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“…sometimes, the heart knows when it’s the last time.” @GrantaBooks #levozerov #borisdralyuk #robertchandler

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Portraits without frames by Lev Ozerov
Edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk
Translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

There are some books that you spot on the horizon and just *know* that they’re meant for you; and “Portraits without Frames” was one of those for me. I’m well-known for my love of Russia and its arts, and yet poet Lev Ozerov was a new name to me. I spotted the book in the NYRB catalogue, and the fact that it was rendered by such an esteemed list of translators would be recommendation enough. However, the subject matter sounded essential too, and I knew I had to read this book. Unfortunately, NYRB don’t have the rights for the UK; very fortunately, Granta *do* and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

This poor book has been carted around in my bag for days, I got so attached to it, so it has taken a bit of a battering…. 😦

Lev Ozerov was born Lev Goldberg in 1914; of Jewish Ukrainian origin, he made his name as a poet and literary critic, and was an important figure in Soviet literature. The verses in “Portraits…” were written towards the end of his life, and not published until 1999 (three years after his death in 1996). In this long and profoundly moving cycle of poems, Ozerov recalls his meetings with the great and notable in Russian arts over the Twentieth Century, and the results are breathtaking.

And I recalled
…the wall of books,
all written by a man
who lived
in times that were hard to bear.

The collection has been edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk (which is frankly recommendation enough!) and is divided into categories, such as “The Poets”, “The Prose Writers” and “Music, Theater and Dance”. The format is free verse – readable, beautifully lyrical and haunting – and each pen portrait brings the subject vividly alive. Ozerov certainly mixed with just about all the great and good in Soviet art, and the fifty accounts of his meetings with them reminded me just how many incredible artists the country and the era produced – even if they had to write for the drawer a lot of the time. Each poem is preceded by an introduction outlining the life and work of the subject; each translation is individually credited; notes are provided when necessary to illuminate the poems; so this really is an exemplary volume and a flawless reading experience.

As for the poems themselves, they really are something special. Each verse brilliantly conjures place, character, atmosphere; each subject exists in their own right and emerges fully formed from their word portrait. The parts build to a whole which is a wonderful primer on Russian creatives but also an incredible work of art in its own right. The stunning imagery of Ozerov’s verse is lyrical and often profoundly moving, never shying away from the harsh reality many of these artists faced. There was torture, exile, imprisonment, murder – yet the art survived and the book is a lasting testament to the power of words.

But nothing in Russia lasts
like a damaged reputation.

The book opens with Akhmatova; it takes in the likes of Pasternak, Platonov, Babel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Meyerhold – so many familiar names, and yet also many new to me. And the outside world impinges; there are chinks in the Iron Curtain, when “with a painful grinding” it would part and let an artist in or out for a visit; for example, Andre Malraux makes a memorable appearance (and I may well have gone off down a rabbit hole looking up his work..)

One of the most powerful sections was that of the Yiddish poets. Boris Dralyuk has written movingly about the “Night of the Murdered Poets” and it’s chilling to see how many artists were wiped out on that one night on trumped-up charges. As well as painting portraits of the subjects, the poems gradually bring Ozerov himself to life for the reader; in his relationships with the subjects we see hints of the actions he took to help and support his fellow artists. The introduction sets out Ozerov’s life and work, and the impact and legacy of what Dralyuk calls his “quiet activism” is immense.

How does it start –
the mad day, the mad life
of a writer? What whim,
what overwhelming force
presses a pen into some poor fellow’s hand
and lead him down
through all of Dante’s
twisting circles?

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, well, you can read this as poetic prose. If you think you don’t know enough about Russia and its culture, there is supporting material enough for any novice. And you’d be reading the results of work by a collection of stellar translators; no messing about with Russian books which have been rendered in English in umpteen versions already. Instead, they’re bringing us groundbreaking translations of new and wonderful works, and I for one can’t thank them enough.

Lev Ozerov – unknown photo studio, possibly before or soon after the end of World War II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how I seem to stumble on works that will be standouts of my reading year as we edge closer to the end of that year; it happened in 2017 and I suspect the same may happen again in 2018. Certainly “Portraits without Frames” is an outstanding book, a haunting work of remembrance and celebration, and a book I’ll return to. I’ve ended up with a long list of poets and artist to research and explore, which will be good for my soul though bad for the bookshelves. But as well as introducing so many artists new to me, this book has also acquainted me with Lev Ozerov, a poet I really want to read more of. I do hope there are other works by him in translation…

(Review copy kindly provided by Granta Books, for which many thanks!)

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A journey into the hearts and minds of three poets #tsvetaeva #pasternak #rilke @nyrbclassics

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Letters: Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke
Edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky
Translated by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt and Jamey Gambrell

I have been on something of a roll with Russian poets recently, and in particular with my exploration of the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. Renowned for her verse, she also wrote prose, letters, diaries, a play – truly a multi-talented genius. Her “Moscow Diaries” made absorbing reading during #’WITmonth and I was impelled to send for a nice new NYRB Classics version of this collection – a grouping of letters between Tsvetaeva, Pasternak and Rilke over a short period of time in Summer 1926. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I had an old Oxford World Classics version from many moons ago, but splashed out on the new version because the old one is tatty. However, it was the right thing to do, as the NYRB edition is significantly expanded from the Oxford edition, with extra material and essays, as well as additional pictures. Nevertheless, these do suffer from not being in a plate section but simply on ordinary book paper and so I’ll most likely keep both!

All my “interests in history”, my absorption in actuality, in fact all to which I have been disposed lately, has been shattered to pieces by Rilke’s letter and Marina’s poem. It’s as if my shirt were split down the front by the expansion of my heart. I’m punchdrunk. Nothing but splinters all about me: there are kindred souls in this world – and how extraordinary they are! (BP)

In 1926 the three poets concerned were in different parts of the world. Pasternak was in Soviet Russia, struggling to work, dealing with his wife’s ill-health and no doubt failing to cope with the demand of Soviet Realism. Tsvetaeva was in exile in France with her husband and children, suffering from poverty and alienation from her fellow emigres. Rilke was in Switzerland and entering a final, fatal illness. Pasternak and Tsvetaeva had not met for years; Rilke was something of a poetic god as far as they were concerned, and he was rumoured to be already dead. However, chance (in the form of Pasternak’s painter father, Leonid) intervened. The latter had been friends with Rilke in the past, and hearing that he was alive and well wrote him a letter. He mentioned his poet son, whom Rilke had heard of and spoke of in his reply to his old friend. The effect of Boris was shattering, as he had had a brief encounter with the elder poet when he was a child; and to find that his hero knew of his work was stunning. At the same time, Boris had read Marina’s latest poem “Poem of the End” which had sparked an intense response, and he had written to her about her work and the effect it had had on him. Pasternak junior wrote to Rilke, thanking him for his response, mentioning Tsvetaeva (who also revered Rilke) and asking the older poet to send Marina some of his books. Thus the scene was set for an intense, complex and emotionally charged three-way correspondence which took place over that summer.

What survives of the correspondence and supporting materials has been pieced together in exemplary fashion by Yevgeny and Yelena Pasternak (son and granddaughter of Boris) along with Konstantin M. Azadovsky. The long introduction is in its own right a remarkable piece of work which puts the poets, their lives and work brilliantly into context; but in framing the highly charged letters of the poets they do an exemplary job.

Life is a railroad station; soon I will set out – for where? I will not say. (MT)

I long to devour the whole gigantic globe, which I have loved and wept over, and which surges all about me, travels, commits suicide, wages wars, floats in the clouds above me, breaks into nocturnal concerts of frog music in Moscow’s suburbs, and is given me as my setting to be cherished, envied and desired. (BP)

Needless to say, this was not always an easy correspondence, and there was plenty of scope for disappointment, misunderstandings and high (as well as low!) emotions. Pasternak seems to have been affected most by the correspondence and events; seizing on Tsvetaeva’s poetry and her letters, he seems to regard her as something between muse, soul mate and poetic inspiration and declares himself not only spurred on to write, but willing to run away to her. The language used by all three poets is the language of lovers (although they do not meet), and Boris in particular repeatedly professes his love for Marina. Somehow, all three poets click on a high, exalted level, and the epistolary encounters and declaration of love were of profound importance to all three poets. Rilke himself seems delighted to have discovered like minds – that constant search for a soul mate, for someone who understands, runs through the letters – and enters into the correspondence with an uncustomary frankness.

The revelation which you are for me and will forever remain suddenly arose before me as it had numberless times before. (BP)

However, things are not all plain sailing. There were delays in the receipt of letters, the difficulties of explaining one’s meanings, and the difficulties of dealing with the quotidian alongside the imagined and the emotional, all of which caused problems and misunderstandings. Pasternak, in particular, has emotions like a rollercoaster and regularly plummets from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. When he declares himself willing to come to Tsvetaeva and for them to take off to visit Rilke, he seems prepared to abandon all in search of this dream, and the intense emotional and intellectual infatuation seemed to inform his life and work during that period. Poetry is all, and for Pasternak in particular, Marina personifies the poetic muse.

I loved you as in life I had only dreamed of loving, long, long ago, loving to eternity. You were beauty in the absolute. (BP)

By Max Voloshin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That high level of intensity is never going to be sustainable in the real world; and as the summer wore on, Tsvetaeva in particular was beset with money worries, the fact that the émigré community regarded her with suspicion and the realities of daily life as a mother of two children. And then, of course, at the end of the year Rilke’s fatal illness came to its inevitable conclusion. Boris and Marina had never managed to make the journey to see him, and when they finally met many years later much water had flowed under the bridge and their lives had already gone through irreversible changes. Tsvetaeva would commit suicide in 1941; Pasternak died in 1960 of cancer. Their poetic legacy, however, lives on stronger than ever.

Across all the worlds, all the nations, along all the roads
Always the two doomed never to meet.
(Rilke)

“Letters: Summer 1926” is a rare and unprecedented glimpse into the minds of three poets at differing stages of their career; the insight it gives into their thoughts on poetry, their ways of working and their beliefs is priceless and it reveals an incredible intensity of feeling between Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke. The tragedy is that they never met, although part of me thinks that might be safer and that they might have found a real, human encounter to be a little less cerebral than their correspondence.

What we began with remains unalterable. We have been placed side by side – in what we do with our lives, in what we die with, in what we leave behind. That is our destiny, a decree of fate. It is beyond our will. (BP)

The letters and commentary are enhanced in this edition with two essays by Tsvetaeva on Rilke, translated by Jamey Gambrell (who also rendered the poet’s “Moscow Diaries”). They’re essential reading for anyone with an interest in Marina as they shed much light on her beliefs and also her émigré life.

Do you know what I want – when I want? Darkness, light, transfiguration. The most remote headland of another’s soul – and my own. Words that one will never hear or speak. The improbable. The miraculous. A miracle. (MT)

The position of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva in the world of letters is not in doubt nowadays; Rilke I think tends to be more known for his only novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”; however examples of all three poets’ work appear throughout the book which gives real insight into their conversations about their art. “Letters…” is an absolutely fascinating, engrossing and moving read, and I came out of it wanting to read nothing but works by the three poets for the next month of so (alas, ain’t going to happen…) One book I *do* have which I would like to spend some time with, however, is Pasternak’s “Safe Conduct”; this is referenced repeatedly through “Letters…” and when I popped online to check it out, Amazon informed me I’d bought a copy back in 2013. Handy that…

A glimpse into the heart and soul of a poet as intense and detailed as this is rare; “Letters: Summer 1926” is essential reading for anyone who loves even one of the three poets, but I also think it would be fascinating for anyone who wants to see the agonies a poet goes through to create their art. Emotionally draining, but vital…

“Evenings lit up by burning coals” (Baudelaire) @nyrbclassics @colehenri #paris

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Orphic Paris by Henri Cole

That serendipitous book thingy’s been happening to me again. I was browsing the NYRB catalogue, and my eye was caught by the title of this one; and as someone who’s always been captivated by the thought of Paris, a look at the blurb was enough to convince me I should read it. Henri Cole is a poet, and a winner of numerous awards for his writing; he’s also taught widely and has been poetry editor of the New Republic. Yet in my ignorance I’d never heard of him (I’m *not* well-read in modern poetry if I’m honest); and the loss has been mine.

Poetry is a language that doesn’t shut us out; it should give the opposite experience.

“Orphic Paris” is Cole’s love-letter to a city he lived in, its denizens, and any number of poets; but so much more than that. I’ve seen it described as a kind of literary commonplace book, and it certainly combines a number of literary forms to paint its picture. It’s a beautiful collage of a book – photos, memories, stories, musings, poetic fragments, pieces of his own verse – all building up an image of the Paris Cole lived in and loved. The text is not limited to Paris alone, however; Cole explores his family background (his mother was a French Armenian, his father an American, and he was born in Japan) and the parts dealing with his relationship with his family are some of the most touching in the book. He also explores the connection that other authors have had with Paris and poetry, and the ghosts of Elizabeth Bishop, Baudelaire, Stein, Hemingway, Plath and Rilke, to name just a few, hover beautifully over the narrative. Baudelaire in particular is a regular touchstone, a writer connected to the heart of Paris.

I want to write poems that are X-rays of the soul in moments of being and seeing. This includes the ghastly, the insane, and the cruel, but also beauty, Eros, and wonder. In short, a poem is like a portrait. It is an artist’s most profound and expressive response to life.

The loose structure of the book allows Cole to meditate on all number of subjects; from his deep friendship with author James Lord to his thoughts on the art of writing poetry. The former are moving; the latter illuminating; they did much to enlighten me about the power I often feel poetry has over me and why I’ve responded so strongly to books, and also to people who use words well. The book ranges wide and free, stopping here and there on subjects such as AIDS, the introduction of same-sex marriages in France and the changes to values Cole has seen since he was a young man in the 1970s and 1980s. The latter aspects recur in the section dealing with the symbolism of roses as a flower and also their colour, tied in with sadness at the coming of HIV and its consequence.

Poetry is different from fiction. Poetry is not a lie that tells the truth. A poem must burn with a truth-seeking flame and be a small symphony of language, too.

Cole’s musings on Plath I found to be particularly thoughtful, and one section of the book focuses on bees, using their activity as an analogy for the work poets do. Plath, of course, drew heavily on beekeeping imagery, and I found myself pondering on the way some poets burn bright and then burn out. Of the seminal influence of Plath and the personal nature of her work, Cole comments perceptively:

I believed then, and I still do, that a poem is organized violence. Like Baudelaire, Plath extended the boundaries of the lyric, taking the reader deeper into the shadows of her sorrow during the final weeks and months of her life. Even today, in certain quarters, she is trivialized and dishonored because of the confessional nature of her poems.

Needless to say, the language is quite beautiful and evocative throughout; I suppose by definition, the prose of a poet will of course be poetic. The book is eminently readable, full of wisdom and wearing Cole’s love for the city on its sleeve. The small images, some taken by Cole and some from other sources, enhance the narrative – particularly when dealing with the poet’s family. And the Orphic connection? Well, for me Cocteau and his spellbinding film “Orphee” have always been inseparably linked to Paris; and both the classical Orpheus and Cocteau’s character were poets. I couldn’t helping thinking that Cole’s literary flaneuring was carrying on a great tradition…

To look inward and explore the darker corners of the soul is one of the functions of lyric poetry.

“Orphic Paris” is a gem of a book, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. The words are hypnotic; the pictures evocative; and the book invokes the spirit of Paris beautifully. Cole’s narrative builds to a beautiful, lyrical crescendo where he pours out what he loves about Paris and it’s extraordinarily moving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the book is actually being released directly in the UK, as the NYRB catalogue states there are no UK rights. Fortunately, however, you can buy it from online sources (as I did!) and so you can get your own copy of this wonderful book, which I really urge you to do!

Photo by Nicolas Vigier, Public Domain

As for Henri Cole’s poetry, I’m going to make a point of going off to explore it; he has a website with some wonderful examples, and if his poetry speaks as strongly to me as this book did, I may have to end up with a dedicated shelf… 😀

“Art is a mask that covers the face of nature” – a journey back to twenties Moscow with Curzio Malaparte @nyrbclassics

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The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

Sometimes I find that I read a book that’s so involving, so thought-provoking and which worms its way into my brain so deeply that I actually find it hard to know where to start writing about it. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those books; I’d never heard of it but I knew I wanted to read it the minute I saw the blurb in the NYRB catalogue; and now I’ve finished it, I’m struggling to know where to begin. But let’s try….

Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front, but this work is an unfinished gem which has only just been made available in English, thanks to the sterling work of translator Jenny McPhee. Left unfinished on Malaparte’s death in 1957, it was put together from material abandoned in 1950 and never returned to, and it’s unique and utterly fascinating.

Set in Moscow in 1929, the book is narrated by Malaparte himself – whether a fictionalised version of the author, or meant as kind of autobiography is not clear. Malaparte states in his foreword “everything is true” but whether it is, or whether events and people are filtered through the author’s memory, beliefs and sensibility is, in the end, unimportant. What matters is the message the book is trying to get across.

So we are introduced to Malaparte the narrator, in Russia to research books on Lenin (which he did indeed publish) In Moscow he encounters Society (with a very definite capital S) in a post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia. And despite that revolution, things don’t seem to have changed much for the better; because the rich strata of boyars, nobles and Tsars have been replaced by Soviet boyars, high-ranking functionaries with all the privileges available and Stalin. Malaparte ranges between shocked and amused, watching the nouveau riche of Soviet times disporting themselves at parties and functions, while they dream of a lavish Parisian lifestyle, and noting how little changes in any country after a revolution has taken place and then things settle down again.

I spoke to her of Paris. Of the city’s gray and turquoise colors, of the autumnal pinks, the golden leaves of the maronniers, the horse chestnuts along the Seine, of the mist that rises in the evenings along the river, of the leaves crackling beneath the feet of the passersby, of the Tuileries Gardens.

Often accompanied by a juvenile side-kick, Marika, Malaparte roams Moscow, watching as the city is demolished and rebuilt. He wanders the streets with Bulgakov, ruminating on the lack of religion in the Soviet land; visits Mayakovsky’s room shortly after the poet’s suicide, and laments his loss; drops in on Litvinov and ponders the lack of miracles in Moscow; and always has a cynical eye on the fact that one group of the rich has been replaced by a new group of the rich. He’s unsparing when it comes to his portraits of the elite, pinning them down in beautiful but cruel prose.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multishaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

The star of the book, however, is the constantly changing Moscow, being rebuilt around him.The cover image, detail from “New Moscow” by Pimenov, is particularly apt, as it shows a modern, skyscrapered city with shiny new cars and fashions; a new world being dragged out of the old timbered city. Malaparte bemoans this wanton, wholesale destruction, particularly whilst ambling with Bulgakov, but I expect the people who had been dealing with the Moscow housing crisis and living through the privations of the 1920s would have been very, very happy indeed to have a roof over their heads. The vivid descriptions bring to life the changing landscape and Malaparte’s wonderful writing really captures the atmosphere of transition.

The complete Pimenov image

However, underlying all this is his meditation on the state of the revolution and how the communist dream has gone sour. There is a constant sense of doom; a feeling that the revolutionary ideals are in peril and it’s worth bearing in mind that the Great Terror was just around the corner (and in fact there are indications of this starting during the book). Malaparte’s narrator-self is looking back at 1929 from a decade and a half later with the knowledge of what came later, and can see that the executions which have begun are only a hint of what will happen during the 1930s. There is a thread which runs through the book concerning the rotting, mummified corpse of Lenin – indeed the final chapter deals specifically with death under Communist rule – and it’s impossible not to see Lenin’s remains as analogous to the rotting heart of Communism.

All of us in Moscow were united in praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways, but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire: He was master, dictator…

Particularly striking for me (bearing in mind my current sphere of interest….!) were the constant parallels Malaparte drew with the French Revolution. This was another conflict which ended up replacing one elite with another, and also descended into wholesale bloodshed. Malaparte almost seems to imply that any revolution is doomed, and that may well simply be because of greed and human nature. The French conflicts are forever lurking in the background, present in references as wide-ranging as the poetry of Andre Chenier or the prose of Proust.

Malaparte

I have to confess that I found the sections which featured Bulgakov and Mayakovsky (two of my great literary loves) particularly affecting. I’ve no idea whether Malaparte actually met them and whether his encounters are based on anything like fact, but there’s an underlying sadness emanating from both men. Bulgakov looks for Christ in Moscow, while Mayakovsky wrestles with his demons and eventually is defeated. Malaparte is moved to defend him against charges of corruption by his visit to America, lamenting the loss of a great man.

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

“The Kremlin Ball” is a fascinating and unique work. The narrative is fragmentary, although how much of this is because of the unfinished nature of the work is not clear. Characters come and go, their names undergoing subtle variations; there are repetitions of descriptions; and all of this reflects Moscow itself, undergoing changes of its own and in as much of a state of flux as the narrative itself. The writing is often beautiful and evocative, and whether the book is fiction masquerading as memoir, or memoir which has been fictionalised is unclear; but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. Malaparte paints a vivid and compelling portrait of a city and its denizens at a point of change, capturing figures who would go on to be statistics in the history books, while pondering on life, revolution and religion. It’s a heady and intoxicating mix, and I think a second reading would bring out many more resonances. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those haunting books which changes your perspective on a time, a place, a thought, a belief; it’s a shame it was never finished, but how lucky we are to have what remains of it.

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers by Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

My Blog’s Name in Books…. :)

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There is a lovely meme doing the rounds at the moment that I’ve been umming and ahhing about, but I’ve finally succumbed! It originated with Fictionophile and basically you have to choose books from your TBR to spell out your blog name. Sounds fun, yes, and I’ve enjoyed everyone else’s posts on this; however, I hesitated for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because my TBR books are frankly all over the house; and because I figured it would take quite a lot of books. But I gave in at last, and with some helpful suggestions from OH behind the scenes, this is what I came up with:

Yes, there they are – a selection of unread books that spell out Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings! I’ve split them up into the three words (without apostrophe, of course) so that I can run through what they are. Be prepared – as my blog has a long name, this will be a long post…

First up, Kaggsys:

(The) Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte – a fascinating sounding review copy from NYRB – I’m  hoping to get this one to the top of the pile soon!

A Passionate Apprentice – early essays by Virginia Woolf – one day I would like to read through all of Woolf’s essays – one day….

(The) Great Hunger – Patrick Kavanagh – a Penguin Modern from my box set by an author I’ve not read before.

Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries – an interesting title picked up when Verso were having one of their regular online offers (which I can never resist – damn you Verso!)

Silas Marner by George Eliot – another lovely review copy, this time from OUP – I *may* have read this book decades ago, but I can’t be sure….

(The) Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago – I loved my first experience of reading Saramago so I’m glad I had picked this one up in the charity shop. It has connections to Pessoa, too – more of whom later in this post… 😉

Selected Writings by John Muir – I had this on a wishlist for ages; then I had a fit of fedupness and decided to treat myself. So there you go.

Next up is Bookish:

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac – another beautiful review copy, this time from the British Library. It sounds fun. This meme is making me want to read all these books at once…

On the Beach At Night Alone by Walt Whitman – one of my many Penguin Little Black Classics – I need to get reading some more of those too. Plus the complete Walt Whitman that OH gave me. Gulp. Will the books to be read never end???

(The) Old Man of the Moon by Shen Fu – and another Penguin Little Black Classic. I love the diversity of Penguin books.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – I was really struggling to find another K book, when OH suggested this. Now, I initially thought I’d read it but I went and had a look on my shelves anyway. And as I don’t have a paperback copy of it, I don’t think I can have – so George to look forward to!! This is a gorgeous hardback edition from a fancy box set that OH gifted me many years ago – he’s a great book enabler! 🙂

I am a phenomenon quite out of the ordinary by Daniil Kharms – this has been sitting on the TBR for a while and I’ve dipped but not read properly or finished. I love Kharms’ strange and beguiling work, and I really must get back to this one.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate – another lovely from the British Library – I obviously desperately need to catch up with review books.

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas – and yet another review book from NYRB, one about which I know nothing but I’m willing to explore!

And finally, Ramblings (goodness knows, I do enough of that…):

(The) Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – I didn’t get Sebald the first time round, but I think I’m probably better placed on a second attempt – we shall see…

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – another gift from my book-enabling OH who thought it was a pioneering feminist work I should have. I don’t think I’ve read it before, so on the TBR it sits.

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – a review copy from NYRB which is fascinating so far (I *have* started it, I confess) and which promises to stretch into the French Revolution – so *that* should be good! 🙂

(The) Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa – which I’ve been intending to read for ages and which has links to the Saramago above. But I keep wondering which translation/version is best to read – any advice out there??

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy – early sci fi which has been lurking for ages and which I might have nicked from Eldest Child (the sci fi buff of the family). One day I will read this…

Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris by Richard Clay – #Iconoclasm #FrenchRevolution #ProfRichardClay #Coveted book I finally got a copy of. ‘Nuff said…

Notes of a Crocodile by Qui Miaojin – have you noticed several NYRB review books in this meme? I should catch up, I really should…

(The) Gigolo by Francoise Sagan – another Penguin Modern. I have had mixed experiences with Sagan so it will be interesting to find out how I react to this one!

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I have only read a couple of Austens, despite owning them all (sometimes multiple copies). Perhaps this gorgeous hardback review copy from OUP will help a bit.

*****

There – I told you it would be a long post! So what does this tell you about me and my TBR? Probably that I have a grasshopper mind, refuse to stick to genres or types of books, and that I have more books than I need and that I’ll probably die before I read them all. At least I’ll be ok for reading matter if there’s a zombie apocalypse…

A descent into Hell

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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

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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)

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