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Reading Renard – Cats and Kew! @RenardPress #Saki #VirginiaWoolf

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The observant reader of the Ramblings will have noticed my love of the books issued by the indie publisher Renard Press; I’m happy to have a subscription with them which means I get a book a month, and their beautifully designed releases are a joy. I’ve written about them extensively before, as well as interviewing the man behind the press, Will Dady, for Shiny New Books. I’ve covered works they’ve published by authors such as Orwell, Washington Irving, Tolstoy, Sarah Bernhardt and Bram Stoker plus many more – I do encourage you to check out their website as there are some marvellous books to choose from.

Anyway, the most recent arrivals from Renard made an interesting pairing, and I thought I would feature them together in a post. Here they are, and don’t they look pretty??

First up is Saki’s Cats. I’ve written about Saki before; his real name was Hector Hugh Munro and he wrote prolifically before being tragically killed in WW1; despite being too old to be called up, he volunteered to fight. His personal life is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, but he left an impressive (and usually very funny!) body of work behind and is still very highly regarded. This little collection contains exactly what it says on the cover, bringing together Saki’s wonderful writing about cats and they really are a treat.

‘Tobermory’ is probably the best known story, which skewers quite wonderfully the hypocrisies of Edwardian society. When the titular cat is taught to speak, it turns out he’s overheard all manner of conversations the speakers would rather nobody knew about; and he has no problem with telling the truth! Similarly, ‘The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat’ touches upon the lies we tell ourselves and the public image we project; ‘The Penance’ is a rather dark tale of the revenge of children; ‘The Guests’ and ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’ feature the larger members of the feline family, and expose more Edwardian posturing; and ‘The Achievement of the Cat’ is a non-fictional short piece exploring how moggies have managed to make themselves aloof yet indispensable.

Most poignant of all is the opener to the volume, some selections from Saki’s letters to his sister about a pet tiger to which he was very attached, illustrated with one of his drawings. These and ‘Achievement…’ are drawn from a posthumous volume “The Square Egg” which collected together some sketches as well as a biography of the man by his sister. Although she may have glossed over some parts of his life, I really do think I’ll have to track it down. That’s by the by, though; bringing together all of Saki’s cat-related writings was a wonderful idea by Renard, and this volume comes with their usual notes and supportings information – a lovely little read!

The second arrival from Renard was a reprint of a short story they’d issued previously in the form of “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf, and it’s a gorgeous edition with one of their signature design covers. “Kew…” is a story I love, and I previously made a point of reading it on site when I made a pilgrimage to the gardens themselves. The story was first published privately in 1919, then made more widely available in 1921 in the collection “Monday or Tuesday”, and it’s a beautiful, impressionistic piece of writing. During a hot July day, whilst a snail makes its way painstakingly through a flower bed, a number of groups of people float in and out of its range, thinking their thoughts, discussing their feelings and attempting to communicate. The beauty of the setting and the snail’s progress is set against human issues and the story is a wonderfully atmospheric read conjuring the summer day and the gardens vividly. Needless to say, I fell in love with Woolf’s writing all over again.

The story is supported with biographical information, and such a lovely edition will be a welcome addition to my Renard shelf! The publisher also releases contemporary works, and I was most impressed with “Women and Love” by Miriam Burke, for which I was happy to take part in a blog tour. I’m a great fan of indie publishing generally – hence why I’m happy to co-host #ReadIndies with Lizzy – and Renard are a favourite. Do give them a look – you may be tempted by some of their titles!

“…some residue of visual emotion…” #VirginiaWoolf @zwirnerbooks

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As I’ve said before, BookTwitter is a terribly bad influence on the TBR… I’ve been trying my very best not to allow too many books into the house, although that hasn’t been working very well. However, a chance glimpse of this book in someone’s feed was too much; and even though I possess many big chunky collections of Virginia Woolf‘s essays, I couldn’t resist sending away for this slim volume entitled “Oh, to Be a Painter!”

The book is published by David Zwirner Books in their ‘ekphrasis’ series; that word was new to me and Wikipedia defines it as coming “from the Greek for the written description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined.” The publisher explains that the intention is to “publish new and surprising pieces of writing on visual culture”, either in the form of new works or harder to obtain, out-of-print pieces. The Woolf volume is a good case in point, drawing together as it does various writings by the author on painters and paintings, some of which I hadn’t read before.

There are eight pieces featured in”Oh…”; some are better known essays, such as Pictures and Portraits, or The Artist and Politics. However, there are other more obscure works, including two forewords to catalogues for Vanessa Bell exhibitions, and these are fascinating. Woolf had a keen appreciation of the visual arts and seeing her thoughts concentrated together in one volume is a real treat. Interestingly, I had read Pictures and Portraits for the 1920 Club, back in 2020, and it resonated strongly with me, dealing as it does with visits to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery; and it acts as a good reminder of what wonderful artistic riches are available in our galleries, not only in London but all around the country.

Words are an impure medium; better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint.

As well as painting, however, the collection features an essay in which Woolf explores the early days of a new art form – cinema. This is a particularly interesting essay as it certainly articulates much of what I feel about the visual versus the written. You can write a character’s inner life, but can you portray it on screen? In the end, these are two very different mediums, but Woolf wisely recognises that film will find its own language; and indeed the best films are art in their own right.

Ramsay and del Sarto – a stunning pair of portraits

A particularly fascinating element, brought out by the juxtuaposition of these pieces, is Woolf’s comparisons of the two branches of art, painting and writing. Interestingly, she acknowledges that there are places painting goes which prose can’t and vice versa; each art has its own strengths. Yet there is the suggestion that the best art tells a story, and not always an obvious one; I have a certain scepticism about portraiture in that so many of the great works seem there simply to glorify the sitter. However, there are small, less ostentatious works (Allan Ramsey’s Self Portrait, Andrea del Sarto’s Portrait of a Young Man, both shown above) where the subjects of the work seem to reach out over the centuries and connect with you, hinting at the life lived and the world lost. Both branches of the arts are essential and complementary, it seems to me.

Let us hold painting by the hand a moment longer, for though they must part in the end, painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common. The novelist after all wants to make us see. Gardens, rivers, skies, clouds changing, the colour of a woman’s dress, landscapes that bask beneath lovers, twisted woods that people walk in when they quarrel – novels are full of pictures like these.

As you can see from the image at the start of this post, I marked so many passages in this small book; Woolf’s writing is always sublime, and having her thoughts on painting concentrated like this made it even stronger. It’s hard to convey just how sparkling and brilliant her prose is, but all I can say is that there’s no-one who writers like her. The book features a few colour illustrations of paintings (including Bell’s famous portrait of Woolf with a blurred face) and altogether it’s an absolute treat. I have a number of Woolf’s essay collections (though not the full series) and have dipped into them, though they are a little overwhelming in their sheer bulk – Woolf was incredibly prolific! So a book which brings together her thoughts on a certain subject is a brilliant idea, and “Oh, to Be a Painter” was a joy from start to finish. Worryingly for the TBR, the list of ekphrasis titles in the back of this one (and on their website here) is tantalising…

#1976club – focusing on some previous reads!

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As is usual during our Reading Weeks, I always like to focus on volumes I’ve read in the past – either pre-blog or during the life of the Ramblings. Although I’m sure there are more than these few which I’ve encountered before, above are a few titles.

“To Loud A Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal was a dark story I read back in 2018,and I found much of value in it, despite the harsh treatment of books, commenting “There are probably many allusions I missed and commentary on the state of Prague or living under Soviet rule that I didn’t pick up on, but that didn’t detract from the sheer impact of the storytelling or the dramatic, if perhaps inevitable, ending… Reading a book about the destruction of books and the written word is perhaps an odd choice for someone like me who loves them both; but we should never forget how fragile and vulnerable books are, yet how important they can be as weapons against tyranny, and how we need to protect them.” Still agree with that…

 

Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” was a book I encountered back in 2016. It’s not always an easy read, but a fascinating one. I said at the time “I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.”

Finally, there’s “Definitely Maybe” by the remarkable Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which I loved to bits in 2014. It was my first encounter with their work, a wonderfully clever mix of science fiction and quite obvious Soviet satire of which I remarked, “How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche.” 

As for pre-blog reads, I do have some titles which have lurked in the stacks for decades….

The Solzhenitsyns were both purchased in the 1970s, in fact possibly 1976; I was having a huge phase of reading his work at the time, and I still rate him after all these years. “Lenin in Zurich”, a fragment from a larger work, was one of my favourites… As for Virginia, “Moments of Being” was acquire during my first phase of reading her in the early 1980s. I had to have everything I could find by her, and one day will do a complete re-read!

There are of course other books I’ve read from 1976 – two titles which spring to mind are “A Stitch in Time” by Penelope Lively and “Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice, both of which I think may still be in the house somewhere – in fact, I wouldn’t have minded re-reading either of these too, had I been able to dig them out, but it was not to be…

Anyway, those are some of my previous reads from 1976 – what titles have you read from the year, and are you planning to revisit any of them??? ;D

“Our being for the moment is centred…” #virginiawoolf @RenardPress

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Well, I said yesterday on this very blog that I would spend some time dipping into the words of the wonderful Virginia Woolf – and indeed I did. As I shared on social media, I felt that the lovely little pamphlet of her essay “How Should One Read a Book?”, which arrived recently as part of my Renard Press subscription, would be the ideal choice. And it was – proof, if it ever was needed, that Woolf was a stunning essayist.

Woolf’s essay dates from 1925, and as a note at the front explains, was based on a paper read at a school. It was originally published in “The Common Reader: Second Series” and Renard issued it as a World Book Day Special, which I think is a brilliant idea. What’s equally brilliant, of course, is Woolf’s writing; whenever I return to it, I find it takes my breath away and I can’t believe how her prose soars.

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

In the essay, Woolf explores how best to be a reader, advocating following your own path and loving whatever you happen to love, despite the pressure to only read works of which others approve. It’s a credo with which I can wholeheartedly agree – and the essay ends with a much-quoted paragraph that gets my emotions every time (and no, I’m not going to quote it here – you really do need to read this essay yourself if you’re a booklover!

I shan’t go on any more about how brilliant the essay is, because it’s Woolf which in my mind equal genius. Instead, I shall share a couple more sentences and urge you to track down a copy of this (and indeed anything by her). Virginia Woolf left an incredible legacy, and we readers are all the more fortunate because of it.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.

…merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.

(on reading biographies)

Four score years… #virginiawoolf

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How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

As I mentioned in my recent review of Alexandra Harris’s excellent little book on Virginia Woolf, I was quite shocked to realise that it’s 80 years today since she took her own life by walking into the River Ouse, fearing another bout of what she called ‘madness’. Woolf has been part of my reading life for half that time, and she’s one of the most important writers to me. I’ve read all of her novels, many of her essays, her diaries and her letters, as well as umpteen books about her and the milieu in which she moved. I can’t imagine my life without her work.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And I get very emotional about her; when I visited a major exhibition based around her life at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2014 (along with Middle Child and my old friend J.), her final letter to Leonard was almost too much. So today I will remember her for her genius, her wit and her truly unique writing; and I will spend a little time dipping into her words, which certainly changed the way I thought of literature.

“…days slipping by unrecorded…” #VirginiaWoolf #AlexandraHarris

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I’ve come to realise that when your TBR is as big a mountain as mine is, a regular reshuffle of the piles is essential to stop coveted arrivals disappearing into the stacks. A case in point is a wonderful book I read recently – “Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris. I first read about this back in 2018 on Simon’s blog and loved the sound of it; I’ve read *a lot* by and about Woolf over the decades and I absolutely love her. I was reassured by Simon’s statement that this was a book even a well-versed Woolf-lover could enjoy, and merrily sent away for a copy. It’s languished in the stacks ever since, to my shame, and when I stumbled upon in during a recent rummage it was exactly the book I was in the mood to read.

Author Alexandra Harris is someone I’ve read before, although I have to say that I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by “Romantic Moderns” when I explored it pre-blog, finding it not quite holding together enough for me. Here, though, her focus is firmly on one woman, the very inspirational Virginia Woolf. In ten relatively short chapters (the book is only 191 pages, including illustrations, notes, appendices etc) she relates clearly Woolf’s life, her work and her legacy in a wonderfully readable tome. Her early life in Hyde Park Gate, holidays in Talland House at St. Ives, the family tragedies, the move to Bloomsbury, the break with convention, the struggles to write, and the successes – all is here, covered brilliantly and evocatively. Also present is the illness – Harris treats Woolf’s breakdowns sensitively and sympathetically, always with a carefully balanced view. And I think it’s this latter element that really stood out for me in the book.

Virginia Woolf has attracted an immense amount of scholarship since her untimely death; much of it is partisan, some of it is downright weird. It was only when I read the section entitled “Afterwards” that I realised how much strangeness has been projected on Woolf over the years. To her credit, Harris is measured in her discussion of this (as with everything in the book) and that was really refreshing. It’s a concise book yet tells you everything you need to know about its subject and that’s a real achievement.

Reading was also, quite practically and literally, a means of survival. Virginia learned how to use it to stabilize herself when she felt the ‘agitation’, the ‘fidgets’, and mood swings that were a part of her illness. She learned this out of necessity during these difficult years.

Even though I’m very familiar with the facts of Woolf’s life, I got much from reading this book. Harris is particularly strong on how Woolf’s life fed into her work, and she gives you the essential VW in a clear and balanced form. I have to say that I have one very minor caveat, and that is that I wouldn’t suggest reading this book *before* you’ve read all of Woolf’s works. There are inevitably spoilers when it comes to discussing the books, and one particular one from “To The Lighthouse” which is a particular bugbear of mine. The specific event which I’ve seen spoiled on a number of occasions had a terrific emotional impact on me when I first read “Lighthouse”, and I do feel that you should read that book with no knowledge of what is to come.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting that aside, however, I can highly recommend Harris’s book as a great way to explore Woolf and her life once you’ve read the work. It rekindled my love for Woolf (if it ever needed that!), and really brought wonderful insight into the relationship between Virginia’s life and her writing. Harris’s work was originally published by Thames and Hudson in 2011, 70 years after Woolf took her own life in the River Ouse. When I saw the publication date, I suddenly realised that on the 28th of this month, it will be 80 years since then, and it’s also 40 years ago that I first read her work. Time has passed but Woolf’s work is no less brilliant and will endure – a tribute to her genius and her fight against her demons to produce the works she needed to write.

“…death and the photograph as memento mori…” #indexcards #moyradavey @FitzcarraldoEds

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It’s pretty obvious from my blog posts this year, and particularly my involvement in co-hosting with Lizzy the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, that I’m a huge fan of the publisher’s output. In fact, I credit their books with my rekindled love of the essay format as so many of their non-fiction works have taken that genre and riffed on it in an individual way. So when I read about their recent release, “Index Cards” by Moyra Davey, I was convinced it would be one for me – I mean, anything slated as weaving into its narrative Mary Wollstonecroft, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes (yes, that man again!), to name but a few, is likely to be a book which appeals to me! 😀

Based in New York, Davey is an acclaimed artist, photographer, writer, and filmmaker; possibly most known for her film “Les Goddesses”, which explores the connections between the artist’s family, and the family of Mary Wollstonecroft (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay). Certainly that’s the work of hers of which I’d heard, and the Wollstonecroft women *do* make regular appearances in this book. But what, exactly, *is* “Index Cards”?

The book is billed as a collection of essays, and since that form is an elastic one encompassing all manner of structures nowadays, it’s probably the best one to use. The pieces in the book are dated, ranging from the early 2000s up to more modern times, but the subject matter often travels back in time to Davey’s childhood as well as historical times. Some essays, such as the opener “Fifty Minutes”, read more like a film script or written narration; others are more fragmentary, reading like diary entries or indeed jottings on an index card. Because of that loose structure “Index Cards” can be hard to categorise; but it’s never anything less than a bracing and exhilarating read.

Davey’s main artistic medium is obviously the visual and many of her writings focus on the art of photography, with the changes which have taken place in that discpline over the years. She takes several deep dives into the theory of photography and its changing focus; the morals and ethics of street photography; and looks closely at the work in this field of Barthes and Sontag. Her contemplation of her own films and those of her contemporaries is also fascinating. Davey is honest in these writings; she’s not afraid to interrogate her art and her motivations, discussing her period in analysis, her health issues, her friendships and her emotions about the loss of her son as he grows up and moves on in his life. I felt she revealed an underlying sense of uncertainty about her arts, constantly questioning herself, and her honesty in revealing her doubts was refreshing.

The other major theme which struck me in “Index Cards” was that of reading and writing. On the second page of the book Davey finds herself in a situation which will be familiar to most readers:

I spend most of my time trolling through half a dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if I could only just put my finger on it. Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it. Sometimes I persist with the book, even just through inertia, and it can happen that the writing will suddenly open itself up to me.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in that position… Davey quotes freely from the writers who inspire her, and the list is impressive (with many oddly familiar to me…): Bowen, Akhmatova, Benjamin, Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Barthes, Perec, Calvino, Robert Walser, Jean Genet, Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc are just some of the names making an appearance. Virginia Woolf’s flaneurie of reading is something of a touchstone, and even Larkin and his destroyed diaries appear in passing. Later on in the book she goes on to consider the problem of reading in the modern world, with so much available and distracting our attention from focusing on just one work at a time. Her reading is obviously wide-ranging, with the authors quoted having a particular resonance for her.

I found, and still find the letters oddly comforting for the way they translate thorny life problems into Gertrude-Stein like, droning-on prose. I’ve often thought that diaries and letters are the real modernism: stream of consciousness without the contrivance. (On Jane Bowles’ letters)

At one point in “Index Cards”, while Davey is discussing Sontag’s writings on photography, she comments on its “epigrammatic structure, where ideas, indented with dingbats, accumulate, and indeed follow one another with a sort of loose, fragmentary randomness.” Although Davey she says never connected emotionally with Sontag, intriguingly I felt her own work could well have been described in the same way. In many ways “Index Cards” reads as a Commonplace Book (albeit a very brilliant one) with the randomness and immediacy of a journal; however, despite its apparently disparate nature, there are elements which run through the book; including the constant theme of the drawing of resonances between the life of herself and her family, and those who inspire her. Stories and recollections reappear like a thread running through the narrative of the essays, and the repetition of these elements serves to emphasise their importance to Davey. She quotes Barthes at one point as saying “Note-taking gives me a form of security“, and certainly I can empathise with the need to record events in order to make sense of life itself.

Lots of post-its… maybe I should have made notes on index cards…

Even after reading it and writing about it, I still find “Index Cards” a book which is impossible to pin down and categorise (which is maybe why I loved it so much). It could perhaps be considered a sum of its parts, a book rich with references and full of provocations which throws up many questions which linger in the mind long after finishing it (as can be seen from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy). Davey’s blurring of lines between art forms is fascinating, and I was left with the impression of an artist taking stock of her work in various formats, wanting to leave behind her something which might inspire artists, writers and readers to come in the same way she had been inspired by others. “Index Cards” is a stunning book in all senses of the world, one which resonated with me throughout and a work I will no doubt be drawn back to again and again.

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

On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

#1920club – “Let us wash the roofs of our eyes in colour; let us dive till the deep seas close above our heads.” #virginiawoolf

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While I was digging about for Virginia Woolf stories to read for 1920, it occurred to me that there might well be some essays from that year which I could read; which then caused a bit of rummaging through the books of Woolf essays I have! As well as a variety of collections (including both Common Readers), I also have the first three volumes of her collected essays; they’re chunky books, and I’m gradually collecting them when I come across a reasonably-priced copy as the completist in me *needs* to have them, but they’re not cheap and I’ve no idea when I’ll get round to reading them! However, luckily Volume 3 covers 1920, so I had a bit of an explore to see what it contained.

This is probably the first time I’ve had a good look at the books, and interestingly it appears that many of these ‘essays’ are actually reviews of books, exhibitions and the like. Which is not a problem, but perhaps made it a little harder to pick out what to read! The books are beautifully presented, though, with notes and sources for each entry, so quite a triumph of scholarship by editor Andrew McNeillie. Woolf was obviously busy in 1920, with 31 entries showing in the contents list for that year, and the subject range was wide – from Kipling to Chekhov, Woolf had an enquiring mind. In the end, I settled on two pieces: “Gorky on Tolstoy” and “Pictures and Portraits“.

I chose to read “Pictures and Portraits” for the simple reason that its opening paragraphs resonated so strongly with me. Woolf describes the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, relating in her usual beautiful sentences how easy it is to visit, gaining access to all manner of wonders inside. Both are places I love and visit on a regular basis whenever I’m in London, and it really hit me hard to realise how long it will be before I can go through those doors again… Her words evoked my visits to both Galleries and reminded me how lucky we are to have the arts in this country; it also made me worry about the arts going forward after this particular crisis. Anyway, the essay itself is a meditation on an exhibition of the works of Edmond X. Kapp, of whom I’d never heard, but I have to say that Woolf’s prose does convince me I should look him up!

National Portrait Gallery by Wei-Te Wong from Taipei City, Taiwan, Republic of China / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

As for “Gorky on Tolstoy”, I guess it’s no surprise that I should choose that one! This is a review of Gorky’s reminiscences of the great Russian author, and it reminds you of how taken the Bloomsberries were with the Russian authors, as well as instrumental in bringing them to an English audience. It’s a short but fascinating review, pulling out some intriguing pieces from Gorky’s book and musing on how well we know or see another person.

So Gorky shocks us at first by showing us that Tolstoy was no different from other men in being sometimes conceited, intolerant, insincere, and in allowing his private fortunes to make him vindictive in his judgements.

Woolf the journalist is a little different from Woolf the writer of fiction; a little more formal, a little more traditional perhaps; but still with those wonderful flights of fancy and unexpected turns of phrase we expect from her. I can see that the best way to read these essays might be to take a dipping approach, even if a chronological one, reading one or two at a time so as to savour them and get the most out of them. Now there’s an idea for a lockdown reading project if ever I heard one! 😀

#1920club “… the human face at the top of the fullest page of print holds more, withholds more…” – Woolf’s short stories

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First up today, I need to confess about a rather foolish faux pas I made when I was trailing possible reads for 1920 (and if you read the post you may well know what I mean!) For some unknown reason, I got it into my head that Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” was published in 1920, which is of course rubbish – the book came out in 1925! Nevertheless, there it is in the picture I shared of possibles, so silly me!

I’m not sure if I had actually intended a re-read however; but this did make me wonder what Woolf there *was* from 1920, and a little researching revealed a couple of short stories which I decided to revisit. Both are in a collection of “Selected Short Stories” I posted about a while back, but I thought I would look at these in more detail.

The stories are “Solid Objects” and “An Unwritten Novel“; the latter appeared in “Monday or Tuesday”, and both were issues posthumously in the “A Haunted House” collection. Although written in the same year, these stories have very different subject matter and a very different feel, but both are haunting.

“Solid Objects” is more of what you might call a traditional story, telling of two young men, Charles and John, whose lives diverge in unexpected ways after John finds a stone on the beach which he takes home with him. His fascination with objects becomes a consuming passion and overtakes everything else in his life in a quite chilling fashion. In just over six pages, Woolf weaves a narrative that captures a man’s obsession in beautiful prose.

The second piece, “An Unwritten Novel” is a little more unusual as despite being described as fiction, the reader can’t help but regarding this as a glimpse of Woolf’s mind at play. The narrator is travelling by train to the south coast, just as would have Woolf, and on her journey spins stories around a fellow passenger, inventing a whole life for her based on her appearance alone and what she can read from this and the woman’s face. She gives her a name, a family, a whole background, and these flights of fancy are the unwritten novel of the title. These illusions may be shattered, but for a while the character of Minnie Marsh, developed by Woolf’s genius, exists.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s an intriguing and again beautifully written work, and as it portrays a novelist at work it’s impossible not to conflate it with Virginia Woolf herself. The story seems to arrest Woolf at the moment of creation, allowing us an insight into how her mind works and how her art is formed, which is utterly fascinating.

Woolf’s writing is always stunning and both of these stories reminded me how much I love her prose, her vivid imagination, the fertility of her imagery and her way of sliding off at tangents but never losing her point. Even though the novels which are regarded as her finest were still ahead of her, Woolf was obviously already exploring different ways to write and tell stories, with wonderful results. I’m so glad our reading club made me focus on these two works and I’m getting the itch to start up some kind of Woolf re-reading project – if only there were more hours in the day! 😀

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