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“But I am wandering away from my theme…” #montaigne @NottingHillEds

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Back to Montaigne! Having refreshed myself with Golden Age crime, I’ve had the chance to let Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book settle in my mind; and it really was a most thought-provoking work. As I mentioned, I’ve intended to read Montaigne for some time, and I have a lovely little selection of his essays in a beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions. It’s entitled “Drawn from Life” and is introduced by Tim Parks (who’s previously made an appearance on the Ramblings, back when I reviewed his “Pen in Hand” last year). The translations are by the wonderfully-named M.A. Screech (who gets an honourable mention in Bakewell’s book, so I feel happy trusting his work); and the book collects 13 essays over 185 pages (which is a fraction of what the man actually wrote!)

The subjects of the essays range far and wide, over Fear, Cannibals, Smells, Clothing, Drunkenness and Cowardice, to highlight a few; but the fact is, Montaigne *never* sticks to a subject. He’s a man who likes to digress, and digress he does, at the drop of a hat. So he’ll start off at one point, tell you a tale of someone else, take a diversion to another story, tell you how he feels about something else, and so on. Does he get to the point? *Is* there a point? That’s perhaps debatable, or maybe that *is* the point – that there’s no point, and Montaigne is just representing the unstructured nature of human thought (he was certainly very keen to never commit himself to a single, rigid point of view!)

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, what’s particularly revelatory when it comes to Montaigne’s essays is that they’re basically about himself; a very modern concept and perhaps one which has made him dip in and out of favour over the centuries (something which Bakewell covers in her book). However, it means that no subject is taboo, from high philosophical musings to the pain in his prick (as he describes it) when he has to pass kidney stones (ouch)!! This makes his writings very relatable and very entertaining; and may well have a lot to do with the fact that he’s often taken to be a good guide to life.

It’s absolutely fascinating following the meanderings of Montaigne’s mind, and this little selection of his essays is a wonderful introduction to him. Rather than go on a lot, I’ll instead treat you to some quotes from his writings below and encourage you to explore further. Montaigne still seems a relevant and entertaining thinker, and maybe when I finally retire I can sit down with a complete volume of his essays and make my way slowly through them!

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Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgement on him which is steady and uniform. (from We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means)

It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than Nature, our great and powerful Mother. We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises… (from On The Cannibals)

A man’s worth and reputation lie in the mind and in the will: his true honour is found there. Bravery does not consist in firm arms and legs but in firm minds and souls: it is not a matter of what our horse or our weapons are worth but of what we are. (from On the Cannibals)

Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along. What we want is only in our thought for the instant that we want it: we are like that creature which takes on the colour of wherever you put it. What we decided just now we will change very soon; and soon afterward we come back to where we were: it is all motion and inconstancy… (from On the Inconstancy of Our Actions)

What a stupid nation we are. We are not content with letting the world know of our vices and follies by repute, we go to foreign nations in order to show them to them by our presence! Put three Frenchmen in the Libyan desert and they will not be together for a month without provoking and clawing each other… (from On Cowardice, the Mother of Cruelty)

“Translators are people who read books for us.” @almabooks @TimParksauthor

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Pen in Hand: Reading, Re-reading and Other Mysteries by Tim Parks

Books about books are obviously a huge favourite of we bookish bloggers (although I suspect I don’t have as many on my shelves as some do….!) Yet they come in all shapes, sizes and formats; and the contents and focus can vary so much, taking in everything to a person’s history of their reading life to more erudite analyses of why we read, that it could be argued that they really don’t constitute a genre of their own. Tim Park’s new collection of essays is a good case in point: the subtitle hints that there might be something a little more in depth than usual and that turned out to be the case.

Parks is known as a novelist, essayist and translator, and it’s in this latter guise that I’ve encountered him in the past; he’s been responsible for translating some of the works of my beloved Italo Calvino, but I’ve not read any of his fiction or non-fiction works. So when Will from the lovely Alma Books kindly offered a review copy of “Pen in Hand” I was intrigued and keen to give Parks a look. “Pen…” is a very dippable work, so I’ve been spending time with it over several weeks; and a very stimulating read it is too!

The pieces in the book have appeared online in the New York Review of Books Daily and the New York Times; having them collected in one volume makes perfect sense because each essay can be read separately, but there is a continuity between them and the cumulative effect is mentally exhilarating. Parks has divided his writings up into four sections, titled “How Could You Like That Book?”, “Reading and Writing”, “Malpractice” and “Gained and Lost in Translation”. Within the book’s pages is contained wide-ranging discussions of everything from visualising when reading through Dylan’s Nobel to whether too many books are being produced.This latter particularly resonated, as I’ve long wondered about the effect of modern publishing techniques; it’s so easy nowadays to produce a book in a word-processing program and press a button – voila, latest attempt at a bestseller. My late dad was a typesetter by trade, setting metal type by hand for many, many years until computers took over (and he retrained). If a book was going to be set by hand, it had to be considered worthwhile putting into print; I’d go along with the argument that a *lot* of stuff that appears nowadays isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

But I digress. Parks produces a wonderful essay on another modern blight, the constant distractions which beset us, called “Reading: The Struggle”; there is a thoughtful discussion of autofiction which I found particularly helpful when reading an excellent example of that kind of book recently; and he expressed concern about our current tendency to novelise our novelists, stating “We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.” He’s a drily witty writer, dropping in all sorts ot sentences which raise a chuckle while making a point: for example, “My mother used to warn me that God saw everything I did and even thought, so that one of the reliefs of losing faith was the recovery of a little privacy.”

An extensive section of essays on translation make up the final part of the book, and these were particularly timely and fascinating. Several cover the translation of Primo Levi’s writings, specifically in the Collected Works (three ginormous volumes I lugged back from a trip to London a while back). Parks is critical of some of the renderings (being a translator from Italian himself, of course) and gives examples with which it’s hard to argue (although his renderings are perhaps a little more literal than the versions he critiques). Translation is a difficult art, I guess, and Parks has the advantage of having lived in Italy for many years so that as well as being linguistically suited to translate, he also has the cultural background. However, despite his misgivings, I hope the power of Levi’s words will still come through to me in English as I make my way through the massive volumes.

“Pen in Hand” is certainly no light read, and that’s a good thing in my view. The essays are stimulating, sometimes controversial, entertaining and each set me thinking about any number of bookish and literature-related subjects. There were some real “Yes!” moments when he nailed some thought I’d been struggling to pin down, and although I didn’t always agree with Parks’ views, reading them was fascinating. To combine the scholarly and the entertaining in a way that’s always readable is a real achievement and if you want to read some invigorating and enjoyable essays on reading and its perils, I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Review copy kindly supplied by Alma Books, for which many thanks.

Simon at Stuck in a Book has also reviewed the book, and you can read his thoughts here.

Books in and out – plus summer plans?? @richarddawkins #johnberger @i_am_mill_i_am

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There has been much coming and going of books recently at the Ramblings HQ; and I’ve been trying to get the remaining stacks a little more organised so that I can be a teeny bit more focused with what I’m reading and writing about. Books have continued to come in but many have gone out, and I’m trying to treat bookish movement in a way that will keep things at least carbon neutral! So if one comes in, at least one must go out… And here’s a little stack I’d like to share some thoughts and possible plans about today!

Large and interesting piles of books always make my heart sing!

The incoming books have included some really fascinating titles – these pretty little editions, for example:

The Red Circle Minis

These are the first three Red Circle Minis in a new publishing venture to bring short works by contemporary Japanese authors into English. They look lovely and the contents are wonderful – more will follow about them!

I have been fairly restrainted with the online buying, but a couple of titles have made it past the barricades!

I can’t for the life of me remember where I read about “Eleven Prague Corpses” but it will no doubt be on some friendly blog or other. It’s been sitting on a wishlist for ages and I finally caved in. The Vita is as a result of Simon’s post here – he really is a bad influence, but it’s a lovely old edition and comes so highly recommended I couldn’t resist.

More books have been going *to* the charity shops than coming from them, but I spotted this yesterday in the Oxfam and had to have it:

I’ve read and loved some of Kapuscinski’s work; and in a strange case of serendipity and synchronicity, I was reading an excellent review of this book recently by the travel author Rosemary Bailey (who sadly passed away this year). The fact that it fell into my path today was obviously significant.

And on Midsummer’s Day, a book came my way in the form of a gift from Mr. Kaggsy, as it was our anniversary. Yet again, he managed to find a book I haven’t read and haven’t got and really *should* read – “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the new bluey green Penguin Modern Classics livery!

He did apologise for the fact that it has half of a naked woman on the cover – no, I don’t know if she’s significant yet. No doubt all will be revealed….

Going forward, I’ve started to tentatively think about summer reading plans (although I generally tend not to make plans…) I work in the education sector, so there is the long summer break when I can hopefully tackle larger books or books of more substance (as well as continuing to make a dent in the pile of review books). And my mind is going in a few directions at the moment, though I don’t know where it will actually settle – although these are some of the options.

I have in recent weeks amassed a *lot* of Richard Dawkins books – all but one from the charity shops. I’ve read the beginning of each and love the writing as well as his bracing and opinionated take on things. I might consider a Summer of Dawkins – could be very mind expanding. However there are also these:

I’ve been gathering John Berger books when I come across them; and also there is the lovely review book from Notting Hill Editions. So a Summer of Berger could be another option! 😀

And then there’s poetry and Newcastle…

You may wonder what I’m wittering about, but basically this stems from Andy Miller mentioning Basil Bunting on Twitter and sending me off down a wormhole reading about Morden Tower in Newcastle and the poets associated with it. This could become very involving…

In case  you’re a tad worried about these heaps of books, here’s an image of the charity boxes before they were collected last week:

There were three boxes of books, to which I added a dozen more before the men with a van arrived. And I took another into the shop yesterday which had been missed; it did feel rather weird seeing my books all over their shelves instead of mine, but I did feel a bit virtuous.

Other summer reading plans will no doubt involve some Persephones or Viragos during August, and also some translated women for WIT month. Apart from that, what am I reading at the moment, you might wonder? Well, I’ve been attempting a little bit of polyreading, and it was going fairly well until I got so absorbed in the fiction (the new Mishima) that I put the others aside for a bit. These are they:

The Tim Parks is a lovely essay collection from Alma which is fascinating so far and great for dipping if you need a quick reading fix. “At the Existentialist Cafe” is also turning out to be rather wonderful, and I’m grasping a lot of concepts I hadn’t before. It *does* need a little more concentration than I usually have last thing at night, so may end up being a holiday read.

So there you have it. The state of books chez Ramblings and some tentative ideas going forward. How are your TBRs at the moment? And do you have any summer reading plans??

 

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