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On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!

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After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

“As you walk around Paris do not take space for granted.” @_CopyPress #michaelschwab

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Paris by Michael Schwab

As we’re all still confined to barracks, the only way left to travel is in films or books, and the latter is my preferred choice – I like to let the words take me on journeys. Paris is a place I’ve still not managed to visit but it has an endless appeal; however, a recent encounter via a slim book what not quite what I anticipated…

Imagine you were to pick up a book by a photographer apparently exploring the trees of Paris. You would expect maybe a glossy monograph filled with tastefully and beautifully taken images and lyrical commentary. “ Paris” by Michael Schwab is indeed a study of some trees in Paris, but it’s as unlike those expectations as you could imagine!!

Shwab is a German artist who takes a very individual view of his craft, and it’s his clever image which adorns the cover of this thought-provoking little book. Intriguingly, however, he takes as his central premise the idea of a photographer who sets out to snap the trees of Paris but has forgotten his camera. How to log and record what he sees? Instead of some kind of attempt to draw the foliage he instead devises a gadget and sets out chart the trees by a complex measuring method (set out at the start of the book). The result is an abstract diagram which represents the tree though of course looking nothing like it; yet which has a beauty of its own.

Each diagram is accompanied by text explaining where the measurements were taken, describing the location and also the response of local people to his actions. It’s a fascinating concept, somewhat Perecian to my mind; a visual constraint as opposed to a linguistic one; and the results really are singular. Despite the fact that the diagrams look nothing like trees, you still get a strong sense of place from the combination of the plan and the description; and the two have a kind of beauty of their own.

Space: In the drawings space is uneven. It is as if spaces move under my eye like waves in a sea that break and fold back onto themselves. When the figure is developed in the drawing, and imaginatively brought back to site, it is space that is affected first. The real, lived space starts to move too and all sense is reconfigured. This happens already when a site is measured and the figure emerges. The drawing give uneven space an established form, like a memory.

“Paris” is published by Copy Press in their ‘Common Intellectual’ series, a set of short 100-page works; according to the publisher, “each title makes a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.” Certainly this book make me think about representation; whether we can best capture a place by a simple snap, or whether thinking outside the box and looking more deeply gives a better impression. Schwab is London-based and so presumably wrote the text in English, and it’s evocative writing, capturing the artist in the process of undertaking his work and interacting with those around him. All in all, it adds up to a fascinating short book which is not really like anything else I’ve read.

An example of one of the diagrams from the Copy Press website: https://www.copypress.co.uk/index/paris/

This really was a most interesting experience, reading “Paris”; the more I think about it, the more I feel that Shwab is coming from a very Oulipian perspective, with the mixture of maths and words and constraints; even down to the cover photograph with the foliage reflecting the shape of the Eiffel Tower behind it. I’m still trying to remember where I stumbled across this one (possibly Twitter…), but I’m very glad I did. The Copy Press website lists some very tantalising titles, and I may have to explore a little further… ;D

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! 😀

“Dusk excites the mad.” #Baudelaire #Paris

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Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Martin Sorrell

I’ve touched briefly on the French author Charles Baudelaire on the Ramblings in the past; but despite having several of his books lurking, it’s decades since I dipped into his poetry. The “Selected Poems” you can see on the pile in the picture has been with me since the 1980s, when I first began to really explore literature, but the rest of the volumes have arrived gradually over the years. I’ve meant to go back to his work many times, but it was reading “Orphic Paris” which gave me an attack of French Poetry (as those who follow me on social media might have seen…) Baudelaire was a constant touchstone in Henri Cole’s Paris and I thought it was about time I got down to actually reading some CB…

Dreams, always dreams! And the more the soul is ambitious and discerning, the greater the distance between dream and the possible.

“Paris Spleen”, a pretty little Hesperus Press volume that I’ve had for quite some time, contains 50 short prose pieces by Baudelaire which are considered just as revolutionary as his poetry was. His best-known work is the poetry book “The Flowers of Evil” (Les Fleurs du Mal), and apparently the pieces in “Spleen” often correspond with the poems in the former volume, almost considered as prose versions of the verse; I can’t really comment on that as yet, as it’s a looong while since I spent any time with “Flowers…” However, I think “Spleen” stands on its own as a marvellous work and could well be a good introduction to Baudelaire for those new to him.

The fifty pieces range in length and subject matter; some are no more than half a page, some stretch to four or more; and they’re anything from fables and allegories to poetic pieces of prose exploring Baudelaire’s thoughts, dreams and beliefs in all their variety. There is a streak of dark melancholy running through the work and a recurring motif of autumn; which is often a particularly bittersweet time of year and indeed time of life. It’s perhaps worth recalling that “Spleen” was published posthumously, and the dating of each piece can range over several years, as if Baudelaire revisited the pieces regularly to refine their final form.

She loves with autumn love, as though approaching winter were lighting a new fire in her heart, and the servility of her tenderness is never a burden.

“Paris Spleen” is not a jolly read, that’s for sure; Baudelaire was not a happy chappie and he has a dark view of humanity which is in places reminiscent of Poe. However, I’m very fond of Poe’s darkness and found myself equally drawn to Baudelaire’s spleen. (The fact that Baudelaire was a pioneering translator of Poe may have some relevance here…) Nevertheless there is great beauty and melancholy in his writing, and these vivid pieces linger in the mind. For example, one section tells of the narrator being brought face to face with an old and redundant circus performer; seeing this surplus member of humanity, Baudelaire predicts a destitute and useless old age for himself – which, for better or worse, he never reached, dying at the age of 46. The language is often heightened and melodramatic; there are tales of meeting with, and losing your soul to, the Devil; and love never goes well for our Charles…

…an exquisite autumn sky, one of those from which hosts of memories and regrets descend..

However, an additional element which needs to be born in mind is the time and place in which Baudelaire was living. The nineteenth century saw Paris being pulled to pieces and rebuilt and the descriptions of the city in these poetic vignettes often reflect this. One of the best-known pieces is “The Eyes of the Poor” (which you can find online easily, and which I’m sure I’ve read before). Although the story shows the impossibility of real communion and understanding between humans, an important element is the changing city. The poor characters are shown as being witness to changes taking place which are not for them, in their poverty, and this resonated strongly with my recent reading of “City of Light” for Shiny New Books, which of course covered the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. Modernity is creeping into the world and that’s reflected in these stories, with so many of the characters appearing to be out of date and unneeded.

… the intoxication of Art dulls the terror of the void better than anything else…”

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Paris Spleen” is translated and introduced by Martin Sorrell (who I believe has translated a number of French authors of this era) and I was interested to compare his rendering of what is possibly Baudelaire’s best known piece from this collection. No. 33 is here rendered as “Be drunk” and advises us to be in a permanent state of intoxication – whether from wine, poetry or virtue, it doesn’t seem to matter! (Poetry for me, please!) I’ve seen this translated as “Get drunk” and I think on the whole I prefer “Be drunk” as it kind of implies a permanent state, rather than something which has to be constantly refreshed!

… what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?

Somehow, Baudelaire made perfect reading for a wet, dull Bank Holiday Sunday (yes, I’m that behind with my posts…) His writing is intense, beautiful, dark, evocative and melancholy, and his imagery memorable – well, he’s a poet writing prose, so it would be, wouldn’t it! I hadn’t realised he had such a reputation as an essay writer until I did a bit of online research and remembered I had a Penguin Great Ideas volume of his prose knocking about too. So I think I might be spending a bit more time in the company of this melancholy man in weeks to come – pass the absinthe, please!

“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… 😀

Rebuilding the Parisian Landscape @ShinyNewBooks @HoZ_Books

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It’s probably been fairly noticeable over the past year or so that I’ve developed quite an interest in the French Revolution (as well as the side aspect of iconoclasm during that conflict…); so when the opportunity arose to review a new book from Head of Zeus about the reconstruction of Paris during the 1800s, I was of course very interested indeed….

“City of Light” by Rupert Christiansen is a beautiful hardback book, lavishly illustrated and full of fascinating information about the knocking down of the mediaeval street plan and the building of the boulevards in Paris. It also puts the changes very firmly in context, clarifying much of what can be a very complex period of French history. The book raises a number of issues, and it struck a number of nerves with me. I find myself very conflicted about the amount of razing to the ground and rebuilding that happens nowadays, particularly when it’s done with little regard for the humans that have to live and work in the areas concerned.

By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And the changes taking place around Charing Cross Road and Soho in London I actually find really upsetting. When I first started visiting the area in the late 1970s/early 1980s, there were so many parts that had been unchanged for decades; you could wander down a little side street and find a cafe with 1950s formica tables and small glass coffee cups and saucers; and it was easy (and entertaining!) to get lost in the back streets of Soho. However, so much of that character has been knocked out of the area in the name of progress; and when I met up with my brother (plus Middle child and Partner) in January, he was cursing the gentrification of Soho, and how difficult it was for us just to find a damn pub to grab a quick drink in… I know where he’s coming from!

So this is a book that looks at a historical landmark that is still very relevant to what’s happening around us today. My review is at Shiny here, so please do pop over and have a look.

 

The Case of the Grumpy Detective…

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Maigret Loses His Temper by Simenon
Translated by Robert Eglesfield

There’s no accounting for reading whims, is there? I may be awash with new books, review books and charity shop finds, but if I suddenly get an urge to read an old Maigret that’s been knocking around the house for years, well that’s what I’m going to do. And I did… I was trying to remember the impetus for picking this one up, and then recalled it was thanks to an article on LitHub which listed some quintessential Parisian fictions. This one apparently featured Père Lachaise cemetery – well, not exactly, and I think the article was a bit disingenuous. Nevertheless, I *did* thoroughly enjoy this particular Maigret!

“Maigret Loses His Temper” is a slightly later adventure of the great detective, first published in 1963. The story is set in a Paris which is sweltering in a heatwave. Maigret is by now a chief inspector, and currently drowning in a sea of paperwork; not the kind of setting the detective prefers, and so when a body is found, Maigret jumps at the chance to escape from his boring desk-work and get involved in sleuthing instead. However, the case is an odd sort of one; the victim is a night-club owner, who owns a string of businesses which, despite their seedy nature, he runs so honestly that he’s known as “the grocer”. Even more strangely, the body appears to be have been stored for a couple of days before being dumped outside Père Lachaise, which in a heatwave isn’t really that sensible a thing to do… The victim’s family appear to be uninvolved; gang warfare is ruled out; and so it’s left to Maigret to dig deep into the heart of the case and find the complex story behind a seemingly simple murder.

Without hurrying, he strolled through the few streets which constituted the former steward’s world, and, as the hours went by, these changed in appearance. First there were the neon signs which became more numerous, and then there were the uniformed commissionaires who appeared outside the doors. Not only did the jazz, coming out through the night-clubs’ doors, give a different vibration to the air, but the passers-by were different and the night taxis began to spill out their passengers, while a new fauna moved backwards and forwards between the light and shade.

As always, Simenon’s writing oozes atmosphere, and he captures the city beautifully; the seedy clubland, the neon and the strip joints, are brilliantly conjured in his spare yet effective prose. And the group of detective, that familiar ensemble cast he has around Maigret, make their reassuring appearances supporting their chief. However, the star of the book is, as ever, Maigret; what a really wonderful creation he was. He almost seems to mooch through the case; smoking his pipe fiercely, popping into the local bars for a drink and a meal; but that distracted air hides the thought processes going on behind the scenes. Some kind of detecting instinct sends him in the right direction, and he tracks down the criminal despite all the odds, revealing some surprising twists and an unexpectedly nasty murderer.

By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Simenon wrote so many Maigrets that there *is* the danger that if you’ve read a lot they tend to merge a little bit; and in fact I keep a checklist so that I can be sure of what I own and don’t, as well as which ones I’ve read. However, this is a particularly strong entry in the series: the mystery is clever, the atmosphere is marvellous and Maigret’s persistence very much on show. Simenon at one point allows himself to insert a meditation on Maigret’s handling of cases and this adds a fascinating element to the book (as well as painting an image of Maigret like a spider in the middle of a web, with his minions spread out all around him while he directs events from the centre).

    It had happened several times, indeed quite often, but never in such a clear, characteristic way. You work in a given direction, all the more stubbornly in that you are less sure of yourself and have less data to hand.
    You tell yourself that you remain free, when the time comes, to turn round and search in another direction.
    You send inspectors right and left. You think you are marking time, and then you discover a new clue and you start moving cautiously forward.
    And all of a sudden, just when you least expect it, the case slips out of your grasp. You cease to be in control of it. It is events which are in command and which force you to take measures which you have not foreseen, and for which you were not prepared.

I devoured “Maigret Loses His Temper” in a couple of sittings, and it was the perfect book at the perfect time. Sometimes you just need the safety of a reliable read: a series you love, a writer and characters you’re familiar with – and I’ve very rarely been disappointed with a Maigret!

Discovering Papa Hemingway

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A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Ah, Papa Hemingway! An author I’ve tended to avoid over the years because of

a. the animal cruelty
b. the macho quality

However, I have had a copy of “A Moveable Feast” knocking around for years, mainly because it has reminiscences of Gertrude Stein; but it was a fairly nasty old paperback and so a chance picking up of a new and decent copy actually had me picking it up. Somehow, non-fiction seems to appeal at the moment and so this seemed a good way to try out Hem’s prose.

a-moveable-feast

“Feast” was written in the latter part of Hemingway’s life, being finished shortly before his death, and covers his life in Paris in the 1920s. He was at the time married to Hadley, and they had a small son Bumby; Hem was trying to scratch out a living as a writer, and the family lived as cheaply as they could, existing on his meagre earnings with handouts from Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co from time to time. Nevertheless, this was the place to be at the time, as you could mix with Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis and of course the Fitzgeralds. And oddly enough, one of my recent reads turns up too:

The Closerie de Lilas had once been a cafe where poets met more or less regularly and the last principal poet had been Paul Fort whom I had never read. But the only poet I ever saw there was Blaise Cendrars, with his broken boxer’s face and his pinned-up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand. He was a good companion until he drank too much and, at that time, when he was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly. But he was the only poet who came into the Lilas and I only saw him there once.

hem in paris

Hemingway’s prose turned out to be much better than I expected; I had heard much about his love of simple, unadorned writing but I think that’s a little deceptive. Hem’s writing may appear straightforward but it’s not; it’s well constructed, descriptive and quite evocative. What’s also fascinating is his view of the characters he meets; Lewis is described as unpleasant, Joyce a distant figure of admiration, Stein complex and difficult, and Pound as one of the nicest and kindest people Hem knows. This latter is particularly intriguing as by the time the book was written, Pound had gone from being reviled to a forgotten figure because of his views during WW2. Hemingway must have known this, of course, but still had plenty of nice things to say about the disgraced poet; which makes me keen to explore Pound and his life and work more.

Hem, Hadley and Bumby

Hem, Hadley and Bumby

A fair chunk of this book is made up of Hemingway’s recollections of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and these are fascinating. Scott comes across as eccentric, hypochondriac, obsessed with Zelda and yet unable to write while he’s around her. I did sense a certain misogyny in Hemingway’s attitudes – it’s there in his view of Gertrude Stein and also in the way he writes about Zelda. He obviously doesn’t like her, and his judgements of her seem simplistic, especially as it’s clear nowadays what a complex and troubled woman she was. Nevertheless, his affection for Scott shines through, and also for his Paris years when he and his family were poor but happy.

I enjoyed my first experience of Hemingway much more than I expected, and there are several more works of fiction available to me, as well as his journalism. So I don’t think this read will be a one-off….!

Recent Reads – The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

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The lovely thing about time off work (in this case for the Christmas holidays) is that I get plenty of reading time – fairly essential when you think of the number of books I’ve amassed recently, and so maybe it’s a good thing this is another gift book (birthday this time).

beautifulwalk
It’s a little while since I’ve read any non-fiction and I was unsure what I wanted to read, so I picked up TMBWITW – and I wasn’t disappointed! John Baxter has written a number of books, but this is the first time I’ve come across his work. He hails originally from Australia but washed up in Paris via England and LA when he married a Frenchwoman and moved there. The book is the story of his walking experiences in the city, and an awful lot more!

Baxter begins by relating a driving experience gone wrong, when he was supposed to be travelling to in-laws for Christmas Day outside of Paris. He soon diverges into his history as a walker (you didn’t in Australia because of wild creatures, you did in UK to get to the pub, and if you walked in LA *you* were regarded as a wild creature!) However, he doesn’t stay directly on topic for long, and his book wanders off, in psychogeographical fashion, to cover the artistic past of Paris, his adventures taking walking guided tours round the city, food and drink, the building of modern Paris, visiting the catacombs, opium, cafes, clubs and much, much more! The US ex-pat community of Stein, Fitzgerald and very much of Hemingway are a regular current throughout the book, but it touches on indigenous French such as Colette and Cocteau; and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co is much in evidence.

“You can blame Hemingway for what happened next. Well, not personally. He had after all been dead since 1961. But his celebrations of hunting, shooting, fishing, bullfighting and war popularized the conviction that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas. Numerous authors, inspired by his stories of safaris, boxing matches and battle, had been gored, shot, knocked insensible, or (not least) left with horrific hangovers trying to prove they were his equal.”

This is a pure gem of a book; Baxter obviously knows his stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his erudition. The book is incredibly well-written and readable, a beguiling mixture of fact and personal anecdote and also very, very funny. It actually tells you an awful lot about Paris, but in a fun, entertaining way and I just couldn’t put it down.

Baxter isn’t afraid to debunk myths along the way, and there are some nice little photos to illustrate the text. The book is surprisingly wide-ranging, and in a weird case of synchronicity, the place Baxter lived in England was East Bergholt (a village not that far from me) where he knew the guy who illustrated the covers for “Dance to the Music of Time”! How strange is that!

“On the way back [from the village shop] with a bag of groceries, I’d pause at one of its many pubs for a beer or cut across the fields to visit illustrator and novelist James Broom-Lynne, who never needed much excuse to be distracted. He’d designed all the covers for the twelve-volume series of novels by Anthony Powell called A Dance to the Music of Time and some of Powell’s amused weariness seemed to have rubbed off.”

rue maubert part - george hann

The book is categorised on the rear cover as “Travel/Memoir”, which in some way doesn’t do it justice. But it highlights one of the important factors of a volume such as this, and that’s the personal angle. Baxter is a funny and engaging companion on the journey through the physical and historical aspects of Paris, and lets into the book enough of the personal to make us involved, but not so much that it feels like an intrusion. Walking round the city of Paris, steeped in its history, is something of a dream for many readers (me, for one!) and this book comes as close as you can get in book form. Highly recommended!

“A walk is not a parade or a race. It’s a succession of instants, any of which can illuminate a lifetime. What about the glance, the scent, the glimpse, the way the light just falls… the ‘beautiful’ part? No tour guide or guidebook tells you that. Prepared itineraries remind me of those PHOTO POINT signs at Disneyland. Yes, that angle gives you an attractive picture. But why not just buy the postcard?”

Recent Reads: Rilke in Paris

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“Rilke in Paris” is another treasure from Hesperus Press, a slim volume that was published last year. Rainer Maria Rilke is best known as a poet and the author of one novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, and also for his intense friendships with other artists across different fields of work, from Rodin to Pasternak. Wikipedia describes him as “a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist … widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.”

rilke in paris

He wrote in German but Paris was an adopted city for him, and this book covers his time in the French capital, which is where he conceived and wrote much of the “Notebooks”.

“Paris, of light and silk, faded once and for all time, as far as it skies and its waters, to the heart of its flowers, with the overpowering sun of its kings. Paris, in May, her white communicants who pass amidst the people, swathed in veils, like little stars, sure of their path and their hearts, for which they rise, set out and shine…”

The book is made up of  Maurice Betz’s essays on Rilke’s time in Paris (Betz was Rilke’s French translator) along with introduction and notes on the text by translator Will Stone. There is also a little gem at the end of the book in the form of a new translation of the prose poem “Notes on the Melody of Things” which rarely sees the light of day in other languages.

The essays are a fascinating insight into Rilke’s mind and way of working; they are generously sprinkled with extracts from his letters and Betz draws illuminating parallels between Rilke’s life in Paris and the way this ended up being portrayed in the “Notebooks”. Rilke lived through a turbulent era, including the First World War years, and left Paris several times only to be drawn back again.

Both Rilke and Betz use language which is rich and ornate and may not be to everyone’s taste. However, Rilke was definitely a one-off and this book is certainly a celebration of the poet as an outsider, a loner, which Rilke seems to have been, despite his numerous friendships and love affairs. He seems to have been constantly searching for the ideal state of mind to write, and solitude often seemed the solution.

“His life was a perpetual flight before social and human realities, towards that abstraction which is solitude, towards that preservation of the absolute that is infinite desire, nostalgia eternally unsatisfied, and towards those superior states of consciousness which give access, in the midst of the most beautiful and sorrowful landscapes of life, to the contemplation of death.”

The prose poem itself is very beautiful and dreamy, contemplating the human condition and the need for society versus solitude:

It occurs to me: with this observation:
that we still paint figures again a
gold background, like the early Primitives.
Before the indeterminate they stand,
sometimes of gold, sometimes of grey.
Sometimes in the light and often with,
behind them, an inscrutable darkness.

(on art)

It has proved that each lives on their island;
only the island are not distant enough that we might
live peacefully and in solitude. One can disturb another
or terrify them, or pursue them with spears – only
no-one cannot help no-one.

My one reservation with this book has nothing to do with the contents as such, but the fact that there is nothing in it about the translator! Normally Hesperus Press books have a little bit on the translator, but there was no indication at all as to who Will Stone was, apart from the fact that he wrote his foreword in Suffolk! This is all the more surprising as the final form of the book is very much dictated by him – his translation of the Betz and the prose poem; his notes on the places; and the fact that this volume is beautifully illustrated by photos taken by him. When I searched online it seems that he is a poet himself and also translates regularly. He has been very involved in the production of a lovely book here and should have had a little more recognition in it in my view!

rainer_maria_rilke

Despite this, I highly recommend this to any lovers of Paris and poetry. Rilke had an epistolary friendship with Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, the book of which is currently moving up my tbr – I’m looking forward to discovering more about this intense poet!

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