visits to Ellis Island whilst filming, when the place had decayed and was then reimagined as a museum. He also explores his response to the location through the prism of his identity as a Jewish person, and how Bober’s Jewishness differed from his. Certainly, the thought of that persecuted people fleeing to American to escape the horrors of 20th century Europe is profoundly moving…

they had given up their past and their history,
they had given up everything for the sake of coming here
to try and live a life they were forbidden to live
in their native land:
and now they were face to face with an inexorable finality

“Ellis Island” comes with a fascinating afterword by Monica De La Torre which discusses the whole topic of immigration in light of more modern developements in the USA, particularly under the recent regime which chose to consider walling itself off from its neighbours. This also serves as a useful reminder of how the world has changed since Perec visited back in 1978…

what I find present here
are in no way landmarks or roots or
relics ut the opposite: something shapeless, on the outer edge of
what is sayable…

As I said at the start of this post, i would read absolutely anything Perec wrote; but putting that fact aside, I found “Ellis Island” a surprisingly lyrical and very beautiful piece of work, which as well as capturing the symbolic nature of the place also explored deeply the themes of wandering and homeland and how it feels to be running from danger and looking for a safe place. As the book reminds us (though not from Perec’s own mouth), his father was killed in the War fighting against Germany and his mother perished in Auschwicz. I always feel these facts lie under or beneath everything Perec wrote and ran through his life. If I had any criticism of the book to make, it would not be of Perec’s words; however, I did feel it could have benefited from some notation, photos credits and a little more context. I went into this fairly blind, and although that allowed me to encounter the prose with no preconceptions, some notes at the end might have helped when I’d finished.

Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Café de la Mairie – 18 October 1974 – photo c. Pierre Getzler

However, putting that aside, needless to say I loved this. Like so many of Perec’s works it deals in memory, how our past informs our present, how accurate what we recall is and how we can never really leave the past behind. In some ways, reading this had me making connections with Maria Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory” – truly, our recollections can be tricky things.

Anyway. I aim to read everything by Perec which makes it into English so I’m always happy when something new appears. “Ellis Island” was a real treat for me, and let’s home more of Georges Perec’s work becomes available in a form suitable for we Anglophone readers! 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A unique take on the memoir format – over @ShinyNewBooks @BelgraviaB #georgesperec

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If you’re a regular follower of Shiny New Books (and I do hope you are – there are some marvellous book reviews there, and it will be very bad for your TBR…); anyway, if you are, you might have seen my Bookbuzz piece back in April which looked at the playful yet serious work of the Oulipo literary group. Their shining star is most probably the great French author, Georges Perec, and so I was very excited to discover recently that Gallic Books were bringing out a new edition of his “I Remember“; a book only translated in 2014, and not published in the UK until now!

Perec was a prolific author, producing all manner of varied works which took in differing formats and constraints; and by the time of this work he’d already dipped into oblique memoir with his book “W, or The Memory of Childhood“. “I Remember” takes a very unusual angle whilst dealing with memory and the past, and is absolutely fascinating; to find out more, you can check out my review here! 😀

Puzzles and conundrums – over @ShinyNewBooks! #oulipo #georgesperec #italocalvino

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A quick post today, to point you in the direction of the rather lovely Shiny New Books site! Those of you who follow SNB will know of the technical crisis recently when the whole blog was accidentally deleted – horrors! Furtunately, technical whizz Annabel has been reinstating the blog, with a sparkly new look, so do pop over and have a look. If you aren’t following yet, you’re in for a treat, as the regular weekly posts will alert you to all manner of interesting-sounding and intriguing new works; the downside, of course, is that your wishlist and tbr will grow… ;D

Anyway, I have a new piece up there today, and instead of a review it’s a feature in the Bookbuzz section considering some of these guys:

Yes, I’ve been happy to provide a beginner’s primer to the Oulipo authors, with potted biographies, a look at some anthologies and suggestions of where you could start reading works from this intriguing group of writers! I don’t claim to be an expert – but I *have* read a good number of books by the group, so if you’re interested in exploring their rather wonderful books, hopefully my primer will be a helpful guide. Do pop over and have a look here – and why not explore Shiny while you’re at it? 😀

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

“One must start accepting that a text can stand on its own” @Wakefield_Press #georgesperec

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Wishes by Georges Perec
Translated and Transmogrified by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall

My love of the work of Georges Perec is no secret here on the Ramblings; since reading his masterwork “Life: A User’s Manual” I’ve made my way through probably just about everything that’s been translated. So you can imagine how excited was to stumble across a newly translated work this year; “Wishes”, rendered by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall, has just been published by Wakefield Press, and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

“Wishes” draws from Perec’s complete works, and collects together a series of homophonic, punning greetings he sent out annually in a pamphlet to friends between 1970 and his death in 1982. Each of these is based on a number of constraints, designed to create a series of jokes that Perec’s cronies could work out and chortle over. In simple terms, the best analogy I can come up with is that of a cryptic crossword clue. The short piece of prose is the clue, the answer relates to a table provided to go with each set, and each answer is a homophone of the particular word or phrase or name in that table. To give an example from 1977’s pamphlet, entitled “Footnotes to musical history”:

‘Clue’: How lovely she is when she puts that big barette on her little hat!

‘Answer’: Belle A Barre Toque (in English – Beautiful in bar hat)

And the French spoken out loud gives you:

Homophone: Bela Bartok (famous Hungarian composer)

It’s a fiendish piece of work to try and translate as the punning is so specific to the original language, but Wythe-Hall does just brilliantly with the literal version. However she takes things further with a section entitled Transmogrifications where, instead of a direct translation, she takes the end result and creates a new ‘clue’ in English to lead on to the homophonic answer. This is a brilliant and creative idea, and I loved seeing these alongside Perec’s originals. Each little piece of Perecs’s writing could also be funny and nonsensical in its own right as well, so there was a double joy to reading the book.

I was told:
“Give up this deplorable habit you’ve picked up of belching!”
I replied:
“Do you mean to say that the Great Pan is responsible for this inextricable miscellany that my texts have become?”

Perec and his fellow OuLiPans relished wordplay, writing constraints, puns, clues, crosswords and the like. These tendencies do call into question the whole concept of translating of something which relies so specifically on language; is it really going to be possible to produce a version in, say, English which has the effect of the original French while working in the new language. Should the translator go for a direct translation or an approximation of the effect? Well, any number of OuLiPan authors have been successfully translated – Perec most notably by David Bellos, and Raymond Queneau by Barbara Wright. However, with a work so quizzical as this one there might be room for doubt; but I think that Wythe-Hall has succeeded marvellously.

Presenting a literal and an interpretative version alongside is an ideal way to deal with something which might be difficult to render in another language. I was reminded of my teenage browsing of my tatty old film tie-in of Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago”; in the back were ‘Zhivago’s’ poems and I remember being struck by the fact that one particularly effective poem was presented in both a literal and a rhyming version. I thought that was a clever thing to do back then, and I still do!

Georges Perec’s “Wishes” is a beautifully produced book on quality paper with French flaps, so as well as being a fascinating and entertaining read it’s also a lovely object in its own right. I’ve not come across Wakefield Press, a US based publisher, before but it seems they’re an independent unit who specialise in bringing us untranslated gems. This is a laudable aim and they’ve produced a mightily impressive volume here. As someone who loves to credit and thank a translator, I was a little perturbed to be told nothing about Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall, who also provides a useful introduction and whose linguistic skills are obviously impressive. I can’t see online that she’s translated anything else, but she deserves kudos for her efforts here!

“Wishes” was a delight, and had me laughing away, appreciating Perec’s original punning as well as Wythe-Hall’s rendering of it and her clever transmogrifications. I love wordplay and I love people who are clever with language; and if that’s your kind of thing too, Perec could well be for you!

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

*****

Coda: after scheduling this review and taking “Wishes” off to join the rest of the books on my Perec shelf, I discovered that I *had* come across Wakefield Press before – as they also publish “An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris”, which I reviewed just over a year ago! So kudos to them for flying the Perec flag! 🙂

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

Cataloguing as Art

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An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec
Translated, with an afterword, by Marc Lowenthal

Well, as I said recently, there are plenty of smaller Perec texts that I’ve still to read, and this is one of them! I picked it up on a whim recently – I’d been intending to buy a copy for ages – and it was ideal to polyread along with “War and Peace”.

“An attempt…” is a short work published in 1975, and it has an interesting history. In October 1974, Perec sat in the Place Saint-Sulpice over three days, and simply observed, writing down what he saw. So buses would pass by regularly, people would come and go, the weather would change, a friend would wave through the cafe window, a flock of pigeons would take flight. All of these small happenings were recorded, in his attempt to pin down and fix the existence of one place at one time.

Well, that sounds like it could be dull, but it really, really isn’t. I’ve commented before about Perec’s use of an almost catalogue-like style of writing, which perhaps drew on his early day job as an archivist. And here, the simple repetition of certain phrases, the seemingly straightforward recording of ordinary, everyday actions builds up a surprisingly compelling picture of the ebb and flow of human life.

But the book is not simply a catalogue, as Perec can’t help but let his personal reactions sneak in: for example, early in the book he notes the regular appearance of a specific of car and later comments:

Weary vision: obsessive fear of apple-green 2CVs

By focusing so closely on the ordinary it becomes extraordinary – what Perec called the infraordinary – and it makes you realise that how we see the world is specific to us. Perec realises that one person cannot see everything and so his recording of the scene is very different from how someone else would respond to a similar exercise. And although things happen again and again, these repetitions are not the same; for example, each 96 bus is a 96 bus, but it’s a different vehicle with different people inside it.

Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Café de la Mairie – 18 October 1974 – photo c. Pierre Getzler

As you read on through the book, the text becomes oddly thoughtful and philosophical, often approaching the beauty of haiku or found poetry:

Colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit

Yellow patches. Reddish glare

The repetition of certain elements, the short, clipped segments and the description of where he is and what he sees, all tends to build up a hypnotic kind of narrative which is absorbing and engrossing.

The afterword by translator Lowenthal is intriguing, discussing the book and drawing parallels with Perec’s fellow OuLiPan Queneau; and also commenting on Perec’s fascination with the ordinary. In fact, Perec wrote a work simply called “L’infraordinaire”, part of which is extracted in “Species of Space”, and he says in it at one point:

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another. Compare.

Certainly he makes a case for paying more attention to the everyday, perhaps in an endeavour to realise the sheer wonder of the fact that we are alive in the world. “An attempt…” is another fascinating and thought-provoking book from Perec, and I can see that I’m going to have to read everything I can get hold of by him that’s been rendered in English…

A Trio of Treats

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Three by Georges Perec
Translated by Ian Monk and E.N. Menk…. :)))

I guess that by now I’ve read all of those books which are regarded as Perec’s major works; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still treasures available by him for me to discover. One such is “Three”, an old volume which collects together – yes, you’ve guessed it! – three short pieces by Perec. I dipped into these as a distraction from “War and Peace”, because I’m trying to pace myself with that; and I found some fascinating reading, and also something unexpectedly graphic!! The stories are rather cleverly translated by Ian Monk and each has an informative preface by Perec’s biographer, David Bellos.

The first short piece is “Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?“, an early work which reminded me of Raymond Queneau, a fellow OuLiPo member. It tells, in a digressive and funny fashion, the story of the attempts of a young soldier, Karathingy (the spelling of his name changes regularly), to avoid being sent away to the Algerian war, with the help of his good friend Sgt. Henri Pollak. The latter is the owner of the moped of the title, which he uses to buzz about between the barracks and Montparnasse, location of his love nest and his group of friends (including the narrator). The whole group becomes involved in the plot to save Karathingy from war, which hilarious and bizarre results; but what stands out is the use of linguistic devices in the book. Helpfully, Perec gives an index of these at the back, and there were more I’d never heard of than I had. Nevertheless, it’s a funny and pithy read, and according to Perec’s biographer David Bellos, draws on events in the author’s life.

Remember all those letter ‘e’s that went missing in “A Void”? I did say what happened to them was another story, and it’s featured in this collection under the title “The Exeter Text”; a rather vulgar work that by necessity only features that one vowel. The plot, such as it is, concerns an attempt to steal jewels from an Archbishop in Exeter which doesn’t go quite to plan and ends up involving a rather lively orgy… The constraint of using only one vowel is obviously much more difficult to handle and the spelling and grammar get more and more extreme as the story goes on, so that it’s sometimes hard to read or to follow what’s happening – which is possibly a good thing, as the story is VERY graphic and not for the faint-hearted. In fact, some of the strange spellings worked better when read aloud phonetically than when viewed on the page, which was perhaps the point. I could appreciate what Perec was doing here – and apparently the jewel-theft element draws from his life too – but it’s probably the work of his that I’ve enjoyed the least.

The third piece, however, was just brilliant and classic Perec. “A Gallery Portrait” was the last work Perec completed before his early death in 1982 at just 46, and not only does it draw on his magnum opus “Life: A User’s Manual”, it also has connections with his first book, which was only recently translated under the title of “Portrait of a Man”.

“Gallery” begins with the story of a painting called, oddly enough, “A Gallery Painting”. This work is owned by a beer baron, Hermann Raffke, patron of the artist Heinrich Kurz, and it depicts Raffke’s collection of works and the man himself. However, within the painting is a representation of the painting itself, which also has a representation of the payment and then again and again – recursion them, but recursion with a difference. The painting attracts a horde of obsessives who study it from every angle, close up with magnifying glasses and attempting to work out which paintings are represented. However, it seems that there are variances between the original paintings and the version on the “Gallery” canvas… As the story continues, Perec not only spins a marvellous tale for each work of art mentioned, but takes the reader through the twists and turns of Raffke’s life to its rather dark end in a way that left me as a reader quite breathless.

“A Gallery Portrait” is a dazzling feat of storytelling which showcases all Perec’s talents fully. The stories behind paintings, the pitfalls of authenticating a work, the whole concept of fidelity in art, are all elements of the plot; and the subject of forgery, the main strand in “Portrait of a Man”, comes to fore in surprising ways. “Gallery” shows Perec at his strongest, and it’s just a tragedy that he died so young – who know what books he would have gone on to write.

So, overall an excellent collection, with two out of the three being marvellous and enjoyable, and one being – interesting! Fortunately, Perec was mightily prolific during his 46 years and there are a number of other little books available in English which I haven’t read – and I can see myself picking them up soon…. 🙂

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