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“We have puns on our lips and constrained songs….” @NYRBpoets #surrealism

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The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

I first stumbled across the Surrealist Andre Breton a looooooong time ago – 1976 to be precise – although at the time I didn’t know it was him….. On the insert sheet of Patti Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia” album was a quote: “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all – Nadja” . I had no idea who “Nadja” was or where the quote came from; it wasn’t until much later in my reading life that I stumbled across the surrealist authors of the twentieth century and discovered that “Nadja” was actually a book by Andre Breton. I obtained my copy (I think!) in my twenties, and haven’t returned to it since. However, the Surrealists fascinate me, and a programmes about them which debuted on the inaugural night of the nascent BBC4 channel, “Surrealissimo!”, was a real joy, signalling what the channel would be at its best. Alas, it only occasionally reaches those heights nowadays, but that’s another matter…

Anyway, apart from “Nadja”, I don’t think I’ve read anything else by Breton; but I was very interested to see that NYRB were bringing out a new translation of the seminal work “The Magnetic Fields” by Breton and Philippe Soupault (co-founder, with Breton, of the Surrealist movement), translated by Charlotte Mandell. Composed in the spring of 1919, when both men were recovering from the horrors of WW1, it was conceived of as a reaction to over-composed literary works. Instead, the authors embraced ‘automatic writing’, a form of composition involving writing without consciously engaging with or controlling the words which would come out. Breton and Soupault would write every day for a week, as fast as they could, in secrecy and without revisions. The results would be left to stand exactly as they were; and that process created what has been called the first work of literary Surrealism.

On these shores of bloodstained pebbles, you can hear the tender murmurs of the stars.

Excited as I was to be able to read this, the question *did* arise as to how to approach it! There’s quite a lot of baggage and expectation built into this book, but in the end I just plunged in and wallowed in the language. And I think that’s key here; automatic writing of whatever form is not going to be linear, or tell a story, or necessarily make sense. There are nine sections, some of which are written in poetic form and some in prose, and each is filled with the most beautiful language. As you read through suddenly wonderful imagery springs out, or a sentence which lodges in the brain, and it’s full of the most stunning phrases. The pictures the writing paints are often vivid and, yes, surreal because of the unexpected juxtapositions. As I read on, the writings sparked my imagination and sent it off in all manner of directions – this was really unlike anything else I’d read (the nearest comparison I can think of off the top of my head is maybe Burroughs’ cut-ups but they’re more controlled).

We shatter like stars into incomprehensible directions, among the great blue veins of distance and in mineral deposits.

You might be wondering, well what does it all mean? Frankly, I think it means what you want it to mean and what you take from it is up to you. The fact that early in the text the authors refer to “constrained songs” immediately made me think of the OuLiPo group and their writing constraints, and in a way the Surrealists and their automatic writing were early precursors of this. In the end, I think what matters most here is the beauty of the words, rendered most wonderfully in Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Interestingly, in her afterword she reveals that the order in which the images appear in the verse was crucial to her, and I think that brings out a key element; these are words which create striking visuals, and they may cause the reader to bypass conscious controls when reading in the same way as the authors did when writing. If that causes you to dig more deeply into your unconcious, that’s an interesting side-effect of this book of beautiful words. And in the same way as surrealistic art succeeds by using unusual juxtapositions of visual items to expand the mind, so do the unusual word sequences in this book.

I dream of summer in the dormitory
They said to me What do you have in place of a heart

As you might have guessed, I found reading “The Magnetic Fields” a fascinating and stimulating experience! I’ve mentioned before how I love to wallow in words, not always worrying about meanings but instead taking images and emotions from them. Certainly, this kind of writing seems to me to be very much about stepping away from regular narrative and into something looser, more experimental and very exciting to read. “The Magnetic Fields” was everything I hoped and expected it would be, and if you want to have your preconceptions challenged concerning what writing should be like, this is definitely the book for you! 😀

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

Does poetry count as non-fiction? i think so!

On My Book Table… 4 – decisions, decisions!

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Since I last reported on the state of my Book Table, it has been through several changes as there have been bookish comings and goings as well as raging indecision about what to read next. This of course is particularly bad at what is a busy time of year, but as I’m now off work for the festive season, it seemed a good time to tidy up a little and take stock. So here is the current state of the Table itself:

As you can probably tell, there are a number of heavyweight books on there (and I don’t mean in size necessarily, but in content). Shall we take a closer look?

This stack is mainly review books – some lovely British Library Editions, glorious Russians from Pushkin Press, an intriguing title from Michael Walmer and an author new to me from NYRB. Then there’s “Jam Today”, a book I was very excited to track down recently. All of these would be ideal next reads.

This is what I mean by heavyweight… Essays, short fiction, Montaigne, Proust, Pessoa, philosophy. I’d like to read them all at once, which is not helpful. Especially as I feel as if I could quite easily have a month of reading nothing but Fitzcarraldo books!

And finally, Barthes… Three physical books (there is a digital one too) and the Binet book about Barthes which has been on the Table for months. I am nearing the end of “Mythologies”, but unsure whether I should read another Barthes straight off or let the first settle a bit…

Of course, there are the birthday arrivals which came into the house recently and haven’t made it to the Book Table yet (and they’ll no doubt be joined by some Christmas arrivals at some point soon). A further complication exists in the form of the Book Token my work presented me with on my birthday which is itching to be spent. An embarrassment of riches, but I do find that the more choices I have, the harder the decision becomes! What would *you* read next??? 😀

“An eternal vagabond of life and the idea” #victorserge @nyrbclassics

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Notebooks 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
Translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman

As I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings (and on any kind of social media I happen to be near!), I’ve been rather absorbed in the Notebooks of Victor Serge over the past couple of weeks. The very wonderful NYRB Classics seem to fly the flag for him; several of his novels and his “Memoirs of Revolutionary” are available in their imprint (and I’ve read most of them…) However, this volume really is something special, and I’ll share some thoughts on it below – though I fear these will not really do the book justice. I’m sorry – this is going to be a long post!

The Notebooks

Serge’s real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich and he was born in Brussels to Russian parents. His life was a peripatetic one, moving from place to place – France, Spain, Russia to join the Bolsheviks, prison, exile and eventually emigration. He finally went into exile in Mexico during the Second World War, and died there in 1947. Described as an anarchist, Bolshevik and Left Oppositionist, it seems to me that he was concerned overall with justice, equality and freedom; but more than anything else he was an exceptionally gifted author and a witness to his times.

All we know of ourselves is a kind of waking dream, finely worked by the will, enlightened by consciousness – but a dream all the same.

The diaries cover the period from 1936-1947, and this is in fact a landmark publication which gathers material from a number of sources. Serge’s notebooks have only partially been published in the past, and the note on the text sets out the various sources from which this material has been brought together to give the most complete edition, and the first one to be rendered in this form in English. Again, bouquets and kudos to NYRB for bringing this volume to us; because it’s an absolutely incredible and absorbing read.

The Notebooks on their travels, already a bit festooned…

The notebooks open in 1936 with Serge in Paris treating us to his thoughts on Andre Gide. The entries between 1936 and 1940 form a chapter on their own as they’re more fragmentary, but after that each year has a section of its own until Serge’s death. The years in transit and then exile perhaps afforded more opportunity for writing, and certainly the Mexico days saw Serge taking stock of the past, noting and commenting on world events, theorising about the future, and recording, vividly, his impressions of the world around him. So Serge fills his notebooks with all manner of things: impressions of those he knows or encounters, thoughts on his beliefs and what may come of socialism and indeed the world; drafts of letters to friends and colleagues; meditations on the history of the Revolution and the fate of Trotsky; his own emotions and his longing for his partner Laurette; and beautiful prose which relates his travels in exile and records the natural world around him (for which he obviously has a profound affection). It’s a heady and wonderful mix, and a privileged glimpse into the unique mind of a great revolutionary and writer.

At that time I decided, given the growing reaction, to dedicate myself to history and literature, novels, to work at defending and ripening, my ideas. Duty of a witness, conclusion that intellectual activity remained the only one possible.

Serge’s life was not an easy one; persecuted for much of it because of his beliefs and his refusal to toe the party line, things became particularly difficult in exile as he was constantly under attack for his association with Trotsky (even though he disagreed with the latter’s outlook towards the end of his life). He was under constant threat of assassination, and indeed there are still theories around that his death from a heart attack in a Mexico taxi was in fact murder. However, the notebooks reveal that his health was suffering a little and he records consulting a doctor, shortness of breath etc, which tends to lend support to a natural death.

One thing that’s stunning is the sheer variety of subjects upon which Serge touches in his narrative; from political philosophy through memoir and personal recollection to quite beautiful passages of description. And what’s quite incredible is the range of players you encounter in these pages – from Trotsky to Leonora Carrington to Andre Breton to Blaise Cendrars to Levi-Strauss, Serge knew an incredible array of people and his pen portraits are vibrant and memorable; you do find yourself wondering if there was anyone Serge didn’t know, and I didn’t quite expect to meet so many names I already knew within these pages. He seems generally clear-sighted about those he comes into contact with, and is quite critical of some; Anna Seghers does not get off lightly for aligning herself with the Stalinist regime, and he considers Diego Rivera to be very fluid in his choices of who to follow… Breton reappears at several points in the narrative; it seems that he and Serge were quite friends, although there is falling out but eventual much more understanding on Serge’s part of the man that Breton was.

One sees, one lives intensely, but not everything, for the poem changes from moment to moment, and it is so immense that it can’t all be taken in.

However, there are some extremely poignant pieces: Serge mourns the suicides of Walter Benjamin and Stefan Zweig in particular, penning a desperately moving piece on the latter. He also writes most touchingly about Mandelstam, a fragile man with nevertheless enough courage to write poetry against Stalin. Chagall makes an appearance, which has a lovely synchronicity with the fact that I picked up the latter’s “My Life” whilst reading Serge. Inevitably, there are times when the book reads somewhat like a litany of deaths, becoming a kind of memorial as Serge sees and records so many of his contemporaries fall by the wayside, either by natural causes, suicide or by assassination.

Public Domain – Via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, he had no illusions about the forces that were ranged against him, and he offers a pithy analysis of Trotsky, Hitler and Stalin. His discourse about the horrors of the Nazi regime and the mentality of those who take part in atrocities seemed very astute to me; and his discussion of, and awareness of, concentration camps in more than one nation is somewhat ahead of his time. It’s worth remembering that Serge was in a very difficult position; he had spoken (and continued to speak) out in opposition to Stalin’s terror, and this was at a time when Russia was an ally against Germany. Therefore, he was under constant threat from all sides for continuing to say what he saw as the truth. He was probably also feared as a survivor of the Russian Revolution, uniquely placed to record the many historical events he’d lived through; of particular interest were his memoirs of his times working with Trotsky, as well as the sadness of his encounters with the latter’s widow after the assassination.

All my Serges (I have one e-book but must get a tree version…)

The Notebooks are a wonderful mix of the personal and the political, then. The sections recording his journey into exile via Marseilles, then by circuitous route by boat eventually to Mexico, are particularly powerful. As they passed the various countries on their way, Serge recorded his impressions of the landscapes in vivid and evocative prose.

The coast is low and mountainous, gullied in all directions by the rains, in places well cultivated. Reddish rocks and green slopes, sandy banks to the sea, the backdrop rounded like the backs of beasts. The land is violet and blue in the morning mist. Around noon it’s illuminated, even though the sky is cloudy, and it gathers together a mass of pink, rust, ochre, dark green, light green tones, somber touches of distant rocks, all of it full of life, almost carnal, sculpted by the waters. One can see that the Earth is alive. It’s astonishing that men haven’t sufficiently realized this obvious fact and constructed a religion out of it.

However, his thoughts are often on ethical matters, and as the ship passes by Oran, in Algeria, the setting for Camus’ “The Plague”, this is the first of many occasions when Serge reflects upon the horror and stupidity of racism. Serge is accompanied by his son Vlady, having had to leave his partner Laurette and daughter Jeannine in France. There is such power and poignancy in the writing of these sections that they’ve kind of burnt themselves into my brain. It was some time until his partner and daughter were able to join them in Mexico, when Serge was able to take joy and comfort from having his family on hand, and the notebooks reflect this in places.

I refuse to think about how far away it is, because you are near, you are coming, and I must, I want, to be able to feel you close in your absence, and all our memories must be present in the separation in order to enrich and find our strength. Our memories are us. You are every bit as real to me as everything I see, as everything I touch, I want to be yours at every moment. We are moving towards each other, united by our momentum and our communion. I am in you. You are in me.

The travel writing is quite stunning in places; Serge was always a great writer and he brought his talents to capturing the landscape around him:

More than two hundred kilometers by road, towards the Pacific, across a vast landscape of mountains under a hot sun. This volcanic earth, violently convulsed, constantly opens onto new horizons of sharp-edged ridges against mild, lustrous skies. The rocks here shattered in all directions in the era of geological revolutions. Aridity, little cultivation, the impression of a land without people, given over to plants armed with prickly thorns, splendid magueys with enormous, drooping, vase shaped leaves, organos rising straight up to a height of five meters or more, terrifying perpendicular cactus bushes of so intense a green that they seem almost black. There are areas of stony desert with silver tones. Near Taxco a semicircular hole in the wall of mountains cuts the horizon.

He seems to have moved frequently around Mexico, and there were some wonderful passages in particular about his visits to active volcanoes:

We are all squatting outside on a mat facing a crater that breathes, sings, and exhales subterranean fire. It’s cold out. The purple flames are rising without letup and falling in a rain of incandescent stones that we can see streaming to the bottom of the crater, hundreds of metres off. When the volcano catches its breath, its outline dulls, then blackens. We followed the rising of the meteors and their fall. Some of them reach as far as the green stars and float among them for a long moment. The Milky Way falls on the volcano so that it seems to have two infinite extensions: the dark, heavy, threatening extension of its clouds and the aerial, glacial, softly luminous one of the Milky Way. In contrast with the terrestrial blaze, the stars are a shimmering steel blue tending towards green. We hear the hissing descent of the lava to our right. And we see red slides flaming down the crevices of the hills.

So much of what he said rang true, so many of his descriptions took my breath away, that I ended up with a book positively festooned with a forest of post-it notes. Serge seems always so clear-sighted about the world around him, and was a great (and often prescient) thinker – this particular comment struck home at the moment:

This is the time of falsified – that is, betrayed – values. Anyone even slightly well informed has the sensation of breathing lies of such low quality that they don’t even contain the involuntary homage to truth proper to useful and, in a way, decent, lies, which only aim at misleading moderately.

I was struck too by a scary dream Serge had in 1943 which almost seemed to foresee the atomic bomb… There are also some wonderful thoughts and reflections on literature and writing; on specific authors in places, and also on the eternal problem faced by Russian writers of his time which Serge recognises in himself. Because of the hostility from all sides, Serge found it almost impossible to publish anything (and therefore to make any kind of living) and was stuck with a situation familiar to any reader of Russian literature from the Soviet period:

To write only for the desk drawer, past age fifty, facing unknown future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result?

And one of the things which makes the Notebooks such a wonderful reading experience is that the writer in Serge is always to the fore – his prose is excellent.

The final reckoning – all those post-its!!!

Well, I could go on and on, but this post is long enough as it is and I’ve really only scratched the surface. As I mentioned, towards the end of the book the entries thin out until late in 1957 they just stop… I must admit I found myself a bit emotional at this point, having immersed myself in Serge and his world for nearly two weeks. It felt kind of like losing a personal friend… 😦 I’ve had something of an obsession with Serge since first reading his fiction; reading the Notebooks has only made that much worse. Make no mistake, this is a big book and a commitment to read. At just under 600 pages (and NYRB do pack a lot onto each page!) it’s a work that you need to submerge yourself in, but it’s brimming with riches and the rewards are immense. Notebooks is a groundbreaking, vital and important work which stands, perhaps, as Victor Serge’s final testament and commentary on the times he lived through; it really is a magnificent book which I can’t recommend highly enough.

*****

A special vote of thanks needs to go to the translators for their work on the Notebooks. Both Abidor and Greeman have worked on Serge’s books before (Abidor editing and translating an anthology of Serge’s Anarchist writings; and Greeman having translated and written introductions for five of Serge’s novels). So both are well-placed to work on the Notebooks. The supporting notes appear usefully at the bottom of each page and were at just the right level for me (as I know a reasonable amount about the history and the period!); and there was an extremely helpful – nay, essential! – glossary of names at the end of the book. Inevitably, there are a *lot* of people mentioned in the book and the glossary gives a little info if you’re not sure who they are. An exemplary edition, and an essential read. Marvellous!

… in which I (mostly) resist the bookshops of Leicester! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media might have picked up that I’ve been off on my annual tour (ahem!) round the East Midlands, visiting the Aged Parent and the Offspring in their various locations. I *do* look forward to this modest journey because:

a. it’s nice to get away

b. I like to travel on trains…

c. you can read a lot on trains!

(It *is* nice to see family, too!) So I left Mr. Kaggsy holding the fort, and scheduled a lot of posts and set off. I had a bit of a quandary about what chunkster to take along to read en route, and in fact I ended up taking this:

Victor Serge is an author I’ve covered many times on the Ramblings; I love his writing, and his life is as fascinating as his books. His Notebooks have been released by New York Review Books, and the book was the perfect companion to my travels. As you can see, there is a positive *forest* of post-its – sign of a book which is going to make you think and stay with you, which this one definitely is. I am still reading and will share some thoughts eventually…

So, normally on my visits I end up buying *lots* of new books, but I was amazed to return from my travels with only *two* new volumes!! These are they:

Chagall and Berger

The  Chagall caught my eye as I whizzed into Hatchards at St. Pancras whilst on my way to a rail connection; it was about his life in exile and I kind of felt it chimed in with the Serge. Plus it’s a pretty new Penguin Modern Classic – I do like their current colour scheme! The only other book I picked up was from the one second hand shop in the centre of Leicester (nothing from the charity shops!!) It’s an old Pelican edition of some selected essays and articles by John Berger which I’d never come across before, and it was Not Cheap. However, a glance at the contents was enough to persuade me:

Berger contents

I don’t know if you can make it out from my rubbish photo, but there is an essay about Victor Serge! Berger on Serge – oh my! Not to be resisted! I still can’t believe that I only came home with these two new books; as Youngest Child reminded us, Middle Child had to lend me a suitcase on one visit as I had so many finds to transport home. Maybe I’m just becoming more selective…

Whilst in Leicester, we paid a little visit to the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. I always like to pop in when I’m in the city, as it has a nice collection of German Expressionists as well as some dinosaurs and Egyptians. The current exhibition turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, as when we arrived we discovered there was a show dedicated to the artists who were behind the wonderful images in Ladybird Books!

The exhibition was a real treat. There were sections dedicated to the main artists involved, with original artwork, Ladybird books and covers, as well as examples of other uses of each artist’s artwork. I grew up reading these books, as did the Offspring (we may still have some in the house…); so it was absolutely fascinating to see the stories of the art behind them. I’m particularly fond of the 1950s and 1960s artwork (I love that mid-century modern feel); and it was wonderful to see some large and lovely artworks from that era.

I took a few snaps of images that particularly caught my eye:

Harlech Castle – we used to holiday in North Wales and have visited the castle!

John Bull magazine from 1951 featuring the Festival of Britain – with which I have a bit of an obsession…

An extra fun element was the fact that as well as a wall display made up of a positive mosaic of Ladybird books, there was a pile in the middle of the exhibition that you could pick up and browse through. In fact, the exhibition was very child-friendly, with places where you could draw as well as reading nooks designed for children (and into which 24-year-old Youngest Child had to crawl… you can’t take them anywhere…)

A beautiful old typewriter on display – I learned to touch-type on one of these!! 😮

It was a really fascinating exhibition, and in fact the whole gallery/museum was a lovely place to wander through. On my way out, I spotted another resonance with my current reading:

John Berger quote

The gallery has a quote from John Berger on one of the walls – so they get a thumbs up from me!

As well as visiting the New Walk Museum, we also popped to the National Space Centre (there’s a family connection – don’t ask….) I’d never actually been inside before, but Eldest Child had visited with my late dad back in the day. It was actually a really interesting place to go, as I do like hearing about space travel, and there was an interesting show in the Planetarium. I also got very silly-excited about seeing this:

Need I say more? No.

Apart from all this gadding about, there was of course the chance to explore new to me purveyors of vegan food, and a favourite was the Prana cafe where we had yummy vegan scones:

Middle Child also played host and made me a lovely vegan Sunday breakfast, so I was very spoiled!

And fortunately, because of my good behaviour, I didn’t have a ton of extra luggage to haul back with me on the train, so I was able to relax on the return journey and enjoy the Serge Notebooks – perfect! 😀

*****

I did, however, return home to some lovely bookish post:

The Hugo Charteris is from Mike Walmer, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Charteris, as I did enjoy the first of his I read. The Hess book is part of a new imprint from HarperCollins called HarperVia, and is set in Germany in the early 1960s. It sounds absolutely fascinating, and will be ideal for Women in Translation month if I get to it in time… But first I need to finish Victor’s Notebooks! 😀

“Life is scary…” @nyrbclassics #borisdralyuk @xelafleming @ani_goes_tweet

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Rock, Paper, Scissors and other stories by Maxim Osipov
Translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson

There are certain publishers whose catalogues I always watch with interest to see what gems they’ll be issuing next; likewise, there are translators whose work I trust and who I always know will be bringing into English something worth reading. So when the two coincide it’s like a perfect storm, and the resulting book is one I’m desperately keen to read. That was the case with “Rock, Paper, Scissors”: the publisher is NYRB, and the translators are Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson; so it was a no-brainer that I was going to want to read this!

The world doesn’t break, no matter what you throw at it. That’s just how it’s built.

As well as being a fine author (more of which later…!), Maxim Osipov is a doctor, a cardiologist in fact; so someone who comes from that fine tradition of Russian writing doctors (Chekhov and Bulgakov instantly springing to mind, and indeed the publicity makes great play with this). However, the Russia which Osipov writes about in this collection of short works might initially seem to be a very different one from the earlier authors… or maybe not.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors” collects together 12 short works of varying lengths, and I might as well come straight out with it and say that every single one of them is a gem. Osipov himself lives in the provinces (Tarusa, a small town 90 miles from Moscow) and the provinces do indeed feature regularly in his works (a factor which can’t help but make me think of Chekhov again). That distance from the centre informs much modern Russian writing I’ve read (Solovyov and Larionov, again a recent Russian read, was set away from things); and it’s very relevant to Osipov’s work – as Svetlana Alexievich comments in her preface, “Out in the provinces, everything is in full view, more exposed – both human nature and the times beyond the window.”

In subject matter the stories range far and wide: some tackle medical situations directly (“Moscow-Petrozavodsk“, “The Mill“, “The Gypsy“); in some stories, the medical element is almost incidental (“The Waves of the Sea“); and in some an encounter with a doctor is a jumping off point for something very different (“After Eternity“). The stories are peopled with actors, writers, criminals (of the lower and higher order), teachers, musicians – a fascinating array of human beings, all trying to make their way in what is an often disorientating world. This is a modern Russia, although often the stories reach back into Soviet times, and many of the characters seem to feel a lack of identity, sometimes struggling to negotiate a complex modern world. There is harshness and brutality, there are unexpected twists and there is a strong sense of melancholy running through many of the stories. I could say that’s down to the eternal “Russian Soul”, although Alexievich claims that’s a myth in her preface!

Day in, day out, she sees the cool sky, the river, the sunset, and suddenly she understands: life is such a simple and austere thing. And all of these little decorations, this tinsel we wrap our lives in – music, philosophy, literature – are completely unnecessary. There is some form of truth to them, in parts, but they themselves are not the truth. The truth can be put very simply.

Osipov’s writing is beautifully atmospheric, and whether’s he’s writing about a settlement in the far North or a clinic in the suburbs, each place and its characters are wonderfully evoked. As I read on I felt the author had a deep sense of compassion for fellow humans, struggling to negotiate new and uncertain terrain whilst keeping hold of their past to give them some kind of context. There are references to past leaders and past artists, and a feeling of continuity with those who’ve come before.

Maxim Osipov by Divot [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading short story collections can be a tricky thing; there’s the danger of the stories running into one, of not being differentiated enough, of becoming a blur when you get to the end. However, Osipov’s stories were all distinct and marvellous, and so good that I found myself taking a pause between each to simply let it settle in my soul. They’re stories that will affect you, that’s for sure, and in some cases break your heart. I really don’t know that I want to pick favourites, because when I read this collection again my reactions may change; however, I want to particularly mention “After Eternity“. Almost a novella in length, it tells the story of a theatre group in the frozen North through the notebooks of their Literary Director, and it’s one of those pieces of writing that you finish and then immediately go back to the start of, to re-read and rediscover meanings you didn’t quite get the significance of first time round – a wonderful piece of writing. And “Good People” was an incredibly moving and poignant piece, capturing quite brilliantly a woman whose mind is clouding with age. “Objects in Mirror” shows how the fear of those in authority continues, whatever the regime in charge. And the title piece is a complex story with many layers, looking at provincial politics and powerplay as well as the treatment of those from other countries.

… Bella was also emotional although she didn’t quite know why. There were more and more gaps in her mind, and the pathways and partitions between them were steadily narrowing, shrinking. She feared that the gaps would soon merge into one, and there’d be nothing left in her head but… what do you call that whitish liquid that swims up when milk goes sour? Ah, yes, that’s it: whey.

As you might have gathered, I think this is an absolutely stunning collection of stories, and one that has any number of layers which I want to go back and explore. This is the kind of writing that gets into your heart *and* your mind, the sort that changes the way you look at life and I do hope more of his work will be translated into English. As I mentioned, much has been made of the fact that Osipov draws on the Russian doctor-author tradition (and certainly Chekhov and Bulgakov are both authors whom I love). In the end, whether that comparison is relevant or not I don’t know; however, what is clear is that Opisov is a great observer of human life in all its light and shade, as well as a powerful author in his own right. So kudos to NYRB, Dralyuk, Fleming and Jackson – “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is a standout book, and will definitely be one of my reads of the year.

“Every great book is tied…to the very matter of the life of its author” @nyrbclassics #Proust #Czapski

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Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski
Translated by Eric Karpeles

Josef Czapski was a remarkable man; of that, there can be no doubt; a polymath, his life took in painting, writing and essays as well as military and diplomatic careers. And yet, until NYRB issued his works plus a biography I’d never heard of him – which is actually quite shocking. Czapski lived through the bulk of the 20th century; born in Poland in 1896, he was a student in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, a painter in Paris mingling with the likes of Picasso, and during the Second World War fought as an office in the Polish army. Somehow, miraculously, he and a group of less than four hundred men survived the Soviet murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers (the Katyn Massacre); instead, they were incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp 250 miles north of Moscow, which was where this book has its genesis.

The surviving men had no knowledge of what had happened to their comrades; however, during the winter of 1940-41, with temperatures dropping down to as low as minus 45 degrees, they agreed to undertake secret lectures to keep up morale. Each man would speak about what they remembered best, and in Czapski’s case, his love of the work of Proust was his life-saver. Czapski had first read “In Search of Lost Time” (as it’s called in English here) during the summer of 1926, while he was at his uncle’s house in London and suffering with typhoid. His love of that work had stayed with him, and so when it came to the lectures, Czapski presented a series of thoughts on Proust, his life and his work. It’s heady stuff, and all the more remarkable when you think that these lectures were created and delivered without access to books or reference material, so were simply drawn from what was remembered and what Czapski retained in his head.

His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness who soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

And the lectures are remarkably entertaining. Czapski ranges over Proust’s life and influences; the society he moved in; the events and the characters in his great work; and how “In Search…” was Proust’s life’s work and in fact in many ways *took* his life. On their own, the lectures are deeply fascinating and illuminating; and I found myself quite desperate to pick up the third book in the sequence and carry on reading Proust. Czapski really shines a light on Proust’s work and his love of that work is patent.

The last volume of his novel… is the triumphant hymn of a man who has sold all his worldly possessions to buy a single precious pearl, who has measured all the ephemera, all the heartbreak, all the vanity of the joys of the world, of youth, of fame, of eroticism, and holds them up in comparison with the joy of the artist, this being who, constructing each sentence, making and then remaking each page, is in search of an absolute he can never entirely attain, and which, besides, is ultimately unattainable.

However, this is a book where context adds more and our knowledge of the background to the lectures brings extra depth to our reading of it. The latter is deeply affecting on two levels; Czapski’s highly personal response to Proust is in itself extremely moving. However, the lectures are a poignant reminder of the resilience of human beings in extreme situations and a striking illustration of how art and literature are as essential to us as air. The book is translated by Eric Karpeles, who provides an in-depth history of the genesis of the printed version of the lectures, as well as pointing out several other examples of how the memory of literature has helped those in camps to survive, from Primo Levi to Jorge Semprun, Yevgenia Ginzburg to Varlam Shalamov. 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’m not making the case that the pages I speak about are the most valuable, it’s just a hierarchy subjectively fixed by my enthusiasm. I can’t recall ever having gone back to Proust – and I’ve done that many times – without discovering some new emphasis, some new insight each time.

“Lost Time” is a slim but devastating book; I became lost in Czapski’s thoughts on Proust only to be jerked back to the reality of where the lectures were given by his acknowledgement that he was working from memory alone with no texts to guide him. And yet his writings have a vitality and intensity born of the love of his subject, which just goes to show that the best teachers are the ones who are committed to their field. My NYRB edition is, of course, beautifully presented, with the excellent aforementioned introduction, as well as colour plates reproducing Czapski’s original schemes for his lectures and a useful glossary of names at the back. In fact, Czapski has been well-served by both publisher and translator; there is a large format NYRB softback biography by Karpeles (a painter and author in his own right, as well as a translator) of Czapski, and I’ll be covering that in coming weeks. Additionally, the publisher has issued an edition of “Inhuman Land”, Czapski’s work about his search for the truth behind the Katyn Massacre, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago; I’ll be covering that too.

I feel awfully ignorant that I’d never heard of Czapski until these NYRB editions, but grateful that the publisher is bringing these works out. Hopefully Czapski will now have a much wider audience in the English-speaking world; and works like his will continue to remind us of the horrors of the past about which we still need to be so vigilant if we’re to avoid a repeat performance…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks! As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is a fascinating-sounding event in London next week which explores Czapski’s work and if you can get along to it, do – more details here!

March on the Ramblings – upcoming documentary fun plus an @NYRBClassics event!

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No – I’m not suggesting for a minute that I want you all turning up at my doorstep with placards demanding something or other; instead, I thought I would just drop a little post in with some bits and bobs about what to expect over the next week or two on the Ramblings.

c. ClearStory/BBC

As you might have noticed, I am sunk in the depths of Dostoevsky’s Devils and absolutely loving it. It *will* take me a little time to read, but to keep you occupied there are a couple of reviews scheduled, which will be followed by some Extra Special Posts. As I’ve hinted, Professor Richard Clay has a new documentary due in the next couple of weeks on the subject of memes, and as well as a review of the programme there will be a couple of other Posts of Interest related to Viral which I hope you’ll enjoy – watch this space… ;D

One of my forthcoming reviews is of a NYRB release Lost Time by Józef Czapski; the publisher is releasing this, his book Inhuman Land and a biography, and to tie in with the launch is holding a special event in London on Friday March 15th. Entitled “Józef Czapski: A Beautiful Human Being”, it will take place at the Ognisko restaurant, and features esteemed translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Dr. Stanley Bill of Cambridge University. The evening promises to focus on Czapski’s life and particularly  Inhuman Land (which I’ll be reading and reviewing at a later date) and should be interesting as well as stimulating. Alas, I shall be unable to sneak away from the wilds of East Anglia (which I’m a bit cross about), but if you’re in the Big Smoke the event is reasonably priced and sounds fascinating, so do try to go along if you can! You can find more information about the event here.

Meantime – back to scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence! 😀

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

“…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!)

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…

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