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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?????

#1930Club – some previous reads!

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to take a look back at books I’ve read previously from the year in question. 1930 turns out to be a bit of a bumper year; not only do I own a good number of books from that year, but I’ve read a lot too! So here’s just a few of them…

Just a few of my previous 1930 reads…

Some of these, of course are pre-blog: there’s two of my favourite crime writers lurking in the pile, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The Sayers is “Strong Poison”, a book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane. I adore all Sayers and I would have liked to revisit this during our weekly read. Christie’s “The Murder at the Vicarage” also saw a debut, that of Miss Marple (in novel form anyway – she’d already appeared in short stories). Again, I was so tempted to pick this one up, but I went for “Mr. Quin” instead as I know “Vicarage” so well. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is detecting of a different kind, hard-boiled American. I love Hammett’s writing (although not everyone has enjoyed him recently…) and again was very tempted.

Katherine Manfield’s “The Aloe” is also a pre-blog read; it’s a slim and lovely Virago I’ve owned for decades and the story is a longer version of her short work “The Prelude”. A revisit to this one would have been lovely too, as her prose is gorgeous. “The Foundation Pit” by Platonov is most likely the first of his books which I read; it’s an unusual, allusive book and his writing is very distinctive. Yet another writer I’d love to go back to.

As for titles I’ve reviewed on the blog, there’s the very wonderful Jean Rhys. I wrote about “After Leaving Mr. McKenzie” relatively recently (well – 2016 actually…), and so I didn’t re-read. Yet another excellent woman prose stylist, with a haunting main character, compelling prose and a bleak outlook for women of her time and kind.

Nabokov’s “The Eye” was also a 2016 read; it’s a fascinating, tricksy and clever novella, with wonderful writing and a marvellously unreliable narrator. I love Nabokov’s prose and since I have many, many of his books unread on the shelves I should get back to reading him soon! 😀

Gaito Gazdanov is a relatively recent discovery; a marvellous emigre Russian author, many of his works have been brought out in beautiful Pushkin Press editions. “An Evening with Claire”, however, is his first novel which was brought out in the USA by Overlook Press/Ardis, and it features his beautiful, often elegiac prose in a work often described as Proustian. I believe more Gazdanov is on the horizon from Pushkin – hurrah! 😀

Not pictured in the pile above is “Le Bal” by Irene Nemirovsky. I came a little late to the party with her books; I failed in my first attempt to read “Suite Francaise” but after reading a collection of her shorter early works I came to love her writing, and “Le Bal” was one of those titles. It’s a powerful little story, portraying the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship in all its horror and proves she was such a good writer.

So those are just a few of my previous reads, on and off the blog, from 1930. Really, it was *such* a bumper year for books, wasn’t it? So glad we chose it! Have you read any of the above? 😀

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

Ermmmm – so I may have missed a couple…

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The post-Christmas period before I go back to work is always a good time for a bit of a tidy, and shuffling the books into some kind of order has been fairly essential – though the current TBR is now so big and scary that I daren’t look at it…

And I discovered when tidying that there were a few new arrivals I hadn’t shared here – but for the sake of transparency I should confess that these lovelies have come into the house, and it was ENTIRELY MY FAULT!!

Ahem. Well. Two of them came from the local Oxfam charity bookshop (so it’s a good cause and that’s my excuse!)

I don’t own this Nabokov (one of the few I was missing) and it was £1.99 – so I didn’t even bother to argue with myself. On a second occasion over the hols I stumbled on the Hogg, which is a title I had been considering after it came up in a list of Scottish books to read I’d been meandering through. So it *would* have been rude not to snap it up, wouldn’t it?

As for this:

Well, I completely blame Lord Steerforth for this. If my increasingly feeble memory serves me correctly, he praised it up on Twitter and I was a bit sold. And it was cheap. So there.

So, I’ve confessed to profligate book buying despite receiving loads for Christmas. I don’t necessarily feel better for it, nor do the rafters and book shelves, but at least I’ve been honest…. 😉

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

“…the soul is but a manner of being…”

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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

The test of how much you’ve been involved with a book is the hangover it gives you, and I really had a massive one after finishing “Glory”! I spent a day humming and hawing, picking up books, reading a few pages, putting them down again and just being incapable of deciding what I wanted to read next. In the end I gave in – and picked up another Nabokov!

knight

“The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” is Nabokov’s first major work to be written in English, and according to online sources, he wrote it sitting in the bathroom with a suitcase balanced across the bidet to lean on… The story is narrated by V,. apparently the half-brother of the late famous author Sebastian Knight (they share the same father). V. is unhappy about a book written about Sebastian by his former secretary, Mr. Goodman, which he declares is misleading; and so he sets out to put the record straight and write about the real life of Sebastian Knight.

The trouble is, of course, that V. himself has only had limited contact with his brother over the years, owing to the difference in ages, loss of parents, displacement because of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and so on. So he begins a journey to piece together the facts of Sebastian’s life by tracking down those who knew and loved him. Childhood years are relatively easy, as there was some common contact at that time, but once they’d all fled the country Sebastian decamped to Cambridge; V. tracks down his friends from that time, followed by his long-time love Clare Bishop (who was also something of an amanuensis).

“Real Life…” is scattered with references to Knight’s few published works, and V. treats us to extracts at times, also tying in the events in those narratives with Knight’s real life and feelings – and some of them do indeed sound rather fascinating. Succumbing to ennui and a heart condition, Sebastian eventually splits with Clare and his last years are blighted by an affair with a mysterious Russian woman. V. makes it his task to find out her identity and much of the rest of the book is taken up with this chase.

His struggle with words was unusually painful and this for two reasons. One was the common one with writers of his type: the bridging of the abyss lying between expression and thought; the maddening feeling that the right words, the only words are awaiting you on the opposite bank in the misty distance, and the shudderings of the still unclothed thought clamouring for them on this side of the abyss.

Despite sounding relatively straightforward, this book is anything but – we are dealing with Nabokov here! “Sebastian Knight” is a many-layered work with Nabokov playing with all our perceptions, and the narrative is quite brilliantly put together. As the book goes on and V. gradually begins to unravel his brother’s life, we undergo the same experience as he does – instead of a simple, linear biography, a ‘real life’, we are in fact reading the story of V’s life as he tracks down the truth about his brother!

What Nabokov is doing is deconstructing the whole narrative structure so that the reader ends up totally wrong-footed. How do we actually *know* the narrator really is Knight’s half-brother? (Goodman expresses surprise when V. introduces himself as the former was unaware Sebastian *had* a brother). Can we accept anything he says, or indeed anything he reports others as saying? Did Knight ever really exist or is he simply a wild figment of someone’s imagination? That’s perhaps taking the meta element a little far, but the unreliability of Nabokov’s storyteller has you questioning literally everything – and certainly the ending is rather ambiguous.

nab young

I’ve seen several of Nabokov’s books described as “detective stories” and in many ways “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” is just that. As we follow V.’s attempts to find out the truth about Sebastian, what he was really like, who the last love of his life was, we become as involved in his quest to sold the mystery as he does. But there are so many layers to this short book that I think a second reading would definitely reveal more; for there are digs at best-selling authors whose books really aren’t so good, while the good authors sell little; wry comment on the shady behaviour of literary agents; and even hints that the capricious behaviour of Knight himself is not necessarily the best way to behave…

All in all, this was another masterpiece by Nabokov, wonderfully written, evocative and very, very clever. It’s going to take a lot of willpower to not just pick up another one of his books…

The Life of an Ordinary Man

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Glory by Vladimir Nabokov

Back when we were running the 1938 Club I came very close to reading another Nabokov title in the form of “The Gift”, but alas ran out of time. However, I did enjoy his novella “The Eye” recently and as I was dithering around, trying to decide what to read after “Solaris”, I thought another Nabokov might be the thing. However, choosing which one was the hardest as I have pretty much everything he wrote on the shelves. I pulled out several volumes to flick through but for some reason, “The Gift” caught my eye; I’m not sure why, although it could be that it’s a pretty pale blue Penguin hardback (shallow? me?)… But whatever the reason, it captured me from the first pages, so I kept reading.

glory penguin

Nabokov wrote nine novels in Russian, starting with Mary (first published in 1926) and ending with “The Gift” (from 1952). However, he’d published “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”, his first novel in English, in 1941 and there’s a gap in the Russian novel writing dates between “Invitation to a Beheading” (1938) and “The Gift” (written in 1952). No doubt this will all be explained when I one day read a biography of the man….

However, many of the Russian novels weren’t translated until the 1960s and 1970s, with “The Gift” being the final one to make it into English. Fortunately, translation woes aren’t usually an issue, as the books seem to be translated by Nabokov’s son, in conjunction with the author himself, so the reader can at least be assured that they’re as Nabokov wants them.

“Glory” is the book that followed “The Eye”, and it was published initially in 1932 (while the Nabokovs were based in Berlin). It tells the life story of a young man, Martin Edelweiss, who grows up in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. With Swiss heritage (hence the name), he’s especially close to his mother and grows up in a happy atmosphere, fairly unmoved by the divorce of his parents and the death of his father. However, with conflict looming, Martin and his mother have to flee Russia; first they spend time in the Crimea, and then eventually take a boat to Athens (now why does that kind of escape from the Civil War sound so familiar….?) The pair take refuge in Switzerland with Martin’s uncle (who eventually becomes his stepfather) and Martin continues his life; he attends Cambridge university, maintains contact with the Zilanov family (and in particular the daughter, Sonia, for whom he has an unrequited passion), and flits all over Europe at will. But he’s an unsettled ocharacter, driven by a constant need to be on the move, and it’s not quite clear where he will be finally drawn to….

It was then that Martin understood for the first time that human life flowed in zigzags, that now the first bend had been passed, and that his life had turned at the instant his mother summoned him from the cypress avenue to the terrace and said in a strange voice, ‘I have received a letter from Zilanov,’ then continuing in English, ‘I want you to be brave, very brave – it is about your father – he is no more.’ Martin turned pale and smiled a bewildered smile.

At first, it’s tempting to see the book as simply taking elements from Nabokov’s own life and turn them into fiction, and although the author acknowledges in the introduction that Martin is something of a cousin, the actual events of their lives diverge quite strongly. And Martin is certainly *not* Nabokov, as there is a bit of a vacancy in his life.

Martin’s problem is an unusual one; gifted with a particularly sensitive nature, responsive to nature, beauty, travel and the like, he has no way of expressing this. Instead, his life is one of calm and solidity, relatively untouched by the events that take place around him. Even having to flee from his home country leaves him fairly unmoved; or is he? There is a thread running through the narrative of an emotion perhaps best expressed by the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’; it has no real meaning in English but online sources state “The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”. Certainly, Martin feels drawn towards Russia (albeit probably a lost Russia from his childhood) and also feels the need to make some kind of grand gesture. Because he’s seen as so, well, *ordinary*, he despairs of making Sonia love him, and feels he needs to take a course of action that will bring him the glory of the title.

Nabakov and wife to be Vera in Berlin, 1924

Nabokov and wife to be Vera in Berlin, 1924

Pivotal to the portrayal of his character is a picture which was on his wall as a child. Showing a winding path leading deep into a forest, in many ways this foreshadows his journey through life; following the route it portrays he will eventually disappear into the forest… He’s captivated by train travel, by the glimpses of lights in the distance and these again will influence his behaviour as he constantly searches for something more. And despite trying any number of things, from supporting himself by giving tennis lessons, to working in the fields, he never finds satisfaction.

But the heartache did not dissipate, although Martin was one of those people for whom a good book before sleep is something to look forward to all day.

Russia itself is always in the background of the narrative; both Martin and Sonia (as well as many of the other characters) are exiles, and despite Martin’s loving his English education and success at football, he’s very protective of his native land. One of the tutors at Cambridge, Archibald Moon, is writing a mammoth book on Russia and although Martin is initially drawn to the man, he eventually rejects his parceling up of a living country in a book. With Sonia he invents the mythical land of Zoorland, a thinly disguised Russia, which is the only way Martin and Sonia can talk about their lost homeland.

The ending of the book is ambiguous, and I’m not going to say too much about it, but despite the uncertainty it creates it’s surprisingly satisfying. This was also a remarkably easy Nabokov book to read; his works are often complex but I just seemed to glide through this one. The writing is of course gorgeous – Nabokov seemed to be a master, no matter which language he chose to write in. “Glory” is wonderfully structured, and there are some very clever transitions between points in Martin’s life, unusually mid-chapter, where Nabokov moves the narrative along in a quite unexpected way.

I’ve read that parts of “Glory” mirror “Speak, Memory”, Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir (which I’ve yet to read); well, that may be the case, but this work of fiction stands on its own. If this is minor Nabokov (I’ve seen it described as such), it’s streets ahead of everything else….

The all-seeing “I”

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The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov

I came very close to reading another Nabokov for the 1938 Club in the form of “The Gift”, but alas ran out of time. However, when I was visiting Norwich earlier in the month and having a browse through the bookshops, I had a quick look at this title, one of the few by Nabokov I don’t have a copy of. It sounded fascinating (as do all his books) so I set about procuring a reasonably priced copy, and felt obliged to read it as soon as it arrived…. Well, it *is* quite short!

the eye

In fact, at 103 pages it’s most definitely no more than a novella, and could indeed be a long short story (if we must put labels on things). However, this being Nabokov, there’s plenty to think about. The eye in question is the all-seeing one of the unnamed narrator, a young man living in émigré Berlin. He scrapes a living as a tutor, and entertains himself by having a rather unenthusiastic affair with a woman called Matilda. However, when her husband gives him a sound beating in front of his charges, he decides that the best thing to do is end it all and shoots himself. Or does he….

From the start, it’s unclear whether the narrator really is dead. Although he thinks he is, some kind of consciousness continues and he (and we) can’t be sure if the surroundings and people we see are created by the narrator. They could be real, and the detachment of the narrator due to his recovering from his illness; or he could be in some other realm and simply imagining all that he tells us. Nevertheless he apparently has a job in a bookstore and mixes with a variety of other emigres – from the priggish Colonel Mukhin to the lovely sisters Evgenia and Vanya. One character in particular, the young man Smurov, fascinates the narrator and he spends much time observing the man as he falls in love with Vanya. Depending on where he sees Smurov, who with and in what circumstances, he’s presented with a different image of the young man. Who actually *is* this Smurov? Once again, the lines between reality and imagination are blurred.

Kashmarin had borne away yet another image… Does it make any difference which? For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me.With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist.

All becomes clear in the end and Smurov’s real identity becomes clear, but I shan’t say how. In a way, that isn’t really the point. Instead Nabokov takes us on a kind of journey through an inner life, and gets us questioning how much of what we perceive can be trusted. The narrator is, of course, completely unreliable (as so often with Nabokov) and that adds to the joy and confusion of reading this.

8-1-12_Nabokov

Of course, this being Nabokov, the writing is also superb. The book was written in 1930, published in Russian in 1965 and translated by Nabokov and his son in 1966. Any reading of Nabokov’s work is fascinating, thought-provoking and sometimes difficult, but always worth the effort. And this shorter work would be a good place to try his writing out if his longer books seem a little intimidating. I’m rather wishing I *had* read “The Gift” for the 1938 Club now… 🙂

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