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#1977Club – a final post!

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Phew! So we reached the end of the #1977club in one piece and having read, discussed and discovered some very interesting titles! In the end, as always, I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to – but these are the ones I *did* read:

Four books in total, only one of which was a fail (the Carter). Rediscovering favourite authors like Brautigan and Plath was a joy, and exploring Margaret Atwood’s early stories just served to reinforce what an excellent writer she really is. Despite my issues with the Carter, I *will* try other titles by her – if for no other reason than to prove I haven’t turned into a soppy old wuss!!

Alas, I didn’t get to the Barthes; but that will remain on the TBR and hopefully be read at some time in the future. If you’re still reading from 1977, please do leave links on the 1977 page – it’s been wonderful seeing what everyone else has been reading and watching the discussions. Here’s to the next club, whichever year that may be…. 😉

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#1977Club – Revisiting some Plathian prose

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Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

In 1977, what you might call the cult of Sylvia Plath was still in its infancy; controversy raged about her legacy, but probably more in feminist circles than in the mainstream (that was to come later). But in that year, Faber and Faber issued “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, a collection of prose by Plath, and it must have been manna from heaven for those who wanted more from the author. I have three copies – I’m not quite sure why – and one at least will have been from the late 1970s or early 1980s when I was first discovering Plath. I couldn’t say if I’ve revisited it since, but I was really keen to do so to find out what I thought of it now. All I can recall for sure is that I thought the title story was weird…

Yes, I do indeed have three copies of “Johnny Panic” and this was the one I read…

The book pulls together a number of prose works, collected by Ted Hughes, and these he divides into those he considers “more successful”, other stories, notebook excerpts and stories found in the Lilly Library. It’s perhaps an odd way to assemble a book, and his introduction doesn’t help matters by referring to her ‘lost’ novel “Double Exposure” (now so famous that mention of it turned up in a book a reviewed not long ago…) So what of the works that *are* included here? Well, of course they’re marvellous.

The bottom one is my original from way back when – and I can see from an ancient bookmark, that I did re-read at least *some* of it at one point!

As well as being a magnificent poet, Plath was also a great prose stylist and these works are little gems. Yes, the title story *is* a bit weird – drawing on Plath’s experience of mental illness, presumably – but it’s bloody good and no wonder I remembered it. So are the others – good, that is – with a particular favourite being “The Daughters of Blossom Street”, again with a hospital setting. The works are an interesting mixture really – and from what we now know of Plath it’s easy to see how the fictions draw on the material of her life, and sit so well alongside the non-fiction pieces. A short one and a half page prose piece, “Context”, is particularly strong, with Plath discussing where her poetry sits. She identifies very much with the attitude “the personal is political”, and it’s rather frightening to think how little has changed in the conflicts present in our world over the last 50 years or so.

For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time – the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms – children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no abstract doubletalk of ‘peace’ or ‘implacable foes’ can excuse.

Then there are memoir pieces like the evocative “Ocean 12-12W” recalling her young life by the sea at her grandparents’ house; and “Snow Blitz”, which presumably was one of her final pieces of writing, dated as it is 1963 and dealing with the frozen winter that had its part in her final demise. Chilling, in both senses of the word.

… the simple, lugubrious vision of a human face turning aside forever, in spite of rings and vows, to the last lover of all.

The notebook extracts are tantalising, reminding me of the fact that I really need to sit down and read Plath’s journals and letters, and also making me crabby about the fact that some of them were destroyed. In all her prose works, Plath shows herself to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and also a writer capable of conjuring a setting or an atmosphere seemingly at ease; and I can only wish that there were more works available.

Because much as I love being able to read these prose works of Plath, it strikes me as what we have here is inadequate. In 1977, apart from the individual poetry books, “Letters Home” and “The Bell Jar”, nothing else was available and *anything* was a bonus. Now, however, I think we need a proper collection; someone to undertake the bringing together of all her shorter prose pieces, in much the same way as her letters and journals have been collected. Plath was constantly writing and submitting works, so I presume there are plenty more lurking somewhere. I think in many ways Hughes was not necessarily the right person to curate her writings, and it needs a scholar to bring objectivity to them and also proper organisation. As an example, the works collected here are in no particular order and if Hughes chose a thematic approach, I can’t quite see what that was. However, a chronological gathering would allow the reader to see how her prose developed as she honed her craft and that would be fascinating. I believe that her work and her legacy deserves this, as do her many readers. Nevertheless, “Johnny Panic” is an essential collection until we get something more definitive, and another wonderful title from 1977.

#1977club – here we go! :)

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Yes, time for another week of reading, discovering and discussing books from a particular year – and this one is 1977. We reach a more modern decade than we’ve been covering up until now, and one which certainly takes us away from Simon’s comfort zone of the 1920s! :)) However, I was initially unsure of what I would read from the year until I began to dig, and I actually came up with a bit of a pile of books that I already own:

Yes, I really *do* own three copies of “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. No, I don’t know why…

I also own two other books from 1977 that piqued my interest, but alas I cannot at the moment lay hands on them – “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French is a feminist classic and I have a battered old Virago copy, but it’s currently lurking on a shelf in Middle Child’s flat as I have loaned it out – so I won’t be reading that one… I also own Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” but several trawls through the shelves have failed to find it (although I *did* find some other books I was looking for). So I may well choose from the above – some are re-reads, some unread, and I’d like to go for a mix if I can.

And then there’s this, lurking electronically:

I really want to read Barthes but frankly, I’m a Bit Scared. I’m *not* an academic and I fear I will fail miserably to understand this and then feel stupid. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained….

So do join Simon at Stuck in a Book and myself in the #1977club – it’s great fun, great reading and always fascinating to see what books people come up with! Here goes…!

The “lost book” authors

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Reading a book about books is a dangerous exercise for any bibliophile, but “In Search of Lost Books” creates its own issues as it’s about books that don’t actually exist any more – or which may indeed have never existed. However, that book *did* send me off down the trail of wanting to dig out the volumes I own by the authors featured in it, and it turned out that I have a surprising amount of works by these particular writers – which may be why the book spoke to me so strongly. So, as someone who’s never averse to pictures of other people’s books, I thought I would share a few of mine here.

However, gathering all of these together *wasn’t* an easy exercise, as my ‘library’ seems to have become more randomly scattered around the house recently. I haven’t been able to locate everything I think I own, and I found that, as I suspected, any shelf-rummaging exercise throws up a huge number of queries, problems and exclamations – along the lines of:

Why is Joan Didion double-shelved behind Aldous Huxley?
Did I *really* buy all those books in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series and read hardly any of them?
Where *is* my copy of “A Moveable Feast”?
Oooooh, look – I have a book called “The Faber book of Utopias”!! I wonder if I ever read it…?
Why have I got two copies of “Under the Volcano”?
Where *is* my copy of “Ulysses”?
Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t anything else available by Bruno Schulz.
Hurrah! There’s my lovely Allan Ramsay book which I haven’t been able to find for ages.
Why have I got so many copies of “Anna Karenina”?
WHY HAVE I GOT SO MANY BOOKS????

And so on…

The serious difficulty in laying hands on a specific book shows how things have got out of hand with my ‘library’ and I can see I’ll need to take some serious action soon, maybe over the summer holidays, to just try and get things into a sensible order where I can locate titles with ease – and possibly even catalogue them sensibly. However, for now, here are some photographs of lovely, lovely books!

So – in no particular order – here is a selection of my books by and about Sylvia Plath. Yes, there are a lot…

I actually did a longer post a while back with more pictures. The pile has expanded since then, as I now have the enormously huge volume 1 of her letters too…

In contrast, we have Bruno Schulz. All that survives of his work is these shorter fictions, here all collected in one volume and I’ve reviewed and loved them.  As I grumbled above, it’s such a shame that nothing else of his written work survives.

schulz

Then we have Malcolm Lowry. I think my Lowry reading is all pre-blog, but I recall being entranced by “Under the Volcano”. His other work is good, though nothing lives up to his major novel.

Ah, Papa Hemingway. Source of much frustration in rummaging through the stacks, as I *know* I have a copy of “A Moveable Feast” because I’ve read and reviewed it and wouldn’t have got rid of it. It wasn’t with these two, wasn’t with my Gertrude Steins and wasn’t with my Fitzgeralds. Who knows where it is in the house – probably with the copy of “Fiesta” I suspect I still have (there were two in the house at one point….)

Let’s get serious now, with the Russians – or at least Gogol, who often *isn’t* serious! I have quite a pile of Gogols, surprising perhaps as there isn’t a lot available in English. This one is probably the prettiest.

I am ashamed that there is P/V translation in this pile, but it was 10p from the library discards and I think it has stories I couldn’t get anywhere else – well, non-Russian speaking beggars can’t be choosers. And yes – I’m afraid there are three copies of “Dead Souls”.

Last but not least Walter Benjamin. I’ve only read a little of his work (“Unpacking My Library” definitely) and I want to read more but never get round to it. I’d rather like his Arcades Project but I think I should read these before getting any more.

So there you have it – a little book p*rn to liven your day up. Although works by these authors have gone missing at least in most cases we have a reasonable amount of surviving work with which to console ourselves – and let’s face it, a good book can solve most ills… 😉

Manuscripts *do* burn…

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In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

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

…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… 😉

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. 🙂

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… 🙂

A Poet’s Legacy – #ShinyNewBooks #SylviaPlath

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A quick heads-up about a review I’ve done for Shiny New Books which is now live. The book this time is a fascinating volume which looks at the archival legacy of Sylvia Plath, one of my favourite authors, and it’s an intriguing and involving read.

Plath’s archive is vast and very spread out, and following the adventures of the authors as they explored the many aspects of it was a wonderful experience. You can read my full review here.

 

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