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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! 🙂

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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… 🙂

The Decline of the Bookshop

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Yes, I know that’s a bit of an alarmist headline, but unfortunately yesterday brought bad news in the form of the fact that the only local “proper” second-hand bookstore, Claude Cox Books, is closing down at the end of March. I was a little gutted to say the least – it’s been a fixture in Ipswich as long as I’ve known the town and it means that we’ll only be left with Waterstones and the charity shops.

That might sound pretty good, but two of the charity shops have closed in the last few months and another has a “To Let” sign up – so prospects are not great, and I may end up having to take the train to Felixstowe on a regular basis to visit the wonderful Treasure Chest books, just to get a second-hand book fix.

I bought what will probably be my final volume from Claude Cox in the form of this:

Requiem by Shizuko Go

Requiem by Shizuko Go

It’s a Women’s Press volume from back in the day and sounded up my street – and a bargain at £1. All the books were half price, and I could have bought many more, but since I’m having space issues I had to refrain.

The charity shops *did* yield some delights too – this from the Sense shop (the one with the “To let” sign:

King, Queen, Knave by Nabokov

King, Queen, Knave by Nabokov

I have this one as part of a large hardback omnibus of five stories but it’s so unwieldly that I’m trying to replace it with individual books – three down, two to go!

Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards

Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards

And finally, from the Samaritans Book Cave, a pre-loved but still appealing Virago! This is by Dorothy Edwards, a Welsh author who died young. I have her Virago novel also, so it was nice to find this matching collection of short stories.

I often feel like I’m trying to keep the local book suppliers afloat single-handed; alas, I can’t (lack of space is an increasing issue) – but I’m doing my best! 🙂

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