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Exploring the life and philosophy of a fascinating woman – over@shinynewbooks @PushkinPress

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Today I have a little bit of a digression from my week of reading Rose Macaulay, as I have a new review up on Shiny New Books of a fascinating new book.

The writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt is best known for coining the phrase ‘the banality of evil’; it’s a concept which has caused controversy over the years, but her life and thought make for intriguing reading. This new work “On Love and Tyranny” by Ann Heberlein, translated by Alice Menzies, explores both aspects and is a really thought-provoking read. You can find my full review here!

“It is impossible to live in a void.” #ReadIndies @PushkinPress #Montaigne #StefanZweig #WillStone

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I was really glad when Lizzy proposed that we allow an extra week for #ReadIndies reviewing as, like many, I ended up reading far more books during February than I could squeeze onto the blog! And for my last review for the event, I was very keen to cover the wonderfully-named Pushkin Press, one of my favourite indies and a publisher whose books I’ve featured regularly on the Ramblings. They’ve produced any number of books I love, but during February I spent time with a very special title that took in two favourite authors: “Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig.

Both subject and author of this little book have appeared on the Ramblings regularly; Zweig is a wonderful author who’s deservedly been rediscovered after decades in the wilderness; Montaigne crossed my path more recently, and his work and life are inspirational (as are those of Zweig). So to discover that one had written a monograph on the life of the other was a real treat!

“Montaigne” is translated by Will Stone, who’s also appeared on the blog as he’s produced wonderfully rendered English versions of a number of books I’ve loved. Most recently, I read his translation of Zweig’s “Journeys”, which was fascinating and poignant; and Stone’s foreword to this volume makes sobering reading, as he reveals that this was the last book Zweig was working on before he took his life in 1942. Zweig took comfort from reading Montaigne’s work, hanging on to the threads of hope as long as he could; but in the end, the collapse of the civilised world he loved so much was too much for him.

… one of life‘s mysterious laws shows that we only notice the authentic and essential values when it’s too late: youth, once it has fled, health at the moment it abandons us, freedom of the soul, that most precious essence, at the very moment when it is taken from us, or has already been taken.

So in typically Zweigian fashion, the author explores the life and work of his great forebear and how it’s still relevant to the modern world. Interestingly, as I read through the book I found much of the biographical detail was familiar from my reading of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, so Zweig obviously did a wonderful job in encapsulating Montaigne in a much smaller work.

Only the contemptuous stand in the way of freedom, and Montaigne despises nothing more than “la frénésie“, the violent madness of those dictators of the spirit who crave with supreme arrogance and vanity to impose on the world their “glad tidings“ as the sole and indisputable truth, and for whom the blood of hundreds of thousands of men is as nothing in the fanatical pursuit of their cause.

However, what was particularly fascinating was seeing Montaigne through the prism of Zweig’s sensibility; much of the book is about his current experiences, how Montaigne’s words, writtin during a period of world conflict, resonated with Zweig as he was living through the catastrophe of World War 2, and how Montaigne’s life and work can stand as advice on the best way to stay true to yourself in difficult times. We are still in the middle of a particularly trying period of human history, one which Montaigne would have recognised as he lived through a plague era himself; and so reading his words brings comfort now, as it did to Zweig back in the 1940s.

Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

Zweig’s “Montaigne” was a joy from start to finish; a beautifully written little book which not only brought to life the great essayist, but also gave me a glimpse into the author’s mind at that late stage of his life. Reading this little gem from Pushkin Press was a poignant, deeply moving and yet uplifting experience, and I’m so glad I chose it as my last book for #ReadIndies month (and a bit…)

#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

“Once again a terrific hurricane has broken on the world…” #stefanzweig #willstone

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Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Translated and with introduction, notes and photographs by Will Stone

Do you ever get that feeling where you’ve read so many novels and novellas and short stories that you’re kind of all fictioned out and need a change? That happened to me recently, and I suddenly had the massive urge to read some kind of non-fiction. It’s a genre I do love, from history to philosophy to essays to biography to travel writing, and it’s not as if I don’t have many unread choices on Mount TBR to select from… In the end I turned to Stefan Zweig; I had thought of him recently when Pushkin were promoting his titles and I spent some time tracking down a copy of his “Montaigne”. So I plumped for a slim collection of his writings about his travels, “Journeys” – and it definitely turned out to be the right book at the right time!

My edition of the book has been lurking for a number of years, and is a lovely Hesperus edition from 2011. Translated by Will Stone (who I’ve encountered on the blog before – I do love his translations!), “Journeys” collects together a number of pieces by Zweig on a variety of European destinations he visited, presented in chronological order from 1902 to 1940. Stefan Zweig was of course a peripatetic man, constantly on the move either from temperament or external pressure. As a Jewish man from Austria, the period in which he was living of course necessitated constant relocation, until his final journey to Brazil where he took refuge from the Nazi scourge in Europe. Alas, his stay there was not for long…

Stations and ports, these are my passion. Four hours I can stand there awaiting a fresh wave of travellers and goods noisily crashing in to cover the preceding one; I love the signs, those mysterious messages that reveal hour and journey, the shouts and sounds dull yet varied that establish themselves in an evocative ensemble of noise. Each station is different, each distils another distant land; every port, every ship brings a different cargo. They are the universe for our cities, the diversity in our daily life.

Whether visiting Ostend and Bruges, meditating on Hyde Park, spring in Seville or a food fair in Dijon, Zweig simply writes beautifully. He brings alive the location, considers the architecture and the history of the place, and records his impressions with an experienced traveller’s eye. His early journeys were at a time when the concept of tourism was in its infancy, and he could move from place to place on his own, spend quiet time assimilating his impressions and explore a town or city or area in peace. That, of course, would change…

In truth, Zweig’s writings always had a somewhat elegiac tone which I guess perhaps represented his temperament. However, inevitably this tone changes as the book goes on. There is the First World War and its aftermath; and Zweig visits many places affected by the conflict and decries the effect of war. In fact, his piece from 1928, “Ypres”, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read by Zweig (and I *have* read a number) as he revisits a place he knew before the conflict to see how it is now, and whether there has been reconstruction.

Not a shop exists where they don’t profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps those very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield…

In fact, this particular piece leads on to another issue in a changing Europe, that of the increase in mass tourism, the threat this poses to the places visited, and the modernisation taking place to enable this. Zweig is unhappy about coachloads of tourists turning up, being force-fed a tour of some place of historical significance, buying a souvenir and ticking the visit off their list. This is particularly pointed in somewhere like Ypres, where he titles one section “Jamboree upon the Dead” and I am completely in sympathy with his view; turning a place of massacre into a tourist attraction seems wrong, and this  resonated with the horror I’ve felt when seeing people posting selfies of themselves laughing and posing at Auschwitz. We can’t spend our life wringing our hands over past horrors, but we can remember and respect those who suffered and certainly we shouldn’t be trivialising these places and those victims.

Young Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

But there are lighter moments; his lovely essay of how the British cope during wartime by gardening is a delight. Then there is a piece on the Jewish Shelter in London, a haven for refugees, which is very moving. “To travel or be travelled” attacks the package tour head-on; acknowledging that although journeying on your own involves more planning and risk than having someone else whisk you from place to place on a coach, the rewards are worth it. Only by travelling on your own do you really stand a chance of getting to know a town or city, spending time exploring and perhaps having one of those chance pieces of seredipity when you stumble upon something unknown or unexpected.

Each morning the paper barks in your face wars, murders and crimes, the madness of politics clutters our senses, but the good that happens quietly unnoticed, of that we are scarcely aware.

Stefan Zweig started writing and travelling when it was easy to move around Europe from country to country. He saw that freedom eroded and eventually had to flee the continent to a kind of life which became unacceptable to him. I fear we’re actually regressing into those times again, having had the luxury of free movement for so many years; and it’s chilling to read Zweig state: “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breath quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” His writing is always elegant and beautiful (and as you can see from the amount of post-its, I could have quoted half the book); these pieces are evocative and atmospheric; and the more I read of Stefan Zweig, the less I can understand why his books were neglected for so many years. “Journeys” was a moving and transporting read, and if you’ve never read Zweig you could do no worse than to start here!

*****

I wanted to say a little bit about this edition of the book, because it has so many lovely elements to it. As I said, the translation is by the poet, Will Stone, and as well as rendering the pieces in English he also provides an erudite introduction. There are useful notes and a little biography of Zweig, and most delightfully a selection of Stone’s own photographs of some of the places Zweig writes about. This was an element Stone added to the excellent “Rilke in Paris” and it’s a wonderful idea, helping to bring alive the places the author visited. As I mentioned, my edition is a Hesperus Press one, but “Journeys” is currently in print from Pushkin Press, so I imagine it will also have the extra material as it *is* the Will Stone translation. Definitely most highly recommended…

Tackling mortality the Russian way…. @pushkinpress #tolstoy #borisdralyuk

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Lives and Deaths: Essential Stories by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

Following on from my last post, where I considered a lovely new collection of Gogol’s essential stories from Pushkin Press, I’m today going to be looking at a similar collection bringing together some of Tolstoy’s shorter works. Tolstoy was, of course, more prolific than Gogol (well, he lived a lot longer, for one thing…); and so translator Boris Dralyuk has perhaps had a more difficult task in choosing which works to feature. He’s made what I think is an exemplary selection, one which focuses on what seems to me to be the main thrust of Tolstoy’s shorter works – death, how we prepare for it and how we meet it (as well, I suppose, as the life we lead beforehand).

The four works Boris has translated are “The Death of Ivan Illych”, “Pace-setter: The Story of a Horse”, “Three Deaths” and “Alyosha the Pot”. Of these, two I’ve read before (“Ivan..” and “Alyosha…”) and two are new to me; and certainly I sensed similar themes in each work. “Ivan…” in particular is a very dark story, dealing in the main with the illness and impending demise of the titular man. He’s again hide-bound by that Russian civil service and rigid social structure, but aims for a happy life, marrying and settling down. A random minor accident seals his fate and we watch his gradual deterioration, his wrestling with his mortality and his attempts to reckon his life. It’s a grim struggle for him, and throws up all manner of issues for the reader, as I found before…

“Alyosha the Pot”, which I recognise but must have read pre-blog, is a short tale of the life and death of a simple peasant who spends much of his life doing things for others and can therefore meet his end with serenity. And “Three Deaths” is a fascinating story, new to me, where Tolstoy considers three different types of demise: that of a consumptive rich women, an ancient peasant and – well, of the third death I will say nothing, as does Boris in his introduction, for fear of spoiling the effect. But it is a remarkable piece of writing!

I’ve left “Pace-setter…” till last because it really is something special. It is indeed the story of a horse; the Pace-setter of the title, a piebald gelding of good breeding who nevertheless had a hard life. We initially see him as old and worn out, tormented by the younger horses and struggling to carry on. However, he speaks out at night, telling his tale to the other members of the horse community, and it’s a story of suffering at the whim of humans, cruelty and betrayal, and the loss of a master with whom Pace-setter had a strong bond. Pace-setter’s story opens the eyes of the other horses to what kind of animal their companion was, and it’s a remarkably moving and powerful piece of writing (and excruciatingly sad in places).

via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve had my struggles with Tolstoy in recent years, finding it difficult to deal with his dogmatic attitudes at times; and indeed re-reading “Ivan…” I was struck again by his need to constantly blame women for the problems of human relationships. The extreme attitudes of “The Kreutzer Sonata” were starting to creep in, and his narrator’s lack of any empathy at the changes his wife was undergoing during pregnancy is shocking (although perhaps not unusual at that time).

Nevertheless, “Pace-setter…” does much to redeem him in my eyes. It’s tempting, of course, to see the life and hardship of the horses as analogous with that of the peasants. However I think it also reflects Tolstoy’s deep connection with the natural world, an element that comes through in some of the other stories. Deep down, Tolstoy seems to be saying that we should lead a *useful* life, and if we’ve done that we can face death with equanimity. That isn’t in fact a bad philosophy and if more people adopted it nowadays, we might have a nicer world around us…

“Lives and Deaths” is, therefore, an excellent collection and gives a really good flavour of Tolstoy’s writing and core beliefs. The translations read beautifully, there are useful notes where needed, and the stories flow thematically. If you want to get to grips with the essence of Tolstoy, his beliefs distilled into his short works, there can be not better place to start.

(Review copies of this book and Gogol’s Essential Tales kindly provided by Pushkin Press, for which many thanks! Both of these books would make a wonderful introduction to these Russian authors if you haven’t read them before;  but even if you have, these collections are a great way to get reacquainted… :D)

An influx of Russians! @pushkinpress #gogol #tolstoy #oliverready #borisdralyuk

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Time to head off any risk of their being a Russian Reading Deficiency on the Ramblings! 😀 I’ve been lucky enough to receive these two review copies from the lovely Pushkin Press: a pair of collected short stories by a duo of favourite Russian authors – Tolstoy and Gogol. Both of them present what are described in the subtitle as “Essential Stories” and that’s a description with which I wouldn’t argue! So today I’ll look at the Gogol selection, with the rather evocative title “And the Earth will sit on the Moon”!

I have long suspected dogs of being far more intelligent than humans…

This selection of five of Gogol’s tales is translated by Oliver Ready, who provides a useful introduction which interestingly mentions the long reach of Gogol’s influence through Dostoevsky to Bulgakov. And these stories really *are* vital: “The Nose”, “Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat” are possibly Gogol’s best-known short works and deserve to be revisited, even if you’ve read them before, as they capture the writer’s essence quite brilliantly. “The Nose” is a surreal masterpiece in which the titular objects becomes detached from its owner and develops a life of its own; “Diary…” follows the mental collapse of a clerk who becomes obsessed with his superior’s daughter; and “The Overcoat” meditates on the fate of a poor man who invests his money and soul into a new garment.

And so, in a certain Department there served a certain clerk, a clerk whom nobody could describe as especially remarkable, who was a bit short, a bit pocked, a bit carroty and even, by the looks of him, a bit blind, with a widow’s peak, wrinkles on both cheeks, and a general complexion that was positively haemorrhoidal…

These three Petersburg-based stories have a common theme; they pick apart the horrors of a society based so much on status and rank, where those at the bottom are prey to financial and emotional crisis, excluded from the world of the haves, and have an existence rather than a life. Gogol is well aware of the poverty that exists in this world and the pernicious effect it has on those impoverished workers, and it’s clear where his sympathies lie. In particular, it’s chilling watching the gradual mental deteriorationof the clerk in “Diary…” as the entries become weirder and the dating of the writings more bizarre.

The other two stories have rural settings rather than the city; but Gogol is just as devastating with his satire. “Old-World Landowners”, while purporting to be a portrait of a much-missed world now declining, actually reflects the primitive manner of living in many Russian rural areas. The opening paragraph is just brilliant:

How I love the unassuming life of those proprietors of remote estates who are known in Little Russia as old-world landowners and who, like decrepit picturesque cottages, present such a welcome contrast in their motley garb to all the sleek new buildings whose walls have not yet been drenched in rain, whose roofs have not yet turned green with mould, and whose plastered porches still conceal their red bricks from view.

And despite the narrator’s apparent love of the ‘old world’, I don’t think many of us would want to live there…!

The final story, “The Carriage”, is a marvellous piece of satire, again focusing on the rural world but one in which a small town is disrupted by the arrival of a regiment of the military. The local landowners attempt to keep up with the status of their visitors, but one gentleman in particular is caught out by a mixture of vanity and too much alcohol…

I’ve read all of these stories at points throughout my life, but loved revisiting them in these lovely new translations from Oliver Ready (probably best known for his rendering of “Crime and Punishment”). He also provides a helpful note on the various ranks of the Russian Civil Service, notoriously complex and essential to the understanding of the anguish and status of Gogol’s protagonists. This is a fabulous new collection from Pushkin, and if you’ve never experienced the wonderful writing and satire of Gogol before, it’s the perfect place to start! Go on – you know you want to… ;D

Next up on the Ramblings – essential stories from Tolstoy! 😀

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

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 unimmaculate conception… @PushkinPress

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The Marquise of O- by Heinrich von Kleist
Translated by Nicholas Jacobs

What is in effect my last post of the month is on a book which is pretty much in complete contrast to the ones that have gone before it – and is not without plenty of provoking issues! I’ve focused on quite a number of women writers this month, to tie in with Women in Translation Month and All Virago/All August (as well as redressing the balance slightly in favour of those woman authors). However, a slim arrival from Pushkin Press sounded – well, unusual, so I decided to pick it up between weightier tomes and see what it was all about.

Author Heinrich von Kleist, who’s a new name to me, seems to have had something of a troubled life. His lifestyle was a bit peripatetic, he seemed unable to settle to any one occupation and wrote a number of works in differing genres with varying success before finally committing suicide in 1811. “The Marquise of O-” is descriped as a “dizzyling comic tale” and seems to be one of his most famous novellas. It’s a short work that certainly throws up any number of issues!

The book opens with the titular Marquise placing an advert in a newspaper; she finds herself unaccountably pregnant and wishes the father of the child to make himself known. Julietta is a widowed mother of impeccable character; and as the story takes us back over events to find out how this can have happened, we meet her parents, her brother and one Count F, all of whom get quite worked up about the situation… The Marquise encountered Count F when he saved her from a fate worse than death at the hands of a bunch of Russian soldiers, and she then passed out. The text then states “Then-” and we are left to fill in the gap. What follows is a frantic series of misunderstandings and errors, as her parents support her, then don’t support her, then do support her; her brother has a walk on part, popping in now and then to offer comment and advice; and the Marquise herself is aggrieved when her protestations of innocence are not believed. Count F spends much of his time throwing himself at her feet and begging for her hand in marriage – presumably as a way to assuage his guilty conscience. The prose reflects the manic action, and although eventually resolution is reached, it’s not without much breathless action along the way.

“The Marquise…” is therefore superficially an entertaining and indeed comic novella, a kind of comedy of manners and perhaps comment on the mores of the day. However, it has to be acknowledged that there *are* some quite disturbing undercurrents. It’s fairly obvious to anyone with half a brain that the Count basically raped the Marquise while she had passed out, and yet this is almost swept under the carpet (and even regarded by her parents as something of a relief when they find out she hasn’t actually chosen to have sex with someone). There’s a whole thing called ‘Forced Seduction’ (which is designed to make me angry) and this kind of reflects that; as the Count has done what he did, he thinks that by marrying the Marquise that makes things right. It doesn’t but I guess we’re dealing with attitudes of a couple of centuries ago so that has to be acknowledged. What’s equally disturbing is a sequence when the Marquise and her father have been reconciled and she’s portrayed as sitting on his lap and basically snogging him. Euuuuuh…..

So I’m frankly still thinking about this one! Apparently there can be multiple interpretations and the context of the wars going on at the time are relevant and symbolic. The Marquise is certainly a reasonably feisty character and gives the Count a very hard time when the truth outs. The blurb describes the story as “ambiguous” and I think it really is; I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it and I’ll continue to mull it over!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

“….we have to live and not dream about anything.” @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K #WITMonth @ReadWIT @Biblibio

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Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg

… and as we limp towards the end of the summer and #WITMonth (well, at least I do!), I have read the final book I planned to for this month – which is actually something of an achievement. Go, me! 😀 The book is “Isolde” by Irina Odoevtseva, and it was recently published by the lovely Pushkin Press (who seem to be specialising in translations of Russian emigre writers – more of which later…) I’ve encountered the author before, as pieces by she and her husband, poet Georgy ivanov, were featured in “Russian Emigre Short Stories”, masterminded by translator Bryan Karetnyk. Her story “The Life of Madame Duclos” was one I found to be particularly memorable, and so I was very keen to read her novel – which has very shockingly never been translated into English before.

“Isolde” was published in 1929 and is set in the France of the 1920s. The book opens in Biarritz where fourteen year old Russian exile Liza is staying with her brother Nikolai and mother Natalia Vladimirovna. However, it’s clear from the start that this is something of a disfunctional family; the father was killed in the Revolution, and mother Natasha is in pursuit of lovers and money (no doubt the only practical way for her to survive in exile). She refuses to publicly acknowledge that she’s the children’s mother, instead pretending they’re cousins; and while she follows her own inclinations, Liza and Nikolai are very much left to their own devices, with devastating results… On the beach, Liza encounters the slightly older English boy, Cromwell; the latter is dazzled by Liza, christening her Isolde, and pursuing her. As he has money and a car, the neglected siblings are happy to hang around with him (even though Liza claims to be in love with a fellow Russian, Andrei, who’s back in Paris); and the three have a fine time with restaurants, jazz bars and plenty of champagne. And back in Paris the three Russians continue to sponge off Cromwell, until his mother cuts off the funding. At the same time, the distant and disinterested Natasha takes off, leaving her children with little money and no support; and dark forces begin to tempt the Russians towards dramatic acts, exacerbated by drink and lack of cash. The consequences are explosive…

Co-translator Bryan Karetnyk provides an excellent introduction which puts “Isolde” firmly into context, and it’s not hard to understand how controversial it was when it was issued. As he points out, it inhabits the same milieu as Coctea’s “Les Enfants Terribles” (which I love), a book that was published the same year and which features another pair of isolated siblings. Underlying both stories is the stress of adolescence and the effects of the changes the characters are going through; what perhaps makes “Isolde” stand apart is its frank acknowledgement of the burgeoning sexuality of Liza in particular. I can’t help thinking there’s a tendency nowadays to forget that teenagers are beset by all sorts of new desires and needs that they don’t quite understand and which they don’t know how to deal with; cotton wooling them isn’t going to help… Odoevtseva captures the undercurrents brilliantly in her portraits of the youngsters, driven by forces they can’t really control and without anyone there to guide them. And that is I think one of the most important points in the book; these are teenagers, in effect abandoned and left without guardians or help, and exiled from their country of birth. They’re susceptible to all sorts of influences, which at one point allows what is perhaps a little dig at Dostoevsky and his effect on young and impressionable minds. The young people have no moral compass and what happens to them, the actions they take, are tragic but inevitable.

Liza went through to her room and sat down on the light blue divan. Outside, wet auburn leaves spun silently down – like wet dead butterflies. The trees’ thin, dark branches quivered pitifully. Rain hit the windows at an angle and ran down the panes in thin streams. The wet, shiny glass made this familiar scene appear strange – cruel and hopeless.

It’s particularly clear from Odoevtseva’s wonderful writing that Liza suffers dreadfully from the lack of maternal love, and there are passages of genuine anguish where she shows how the girl has been damaged by the indifference of her mother-who-would-be-her-cousin. The unsettled state she finds herself in, the lack of a sense of belonging, and her failure to grasp what’s going on around her, lead her to build up the idea of Russia and returning there in her mind in very naive ways which allows her to be persuaded into foolish actions. Her youth and vulnerability are made clear at several points; she is in danger of becoming prey of men like her mother’s lover Boris, or Cromwell’s older cousin. However, in the end her naivety is exploited in a different way bringing tragedy to all. The end of the book is heartbreaking, and it reminds you that these are in the end just children who have been set adrift and lost.

Irina Odoevtseva – via Wikimedia Commons

“Isolde” is a marvellous and moving read, and a wonderful addition to the range of new emigre translations Pushkin have been bringing out. The blurb for the book describes it as a portrait of “a lost generation of Russian exiles”; it certainly does seem that there is a whole range of authors who wrote whilst banished from their country of birth and whose work has been lost since. I have to applaud the translators, and particularly Bryan Karetnyk who seems to be on a one man crusade to bring us the cream of Russian emigre literature – well done that man! 😀 I have to confess to ending my read of “Isolde” very emotionally affected by the story, and I hope more of Odoevtseva’s works make it into English!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! Kudos to both translators for their work on the book; I’ve mentioned Bryan Karetnyk’s contributions above, but want to acknowledge too Irina Steinberg, who also co-translated two wonderful Teffi volumes from Pushkin Press! 😀

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