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The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane

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When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

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Penguin Moderns 21 and 22 – Russians in exile and snippets of brilliance from a favourite author

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I’m in the odd situation, with the next two Penguin Moderns in my sequential read of the box set, of coming across two books containing works I’ve already previously read. The Russian PM I bought separately in advance of the box coming my way, as I love Gazdanov’s work so much, and it also served as a taster for a collection of his short stories; and the Calvino stories are drawn from one of my favourite collections of his work, “The Complete Cosmicomics”. Both have been reviewed here on the Ramblings, but as these are two favourite authors I was more than happy to revisit them!

Penguin Modern 21 – Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and others (Translated by Bryan Karetnyk)

As I’ve probably mentioned before, Gazdanov is a recent discovery by me, thanks to the wonderful translations by Bryan Karetnyk which have been issued by the lovely Pushkin Press. I’ve read each one they’ve put out, and his writing is just marvellous. The four stories here, by Gazdanov, Nina Berberova, Yuri Felsen and Galina Kuznetsova, are all translated by Karetnyk and three of them featured in his wonderful anthology “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

I reviewed that book here, and discussed PM21 here; and of the latter I said “if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split.”

Gaito Gazdanov – picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

And of the full collection I said, “This important, landmark collection brings them back to life and into the public eye; and whether you have an interest in Russian 20th century writers, or just like wonderful stories, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.”

Revisiting the stories hasn’t changed my mind about the quality of the writing here; and as well as picking up PM21 for the marvellous uncollected story, I also of course still highly recommend the émigré collection!

Penguin Modern 22 – The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino (Translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William Weaver)

Ah, Calvino! I have had a major obsession with his work for a good chunk of my life which has never really gone away, ever since I was pointed in the direction of “If on a winter’s night a traveler…” back in the early 1980s. It would be one of my desert island books, as would be his “Complete Cosmicomics”. Both of these are books I’ve revisited on the blog, “Traveler…” here and “Cosmicomics…” here. The PM draws four stories from the collection: the title story (which is one of my favourites), Without Colours, As Long as the Sun Lasts and Implosion.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Each is playful, profound and utterly memorable, as I’d expect from Calvino and when I was writing about “Cosmicomics” I opined “some of his inventiveness leaves you breathless” and went on to say, “His work was highly individual and singularly brilliant, and I think I appreciate a lot more on re-reading. It is fascinating to wonder what Calvino’s Cosmicomics would have made of modern society and I can only mourn his early loss and wish we still have Qwfwq [his narrator in the stories] to spin us tales of wonder and imagination about the scientific world around us. I can’t rate Calvino and his work highly enough – a five-star book and a five-star author!”

Again, that’s another statement I’d stand by; everything I’ve read by Calvino has been just amazing and he’s been one of those landmark authors in my life. Hopefully this Penguin Modern might sneak his work into a few more readers’  hearts… 😀

*****

So as well as encountering new authors, reading the Penguin Moderns is allowing me revisit some favourites. I’m blessed with this box set, really, and I can’t wait to see what comes next! 😀

“…in the end in life life is endured..” *

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Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese
Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Last month you might have noticed a flurry of links on Twitter to ‘Books of the Year’ posts. However, as Simon at Stuck in a Book very sensibly pointed out, this was a wee bit premature, given that there was still one twelfth of the year left in which to read books – and he was right. Let’s face it, who knows what real joys and treasures might come up in December. Certainly, I’ve read one of the most extraordinary books of the year this month, and I’m still trying to get my head round it a little bit…

I should ‘fess up straight away that I’d never heard of either book or author before; but I saw an image of it, I think on Twitter?, and noticed that it was emblazoned with a quote from Italo Calvino. That’s enough to get my attention straight away – I have a reasonable number of books on my shelves because they’re lauded by him, or with forewords etc, and I trace my love of Primo Levi and his works back to the fact that I bought “The Periodic Table” when it first came out because of, indeed, a Calvino quote on the cover…

With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.

Any road up, as they say, “Malacqua” has been brought out by the independent publisher And Other Stories. Looking through their back catalogue, I do feel rather ashamed that this is the first of their publications I’ve read, and they’re obviously an imprint worth exploring. The publisher was kind enough to provide a review copy, and once picked up, this was a book I couldn’t put down.

So what exactly is the book *about*? “Malacqua” has an ostensibly simple plot: the city of Naples is afflicted with four days of unceasing, almost biblical rain. Strange occurrences follow: an eerie wailing is heard coming from empty buildings; certain coins begin to play music to the children of the city; buildings and roads collapse, killing citizens; the emergency services and those in charge are puzzled; and, mostly importantly perhaps, we see the effect the rains have on the lives and loves of the people of Naples.

“and Christ!, was this city built on a void?, …”

Weaving through the story is the melancholy journalist Carlo Andreoli, watching the rain come down and trying to fathom its meaning. He is there at the start of the story, reporting on the rain and wondering, like all Neapolitans, when it will stop and why, actually, is it falling? As the rains continue to fall, we dip in and out of the lives of the people of the city, and the constant downpour, although it has a physical effect on many (destroying their homes or indeed their person), has more effect on them mentally or psychologically. The state of suspense and the interruption to the normal daily routine brought about by the deluge allows the city dwellers to take stock, to consider their lives and dwell upon what might actually be the point of it all. In ordinary everyday existence these things never come to the surface, but the strangeness of the rain allows normal functions to be suspended and life to be pondered upon.

Those poor innocent creatures? Yes, of course, they will say that, along with other things, and other facts. But let us also say one more thing, that life is in the end reabsorbed in tranquillity, collective facts are pondered long enough to be diluted a little and confused, and in the end, off you go!, in the end why do you want us to care about this whole mess and this rain falling as if it had never fallen before, my friends, let us regather, let us regather everything.

I can’t go any further without talking about the book’s actual prose, as the writing is quite extraordinary and took my breath away. The language is a liquid, fluid construct, very stream of consciousness, that washes over you, rather like the rains and floods themselves, and the effect is hypnotic. The punctuation is eccentric, the prose lyrical and involving and this, together with the events related, produces an intense and very atmospheric read. The whole effect is to create a sense of waiting, of time in abeyance, of anticipation and when added to Andreoli’s melancholy feeling of impending doom, the strange episodes of wailing dolls and singing coins, there is a real sense that normality has been suspended and Naples has moved outside of the normal time-frame of the world.

I ended this deeply thought-provoking book pondering on its meanings and what the author was saying to me. Obviously, there’s an element of allegory in there, but Pugliese offers no easy solutions, no pat answers, and that’s very stimulating for me as a reader. Calvino comments “This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message”, and I agree that it is, though what it says is not necessarily straightforward. However, I think “Malacqua” considers the notion of what it is to be human, who we are and how we live our lives, how we react to strange and unusual happenings and the basic resilience of the human spirit – which is quite an achievement for a slim novel…

He gets up for the sake of it, but also sees that water, coming down and coming down interminably, and the daylight that hasn’t come. He wonders at that point, he really wonders: how will it end? Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence, that sad thought of the life that was once their life and has now fled; and when this happens he gets up, always, and says I’m going to the garden because I’ve got things to do.

Author Pugliese

I need to say a word about the masterly translation by Shaun Whiteside, which deservedly received a PEN Award. Obviously, I can only judge the English rendering but it reads magnificently, lyrically, poetically and almost musically in places. If the Italian original is as complex as this, he must have done a hell of a good job to render it in another language… Apparently, the book was originally published in 1977 (damn! if only it had been issued in 6 months time….) but the author never allowed it to be reprinted; I wonder whether there is underlying comment on the state of Naples that I might not have picked up upon?

Will “Malacqua” be in my top books of the year? Most definitely! It’ll be very near the top I think, because it’s rare for me to be so blown away by a book nowadays. The combination of the beautiful and hypnotic language, the intriguing storyline and the thought-provoking concept makes this a stunning book that’s going to bother me mentally for a long time, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review copy kindly provided by And Other Stories, for which many thanks!

*any weirdness you might perceive in any of the quotations is *not* me mistyping them but is in the original text…..

Exploring my Library: Italo Calvino

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Whilst rummaging around on the shelves a few days back to dig out my Fitzgeralds, I had to move my collection of Italo Calvino books to get to them; and I realised just how many books I had by one of my favourite authors! So I thought I would share a couple of photos here (and I really do need to get myself a decent camera or some lighting – sorry if the images are a little dark!)

calvino-spines

This is the Calvino collection! As you can see, I have just about everything available in English, plus a few volumes where he’s done the introduction or where it’s an author recommended by him!

cosmicomics

“The Complete Cosmicomics” is one of my favourite Calvino works – clever and thought-provoking tales, which Lem’s works remind me of in a way, I read and reviewed the complete works in 2012 and loved them all over again.

invisible-cities

“Invisible Cities” is one of Calvino’s most highly regarded works. Supposedly an account of the fantastic places visited by Marco Polo on his travels, it’s in fact a highly structured piece of work with impressionistic descriptions of the places in a particular OuLiPian pattern  – which of course I didn’t recognise and wouldn’t have worked out unless I’d read it online…. Doesn’t make it any the less readable though! 🙂

traveller

And this is the first Calvino I read, and probably my favourite (with “Cosmicomics” a close second). The copy of “If on a winter’s night a traveller” on the left is my original one; the middle a volume I picked up for a re-read because I didn’t want to mess up my original; and the one on the right a pretty volume that I had to have just because… It’s a stunning book which I love – one of my desert island books – and I can’t recommend it or Calvino’s books enough!

Word Games from a Master of the Genre

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Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been circling Raymond Queneau’s books for a while – in fact, I own several, and given my love of Calvino and Perec and literary wordplay it’s not surprising I should want to read him. And at last I have, though not any of the volumes I already had… In my defence, I was placing a Christmas order somewhere unmentionable which I had to get over £10 – so it figures I should treat myself to something and it turned out to be “Exercises in Style”.

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Apart from “Zazie in the Metro”, this is probably the book that Queneau is best known for. Born in 1903, he’s possibly something of a missing link between the Surrealists and OuLiPo, as he briefly flirted with the former organisation before going his own way – never really agreeing with their politics or their views on art. In simple terms, they favoured an *anything goes* approach, whereas Queneau believed that structure and restrictions brought liberation as you were free to create within that structure.

“Exercises in Style” is quite fascinating. It takes a simple premise – a short paragraph relating a man on a packed bus accusing another passenger of jostling him, throwing himself down in an empty seat and then later on having a conversation with a friend about moving a button on his coat. Queneau then proceeds to retell the story in 98 different styles – the same actions, but each story is completely different because of the stylistic devices, ranging from Retrograde (understandable) through Reported Speech (very clever!) to Aphaeresis (unintelligible!).

As the exercises continue, there are subtle developments; the jostling becomes stepping on toes; extra characters(like a Dr. Queuneau  in Reported Speech) and an unnamed observer, put in appearances. This is storytelling as an organic form and each different retelling makes you look at the incident in a different light.

Raymond_Queneau

If you described this book to someone, it might well sound dull, but it certainly isn’t. It’s a revelation as a reader to see how much we’re manipulated by the style and the word games adopted by an author. A simple incident has a totally different complexion depending on the way the author writes it. The book is a game, playing with words, but with a serious intent: telling us not to trust words, to be aware of this and look behind the words in each case to try to find the truth.

The book is issued by one of my favourite publishes, Alma, and so of course there is plenty of extra material. The foreword is by Umberto Eco, and there is an excellent little essay by another OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, which throws light on Queneau’s career and work. Special praise needs to be given to translator Barbara Wright, too. When translating a book like this, so dependent on wordplay, the work becomes very much case of interpretation as well as translation. In some cases Wright created an English language version of the particular exercise, which was approved by Queneau – a wonderful case of writer and translator working together, and she deserves kudos for what she did with this!

“Exercises in Style” made me smile, laugh and think, which is a pretty good result really! And I shall definitely be exploring more of Queneau’s work. 🙂

Oulipo and Word Games – reading Species of Space and Other Pieces by Georges Perec

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There’s something about having a literary crush (and goodness knows I’ve had enough in my time!) that makes it hard for me to write rationally about an author or explain why I think they’re so wonderful – and I’m at that point with Georges Perec’s works at the moment! Instead of being able to discuss things in a sane manner I shall go all fangirl and rant on about how utterly brilliant his books are and how everyone should read them – which is really not constructive, is it??

However, I shall do my best….
species

In retrospect I’m surprised I came across Perec so late, as he seems so closely linked with Calvino (one of my biggest author loves). Nevertheless, I adored “Life: A User’s Manual” and I’ve since read “W” which was also pretty impressive. “Species of Space” is a collection of mainly non-fiction works (the title piece plus excerpts from others) and in many ways these defy classification. Perec turns his eye to all manner of subjects, from space itself to a collection of holiday postcard texts to a list of what he had eaten throughout a whole year, lists of objects on his work desk and thoughts about how to classify books in your library.

This is such a fascinating book, with so many quirky unusual pieces, all in Perec’s trademark tone. Several pieces prefigure other works such as “Life” and “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”, and they all have the effect of making the reader look at things with fresh eyes as if from the outside or for the first time. We’ve all had that experience where if you look at a word for long enough it becomes strange and loses its meaning; in the same way, Perec is urging us to look at things until they are no longer familiar, until we lost a little of our grip on reality and the world becomes odd.

As with “W” Perec’s work seems very much informed by his past and it definitely helps to know some of the facts of his life, ably provided in the introduction by his biographer (and translator of this selection) David Bellos. Perec has a way of circling round the facts and approaching them obliquely, which may be his way of trying to deal with things when it is too painful to do so head on.

perec
This is fiction and reminiscence as classification;  Perec’s day job for a large part of his life working as an archivist in a science laboratory and its often reflected in the structure of his work and the way in which he presents his writing. It could of course be argued that this is his way of trying to exert control over a life which was blighted by trauma and loss, a way of trying to classify his life so it makes sense. And there is the sense that from the very act of classification comes clarity, as if it teaches us to *really* look at things, really see them.

I was thinking how much his narrative voice reminded me of my beloved Calvino, when lo and behold Perec dropped a quote in from Italo’s “Cosmicomics” – synchronicity or what! In fact, the presence of Calvino permeates the book; apart from two parts that refer to or quote his works, “Two Hundred and Forty Three Postcards in Real Colour” is dedicated to him, and there is a quote from him on the back of the book.

There is much that is moving here, in particular the section “The Rue Vilin” where Perec makes several visits back to the street where he spent the first five years of his life. Each time, more has changed and more decay is evident – it’s as if he’s trying to gain a sense of place, to grasp hold of the memories before the tangible evidence is gone. This work sent me off to the Internet, looking up the street, and I found several astonishing things: firstly, the steps at the end of street are really iconic and have featured in a number of French films (see here). Secondly, the place no longer exists (which was quite shocking) and is now a modern park….. But thirdly, there is film of Perec visiting the Rue Vilin and then being interviewed here – I only wish my French was better….

The Rue Vilin Steps

The Rue Vilin Steps

“My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory. I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognising them.”

I’ve always liked ‘clever’ writers – ones who play with words, twist the genre, taking writing somewhere unexpected. And I love Perec’s playfulness and his profundity; and the fact that reading his work makes you look at the world completely differently. He’s definitely going to be one of my favourite writers for a long time to come.

Primo Levi : 31 July 1919 – 11 April 1987

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levi62095

“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

****

I first read Primo Levi’s work when I spotted a copy of “The Periodic Table” in a local bookshop in the mid 1980s – the cover was emblazoned with a recommendation from Italo Calvino, which was enough to make me pick it up instantly. The bulk of the body of his work concerns the Holocaust and its survivors, a constant reminder of the horrors of the past which we must never forget lest they be repeated.

Levi was a troubled man and died in 1987 after a fall from the landing of his third floor apartment. The death was ruled as suicide, but as fellow survivor Elie Wiesel put it, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier”.

For much of his life post-War Levi seemed plagued by the guilt of a survivor, stating “We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”

Levi was never wordless, and his books remain as a testament. Happy birthday Primo Levi.

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