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“Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you…”

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One of Cleopatra’s Nights by Theophile Gautier

I’ve written regularly on the Ramblings about the books produced by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher based down under in Australia. Mike’s books are lovely reprints of interesting lost works, ranging from Australian classics through essays and works of European literature. His newest imprint is one he’s titled Zephyr Books, with the aim to focus on classic novellas, and the first in the series is a gorgeous little story about a night in the life of the most beautiful yet deadly women in history…

French-born Gautier (1811-1872) was a novelist, poet, playwright and journalist, as well as penning art and literary criticism. His work is often bracketed with Romanticism, and was highly thought of by authors as wide-ranging as Pound, Proust, Eliot and Wilde. “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” was published as the title work in a collection of 1882 and at 77 pages probably straddles the line between short story and novella.

Those 77 pages, however, are utterly captivating. The story is, as you might suspect, about one night in the life of the famous Egyptian queen, and as it opens the regal one is suffering from ennui. Bored with the bleak arid landscape of her country, bored with her current lovers, she throws a somewhat petulant hissy fit, wishing for some kind of grand adventure. Little does Cleopatra know that she has an admirer: a lowly young man called Meiamoun, handsome yet poor and obscure, worships her from afar. He follows her around when he can, worshipping from a distance, and dreams only for his queen to know he exists. And on this magical night their trajectories will collide, although what will result remains to be seen.

The story is a simple one, but affectingly told, and much of the appeal comes from Gautier’s wonderfully lush prose. His writing is just gorgeous, vividly conjuring images of the Egyptian night and the hot bare landscape of that country. The story drips atmosphere, and although the style might seem a little overwrought, it actually works beautifully for this book. You can feel the stifling heat of the sandy country; sense the dark night where the temperature barely drops and there is no relief; and visualise the harsh landscape. It is this latter element that was one of the most fascinating to me as I read; I’d never really considered what it would be like to live somewhere with just sand and stone as far as you can see. I guess that living in a country that’s blessed with plenty of rain and greenery, you kind of take that sort of thing for granted…

The wonderfully flamboyant-looking author…

Reading a story of a slave meets a queen, especially when it’s a monarch as cruel and capricious as Cleo, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting a happy ending. But the work has a kind of beauty in it, pointing out that perhaps a perfect night with the woman you love can be the only point of your life. Certainly this lovely little hardback edition is a thing of beauty in its own right, and an excellent introduction into the work of a intriguing-sounding author. Another winning volume from Mike Walmer!

(Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

Entertaining essays and more from an independent publisher

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Picking up the theme from my post about the Bulgakov Collection, another independent publisher I follow with interest is Michael Walmer. Based in Australia, Mike has a history in publishing (having worked for the legendary Marion Boyars) and he specialises in bringing back into print neglected works over a wide rage of genres and time periods. I’ve read several books from his imprint and a fascinating lot they are – I was particularly taken with Stella Benson, whom I might not have read had it not been for his promotion of her.

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I wanted to focus on one particular strand of books Mike publishes, and that’s his Belles Lettres series. Comprising so far four volumes, it really is an interesting collection, and the titles to date are:

Letters to a Friend by Winifred Holtby
Letters of Lord Byron
Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde
The Sins of Society by Ouida

I own three of the books (as you can see from the picture!) and I’ve read one in full so far in the form of the Wilde, and you can read my thoughts here. It was a lovely book, and I spent some time over the Christmas break dipping into the others.

The Holtby volume is fascinating; she’s an author I know of course from her novels published by Virago, and I have a number of these on my shelf. Best known for “South Riding”, Holtby died tragically young but left behind quite a legacy and these letters are to her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Holtby and McWilliam met towards the end of WW1 in a WAAC camp, and the letters range from 1920 to 1935, the year of Winifred’s death. This a lovely, varied book, and the letters make fascinating reading, featuring poems and fragments of poems, thoughts on books, little drawings and the like. What also makes the book stand out is the picture it paints of the lives of women in the 1920s and 1930s, and even if you have no particular interest in or knowledge of Holtby, I can still highly recommend it as an excellent read.

Ouida is an author who’s been on the periphery of my vision for decades – possibly since I read “Literary Women” back in the 1980s, or maybe from my first reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” where she’s mentioned as being vaguely scandalous. I knew she wrote fiction but I wasn’t aware she wrote essays, and this lovely little collection Mike has issued was a surprising treat and great to dip into. Dating from the late 1800s, Ouida’s essays range over subjects like the vulgarity of her modern world and the stupidity of politics (nothing changes, then…) I was particularly taken with the piece entitled “Gardens” where she bemoans the trend of regimented gardens, designed in straight lines and all neat and tidy, with no individuality. I was also with her when she expressed her views on cut flowers – I can’t bear seeing flowers massacred for the sake of home decoration, and would rather have them growing wild than hothoused, cut and wired and then wilting after a day.

In the great world, and in the rich world, flowers are wasted with painful prodigality. The thousands and tens of thousands of flowers which die to decorate a single ball or reception are a sad sight to those who love them. ‘The rooms look well tonight,’ is the utmost that is ever said after all this waste of blossom and fragrance. It is waste, because scarcely a glance is bestowed on them, and the myriad of roses which cover the walls do not effectively make more impression on the eye than the original silk or satin wall-hanging which they momentarily replace… the ballroom in the morning is as melancholy a parable of the brevity of pleasure as any moralist could desire.

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Finally, I’ve had an unexpected pleasure in the form of another non-fiction book from Mike Walmer. Not a part of the Belles Lettres series, “The Spring of Joy” by Mary Webb is subtitled “A Little Book of Healing”. Webb, of course, is best known as the author of such books as “Precious Bane”, and that’s a book that divides readers, particularly in the LibraryThing Virago group! As the book features large chunks of dialect, it tends to be something of a Marmite experience, and it was roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in “Cold Comfort Farm”. I read the latter and loved it, but I never felt able to read Webb, so taking on a non-fiction book by her was a bit of a leap. However, I needn’t have worried; Webb’s book collects together a series of essays on aspects of nature to bring Joy, Laughter and Beauty. Nowadays, the idea of nature as a balm for the soul is not new, but I wonder how prevalent that was in Webb’s day? Nevertheless, her writing is lyrical and lovely, and I really enjoyed her thoughts on the natural world.

Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets… Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.

I’ve spent some happy times over recent weeks with all these books, and if you have an interest in essays, letters and nature writing these could well be volumes you would enjoy too. Michael Walmer’s catalogue is full of interesting books and so I’d encourage you to search out his website (there’s a link on my sidebar) and have a browse, especially if you’re bored with insubstantial modern writing! I must admit I often find the older books are the best!

A Poignant Memoir

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Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde/Ada Leverson/Robert Ross

I was reminded of the brilliance of Oscar Wilde back in September 2014, when Hesperus Press kindly provided me with a copy of his “Canterville Ghost” for review, and what a joy it was. I’ve dipped into Oscar’s work on and off over the years, and obviously know something of his life – so when Michael Walmer mentioned that he was reissue a rare memoir of the great man, by a Virago author to boot, I was very eager to read it!

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The Virago author is Ada Leverson, author of “The Little Ottleys” (amongst others). Leverson was a close friend of Wilde’s, offering him sanctuary at one point during his ‘troubles’, and she was known to him as ‘The Sphinx’. Not only does this slim and lovely hardback volume contain her touching memoirs of the author, it also collects together his letters to her and an introductory piece by another of his staunch allies, Robert Ross. The latter introduces the book, which then features three pieces by Leverson, recalling encounters with Wilde, remembering triumphant first nights, and reflecting on his fall from grace and incarceration. Always moving, Leverson’s calm tone throws the cruel treatment Wilde received into even sharper relief.

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The final section contains 30 letters or excerpts or telegrams from Oscar himself, sent to Leverson over a number of years. These give a wonderful picture of Wilde; his wit, his generous praise of his friend, his later despondency and his response to Leverson’s support and kindness during his imprisonment. Just the gift of a book would raise his spirits and it’s moving and quite dreadful to think of him locked up like this thanks to a hypocritical society.

“Letters to the Sphinx” was issued in 1930 as a limited edition and has been unavailable since, which is another tragedy. So kudos to Mike Walmer for reissuing the book and letting us have a glimpse into one of Wilde’s most enduring friendships.

The Return of the Edwardian Wit!

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More by Max Beerbohm

My first encounter with Max Beerbohm was last year, when I read his collection “Works” (kindly provided by publisher Michael Walmer, who produced a lovely new edition of the work). Now Mike has brought out Beerbohm’s second collection of pieces entitled simply “More” and he’s once again kindly sent a review copy.

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As I said in my review of “Works”, Author Max Beerbohm is probably best known nowadays for his novel “Zuleika Dobson”, a satirical story of life in undergraduate Oxford, although Wikipedia reminds us that he was “an English essayist, parodist, and caricaturist”. I still haven’t managed to read the copy of that novel, which is lurking on Mount TBR, though Simon had an interesting take on it here! However, I do love Beerbohm’s short works so I was looking forward to more (literally!).

Max’s second collection contains 20 short and witty pieces on a wide range of topics, covering everything from Madame Tussaud’s to bicycles. As with “Works” his subjects and attitudes are remarkably modern; Beerbohm is often at his best when on the subject of celebrity, which frankly seems to have changed very little since his time. His observations of the transient and fickle nature of fashions and crazes, and the public’s obsession with the latest celeb’s personal life are pithy and spot on. At other times, he was a little wide of the mark – the fashion essay did decry women on bicycles – but mostly his observations still resonate and he’s always an entertaining read.

The author looking dapper!

I can do little more than give you a couple of quotes so you get a flavour of his writing, in the hope that you’ll feel inclined to check out his books. Once again, Mike Walmer has produced a lovely looking little volume that matches the earlier one beautifully – if you like your wit Oscar or Saki-style, this is definitely for you!

It is because actors, in pursuit of their art, display themselves, that the public takes a keen interest in all their circumstances. You must blame, not the actors, but the public. Even supposing (which is foolish) that these “personal paragraphs”are generally inspired by their subject, they would not be printed unless the public wished to read them. As a matter of fact, actors are no more desirous of irrelevant fame than are any other artists. It is the public which wishes quite naturally, to know all about them. The journalists, quite naturally, seek to gratify the public.

For what is ours by natural right we care nothing. In our code possession is nine tenths of ennui, and we delight only in things alien to us. Our young men ape the wisdom and weariness of eld, whilst eld would fain dance, with stiff limbs, to the joyous and silly tunes of adolescence. What we have not, we simulate; and of what we have, we are heartily ashamed. We pull long faces to hide our mirth, and grin when we are most wretched. We are all of us, always, in everything, straining after contraries.

Truly, human nature doesn’t seem to change very much…

War, and the Decline of the Aristocracy

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A Share of the World by Hugo Charteris

As anyone reading this blog might have guessed, I’m a bit of a sucker for forgotten and neglected novelist. So one of my ideal publishers is Michael Walmer, and he’s rediscovered a cracker in the form of Hugo Charteris, whose first novel “A Share of the World” has just been reissued by the imprint. Coming with an interesting introduction by the author’s daughter, it seems a good place to begin!

Charteris is a charismatic-sounding man; of aristocratic lineage (he was the grandson of the 11th Earl of Wemyss), he led a peripatetic life, moving through Eton, Oxford, Malaya, Java, Sutherland, finally ending up in Yorkshire where he died at the age of 48 in 1970.

During his life he wrote constantly alongside a military career, a period in PR and much journalism. Probably nowadays he would be best remembered for his TV work, including the series “Take Three Girls”, and his novels seem to have very much disappeared from the scene – which is a shame, judging from this, his first.

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“A Share of the World” tells the story of John Grant, who narrates; based, I’m sure, on Charteris himself, Grant is an office in the middle of the Italian campaign of the second world war. From an upper-class background, he would obviously be part of the officer class but he seems singularly ill-equipped to deal with his role.

Throughout part one of the book, the elliptical, poetic prose slips between Grant’s present (planning and carrying out a patrol to check on the presence of Germans) and various incidents in his past (nightmares and visions as a child; trials at schools; falling in love with a 14-year-old). And the common thread is that at any point of importance in his life he seems to experience a kind of paralysis, having to force himself to take action.

The nature of the fear felt in nightmares is hard to describe by relating it to other things and hard to remember except by chance. It is akin to hysteria, vertigo, impotence, and for those people like John who sometimes used the word Evil with a capital E, as though it existed outside the mind of man, it is akin to Evil. It seldom breaks through into waking life except in the elusive and transitory taste of a sudden association. In the natural world the commonest similar experience seems to be in the eyes of a rabbit fixed by a stoat, screaming with good reason before it’s hurt, but not able to move easily away as it could.

This paralysis seems strongest when in the company of one of his men, Bright; the latter is an unpleasant, dishonest person and he serves in the story almost as a kind of demon pursuing Grant, who feels trapped in the web of his own existence, unable to act and almost an unreal person.

The patrol, of course, goes horribly wrong, and Grant’s war is over. The second part of the book deals with his life post-war. The old certainties have gone, the aristocracy is crumbling and John Grant has no place in the world, feeling like some kind of un-person. He becomes fixated with Jane Matlock, daughter of Sir Wilfred and Lady ‘Neenie’, and sister of Christopher Matlock, who Grant knows slightly. John is convinced that if he marries Jane he will become a ‘real man’, a person with an existence instead of a kind of ghost presence. However, Christopher, who has been much affected by the war and has taken to drink, believes that Jane is so locked into her role as a kind of Lady Bountiful that she doesn’t exist as a real person either. So John’s attempts to ground himself in the modern world seem doomed to disaster, as he and Jane are at cross-purposes most of the time. Meanwhile, the ancient order continues to collapse, John spends a bizarre Christmas with the Matlocks, and Christopher is refusing to take over the family home, Edgeby.

We have only one life as far as we know. One third sleep. Why make another third even more negative than sleep? ‘Doing something in which we cannot express ourselves, deepens ourselves before death.’

Charteris’ writing is really rather wonderful and individual. The prose is fluid, shifting from one perspective to another in a way that’s almost dream-like. He portrays a man with a tenuous grip on reality who seems unable to take any kind of decisive action at all. I presume that the paralysis he reflects here is meant to be symptomatic of a decaying aristocracy, and certainly the less aristocratic members of the cast are much more capable of deeds than Grant – particularly the devious and malevolent Bright, whose influence runs through the book like a constant and nasty thread, and who turns up most alarmingly when least expected with a very unpleasant smile on his face!

charteris

I enjoyed my first experience of reading Hugo Charteris very much; his individual style of prose, his rather dreamy and troubled characters and the wonderful way he had of conjuring up atmosphere made this a compelling book. So well done to Michael Walmer for re-issuing the title, and I’ll look forward to exploring more of Charteris’ work in future.

The Return of the Edwardian Wit

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Reginald in Russia by Saki

Saki, the pseudonym of H.H. Munro, is an author I first discovered back in 2012, when I read a little collection of his short pieces put out by Hesperus, and also his first volume of stories under the title “Reginald”. Now Michael Walmer has put out the second Saki selection called, titled “Reginald in Russia” in one of his lovely new editions and has kindly provided a copy for review.

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Although Saki’s regular character Reginald is referenced in the title, it’s in fact only the first story in the collection in which he features. And there’s no shortage of the usual wit which is on show while Reginald exchanges bon mots with Princess Olga. Other stories are equally witty, covering subjects as wide-ranging as strange encounters in woods, ghost stories and a short and funny play. There are some really wonderful twists; one of my favourites being in the story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”, about a domestic dispute which has a completely unexpected ending.

“I hate posterity – it’s so fond of having the last word.”

In some ways, Saki reminds me a little of Ronald Firbank (also published by Michael Walmer); the two writers share a love of funny phrases and witty exchanges, although of the two it has to be said that Saki is a lot more comprehensible – and often screamingly funny! It’s a tribute to his skill that he can take something really quite dark (Gabriel-Ernest) and turn into something entertaining but unsettling.

saki

Saki often covers unexpectedly deep subject matter but always in a witty, clever way. Alas, he died young, a victim of the horrors of the First World War which robbed the world of many talented artists. But at least we’ve been left with the laughter and levity of his works which still entertain today. If you love Wodehouse, Wilde and wit, “Reginald in Russia” is most definitely for you!

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I think my love of Hesperus may have confused some of my commenters, but I should remind readers that the book has been published by Michael Walmer, who has a lovely catalogue of books – his site is most definitely worth a visit!

Recent Reads: Inclinations by Ronald Firbank

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“I’m glad I can still sometimes drug my senses with a book,” Lady Dorinda exclaimed.

You know the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”? Well, Proust’s prose is definitely sublime, and Ronald Firbank’s characters are wonderfully ridiculous, so it certainly applies here! And you couldn’t get two more different books than these – the deep and lyrical “Swann’s Way” and the short, snappy, witty “Inclinations”! It’s quite surprising, actually, how far apart these authors are – actually at opposite ends of the spectrum – particularly as they were almost contemporaries.

I reviewed Firbank’s “Vainglory” here, and published Michael Walmer has been kind enough to supply a copy of his second novel, “Inclinations”. I can see that Michael has a fondness for Firbank, and it’s easy to see why, as he’s such a quirky and witty writer! This is the third Firbank I’ve read (the first being Valmouth, many years ago) and he just gets better and better…

inclinations“Inclinations” is notionally about the experiences of young and bored Mabel Collins, who is whisked off to Greece by the famous biographer Geraldine O’Brookomore. The latter, often referred to as Gerald throughout the book, is on the trail of her latest subject, the female traveller Kitty Kettler, and Mabel comes along as a companion. Mabel, however, is soon being wooed by the dashing Count Pastorelli, and eyed up by the newly married Mr. Arbanel (much to the chagrin of his young wife). Needless to say, Mabel and Gerald encounter all kinds of eccentric characters, prone to spouting strange and witty dialogue, before events reach a crisis (well, actually, several!) – there are Professor and Mrs. Cowsend, the actress Miss Arne, Miss Clint (queen of the ladies’ maids) and the Australian Miss Dawkins. The second section of the book finds Mabel back at home – although many things have changed in her life…

Like “Vainglory”, this book was a real hoot! Firbank’s sharp conversations and constant repartee is quite breathtaking, and it’s amazing how something which is basically woven together strips of dialogue can be so funny and actually be understood; in fact, one short chapter consists of the world “Mabel!” repeated eight times and makes perfect sense in context, and because of what has gone before!

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Firbank obviously made an art of telling a story in as few sentences as possible, at least in this early part of his career. However, there is a fascinating part of the book which reveals how change would come, and that’s chapter IV of the second section. This particular edition contains an alternative version of that chapter, written much later, and it’s noticeably and strikingly different from his early style: there are paragraphs of description; completely new characters; they are given proper introductions; and the prose feels expanded, altogether different from the early way Firbank tells his tale. However, even in this early work, Firbank can do description with the best of them:

“In the grey cedar crests, from the blue fir-trees of the Kronian hill, the wols flapped gabbling; among the fields of mournful olives the cicadas called; over the fragments of fallen marble, crushing the wild thyme, the fire-flies flashed; and on the verandah of the Hotel de France, the scintillation of her diamonds harmonising equally with the heavens as with the earth, Dorinda, Lady Gaiheart, was finishing a tale.”

“Inclinations” is a worth addition to Michael Walmer’s catalogue. Although slim, it’s as witty and funny as the other Firbanks; and this edition once again features a lovely Aubrey Beardsley cover drawing. Highly recommended for anyone who likes camp repartee and whimsical humour!

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