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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! 😀

August – a month where I *actually* undertake some challenges??? ;D @Read_WIT #AllViragoAllAugust @kitcaless @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K @FitzcarraldoEds

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I’m breathing little sigh of relief as I’ve actually managed to make it to the summer break from work – phew! Life has been pretty manic lately so I could do with a bit of space to regroup – and catch up with the reading. I’ve failed, of course, to make it through any kind of challenge floating around in the book blogsphere, but I don’t mind really – I tend to plough my own furrow when it comes to reading! However, August does bring a couple of reading events in which I always like to take part, and I’m hoping this year will be no different.

I’m also painfully aware that I’ve been reading a *lot* of books by men recently and that’s perhaps unusual as I *have* tended to read a lot more women authors in the past – perhaps it’s just the way the books have fallen. However, I’d like to redress that this month and to be specific I hope to read at least these four lovelies if nothing else!

All four are by women authors and all sound fascinating, although they don’t all fall into the challenge categories – nevertheless, I want to read them all this month! 😀

Let’s start with “Plastic Emotions”:

which is a very pretty looking book (sorry to be superficial there…) It’s neither a Virago nor a translated work; but it’s by a woman author and about a pioneering woman architect, so I’m going to count it in for getting back to reading more women. The subject of the book is Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, an inspirational woman who I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of before. So I’m looking forward to finding out more about her via Shiromi Pinto’s intriguing-sounding book.

Next up is a book for All Virago/All August (which I never stick to – I couldn’t restrict myself to one publisher for a month!)

Although not a Virago edition, it’s a Virago author in the shape of Vita Sackville-West. I’ve read and loved her work (though much of it pre-blog), and when Simon wrote about “The Death of Noble Godavary” recently and mentioned it was reminiscent of Vita’s book “The Heir” I was sold. Looking forward to this one!

There are two books in translation by women in the pile above, and first up is this from Fizcarraldo Editions:

Again, I’m intrigued and excited about this one. The Vivian of the title is the American photographer, Vivian Maier (who oddly enough featured in the wonderful “Selfies” which I reviewed a while back); and the author is from Denmark and apparently regarded as one of the country’s most inventive and radical novelists. Sounds fab! 😀

Finally, where would we be on the Ramblings without a Russian?!

There has been a flood of wonderful translations of Russian emigré literature recently, much of it from the lovely Pushkin Press; and this one has just recently been issued. It’s the first time this author’s been translated into English (thank you Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg!) and it’s described as a disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles. Sounds amazing, frankly!

So. I have plans for August. Modest ones, I think, as I shall be on a break from work and also going off on my travels to visit the Aging Parent and the Offspring; which gives extra time for reading, especially whilst on trains… The question is, will I *actually* read the books planned?? I have to say that the hardest thing at the moment, looking at these four lovelies, is making a decision as to which one to pick up first…. =:o

The seamy side of pre-Revolutionary Paris @pushkinpress #OlivierBarde-Cabuçon

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Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

As might have been noticed, I’ve developed an interest in, and picked up any numbers of books set during, the French Revolution of 1789 and onwards. However, I realised recently that I didn’t really know that much about the conditions before the Revolution and facts which might have caused conflict. However, a newly translated book from the lovely Pushkin Press arrived recently, and it has much to say about Paris before the conflict – and it seems that it was not a pretty place…

“Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is the first in a series of novels featuring the most wonderfully name Inspector of Strange and Unexpected Deaths – now there’s a job title to covet! The man in question is one Volnay; a strange, reclusive man with a pet magpie, he was appointed to his position by King Louis XV after saving the latter from assassination. So when a nastily mutilated corpse is found just outside Versailles, Volnay is the one to be summoned. Instantly we’re plunged into a mystery, as there is a letter in the woman’s pocket which links her to the highest in the land. It’s a letter that many people want to get hold of, not least the notorious seducer Casanova, who finds the body.

So aided by his Watson, known only as The Monk, Volnay has quite a task on his hands, and things are complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, a feisty young woman fascinated by the modern sciences, which we might call alchemy (and also by Volnay and Casanova!) Then there are the royals in their gilded cage of a palace as well as all manner of spies and political factions. There is a second murder, and it seems that there may be more to the crimes than simply the sadistic death of a young woman.

That’s a very simple hint at the plot of what is a very complex book, and it does simply ooze period detail. The narrative twists back and forward with revelation after revelation, and I did marvel at Barde-Cabuçon‘s skill in constructing such a clever plot. It’s not until the end that all motivations become clear and so I was really kept on my toes while reading it. The characters were a fascinating bunch, too, particularly the damaged Volnay who’s the heart of the book, really. His position is an odd one, given that he has a republican past – which makes him an unlikely defender of the king. And certainly he seems to bear no love for the latter and his degradation. Casanova himself is a creep, but one you end up slightly understanding – although he’s incorrigble to the very end and it seems that nothing will change his desperate need to seduce anything female he comes across.

As I mentioned, the book is mired in the era, and much as I enjoyed the mystery, I felt that the book excelled in showing just how decadent, vile and corrupt the old regime was and just how much the French revolution was needed. There are dark topics here, and the darkest perhaps is the behaviour of Louis, a paedophile and despoiler of young girls. There is stark contrast between the luxury of the king and his court, set against the filth and squalor of his subjects; and the political angle of the book lifted it above the run of the mill historical novel.

I did have a couple of minor quibbles with “Casanova…” however. If I’m honest it veered occasionally into bodice-ripper territory, which is fine if you like that kind of thing, but it’s not really my bag. And despite her feistiness, Chiara did end up responding to Casanova just like any other women is supposed to have done, which irked a bit. The subject matter can often be unpleasant – paedophilia and the exploitation of women are not happy or entertaining topics, or ones that always make for pleasant reading; but I’m guessing that it was necessary for the author to show just how rotten the regime was and how Madame Guillotine, when she finally arrived, would be quite justified in her actions…

Anyway, despite those minor niggles, “Casanova…” was an absorbing and intriguing book, combining detection, a fascinating central character and a lot of really illuminating historical detail which really brought the period to life for me. I understand this is the first in a series of seven books featuring the rather engaging Volnay and so I’ll be watching Pushkin’s catalogue to see if any more titles emerge! 😀

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

A provocation – differing views on Venice: Part The Second…

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Against Venice by Regis Debray
Translated by John Howe

Debray’s book is the third of the titles discussing Venice I’ve read in recent months; and honestly I’m not sure quite why I’ve been drawn to them at this particular time! I’ve never been massively attracted to the city, although it *has* featured in books I’ve read like Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight“. My views on the city may well have been a little disparaging, from reading about the mass tourism which afflicts the place and also from hearing about the smelly flooding my aforementioned boss suffered on a visit! Nevertheless, both Brodsky and Simmel laud the place; Regis Debray, however, offers a counterview which is just as interesting as the arguments in the two other books and which is one which might be expected to find favour with me. But I’m not so sure…

Debray himself is a fascinating character. A noted French intellectual born in Paris, his life includes a spell fighting with Che Guevara in Bolivia, a period as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Havana, and even working as a Government adviser back in France. “Against Venice” was originally published in French in 1995, and then issued by Pushkin Press in 2002, with an afterword by Debray written at the end of 2001. Mine is a later Pushkin edition from 2012, with lovely French flaps and gorgeous design, and I happily picked it up in a sale at the LRB Bookshop! But enough of that – what of Debray’s essay?

It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Well, it’s very clear from the start that Debray is declaring himself as emphatically not a fan of Venice. He deplores its artificiality which he equates with a lack of spontaneity; and he makes numerous comparisons with the living, changing city of Naples, the latter always coming out on top. He rails against its falsity, the vulgarity of the place and its occupants, as well as the social-climbing of the latter. This is a Venice seen in the middle of its busy season, swamped by tourism (unlike Brodsky’s off-season visits) and it’s not a pretty sight. Debray seems to feel that the city has been so commercialised that it has in effect been ruined and even if you were to allow for its various attractions, any appeal has been wiped out. Certainly, as Debray makes clear, it’s hard at times not to see the city as a cliché of gondolas, canals, masks and glitter.

Regis Debray in 1970 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The author, as befits someone with his intellectual pedigree, is an erudite commentator and the essay is littered with literary references to everyone from Proust to Paul Morand. However, he’s perhaps being a little disingenuous in his railing against Venice as he does claims in his afterword that it is only what has become of the city, what’s made of it by tourism that he has an issue with. Certainly tourism can set a place in aspic; once it ceases to evolve and change but is (as Debray calls it ) museumised, then the real appeal, the living breathing heart of the place has gone. I can’t judge if that’s the case with Venice, as I’ve never been, but I’ve certainly seen it happen with places I love and I understand what he’s saying (though I don’t know if the original essay is always clear enough about this aspect). Debray reminds us that the Italian Futurists condemned Venice for being fixed in the past, wanting it smashed up, and it’s a provocative viewpoint.

Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it. Like urchins, like actors. With time for a time suspended, we abandon the seriousness of real life for the as-if of a charade of life. It’s like going up in a balloon.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Debray’s viewpoints on art of all types; he’s pretty dismissive of much of Baudelaire, for a start! His insistence on the authentic is almost strident at times, and I found myself questioning just how subjective his (or anyone else’s) view of what is authentic might actually be. If you approach Venice expecting it to be smoke and mirrors, mask and illusion, where is the harm in that? I suppose his point, perhaps, is that Venice is too venerated when you bear in mind what it actually is, which is an artificial construct built on a piece of reclaimed land with a debatable function. Is it art? Is it a living city? Who knows? And like so many places we might dream of visiting, but never do, there is the question of whether the Venice of the mind lives up to the real city; which is doubly so in a place so rooted in illusion.

… here we are, elsewhere and moving differently, on foot or like a cork on the water; no doubt about it, we have passed through from the other side of the mirror.

So “Against Venice” ended up being a slightly ambiguous, often playful, never dull and probably never entirely serious take on “The City of Masks”. Debray is perhaps less seduced than the other two writers I’ve read on the subject, preferring the hustle, bustle and down to earth nature of Naples to the artificiality of Venice. Nevertheless, his essay took a fascinating look at this very individual city; and all of this reading about Europe is giving me very itchy feet… 😀

“The modern spirit has become a more and more calculating one” #GeorgSimmel @pushkinpress #willstone

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The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel
Edited, translated and introduced by Will Stone

After the mad reading and posting for the #1944Club I hit the usual unfocused slump that usually follows an intense period of reading. I have *loads* of books I could choose to open next, but have been hit by raging indecision. After the lovely escapism of “Eve in Egypt”, something slim and non-fiction seemed the best option – so I went for this lovely little review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, which turned out to be anything but slight!

“The Art of the City” is a new volume in the Pushkin Collection range – lovely little books with gorgeous covers and French flaps – and the author, Georg Simmel is a new name to me. As the introduction by translator Will Stone reveals, Simmel (1858-1918) was an influential German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. This volume contains four seminal essays by Simmel; three discuss the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, all long considered aesthetic architectural gems, with the final one, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” taking a very timely and modern look at the effect of city living on the human psyche. It’s a slim yet intellectually complex book and one which really sets you thinking about the way cities have grown up and how we live in them nowadays, as well as what they do to us.

In his introduction, Stone rightly identifies Simmel as an early flaneur, a kind of proto-psychogeographer, who looked at these three ancient cities as works of art as well as places to live in, ruminating on the effects modernity will have on them as well as considering how some kind of equilibrium can be achieved between the human spirit, nature and art.

Of Rome, Simmel comments, “Here, countless generations have created and built structures side by side, one on top another, each having no concern for or comprehension of what went before, responding only to the demands of the hour and the mood of the epoch.” That could be said of many a city, of course, but fortuitously for Rome the result is architectural beauty, a balance between landscape and buildings old or new which seems rare. The disparate elements are somehow harmonious and the city becomes a sum of its parts. Florence has a similar effect on Simmel:

Poppies and brook, shuttered villas like locked-up secrets, children at play, blueness and clouds of the heavens – all this can be found everywhere in the world and everywhere is beautiful, but here it harbours a spiritual and aesthetic element, a quite alternative peripheral view, for nothing enchants by its beauty alone, but rather participates in an overarching absolute beauty.

However, Simmel appears to find Venice‘s falseness displeasing; its facade is something I’ve heard others railing against, and the sham nature of the place is not to his liking. That city is, of course, an artificial construct (in much the same way that St. Petersburg is, I suppose) and although all cities are *built* the process is often random, unplanned and develops over many decades or even centuries, responding to the needs of the people using it. Building a conurbation from scratch, in a planned, controlled way, seems to me a very modern conceit (look, for example, at the Garden City movement of the 20th century) and what is manufactured and looks good on paper does not always end up being something in which a human being can live happily.

The bottom line is that in the life of the metropolis the struggle with nature for the necessary food of life has turned into a conflict between human beings, and the fiercely contested reward is here bestowed not by nature but by man. Here flows not only the previously cited source of specialization, but the deeper one, where the seller must arouse in the person to whom he wishes to sell ever more novel and specific requirements.

But I digress a little. The icing on the cake in this book is the final essay; an inspiring piece of work, which considers the dehumanising effects of the modern metropolis, it apparently influenced thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Rilke (I’d also be interested to know if Marshall Berman ever read it). It’s a thoughtful, bracing and provocative piece that discusses the vast differences between the experience of living in rural areas or urban areas; and rather chillingly Simmel traces the alienation of the modern city as stemming from the gulf between producers and consumers, the dominance of the money principle and the isolation of human beings from each other.

via Wikimedia Commons

The pace of life even at the time of the essay (1903) is perceived as having a negative effect, so goodness know what Simmel would make of the modern world. The vast number of stimuli thrown at human beings on a daily basis is constantly increasing, and it could be argued that we haven’t evolved at a pace to keep up with the changes around us – which could be the source of some of our modern problems.

Money, with its colourlessness and supreme indifference, becomes the universal denominator of all values, a most terrifying leveller, hollowing out the core of things, their peculiarities, their intrinsic value, their incomparability. All swim at the same specific weight in the continuously moving flow of money, all rest on the same level and differ only through their monetary value.

As you can see by my constantly rambling off at tangents, this book really *does* punch above its weight and provides some profound insights into the difficulties of urban living. I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of Simmel before, and wondering why his work wasn’t more read and discussed nowadays – but of course that might be a lack of English versions… Which leads me on to naming and thanking the translator! 🙂

I’ve reviewed works rendered by Will Stone (who is also a poet and essayist) before on the Ramblings; I thought very highly of his defence of Stefan Zweig and also his translation of “Rilke in Paris” which he produced so wonderfully for the Hesperus Press edition, even providing photos for the book. Once again, he’s done the essays here justice with an erudite foreword exploring Simmel’s life and work; and although as a monolinguist I can’t really comment on the nitty-gritty of the translation, it does read beautifully! If you’re at all interested in considering how architecture and urban living impact on humans, or just in reading some really stimulating essays, I recommend this book highly – Simmel’s work is most definitely worth exploring.

*****

After finishing Simmel’s essays, which linger beautifully in the mind, I remembered that

a. they were translated from German
b. it’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy Siddal and Caroline at Beauty in a Sleeping Cat!

I always try to take part in German Lit Month, and so even though these essay are probably very off topic (as I believe the ladies have a particular focus this month), I’m still going to claim this post for the month’s reading!

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