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“…Paris’s blood takes on a color that is decidedly red…” #IBurnParis #BrunoJasienski @TwistSpoonPress

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I’m rather horrified to find that “I Burn Paris” by Bruno Jasienski (translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski) has been languishing on Mount TBR since 2014, when I picked it up hot on the heels of reading and reviewing “The Legs of Izolda Morgan” for Shiny New Books (you can read that post here). Both of Jasienski’s books are published in beautiful hardback editions by Twisted Spoon, an independent publisher based in Prague, and in fact I read and enjoyed another of their releases, “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” by Paul Leppin, back in 2016.

As I said about Jasienski at the time, “born in Poland in 1901, his family moved to Russia in 1914 (before returning to Poland in 1918). He was old enough to be affected by the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, as well as the Polish-Russian war, and this coloured many of his writings. During his peripatetic life Jasieński moved about between Paris (from where he was expelled for writing the subversive novel, “I Burn Paris”), Poland and finally Russia, accepting Soviet citizenship.” Sadly, he was executed in 1938, a fact which was only confirmed in the 1990s.

However, it certainly seems that “Paris” is his best-known novel, so why has it taken me so long to pick it up?? Well, to be truthful, this is at least the third time I’ve started the book, and I’ve always stalled at the sections where the protagonist, Pierre, starts to unravel mentally and imagine he’s seeing his erstwhile love, Jeanne, in the arms of every fat capitalist he comes across. However, this time I was determined to read to the end, because the writing is excellent and there’s no reason not to; although I rather ended up with more than I bargained for…

The book (which was published in 1928) opens with Pierre, a lowly and impoverished factory worker, finding himself out of work. It seems impossible for him to find another job, and his beloved Jeanne has expensive tastes. Pierre is soon on the streets, starving and struggling to survive, and then imprisoned. On his release, a piece of luck comes his way when an old friend finds him work in Paris’s water system; but this gives the disillusioned man, still suffering from what’s happened to him, access to a laboratory containing all manner of viruses. Before long, he’s released a deadly plague into the water of the city and the residents begin dropping like flies. The resultant chaos sees Paris disintegrate into a dystopian nightmare, with various characters coming to the fore. There is a Chinese communist, a group of rabbis, disillusioned scientists, a cynical American millionaire and all manner of different groups fighting for survival in a plague ridden place. The French authorities wall off the city, the various groups grab a section each, banding together on the basis of ideology, religion or race, and plots develop to escape the blockade and make it into the wider world. Will they succeed – and what’s the future for the City of Light?

One evening the tide chucked him from the Montmartre boulevards and thrust him against the glass frontage of a grand music hall. A gigantic fiery windmill slowly turned its blades on their axis, summoning the ludicrous Don Quixotes of pleasure from the endless avenues of the world. The windows of the surrounding houses glowed with the bright-red embers of the unquenchable fever burning within.

It was time for the show to begin. The lobby was glassed in like a lighthouse, and around it a furious wave of automobiles crashed onto the sidewalk, only to recede moments late, leaving the white foam of ermine capes and tuxedo mantles, shirtfronts and sleeves on the rocky shore of the pavement.

“I Burn Paris” is such a deep and multi-layered book that it’s hard to summarise, and what I’ve said above can only give a flavour. For a start, the writing is superb; Jasienski’s modernist montage techniques give a vivid visual impression of the action and settings, while the metaphorical desciptions he uses are just stunning, and he brilliantly captures a world which had certainly moved irrevocably into the machine age, with all the dehumanisation that came with that. His narrative ranges far and wide, too; the characters he introduces, most particularly P’an Tsiang-kuei, are given a lengthy backstory and have a real depth, so that their actions are always believable.

The clash of various belief systems allows Jasienski to explore these thoroughly too, and it’s quite clear he feels nothing but distaste for corruption, decadence and the bourgeois liberals in Paris. The working class are always his heroes, and in fact it will be those from the lower echelons of society who will have more chance of making it through the plague. However, Jasienski is not so shallow as to condemn all non-working class characters, and the thread of the story following the American millionaire, David Lingslay, is powerful and moving, allowing the man redemption for his past. The resolution of the story is dramatic and perhaps unexpected, but I shall reveal nothing because this book greets you with unexpected twists and turns all the way through and I would hate to spoil this for anyone.

Like a shoddy machine, the world destroys more than it produces. This cannot go on. You have to strip everything down to the screws, throw away whatever’s useless, and after taking it apart, build it all over again, once and for all! The plans are ready, the builders’ fingers are itching, but the old, corroded scrap iron won’t give away. It has taken root, a coat of rust has formed in its seams, they’d have to yank out every screw with their teeth.

Had I known quite what I was getting into, I suspect I wouldn’t have chosen a dystopian plague novel to read right in the middle of a pandemic, although it’s reassuring to be living in a time when there are proper medical procedures and vaccines to help deal with such things… But having committed to the book, I carried on to the end and it was an exhilarating, often very moving, read. Despite the darkness he portrays, Jasienski *does* offer hope at the end, and the chance for humanity to move into a better, fairer phase. And stylistically, the book is stunning – Jasienski’s descriptions of the city, his use of metaphor, his characterisation are all unforgettable and the book really did get under my skin. There *were* minor flaws; a book written in 1928 does at times use character descriptions that might be a little unacceptable nowadays; and the influence of communist beliefs is perhaps a little naive, knowing what we do about the Soviet regime now. These elements didn’t detract for me, however, and I found “I Burn Paris” compelling reading all the way through.

So more than seven years after I bought it, “I Burn Paris” found its time, jumped off the TBR, and actually turned out to be an absolutely unforgettable book. I said in my (much) earlier reviews of Twisted Spoon books that they were a publisher I wanted to explore more, and of course I’ve completely failed to do that. However, I’m really, really glad I chose to read this brilliant, dark and haunting work just now; not always an easy read, but certainly one which will stay with me. Yes, I know I’m meant to be denting the TBR this year – but I may have to take another sneaky look at Twisted Spoon’s website… 😉

 

Discovering Decadent Prague

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Severin’s Journey Into the Dark by Paul Leppin

I’ve said before on the Ramblings what a fickle reader I am, easily swayed in the direction of tracking down a new book when I have plenty already on the shelves waiting to be read. This one is a case in point; if I remember correctly, [P] at books, yo mentioned it in passing on Twitter and I was intrigued enough to go and check it out. It’s from Twisted Spoon, a Prague-based publisher who bring out some lovely and fascinating books (I have two beautiful hardbacks from them already) and so I didn’t need any more urging to send for a copy…

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Author Paul Leppin (1878-1945) was born and lived in Prague; despite writing in German, he translated from Czech and also wrote articles on Czech literature and obviously had a deep love of his native city. “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark”, subtitled “A Prague Ghost Story”, was first published in 1914 and the city it portrays is decadent and mysterious.

Severin is a young clerk; bored to death and worn out with his office work, he sleeps in the afternoon when he’s finished there, and then roams the street at nights. Despite the fact he has the love of a good woman – Zdenka, who worships him – he’s dissatisfied with everything, suffering from nerves and ennui. A chance encounter with a bookseller leads him into a different world – apart from the charms of the bookseller’s daughter, he is introduced to the Bohemian circle of Dr. Konrad.

Something about Severin seems to attract every woman who comes his way, and he certainly takes any that he can; there are wild parties, alcohol, drugs and death. Through all this floats Severin, constantly searching and constantly failing to find what he’s looking for – perhaps because he doesn’t really know what that is. He seems incapable of finding love and at one point reacts against the decadent lifestyle he’s leading and returns to Zdenka for peace. But this is never going to satisfy him, and nothing does until he falls for Mylada, singer in a cafe; she becomes his all-consuming passion, but there is a strangeness to her also and it seems that Severin will never achieve any kind of happiness.

More than ever he thirsted for a genuine life, one that bestowed flowers and terror and blew the daily round to pieces with its stormy jaws.

Well, if anything is certain it’s that Twisted Spoon can be relied on to bring us strange, intense books. Severin is an unpleasant character in many ways; his attitude towards the women he meets is cruel and dismissive, if nothing else, and he seems tormented by strange visions and the constant reappearance of a nun who may or may not exist and may or may not be Mylada’s sister. Often Severin himself seems something of a hollow man with little substance – maybe the ghost of the title? – and he’s really not easy to like, despite his despair. I found myself pondering on the choice of name, too, as Severin is not a common one and is best known (apart from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ bassist!) as the main character in Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” – I assume the choice was therefore deliberate!

Author Paul Leppin - maybe the prototype for Severin?

Author Paul Leppin – maybe the prototype for Severin?

However, the strongest element in the book is actually Prague itself; the city, its streets and buildings, its atmosphere and weather, come alive in Lepper’s wonderful prose. It’s a place I’ve often thought I’d like to visit and although this version no longer exists, it sounds fascinating. This is not so much a novel with a plot, but an extended meditation on Severin’s plight, his state of mind, his sense of emptiness and his inability to feel real emotion.

“Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” was a powerful and memorable read; his journey back and forth between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, searching for some kind of redemption, is a difficult one and the ending is perhaps a little abrupt and inconclusive. Nevertheless, the image of old Prague which springs vividly from its pages will stay with me – and I’m more convinced than ever that I need to explore more of Twisted Spoon’s output.

The Legs of Izolda Morgan by Bruno Jasienski

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245One of the many joys of being involved in Shiny New Books has been that of discovering new authors and publishers, and I was particularly pleased to be pointed in the direction of Bruno Jasienski, whose work has been published by Twisted Spoon Press.

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Of Polish birth, Jasienski moved around in the fragmented Europe of the early 20th century, involving himself in Futurism and then rejecting it, finally falling victim to Soviet purges in 1938. His fictions are wonderful, and having read and reviewed “The Legs of Izolda Morgan”, which you can find here, I’m keen to explore his work further.

 

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A word, too about Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague. Their list of works, almost all the authors unknown to me, is very, very enticing. And their books are beautiful objects too – hardbacks with illustrations, wonderful covers and all the important little details like ribbon bookmarks. It’s books like this that make you happy to be a reader!

There’s lots and lots to read at Shiny New Books – so do head on over and take a book!

 

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