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“Oh prose. How strange I am to you.” @sublunaryeds #spanishandportugueselitmonth

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Today I want to talk about my first read for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month; and that is a slim volume I received as part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions. The book is “Two Stories” by Osvaldo Lamborghini, translated by Jessica Sequeira from the Spanish. The author seems to be an unusual and obscure character who only published three books in his lifetime; and this volume comes with an introduction by Cesar Aira, as well as a translator’s note and endnotes – and therein lies a tale…

I’ve read many books in my time – and many strange ones, if I’m truthful. I read a lot of Burroughs in my youth, and also much Kathy Acker. Unusual or fragmented narratives don’t usually flummox me. However, these stories frankly do and I actually don’t really  know how to write about them. The first piece, “The Morning”, is quite stream of consciousness and I soon abandoned looking for meaning and went for enjoying the sound of the words. The second piece, “Just Write Anything!”, has an unusual structure with what appears to be the main text along the bottom of the pages with a parallel text in smaller type running along the top of the page, accompanying and enhancing the bottom text. The writing here explores a homosexuality which could have been problematic in the Buenos Aires of the time, although in often elliptical text.

More than this it’s hard to say, as this is writing which really does defy description. The blurb on the back states that this is an accurate sample of Lamborghini’s work “in much the same way that a bucket of seawater is an accurate sample of the rolling ocean” and that rather gives an idea of how really strange this writing is.

Interestingly, this is also a case where the translator is as much a part of the work as the author it; Sequeira provides copious and detailed notes which are nearly as long as the texts themselves (if not longer) and these are crucial to the reading of these works as there are so many references and the like which could be lost. Sequeira refer to the author as being “an endless experimenter in style” and she’s obviously not wrong there!!

To be honest, there’s not a lot more I feel I can say about “Two Stories”; Lamborghini was obviously an interesting and challenging writer, and very much a Sublunary kind of author! At least I have read *something* for Spanish lit month, and having started my second read for that event, I can report that prose is about as far away from this as you can get! Meantime, if you want to read another take on this book, you can see what Joe from roughghosts said about it here!

“…you’ve made the world…” @sublunaryeds #rilke

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I have to confess to having been in a little bit of a reading slump recently; I read very intensely the wonderful book “Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me”, which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books, and it left me with such a book hangover that I’ve struggled to know what else to pick up. “Adolphe” was a pleasant distraction, and after that I decided to let my grasshopper mind settle for a little while on some poetry – a slim and fascinating collection by that wonderful versifier, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Here I need to add another confession; although I’ve read Rilke’s fiction and letters as well as a book about his time in Paris, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down with his poetic works… Which is a bit shocking, really.  So “The Voice and Other Poems”, translated by Kistofor Minta and part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions, was just right to pick up at the moment and rectify this.

This dual language collection brings together what the translator describes works which contrast with Rilke’s “thing-poems”; I’m of course not well-versed (hah!) enough to comment, but what I can say is that the works here were very beautiful and memorable. Most are drawn from the collection “The Voices”, where the poet speaks in the voice of others, such as the beggar, the blind man, the orphan, the leper and so on. Particularly striking was “The Song of the Suicide”:

They hold out the spoon to me,
The spoon of life;
No, I want and I want no more,
Let me spew myself up.

Other works are drawn from “The Book of Images” and “New Poems (1907-19080”; all somehow suggest people struggling and suffering yet somehow surviving; and all linger in the mind. “The Prisoner” was another standout, with its opening lines:

My hand has only one
gesture – I frighten them off with it;
Onto ancient stones,
drops fall from dank rocks above.

A work like “Girl’s Lament” demonstrates that very little changes in the world, as children quarrel and pick sides in their games; and “The Song of the Widow” was heartbreaking:

…we both had nothing but patience;
but Death has none.
I saw him coming (how wickedly he came),
and I watched as he took and took:
there was nothing that belonged to me.

I often find poetry very hard to write about, and I couldn’t honestly say I understand the meaning behind all of these verses. However, I did love reading them, once again wallowing in the beautiful sound of words. “The Voices…” has really whetted my appetite for Rilke’s poetry and I think instead of reading round the edges of his writings, I need to dive in and explore much more of his verse. This was the perfect read for an unsettled brain!

“… I prefer a symbol to an explanation.” #ReadIndies @sublunaryeds #mihailsebastian

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Up today on the Ramblings for #ReadIndies is a relatively recent discovery for me; a wonderful indie producing some fascinating and provocative texts in a variety of formats – Sublunary Editions. Based in Seattle in the USA, the publisher offers (like many indies) a subscription option; and that’s how I’ve been exploring their work over the last six months or so. I’ve written about some of their releases previously on the blog, but today I want to share a recent arrival in the form of an obscure work from an author I’ve read before: “Fragments from a Found Notebook” by Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri.

I discovered Sebastian when his seminal work, “For Two Thousand Years”, was finally issued in English translation by Penguin Modern Classics; and you can read my thoughts about that book here. There’s obviously a lot more to this author than just that one book, and if you check out Marina Sofia’s blog you’ll find more coverage of Sebastian. Suffice to say he was a playwright, essayist, journalist and novelist; a multi-talented man who suffered during the 20th century because he was Jewish, and died far too young.

To circle life as a spectator, to adjust it here, to prop it up there, to arrange it. Between a shrub that grows barbarically and a gardener with scissors and plans, my animal sympathy resides wholeheartedly with the first one.

As far as I’m aware, “Fragments…” was Sebastian’s first published work, released in 1932; and it’s making its debut here in English, so kudos to Sublunary for putting this out. The framing narrative is that the main text is taken from a notebook found by the River Seine in Paris, with the author merely the translator (and providing occasional notes to the text). The body of the work is indeed fragmentary; the writer (perhaps channelling his inner Barbellion) recounting parts of his life, episodes of ennui, and his general decadence and dissipation.

Friends and mistresses stayed with me somewhere, bonding to words I had not uttered, fooled by a shadow that was not me.

The writing is, of course, beautiful. And the atmosphere of the narrative oozes from the pages – Paris really is the perfect setting for a work of this kind! The question arises of course as to how much of the narrator was Sebastian himself, and that I can’t answer as I know little about the man and his life. What I *do* know, however, on the evidence of the two works I’ve read, is that he was a marvellous writer.

“Fragments…” is a fascinating read, one which is not necessarily a straightforward narrative, but which catches the thoughts of a man in a particular time and place, perhaps struggling with his sense of identity. I marked quite a number of passages or phrases which resonated, and could have stuck post-its on many more – which shows how much impact this has for such a short work. This is another marvellous release from Sublunary, who really do like to bring out such a wonderful selection of texts; and it’s definitely whetted my appetite to track down more work by Mihail Sebastian!

#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! 😀

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“…a handful of pale squandered nights…” @sublunaryeds #brunoschulz #undula

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When I signed up for my subscription to the lovely Sublunary Editions, part of the fun was not knowing what would be coming through the door and when! So far there have been some wonderful arrivals in the form of different sizes of small books, as well as extra mailings of printed texts – it’s all very exciting. However, one item I was most pleased to receive was a slim volume containing what may be the first published work of an author who I find absolutely fascinating. The writer is Bruno Schulz, and the story is “Undula”.

It was back in 2014 that I first stumbled across Schulz; the random discovery of an apparent complete collection of his short stories in the local Oxfam was a bit of a revelation. I’d never heard of him before; he had a tragically truncated life, being murdered at the hands of a Nazi officer; and his works were hypnotic, individual and unforgettable. When I read them, I loved them – with slight reservations. However, the memory of them has perhaps increased my appreciation, and I was very happy to be gifted a more up to date collection with some missing stories last Christmas. Schulz has had something of a resurgence of interest in recent years, featuring in “In Search of Lost Books” and also a book inspired by his work “Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz”, which I covered on Shiny New Books.

Schulz left behind his story collections, a handful of uncollected works and a lost novel – so the discovery of this particular gem was very exciting indeed. It’s appeared online in translation, and also in this rendering by Frank Garrett from Sublunary. I was very happy, to say the least, that my subscription covered this book!

The works of Schulz are individual, and it’s worth bearing in mind that he was an artist as well so he does bring a very visual sensibility to his writing. Additionally, there’s an erotic charge to his art which seems to me to cross over to his written work more in a less obvious sensuality. Here, though, that erotic force is much stronger and ties the narrative in with a series of drawings produced of an “Undula” which was reason the story was first identified as being by Schulz.

Why do you weep and whimper incessantly all night long? How am I supposed to ease your suffering, my little sidekick? What am I to do with you? Where to begin? You squirm, scowl and twitch. You neither hear nor comprehend human speech and what’s more, you’re fussy; your monotonous pain whinges the night long.

The writing of the “Undula” story is certainly less refined, a little rougher than his later stories. But it shares a hypnotic, sometimes surreal atmosphee; the narrator languishes in bed, ill, sharing his room with shadows and cockroaches. As he lies there, he’s haunted by images of Undula, dominating him and his psyche. The claustrophobic setting, the need for the narrator to try to detach his pain from himself and treat it as a separate entity, are unsettling – and the story has no clear resolution, which is probably what I would expect, having read his later works.

Reading “Undula” was such a fascinating experience, and I’m very happy to have it in a Sublunary edition which one of Schulz’s “‘Undula’ drawings on the cover. I’m not sure I’ve read another author who writes quite like Schulz did, and exploring his lost story reminds me I really do need to get onto the lovely volume I was gifted nearly a year ago… ;D

“I turned to books of all kinds….” @sublunaryeds

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I’ve been wittering on quite a bit recently about my various book subscriptions; I’ve taken out a few this year, and it does seem a good way to support smaller publishers. In particular, I’ve mentioned Sublunary Editions; and back in July I covered one of their releases, “The Art of the Great Dictators” by Joshua Rothes. It was an absorbing and stimulating read, and I’m particularly fascinated by their idea of releasing short texts in a variety of formats – they describe themselves as “An independent publisher of portable literature”! The first items I received were intriguing to say the least; as well as two slim books (more of which later) the initial mailing contained sheets of experimental texts as well as art cards. This is a wonderfully novel way to provide short bursts of stimulating writing, as well as introducing new authors in bite-sized format!

The luminous begins from the small and everday, the particular and peculiar.

As for the the two books, the first I read was “A Luminous History of the Palm” by Jessica Sequiera. The latter has already published in novel, short story and essay format; and “Luminous…” is a fascinating work featuring capsule portraits or stories ranging over the centuries – and all at some point touch upon the palm. It’s a beautiful collection with some lovely writing, and really seems to me to celebrate the power of storytelling. The use of the palm as a touchstone, reappearing throughout history in tales from the past, is ingenious, and it often appears in unexpected ways.

As honey bees we visit the flowers of palms, carrying pollen from one anecdote to another, seeking out nectar and translating it.

Some tales featured characters or situations I recognised, and some were new to me but no less fascinating. Interspersed with the fictions are sections where the author muses on her adoption of the palm as a symbol and the concept of luminosity. It’s a clever conceit and a memorable work which certainly lingers in the mind. The stories are brilliantly constructed, jewels of short form writing – a particular favourite was “Chef, Lebanon” which told its dramatic story in two and a half pages, with a stunning end.

          I have received two or three reports throughout the years of the stir of
small and noiseless packs of words stalking dark acuity in the thickets

The second volume was a dual language poetry edition, “The Wreck of the Large Glass” by Monica Belevan. The author is another name new to me, and the book is particularly unusual, as generally with a dual language edition you get the original language on the left page with the translation on the right. However, these are two completely different texts: the one in English mentioned above and the other (starting from the opposite end, when you flip the book over) is “Paleodromo” in Spanish (so alas, I can’t read that one!) Interestingly, Belevan is described as a “writer and design theorist” and the visual certainly seems to inform her work. The title poem, in particular, uses the visual as a crucial element of the writing, inserting symbols into the verse; and this is also present in the Spanish part of the book where passages of musical notation appear. In his introduction, Rothes notes influences such as Pound, Whitman and even Joyce – but I felt that Belevan had a distinctive and fascinating voice of her own.

So my first subscription arrivals of Sublunary texts have made for a really fascinating and rewarding reading experience. I love the fact that the publisher takes risks, bringing out texts which might be unlikely to make it into the mainstream. And reading these ‘objects’ (as they’re sometimes described by Sublunary) has reminded my how easily I get seduced by the beautiful *sound* of words, without always having to grasp the meaning. I can see that I am going to have a very happy reading relationship with Sublunary Editions!

****

As I started to put this post together, more arrivals popped through the door from Sublunary, including this lost work from an author I know and love, as well as a separate envelope with two more text sheets! It’s all very exciting, and I can’t wait to read the Schulz…. ;D

On My Book Table… 10 – a variety of external influences!

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(NB – none of these books is actually *on* the table in the pictures below, but never mind….)

I am nothing if not susceptible to suggestion when it comes to books, and I’ve long lamented the bad (good!) influence of Book Twitter. Specific books themselves, too, have often been responsible for other books arriving at the Ramblings; and there does seem to have been a fair amount of that happening lately… I *have* been sharing pictures on Twitter, but I thought it might be nice to update on the blog some of the more recent arrivals – plus some bookish subscriptions I might just have happened to take out…

The “Philosophy of Walking” effect…

One recent subscription which I took out was to the Verso Book Club, and I shared some thoughts about it here. I offered a little giveaway of a spare book and that will go out to Clare Topping, so I hope she enjoys it! However, one book I ordered from their amazing 50% off sale was “The Philosophy of Walking” by Frederic Gros. It called to me strongly recently and I couldn’t resist (and a review will follow eventually…). However, it’s that most dangerous of things, a book which creates all manner of ideas and lists of other books you want to read; it even has suggested further reading in the back! Now the effect of the body of the book was bad enough – I ended up hauling this little lot off various parts of the TBR…

Interestingly, the Wordsworth ties in nicely with the Romantics three part documentary which is on TV currently (I had been dying for lack of decent documentaries…) However, I also have added substantially to the wishlist, and wasn’t able to resist sending for this lovely thing:

In another piece of bookish synchronicity, the photograph on the cover of this edition is by the early pioneer of the art, Nadar, who featured in Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life“…

Nerval is an author I’ve been aware of for decades; in fact, the little edition of “The Chimeras” you can see in one of the images above was one I acquired in the 1980s. However, I hadn’t looked at it for absolutely ages, and as I was particularly moved by his story in “Philosophy…” I decided I needed to read more. Truly, this book is a *really* bad influence!!

The Harvill Leopard books

There’s been a really interesting convo going on over on Book Twitter, and I wish I could remember who started it (although I know that Caustic Cover Critic was in there at the beginning)! However, the subject was the Harvill Leopard range of books, a numbered series issued between 1998 and 2005. Now, I own a few of these (and they’re lovely) – mine are mainly Russians, but they also issued a lot of Perec. Somehow, the subject of a complete list of the releases came up which caused a lot of interest, with bookish people pitching in. The very industrious Tim of Half Pint Press revealed that he had a spreadsheet he was attempting to compile (as there seemed to be no complete list). This led to loads of research, lots of chat and in the end Tim setting up the wonderful resource which is 300oddleopards! As well as a complete list (as far as can be gleaned at present) there are also pictures of back and front of as many of the books as he’s been able to gather, with lots of us joining in and sending images of our books!

I had great fun pulling out some titles I hadn’t seen for a while (a few of them are above) and was happy to help with pulling together the site. It’s a wonderful initiative – do check it out if you have any interest in these books and authors, though I can’t promise it won’t be back for your bank balance and shelf space….

Bookish Subscriptions

I can’t remember the last time I actually joined up to any kind of bookish subscription; back in the day, I was in a good number of book clubs, but these fell along the wayside before the turn of the millennium and I haven’t signed up for one since. However, there have been any number of recent temptations, and of course the above-mentioned Verso Book Club!

And during lockdown, I did become very aware of the struggles facing smaller publishers and bookshops. I tried to shift my buying habits to support them (some Little Toller purchases resulted) and another couple of interesting presses caught my eye. One of these was Sublunary Editions, who I first stumbled across on Twitter (as I mentioned in my post on publisher Joshua Rothes’ intriguing book, “The Art of the Great Dictators“). They offer a subscription service, they have some wonderful sounding works coming up and so I succumbed – and this was my first delivery!

What’s so interesting about Sublunary is that their works come in a fascinating array of formats; there are more conventional books (although these are often not…), but the package also includes texts on separate sheets as well as art cards. It’s all rather wonderful and I’ll post more as I read my way through them. I’m looking forward to what comes next! 😀

My second subscription was recommended by a lovely Tweeter when I was offering the Verso giveaway; and it’s an initiative to publish more Catalan literature in translation by Fum d’Estampa Press. My reading of Catalan writing is probably non-existence so this was a good way to widen my horizons as well as obtaining some very pretty books – here are the first two:

Fum d’Estampa are on Patreon and they have a number of different levels of subscription (as is often the case of Patreon – I seem to spend a fair bit of time on there lately, as I also support the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, which I can highly recommend). Anyway, the books themselves are quite lovely and I’m looking forward to exploring further.

As for current reading and what’s actually *on* the Book Table? Well, I’m presently reading and loving the new collection of M. John Harrison stories, “Settling the World”, from the wonderful Comma Press (as you can see from the sidebar) and it’s excellent. Coming up soon – well, October of course will be time for the #1956Club, so I think I’d better start exploring some titles from that year! 😀

“What I struggle with is scope and intensity.” @sublunaryeds @joshuarothes

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Sometimes a book comes along which defies classification; and although you love it and find it fascinating, stimulating, thought provoking and the like, you find it really hard to write about. Today on the Ramblings I’m featuring one such book, and you’ll have to bear with me a bit while I try and marshall my thoughts about it!

That Picasso once painted a portrait of Stalin at the request of Louis Aragon. Make of it what you will.

The book in question is “The Art of the Great Dictators” by Joshua Rothes, who’s editor of Sublunary Editions, its publisher; he was kind enough to offer a copy to anyone interested on Twitter, and I was very intrigued by the title so stuck my my metaphorical hand up and said “Yes please!” Well, there’s likely to be a Russian connection, isn’t there? Sublunary is a fascinating small press which focuses on issuing short texts – stories, novellas, poetry, fragments – which in our fractured world is certainly very appealing, although it would be a mistake to think that short texts = easy reads!

The Art of the Great Dictators is not an unfinished book; it is a book never earnestly begun, utterly amorphous and orphaned, notes and fodder for a thesis that, brought to bear, would not suffer the faintest of blows.

Anyway! “The Art of the Great Dictators” presents as a series of notes for an actual book of that title which was never written, by an art critic who (presumably) didn’t exist. The scope of the work was intended to be wide-ranging, taking in the artistic ambitions of dictators from Hitler and Stalin through to Caeusescu (though interestingly Castro, often reckoned to be one of that body of rulers, doesn’t get a mention.). The notes explore all manner of aspects of art and power, mixing in uncredited quotes, musings on history and politics, and instructions to the author as to how to write the book; which if these notes are anything to go by, would have been a mammoth undertaking…

History in the years since has turned empirical; much like the hard sciences, it seeks models and explanations rather than facts. A working knowledge is what is important. Can one apply the model and get results? It is not only fair to say that the atomic bomb and the horrors of the Gulag must be given credit for postmodernism. There is no abstraction without annihilation. Something must be given over

Initially, it’s hard to quite work out how you should read something like this; a book of notes is not necessarily going to cohere into a whole, particularly when there are quotes and references which may be real or invented, something guaranteed to throw you off guard. However, as I kept reading I became more and more involved in following the narrator’s musings on their subject and the book of notes almost seemed to morph into a book of aphorisms, which was quite fascinating.

The danger is always in seeing in yourself the potential to be an agent of change; the natural end of this is totalitarianism, or else madness.

A portrait of Comrade Stalin 1937… (Isaak Brodsky / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The pieces raised all kind of thoughts about the value and function of art, its place in the world and the eternal debate of art vs money – which I guess, in the end, may be what the author intended! The dictator as failed artist is a trope that runs through recent history, most obviously with Hitler; and here Rothes explores that much more interestingly than I’ve seen before!

The dictator stands as the embodiment of all social guilt, the worst of our nature become flesh, the reification of our demons ruling over us; they are what we deserve, and what we nonetheless must resist.

As you can see, I ended up with a *lot* of post-its sticking out of this little book, and I could have stuffed this post full of quotes from it. “Art…” is a very clever piece of writing, and the notes often hint at the (fictional?) author’s cheeky wish to fool their readers: “Something must be said, of course, about the stolen art of the Nazis, though not what they might think.” I could share with you more than I already have, and I’ll add one final quoted quote below; but instead I’ll encourage you to seek work out. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking book where almost every paragraph makes you want to stop and think – fascinating!

“It is impossible to be an artist without simultaneously being a utopian, and there is no room for utopia yet; we bear a burden for the past, and utopian thought denies this by skipping the process of struggle and restitution for an end goal that the artist feels we are somehow deserving of.”

(Book kindly provided by the author, for which many thanks! You can find out more about Sublunary Editions here.)

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