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#1936Club – some short stories by a Russian prose master #nabokov

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One of my aims during any of our club weeks is to read as many books as possible that I already own; and I actually think I may succeed with 1936! In today’s post, I want to focus on three short stories I’ve recently read by a prose master – Vladimir Nabokov. He’s another who’s often featured on the Ramblings, but I haven’t picked up one of his works for a while. There are no novels from 1936, but a rummage around online and in my very large “Collected Stories” volume revealed three short stories which are probably from our year. I say probably, because there’s always a vagueness about publication dates; however, these are identified as 1936 in several places so I’ve read them and shall count them!

The three stories are “The Circle“, “Spring in Fialta” and “Mademoiselle O“; the first two were written in Russian and translated (I believe) by Dmitri Nabokov and the author; the final story was originally written in French and I’m unclear about translation though it may have been by Nabokov himself.

One is always at home in one’s past…

Where to start with the stories? Nabokov is such a brilliant writer that I feel a little inadequate trying to cover his work, and these three stories may be short but they’re little gems of genius. The first two stories, in fact, have thematic similarities in that they’re both suffused with a sense of nostalgia and look at lost loves over a period of time. “The Circle” is quite marvellously constructed and explores a young man’s fascination with the daughter of local gentry, and how their lives touch again at a later date. In “Spring in Fialta“, the first-person narrator recalls his encounters over the years with the beautiful Nina, in the old country and then the various new ones. Each of these stories is dripping with atmosphere, full of longing for the past, and chock-full of emotions of exile. The final story, “Mademoiselle O“, is one that Nabokov acknowledges as drawing directly from his life, and is his portrait memoir of a governess who was with him and his family for a number of years.

…he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words, a title he valued higher than that of a writer; personally, I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other; and I remember once saying to him as I braved the mockery of his encouraging nods that, were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely on memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.

What the three stories have in common, apart from marvellous writing, is a really aching sense of loss. Nabokov and his characters are obviously haunted by their past, and it continues to control their present in many ways. But what hit me most when reading these stories was the sheer brilliance of Nabokov’s writing; his prose and descriptions are just stunning, the construction of the stories brilliant, and the way he deals with the time shifts in his stories magisterial. “The Circle” has a particularly clever structure, about which I will say nothing because I urge you to read his short stories – the man was a genius, dammit!!!

Reading short stories always presents problems, particularly when you’re faced with a massive collected volume; if you read the lot through, you risk losing the individuality of each story; but if you decide to just pick and choose randomly, you might lose focus or let the book slip off the immediate TBR. So having a reading event like the #1936Club was the perfect impetus to get me picking up Nabokov’s short works, and I’m so glad I did. These stories were absolutely stunning, and I shall have to try not to leave it too long before I get back to his longer works!

#1920club “… the human face at the top of the fullest page of print holds more, withholds more…” – Woolf’s short stories

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First up today, I need to confess about a rather foolish faux pas I made when I was trailing possible reads for 1920 (and if you read the post you may well know what I mean!) For some unknown reason, I got it into my head that Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” was published in 1920, which is of course rubbish – the book came out in 1925! Nevertheless, there it is in the picture I shared of possibles, so silly me!

I’m not sure if I had actually intended a re-read however; but this did make me wonder what Woolf there *was* from 1920, and a little researching revealed a couple of short stories which I decided to revisit. Both are in a collection of “Selected Short Stories” I posted about a while back, but I thought I would look at these in more detail.

The stories are “Solid Objects” and “An Unwritten Novel“; the latter appeared in “Monday or Tuesday”, and both were issues posthumously in the “A Haunted House” collection. Although written in the same year, these stories have very different subject matter and a very different feel, but both are haunting.

“Solid Objects” is more of what you might call a traditional story, telling of two young men, Charles and John, whose lives diverge in unexpected ways after John finds a stone on the beach which he takes home with him. His fascination with objects becomes a consuming passion and overtakes everything else in his life in a quite chilling fashion. In just over six pages, Woolf weaves a narrative that captures a man’s obsession in beautiful prose.

The second piece, “An Unwritten Novel” is a little more unusual as despite being described as fiction, the reader can’t help but regarding this as a glimpse of Woolf’s mind at play. The narrator is travelling by train to the south coast, just as would have Woolf, and on her journey spins stories around a fellow passenger, inventing a whole life for her based on her appearance alone and what she can read from this and the woman’s face. She gives her a name, a family, a whole background, and these flights of fancy are the unwritten novel of the title. These illusions may be shattered, but for a while the character of Minnie Marsh, developed by Woolf’s genius, exists.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s an intriguing and again beautifully written work, and as it portrays a novelist at work it’s impossible not to conflate it with Virginia Woolf herself. The story seems to arrest Woolf at the moment of creation, allowing us an insight into how her mind works and how her art is formed, which is utterly fascinating.

Woolf’s writing is always stunning and both of these stories reminded me how much I love her prose, her vivid imagination, the fertility of her imagery and her way of sliding off at tangents but never losing her point. Even though the novels which are regarded as her finest were still ahead of her, Woolf was obviously already exploring different ways to write and tell stories, with wonderful results. I’m so glad our reading club made me focus on these two works and I’m getting the itch to start up some kind of Woolf re-reading project – if only there were more hours in the day! 😀

Visions of Wartime London

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The Demon Lover and other Stories by Elizabeth Bowen

Much as I like the idea of a complete or collected volume of stories or poems, I do tend to find that they have a negative effect on my reading; they’re often so large that they actually put me off reading them, and I have a number of these books scattered all over Mount TBR which is shameful. And to get to the point, one of these is the Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. I haven’t read enough Bowen – what I *have* read has been quite wonderful so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pick her books up regularly. However, it took a chance find of a fragile old Penguin collection “The Demon Lover & Other Stories” in a charity shop to actually get me to read some of her short stories – and they really are amazing.

bowen demon

The book was published in 1945 and collects together 12 stories written by the author during the War years. Bowen worked as an Air Raid Warden as well as continuing to write, and all of the stories in the book are rooted in the conflict that was going on – most of them being set in London. However, these aren’t just tales of conditions in wartime; instead Bowen reaches deep into the psyche of her characters to explore the effects on people during conflict and results are really rather remarkable. It goes without saying, of course, that the prose is wonderful – Bowen really could write beautifully and her descriptions are just stunning.

Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way. The futility of the blackout became laughable; from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened island would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

Several of the stories, including the title one, feature ghosts or supernatural happenings, but oddly enough these sit well in the setting of a broken London. Bowen also draws on mythology and folk tales to underpin some of the strangeness reflected in her fictions. I’m not going to go into specifics, because that would spoil the impact of the tales, but I will say that “The Inherited Clock”, “The Cheery Soul”, “Pink May” and “Green Holly” all deal with the spectral in some shape or form; “In the Square”, “Sunday Afternoon” and “Careless Talk” show how things have changed because the War and reflect how people’s lives are fractured and unlikely to be the same again; “Songs My Father Sang Me” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps” look back from within wartime to events in the protagonists’ pasts; and the three remaining stories, “The Happy Autumn Fields”, “Mysterious Kôr” and the title story itself all deal with illusions and delusions and are probably the stand-outs in what is a first-class collection.

Elizabeth Bowen, by Angus McBean, 1948 (NPG)

Elizabeth Bowen, by Angus McBean, 1948 (NPG)

“The Happy Autumn Fields” is a powerful piece, juxtaposing two different times which may or may not be related, and shows how what is almost hallucination was necessary for mental survival during the conflict. In “Mysterious Kôr” the transformative power of the full moon works its magic on the damaged city, allowing vital fantasy into a girl’s life. As for “The Demon Lover” itself – well, apparently it’s one of Bowen’s most anthologised stories and I can see why; it’s spooky, atmospheric, effective, chilling and ambiguous. The wartime setting and the atmosphere of a damaged city add to the suspense but like many of the stories in this book, it harks back to the past and the previous war. I’m still getting goosebumps thinking about it!

If you just want to read the stories in the book, they do appear in the “War Years” section of the Collected Stories, along with some other titles. However, this lacks the fascinating afterword from Bowen in the original collection where she discusses the genesis of the stories and what it was like to write them through the War. All in all, “The Demon Lover…” is one of the finest short story collections I’ve ever read; each story is distinct, gripping and memorable, and yet each makes up part of a whole, leaving an impression of the strange, surreal atmosphere of wartime living. Even though large volumes of short tales tend to put me off reading them, I’m really feeling drawn to Elizabeth Bowen’s collected stories now…

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