April plans, high excitement at the Ramblings, new arrivals – and 1977! #iconoclasm


Reading plans? Ha! Not a thing I’ve been doing over the recent year or so, which has worked well for my reading psyche; but I think I might have to be a tiny bit more organised during April, particularly as this is imminent:

Yes, it’s only a couple of weeks until Simon and I co-host the 1977 Club; and as I’m still afloat (just!) in a sea of review books, I obviously need to get focused so that I can have some 1977 reading in place too. Mind you, complications have set in because of the unexpected arrival of some lovely volumes at the Ramblings – I think the place is definitely turning into some kind of book magnet…

First up, OH surprised me with an unexpected Easter present, which was very lovely of him and it’s a lovely thing:

It’s a very gorgeous, illustrated edition of “Ulysses”, as you can see – the ‘Dublin Illustrated Edition’, no less and the pen and ink drawings inside are very striking indeed; here’s one:

“Ulysses” is on my reading bucket list, and I think OH was prompted by my watching of a documentary on Joyce recently (yes, documentaries again!). This particular edition is a lovely hardback with a decent sized type and so I think this will be readable and handleable. So maybe 2018 will finally be the year of “Ulysses”…

Next up, yesterday also saw the belated arrival of my Mothers’ Day gift from the three Offspring. They asked what I wanted and instead of listing lots of little bits and bobs, I said can I have this please?

Lo and behold! Here it is – the Penguin Moderns boxed set! Such joy! 50 little volumes of wonderfulness in a gorgeous box – I am *so* lucky (and I do have very well-trained children…)

The trouble is, I feel a Project Lurking – that of reading them from 1 to 50 and posting on each volume. Knowing my record with reading projects (Penguin Modern Poets, anyone? yes, I know I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit there) I suspect I would get distracted half way through. But it’s sooooooo tempting…

But yesterday also brought the Most Exciting Arrival in the form of this – “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris” by Prof Richard Clay:

Those of you who are concentrating (pay attention at the back there, please!) may recall me rabbitting on about this book after Christmas, as it’s been impossible to get hold of a copy and I had to resort to getting one of my Offspring to borrow a copy from the university in which they work. I’ve still been fairly desperate to own a copy (as a rapid read over Christmas was *really* not doing it justice), and so I went into overdrive when one of the many alerts I’d set up with online booksellers pinged into my inbox saying it was available at a More Reasonable Price than hitherto – followed by more and more alerts! A quick search revealed that the book appears to have been reprinted because there are lots more out there – and as the last copy I saw online was almost £1,500 (and a used annotated one at that), the price I had to pay for this was payable. And it arrived yesterday and I was unreasonably excited all day. Here it is, on some piles with which it might possibly have connections:

And here it is again, standing smartly on the shelf where it will eventually sit for good, with some related publications of interest:

I have had to make a new space on what you might call the Pending Shelves for some of the incomings and here are the newbies all together:

And do you know what? I’m actually going to take a little bit of credit for the republication of this, because I *did* actually send several nagging emails to the publishers pointing out that it’d be sensible to do a reprint, bearing in mind the vast amounts being charged online for old tatty copies. Looks like they listened! I said in my previous post “I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…” – I guess everything comes to she who waits! 🙂

However, I’m afraid those aren’t the only books which have arrived recently at the Ramblings. I might have got carried away with some online offers:

I’ve been really enjoying the “Civilisations” series on BBC2 recently, so when I saw Mary Beard’s tie in book on offer I snapped it up – and I added “Utopia” on to get free shipping. I had a copy of “Utopia” once back in the day, but I either haven’t got it still or just can’t find it – either scenario is plausible given my record of mislaying books. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” and I’m equally intrigued by the idea of “The 7th Function of Language”. I’ve resisted up until now but too many recent reviews made me give in. And the John Muir book has been on my wishlist for *ages* and it was payday and I thought “WTF life is too short” and clicked. “Utopia” is potentially causing me brain strain, as I have a sort of “Utopian Reading List” put together by “The Happy Reader” and the thought of a Utopian reading project is doing my head in. Book addict? Moi? Ahem…

Fortunately I’ve been able to exercise more restraint in the charity shops and only these have come home with me recently (as well as the GAD collection I posted about recently):

The Camus, of course, had to come home – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. And the Penguin Story is just lovely, an old history of one of my favourite publishers with gorgeous old-fashioned illustrations. The Marina Warner was essential too (did you notice another one of hers lurking in an earlier picture in this post?) I read a lot of Warner back in my 20s and I’m keen to read more.

Ok. Phew. I think that’s it. I’ve just finished reading a review book which I’ll cover in the next few days and which was just marvellous; plus I have some Shiny New Books reviews coming up too, which I will link to. What I actually pick up to read next is another matter. OH suggested I should perhaps pace myself with “Ulysses”, just reading a section each day alongside something else, and I may well try that. Who knows – watch this space… 🙂

Meanwhile, Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate – make use of the lovely break from work, if you have one, by doing plenty of reading! 🙂

The Banality of Evil…


HHhH by Laurent Binet

I’m not sure quite why I I’m dipping so much into literature dealing with the Second World War at the moment – just the way my mood is swinging, I suppose. But I read “Look Who’s Back” recently (a satire about the return of Hitler – review will follow in November) and wasn’t sure where to go next, when I remembered that I’d got hold of a copy of “HHhH” not that long ago, and it seemed the best book to go onto. As I’m currently reading Philippe Claudel’s “Brodek’s Report” I guess I’m in some kind of groove right now…


“HHhH” was first published in 2009 to much acclaim, and it concerns Operation Anthropoid, a plot to assassinate the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, who was at the time overseeing the Final Solution in Prague. The book is described as a novel, and sets out to tell the story of the two assassins sent to carry out the attack, a Czech called Jan Kubis and a Slovak called Jozef Gabcik. However, the book is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, as there is an extra layer, that of a novelist who is wrestling to write a historical novel but having trouble with the whole concept of such a thing.

The narrator is constantly questioning the process he’s undertaking, pulling himself back from inventing dialogue or events of which he cannot know the truth. Alongside this, he tries to tell the story as best he can, giving only what he knows or believes is fact. It’s an unusual concept and in fact leaves the reader wondering whether the “I” of the story is Binet, or another novelist onto whom Binet is projecting his anxieties! It’s clear that this particular historical story has really got under his skin

But surprisingly enough the concept works well, probably because Binet is such a good writer. He has a great love of Prague and a wonderful ability to conjure it up in prose; and he brings alive the characters involved brilliantly. In fact, much of the early part of the book is concerned with the victim and the background of events leading up to the assassination, obviously so that the reader understands the issues and why Heydrich was a target. Binet is almost journalistic in his approach, wanting fact not fancy, and bringing the story to life with a clear eye and a strong historical perspective. The book is quite experimental and is as much about the process of telling a story as of the story itself. The point seems to be that if all writing is fiction (and it is, in a sense) then the “I” of Binet’s narration is fictional too. And as the book progresses, Binet becomes so close to his work that he feels as it he is in it too, further blurring the boundaries.

“Kubis is dead. I wish I didn’t have to write that. I would have liked to get to know him better. If only I could have saved him. According to witnesses, there was a boarded-up door at the end of the gallery that led to the neighbouring buildings, and which might have allowed the three men to escape. If only they’d gone through that door! History is the only true casualty; you can re-read it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it.”

In the end, Binet deconstructs the whole process of writing historically-based fiction by telling the tale and recording his responses to it; from his visit to the church where the assassins made their last stand, to the publication of a possible rival book, via his discovery of new facts and other novels on the subject while he is working on HhHH. By interpolating himself and his feeling into the story of Operation Anthropoid, Binet creates a powerful and effective book, particularly as the subject matter is so striking and often stark. There is no glossing over of hard facts and Nazi cruelty is shown clearly in all its brutality.


Yet despite his wish to tell a simple tale, Binet cannot help but wax lyrical at times and his writing is very evocative. The story of the two assassins is one of courage, with two men determined to try to make a difference in a world that appears to have gone mad and Binet is a worthy scribe to pass on word of their deeds to another generation.

The concept of the banality of evil is something I’ve only come across recently, and I’ve begun to dip into Hannah Arendt’s work to see if I can make some sense of not only 20th century events, but also man’s inhumanity to man, which continues into the 21st. And I think I’ve started to see what she means. It’s not just *one* person who’s evil, the foaming-at-the-mouth Hitler stereotype – the evil leader has plenty of people with him who think the same (or even worse) than he does, and are just as prepared to perpetrate vile deeds. Evil is not the prerogative of a few madmen – it’s an everyday thing that many are capable of and against which we must all stand.

Heydrich was one of Hitler’s staunchest henchmen (why were there so many Hs in the Third Reich??) and was no loss to humanity. The reprisals after his death were hideous and we must never forget those who suffered. I’d highly recommend Binet’s book (I hesitate to call it a novel, really) not only for anyone interested in Operation Anthropoid, but also for those interested in the way novels are written and the conflict between truth and invention, particularly in a world where the lines are often blurred. A wonderful and stunning read!

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