The Decline of the Bookshop


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! đŸ™‚

Remembrance of things past….


Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Well, I *did* end up visiting another Nabokov quite soon, didn’t I? To be honest, I’ve been eyeing up this volume for a while – part of my Penguin Great Loves little box set, “Mary” was Nabokov’s first novel, written in Russian in Berlin soon after his marriage in 1925. My version is translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with Nabokov – which is fascinating because Glenny’s translated many of the Russian books I’ve read and obviously was considered good enough by Nabokov which is praise indeed!


The book comes with the byline “Love can be rewritten” and that’s a good point at which to start considering “Mary”. The protagonist is a Russian émigrĂ© by the name of Ganin, lodging in a dirty Berlin pension with a varied selection of fellow exiles – the old poet Podtyagin, Klara the typist, Alfyorov, plus the two ballet dancers Kolin and Gornotsvetov. The book opens idiosyncratically enough with Ganin and Alfyorov temporarily trapped in the old lift, though they are soon free – but the meeting will have consequences. We learn very little of substance about Ganin’s current life apart from the fact that he has had many and varied jobs while in exile, he has a girlfriend (Klara’s best friend Lyudmila) and his money is running out. The strange little pension is positioned next to a main train line and Ganin’s wanderlust is constantly kindled as he hears the trains thundering by. He plans to leave soon, which Alfyorov announces will be wonderful as the latter’s wife Mary is due to arrive in Berlin. He shows a picture of her to Ganin which is a revelation – because this Mary is the love of Ganin’s life and he has not seen her for many years, since before the revolution in Russia.

As what Ganin calls his shadow life in Berlin carries on around him, he slips mentally into reminiscence where memory of his early life in Russia is stronger and more real than the current one. He recalls vividly his young life, his meeting with Mary and the progress of their affair. His poignant and often painful memories are strong and when he does come back into real life it is to plan that he will meet Mary on her arrival in Berlin, they will be together and in effect run off into the romantic sunlight. Meanwhile, he splits up with his girlfriend, tries to help Podtyagin get a visa to go to Paris and ignores the fact that Klara is in love with him. But will Mary really arrive, will she be *his* Mary and will she still love him?

This wonderful little novella is about much more than just a love affair, however. Although the narrator’s love of Mary is never in doubt, the book is about memory, and is also a kind of lament for a lost Russia and an elegy for the Russian Ă©migrĂ©s and what they had lost by leaving their country and losing a whole way of life. Ganin has lost his past and therefore feels homeless and unsettled; his constant restlessness and the feeling he wants to leave are exacerbated by the continual rumbling of the trains, reminding him of places he hasn’t seen:

“Meanwhile nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring. His window looked out onto the railway tracks, so that the chance of getting away never ceased to entice him. Every five minutes a subdued rumble would start to move through the house, followed by a huge cloud of smoke billowing outside the window and blotting out the white Berlin daylight. then it would slow dissolve again, revealing the fan of the railway tracks that narrowed in the distance between the black, sliced-off backs of houses, all under a sky as pale as almond milk.”

I wonder if Nabokov had been reading Proust when he wrote “Mary”, because although it’s a fraction of the size of the Frenchman’s epic work, it’s a powerful evocation of how strong memory can be and how things remembered can be more real than current reality itself.

“Ganin now tried to recapture that scent again, mixed with the fresh smells of the autumnal park, but, as we know, memory can restore to life everything except smells, although nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

For Proust it was the taste of a Madeleine, but smell is just as strong a sense and I know that certain perfumes recall certain times and people for me.


“Mary” is a beautiful little book – full of poignant memories of Russia before its changes, of lost loves and a lost world, and a wonderful portrait of a microcosmic Ă©migrĂ© community surviving as best it can. I feel as if Nabokov’s first novel gives us a little more of a glimpse of the author than some of his other fictions do, as I imagine Ganin’s feelings of loss were mirrored by his author. The end of the book is unexpected in some ways, yet once you’ve assimilated it, the best way for the book to end. Ganin has been recreating and carrying on a relationship with Mary in his mind, and to rediscover her in reality simply wouldn’t work. If you haven’t read any Nabokov, this would be a good place to start; if you have, but have not read “Mary”, you have a treat in store!

The offending articles…


Ok, final thoughts on the tatty books – I promise not to moan any more after this! And here they are in all their glory:

They don’t look quite so bad from a distance, do they? I have made the decision to keep the third volume of the Forstyes as it *was* cheap and the main issue was the lying and the inaccuracy:

The description!

The description!

That’s how they described it (you can see the dirt on the cover even in my bad photo). And this is the page block:

But it will do to read – and HeavenAli has come up with the great idea of the Forsyte Sage for a 2015 read so we will be doing this, and she’s going to put together a post – hopefully more will join in!

Meanwhile, my book nerves have been soothed by the arrival of a brand new pristine volume from Persephone – their new Classic version of “The Home-Maker” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher:

Doesn’t it look lovely? And it sounds great too! Apart from that, I have been restrained this weekend, only bringing home a Tatyana Tolstoya from the Samaritans:

Having finished up reading “Look Who’s Back” (an incredible book in more ways than one – I shall review it in November for German Reading Month), I’m now limbering up for Margaret Kennedy Reading Week – “The Feast” awaits me!

Doom and gloom pre-Lolita


Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Although Nabokov is still best-known for “Lolita” (pretty obviously because of the controversial subject matter), he actually had written 10 novels in Russian and 2 in English before that book brought his name to the public eye. Much of his early writing life was when he was living as an Ă©migrĂ© in Berlin and so almost inevitably many of the early stories were set there. “Laughter in the Dark” is one of those stories, published in 1933 (his 6th novel) and set in Berlin between the wars.


In some ways, you could maybe think of “Laughter” as a kind of dry run for “Lolita”, featuring as it does a man’s obsession with a barely-of-legal-age young mistress. However, I felt it had more in common with “Despair”, telling as it does of a person in whose life *everything* goes wrong!

Unusually, in the opening paragraph of the book Nabokov summarises the plot very neatly in a few sentences:

“Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in a disaster.”

However, as he points out, it would be boring just to tell a life story like that, so instead he goes on to reveal in full the story of Albinus’s fall. A prosperous Berlin businessman, Albert Albinus is married to the pale Elizabeth and has a young daughter Irma. Also constantly on the scene is his brother-in-law Paul. On the surface, then, a nice bourgeois life with all the comforts and nothing to worry about. However, there is something missing in Albert’s life – passion, perhaps. which he never really seems to have felt. Therefore, it’s not actually surprising when he falls head-over-heels into obsession with Margot, a 16-year-old usherette at a local cinema.

“And alongside of these feeble romances there had been hundreds of girls of whom he had dreamed but whom he had never got to know; they had just slid past him, leaving for a day or two that hopeless sense of loss which makes beauty what it is: a distant lone tree against golden heavens; ripples of light on the inner curve of a bridge; a thing quite impossible to capture.”

Margot is a hard nut – from what we would call a troubled background, with a cold, hard family, beatings as a child and an early awareness of what a girl can use to get what she wants. Therefore Albinus is a chicken ripe for plucking, and it isn’t long before Margot is calling the shots. Albinus, unable to turn his back on her, so obsessed is he, finds the conflict between the demands of family life and his need for Margot almost unbearable. Despite his attempts to hide the affair from his wife, things come out and the couple split up. Albinus’s infatuation with Margot continues, despite her terrible demands, her capriciousness and selfishness; and events spiral out of control as humiliation, lies and disaster follow…

young nabokov

The more I read of Vladimir Nabokov’s work, the more I come to admire his prose. Fluent in several languages, he translated many of his original Russian works himself as is the case here (apparently there was an earlier translation by someone else with which he wasn’t happy). He can tell a tale wonderfully, compellingly, and draw you into the world of his characters where you watch helplessly as their lives unravel and there is no power that can stop this.

“He grew accustomed to Margot’s presence in these rooms, once so full of memories. She had only to change the position of some trifling object, and immediately it lost its soul and the memory was extinguished; it was only a matter of how long she would take to touch everything, and, as she had quick fingers, in a couple of months his past life in these twelve rooms was quite dead. Beautiful as the flat was, it no longer had any connection with that flat in which he had lived with his wife.”

The character of Albinus is beautifully drawn, with his obsessions, his inability to draw back in the face of inevitable disaster and his naive hope that all will be well. Margot is a complex girl, a product of her surroundings and upbringing, cruel, capricious but yet needy and somehow sympathetic. Her early love of a man she knows as Miller will come back to stalk her in more ways than one. The shadowy figures of Elizabeth and Irma haunt Albinus, and Paul appears as a kind of avenging angel, encountering Albert or Margot again and again as the narrative continues, and trying to save them all.

Even though the characters aren’t always pleasant, you still find yourself sympathising with them and wishing they could tear themselves away from the horrors to come. And there *are* tragedies – sudden events that hit you in the gut when something undeserved happens. In many ways, what happens to Albinus and Margot is brought upon themselves, but there are innocent victims and Nabokov’s narrative is capable of sudden depth and poignance when you least expect it.

As always, Nabokov takes events and people, unpalatable on the surface, and weaves a compelling story around them; his prose is wonderful, his control of his material masterly and the lid he lifts which exposes human motivations is illuminating. Nabokov is definitely one of my favourite authors and I think I’m going to feel the need to read another of his works soon…. đŸ™‚

( I was prompted to read this owing to another attack of hopeless memory! Browsing in the Samaritans Book Cave, I came across this book and didn’t think I had it so purchased it, and read the first few chapters over a frothy coffee in town. However, when I got home of course I already had it đŸ˜¦ – really I must find a sensible way to carry lists of books around! But having started it, I was so gripped I had to carry on – so the purchase wasn’t an entire waste!)

Irked Again!


I know I’m not the only one in the book blogosphere who’s got an issue with the misdescription of second-hand books by online sellers – but I seem to have had a run of real back luck recently…


The first problem came with a Gertrude Stein – I’d found a reasonably priced (though not *that* cheap) copy of one of her books I’d been after for a while on a big Online Auction Site and jumped at it. It was an ex-library book so I expected wear, stamps etc and was prepared for that. What I *wasn’t* prepared for was extensive foxing on the block and inner pages plus very dirty pages. That kind of thing *should* be described and it wasn’t. So I was irked and sent it back for a refund.

My Beverley book was not quite this nice....

My Beverley book was not quite this nice….

Next up was a Beverley Nichols – “No Place Like Home”. I blame Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book for this because he found a copy and mentioned it on his site and I hadn’t got a copy so searched online eagerly. I found one that was a little old and fragile, and again the Online Auction Site seller mentioned the fragility of the dustjacket and the oldness of the book. But neither picture nor description revealed even heavier foxing than the Stein – I was not impressed. However, as it was a first edition, I accepted a part refund after a bit of grumbling and decided to live with the foxing.

If only the Nabakovs had arrived in this lovely condition........

If only the Nabokovs had arrived in this lovely condition……..

I thought things might improve with my next attempt at online purchase: as I was having a bit of a Nabokov binge, I decided to pick up a couple of titles I don’t have (well, four actually) and had a bit of a browse on an Awe-inspiring bookselling website. Four titles popped into my basket and I waited eagerly – I’ve bought from this site a lot over the years, and although I’ve had a few stinkers, mostly their books are ok (and very cheap as they include postage). Alas, when they arrived there was again more dirt, foxing and even torn covers – plus one edition was paperback and not hardback as described. I grumbled and got another 50% refund, but confess to getting Pretty Fed Up by now.

I'm particularly keen on this era of Penguins

I’m particularly keen on this era of Penguins

Readers of the Ramblings will know I’ve been muttering about The Forsyte Saga, and at the suggestion of OH I sent off for penny copies of each of the three large volumes from various resellers on a certain Big River retailer. They turned up today – *sigh*. I have found a trend recently on Big River – a particular seller, who sends out tat described as “very good” and has a Worldly name, has now started trading under a variety of other names. So I had inadvertently ordered one of my Forstyes from them (as normally I avoid them like the plague) and the sticker on the back says “Very Good” and the book has – you’ve guessed it! – heavy foxing!!! I haven’t decided what to do yet, as the Big River really don’t care, and the three books are a sort of matching set of a particular era of Penguins.

I don’t expect a second-hand book to be pristine – that’s why it’s second-hand and I’m not paying a lot for it – but I expect it to be clean and accurately described. Frankly, this is enough to put me off the Big River and the Online Auction for a long time – and I can’t even switch safely to Abe as a lot of resellers on the other two places list here as well.

Anyone have any suggestions of safe places to buy online??? :s

…and it was all going so well till I got to the Oxfam!


Yes, it really was! And I was congratulating myself for the fact that my poor overloaded groaning bookshelves wouldn’t have any more volumes weighing them down. However, I had reckoned without the Oxfam – as I passed the shop, thinking I wouldn’t go in, I clocked the fact that they had a display of Russian books in the window….. Oh dear.

Luckily, a lot of the titles were not new to me, which was a help. However, I *did* of course feel the need to pop in and I did come away with two more Russians for my collections:


I read about this one recently – Chekhova was the niece of the great playwright, and Beevor is of course the author of “Stalingrad” so picking it up was a no-brainer!

nab lectures

However, I was particularly pleased to find this Nabokov volume, as it’s one I’ve looked at several times online – I’ve read the great man’s book on Gogol, which was excellent, so I’m also looking forward to reading more widely his thoughts on Russian lit!

There was one other lucky find (ahem):


A Persephone – Diana Athill’s “Midsummer Night in the Workhouse”, one I didn’t have! I’ve been lucky enough to find a few Persephones in the Oxfam – but I can never understand who would want to give them away!! However, their loss is my gain – now I really must try to reduce the amount of books unread by some *serious* study of the volumes on my shelves!!

Happy Birthday Vladimir Nabokov!

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The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.



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