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#1954Club – looking back at some previous reads!

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As soon as Simon and I had decided on 1954 for our next club, I started having a look round to see which books were published during that year and it soon became clear that it was a bumper one! Today I thought I would take a look back at some previous titles I’ve read from the year – and there really are some wonderful ones!

Firstly, here’s an image of some of the 1954 books I read pre-blog and which still live on my shelves. There’s used to be “Lord of the Flies” which I read decades ago, but no longer own. Truth be told, I would happily have revisited any of the above. Christie is always a joy, of course, as are Mishima and Simenon. Huxley was read so long ago I can recall nothing about the book – I believe I acquired in my teens when I first fell in love with The Doors! I had a bit of a Stein/Toklas thing in my twenties, and that’s when I acquired “The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book” – flicking through it I recognised bits and would rather like another read. As for “The Mandarins“, again in my twenties I fell in love with French literature and read a *lot* of Simone de Beauvoir; however, this title sat on the shelves for years until I finally read it and adored it. Really, all of these books make me think I should have a month or two (or maybe a year…) of just re-reading…

As for 1954 books which have appeared on the Ramblings, well here are a few!

I was very late coming to the works of Tove Jansson; I think her “Summer Book” was the first I read, and I moved on to read more adult works as well as all of the lovely Moomins. “Moominsummerr Madness” appeared in 1954, and I said of it in 2015:

Apart from looking for deeper meanings, the stories are just a fun read; the characters are appealing and funny, and Jansson’s illustrations are wonderful.

There’s definitely more to the Moomins than meets the eye, and I guess that’s why they can be appreciated by adults and children alike!

Francoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse” was her first novel and an instant hit. Telling the story of intense emotions in the south of Franch, with a sometimes unsympathetic teenage narrator, it probably set the tone for the rest of her works. I read it in 2014, again after it had lurked on the TBR for some time, and thought:

The characters, none of whom are particularly likeable, are very strongly portrayed, as is the hot and dreamy atmosphere of the South of France before the commercialism really took over. I really enjoyed getting lost in this book.

I do love books which take me to the South of France before the multi-millionaires took charge!

Finally from my previous 1954 reads is “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” by Barbara Comyns, a lovely old green Virago edition. Just look at that striking cover! I read and reviewed this back in 2012, and it was my first Comyns. In fact, if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve read another since, though I have many on the TBR. Comyns gets much love from book bloggers and she’s a unique author – quirky and brilliant, based on my reading of this. I said at the time:

The story itself is full of death and disaster yet somehow manages to be funny, touching and very human. There is love, death, madness, laughter and sorrow. The cause of the madness is discovered (though I confess I did guess this quite soon!), although not soon enough to stop some very tragic deaths. Despite the story being quite gruesome in places it’s very, very enjoyable which is a tribute to Comyns’ skill as a writer. One of the most memorable Viragos I’ve read and highly enjoyable!

So those are just a few of my previous 1954 reads – it really *was* quite a year for books, wasn’t it? Have you read any of these? And what books from 1954 have you enjoyed in the past??

“Civilization has just reached the ultimate stage of savagery…” #LeftBank #Paris

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“Left Bank” by Agnes Poirier has been sitting on Mount TBR for a couple of years now; if I recall correctly, I picked it up in my local Waterstones when I had a book token, liking the sound of it. The subtitle is “Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940–1950”, and of course with a cover featuring Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus it was always going to appeal… However, although this book is a fascinating and engrossing read, I actually feel that the cover undersells it! 😀

Poirier is a French-born journalist and author, and has written in both English and French; here, the book is presumably written originally in the former. “Left…” is a book which explores life in France’s capital city during a decade of great change and disruption, with the focus mainly on Paris’s intelligentsia. It was a period which saw Nazi occupation, collaboration, liberation and reconstruction, and at the heart of all this were artists, poets, writers and philosophers – the people who seemed to shape French life in a way that the intelligentsia don’t in other countries.

As the book opens, Paris is a city full of intellectual life. Sartre’s first novel, “Nausea”, has been published in 1938, existentialism as a philosophy is gaining popularity, and he and Beauvoir set the tone for what the rest of Paris thinks. However, WW2 breaks out, and what follows will tear the city (and indeed the country) asunder. Poirer goes on to lead the reader through the War and occupation years, which were dark ones for Parisians, exploring the complex range of characters who lived in the city during that period, and how they negotiated the difficulties of occupation. Once Paris was liberated, the end of the war brought change to the whole of France; and the political and intellectual conflicts between left and right were intense and often violent. Poirier’s narrative runs until 1950, when the divide between East and West in the world was becoming hardened, and the decade which followed would see much of the world slipping into conservatism.

Poirier casts her net wide and the list of those involved in her story is huge; in fact, although she does provide a ‘Cast of Characters’ at the beginning, this is a smallish selection of those who feature, and it was occasionally hard to keep track of who was who. Obviously, the dominant characters are Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, although interestingly Arthur Koestler is a key player. He’s also, unfortunately, not a pleasant man…. Boris Vian, a perhaps lesser known figure nowadays, plays a prominent part in the narrative, as does Beckett, and of course the many artists of Paris (notably Picasso) are a regular presence.

Paris during the Occupation (Bundesarchiv, N 1576 Bild-007 / Herrmann, Ernst / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Left…” delves deeply into life during occupation and reveals how complicated it was to cope with being under Nazi control. There were, of course, resistance movements; and yet some Parisians chose to accomodate or work with the German occupiers to either ensure the survival of Paris’s massive collections of art treasures, or to help other vulnerable Parisians survive, or just to make things easier for themselves. There is no doubt the privations were great, and Poirier is not judgemental re collaboration; in particular, the art of Paris would never have survived had it not been for the combined efforts of Louvre director Jaujard and German Count Metternich, sent to Paris by the Nazis to safeguard the art. Sometimes matters higher than loyalty to country came into play.

The Occupation had been a laboratory of moral ambiguity as in no other period in France’s contemporary history. The coexistence, for four long years, of heroism, passivity, cowardice and duplicity is, three-quarters of a century later, something France is still trying to come to terms with.

Once the war was over, the politics of France became particularly complex, with conflict between the communists, who had played such a major part in the resistance, and the forces of the Gaullists, both vying for power. In a way unlike any other country I can think of, Paris’s intellectuals were deeply involved in politics, trying to find a middle ground between the polar opposities of left and right wing. Their ‘Third Way’ was, alas, doomed to failure, but it would have been wonderful if they had managed to find some political balance. In fact, the book ranges outside Paris and explores the connections with the US, and the attraction Paris had for people from the other side of the pond. In particular, authors of colour such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin found that attitudes in Paris were completely different and that they didn’t encounter in Paris the racial harrassment they did in the states. Conversely, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus all visited America and found it very different from Europe and so there was a kind of culture shock both ways. Poirer discusses the role of public intellectuals in France as something unique, and certainly I can think of no equivalent in Britain or the US, where intellectual discussion is rather frowned upon…

If most of the hopes laid at the feet of Paris intellectuals, writers and artists just after the Second World War were partly dashed by the force of bloc politics, and their own ideological and moral ambivalence, it remains that seldom before had a generation tried so hard to reinvent themselves and re-enchant the world.

Towards the end of the narrative, a younger generation start to appear, often young women unhappy to play second fiddle to the men. Francoise Sagan, Juliette Greco and Brigitte Bardot take their inspiration from Beauvoir’s lifestyle and work, taking life on their own terms – which is refreshing, because amongst the earlier generation, as usual, the women often play second fiddle to the men; putting up with their awful behaviour, working and supporting them without thanks or acknowledgement, and often being abandoned on a whim. As I mentioned above, Koestler comes out of the book as really unpleasant; his behaviour towards the women in his life seems to have been quite reprehensible.

As I said at the start of my review, I do feel that the cover undersells the book considerably, focusing as it does on the post-War period. As well as exploring the personal lives of its protagonists, “Left Bank” is a wide-ranging and long form work which takes a deep look at the effects of WW2 on France, the issue of collaboration, the politics, the post-war political conflicts all over Europe and even the development of the Cold War. Poirier brings a unique perspective to the history of the time, portraying a Europe stuck in the middle of the two great opposing forces which would everntually come together in a Common Market to secure their own political identity. “Left Bank” is an exhaustive, if occasionally exhausting, account of politics, love and sex, and how they all came together in Paris during a pivotal decade. A wonderful and engrossing read!

*****

Just managing to squeeze this review in before the end of the month and so I shall definitely count it for Non Fiction November! 😀

A lost novella from a feminist icon – over @ShinyNewBooks! #simonedebeauvoir

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I have a new review up on Shiny New Books today which I’d like to share with you, and it’s of a fascinating and moving novella which has recently surfaced from an author who’s been something of an idol of mine for much of my life – Simone de Beauvoir.

Beauvoir is of course probably best known for her “The Second Sex” and her series of memoirs, but I absolutely love her fiction too. “The Inseparables” was never published in Beauvoir’s lifetime, but it tells the story of a pivotal friendship in her life, one she also revisited in “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter”. The novella makes wonderful reading, and this edition is enhanced with some lovely additional material. Do pop over and have a look at my review – it’s here! 😀

The Joy of Library Sales! (and of course charity shops…)

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It’s been an odd sort of week at the Ramblings – mostly because I chose to spend the bulk of the half-term break being ill with some kind of flu-like virus. I was not amused, but at least I seem to be coming out of it – just in time to return to work!

I also got a *lot* of reading done before the illness really kicked in (reviews to folllow) and then hit a slump, which I am only just coming out of – I didn’t much like it when I was in it, though. And it was also a week in which no new books arrived – until today, that is…

I felt well enough to pop into town and return a library book; only to find that the library were having a little book sale. This is often an excuse for wild abandon and mass book buying, but I *was* restrained, picking up just two:

beauvoir zweig

I was most chuffed with the Stefan Zweig – I already have Buchmendel, but not the other story, and having been bowled over by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” recently, I feel ready to read more Zweig. I already own the Beauvoir, but this copy comes with extra material at the end. And it was 50p for two books, so there you go!

As for the charity shops, I wasn’t intending to visit them today, but I slipped into the British Heart Foundation as last week they’d been moving their bookshelves around and so I couldn’t browse. The newly tidied shelves had one volume that caught my eye:

mystery in white

This particular volume of the British Library Crime Classics has been highly rated by many bloggers I respect, so I was happy to part with my £2 for a copy in brilliant condition!

And last, but definitely not least, I thought I’d show my face in the Samaritans Book Cave – a place where I could happy pick up umpteen books – and came away with two wonderful Virago titles:

miniver robertson

I was particularly pleased with these because they’re original green covers and they’re in fabulous condition – the Samaritans peeps opined that they looked unread, and I’d agree; they’re just a little tanned on the pages with age, but the covers are lovely. The peeps were saying they hadn’t had many Viragos in lately (they know of my love of them!) and so it was an extra delight to find these. I’ve actually read “Mrs Miniver” in a modern cover version, so it was nice to get a green. And I own a different E. Arnot Robertson (an author who strongly divides Virago readers!) so was a great find.

So the week ends well, with some lovely new acquisitions to make up for a dullish, illish few days – off to do some reading! 🙂

Happy birthday Simone de Beauvoir!

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Simone De Beauvoir

Today is the birthday of Simone de Beauvoir who was born on 9th January 1908

Beauvoir is best known for her novels and her pioneering feminism, as well as her long partnership with Jean-Paul Sartre. They were both active exponents of the philosophy of existentialism, and Beauvoir’s pioneering book “The Second Sex” was enormously influential on the feminist movement.

simone and sartre

I first discovered her work in my late teens/early twenties when I first came to the women’s movement. This was in the late 1970s/early 1980s and “The Second Sex” was one of those seminal works you just had to read. But Beauvoir’s life was intriguing too, and I read all the volumes of her autobiography as well as her novels, including my favourite “The Blood of Others”. The latter had a very profound effect on me, and I still think it’s actually a better illustration of existentialist views than Sartre’s works!

It wasn’t till more recent years that I read her novel “The Mandarins”, a roman a clef which covers the life of the Paris intelligentsia during the Second World War. Several of the characters represent Beauvoir, Sartre and Albert Camus, and the events are based on real events in her life. The novel itself is wonderful and absorbing and highly recommended – in fact, I’d really like to find time to re-read it myself.

simone and nelson

Beauvoir’s life was not quite as straightforward as she might have made out in her autobiographies, and I came across a very illuminating biography of her by Deirdre Bair a few years ago. This was quite a revelation, as it covered in-depth her transatlantic affair with author Nelson Algren, prompting me to pick up a volume of her letters (which lurks on Mount TBR!) and the relationship also features in “The Mandarins”.

Simone de Beauvoir was a fascinating, inspiring woman whose life and work has had an ongoing influence on me over the years. Happy birthday Simone!

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