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On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

Stepping into Spring – dare we consider reading plans…? :D

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You might have noticed that not only am I bit rubbish at doing monthly round ups, I’m also notoriously bad for not following reading plans (when I’m silly enough to make them). However, I realised over the weekend that I’ve actually read very little during March – so little it was actually shocking. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s my busiest time of year at work (with financial year ends and budgeting and the like) and admittedly I’ve been fairly worn out at the end of the day and haven’t had the energy to do much at all; even the Dostoevsky marathon has slowed down a little…

But with spring approaching, as well as the Easter hols, I’m hoping for a bit of a resurgence of reading energy; and on that basis, here *are* some very loose plans of what I hope will happen on the Ramblings in the next month!

Finishing Dostoevsky

The Russian Chunkster…

First up, I *will* finish “The Devils” – of that I am sure! It’s a wonderfully involving, very dark and very funny and yes, very Dostoevskian read and I’m loving his characters and situations. It’s a long book that needs stamina and I think I’m about to get my second wind! 😀

More Thoughts on Venice

When I haven’t had the gumption to pick up the Russian Chunkster, I’ve been enjoying some slimline books about the City of Bridges (or Masks or Water or Canals, depending who you consult) – Venice! It’s a place that seems to polarise opinions, and it’s been fascinating and bracing to read what people think of it. There’s one more book to be covered and that will hopefully be soon.

The 1965 Club

Most important of all (hah!) in April is of course the next of our reading week Clubs. Simon at Stuck in a Book and I are looking forward to co-hosting this and the year in question will be 1965 (so hopefully you’ve all been planning and reading up in advance). The Club will take place from 22nd to 28th April, and I’ll have a page where you can post links as well as coverage of what I’ve read, what I recommend and what I loved in the past from that year. The Clubs are always great fun so I do hope you’ll all join in with the #1965Club – we’d love to have you take part!

*****

So that’s what I potentially have lined up for April. I’m particularly excited to see what people discover for the #1965Club, and am looking forward to some interesting reads myself – watch this space! 😀

Masks and illusions – differing views on Venice: Part The First…

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Watermark: An Essay on Venice by Joseph Brodsky

Venice is a city which inspires extreme reactions; Georg Simmel, in his book I reviewed here, claimed that “Venice possess the ambiguous beauty of adventure, floating rootlessly through life, like a torn flower borne on the sea.” Russian poet Joseph Brodsky is equally entranced, as I’ll discuss in this post. However, I’m following that read with a counter-voice which comes from French intellectual and activist Regis Debray – more of that in a future post. Certainly, it’s a city that’s unique…

Very pretty and festooned with post-its….

Brodsky’s book was first published in 1992, and the lovely Penguin Modern Classic edition caught my eye during my recent Waterstones Wobble. I already own a collection of Brodsky’s essays, also in the Penguin, but a quick flick convinced me this would be interesting. Brodsky himself was a fascinating character; born in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known at the time) in 1940, he and his family survived the siege, although it had a lasting effect on his health. Because of their Jewish background, the Brodskys were often on the receiving end pf anti-Semitism, causing Joseph to feel like a dissident from an early age. He began writing poetry from an early age and eventually was mentored by no less than Akhmatova. However, he fell foul of the Soviet authorities, eventually being expelled in 1972 and after a little wandering, ended up in the United States where he lived and taught until his death in 1996. That sense of dislocation, of being peripatetic, certainly comes through in this essay, which I found quite mesmerising. And what’s not to love about a book that opens with these words:

Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two. The globe, too, was lighter by two billion souls, and the bar at the Stazione where I’d arrived on that cold December night was empty. I was standing there waiting for the only person I knew in that city to meet me. She was quite late.

“Watermark” is subtitled an essay, but that’s perhaps a little misleading as it certainly isn’t structured in a traditional way. Instead, Brodsky ranges very far and wide, taking in his memories, his experiences of Venice, his reactions to its climate, its architecture, its very soul. The result is a wonderfully impressionistic sketch of a city which in many ways defies definition. He discusses books set in Venice that were pivotal in his reading life; and objects from his past which drew him to the place. An encounter with Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, is entertaining and yet disturbing. One piece which resonated was his description of the flooding of Venice, an event that takes place on a regular basis; I recall my last boss telling me of her visit to Venice when the city was overtaken by water, and her experience of walking around in waders and the stench…

But crucially there are musings on beauty, where it exists and how our eye finds it. That element of vision, and the visual, is crucial to Brodsky’s reading of Venice; it’s a place of reflections, both from multiple mirrors and the water itself, and the book is bursting with aquatic and seafaring language and imagery. Of course, Brodsky’s language is beautiful (as befits a poet) if sometimes a little oblique, and full of allusion – I’m guessing that some of its unique quality perhaps comes from the fact it’s written in English which was not Brodsky’s first tongue, and certainly there’s almost an air of Nabokov in there at times. As you can see from the sheaf of post-its in the picture above, I could have pulled out all manner of quotes but in the end I think you need to read the whole work in one go.

In “Watermark” Venice comes across as very much a mixture of decay and artifice, a city which attracts some and repels others. It’s a place with canals instead of roads, all glitter and surface, full of facades and although the falsity can be off-putting for some, Brodsky is seduced. Venice cast its spell so strongly over him that he returned annually over a period of 17 years; I wondered if perhaps something about the city was more appealing to an exile, a city suited to someone transient, an observer. Additionally, the constant recurrence of the aquatic motifs left me thinking that Brodsky might have been drawn to the place because of its similarity to Petersburg, another city constructed on land reclaimed from the sea.

In the end, Brodsky’s take on Venice is a very individual one, more of a prose poem than an essay, an extended meditation that is as much about his life, his loves and his thoughts as it is about Venice. It’s a fascinating and absorbing piece which creates a haunting effect which lingers in the mind; and it does seem that Venice left a watermark on Joseph Brodsky’s soul.

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