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#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

“The water is always murky…” @nyrbclassics #Gide #Marshlands

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Marshlands by Andre Gide
Translated by Damion Searls

The first proper book review on the blog for 2021 is actually for a volume I finished at the tail end of 2020. After fighting my way out of the “Underland” book hangover, I actually sped through a few books quite quickly – one of which was “Marshlands” by Andre Gide.

Gide is a writer already present on my shelves; in fact I have mainly old Penguins of his works, most of which date back to being purchased in the 1980s! Despite having owned these for ages, I can’t actually be sure if I’ve read any; so there’s a certain typical irony that I should actually end up reading a shiny new book by the author instead of those on my shelves. However, having loved this one, it may be the spur I need to go to read more Gide in 2021!

Andre Gide (1869-1951) was a prolific author, producing novels, short stories, poetry, plays, travel writing and autobiography during his long career. A winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947, he’s considered by many the greatest French author of the 20th century (which is no mean claim when you consider what talent the country produced during that 100 year period). His writings seem to range far and wide, and his politics are fascinating – for example, he was brave enough to speak out about where Russian Communism had gone wrong after visits to that country in the 1930s. However, “Marshlands” is a book from the early part of his career; first published in 1895 under the French title “Paludes”, it’s now being reissued by NYRB in a sparkly new translation by Damion Searls.

“Marshlands” is a book about a man writing a book called ‘Marshlands’… which kind of gives you the idea right from the start that is is a satirical work! The sub-version of ‘Marshlands’ is about a reclusive man who lives all alone in a stone tower, studying the marshes. However, our narrator/author is anything but reclusive; instead he spends all his time as a social butterfly. Whether visiting friends, receiving friends, making himself available at the lovely Angela’s salon, or taking an abortive trip out of Paris with her, he seems to spend a *lot* of time mixing, and very little writing! When asked by friends what he’s doing, he of course attempts to explain that he’s writing ‘Marshlands’, but the plot is vague, and his fellow socialites seem unable to grasp the point. Whether our author does either is debatable…

Silence, man of letters! First of all, I only care about the insane, and you are frightfully reasonable.

If “Marshlands” is a reliable portrait of the Paris literary period of the time, it’s frankly a miracle that *anything* got written! The constant flitting from occasion to occasion, whilst declaiming one’s artistic trials and tribulations, is very funny indeed. Gide gives his narrator an almost deadpan tone, the fictional author quite convinced of his genius and importance; attributed which are on display by most of the characters, in fact; and the narrator seems incapable of recognising his friends’ dismissive attitude towards him and his work!

I said nothing as usual. When a philosopher answers you, he makes it impossible for you to understand in the slightest what you had asked him.

The satirical element alone would be enough to make this a wonderful read; however, the meta elements appealed too, with Gide very cleverly building in the different levels of a book about an author writing a book, and even including extracts from the ‘Marshlands’ written by the narrator – which certainly served to convince me that he was nowhere near as good an author as Gide himself!

It’s nerves, I think; they come over me every time I make a list.

“Marshlands” turned out to be a wonderfully playful and entertaining portrait of a man who thinks he’s busy and involved, but in fact really seems to be fighting off ennui. There are so many clever elements to it; for example, the fact that the narrator keeps a planner to try to organise his life, but if he fails to live up to something he intended, e.g. getting up at 8 a.m, he just alters the planner to make it fit what actually happened! As he says at one point:

I arrange facts to make them conform to the truth more closely than they do in real life.

Which I suppose is a statement you could apply to most fiction writers…

Unknown author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anyways, as they say; if I haven’t read any Gide before this, that’s my loss, because it really was a clever, funny and intriguing read. The book comes with an interesting foreword by Dubravka Ugresic (and I had to applaud her when she stated “There is no one single favourite book for a bona fide lover of literature”.) It’s translated brilliantly by Damion Searls; I say ‘brilliantly’ because I think, from his comments in his ‘Translator’s Note’, that he’s done a good job of compromising at a sensible point between sticking to old-fashioned language which might have been more of Gide’s era and bringing in too many modernisms. The book was a great end to 20201, a brilliant and very funny read; and hopefully 2021 really *will* be the year I read more Gide! 😀

*****

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. I should say, too, that this edition comes with some excellent extra material, in the form of two excised scenes, a later afterword by Gide and several other items – so it’s definitely the version to seek out!

“And I am afraid of the dead” @nyrbclassics #malicroix2020

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Malicroix by Henri Bosco
Translated by Joyce Zonana

Back in April there was quite a buzz about a new release from NYRB Classics, and a number of bookish Twitter types did a bit of a readalong. Now, somehow I’d managed to miss this book coming out, which is odd because I follow NYRB releases closely and often review their titles. The book in question was “Malicroix” by Henri Bosco, and fortunately another kind fellow blogger was able to pass on a digital copy to me, so I was able to join in and read alongside others (thanks, Dorian!)

Alas no picture of a pretty book, as I e-read this – not a format I enjoy, but it was worth it in this case! 😀

Henri Bosco (1888 – 1976) is a writer I hadn’t come across before, and it seems he might have been one of French literature’s best kept secrets. A prolific author, only a handful of his works have been translated into English in the past; and this from a writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature four times!! So kudos to NYRB and translator Joyce Zonana for bringing his work to us Anglophone readers.

“Malicroix” was first published in 1948, and it tells the story of a young man coming into his inheritance. Martial de Megremut is an orphaned young man who lives a quiet life with his extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and the like. However, his mother was a Malicroix and so when his uncle Cornelius de Malicroix dies, he leaves an inheritance to Martial who is now the last survivor of Malicroix blood. Contacted by the Malicroix family notary, the alarming and mysterious Maitre Domiols, Martial travels to a small island in the Camargue (an area of southern France characterised by marshes, swampland and lagoons). Here he is met by the other inhabitants of the island, Cornelius’s old retainer Balandran, and his dog Brequillet. The climate is hostile; his fellow man and dog taciturn; and the isolation overwhelming. For man like Martial it’s a real shock to the system, but Cornelius’s will makes it clear that Martial must spent three months on the island to come into his inheritance – which is in fact the island and all that’s attached to it (sheep and the like…)

No two times of solitude are alike, for we are never alone in the same way

It’s quite an ask for someone like Martial, used to calm, quiet inland living with a loving family; in fact, quite a simple and bland lifestyle. However, something stirs inside him, and despite the threatening presence of Domiols and his slippery servant Uncle Rat, Martial discovers a stubbornness which makes him want to see out the three months and claim the island as his. However, it will not be as straightforward as that; for Cornelius has left a codicil, and a final test will be faced by Martial to right a wrong of the past, if he wants to truly become a Malicroix.

That’s just a brief outline of what’s going on in this marvellous and immersive novel, and to be honest the plotlines as such are not the major focus of the book. What seems to me most important is the changes which we see taking place in Martial as he wrestles with the very essence of what makes him who he is. Although outwardly Martial recognises the Megremut in himself, represented by the image of his life as a quiet botanist in a greenhouse, inwardly he can feel the wild Malicroix blood that’s in him, symbolised by the wild untamed nature on the island. Those two types of blood are raging through him leaving us to wonder which will win; and while that battle is going on we can’t help but puzzle on what the secret of the island and inheritance actually is.

The island—I wanted it; I had become its spirit; I haunted it like a ghost; my soul depended on its possession, and in the auspicious darkness through which Dromiols vainly searched for me, I moved ahead toward my destiny, tormented by a growing anxiety, but lucid, my head lowered, like a blind force.

I must mention Bosco’s writing, because the narrative is quiet beautiful and the prose lyrical, often hallucinogenic. Martial goes through many trials on his journey towards his inheritance, with a number of stumbling blocks on the way. There are others on the shore across the river: the strange ferryman, another figure initially unidentified and descendents of ancient enemies. Early on in the story, the mysterious Maitre Domiols tells Martial the family history, and it’s a dark one; though at this point neither Martial nor the reader knows how the past will affect what plays out in the present. Bosco’s narrative captures Martial’s heightened state of awareness, his digging down into himself to discover what kind of man he really is, and his final appreciation of the two strands of blood within him.

A little later, he would give me news of the flock, always the same. How could it have been otherwise? The Malicroix solitude, the island, our wild and barren lands—all kept people away, and where people do not enter, nothing moves, except imperceptibly. Yet ever since Balandran loved me a little, I hardly suffered. He loved me like a Malicroix, an enfeebled Malicroix, to be sure, but still stamped with the seal. I had had my night of madness. And he had seen in it the strong blood of that old, wild lineage. From that moment on, he was my man, for this is a blood that binds and commands, even in me, who usually would not know how to insist on anything nor how to give an order, so much am I a Mégremut. Yet, through my innate gentleness, Balandran had scented the old, wild blood.

Reading “Malicroix” was a completely immersive experience; each time I picked up the book I was transported to the island in the Camargue to experience its landscape along with Martial (and it *is* a very dramatic landscape). The lyrical prose is almost hypnotic at times, and yet much is left elusive and unsaid which adds to the mystery of Martial’s story. The location itself is a powerful force in the narrative, dominating at times and almost taking on a personality of its own.

Had I not already entered the outline of a disturbing dream? Hanging by a frail thread at the center of the ravenous river, the boat seemed an improbable memory. Yet it was more than a dream, for my eyes had truly seen it, and in my sleeplessness I was tempted to interpret it as an emblem of a lonely thought—man on the water, awaiting night and death.

There’s a small supporting cast in “Malicroix”, but they’re beautifully drawn characters. Balandran and Brequillet, both initially wary of the incomer, warm to him as he comes to love the island and are loyal friends. A mysterious woman comes to Martial’s aid at a time of great distress, and may have more to do with the story of the Malicroix family than is immediately obvious. Even the dubious Uncle Rat is not as straightforward as he seems. And Martial’s family, initially portrayed as rather soft and bland, are revealed as good people, powerful in their own way and able support their errant family member; his return visit to them before a final trial is very moving.

She had not heard me approaching. Now, for the first time in my life, I could contemplate her at leisure, seeing her with new eyes, the eyes of another. For the stranger had followed me. The stranger was here—I was the stranger. Caught between these two natures that nevertheless interpenetrated one another, body and soul, I was reluctant to trouble the peace of this charming old woman who, while she waited for me, bent over her rose point lace, carefully stitching.

Looming over the book is the monumental, larger-than-life presence of the mysterious notary Domiols; his willpower is spelled out and it often seems that he will overwhelm Martial by sheer force of personality, compelling him to leave the island. However, the latter discovers that his Megremut blood gives him hidden strength in his patience and his ability to copy with isolation. Whether it gives him enough strength to cope with facing his ultimate fear – the chaos and disorder of the river – is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Henri Bosco [Souricette-du-13 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

As you might guess, I absolutely loved this book. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, really (though the nearest comparisons I can think of are The Marble Cliffs and The Other Side, also both from Twentieth Century European authors). I grew extremely fond of Martial, Balandran and Brequillet in particular, and had some bad moments about the fate of all of them! And I can understand the fuss that’s been made about this book, because it really is something special. Beautifully written, totally absorbing, emotionally affecting and quite haunting, “Malicroix” is a book to get under your skin and into your soul.

*****

I feel I should say a special word of thanks to translator Joyce Zozana for her work on bringing Malicroix to us. From what I understand, she first encountered the book back in the 1970s when it was praised in another work she was reading – Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”, which oddly enough has been lurking on my TBR for a few months. Now there’s synchronicity… Anyway, apparently Joyce was inspired enough to want to start translating it at the time, but then life got in the way. Fortunately for us, she was able to return to the book in the 2010s and we now have the chance to read Bosco’s electrifying work. Thank you so much Joyce!

(Many thanks to NYRB for allowing Damian Stuber to kindly pass on the e-reading copy to me – much appreciated!)

Voices of the disenfranchised @nyrbclassics #julioramonribeyro

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The Word of the Speechless: Selected Stories by Julio Ramon Ribeyro
Translated and Edited by Katherine Silver

Translated books obviously mean a great deal to me – some of my favourite authors are from Russia and France, for example – but there are some countries where I haven’t explored so much. South America, for example, has produced some stunning authors, and its my loss that I’ve only read a handful (Borges, Bioy Casares, Ocampo spring to mind). So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read a collection of short stories by a Peruvian author new to me: “The Word of the Speechless” by Julio Ramon Ribeyro.

Ribeyro (1929 – 1994) was a prolific author; as well as novels, essays and plays, he produced numerous volumes of short stories; he’s a considered a master of the latter genre. This new collection draws from all of his short story volumes, as well as featuring one ‘forgotten’ story; and they really are gems. Aside from his writing career, Ribeyro served as diplomatic ambassador for Peru at UNESCO – a position which it appears occasionally caused conflict with other Peruvians (the political situation in that country seems to have been changeable and problematic). Ribeyro stated once that his work was to speak for “the marginalized, the forgotten, those condemned to an existence without harmony and without voice”. That’s an apt summing up of the feeling I got from this excellent collection, and the title of the book is very well chosen.

So – on to more specifics. The stories range far and wide over a number of different settings (and the date and location of writing is often stated). Paris, Capri, Lima (his place of birth), Antwerp – Ribeyro was certainly well travelled, and his characters often share that peripatetic lifestyle. Some of the stories feature fantastic elements, perhaps what might be called ‘magic realism’ (though I’m never entirely sure about that term…) “The Insignia” was a clever tale, involving a man being absorbed accidentally into a secret society about which he knows nothing; “Nothing To Be Done, Monsieur Baruch” narrates the tragicomic end of an abandoned and lonely old man (and manages to insert a lovely in-joke); “The Wardrobe, Old Folks, and Death” looks at the importance of family history and heritage, as well as taking in more slightly surreal elements; “The Solution” is a dark, twisty and quite brilliant short piece looking at the state of a marriage. A particular stand out is “At the Foot of the Cliff” which really does look at the lives of the disenfranchised, their struggle to survive against all odds, and the tragedies life deals out to them. Then there’s “Doubled”, another short, clever and twisty tale of opposites.

The central chamber was topped off by a high square door, always locked, and we never knew what it contained; perhaps those papers and photos that one carries around from one’s youth and doesn’t destroy out of fear of losing part of a life that, in reality, is already lost. (Describing the wardrobe from “The Wardrobe, Old Folks, and Death”)

It’s always hard to review short story collections, as picking out favourites kind of implies that some are better than others; and that’s not the case here. Each story is quite wonderful, albeit often in different ways from others; and some obviously draw from Ribeyro’s life (for example, “For Smokers Only”, a dark look at how a tobacco addiction can take over your whole existence – Ribeyro was himself a hardened smoker, suffering from lung cancer).

The Author (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This lovely collection frmy NYRB Classics has been edited and translated by Katherine Silver (and a wonderful selection I think it is!); and the impressionistic introduction is by Alejandro Zambra, a renowned author in his own right (and is taken from his “Not to Read” collection, which I have TBR in a lovely Fitzcarraldo edition). Despite the downbeat nature of some of the stories, there is also a dry humour, particularly in stories which skewer societal norms and relationships – “A Literary Tea Party” is a wonderful example of that. And Ribeyro writes so beautifully and evocatively throughout the range of his work.

However, there *is* inevitably a thread of melancholy running through these tales. There are usually no happy endings for Ribeyro’s characters, but nevertheless the stories are absorbing, wonderful and unforgettable. He really does speak for the marginalised and disenfranchised, and I’m so happy I made the acquantaince of his writing. There appears to be little else of his work available in English, so I can only hope that the release of this book will herald further translations; I’d really like to read more Ribeyro!

(Review copy kind provided by the publisher – many thanks! :D)

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

“…. brutal, like the smash of a fist….” #elizabethhardwick #sylviaplath @NYRBClassics

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Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I narrowly missed picking up a duplicate copy of Elizabeth Hardwick’s seminal collection of essays when I was in the wonderful Foyles, Charing Cross Road. It’s been re-released in a very pretty Faber edition, but I had a feeling in the back of my head that I might already own it. Turned out that I did, in a lovely old NYRB Classics edition. Spotting in the wild did, however, bring it back onto my radar; and as I’d heard such great things about it, I made a point of picking it up fairly soon after my London trip.

The book was originally published in 1974, and collects together a number of essays from the early 1970s. The subject matter is, in effect, women *in* literature and women *writing* literature; and the book focuses on a number of names we’re probably all familiar with, as well as taking on the knotty subjects of the book’s title in the final piece. Indeed, that title refers as much to the effect of literature on women as the subject matter of some of the essays. Hardwick is an author I’d read before; I have some of her works in lovely green Virago editions, and I reviewed “Sleepless Nights” on the Ramblings way back in 2012. Her writing style is distinctive and very individual, and she brings a rigorous intellect to these essays. I didn’t always necessarily agree with her, but I did find the book very stimulating.

To get to specifics. The book opens with a substantial piece on the Brontes and their work, their lives and their impact. Hardwick goes on to consider the women in the plays of Henrik Ibsen; he certainly was a man who focused strongly on female characters. The next section of the book looks at women Hardwick designates as ‘Victims and Victors’; this contains essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Bloomsbury and Virginia Woof. Following this are the ‘Amateurs’, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle. And the book closes with “Seduction and Betrayal”, a very thought-provoking essay which explores seduction in the arts from Don Giovanni to much more modern works.

As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, combining authors, characters and women who did not consider themselves as writers but whose letters and journals are still read today. And Hardwick is a provocative and insightful commentator. Her take on the Brontes is fascinating, and a counter to the bucolic image which has grown up around them. Hardwick refuses to soften, whitewash or sanitise these women, allowing them their anger and strength. When you look at the circumstances and places from which the women sprang, they are simply extraordinary.

… neighbours and families and gossip, boredom, marriage, money, and work are still what the drama of life is about.

Ibsen is an author with whom I’ve had a limited acquaintance; as far as I can recall, I’ve only read his play “Brand” which doesn’t really feature here, having as it does a strong male central character. However, the discussion of his women, who are often powerful memorable characters dominating his plays, is fascinating and actually made me keen to read more of him. I certainly can’t help but agree with this exchange which Hardwick quotes from one of his works:

In one of the most striking bits of dialogue between husband and wife, Helmner says, “… no man sacrifices his honour, not even for the one he loves.“ “Millions of women have done so,“ Nora replies.

“Victims and Victors” is an interesting grouping of subjects, though I’m not sure I entirely approve of the titling here. To regard any of these women as victims somehow seems to detract from their work and all are significant artists. However, the piece on Zelda Fitzgerald is particularly insightful, highlighting the difference in attitudes towards creative men and women. The kind of behaviour tolerated in men, as creative and artistic, is dismissed as hysterical or mad in women, and it’s time we moved on from that. The essay on Bloomsbury and Woolf perhaps slightly missed the mark for me; the focus is on elements of class and sexuality; bearing in mind the time which has elapsed since the essay was written, and how much our attitudes have changed and our knowledge of Woolf and her compatriots increased, it has perhaps dated less well. However, some of her commentary of Woolf’s writing is spot on and I did enjoy the essay.

The two pieces on the women Hardwick classes as ‘amateurs’ making thought-provoking reading. Both in effect lived in the shadow of ‘great men’ – poet William Wordsworth and author Thomas Carlyle. Much of their efforts went into supporting these ‘geniuses’; and yet they still found time for their own writing, in the form of journals and letters, and these in many ways are more readable and approachable than the men’s writing. Dorothy found fulfilment from her close relationship with her brother, and most likely would never have written works for publication on her own; likewise, Jane Carlyle was a social animal, organising her husband, holding court at their Cheyne Walk house, and writing witty letters in a time when that was the only mode of communication. They left us not only snapshots of life with the great men, but also a record of their own lives which is quite fascinating.

…flirtation, surrender, pregnancy, misery. This is the plot of existence.

As for the final (title) essay, it’s a tricky one. It does indeed deal with seduction and betrayal in literature; and of course the ultimate end stage of seduction is rape, which exists as a topic and a plot device in a worrying number of early works of art. It’s actually a bit shocking to consider how many novels, operas and the like rely on whether a woman will put out as the main thrust (ahem) of their plot. Hardwick is of the opinion that in the modern world, this kind of plot has probably had its day; certainly, the consequence of enjoying sex, in the form of unwanted pregnancy, doesn’t always have the destructive effect on a woman’s life that it used to – well, at least in some cultures. However, women are still judged on their sexuality so I’m not entirely convinced everything has changed.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve left what for me is the highlight of the collection until the end of my post. I confess I was probably most excited about reading the Plath essay, and it didn’t disappoint. Hardwick digs deep into Plath’s art, identifying the anger in the poet’s work and investigating the roots of this. She refuses to paint Plath as a martyr, linking her with other strong female poets of the 20th century like Bishop, Moore and Sexton; and I found the piece very moving. Hardwick astutely links Woolf and Plath; but I think she perhaps underplays the focus of the latter’s famous poem “Daddy” in considering it mainly relation to the poet’s father and ignoring the reading of it as also being in relation to her husband. Nevertheless, Hardwick’s discussion of the portrayal of death in Plath’s verse was particularly pithy; her highlighting of the relationship in “The Ball Jar” between the Rosenberg’s execution by electric chair and Plath’s own ECT was chilling; and the essay really made me want to re-engage with Plath’s poetry.

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

So overall this was a really engrossing and, yes, seductive collection of of essays exploring the intersection of women’s art and their behaviour, the forces that impelled them to create, the cultural influences restricting them and the great achievements they made. Certainly, all of these women who were creators have left a lasting legacy; all of the women who were characters have entered into the canon; and the book is proof, if it were needed, that women are just as capable of creating great art as men are, particularly when the domestic side of life can be got out of their way. I’m glad a random sighting of this book prompted me to search out my copy of “Seduction and Betrayal” as it was a wonderful read; and I think I may have to bump my other unread Hardwicks a bit further up the TBR! D

(Hey! The second title of the month which qualifies as a non-fiction work for the challenge!)

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