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“…on this earth, does every action have to lead to suffering?” #NovNov22 #hill #jeangiono @nyrbclassics

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Last month’s 1929 Club had a wealth of wonderful titles to choose from, and inevitably I ran out of time before I could read everything I wanted to from the year. What was particularly frustrating, however, was realising that books I had on the TBR were from that year and I hadn’t spotted this!. “Walking in Berlin” was one book I missed, which I really should read soon; and another was one which lovely JacquiWine gave me last Christmas, and had been glaring at me ever since. So as it was also a novella, I decided that now would be the perfect time to pick it up – and I did actually read this during our club reading week but am still playing catch up with the reviews!

“Hill” by Jean Giono and translated by Paul Eprile (NYRB, *when* will you name the translator on the cover!!!) was the author’s first published work. A mainly self-educated man, he lived most of his life in south-eastern France and having survived WW1 and Verdun he became a life-long pacifist. As far as I can tell, much of his work is rooted in nature and landscape, and certainly in “Hill” those aspects play a very powerful part.

Set in a small hamlet in Provence, the story is based around the handful of people who live there; in four little white houses live twelve people (and there is Gagou, a simpleton who turned up from nowhere). Gondran and his wife Marguerite have her father, old Janet, living with them; there are Jaume and his daughter Ulalie; and the households of Mauras and Arbaud. The small village is isolated, with the inhabitants depending on the products of their own hard work for survival. But there have been bad omens: a suspicious black cat has been seen locally; a storm passes over and leaves the village silent; and Janet’s health is declining, whilst he raves and predicts disaster. So when the fountain runs dry, it seems that he may have been right…

As the villagers struggle to cope with the lack of water, it seems that the elements are ranged against them, and the villagers feel threatened by the very landscape around them. As Janet’s health deteriorates, the black cat moves into his house and the village is threatened by another catastrophe. Is the very land turning against them? And what drastic action might they have to take to appease it?

This kind of thing, it always starts with somebody who sees farther than the rest of us. When someone sees farther than the rest of us, it’s because there’s something a little out of kilter in their brain. Sometimes it could be by nothing at all, just by a hair, but from that moment, it’s all over. A horse, it’s no longer a horse. A blade of grass, it’s no longer a blade of grass. Everything we can’t see, they see. Outside the shapes, the outlines we’re familiar with, for them there’s something extra floating around, like a cloud.

For a slim novella, “Hill” certainly has a lot packed into it, and one of the most distinctive elements was Giono’s writing. In his world, nature is almost a sentient being, and whatever the villagers do to it (whether cutting down a plant or killing a lizard) will have repercussions and possible reparations. His vision is in many ways ahead of its time, recognising that humans are part of an interconnected nature, and certainly that’s a view of the world which many more would accept nowadays.

Earth and nature are portrayed as almost a physical entity against which man may have to fight, and Giono also demonstrates how dependant we humans are on the vagaries of climate; that’s something we’re being reminded of nowadays, but in a smaller setting like the village here, lack of water or crops that won’t grow or other existential threats are more immediate, and the superstitious nature of the villagers make this even more complicated. It’s a sobering read which really did remind me how small we are in comparison to nature, but it also made me angry again at how much of a mess we’re making of this planet.

As I mentioned, Giono’s writing is distinctive and really memorable; and he brings the natural world alive, almost anthropomorphising the earth by the way he writes about it, which I felt brought the relationship between humans and the land into much sharper focus. It’s also a very lyrical way of writing, and the narrative was completely compelling. Although this is a short work (I’m counting it as a novella for this month), it’s brimming with both human experience and thought-provoking ideas. The descriptions of the land around the village are stunning, and the book is gripping from start to dramatic finish.

When I picked this book up to read it, I really had no idea what to expect as it was my first Giono; and I was blown away by it. Really, it’s quite a singular work – I’m not sure I’ve read a book like it – and it’s certainly left me keen to read more of the author’s writing. Giono was obviously a highly talented author and I have Jacqui to thank for my introduction to his work – loved this book!

“…we do not choose our prisons.” #lasttimes #victorserge @nyrbclassics

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Three summers ago, when I set off on my usual annual round trip to visit the Aged Parent and the Offspring, I took with me a book which turned out to be an epic read: “The Notebooks of Victor Serge“. The author is a long term favourite of mine, one who’s featured on the Ramblings many times, and so this release from NYRB was very exciting and turned out to be one of my reads of the year. Fast forward to 2022, and the first time I’ve done that round trip since the pandemic, and lo and behold NYRB issue another massive tome from Serge, just in time for me to take on my travels – how obliging!!! 🤣🤣🤣 Seriously though, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time and it was perfect for me to immerse myself in whilst making slightly nervous steps back into the wider world. The book is “Last Times”, translated from the French by Ralph Manheim and revised by Richard Greeman, and it’s a stupendous read.

“Last Times” tells of the fall of France in the Second World War and the effects that occupation by the Germans has on a disparate group of characters. The book opens in a seedy hotel in Paris, where reactions to the coming changes are mixed; some think the discipline and orderliness of the Germans will be good for the country; others are more clear-sighted and recognise what’s coming. In particular, those who are emigres, like Dr Ardatov, have been through similar experiences already; and the Jewish characters are ready to flee. Then there are two young protagonists, the Jewish Maurice Silber and Spanish Manuel Ortiga, both of whom have good reasons for wanting to stay away from the Nazis. Hilda is a German revolutionary who is also under threat from the occupying forces; and Laurent Justinian, an emotionally battle scarred soldier, is on the run from his experiences. Another central character is Felicien Murier, a celebrated and decorated French author, who could have lived safely under the new regime because of his prestige, as long as he went along with the literary stunts the German authorities wanted from him. Simpler folk are woodburner Augustin Charras and his daughter Angele, caught up, as were all the regular people of France, in the frightening conflict.

Dr Simon Ardatov made twenty-five francs in an evening, considerably less than if he had been a porter; yet the carrying of heavy loads requires muscles a man does not have at the age of sixty-three; and Simon Ardatov knew from experience that half a century of study does not equip a man for washing cars or peddling patent medicines. The sad thing about surviving several historical catastrophes is that you grow old like everybody else, and after spending your strength resisting fascism you still need one or two meals a day.

These are some of the main characters in what is a richly populated book which explores the lives and fates of those caught up in the occupation. The beginning of the book focuses on Paris, where the protagonists await the arrival of the Germans. The tone is chilling, and as the Nazis arrive, many try to carry on as normal – after all, they’re just ordinary people and there is always someone in charge; does the change of the ‘man at the top’ make that much difference to their lives? It soon becomes clear, however, that it will; there’s a brutality about the occupiers, anyone who doesn’t fit in with their Aryan theories is vulnerable, and many of those with strong anti-Fascist feelings decide to flee to the free zone, heading south to Marseilles, which is the last point of departure from France to a safer world.

So the narrative follows the various journeys the characters take; whether by train, truck or bicycle, there’s a huge mass of people moving south and the journey is not without its dangers; whether from other travellers, war planes overhead or groups of enemy soldiers, the escapees are always at risk. Travelling groups form and break apart, new friendships are made, and some will not make it as far as Marseilles. However, for those who do there is no guarantee of safety; there are enemies around every corner, fake papers will not always be enough, and even for those who manage to make it onto a boat away from Europe, there are still risks ahead. The conflict has made it clear that the world is a much smaller place than we thought and there are dangers everywhere…

The important thing is that the totalitarians will be carried away in their turn. We are at the edge of the pit, but the pit has been dug for them too. They’re taking Paris, one day Berlin will be taken or destroyed, you don’t need astrology to know that. And neither France nor Europe can die without being reborn. Something new must be done, and they’re doing it, but with the oldest implements in the world: madness, war, chains, the inquisition.

“Last Times” is a book which does not hurry its story and it’s all the more powerful for it. As we follow the protagonists through their journeys we get the chance to know them, to hear them debating life and its meanings with others and with themselves; and because we’ve come to know them, their fates can be even more moving. The central character, perhaps, and one who may well represent Serge himselve in the narrative, is Dr Simon Ardatov, a Russian emigre who has seen many changes in the world and has a realistic view of events. Becoming a refugee again is something he takes calmly and in his stride, and he was the protagonist to whom I became most attached. Murier, too, was a perhaps unexpectedly powerful character, and the part of the book where he witnesses the arrival of the Nazis in a Jewish area of Paris is masterly and chilling. The women characters are perhaps less well formed than in Serge’s other books, falling into uncomfortable madonna/whore cliches at times (there are a *lot* of streetwalkers in the book!) Hilda is perhaps the most interesting of the women but unfortunately she’s a little underdeveloped; maybe for strong woman characters in a similar situation it would be best to read something like “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky!

The true style of the present era is that of the concentration camp. We are living in this atrocious hole here because we are in a gentle country characterised by a negligent humanism that was a generation behind the times or perhaps two generations ahead of the times – that remains to be seen. The concentration camps of Russia and Germany are masterpieces of organisation of a type hitherto unknown in history.

However, the book also raises strong moral questions as to how to behave in extreme situations like this. Some simply choose to follow the herd and go for an easy life, trying to live alongside the new regime as best they can. Survival is, after all, probably a human’s strongest instinct, and it will force many into selfishness and sometimes betrayal; it’s hard to be too judgemental because of course we have no idea how would we react in a similar situation. Some of Serge’s protagonists find hidden reserves; some, however, take what they feel is the only way out. Once more, who knows how they would behave under such circumstances… The rich and kaleidescopic collection of characters give the author a chance to explore a wide range of human behaviour, as well as to incorporate his own experiences – for, of course, Serge himself fled France via Marseilles and a ship to Mexico where he found temporary refuge before his untimely death in 1947.

Interestingly, “Last Times” is perhaps a more conventional novel than you might expect to find from Serge, who was known for his often experimental styling. However as Richard Greeman makes clear in his excellent introduction, Serge wrote the book intentionally this way, as a kind of attempt at a bestseller (and indeed the book was very popular in its initial release, capturing as it did the effects of recent dramatic events on the people in France). However, this is no potboiler; the book is beautifully and lyrically written, mixing passages of description of the settings with sometimes brutal events and philosophical musings of the characters. It’s a heady mix which creates an unforgettable tableau of people and landscape in a clash between opposing ideologies. It also explores the depths to which humanity can sink, and Serge’s often chilling narrative leaves you in no doubt about how ghastly human beings can be.

“Last Times” has had a slightly turbulent publishing history, as Greeman explains in a note on the translation. Ralph Manheim was an esteemed translator and worked with Serge when translating the book. However, the publisher, Dial Press, made a number of changes to the book which were never approved by either Serge or Manheim, and many of Serge’s changes were not incorporated. The final version, therefore, was not what Serge would have wished for and so Greeman (who has done so much to promote Serge’s work) has restored the missing passages and revised the translation, presenting here a full version of the original book – which is wonderful!

This has been a hard post to write in some ways; I was so involved in the book and so knocked out by its brilliance and epic range that I find it difficult to capture that and convey just how I feel about it in a coherent fashion! Serge’s writing always has this effect on me, with his mix of wonderful writing, unforgettable characters and settings, plus his underlying wish for a fair and just world. This is a timely and relevant release, in a world which is still wracked with war and conflict, full of refugees seeking for a safe haven. Suffice to say that “Last Times” will be another Serge work which makes my books of the year list, and it cements his status as one of my favourite writers. Highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. “Last Times” is out tomorrow from NYRB Classics

“The immemorial passion for material possession endured.” @nyrbclassics #JozefCzapski

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I’ve been melting in the heat a little recently, as no doubt many of you have too! My reading has slowed down quite a lot during July, but I *have* been reading , and the book I want to talk about today is one which has been on my radar for some time. I received a proof of it ages ago (the original publication date was March 2020); then it was put back to April 2021, and finally was published in March 2022. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes – very much so!!

The work in question is “Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History” by Josef Czapski (translated by Alissa Valles), and the author has appeared on the Ramblings before, when I covered his “Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp“. Perhaps his most famous work is “Inhuman Land”, where he relates his quest to discover the truth about the fate of thousands of Polish officers who were massacred in Katyn Forest in 1940. “Memories…” is related to both these works in that many of the pieces collected here were written during WW2 while these events were still recent, and also because some of them discuss art and literature. Czapski was primarily a painter, although on the evidence of the books of his I’ve read, his writing is outstanding.

“Memories…” gathers together the title work, as well as 19 other pieces labelled as “Essays, Interviews, Letters (1943-1987)”. All are powerfully and beautifully written, ranging from memories of meetings with Anna Akhmatova to thoughts on ‘Blok and Inner Freedom’. Many of the works collected here were written whilst Czapski was travelling on diplomatic business, and they’re presented chronologically and usually dated. Often they were published in ‘Kultura’, a leading Polish-émigré literary-political magazine which ran from 1947 to 2000; and it’s clear from pieces like ‘Katyn and the Thaw’ that Czapski never stopped following world events closely, determined that the fate of his fellows from Starobielsk would not be forgotten.

‘The poet is a child of harmony. He has to fulfil the world a role in world culture,’ Blok says.

That thread of memory runs through most of the works collected in this volume, and in fact one of the longest pieces, ‘Recollections’ (from an interview conducted in 1971) makes fascinating reading as Czapski looks back over his life. He discusses his art; what a painter needs to be able to work, and to recognise when his work is not going well and he needs to abandon it; and explores the work of other artists like Chaim Soutine. In all of these pieces, his analysis is measured yet there’s an underlying passion in his prose, and that comes out most strongly in the title piece of the book.

“Memories of Starobielsk” is a litany of memory; whilst held in the camp. Czapski had no materials to write or draw or record things and so as soon as he was able, he put down onto paper as many of the people and events he could remember from the camps. He was obviously determined to record as much as he could, and no doubt took these memories with him when he set out to try to find the truth about what happened in Katyn. It’s a particularly powerful and moving piece, and I must admit my heart broke reading about all these creative, cultured, talented people who were blindly massacred. Truly, war is evil.

Not knowing contemporary man, I know eternal man, whose face is visible/shines through in art. Why does Egyptian sculpture give me something more than rapture, why is the drawing of a horse in a cave across a distance of fifteen thousand years closer to me than the best drawing from Degas’s last period?

Jozef Czapski was obviously an intelligent, humane man who lived through unspeakable times and tried to help his comrades as well as ensuring they weren’t forgotten. He also brought his impressive intellect to a number of subjects, both written and visual arts, and it’s clear he believed that culture was essential to humanity. When I was writing about his “Lectures on Proust…” I commented “It’s a testament to the power of words and the importance of literature that the deep love of those works of art helped to keep these prisoners sane whilst living through inhuman conditions.” I stand by that even more so, having now read more of his memories and more of his thoughts on art generally. As culture continues to be dumbed down all around us, we need to keep hold of the arts – I do believe they are what make us human, and I suspect Jozef Czapski would agree with that too. “Memories of Starobielsk” is a powerful, unforgettable book and kudos to NYRB for publishing this and his other works.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“The versifier’s bitterest, most unbearable affliction is his title…” #Pushkin #RobertChandler #ElizabethChandler @borisdralyuk

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A quick look at the Russian section of my bookshelves (which is pretty large…) reveals that I possess a good number of books by, and about, Alexander Pushkin. Known as the father of Russian poetry, and often indeed as the founder of modern Russian Literature, I’ve read a reasonable amount of his works; the poems mostly in anthologies, and also a lovely little collection of short prose works translated as “Belkin’s Stories” by Roger Clarke and published by Alma Classics. It’s interesting that, although Pushkin is most known as a poet, he actually produced many prose works, finished and unfinished. So I was very excited when I heard that NYRB Classics were releasing a new collection entitled “Peter The Great’s African: Experiments in Prose”, edited by Robert Chandler, and translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Boris Dralyuk; let’s face it, I was obviously going to want to read it!

The book collects together four pieces: Peter the Great’s African, The History of the Village of Goriukhino, Dubrovsky and The Egyptian Nights. Each of these, which vary in length from short fragment to almost novella, is an unfinished work, but they’re all remarkable pieces in their own right, and the book makes fascinating reading.

In the title story, Pushkin draws on his own heritage, as his maternal great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was an African who had been kidnapped and enslaved, but ended up as a favourite and godson of Peter the Great. Cleverly, Pushkin uses the backdrop of his kinsman’s story to contrast the lifestyles of Russia, with its boyars and old traditions, and Paris, with its modernity and new ways. As we follow Ibrahim, the protagonist, on his journey through French then Russian society, we can see how Peter’s reforms were making inroads into the traditional lifestyle in his country, and that this was not always welcome. As well as the modernisations, the story also tackles the reactions of the Russians to the African man; despite his virtues, there is an underlying sense that if he had not had the protection of the Tsar, attitudes might well have been different. As the story breaks off, Ibrahim has had his heart broken and is preparing to make a society marriage to cement his status; alas we will never know how Pushkin would have resolved that plot strand.

“The History of the Village…” is a short, punchy and satirical piece. The narrator and author of the history is one Belkin (who also featured in the stories I mentioned above) an impoverished nobleman. Bored while staying in the countryside, he decideds that he has the making of a man of letters and sets out to explore a number of genres. Eventually, after finding all of them unsatisfactory, he settles on writing history, but even this seems problematic. His sources are random and partial; he senses bias everywhere; and he cannot even recognise the requirements of history as opposed to fiction. As well as satirising history and historians, there’s also the sense that Pushkin is parodying himself as Belkin has many traits and life events in common with his creator; altogether, it’s a clever and entertaining piece.

“Dubrovsky” is the longest work in the book, an unfinished novel in which Pushkin explores the situation in Russia and finds it wanting. Two landowners, Troyekurov and Dubrovsky, fall out and the former determines to dispossess the latter. The local legal systems can be easily bought and Troyekurov (a nasty, vicious and obnoxious tyrant if there ever was one) has the money to do so. His actions bring about the demise of Dubrovsky the father; however, his son returns to the village to avenge his father and becomes a notorious outlaw, assisted by a group of loyal serfs who join his gang of brigands. Events come to one dramatic head, although there is much action and drama in the story, and we will never know the end of Dubrovsky’s story; but what we do have is fascinating.

Again, Pushkin is definitely critiquing the system here; the serfs are nothing more than slaves, the law belongs to whoever has most money or sway in a locality, and there is the sense that good has no power against the corrupt systems of Russian law. There is a feeling in the first three stories that the old Russian traditions are so embedded that it will be impossible to drag the country and its population screaming and kicking into any kind of modernity. Certainly, Dubrovsky’s serfs are fiercely loyal to him and want to stay with him; there’s not much of a hint that they can envisage any kind of independence or freedom, and indeed the country is not structured in a way to give them opportunities.

Charsky made every possible effort to escape the insufferable soubriquet. He avoided his fellow men of letters, preferring the company of even the most vacuous members of high society. His conversation was exceedingly banal and never touched on literature. In his dress he always followed the latest fashion with the diffidence and superstition of a young Muscovite visiting Petersburg for the very first time. His study, furnished like a lady’s bedroom, did not in any respect call to mind that of a writer; no books were piled on or under the tables; the sofa was not stained with ink; there was none of the disorder that reveals the presence of the Muse and the absence of dustpan and brush. Charsky despaired if one of his society friends discovered him pen in hand. It is hard to believe that a man endowed with talent and a soul could stoop to such petty dissimulation.

The final piece in the book explores a different aspect to the changes in Russian society. “The Egyptian Nights” tells the story of the poet Charsky, a man with a complicated relationship to his art. The obvious thing, of course, is to see Charsky as a cipher for Pushkin himself, and Robert Chandler, in his excellent afterword, feels that the fictional poet does represent something of the real one. Charsky encounters an improvvisatore who composes and performs his works on the spot, after selling tickets to his recitals and getting the audience to choose his subject. That in itself is a great talent, but Charsky is uncomfortable with the commercial element of the performance. Artists of the period depended on rich patrons and the selling of one’s services, but in the story it is clear that Charsky is finding it hard to separate the demands of patrons and society with the need for purity of his writing. I guess not much has changed over the centuries, as the conflict between the commercial and the artistic still exists today.

A particularly fascinating element of “Egyptian…” is that it features two poetic sequences, and I can’t help wondering how much more of his verse Pushkin would have worked in had he finished it. As with all four pieces in this volume, there’s great joy in reading what the great writer left behind, but a sadness in knowing that he never finished them. He may have considered his prose to be “experiments” but it’s quite clear he had singular talents in all of the various kinds of writing he chose.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an excellent and informative afterword by Robert Chandler, plus useful notes to the texts, and this really is an exemplary collection. Chandler has also produced a brilliant “Short Life” of Pushkin, which I reviewed here and can highly recommend if you want to explore the poet’s life further. “Peter the Great…” is of course wonderfully translated by the reliable team I credited above – they’re all translators I trust – and this volume is a brilliant way to bring Pushkin’s prose to a new and wider audience; I loved it! As you can see from the image above, I really *do* own a lot of Pushkin, and after the joy of reading this one I shall definitely have to read more. I think someone on Twitter might just have mentioned a “Eugene Onegin” readalong later in the year…. ;D

Many thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy; the book is out today!

“From any life, what remains? Its poem.” #JeanGenet #TheCriminalChild @nyrbclassics

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I’ve probably mentioned before on the Ramblings the potential issues faced by all readers when returning to a favourite author after a long period of time, and this came up recently when I revisited a writer I read a lot of in my twenties. That was one of my periods of huge exploration of different authors and kinds of writing, and also when I first starting a wider reading of translated literature. Many of the books I read were from the French, and one author I came to was Jean Genet.

Genet may well need no introduction; a fascinating and often difficult character, during his younger years he was a petty criminal, living rough; however, he went on to become a novelist, playwright, poet and essayist, and I read his major fictions and plays at the time I first discovered him (and the books are still on my shelves). However, a recent gift from my BFF J. (which featured in my round up of Christmas and birthday incomings) started me thinking about his essays, which I’d never read. After J. first mentioned his essays, I recalled that there had been a slim volume of these issued in 2020 by NYRB under the title “The Criminal Child”; and so it wasn’t long before a copy of this was winging its way to me!!

“The Criminal Child: Selected Essays” is translated by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman, and contains eight pieces: the title essay, ‘adame Miroir, Letter to Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Fragments, Letter to Jean-Jacques Pauvert, The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, and The Tightrope Walker. The essays are varied, from the title piece which Genet prepared for a radio broadcast which was never made, through a portrait of the great Cocteau, meditations on the life and art of a tightrope walker, poetic fragments and a masterly study of Giacometti. Genet’s range was obvious wide, and his choice of subjects fascinating.

The essays are drawn from the late 1940s and the 1950s, and it’s particularly wonderful to have the title essay available as it’s never been translated into English before. Dating from 1949, it was commissioned by Radiodiffusion Francaise while there was a national debate about the French reform-school system; Genet was expected to provide a piece exposing the horrors of the system and condemning it, but instead wrote a radical piece praising the system, celebrating the private language the criminals used and the rituals undertaken there. As an early celebration of those who stand outside of society and its normals, the essay is groundbreaking.

…We violently refuse this compromise and come to claim our rights over a poet who is not light, but serious. We deny Jean Cocteau the stupid title of “enchanter”: we declare him “enchanted”. He does not charm: he is “charmed”. He is not a witch, he is “bewitched”. And these words do not serve just to counter the base privolity of a certain world: I claim that they better express the true drama of the poet.

It *is* literally decades since I read Genet, so in many ways I was coming to writing cold and I found his voice wonderfully individual. His portrait of Cocteau is a powerful yet somehow tender one; “Fragments” is a beautiful prose-poem; and “The Tightrope Walker” a wonderful celebration of an artiste who risks all for his art. I think the stand-out for me might be the Giacometti portrait which vividly captures the man at work in his studio with a deep understanding of his art. Genet’s writing is lyrical and poetic as well as powerful and often ribald, and he’s never less than entertaining.

Beauty has no other origin than a wound, unique, different for each person, hidden or visible, that everyone keeps in himself, that he preserves and to which he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for temporary, but profound solitude.

Revisiting the work of Jean Genet through these essays was a real treat, and of course I had to go and dig out my whole collection to make sure I still have them safe. Of course, I still have unread the essay collection J. presented me with, and also a wonderful collection of his poems which lovely Melissa sent me; both have now moved up the TBR! I was also happy to discover I still have a grainy old VHS tape with a recording of a 1985 BBC Arena programme on Genet – I knew there was a reason I was hanging onto all those dusty old cassettes!

My complete Genet collection. Yes, there are two copies of “Funeral Rites”. No, I don’t know why….

“The Criminal Child” was actually the last book I finished in 2021 and it was a joy to go back to a favourite author. Will 2022 be the year I continue to rediscover his work? I certainly hope so!! 😁

“… we all live on history’s Unwitting Street” #sigizmundkrzhizhanovsky #joanneturnbull @nyrbclassics

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As anyone with a mountainous TBR knows, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s arrived, what’s to be read next and, actually, what book you’re really in the mood to pick up. A case in point is the book featuring on the Ramblings today; the most recent release from NYRB Classics by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “Unwitting Street” ( translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov). I bought it as soon as it came out and was so excited about the fact there was a new collection of his very individual and idiosyncratic writings available. Why, therefore, has it languished unread for so long???

There’s no good reason apart from the usual ‘so many books, so little time’; but suddenly, for no apparent reason, I realised this was the book I HAD to read right now – and it was a wonderful experience from start to finish. SK is an author with whom I’m very familiar, having read the four other books NYRB have issued, all wonderfully translated by the same team, as well as an earlier collection. SK was an author who languished in obscurity for much of his lifely, so his rediscovery is a joy. His stories are quirky, unusual and very individual; his take on life idiosyncratic; and his voice distinctive.

The grass of oblivion likes to be watered with tears: this helps it to grow.

“Unwitting…” collects together 18 short works, set in the Soviet world of the early 20th century, and they’re surreal, moving and memorable. The blurb on the back indicates that these stories are perhaps more playful than his other works in translation; well, yes, sometimes – SK is always playful, I feel, but there are dark and quite profound themes in some of these stories which really do take the breath away…

The first story in the collection, “Comrade Punt”, perhaps sets the scene for the rest of the book, with its tale of a pair of trousers able to take on a life of their own when their usual occupier dies – pretty much because of Soviet beauracracy. Short fables like “The Flyelephant” and “A Page of History” play with our preconceptions; and “The Slightly-Slightlies” starts as a tale of illusions but moves into darker territory when the illusions are dropped. “Journey of a Cage” uses the device of a parrot in a cage being passed from hand to hand to show the dramatic changes taking place in Russia of the time. In a similar fashion, “The Grey Fedora” follows the titular hat on its journey from head to head, ecountering all sorts of people on the way. “Death of an Elf” explores musical inspiration, as does “The Mute Keybord”, and chess turns up in a number of the stories. Then there’s “The Life and Opinions of a Thought” in which a philosopher’s idea fights against being written down.

But the dusk – for now – was otherwise engaged: unbidden, slipping into the hall unheard, it first gingerly touched all the corners, contours, and edges of things. Quietly pressing its gray fingers to window ledges and sills, the corners of the table, the sinuous outlines of men and chessman, the dusk tried to unsettle them. But the things, sealing up their edges, lines, and corners, resisted. Then the dusk’s gray muscles tensed and contracted, its fine cindery fingers clutched at contours and edges more fiercely and tenaciously. And the fastenings gave way: dropping lines, ledges, and planes, the shapes of things loomed up, contours swayed, corners came apart, freeing lines: things began to stream and quietly seep into one another. They were not: as of old.

All of the stories are clever, funny, quirky and so wonderfully written; and SK has a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That particular element always gives his writing a completely individual voice as far as I’m concerned – I’m not sure I’ve ever read prose like this. I’ve seen SK compared with Kafka, Borges and Calvino, and I would certainly agree that he’s a one-off as they are, taking the reader into uncharted territory and twisting their expectations. The blurb describes these stories as ‘philosophical and phantasmagorical’, a description with which I’d agree, but despite that playful element highlighted above there are most definitely dark themes running through the book. I was particularly hit by the story “God is Dead” which explores what actually happens to humanity when they cease to believe in God and so in effect that entity *does* die. It’s a breathtaking piece of fiction delving into human futility and left me quite stunned at the end. I think ‘philosophical’ is definitely the word to apply to SK’s works because you come away from them pondering deeply and with your thoughts and perspectives on life quite changed – well at least, I always do….

SK, via Wikimedia Commons

In some ways I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick up this wonderful collection, although I’m a firm believer in the right book at the right time – and maybe this was just its time! Whatever – “Unwitting…” was a wonderful, engrossing and entertaining read from start to finish, and a thought provoking one at that. Thank you whoever rescued SK’s writings from the archives, thank you Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov for giving him a voice in English, and thank you NYRB for publishing them – my life is enriched by SK’s books!

#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)

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