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#1936Club – “…money, like murder, will out.” #georgeorwell

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My final read for the #1936Club is one which took me a little by surprise! My love of George Orwell and his work must be quite clear from even a casual glance at the Ramblings. I have numerous paperback editions of his work, as well as a lovely boxed collection which Mr. Kaggsy presented me with many moons ago. So when we decided on 1936 for the club, and I realised his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was published that year, I thought it would be perfect for a re-read – as I had, I thought, read all of his fiction.

Aspidistra x 2!

Well – a quick dig on the shelves made me question myself; because rummaging revealed that I had *no* paperback edition of “Aspidistra”, only the nice hardback in the set, and I was sure I’d never read that copy. Then I started to actually explore the text and it didn’t seem familiar at all… So now I’m beginning to think that somehow I’d missed reading “Aspidistra” over the last few decades and that my encounter with it here is a first-time read – how exciting is that!!!

My posh hardback edition.

Anyway, I was faced with reading my posh book, which always stupidly makes me a bit nervous. However, fortune stepped in, in the form of Oxford University Press’s Word Classics series (I have quite a few of these – it’s always a toss-up whether to get an OWC or a Penguin Classic of a particular book, and I sometimes pick up both!) OUP have just issued a beautiful new set of Orwells in their OWC range, and were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Aspidistra” – what perfect timing!!

In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

On to the story. “Aspidistra” was Orwell’s third novel (fourth published full-length work) and its epigraph, dealing as it does with all things fiscal, sets the tone for the book. Money really is the root of all evil, or at least the problems besetting the main character, Gordon Comstock, and many of those he encounters. Gordon is in effect the last of the Comstocks; a fairly feeble family who have gradually died out through mediocrity, the only members left are Gordon, his sister Julia, and the occasional aunt or uncle. Gordon’s mother and sister have scrimped and saved to get the young man an education, feeling that he has a chance to make something of himself. But Gordon has always been aware of the poverty in which his family have existed, the fact that he is of the wrong class and that those with money look down on them while living lives of ease. And so as the book opens, we encounter him having chucked up a reasonable job with decent pay in an advertising agency, and now slumming it by working in a bookshop and living in fairly unpleasant digs.

Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.

Gordon is really not a happy man; his girlfriend Rosemary declares that she loves him but won’t sleep with him, which he puts down to money; he’s published a book of poems “Mice”, which was well reviewed but failed to earn him much; he’s struggling to write more, but his mood swings aren’t helping; and his friendship with the wealthy Ravelston is complex, poisoned once more by money. Money, money, money – that *is* very much what Gordon bangs on about all of the time, and bearing in mind the time when the book was written, he does have a point.

Lovely new OWC edition!

Britain in the 1930s was a land of extremes; the rich were trying to hold on to money and status, while the poor were struggling dreadfully. There was no welfare state, and some of the poverty portrayed in the book is devastating. I know other readers have perhaps had difficulty in warming to Gordon, but I think without insight into his circumstances, it’s hard perhaps to understand why he’s in the state he’s in.

Gordon also puts much of his situation down to lack of sex, and the book does discuss this issue a fair bit. In the 1930s contraception was relatively primitive (and presumably also cost quite a bit) and so any kind of sex life brought risks, particularly for the women involved. Gordon might seem to be being a bit selfish in his desire to sleep with Rosemary, but my reading of him is of a damaged, depressed man who lacks human warmth in his life, and I think he’s representative of many at the time.

Marriage is only a trap set for you by the money-god. You grab the bait; snap goes the trap; and there you are, chained by the leg to some ‘good’ job till they cart you to Kensal Green. And what a life! Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra. Pram-pushing and sneaky adulteries. And the wife finding you out and breaking the cut-glass whisky decanter over your head.

So Gordon and Rosemary attempt a day out in the country, on not very much cash, and that doesn’t go well at all. In our modern world, where sex is everywhere, it’s somehow shocking that the couple’s only chance for a physical relationship is if they go off into the woods for the day… Then Gordon has a windfall, and this is where things get really problematic, as events spiral out of control and he ends up in an even worse situation. He *could* go back to his old job, but refuses on principle – he doesn’t want to be sucked into the money world, tied to work and the 9-5 grind just to earn enough to live and have an aspidistra (the symbol for him of normality and conformity) in his front window like the rest of the respectable world. His stubbornness is infuriating at times, although you can understand his feelings. However, a crisis will come along and change everything – but how will Gordon respond?

There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

I don’t want to give away any more plot elements, because “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is such a wonderful and fascinating book. I just can’t believe I hadn’t read it before! Orwell apparently always regarded 1936 as a pivotal year in his life: he visited the north, which led to “The Road to Wigan Pier; he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with all that brought; he broke through as a novelist, with “Aspidistra…” bringing him in some income; and from that point on he regarded his work as to be to fight against fascism in all its forms, which led to seminal works like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen eighty-four”. He apparently dismissed “Aspidistra” but I think he shouldn’t have, because I feel it does explore very deeply and bitterly the pernicious effects of poverty. Gorden is angry and indignant; his sister Julia works all hours of the day just to survive; Rosemary is no richer either; and the degradation of some of the boarding houses in which Gordon stays is just awful. I believe “Aspidistra” draws on some of Orwell’s own life experiences, and of course he was well aware of what it was to be down and out, both in Paris and London! He may seem to be going on a bit about the evil of money, but we only have to look around us, in a world which is still anything but equal, to see that he has a point…

The next seven months were devastating. They scared him and almost broke his spirit. He learned what it means to live for weeks on end on bread and margarine, to try to ‘write’ when you are half starved, to pawn your clothes, to sneak trembling up the stairs when you owe three weeks’ rent and your landlady is listening for you. Moreover, in those seven months he wrote practically nothing. The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought.

The end of “Aspidistra” is interesting, although I’m loath to discuss it in detail because of spoilers. It might be the only logical one, and it does suggest perhaps that Gordon has been going through some kind of breakdown from which he *does* recover. The themes are often dark, the portrait of London between the wars often grimy and gritty, and the living conditions squalid. However, the book is not without its humour: Orwell’s portrait of the advertising business, with its corny slogans and ghastly advertising campaigns, has not dated, and his contempt for it is palpable! He definitely seems to feel that slavishly following the media is a Bad Thing (that’s a pretty modern attitude, too) and complains about the populace being so easily influenced. Well, not much changes.

My lovely Orwell box set

So I ended up thoroughly impressed with this Orwell which I hadn’t read, and yes, convinced again that he really was a genius. He captures brilliantly the post-war era, the struggles of the poor, the difficulty of coping on a few bob a week, and how the class system in England cripples the country and prevents it moving forward (hmmmm – familiar, that….) Although an early novel, it still features Orwell’s regular preoccupations, and I found the characters quite rounded too. His women characters were believable: sister Julia (interesting choice of name) with her self-sacrifice, and Rosemary, a well-defined character in her own right, caring for Gordon but often struggling to understand his principles. The latter, of course, can only be held successfully by people with money; if you’re poor, they go right out the window! I finished the book several days ago, and I’m still thinking about the many elements and issues it raised – such a thought-provoking read. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was the perfect way to end my reading for the #1936Club – what a week it’s been and what an amazing choice of books there was from the year!

(Emma has also read the book for the club, and you can read her post here!)

*****

I though I’d also share a few separate thoughts on the new OWC edition of “Aspidistra”, as my hardback from the box set comes with limited notation which is mainly to do with textual variations. As this edition originally hails from 1987, much of the landscape of Britain and the terminology would be quite familiar to the reader then. However, getting on for 35 years later than that, there’s the need for a little more explanation and the new edition has excellent notation which explains many terms which might seem strange or exotic to a younger, modern reader! Additionally, there is detail on the money of the time; as that subject underpins the story, it certainly is important that the reader understands ‘old money’ (I can just about remember it…) The notes are provided by Benjamin Kohlmann, who also supplies an excellent introduction which discusses the book in the context of the 1930s – it definitely is a book of its time and that needs to be remembered, I think, to get the most out of it. Sensibly, readers are advised to treat the foreword as an afterword if unfamiliar with the plot, and I wish all books would remind us of that before we embark. There’s a bibliography and a chronology, and so really there’s all you need. As you’ll guess from my review, I really loved “Aspidistra…”; and I think if you plan to read it, the OWC would be the perfect edition to choose!

“…a tragedy and a personal disaster.” #camus @OxUniPress #veryshortintroduction

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Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction by Oliver Gloag

I can’t recall when I first stumbled across the “A Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford University Press; however, I know I seem to own increasing amounts of them, and the ones I’ve read have been most helpful (The French Revolution springs to mind!) So I was very interested to see that a new volume, taking on Albert Camus, was about to be released and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

You may well be familiar with the format of the “Short” books; mostly under 200 pages long, they’re designed to give a concise and readable introduction to what can be a complex subject, although they aren’t just *definitions* as such. As the publisher’s website points out, they’ll often offer provocative discussions of the subject in question – which is what can make them even more interesting!

Albert Camus is, of course, a favourite author of mine; I first read his work in my 20s and was bowled over, particularly by his novel “The Plague“. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and has stood up to sustained re-readings (though I *don’t* think I’ll revisit it right now…) However, I wouldn’t claim to have completely understood the thinking and theories behind his non-fiction works, so I would keen to find out what the “Short” book would reveal.

And author Oliver Gloag does take an intriguing approach to his subject. He considers Camus’ life and work from a number of different angles which are broadly chronological but take in different aspects of the writer’s beliefs. The opening chapter, “Camus, son of France in Algeria”, I found particularly revealing; Gloag clearly lays out the history of French colonialism in Algeria, Camus’ status within that regime and the pivotal upbringing he had which was behind so many of his views. I confess to having had a very sketchy knowledge of the Algerian situation and this lucid chapter clarified many of Camus’ attitudes for me, and also the context of much of his work.

Gloag goes on to follow Camus’ career as he moves from journalist to novelist, his philosophies and beliefs, as well as his relationships with fellow authors and intellectuals in France of the 20th century. He is very good on delineating the differences between the theories of Camus and Sartre, who I’d always rather lazily bracketed together but who in fact seem to have had very different philosophies (the absurd vs existentialism). He also concisely covers their many schisms and that chapter was also particularly interesting.

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the thread running through the narrative seems to be Camus’s complex relationship with Algieria, a country which features in so many of his works. Troublingly, Camus did not support Algerian independence, instead wishing to maintain a colonial status quo which simply improved conditions for the native Algerians. This *is* problematic, and Cloag demonstrates how this stance recurred regularly in Camus’ writings. Camus appears to have been a man of contradictions: wishing to avoid conflict yet fighting with the resistance; espousing freedom but not necessarily extending his views to women. I guess he was human; we expect our philosophers and humans to be perfect, but they *are* as fallible as us at the end of the day.

As I read through the Camus Very Short Introduction, I realised that I actually have a very sketchy idea of his life and so the book was a fascinating primer on that. It’s clear, concise and illuminates many aspects of Camus which I hadn’t considered or come across before. However, as I read I did realise that the book was coming from a very particular angle. Cloag specialises in post-colonial literature and because of this particular discipline, he does insist on viewing Camus pretty much exclusively through a post-colonial lens. This does add some fascinating insights into Camus’s life and work, but I did find myself questioning this slightly as the book went on. Camus was a product of his time and upbringing; he transcended this in some ways with his wish to change the French colonisaton of Algeria to one of a fairer basis (though not to fight for its independence); however, I’m not sure that this is the *only* aspect of his life that influenced his work and I wondered whether it was slightly limiting to look at him only in this context. However, this is a minor quibble and I think I’ll have to read up a little more on Camus’ life and thought before making any final judgement!

So “Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction” turned out to be a fascinating and very stimulating read. I  did get much from it, particularly in my understanding of the Algerian situation, where Camus sat within that and how it might have influenced his work. The section on Camus and Sartre was very enlightening too, and the whole book was beautifully lucid and very readable. (I harp on the lucidity because so often books about people and ideas *aren’t* that clear…) As I’ve said before, I have a very grasshopper mind and I do love to hop from topic to topic, exploring new concepts and philosophies. The Very Short Introductions are therefore ideal for me – I could do no worse at the moment than attempt to educate myself during lockdown by reading a whole chunk of them; and the Albert Camus volume is an excellent and thought-provoking entry in the series!

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

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!

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The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

An unexpected and entertaining treat!

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A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

Being a bit of a fusspot about what I read (and bearing in mind that I’ll *never* have enough time in my life to read all the books I want to) I tend to be a little careful about review books, only requesting or reading ones that I think I’ll like. However, occasionally an unexpected volume pops through my door and that happened recently with this lovely new hardback from Oxford University Press. I was a bit flummoxed at first, but when I started exploring the content I found that it was quite a little treasure! “A Cabinet…” is an anthology; compiled by classicist J.C. McKeown, it draws from a wide range of texts from the early days of medicine and presents them in user-friendly chunks organised by categories, ready for the casual and untrained reader to enjoy. The results, as they say, are fascinating!

I should say up front that I’m a poor student of the true Classics, never having got back quite as far as Ancient Greece and Rome in my reading. I know the names, but not the content, so I approached the book as a complete novice. Interestingly, however, many of the texts here have never been translated into English before, so McKeown is charting new territory. He’s previously produced other “Cabinet of…” books, cover Roman and Greek Curiosities generally and on the evidence of the Medical book they should make good reading.

As McKeown points out in his erudite introduction, the science of medicine has changed dramatically since its early days; much of what the ancients took for granted, such as links to religion and magic, are dismissed out of hand nowadays (well – in professional circles, anyway!). Used as we are nowadays to constant medical innovation, back in the classical past medicine was a fairly unchanging art, with those practicing drawing on their forebears rather than innovating. And what we would nowadays call ‘quack remedies’ were treated with all seriousness; some of them sound remarkably grim, one of the milder examples being binding a horse’s teeth around a child’s neck to cure teething pains…

McKeown is upfront about the reasons he’s chosen many of the extracts; he sets out to entertain the modern reader and certainly he did this one! I thought it would be fun to share a few favourite quotes from this eminently dippable book; it’s an ideal gift for any medic or hypochondriac you might know, or anyone who likes to read about the horrors and peculiarities of medicine of the past!

*******

From the section ‘Sex Matters’:

“Sexual intercourse gives relief to a man who has been bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion, but it harms the woman who is his partner.” Pliny

“Uninhibited fornication cures dysentery.” Hippocrates

From the section ‘Women and Children’:

” If a nursing infant has a fever and you lay him down to sleep surrounded by cucumbers of the same length as the child, he will be cured immediately, since all the heat will be drawn off from him into the cucumbers.” Anonymous Byzantine

“Moistening a child’s skull with a cold sponge and then tying a frog to it belly up is a very effective treatment for heatstroke.” Pliny (what *was* he thinking??)

From the section ‘Preventative Medicine’:

A sick person is beyond all hope of recovery if his doctor urges him to live with no regard for moderation.” Seneca

From the section ‘Treatment and Cures’:

‘Eating boiled viper meat makes the eyesight keener, tones up the nervous system, and checks scrofulous swellings.’ Dioscorides
(I could go on and quote the preparation instructions but as a vegetarian it makes me a bit queasy…)

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