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“I can remember a menu long after I’ve forgotten the hostess that accompanied it.” #saki #michaelwalmer

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The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki

I’ve written about the wonderfully witty Saki on the Ramblings before, back in my early days of blogging. His real name was Hector Hugh Munro, and he moved from foreign reporting to writing his witty tales as the first decade of the twentieth century came to an end. Saki’s first stories were about the escapades of one Reginald, a man about town with a witty tongue, and two volumes of his adventures made their appearance. In this, Saki’s third book, Clovis makes his entrance and has just as cynical an outlook on the world as his predecessor; in fact, it’s tempting of course to see them both as projections of their author!

It’s difficult, actually, to know quite how to write about Saki! These short stories mix the bizarre with the everyday in a way which is most beguiling. The humour can be refreshingly caustic which is ideal when you’re feeling a little disgruntled with the world and like to imagine taking your revenge on everyone! So, for example, we see Clovis assisting a gentleman having a mid-life crisis to have an un-rest cure with disastrous results; after he has wreaked havoc he simply rides off into the sunset, departing to prepare for dinner while leaving the house in a state of disarray:

That was the last they saw of Clovis; it was nearly seven o’clock, and his elderly relative liked him to dress for dinner. But, though he had left them forever, the lurking suggestion of his presence haunted the lower regions of the house during the long hours of the wakeful night, and every creak of the stairway, every rustle of wind through the shrubbery, was fraught with horrible meaning. At about seven next morning the gardener’s boy and the early postman finally convinced the watchers that the Twentieth Century was still unblotted.

He really is wicked!

That’s just one example, but each of the 28 stories here (some only a few pages long) is a real gem. However, for example, can you not love someone who titles a story “Filboid Sludge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped” (which is actually a story about a romance gone wrong!) “The Talking-Out of Tarrington” is also a hoot, where Clovis rescues an aunt from an unwanted encounter by spouting so much complete nonsense in the direction of the gentleman in question that he retreats, defeated. And “The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope” (Saki is just marvellous with names) opens with this wonderful exchange:

“Who and what is Mr. Brope?” demanded the aunt of Clovis suddenly.

Mrs. Riversedge, who had been snipping off the heads of defunct roses, and thinking of nothing in particular, sprang hurriedly to mental attention. She was one of those old-fashioned hostesses who consider that one ought to know something about one’s guests, and that the something ought to be to their credit.

“I believe he comes from Leighton Buzzard,” she observed by way of preliminary explanation.

“In these days of rapid and convenient travel,” said Clovis, who was dispersing a colony of green-fly with visitations of cigarette smoke, “to come from Leighton Buzzard does not necessarily denote any great strength of character. It might only mean mere restlessness. Now if he had left it under a cloud, or as a protest against the incurable and heartless frivolity of its inhabitants, that would tell us something about the man and his mission in life.”

I’ve seen Saki described as the person who invented trolling, and certainly Clovis seems a little darker in character than Reginald, who tended to float around being cutting for a lot of the time. Clovis, however, likes to subvert and tends to cause disruption wherever he goes. But the bottom line is that these stories are very, very witty and very, very funny (if you like that kind of humour – which I do!) and Clovis is a worthy successor to Reginald.

This edition of the “Chronicles” has been issues by Michael Walmer, who kindly provided a review copy; and it comes with an introduction by A.A. Milne (who was not averse to turning out a bit of wit himself!) Mike has also issued editions of “Reginald” and “Reginald in Russia”, all of which are great delights to read. I’m obviously a hugeSaki fan; and if you like your humour more Wildean that slapstick, then Saki is definitely the author for you!

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Part novel, part travelogue, totally delightful! #michaelwalmer #stellatennysonjesse

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Eve in Egypt by Stella Tennyson Jesse

I’ve mentioned in the past on the Ramblings (and elsewhere!) how highly I think of F. Tennyson Jesse’s remarkable novel “A Pin to see the Peepshow”; one of my favourite ever Virago books, it fictionalises the story of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case, turning it into compelling fiction as well as making a very strong case against capital punishment. So when Michael Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of FTJ’s sister Stella’s only novel, “Eve in Egypt” I was intrigued, to say the least…

Stella was the older of the two sisters, and made her name as a stage actress; notably appearing in plays by her brother-in-law H.M. Harwood (FTJ’s husband). “Eve..” was her only novel and it has an interesting genesis. Based on a trip up the Nile which Stella took in 1926/7 in the company of her sister, brother-in-law and a bachelor uncle, the book was apparently written as a result of a £10 bet between the Harwoods and Stella (or so Mike Walmer tells me!) Whatever caused the book to be written is an intriguing and enjoyable work, and I had a blast reading it.

Our titular heroine, Eve Wentworth, is young and beautiful and awash with suitors. Harold and Hubert have asked for her hand in marriage but tellingly she is incapable of deciding between them. While she havers about trying to make up her mind, her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh receive a timely invite for the three of them to join a family friend on a tour of the Nile. This is the perfect escape for Eve, but alas things are not so simple; the family friend is Jeremy, known to Eve since they were both young, and as the trip progresses Eve realises she has feelings about her erstwhile playmate. To complicate things further, whilst travelling the group encounter a rich American woman, Isobel Page, who seems to attract Jeremy’s attention; and Isobel’s brother Tony makes the plot even thicker! Is Eve about to have her heart broken? Will she be left to choose between the two Hs? Will the scenery and location be enough to distract her from her heartache? Or can we expect a happy ending? 🙂

By New York Public Library (Sphynx et la grande pyramide.) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

This could of course be just another frothy, enjoyable 1920s romance (which is no bad thing) with the usual misunderstandings, potentially broken hears, witty dialogue and hilarious camel rides (OK, that latter bit doesn’t usually turn up in this type of book, but it *was* very funny). However, what lifts the book above the norm is the clever way it blends travelogue and novel. There are many, many photographs featured throughout the book of the various locations described, all taken by Stella and they give a wonderful insight into the Egypt of that era. Of course, the country was very much in vogue at the time, following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, and it’s a place which had an endless fascination for the British during the first part of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie’s novels being a good case in point). I imagine that modern Egypt is a very different place from that of the 1920s so I really enjoyed the window on that world that the book gave. The book is laced with the history and mythology of the country and the Pharaohs, yet never in a way which feels out of place or burdensome, and I really sensed Stella’s love of the place.

I can’t think, to be honest, why this book has been out of print for so long. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable read, with the lovely added extra elements of the narrative which deal with the setting, and these give an extra frisson to the book. I have to be honest and say that of course it isn’t on the same level as FTJ’s great novel, but nevertheless “Eve in Egypt” is a work that deserves much more attention than it’s had; its lovely blending of fact and fiction make for an unusual and unexpected read, and kudos to Michael Walmer for republishing it!

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

A poignant encounter

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Odette by Ronald Firbank

I’ve written about author Ronald Firbank before on the Ramblings, covering two entertaining volumes brought out by independent publisher Michael Walmer – “Inclinations” and “Vainglory“. These witty and original works were Firbank’s first two novels, and now Mike has produced a lovely reprint of Firbank’s early, first published work – and a very different type of story it is too.

Subtitled “A Fairy Tale for Weary People”, “Odette” is a short story which tells of the titular character’s encounter with reality and how it changes her. Odette lives life in a kind of fairy-tale setting; comfortably settled with her widowed aunt, her nurse and an aged butler in an old château in France, she spends her times in dreaming of religious encounters with saints. The visits of the local Curé fuel her imagination and she becomes determined to emulate Bernadette, who saw the Virgin Mary in the mountains.

So Odette sneaks out of the house one night, setting off on what she hopes will be a holy adventure. However, what she encounters is as far from the Virgin Mary as you can get, and Odette’s meeting with reality will not only change her, but also have an effect on the real world.

“Odette” is an affecting little work which stays in the mind despite being only 44 pages long. Odette lives in a gilded cage, and her encounter with reality could have been much harsher than the one which Firbank gifts her. As it is, he seems to believe in the power of good to influence those who’ve gone astray, and there is a strong religious element; certainly, Odette’s innate goodness shines through, and although after her encounter there is a sense that she has grown up and her worldview has been forever changed, there is also the feeling that she will continue along a righteous path and try to bring happiness throughout her life.

Firbank drawn by Augustus John

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Odette” was published when Firbank was just 19, just before he attended Cambridge, and his novels came some 10 years later – which would explain the dramatic difference in style! The book is beautifully produced – a hardback with lovely illustrations by Albert Buhrer which are in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, and the cover also features one of his images.

So another intriguing reissue from Mike Walmer, and one which shows Firbank in a very different light to his later more camp and snarky books. Ronald Firbank died young when he was just 40, of a lung disease which had dogged him most of his life; and I can’t help wishing that he’d lived longer and been able to write more. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, “Odette” certainly might be a gentler way to start with Ronald Firbank, who definitely deserves to be more widely read nowadays!

Many thanks to Mike Walmer for kindly providing the review copy – much appreciated!

“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.

walmer-belles-lettres

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.

spring-of-joy

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!

sphinx

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.

oscar and ada

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.

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