A descent into Hell


Down Below by Leonora Carrington

2017 is shaping up to be quite a year of anniversaries so far. The obvious one, and the one which has been gaining quite a bit of attention from my neck of the woods, is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, 2017 is also the centenary of the birth of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington and there have been a number of significant releases to mark the event. I’ve recently read and reviewed for Shiny New Books a biography of Carrington by her cousin, Joanna Moorhead, and you can read about that here. However, NYRB are leading the field with a reissue of her seminal work “Down Below”, an autobiographical piece which explores a nervous breakdown she had in the 1940s, and it’s a stunning piece of work.

Carrington is usually labelled as a surrealist and bracketed with that group of artists, owing to her association with them and her affair with Max Ernst, one of the movement’s leading practitioners. But to restrict her by that label seems unfair; she wrote as well, and a number of her books have been published over the years by Virago, keeping her work in the public eye – and in fact they are the publishers of the Moorhead book.

Carrington and Ernst

Carrington was born into a privileged background; her father was a successful, self-made businessman, and Carrington herself was presented at the court of King George V as a debutante in the season of 1935, along with her mother. However, she railed against conventionality and after several failed educational attempts, she was allowed to study art in London. It was here that she met Ernst, and despite the 23 year gap in their ages there was an instant attraction and the pair ran off together, initially to Cornwall. The partnership was a fruitful one and the couple ended up in France at the start of WW2. It was here that things began to go wrong: Max, as a German national was sent to a concentration camp, leaving the young Leonora on her own. Unable to cope, she had a nervous breakdown which led to her incarceration in a most nightmarish asylum, and this experience forms the basis of the book “Down Below”. It’s a slim volume with a chequered publication history, and it’s perhaps a little surprising initially that a work of this length (63 pages) has been published separately, as it could well have been slotted into a collection of her works. But I can understand the logic of wanting the piece to stand on its own, and its augmented by a wonderful and erudite introduction by Marina Warner, who draws heavily on her own meetings with Carrington in the 1970s – which makes it even more interesting.

In some ways, I find “Down Below” a hard book to review – what can you say a book that is nakedly honest about someone’s disturbed mental state without risking sounding trite? Carrington relates her story in an almost detached tone, telling of her inability to cope with Max’s imprisonment, her long periods of not eating and the attempts of friends to help her. She sees symbols everywhere, and as the War situation deteriorates, she is driven off to Spain by two friends. The car freezes up and will go no further; Carrington identifies herself with the car and considers herself frozen too. Her family become involved and she is institutionalised, where she slips between fantasy and lucidity and receives some truly horrific treatment. The drugs used on her induce fits and her dream is to reach the habitation ‘down below’ where all is calm and well. Eventually, she escapes the doctors and her family by making a marriage of convenience and fleeing to America, but the treatment she has endured is simply brutal.

Carrington’s map of ‘down below’, featured in the book

“Down Below” is a disconcerting book; the detached tone makes what’s happening even more shocking, and the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined are hard to find. Carrington relates shortly and in a calm tone that she was gang raped by soldiers; allowed to lie in her own filth for ages; stripped naked and tied down. It’s stark stuff, lifted by passages of beauty, and Carrington’s identification of her body in relation to the world is fascinating. Some of the passages are dizzying and dazzling, and the book is laced with symbolism – a kind of written equivalent to her visual art.

In the end, Carrington fought her way through the madness, made her escape, and eventually based herself in Mexico where she continued to paint and write, made a happy marriage and had two children. She produced an impressive body of work, and her books seem to reflect her art with their surreal stories and strange happenings. Certainly I can see the connections between her worldview in “Down Below” and the surreal landscapes and powerful women in “The Hearing Trumpet”. As a document of what it can feel like to go through a period of madness, this book is peerless; and as an account of a surreal view of life it’s unmatched. The excellent introduction puts all in context, and if you want to explore Leonora Carrington’s life and work, this book gives some valuable insights into the unique artist that she was.


The Curse of Memory


Like Death by Guy de Maupassant
Translated from the French by Richard Howard

I sometimes ask myself how it is I’ve managed to get through all these years of reading without picking up a book by a particular author, and Guy de Maupassant is a case in point. For as long as I’ve been reading books in translation I’ve been aware of his name, as well as his novel “Bel-Ami”, but the only things I can be sure I’ve read are a few short stories by him in anthologies. So when a review copy of this rather lovely novel from NYRB popped through the door I was quite pleased to have the opportunity to read something more substantial by him.

Maupassant had a short and somewhat colourful life, dying in 1893 of syphilis at the age of only 42, but he left a substantial legacy of work, particularly in the short story form. His novels are apparently less well-read but on the basis of this one, that’s a shame. The focal character of the book is Olivier Bertin; a famous artist who made his name when young, he’s basically become a society painter and at many points in the book we see him struggling to find a suitable subject for his work. Now well passed his first flush of youth (he’s constantly referred to as old, though is probably what we would now think of as middle-aged), Bertin has a long-term lover in the form of Anne, Countess de Guilleroy. The two have had their relationship for some time, and although Anne has a husband and daughter, she and Bertin are almost like an old married couple, albeit one needing to be kept under wraps!

Anne’s daughter Annette used to visit Bertin’s studio with her mother when she was a child; however, she’s been away in the country for many years and now grown to young womanhood returns to Paris to be married off in a suitable society match. Bertin is shocked when he sees Annette by the resemblance to her mother when he first knew her, and slowly but surely he develops an obsession with the younger woman until the passion he feels and the jealousy this causes begins to cause a death-blow to the relationship. Anne is of course tormented by her own ageing process and to feel herself supplanted by her own daughter is agony. Annette is oblivious to what is happening, content instead to look forward to making her own suitable match. Bertin meanwhile spends much of the book in denial, and when he finally admits the truth to himself is incapable of dealing with the situation. As my children would say quirkily, ‘end well this will not…’

“Like Death” is a beautifully written and reflective book, full of passion and melodrama, but with more depth than might be thought at first. French society life is seen for what it is, with marriages made for convenience and conventions observed; and Annette herself is content to make a suitable match with a man who will share her love of horses and riding, no doubt with the option of taking a lover herself at a later date should she feel the need.

The author

Bertin himself is perhaps something of a misfit; not quite of the same class as people like the Countess, his celebrity has allowed him access to that strata of society although he has maintained a certain air of being an outsider. In several places during the story, he displays sadness at remaining a bachelor and having no family life, wishing instead he had a cosy domestic setting with Anne. Perhaps that’s a reflection on the ageing process, as the bachelor life is all well and good while you’re young, but there comes a point where it’s no longer fun.

And Maupassant’s writing is really excellent; one piece that specifically stood out for me was the part when a character, having lost their mother, reflected on the massive loss in their life of the person who knew them best, had memories they would never get back and was always there for them in their life. It’s a powerful piece of writing and resonated strongly, as I was reading it on Mother’s Day.

But central, of course, to the novel is Bertin’s dreadful emotional suffering:

Oh, had they foreseen, had they proved the distracted love of an aged man for a young girl, how would they have expressed the frightful and secret striving of a being who can no longer inspire love, the torments of fruitless desire, and, worse than a vulture’s beak, the face of a little blonde tearing an old heart to pieces!

However, the situation is not as simple as just the infatuation of an old man with a young girl. Bertin is infatuated with his past and his early love of Anne, the girl’s mother. Initially, his obsession rekindles his love for Anne until eventually the daughter takes the place in his heart of the mother. At times, Maupassant stresses the confusion between the two women who are so alike, and it seems from Bertin’s point of view that they almost merge into one. It is only when fate intervenes and dictates that Annette must wear mourning that the resemblance becomes startling – for it was in mourning clothes that Bertin first saw Anne and painted his great portrait of her. It is here that he reaches the point of no return in his obsession with Anne. He also receives a number of blows towards the end of the book; as well as his doomed love, his work is mocked by the younger generation and his yearning for a lost youth takes on even more pathos.

But it’s not only Bertin has to deal with the effects of ageing, as Anne is devastated to realise that her looks, upon which she places so much store, are fading, a process exacerbated by grief. Despite all her artifice, she cannot compete with the youth and freshness of her own daughter, and added to the pain she feels about this is the realisation that her lover finds her own child more attractive than herself.

In a short but intriguing foreword, translator Richard Howard ponders comparisons of Maupassant’s and Proust’s work, contrasting the similarities in their ways of dealing with the process of memory. Certainly, that seems to have been an important factor in both authors’ work (at least, in what I’ve read so far) and it’s fascinating to speculate as to how much of an influence, if at all, Maupassant was on the later writer. Ironically, it’s a cruel trick of memory that brings about the crisis in “LD” and perhaps we are more under the spell of our pasts than we would care to admit.

So my first proper reading of Maupassant was a memorable and absorbing one, capturing the emotional life of society Parisians, but also delving deeper into the effects of memory on the human psyche. An excellent novel and hopefully not the last time I’ll spend time in the company of this author.

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

Outdoing the world’s greatest fabulist


The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull


I’ve written about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on the Ramblings before; an author who was unpublishable under the Soviet regime, his works came to light after the collapse of the USSR and have been gradually published and then translated into English thanks to the great talents of Joanne Turnbull. Three of his works have been issued by NYRB, and I’ve read, loved and reviewed all of them. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that NYRB would be bringing out another volume by SK, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen”. The book is out today and the publisher has kindly provided a review copy.

Every Baron has his flights of fancy… I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than any other barons of my right to flights of fancy.

Munchausen was in fact a real historical character, a German nobleman who fought for Russia in the Russo-Turkish war of 1735-39. He gained a reputation for his tall tales, and the German author Rudolf Raspe transmuted him into the fictional fabulist we know him as today, thanks to a fictionalised version of his life. Munchausen has become synonymous with lying, and the real character died back in 1797. However, SK resurrects him rather wonderfully to take on Soviet Russia – and the story is absolutely fascinating.

And in the third place, you are a bad poet, I swear by my pipe, if you do not know that books, if only they are books, may be commensurate with but never proportionate to reality!

Munchausen reappears after 200 years by dropping off the hands of time back into the Palace of Versailles. He makes a base in Berlin, where he spins more fabulous yarns, accompanied by occasional sidekick, the poet Ernst Unding (which translates as Earnest Nonsense). Amusingly enough, he’s announced as:

Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations
In and Out of This World
Since 1720

Immediately, he’s courted by the great and good, and called upon to tell tales, solve problems and eventually to undertake a secret mission. The Baron is asked to visit Soviet Russia and report back, which he does. Munchausen’s visit to Russia is not relayed directly; instead we see it filtered through his eyes, as he relates his adventures to a rapt London audience. And it’s a fascinating story, as the Baron encounters poverty, twisted logic and a society which says one thing and does another. He even manages an audience with Lenin, who seems to be able to read Munchausen’s mind, and has strong opinions on writers:

A literary hero is naturally curious about literature. About ‘how life smells’. It smells of printer’s ink to the people who populate books or have emigrated to them. So then, all of our penmen are given a choice: feast or fast. Some work steadily; others starve.

Nothing usually fazes the Baron; however, in the nascent Soviet Union he has met his match. In the end, a reality full of such fabrication is too much for the Baron and he takes himself back to where he came from. His visit was in fact spurious, but the stories he invented were sometimes actually real, and the truth is more fantastic than his tales. Munchausen the fabulist is ultimately outdone by the Soviet state, which can create more outlandish untruths than he can deal with.

I swept a fact away with a phantasm, replaced the existent with the non-existent. Always and invariably my phantasms won – always and invariably, that is, until I chanced upon the country about which one cannot lie.

So where to begin talking about “The Return of Munchausen”? Obviously, you have suspend disbelief from the start and just go with the flow. The Baron himself, as presented by SK, is a fantastic creation; confident, convinced that his tales are better than truth, it’s wonderful watching him sail indomitably through the world, an elusive figure following his own agenda. And if there’s something he wants to avoid, he simply jumps back into the book he originally came from.

Then again, how hard could it be for a man who had slipped through the five beams of a star to elude five claws?


However, putting aside the humour, this a book with a serious heart and I would say more directly satirical than his other works. There is a recurring obsession with smoke which occurs throughout the book; of course, smoke and mirrors signify the trickery of politics (both Soviet and in the wider world), but this also brought to mind the book “Smoke” by Turgenev, a book which deals with the illusions existing in Russia during that author’s time. As with all SK’s books, the imagery is unusual and stunning; on the first page, almost the first lines, we read “Now he sprang up the length of a long runner; leaping after him, taking the stairs two at a time, came muddy footprints”. Some of the phrases take your breath away as you’re reading, and even if you weren’t aware of the underlying issues the book is wonderful to read. Its self-referential qualities make it feel almost post-modern at times, and I’ve seen it described as part roman a clef, although it’s not clear whether Munchausen, Unding or the unnamed person in the quote below is standing in for the author himself….

And as for that poor scholar from the country about which one cannot lie, do not worry. I have sent him, by way of compensation, my rough drafts; if he possesses so much as a pair of scissors and a pot of glue, the resulting manuscript should help him on his literary way.

“The Return…” is an extended meditation on the nature of truth, something which must have been sharply relevant to an author living in Soviet Russia and refusing to produce Soviet Realism. The qualities in the Communist state which would be transformed by Orwell into concepts like Doublethink and Doublespeak were already in place; set in 1921, the book was written towards the end of the 1920s when the iron grip of Soviet rule was becoming established so it’s not surprising it was never published. Like so many other authors at the time, SK was most definitely writing for the drawer (the few attempts he made to get his works into print being crushed by the censor).

If you look at Moscow from a bird’s-eye view, you will see: a stone spider in the center – the Kremlin, peering out of four wide open archways at the web of streets it has woven, their gray threads, as in any web, stretching away radially, attaching themselves to distant gates…


I found myself profoundly affected by this book; it’s vivid and allusive (and fortunately provided with excellent notes and introduction by Turnbull), and the more I think about it, the more there is in it. SK seems to manage to comment on every aspect of Soviet life, even pulling in a sly reference to the theories of the Communist Manifesto when discussing the attraction of such opposites as a White Russian aristocrat and a Red Guard:

So it always was, so it will always be: antitheses will always trail after theses, but let them marry – and their old friend synthesis will be there like a shot.

If it seems that I’ve pulled out a lot of quotes that’s because the writing is so good and the imagery so outstanding. Although it’s a book with a message, “The Return of Munchausen” is a joy to read as well.

His listeners are all ears, and right away he begins to bend them; first around the edges, then along the auricular cartilage, inward and inward, until they curl up like autumn leaves and, ear by ear, softly and unrustlingly, flutter to the floor. But now his disciplined manservant, who has appeared behind the guests’ backs with dustpan and brush, quietly sweeps up the ears and carries them out.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the book here, as it’s rich with references, thoughts, aphorisms and wild imaginative humour. It’s certainly a work which I’ll return to and which will continue to resonate as I assimilate what it has to say. “The Return of Munchausen” is a deeply thoughtful and fascinating read, and I can’t recommend SK’s books enough,

Dreams and Fragments


(A little break from the #1947 Club, with a review of a lovely new book out today from NYRB)

Girlfriends, Ghosts and other Stories by Robert Walser
Translated by Tom Whalen with Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner

Swiss author Robert Walser, who wrote in German, is another one of those authors I’ve been circling for a while, thinking that I really should get on and read one of their books. So when NYRB kindly offered a review copy of a new collection of his short pieces, I was really pleased to have the chance to get to know him. Well-known during his lifetime owing to early success, his star waned as he got older and his mental state became more fragile; his ability to make a living apart from his writing declined and he ended his days in a variety of sanatoriums. However, his work was rediscovered in the 20th century and has continued to be recognised into the 21st.


So what exactly is Walser’s writing about? Well, it seems that many of his works are shorter ones, and indeed this lovely book collects together 81 short pieces (often of 1 page in length), all dated and presented chronologically. Interestingly, it seems he was admired by a wide range of writers, including Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, which gives some idea of his literary stature. The afterword by translator Tom Whalen describes the works as feuilletons and this is an art of which I’ve written on the Ramblings before, most particularly in relation to Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote many in his time. Short, newsy pieces on any topic of interest, I’m not entirely sure the word fits Walser’s very unique writings, but that’s by the by.

The living picture of the dear revered one with her face and noble expression rose softly and mysteriously out of the unfathomable depths of the green, silent grave. I stood there a long time. But not melancholy. Even I and you, all of us will come here once where everything, everything is still and comes to a close, and everything ends, and everything dissolves into silence.

In fact, deciding how to describe these pieces is quite difficult. They’re a mixture of fiction, comment and personal opinion, little nuggets and vignettes from the mind of Walser. The early ones are perhaps more straightforwardly stories, but as the book progresses the pieces become almost abstract, meditations on whatever Walser feels like talking about. So the first story “A Morning” (one of my favourites in the collection) follows a bored clerk through an interminable morning at the office; in “The Young Travelling Salesman”, Walser retells a story from a pulp magazine that frightened him as a child; and in numerous pieces he wanders through the natural world and wonders. There is infinite variety in the stories, and short as they are the linger in the mind, making you look at the world around you in a slightly different way.


The last piece in the book is dated 1933, and in that year Walser abandoned writing completely. In the time leading up to this his working practices had become increasingly more eccentric, as he wrote in pencil on tiny scraps of paper and in code. These works were eventually rediscovered and collected, and this volume draws on some of those writings. They’re evocative and intriguing metafictional pieces; Walser is constantly smashing the fourth wall, breaking off from his story to reflect on the fact that he’s writing a sketch, so that the reader is never in any doubt that what he or she is reading is filtered through the author’s particular and individual perceptions.

We don’t need anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of reading Robert Walser; his works are unlike anything else I think I’ve read, and my only caveat about this book would be that it’s best read a little at a time rather in big gulps, just to allow Walser’s beautiful writing to settle in the mind. W.G. Sebald, a great admirer of Walser, refers to him as a ” solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings” and that’s very much the impression I got from reading the book. The quotidian can be very special if we just take the time to pay it the proper attention and Robert Walser was obviously one of those people who did just that.

(Many thanks to NYRB for kindly providing a review copy)

Body and/or Soul?


Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

So, what would you do if you found that you’d somehow committed your beloved wife to an asylum, allowed her almost identical sister to move into your house and bought a dog that had the same name as your partner? And you felt completely out of control of your own life and prey to unusual and sinister forces? That’s the premise of “Asleep in the Sun” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and it’s certainly an odd one!


I picked this up as a kind of antidote to a fairly difficult to get to grips with review book I’d just been reading, and certainly it was something very different! I’ve read a few of Bioy Casares’ works before and always found them very individual. “Asleep in the Sun” is narrated by Lucio, a rather ineffectual young man who lives in a very nosey neighbourhood (the alley) where it never seems to be possible to get away from old school friends, and where everyone knows everybody’s else’s business! He is besotted with his wife Diana, but the relationship appears to have its problems; and before he knows it, he’s managed to have Diana sent off to a sanatorium (a place she’s apparently spent time in before).

Lucio is appalled and bereft (then why did he do this, you might ask?), and he’s even more upset when his wacky sister-in-law Adriana Maria moves in with her vaguely unpleasant son. Adriana may look exactly like Diana, and seem intent on flinging herself at Lucio, but she’s very unlike her sister in personality. This sets Lucio to wondering why he loves Diana so much – is it just her physicality, to which he responds strongly, or is it what’s inside?

While Lucio continues with his job as a watch and clock repairer, his housekeeper Ceferina alternately insults and nurtures him. He mingles with his old friends in the neighbourhood, buys a dog (coincidentally named Diana) and tackles the sanatorium about sending his wife home. Finally, she does return – but somewhat changed in temperament, with all the kinks in her make-up ironed out. Although delighted to have her back, Lucio struggles with the changes in her. And he’s less than happy with the implication that he himself is in need of a little medical care. As his story progresses there is an increasing sense of menace, a hint of dark deeds, and Lucio’s struggle with identity becomes a profound one.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I’m trying to avoid spoilers (and there are plenty of those on the back of the book!); plus if I’m honest I’m still working out quite what to make of this intriguing and sometimes puzzling story. Like every Bioy Casares narrator I’ve encountered so far, Lucio is inherently unreliable; he denies every motive or intent recognised in him by friends and family, so that you end up wondering which of them is actually telling the truth! Initially, the book seems to be more about the troubles of his marriage, the differences of temperament between himself and those around him and the problems of his extended family and friends. But as the story develops it becomes much darker, ending up as a deep exploration of personality and what it is that makes a person themselves. Is it the physical or is it what we call the soul? And can the two be separated?


“Asleep in the Sun” is not always a straightforward read – at one point our narrator states “I didn’t understand a thing”, and the reader is tempted to agree with him. It’s often unclear what’s real and imagined, and as I said, Lucio’s reactions and impressions are undependable to say the least. I found myself wondering at several points where the narrative was going and it’s only as you get to the end that everything clicks into place and you find out the kind of point Bioy Casares was trying to make.

So this is a very clever read, if perhaps a little unclear and unsettling in places (though that may be what the author had intended). I found myself thinking quite deeply about questions of identity (which are often fluid in Bioy Casares’ work) and I can tell that I’ll be pondering the book’s messages for some time. I didn’t love this in the same way as I loved “The Invention of Morel”, or the spoof crime novel “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which he wrote with Silvina Ocampo; but nevertheless I’ve ended up with plenty of food for thought and I’m sure I’m going to be mentally untangling “Asleep in the Sun” for months!

Shiny New Books 11 – plus a great #WIT month read!


SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Today sees the arrival of two exciting things! First off, the latest issue of Shiny New Books, no 11, is now live so head on over (as they say) for all things bookish and interesting. There will be plenty of new books to entice you to buy, plus lots of fascinating background stuff.


I’ve contributed a few things this time, and first of all will point you towards my (quite long!) review of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent”. Now available in a shiny new translation from Alma Classics, it’s an unjustly neglected book deserving of as much attention as the author’s other books. To find out more, have a look at my review here.


August is amongst other things, of course, Women in Translation month. I’ve already read a wonderful book that falls into this category and is likely to be one of my books of the year – “Grand Hotel” by Vicki Baum.


It’s a book I was really looking forward to and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s brilliant and I couldn’t put it down. “Grand Hotel” has been reissued in a lovely new edition from NYRB and that’s out today and highly recommended. If you want a good read for WIT month you don’t need to look any further than this. My review of GH will appear in the next edition of Shiny New Books but in the meantime – get reading it! 🙂

Some newbies hit the shelves…


It’s a busy time of year for me at work, and I’ve been struggling a little to keep up with the reading; and so I’ve tried to stem the amount of books coming into the house. But that usually fails a bit, and there *are* a few new arrivals I’d like to share with you! 🙂

I’m still taking donations to the local charity stores and doing quite well at not bringing replacements home. However, these two slipped into my bag somehow – well, they really couldn’t be left behind…

simenon st exupery

The Saint-Exupery is a title I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and such a beautiful Penguin edition in lovely condition couldn’t be ignored. As for the Simenon, well I’m intrigued – it’s one of his non-Maigret titles and is set in a Soviet port in the 1930s, where the new Turkish Consul has an affair with a local woman and has to deal with the consequences. I’m really keen to read this one soon!

The other arrivals are all new books, which is rather fab! First up, a prize in a giveaway from the lovely Pushkin Press:


Again, this one sounds really good and I can’t wait to read it. The other books are all review ones, planned for forthcoming editions of Shiny New Books:

PMP new

New Penguin Modern Poets – what more can I say????


Grand Hotel – very excited about this one too, as it’s being raved about.

And finally, the reason I’m not reading much else at the moment:


600 pages of Dostoevskian loveliness! So if my reviews are not so frequent for a while, you’ll know why! 🙂

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