thorold enjoys shoures soote in Q2 2019
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Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
No plans at present to visit Kent in Q2, but you never know...
63 books read in Q1:
Author gender: F 19; M 44
By main category: Crime 2; Memoir/Biography 11; Fiction 37; literature 3; Poetry 7; Travel 2; Science/Eng 1
By language: French 8; English 45; Italian 2; German 4; Spanish 4
(Of the English books, 6 were translations - original language Italian 1; Hebrew 2; Greek 2; Albanian 1. Plus two books where I read a translation in parallel with the original, in Old English and Middle English respectively)
By original publication date: With Petrarch and a few Old and Middle English texts I pushed the "earliest" date back a bit this time. 18 books were published in the last five years; 5 were published before 1900.
By format: 16 physical books from the TBR; 5 paid e-books; 7 audio books; 35 free/borrowed, of which 29 from the public library
54 distinct authors read in Q1:
Author gender: F 15; M 39
By country: UK 20; US 9; FR 6; DE 4; ES 3; others 12
Highlights of Q1:
- The fabulous 14th century - Petrarch, Chaucer and Sir Gawain. More fun than I was expecting, and I still have some unfinished business there.
- Christine Brooke-Rose - in a way, I'm quite glad that I didn't find out about her earlier, because I'm sure she'd have encouraged me into bad habits, but her crazy mixing of scientific and literary language - or of different languages in the same sentence - is so much better than the books I always wanted to have written...
- Some great recent novels, especially Milkman, Berta Isla, Memories of the future and The Golden House.
- Hesitant first steps towards some writers I've been meaning to try for ages and somehow never got to, in particular Amos Oz, Paul Auster and Carlos Fuentes
Reading plans for Q2
- The TBR has grown again, somehow - I've been reading too many library books, probably. Something should be done to make space, especially since there's a 12-year Thingaversary approaching. Maybe I could demolish a wall and take over some of my neighbours' apartment...
- There are still a couple of books on the Petrarch Pile to deal with
- Reading Globally is heading into the world of Speculative Fiction in Q2, an area I don't often visit. Could be interesting.
- I (briefly) met Ali Smith and Jonathan Coe at a reading in Brussels last weekend - I want to read more of both of their books (I've just about caught up with Smith's back-catalogue, but her new novel Spring came out a few days ago).
- I still want to (re-)read some of Angus Wilson's novels after reading the excellent biography by Margaret Drabble in Q1.
- After reading five Christine Brooke-Rose novels in Q1, I've just got two more in the post, and there are another three on order!
Not that the Netherlands is always quite that calm - and you certainly have far more scope for finding attractive rural landscapes in Northern Ireland - but I do like living here.
This is one I brought home from the charity shop in June 2017:
Hazard et Fissile (2008) by Raymond Queneau (France, 1903-1976)
Queneau was an editor, publisher and translator as well as being an amateur mathematician and a founder-member of the experimental writing group OULIPO. He's probably best-known nowadays for his surrealistic novel Zazie dans le Métro, made into a celebrated film by Louis Malle.
This was an unfinished and undated manuscript, never published during Queneau's lifetime: a complicated crime story obviously inspired by the famous Fantômas series (1911-1963), but with bizarre elements that are straight out of Queneau's surreal imagination, like the seventeen giant octopuses, one of which descends from the top of the Eiffel Tower to squash a traffic policeman, or the man in an orangutang suit in a carnival parade who turns out to be an actual orangutang. Or the car chase in which the chasing car and its occupants turn out to be identical to those being chased. All very strange, and of course it's impossible to know which of the many inconsistencies in the plot are deliberate and which are due to the unfinished state of the story. But fun, in a bizarre way.
Thérèse et Isabelle (1966) by Violette Leduc (France, 1907-1972)
Violette Leduc (no relation to her near-namesake, the ruined-castle builder) was a kind of female counterpart to Jean Genet, a working-class writer of transgressive sexuality taken up by Sartre and de Beauvoir. She didn't get quite the same kind of exposure as Genet in her own lifetime, but she's posthumously become something of a lesbian icon. She's best-known for her autobiographical novel La Bâtarde (1964) - yes, that's on the TBR shelf...
Quand on aime on est toujours sur le quai d'une gare.
This boarding-school romance is actually a censored chapter from Leduc's 1955 novel Ravages, eventually published as a standalone novella eleven years later. Its reputation has had trouble recovering from the unapologetic soft-porn film Radley Metzger made out of it in 1968, but it deserves to be read as more than just erotica. Although the story is told in the first person by Thérèse, this isn't a simple teenage love story like Les mauvais anges, but a concentrated and very grown-up meditation on the complicated changes love and physical desire for another person - and the satisfying of that desire - bring about in our awareness of ourself and of the other person. Plus quite a lot of explicit talk about sex.
Adolescent same-sex romances, by all the rules of narrative that were current at the time, are supposed to end badly, but this one is unexpectedly spared the depressingly inevitable tragic conclusion as a result of the way it has been cut out of a longer work - Leduc stops abruptly in the middle of a steamy sex-scene and has her narrator tie up the story, unconvincingly, in two short sentences, leaving us free to go on our way imagining whatever we please.
FWIW I got the impression that Smith doesn't at all like doing the performing seal stuff, and affects Scottish grumpiness accordingly. But, like many people who write with a lot of passion, she was very impressive as a reader.
Sulaiman Addonia was also there, but I couldn't get much out of his reading (lots of ill-mannered people coming in late). From reviews of his book The consequences of love here, he looks as though he might be worth reading, though - I'll have to give him a look.
I was annoyed at myself for having pre-ordered Smith's new novel - I should have realised that there would be copies on sale there, with the chance to get them signed - as it was, my copy arrived too late for that. But, signed or not, I started reading it just about as soon as I'd got it out of the packaging...
Spring (2019) by Ali Smith (UK, 1962- )
Spring follows a similar sort of recipe to the previous two in the seasonal quartet: a not-quite-resolved story involving characters who refuse to fit well into current society and who sometimes seem to have a touch of the allegorical about them; extended references to some of Smith's artistic heroes (Katherine Mansfield, Rilke, Tacita Dean and Charlie Chaplin); and gloriously ranting Dickensian prose-poems telling us about some of the many things that are wrong with society.
Having played around with the openings of A tale of two cities and A Christmas carol in the previous parts, this one riffs on the opening of Hard Times, which of course leads us into one of the big themes of the book: the increased obligation artists have to tell the truth in a society that seems to have given up valuing facts over lies. That side of the story is represented in particular by Richard, a TV director who made radical, hard-hitting dramas back in the seventies with his mentor and writing partner Patricia, but is finding it hard to see a way forward since her death.
The other big topic is the vast and all-but-invisible Gulag created in the service of Mrs May's Hostile Environment for (those suspected of being) foreigners, which is represented by Brittany, who works as a guard for a private security company at one of their Immigration Detention Centres, and seems to be losing the ability to live a normal life as a result.
All this is stirred up and shuffled around by one of Smith's always-wonderful mischievous agents of change, a young girl called Florence who sometimes seems to be a normal high-school student, and at other times turns into a kind of personification of spring. As usual, we're left in a little bit of doubt about where precisely all the bits have landed, and there seem to be two or three competing endings out there, including one in which Kingussie is a station on the Underground Railroad, but - as with the others in the series - it's not the narrative that drives this story, but the reader's engagement with Smith's argument about the dangers of sitting back and not doing our little bit to help fix things (however quixotic) when we see something wrong happening in the world around us.
It would be worth getting just for the Hockney cover-art, but there's a lot more to enjoy when you get past that, even if this is one of Smith's darker works.
Looking at the news this morning I am becoming convinced that Brexit will never happen (perhaps there is a God after all)
So sorry there were some rude, late people at Addonia's reading. The Consequences of Love was a strange novel: on the one hand, it's an old-fashioned romantic love story - and was marketed as such -, on the other, there are harrowing description of poverty and abuse, including sexual abuse. I don't know whether you've read some Jacqueline Wilson? She writes gritty, realistic novels aimed at children and teenagers, about children in care, or children whose parents have mental health problems, etc. It's all so depressing that by the time we get to the story's resolution, the fact for example, that the mum is committed and the child is taken into care, feels like a happy ending! This is how The Consequences of Love felt to me - Jacqueline Wilson for adults. By the way, although there's a big, bold "Homosexuality" tag on the work page, the main love story concerns a heterosexual couple.
Scribd currently seems to have Autumn, Winter, Spring, How to be both and Public Library, but all of them only as audiobooks (not read by the author herself), in NL at least - I don't know if it differs by country.
Back to shoures soote, via Jonathan Coe:
The rain before it falls (2007) by Jonathan Coe (UK, 1961- )
Coe's publishers must have thought they were dreaming when they got this manuscript: possibly for the first and only time in publishing history, an author comes up with a book where a black-and-white photo of people in bathing-suits seen from behind actually plays an important role in the plot. So, naturally, Penguin chose a picture for the cover that subtly but unmistakably fails to match any of those described in the story...
Sorting out her aunt Rosamond's affairs after her death, Gill discovers that there's a legacy and a message - recorded on a stack of C90 cassettes - for Imogen, whom she remembers only as a little blind girl she helped to look after at her aunt's fiftieth birthday party, more than twenty years ago. With the help of her internet-savvy daughters, Gill tries to track Imogen down, but there's no trace of her, and eventually the three of them decide to listen to the tapes themselves. And of course we get to hear them too.
Imogen has evidently been cut off from her family background, for reasons that aren't at first made clear, and Rosamond is trying to put this right by telling Imogen, via a series of family photos she describes to her, about the story of her own connection with Imogen, her mother Thea and her grandmother Beatrix, who was Rosamond's cousin.
The snapshot idea turns out to be a very effective way of conveying how incomplete and fragmented any sort of narrated life-story is, when compared to the complexity of the intersecting lives of all the people involved. I enjoyed this aspect of the book, and as usual Coe is very good at putting characters in their historical moment in interesting, understated ways. Good to see too that he managed to slip in a little bit of avant-garde music when no-one was looking.
I was disappointed, though, that he committed a major cheese-solecism by having "Shropshire Blue" on the table of a 1940s farmhouse - although it sounds as though it should be a traditional English cheese, it's actually a brand name for industrial not-Stilton, introduced in the 1970s (I only know this because I had a holiday in Shropshire recently and there was an argument about whether or not we should get this cheese...).
The other major theme of this book seems to be the way past wrongs go on reverberating through people's lives from generation to generation - Beatrix finds it difficult to love Thea because she didn't have a loving mother herself, and that in turn affects the way Thea treats Imogen. Rather like the way Lois's experience of the pub bombing keeps on resonating through all three of the "Benjamin Trotter" books. But Coe also toys here with the idea that there are connections between people that go further and deeper than the extent to which their actual lives intersect in the real world, and I think he might have had second thoughts about how far to commit himself to this. It came over as a little bit too tentative.
What is clear, though, from this as from the other books I've read by Coe, is that he's someone who really enjoys writing about interesting female characters. In this book there are hardly any male characters at all, and they play only very marginal roles in the story: everything is carried by the women. And that seems to work extremely well.
(Revised after sleeping on it...)
Notice that we're still firmly in the world of unimaginative cover-art clichés - after the b&w bathing-suit, a (semi-)headless woman, no less!
Mozart's women : his family, his friends, his music (2005) by Jane Glover (UK, 1949- )
The context in which I came across this book (recommendation from Feminine endings) and descriptions I saw of it rather led me to expect it to be a radical, revisionist, feminist biography. But of course that would be silly - Jane Glover has spent much of her professional life conducting Mozart and confirming his standing as the greatest operatic composer of his time, she's not someone who's likely to rush out and tell that it's all a myth and he was just fronting for his sister. Nor is that a version of events that would make any kind of historical sense.
In real life, this is a collection of three extended essays, written in non-technical terms for the general reader, looking at the role played in Mozart's life, his operas, and his posthumous reputation by a group of extraordinary women, in particular his sister Nannerl, the pianist who inspired all his early keyboard music, and his wife Constanze Weber and her three sisters, all of them highly-talented singers. Lesser parts are played by Mozart's mother (who acted as his business manager on his Paris tour, when his father couldn't leave Salzburg) and by some of the other distinguished singers for whom he wrote parts in his operas.
Glover confesses herself to be a fan of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus and credits Simon Callow with helping her to get started on this book. But she quietly sets aside many of the more romantic myths we cherish about Mozart. Salieri was a personal friend as well as a professional rival, and his mistress Caterina Cavalieri (Constanze, Donna Elvira, the Countess, etc.) was one of the most important singers to work closely with Mozart. In Josef II's Enlightenment Vienna it was not at all the custom to organise splendid funerals and tombstones; the "pauper's grave" story comes from nineteenth-century views of Mozart's death. Count Walsegg-Stuppach's habit of commissioning works anonymously from composers and then passing them off as his own was a standing joke in musical circles, and Mozart was simply playing along with it by describing the count's agent who came with the commission for a Requiem as a "ghostly messenger".
Even Mozart's financial situation wasn't quite as dire as it's usually presented - Constanze had taken things in hand (a little late in the day, admittedly) and spending was under control and a lot of the debts already paid off by the time of Mozart's death. Posthumously, Constanze went back to performing for a while, and showed herself to be a skilled manager of Mozart's reputation, who managed to do well financially out of his manuscripts and biography (left unfinished by her second husband, Georg Nissen, and published under Constanze's control).
I found the account of Mozart's operas to be the most interesting part of the book - this is obviously Glover's bread-and-butter, and she presents interesting practical insights into the way Mozart wrote to take advantage of the particular gifts of the singers he had available to him. And puts his work into context, so that we can see just how radical and innovative he was as a composer. Of course, it's a lot easier to write in non-technical ways about opera than it is about orchestral music, because you have the narrative as a foothold for those who would get lost in key-changes and tempi, but this still struck me as a great example of how you can write about music for the non-technical reader without obviously dumbing things down. Excellent stuff!
I attended Ali Smith’s moderated talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival two summers ago, just after she had submitted the final draft of Winter to her publisher. It could have been that she was in her element, but I found her to be warm, witty and very engaged with her appreciative audience, and she had us laughing throughout her hour long appearance.
This one has been on the TBR for a while: I think I bought it mostly out of curiosity, and because George Szirtes, a poet I admire greatly, was one of the translators. But perhaps I wasn't in quite the right mood when I read it.
The world goes on (2013; English 2018) by László Krasznahorkai (Hungary, 1954- ) translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes
A collection of short pieces with a distinctly Kafka/Borges feel about them - stories, philosophical essays, or something in between the two - which all seem to revolve one way or another around the idea of the futility of human wisdom. A succession of characters believe they have found a fundamental truth about the world, god, or humanity, but it never comes to anything - either it sends them mad, or they take to drink, or no-one pays any attention to their idea, or it’s an obvious delusion to start with.
I normally like this sort of thing - there’s quite a bit of mind-bending involved, and there’s a wide range of styles and techniques on offer, from a two-sentence essay on Heraclitus to a story in 79 empty paragraphs (14 blank pages) about Istanbul, which we stand little chance of reconstructing from the deliberately elusive footnotes. But somehow it didn’t work for me - it just felt like a lot of empty posturing. Maybe I wasn’t reading it in the right mood, maybe there’s something wrong with the translation, or maybe the author is just a little bit too sure of himself. But it was interesting enough to finish, so I’m not dismissing it out of hand.
Much prefer shoures soote. That OP makes me want to read Chaucer in the original (but, with much feeble-brain support around)
>19 thorold: makes me think of Ratner’s Star
>12 thorold: very interesting about Mozart being kind of normal
>8 thorold: Enjoyed this, on Spring. I really thought I would have started Winter by now, but seems other books got in the way. Next window...
I'm back from a short trip away, staying in the Bonn region and (amongst other things) walking another big chunk of the Rheinsteig long-distance trail. We did Bonn to Rheinbrohl this time and Braubach to Lorch last summer, so we're about halfway, two more chunks to do when the opportunity arises. (See here for map: https://www.rheinsteig.de/der-rheinsteig/etappen/)
Didn't get all that much reading done, but there's a little bit of catching up on reviews to do. To start with, my first dip into Bolaño:
Llamadas telefónicas (1997) in Cuentos completos (2015) by Roberto Bolaño (Chile, 1953-2003)
This was Bolaño's first published short story collection, containing fourteen stories all dated "1995-1996". (The English-language collections Last evenings on earth and The Return mix together the stories in Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas in a different order.)
The stories are grouped in three sections. The first, Llamadas telefónicas brings together five stories which all seem to be concerned with the role of the writer and the failures of literature; Detectives is another group of five stories, this time mostly about the condition of exile; and finally Vida de Anna Moore brings together four stories with beautiful-but-tragic women as their central characters. But in fact all three of these subjects permeate each of the groups - it sometimes feels as though being female (or being the narrator's ex-girlfriend, which amounts to more or less the same thing), being a writer and being a political exile are all equally doomed and futile conditions.
Bolaño's technique seems to be focussed on keeping the narrative very sparse: the stories keep pushing into the foreground the things the narrator is conspicuously not telling us, the connections he leaves us to make for ourselves. The lives of his characters never have neat narrative arcs, they join and separate in apparently random ways, and the phrase "Nunca más volvió a verlo" (I never saw them again) keeps turning up just when the narrator has got us really interested in what happens to the character. The world in which the stories are set is mostly an almost exaggeratedly ordinary one (apart from brief excursions into the Russian mafia and pornographic film-making) and the things that happen in the stories are rarely extraordinary, except for the way so many of them accumulate haphazardly in one character's life. Very interesting.
Take nothing with you (2018) by Patrick Gale (UK, 1962- )
Eustace is in his fifties, in a dip after the break-up of a relationship, but his old friend Naomi has helped him out of it by reintroducing him to the pleasure of playing the cello. She's also nudged him into the adventure of online dating, and there's a gorgeous new man in his life (or at least in his Skype contacts), but just days before he's due to meet Theo face to face for the first time, he's summoned to hospital to undergo radiation therapy. In the lead-lined isolation suite, where he's been told "take nothing with you that you don't mind leaving in the bin at the end", he reflects on his childhood in Weston-super-Mare, his family, his cello teacher Carla, and the music summer schools he went to as a child.
This is a great and original coming-out novel with some unexpected twists, looking back at the seventies from a very 21st century perspective, but it's also, and probably more importantly, one of the most vivid and enjoyable accounts I've read of what it's like to be a child finding a way through technical and artistic challenges to the joy of making music. Gale is a keen musician himself, of course, and he credits a whole bunch of cellists and cello teachers in the acknowledgements, so we can presumably be reasonably sure that what he tells us about cello technique is accurate, but he also manages to present it in such a way that it really feels almost as though we are sharing Eustace's experience as he learns to play.
Possibly the cello part of the story is a bit too vivid: it feels afterwards as though we haven't been paying quite enough attention to grown-up Eustace, and some of the links between past and present are a bit hard to focus on, especially the "unreliable narrator" element about the Big Thing in his family situation that he wasn't aware of as a child. But there's nothing wrong with a bit of ambiguity...
Very enjoyable, just as you would expect from Gale.
Le colonel Chabert (1832) by Honoré de Balzac (France, 1799-1850)
Chabert, a soldier of humble origins who has risen to become a distinguished colonel in Napoleon's army, is presumed dead after being seriously wounded at the battle of Eylau. He is thrown, unconscious, into a mass grave with other casualties, and survives only as a result of a string of gruesome chances that Balzac relates with some relish. His recovery in Prussia takes a long time, and accidents of war (and a spell in the madhouse when he tries to assert his real identity) prevent him getting back to France for even longer. When he does get back, his beloved emperor has long gone, the monarchy is restored, and of course he is officially dead, his wife has profitably (and fraudulently) settled his affairs, has married an aristocrat and has two children with her new husband. And no-one has the least interest in recognising him as anything other than an annoying and probably mad old vagrant.
With the help of a lawyer who's prepared to enter into an early version of a "no win no fee" deal, the colonel manages to get his wife to the negotiating table, but this is Balzac's Paris where everyone is out for what they can get: we know perfectly well what's likely to happen to an honourable old soldier thrown into this cesspit. And it does...
An elegant, economical satire on the values of Restoration France and the morality of the legal profession, in which Balzac uses absolutely every detail killingly. Javier Marías is quite right to keep banging on about this book.
The tradition is to treat yourself to a book for each year. I'm going to cheat a little bit and include physical books that arrived on my TBR in the week or so before that date as well, so up to now I have five, in the form of a Christine-Brooke-Rose-athon:
- - Xorandor/Verbivore
- - Invisible Author : Last Essays
- - Amalgamemnon
- - Remake
- - Subscript
Seven slots still to fill! At least some of those should be allocated to the RG speculative fiction theme, which I haven't done anything for yet. Time to get thinking...
Gale's written a lot of very good novels (and one or two rather ordinary ones) - well worth checking out, although some might find him a bit too English. His plots are usually strong on families, LGBT people, music-making, and middle-class-eccentricities.
Going on holiday to walk (part of) a long-distance trail is definitely a good thing to try - we've been doing it the relaxed way, staying in one centre each time and getting trains to the start and end points of the stages, but the great thing is that you can make it as easy or as tough for yourself as you choose. Trails come in all sorts of difficulty levels too, of course.
I've ordered three more books:
- El Aleph
- The museum of unconditional surrender
- Die letzte Welt
I'll count them if they arrive before I bring anything else home, but assuming they do, I still have four slots left...
This is one I thought I'd read before, but apparently not.
Anglo-Saxon attitudes (1956) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)
Wilson's second novel brings together a large, complicated cast of multiply-interconnected characters (so complicated that he apparently felt it necessary to include a dramatis personae before Chapter One), with at their centre the middle-aged, middlingly successful, medievalist, Professor Gerald Middleton.
Forty years ago, on the eve of the Great War, Middleton's teacher, the late Professor Stokesay, had made a sensational find in the Suffolk tomb of an Anglo-Saxon bishop. Once seen as an isolated freak, new archaeological work on Heligoland (!) is now starting to persuade scholars that Stokesay's discovery might be part of a significant pattern. Middleton has reason to suspect that the pagan idol found in the bishop's tomb was planted there as a twisted practical joke by Stokesay's son, since killed in the war, but has never felt it appropriate to cause trouble by saying anything. Should he do so now?
At the same time, Middleton finds himself in possession of various confidences relating to his own family, with similar dilemmas attached to them...
A darkly-funny, morally-complex tale, with no real daylight at the end of it, but a lot of entertaining little jabs at the scholarly world and its eccentricities, and insights into 1950s English (bourgeois) society. Plenty of gay characters, but they are still mostly pushed into obscure corners of the plot and their lives are made to seem furtive and shady to the remaining characters: this isn't the brave new world of Mrs Eliot. Not quite yet, anyway.
Die Elixiere des Teufels (1815; The Devil's elixirs) by E.T.A. Hoffmann (Germany, 1776-1822)
Hoffmann is best known nowadays for his fantastic tales, which inspired a string of operas and ballets. He grew up in East Prussia (in what's now the Kaliningrad Oblast), studied law, and had an astonishing number of careers in his short life: composer, music critic, illustrator, theatre director, civil servant in both Berlin and Warsaw, etc. He died in his forties from the consequences of a syphilis infection.
Die Elixiere des Teufels was Hoffmann's first go at writing a novel. He was inspired to write it by a visit to a Capuchin monastery in Bamberg (although it obviously also owes a lot to Matthew Lewis's famous gothic novel The Monk). It has just about everything you would look for in a gothic novel - monks pious, depraved, inspired and just plain mad; beautiful women scheming, virtuous, or vulnerable; more Doppelgänger than a season of Shakespeare comedies; a family curse; incest; murder; dreams and visions; guilt and repentance; several Mysterious Strangers; a comic dwarf; castles, prisons, monasteries, hunting-lodges, forests (complete with ravines and magic bullets). And of course the famous magic potion, said to have been confiscated from the Devil himself by St Anthony.
Hoffmann obviously wrote it in a continuously highly-excited state, which can become a little tiring at times for the reader. There is also that feeling you get in some of Sir Walter Scott's novels, that it was all written far too fast, leading to a lot of tangling-up of the narrators' (because, yes, there have to be multiple nested narratives, don't there?) arms and legs as the plot desperately attempts to brake to a safe speed before crashing through the last page into oblivion. We all think we've got to the end, and then the author suddenly remembers a dangling plot thread from 200 pages back and has to do a handbrake-turn to dash back and pick it up...
The setting is also a little odd: at the start there are clear signs that we are meant to be in a generic, unspoilt and pious pre-reformation Germany of the Narziss und Goldmund type, but then Hoffmann seems to forget himself and bring in all kinds of modern stuff like pianos, post-chaises, confessionals, gothick architecture, and Enlightenment rationalism, so that by the end of the book we're firmly in the late 18th century, and it's all getting a bit closer to Le rouge et le noir.
As a novel I felt it takes its own gothic nonsense a bit too seriously to be really enjoyable for the modern reader - the subversively eccentric Kater Murr is much more fun - but an interesting read anyway.
Solaris (1961) by Stanisław Lem (Poland, 1921-2006), translated from Polish to German by Irmtraud Zimmermann-Göllheim
Stanisław Lem has some claim to be the most internationally-successful Polish author ever: his books have been translated into many languages and frequently made into films. He came from a Jewish background in Lwów (now Lviv, in Ukraine), survived the German occupation by working (with false papers) as a mechanic, and later studied medicine but never went into medical practice. He started writing (mostly) science-fiction novels in the 1950s.
In Solaris, Lem builds a complicated philosophical novel around one of the hoariest chestnuts in science-fiction, the "first contact" between humans and an alien life-form. What happens, Lem asks himself, if the alien life-form is so different from us in every possible way that we find we have nothing meaningful to say to each other, and no way to express it even if we had something to say?
Astrophysicists and planetary scientists have been studying the planet Solaris for decades, having first noticed it because it is in a stable three-body orbit that appears to contravene the laws of physics. It seems that the planet's "ocean" is actively correcting the orbit to optimise conditions for itself, and scientists are eventually forced to the conclusion that the ocean itself is a planet-sized organism. Through a new arrival on the planet, the psychologist Dr Kelvin, Lem takes us through the development of human ideas about Solaris. Which parallel, in curious ways, the history of human ideas about ourselves and our own world...
This wasn't really what I was expecting from a novel about an alien planet: the foreground story about the research station and the strange events that Kelvin encounters there is really only a skeleton, and the bulk of the book turns out to be a sophisticated, ironic meditation on the history of ideas (and the follies of science) that wouldn't have been out of place in Swift. And some unexpectedly poetic language when describing the strange and beautiful world of Solaris and the human attempts to impose meaning on it. Very interesting.
In passing, but of course quite irrelevant, it was fun to find a lot of very 1960s peculiarities in Lem's description of the "future" - the research station's library is full of paper books and microfilms, the electronics they use has to warm up its tubes before it does anything, they record electronic signals on photographic film, and the researchers obtain privacy by hanging a cloth in front of the screens of their video-phones...
(I read this in German because that was what happened to come to hand first; after reading it, I found out that there is an ongoing controversy about the 1970 English translation, which was based on a French version and is said to be of inferior quality.)
Amalgamemnon (1984) by Christine Brooke-Rose (UK, 1923-2012)
The narrator of this short novel is Mira Enketei (who also appears in Textermination). Mira is a humanities professor who's facing redundancy through university funding cuts. She sees herself as Jonah ("en ketei" = "inside the whale") and Cassandra; and if she's Cassandra then her interchangeable boyfriend must be Amalgamemnon.
As usual, there's no single, clear narrative, but a whole selection of unrelated stories seem to be going on and drift in and out of focus. Mira is keeping pigs; her country cottage is being used as the lair of a Baader-Meinhof-style gang who have kidnapped a financier; a street-sweeper saves a princess from a dragon (and saves the dragon's life too!); a damsel with a dulcimer turns into Fatima, a young Somali woman who is off to war to find the man she loves and escape an arranged marriage. And it all gets mixed up with voices from BBC Radio 2, constellations, a family-tree of Charlemagne's descendants (revised a few times), and geographical insights from Herodotus. And more, and a lot of entertaining repurposed images and portmanteau words. Fun!
Did you get any feel for what Lem's language is like in the original? I saw some comments about how he uses a lot of wordplay and is difficult to translate.
>40 rachbxl: Fascinating. I don't suppose there's video of that performance anywhere?
George Clooney, of all people, starred in a 2002 version. Only OK. IIRC, the production team hadn't read the book, and based the new film on Tarkovksky.
Tarkovsky's Stalker, based on Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, is also quite fine.
>42 dukedom_enough: There is a video, actually, on YouTube. I can’t remember how to do links, but if you search for ‘Julia Mach’ and ‘Alien Anonymous’, you should find it. Let me know if you don’t and I’ll provide a link.
>43 lisapeet: I’ve seen it; it was another enforced part of my preparation (I was also asked specifically not to watch the Clooney version, as it was the atmosphere of the Tarkovsky they were after). I agree with Dukedom that it captures the bewilderment. I really enjoyed it, and it certainly contributed to the vivid memories I have of this (brief) episode in my life. (Given the lengths they went to to get me prepared for the job, you might be expecting me (or my voice) to have had a huge role, but it’s only about a dozen words...but my goodness, the time it took to get them right, holed up in a tiny recording studio on the outskirts of Gdansk!)
In the meantime, back to my Zolathon - I started (re-)reading the Rougon-Macquart novels in sequence at the beginning of 2018, and got up to L'assommoir (7/20) by the end of the year, but then I got distracted for a while. This is the next one on the list, and for a change it's one that I actually have as a physical copy on my shelves, last read somewhere around 1990, I would guess:
Une page d'amour (1878; A love story/A love episode) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
After giving us the epic survival struggle of the Paris proletariat in L'assommoir, Zola obviously wanted to prove to his readers that he could still do a claustrophobic bourgeois novel on the regulation two inches of ivory (well, OK, a little bit of ink might have slopped over the edges here and there...). But, even though it involves a physician, this isn't Zola's Madame Bovary. And it's not even a love-story in the conventional sense at all.
Hélène, who is from the Marseille branch of the diseased Rougon-Macquart family tree, has been living in Paris with her 11-year-old daughter Jeanne since the death of her husband. She has a small legacy to live on, and her friend the Abbé Jouve has found them an apartment in Passy and a country girl to be their servant. When the sickly Jeanne needs urgent medical attention late one night, it's their neighbour, the dishy doctor Deberle, who is called in. Significant Glances are exchanged. But, unfortunately, Deberle turns out to be married...
Zola subverts the adultery plot we're trained to expect from almost every conceivable angle: he pushes Hélène into intimacy with Mme Deberle and her friends, he prevents Hélène and the doctor from stealing more than the occasional moment together, he deploys an unpleasant old crone to foreground the disagreeable nature of what their instincts are pushing them towards, and above all he encourages Jeanne's selfish possessiveness of her mother. Jeanne is superficially the angelic, vulnerable Victorian child, but we soon realise that she is a little monster, an emotional blackmailer every bit as ruthless as the professional beggar Mère Fétu.
Of course you can't keep Zola locked up in 60 square metres in Passy, even if that's what he's doing to his human characters, so the biggest character in this story, commenting on events with magnificently ironic detachment, is the ever-changing view of the city of Paris as seen out of Hélène's windows. In Technicolor and wide-screen, and don't spare the adjectives.
Zola seems to want us to bear in mind what we've been reading in L'assommoir and use it to put the tribulations of bourgeois life into some kind of perspective: the biggest set-piece scene of this book is Mme Deberle's Children's Ball, a supremely extravagant and wasteful entertainment that clearly has everything to do with the pleasure the mothers get from competing to put their children in the most adorable costumes, and little or nothing to do with the kids themselves having any fun. Positively heartbreaking when we put it alongside the parties in L'assommoir, where the participants are constantly aware how much this is costing them and what sacrifices they have committed themselves to by blowing their savings on this essential bit of relaxation. And Zola clearly now has the same kind of trouble taking seriously the erotic difficulties imagined for themselves by middle-class ladies.
(This is the book where Zola first published his famous drawing of the family tree - he'd intended to keep it for the last book in the sequence, he tells us, but he's including it now after multiple requests from readers and to prove to us that he has a plan and isn't just making it up as he goes along.)
9 - Theodora : actress, empress, whore by Stella Duffy
10- Eliza Eliza : Erzählungen (1958-1968) by Ilse Aichinger
11- Confieso que he vivido : memorias by Pablo Neruda
12- Rue des voleurs: roman by Mathias Énard
... I think I managed to satisfy the randomness criterion, anyway :-)
On the downside, I now have 126 books on the TBR. Action required.
I enjoyed the Tarkovsky, long though it was. Agree that it captured the bewilderment effectively, and even added a couple of things that weren’t in the book - the Don Quixote reference, for instance. The ocean was better in the imagination than on screen, though.
Fun to see a film in which most of the actors are middle-aged men who have not aged well, complete with close-ups of ear-hair. But I found the costumes a bit distracting - who takes monogrammed pyjamas and dressing-gown on a voyage into space? Surely you’d be afraid the other cosmonauts would laugh at you? Not to mention those wonderful soviet-era string-vests and Haree’s amazing crochet shawls and dresses!
Lots of vintage oscilloscope porn in the background, too...
Afterthought: Is this where Douglas Adams got the idea for Arthur Dent’s costume?
>52 dukedom_enough: Then, one day, a student who had been left to sweep up after a particularly unsuccessful party found himself reasoning in this way: “If” he thought to himself, “such a machine is a virtual impossibility, it must have finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out how exactly improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea... and turn it on!”
ETA: I decided to do a complete audit of the TBRs, rearranging the books in order of accession, with the oldest ones on the most easily accessible shelf. I found several physical books on the shelf that weren't in the TBR collection, two that weren't catalogued at all (one a duplicate, the other a book I've read!), and a few more that were still in the TBR collection but had long since been read. So I modified about ten books and ended up with a net change of +1 to 123 books on the TBR shelf. But there are now no longer any books piled on top of each other, so I must somehow have reduced the shelf-length of the books slightly!
La boule noire (1955; The rules of the game) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)
This non-Maigret from 1955 reads almost more like Patricia Highsmith than Simenon - it's set in a small town in Connecticut, where father-of-four and supermarket manager Walter Higgins starts to question the pleasant middle-class respectability of his life when he is blackballed from the Country Club for the second year in succession.
But what is unmistakable Simenon about this book is the narrator's undisguised delight in the detail of working out what makes Walter Walter - his complex job keeping shelves stacked and anticipating what his customers will want, the whole peculiar condition of being a father and a husband, even the administrative business of the planning committee for the new school he sits on - everything is carefully recorded and set out for us to see what an extraordinary thing an ordinary person can be. And, of course, since this is a Simenon novel, we're all sitting there waiting for the first murder - is Walter going to go postal and wipe out the Country Club membership committee? Or...?
(If you put together the English and French titles of this one, it sounds as though it ought to be a novel about snooker! But apparently not - the two sets of publishers simply seem to have picked out separate ideas from the text that only look odd in the unlikely event that you put two copies in different languages side-by-side.)
I actually recall having read a non-Maigret Simenon novel, The Train, which I really enjoyed. Have you read it?
Fun fact, I just found there is a series called "non maigret" on LT, with some 113 titles!
Haven’t read The train yet, but I expect it will turn up one day...
>56 thorold: Those who hate stats, stop reading now!
Still wondering about my TBR collection - having cleaned it up so that it more-or-less corresponds to reality, I worked out the cumulative pendency time (a fancy way of saying I added up the length of time each unread book has been there since it was entered into LT):
158095 book-days, or nearly 433 book-years. That does make it sound quite alarming! (And of course it grows at 123 days per day until I read one or add something new...)
The average is a bit more normal, at 1296 days (3.5 years) per book. Median is 935 days (2.5 years).
As I have reason to remember from when I was still working, there's a long-standing war about whether you should measure backlog times based on the age of the work that is still waiting or the age of the work when it actually gets processed.
I looked at the last 500 owned, physical books I've read, as recorded here, which takes me back to July 2010.
This filters out ebooks, library books, etc., as well as the books I read in my first three years or so on LT, when most would have had a fictitious accession date of April 2007.
For those, the average time from entry to reading was 660 days, median 192 days.
- Over half the books I have read had been on the TBR for less than a year when I read them
- The books still on the TBR have on average spent roughly twice as long on the TBR as the books I read
- About 2/3 of the books currently on the TBR (83 books) have been there longer than the 660 day average for books I read
- ...but that only corresponds to about half a year's reading, so it's not a valid reason to stop acquiring books :-)
It turned out to be just the right length, so that I finished it five minutes before the end of the journey...
Never let me go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro (Japan, UK, 1954- )
This starts out looking like a straightforward boarding-school novel, but we soon get hints that there is something seriously wrong with the world in which it is set. Ishiguro is careful to feed us information only through his narrator, Kathy, who is clearly earmarked to become a victim of the bad stuff, but who lacks a lot of the information and self-awareness she would need to make sense of what is going on around her and put it in some sort of context. And she's also not the most articulate of storytellers, frequently stopping and starting and looping back on herself.
Ishiguro manages to play his hand quite brilliantly within these self-imposed constraints but it's still a frustrating exercise for the reader to live through. We get to empathise closely with Kathy and the moral issues she half-unpacks, and probably also to draw some (Dickensian) parallels with our own world - it's not hard to think of schools where most kids have even fewer options in their futures than those at Hailsham - but we're left actually knowing very little about the world in which Kathy lives and how it got to the state it's in.
Interesting, but not really the sort of book that I'm likely to get excited about. (Which is perhaps why it spent so long on the pile...)
Another long-stay guest - this one was brought back from the charity shop in June 2011 and probably got stuck on the TBR pile only because I'd been reading quite a few books on similar subjects at the time I bought it, and was a bit saturated. But then it stayed there because I forgot why I hadn't read it at once...
The stories of English (2004) by David Crystal (UK, 1941- )
David Crystal is originally from Northern Ireland. He was, amongst other things, professor of linguistics at Bangor and Reading. According to Penguin, he has more than 90 books on language to his credit, at least two or three of which I've read.
This is a manifesto for sociolinguistics disguised as a history of the English language, or possibly vice-versa...
In Crystal's view, a language is a form of agreed social behaviour, static neither in time nor in space, varying also according to the purpose for which it is being used at any given moment. Its history is the story of all the millions of people who've used it over the centuries. Unfortunately, only a tiny and unrepresentative proportion of their utterances have made any kind of retrievable mark on the historical record, so when we do historical linguistics we are likely to end up with a model of one particular form of the language, and there's a great temptation to identify Old English uniquely with the language of Beowulf, Middle English with the language of Chaucer and Early Modern English with the language of Shakespeare (for example). Crystal goes through the evidence again and shows us how weak that kind of assumption can be - as can the many others we make about language stability, about "correct" forms, about pronunciation, spelling, and grammar, and so on. Pedants watch out!
This is, as you would expect from Crystal, a lively read, never going deep into the sort of dry philological detail you find in something like the Cambridge History, but staying at the sort of level that would appeal to undergraduates and general readers. There wasn't a huge amount that was new to me, but I did get quite a few new insights from Crystal's way of looking at the evidence, so well worth a read, especially if you don't know much about the history of English.
Het theater, de brief en de waarheid : een tegenspraak (2000) by Harry Mulisch (Netherlands, 1927-2010)
The background of Mulisch's Boekenweek novella draws on a real Dutch cause célèbre from 1987: An actor faked neo-fascist death threats against himself and others and staged a "kidnapping attempt" to draw publicity to his campaign against a Dutch production of Fassbinder's controversial play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (which was widely considered to be antisemitic). Mulisch uses a fictionalised version of these events to explore the complex links between actions and our perceived, stated and (possibly unknowable) real motives for them. Especially in the world of theatre, where everyone is pretending to be something other than they are.
Act One of this reads almost like an entry in a competition to create a Harry Mulisch parody: the main female character is centre-stage throughout, but as a dead body at her own funeral. Her husband is giving the funeral oration, but it seems to be much more about him than her. After the intermission, we're back with a reset stage and there's an ingenious reversal of roles - perhaps not quite as original and audacious as Mulisch claims in his afterword, but still quite a good trick if you can get away with it.
The correction of Mulisch's androcentric view of the universe may be purely nominal, but it's sad to realise that what hasn't lost its relevance in this book is what it has to say to us about the threat to our liberal society from extreme views, and the danger we face if we allow ourselves to forget what actually happened under the Nazis.
Die letzte Welt: Roman: mit einem Ovidischen Repertoire (1988; The last world) by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria, 1954- )
A traveller from Rome arrives in a small port on the Black Sea coast, in search of the great poet Naso, who has been exiled there by the Emperor, and is now rumoured to have died. But this isn't Augustan Rome as we know it - or at least not unless Roman historians were keeping very quiet about things like bus stops, P.A. systems and cinema projectors. And there seems to be something oddly familiar about the names and stories of the butcher Tereus and his wife Procne, the carpet-weaver Arachne, the shopkeeper Fama, the ropemaker Lycaon, and the rest of the local inhabitants. Could it be that Naso's great lost book has embedded itself into the structure of the world itself?
A clever, interesting, and rather strange book, but a satisfying and thought-provoking (even prescient) one as well. Lots to reflect on about the power of great narrative and the problems of climate-change, populism, authoritarian government, anarchy, refugees, etc. And a very useful reference section at the back for those who can't keep track of every single character in Ovid and what happened to them.
This is one of my "random" picks from >47 thorold: - chosen mostly because it was a Virago, but partly also because you can't go far wrong with a character like Theodora, and because Stella Duffy is someone I've sort-of-vaguely heard of, but not read yet. She's an actress, comedian and playwright as well as being one of the very few non-Scottish lesbians active in the British literary scene at the moment...
Theodora : actress, empress, whore (2010) by Stella Duffy (UK, 1963- )
The subtitle makes this sound as though it's going to be one of those challenging and controversial biographies, but of course, as the faceless naked woman on the cover reassures us, it's nothing more sensational than a rather generic historical novel. We get to follow Theodora's familiar but improbable rise from dance-classes backstage at the Constantinople Hippodrome to the moment when she first appears in the Imperial box there dressed in purple.
Duffy gives us an engaging and readable account of Theodora's career, without any very obvious wrong notes, but also without anything really interesting that we weren't expecting. She doesn't seem to have found a good solution for the historical novelist's big problem with well-known characters, that the reader has a good idea from the start how it's going to end, and therefore tends to see the trials and tribulations of the story more as delaying tactics on the way to the inevitable conclusion than as real drama. Of course, there's that silly interlude in Antioch where Theodora briefly becomes a lesbian secret agent working for ... the Patriarch of Alexandria???? Yes, well, the less said about that, the better, perhaps.
It does what it says on the tin very competently, but it doesn't really deliver anything that would take it out of the bracket of generic historical novel.
This is the first half of a twin-set, republished by Verbivoracious Press (I wonder where they got that name from?):
Xorandor (1986) in Xorandor / Verbivore (2014) by Christine Brooke-Rose (UK, 1923-2012)
This marks something of a radical departure for Brooke-Rose: an experiment with straightforward linear narrative, a story with an easily identifiable beginning, middle and end, presented in that order! What's more, the opening has an unmistakable feel of E. Nesbit around it, as two unusually self-sufficient children, the twins Jip and Zab, describe their encounter with a mysterious - but profoundly intelligent - talking rock in a ruined Cornish castle.
Naturally, there's a bit more to it than that, as the story evolves into a kind of science-fiction "first-contact" structure with vaguely Doctor Who overtones, and Brooke-Rose has fun with the linguistic possibilities opened up by dialogue between silicon-based lifeforms and a pair of computer-obsessed twins - we are constantly zig-zagging between the woolly logic of English and the more precise world expressible in a computer language rather like BASIC (although I've never come across a computer language that needed the ENDJOKE keyword...). And even in English we are in the world of the twins' private language, replete with computer- or tech-derived exclamations like "maxint", "boolesup" and "megavolt". Leaping leptons!
The rocks turn out to live off radiation, with a dangerous appetite for alpha particles, but they also like to tune into broadcast channels. The one they meet is named XORANDOR by the kids, but the scientists talk about alphaphagai and the press have soon turned this into alphaguys. Which brings in further possibilities for Brooke-Rose to bring the subject around to the problems of nuclear waste and atomic weapons, and the glorious opportunity for a rock that has found its way into a nuclear reactor to go rogue, identifying with Lady Macbeth...
Great fun, and probably the most accessible of the CBR novels I've read to date, if you can cope with 1980s-style program listings.
Irrungen, Wirrungen (1888; Trials and tribulations) by Theodor Fontane (Germany, 1819-1898)
Fontane is best known these days for his late novel Effi Briest - a kind of North German counterpart to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, and the only one of his books I've read before - but he started out, like his father, as a pharmacist, becoming a journalist after the excitements of 1848, and only turning to fiction very late in life. He was very attached to his native Brandenburg, and his long series of articles on walks in the region (five volumes in book form) are considered as classics of walking literature. The historian Christopher Clark seems to be a big fan of Fontane's topographical writing.
Irrungen, Wirrungen was Fontane's breakthrough novel, written when he was nearly seventy. It feels like a very loosely structured book, more interested in naturalistic description and dialogue than in conventional plotting, and that's really what gives it its charm for modern readers. Fontane gives us long passages of really beautifully observed, inconsequential conversation, the sort of thing we could easily imagine overhearing if we were on a street-corner or in a drawing-room in Berlin in the 1870s, and he tells us in lively detail about what we would see if we drove though the city in a horse-cab or travelled out to a pleasure-resort on the river.
The story itself isn't much - a pleasant romance between a young officer and a working-class girl is broken up, by mutual consent, for both of them to marry people of their own class. No big fuss, no divine retribution, just a few sighs on both sides, and the sentimental stuff is left for the reader to invent. And we're also left to work out for ourselves that, even in Prussia, society isn't very far away from getting to a point at which that kind of renunciation would seem ridiculous. The book was controversial when it first appeared because Fontane neither conceals nor criticises the way Botho and Lene share a room at the riverside inn where they've gone for the weekend, but I doubt if that would upset many people today. Very charming.
Enjoyed catching up. Had never heard of Theodore Fontane, so really fun review. Crystal’s The Stories of English interests me a lot. As for Brooke-Rose - way too linguistically sophisticated for me. Afraid I won’t help generate a trend here. But your reviews of her are well worth a read.
Oh, it's coming. I'm definitely interested!
>79 haydninvienna: Me too. I don't know how often I've borrowed six or eight books and only read four before they had to go back...
>80 Dilara86: Doing my best to keep ahead of you, here's the next one...
Verbivore (1990) in Xorandor / Verbivore (2014) by Christine Brooke-Rose (UK, 1923-2012)
Verbivore takes up the story - for, yes, there is a story this time, too, if not quite such a straightforward one - about 25 years after the events of Xorandor (which would be just about now, I suppose...). It takes for granted that the reader has already read Xorandor, and also brings back Mira Enketai from Amalgamemnon, but you don't really need much previous information about her.
There have been a series of unexplained failures of radio communications around the world, which gradually build up into a total blackout. It seems that something is eating our words out of the ether, and it starts to look as though it might have something to do with the silicon-based creatures from last time: could the alphaphagai somehow have mutated into logophagai?
To make it more fun for us, Brooke-Rose goes back to the trick of using unflagged changes of narrator, as the story is told by Mira, the now grown-up twins Jip and Zab, the microwave engineer Tim (now head of the BBC), the playwright Perry Hypsos (formerly known as Perry Striker), and two fictional characters from one of Perry's radio plays (one of them a unit of measurement...). And a few other people...
It's an interesting idea, and Brooke-Rose was surely quite prescient in putting her finger on how ill-equipped a tech-based society is to cope with the failure of a basic technology that everything else relies on: the result of her verbivore-imposed radio silence is a bit like the panic we actually experience whenever there is an Icelandic volcano or an inconveniently-located war shutting down aviation. Or when LibraryThing goes down for half an hour.
But the core of the book seems to be about information overload and redundancy in the modern world. Do we really need to hear every news story a dozen times in slightly different wording, or every contentless pop song a thousand times? And what are we not listening to any more whilst our senses are bombarded with all that? What is all that negentropy costing us? Fascinating to see how Brooke-Rose develops that idea at a moment when the internet has not really got going (no, the Sir Tim in the book doesn't seem to have anything to do with that Sir Tim) and when mobile phones were only just beginning to be a concept. Neither play a role in the book: Brooke-Rose imagines us in the early 21st century reading ebooks on screen, but they come on diskettes.
As usual, the text is full of postmodern verbal jokes, there's a slightly updated version of the Jip/Zab twidiolect, and the alert will spot all sorts of other things flashing past. Just for instance, Zab has become an MEP (or "Euromp" in the language of the book): Brooke-Rose imagines that the eternal nonsense of the Brussels-Strasbourg-Luxembourg shuttle will have been solved by the creation of a European Capital District ("le Washington d'ici") in Charlemagne's old city, with a splendid new European Parliament "bubble" in the Soers district of Aachen. And if you read her description of the site attentively and look at the map, you'll realise that it's the very spot where, at the time she was writing, a splendid new prison was being built for the city of Aachen...
(BTW: Since I've been in Limburg quite a bit lately, I was surprised that when she writes about the area around Aachen, there is explicit mention of Düsseldorf, Liège and Heerlen as neighbouring cities, but no reference to Maastricht, a city that considers itself to be a lot more important than Heerlen. But Maastricht only really started to appear in foreign newspaper headlines the year after this book came out, with the European Council meeting in December 1991 that led to the eponymous treaty.)
I came back with three, much thinner, books, so won quite a bit of TBR space, and I trust some other people will get a chance to read the books I was just collecting dust with. Total backlog reduction is around 50 book-years!
Also, congrats on letting go of a few of your TBRs. I find that I don't miss them at all once they're gone. In fact, my local library erased my whole "want" list (I had it in the wrong place on their website) and I have no idea what was on it and, oh well!
Here's one I didn't liberate: I brought it back from the charity shop in April 2011 to re-read because I remembered enjoying it a long time ago (it was a long time ago even then), and I have rather lost touch with Burgess:
The Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger 1956; The enemy in the blanket 1958; Beds in the East 1959; as trilogy 1972 - also published as The long day wanes) by Anthony Burgess (UK, 1917-1993)
Burgess was one of those writers who was never really happy being thought of as "just a novelist" - his original dream was to be a composer, and although he didn't manage to get a university place to study music, he maintained that passion throughout his life. He also had a very strong - and surprisingly technical - interest in linguistics, especially phonetics, and his day-job in the early part of his career was as a teacher of speech and drama. He wrote a couple of very funny, but not necessarily 100% accurate, volumes of autobiography later in life, so there's no need to summarise his background here.
These three novels, Burgess's first attempt at fiction, came out of his time as a teacher in Malaya in the mid-1950s. Taken together, they form an enjoyably caustic, satirical account of the transition from colonialism to independence, following the career of a British expat teacher, Victor Crabbe, who has come to Malaya partly to try to get away from memories of a tragedy in his personal life, and partly through an altruistic, liberal desire to use his teaching skills to improve the lives of young people in Malaya. Needless to say, he finds that neither of these things is as straightforward as he had hoped.
In Time for a Tiger, colonialism is beginning to wind down, and Malaya has become a kind of dumping-ground for British officials no longer wanted in newly-independent countries elsewhere, but who for one reason or another can't or won't return to the UK. Not least Nabby Adams, a policeman who has served so long in India that he speaks better Urdu than English, and who has long since given up the fight against alcoholism, and who illuminates the narrative with gloriously Kiplingesque passages whenever he appears. Meanwhile, Victor Crabbe is trying to cope with his incompetent headmaster, Boothby, whilst his wife Fenella (a Bohemian poet when they met) is starting to act like a memsahib and showing clear signs of "expat spouse syndrome".
The enemy in the blanket is set in a different Malay state on the verge of independence: Crabbe is now a principal himself, his marriage is in even more trouble than it was in the last book, and the place of Adams as tragicomic plot relief is taken by Hardman, a lawyer down on his luck who has taken the decision to secure his future by converting to Islam and marrying a rich Malay widow (...who has had her previous two husbands killed).
Finally, in Beds in the East, Crabbe is in a third fictitious Malay state after independence as Education Officer, in the process of training up and handing over to a Malay successor, and the second viewpoint character is Rosemary, a beautiful-but-still-unhappily-single Tamil woman with a strong Anglophile tendency and twelve cats. Crabbe's wife is now back in London and he keeps getting asked whether he is related to "the poet Fenella Crabbe". Disappointed personally and professionally, he takes a journey up-river in the final chapters. And we all know how that has to end in a colonial novel...
As a satire set in a society and a time where people saw each other chiefly through the filter of the ethnic groups they belonged to, and written by somebody who enjoys shocking the reader and wants us to imagine that he's telling it "like it is", with no concessions to our liberal aspirations, this is a book that can't help being full of what we would now call racial stereotyping. Part of that is probably fair. Obviously you can't make sense of 1950s Malaya without knowing that there were tensions and distrust between Malays, Indians, Chinese and British, and those stereotypes that Burgess exaggerates and parodies were part of the structure that led to those tensions. But part of it is also obviously Burgess enjoying himself, venting his own prejudices and resentments and playing up to the readers "at home" who rather felt that the former colonies were simply exposing themselves to further exploitation by the devious Americans and Chinese in getting rid of the yoke of empire. You can tell yourself "that's how people thought in 1958" and laugh at the book within that limitation, or avoid it altogether if that's not your thing.
Even though this is very early Burgess, it's entirely characteristic of him - hardly a page goes by without the author trying out some delightfully obscure scientific or rhetorical term or an implausibly recondite swearword. Every so often we get some unnecessarily technical phonetic description of the speech-sounds characters are making, or we go far deeper into the cultural background of some trivial circumstance than the situation could ever demand. In those days, publishers' editors were still going through manuscripts in detail with their blue pencils, so we can take it for granted that what they allowed Burgess to keep is a tiny fraction of the obscurity and excess that he had in his first draft.
Fun, and an interesting time-capsule.
In keeping with the spirit of "shoures soote" and Solaris, I went last night to hear an obscure baroque oratorio on the subject of Il diluvio universale (Noah's flood) by an even more obscure Sicilian composer, Michelangelo Falvetti (whom I half suspect of having been invented by the conductor, Leonardo García-Alarcón, since no-one else ever mentions him...). Very baroque, thoroughly over the top, but a disappointing absence of "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" in the storm scene...
Another book on a wet subject, one of the fruits of my LFL haul from the weekend, by a writer who turns out to be a close contemporary of Anthony Burgess:
The petrified mariner (1972) by Denys Val Baker (UK, 1917-1984)
I don't remember ever coming across Denys Val Baker before, but he seems to have been fairly well-known in his time as a novelist and author of humorous memoirs, and according to Wikipedia was prominent in the Cornish arts scene. But then again, Wikipedia calls him a life-long vegetarian, and that doesn't seem to square with all the exuberant descriptions of meat and fish meals in this book. Maybe he simply got fed up with writing "...and I had a mushroom omelette".
Val Baker describes how he and his wife, living beside the water in St Ives, decided to buy a boat and ended up with Sanu, a converted 60ft MFV ("Motor Fishing Vessel" - a Royal Navy classification for small seagoing tenders, about 1000 of which were built for service in WWII; no actual fishing involved). Big by cruising standards, but they had six teenage children between them, so they needed something with plenty of beds. And diesel fuel was cheap in the sixties. They load it up with the kids and over a series of years take it on summer cruises to the Netherlands, Sweden, Brittany, Northern Spain, and eventually the Mediterranean.
He writes about these journeys in an ironic-deprecatory style rather like that of Roger Pilkington's Small boat books (he mentions Pilkington several times). There are the requisite dangers and accidents, but he never quite manages to convey the degree of fear implied by the title - it's all fairly generic really. There's a bit of period charm to their adventures, from time to time, but a lot of it is finding Rotterdam modern, Amsterdam dirty, and Stockholm expensive. The Germans he meets are all clearly closet Nazis, whilst languages other than English are a complete mystery to him (somewhat surprising for a writer who apparently prided himself on his Welshness). Rather lazy writing, and not much evidence of the kind of detailed research Pilkington used to do into the places he was going to visit and write about.
Something that amused me - although not Val Baker's fault - was the way he picked out the recovery of the Vasa as an example of the sort of major project the Swedes could achieve that would never get off the ground in the UK. He obviously didn't know that, as he was writing, the Mary Rose Trust were busy raising the money to do just that in the Solent!
The only time the book really grabbed me was when he was writing about the difficulty they had convincing themselves to start using the boat again after a particularly disastrous trip where they found themselves stuck for weeks in Bilbao waiting for expensive repairs. The sort of experience that would persuade a lot of boat-owners to sell up at a loss and take up tapestry-work or bookbinding instead, and it nearly did for them, but they got over it. That part of the book really seemed to come from the heart.
Apart from a couple of maps and the slightly fanciful picture of Sanu smashing through the waves on the dust jacket (by the ubiquitous illustrator Donald Swan, who had worked with Jess Val Baker at her St Hilary Pottery in the early 1950s), there aren't any illustrations, and the overall production of the book is rather poor: we like to think of the early 70s as an idyllic pre-computer age when humans still did typesetting and proofreading, but whilst there's plenty of evidence of the former here, the proofreading stage seems to have been skipped. They didn't even spot that the names of Val Baker's children change their spelling from one page to the next, never mind what they did to foreign placenames. Val Baker wrote for a living, and it was obviously more important for him to get his work out there on the shelves quickly than to invest time in making it perfect.
But interesting, anyway.
Remake (1996) by Christine Brooke-Rose (UK, 1923-2012)
For Christine Brooke-Rose, the process of turning your life into a book is essentially the same as that of making a new version of an existing film, so for this autobiographical novel - in which all the names have been changed and there are no personal pronouns, but there's otherwise no serious attempt to pretend that it's meant to be read as fiction - she employs a team of imaginary technicians, John the focus-puller, John the best boy, John the psych, and so on, to keep her on the rails and warn her when the story is running off in the wrong direction. And of course there's a good deal of cutting-room trickery to make sure that we don't get the facts in anything boring like chronological order...
But we do get a fairly comprehensive account of her life and what it feels like to look back on it from the comfortable situation of an "Old Woman" - or a "harmonious Houyhnhnm" - living in retirement in her cottage in the south of France. Her childhood shifting around between Geneva, London and Brussels, the father who absented himself from her life, the mother who eventually retreated into a convent, office work as a teenager in Liverpool, war service at Bletchley Park (apparently she did know all about Colossus, which perhaps explains some of her later fascination with computers), two marriages (apparently there was a third, but that's not discussed here), her difficulties being taken seriously as a writer and an academic in fifties London, and eventually, well into middle age, the almost accidental discovery of a role for herself at the new university in Vincennes.
As always, reading this has elements of crossword-solving about it, as Brooke-Rose plays about with the possibilities of several different languages and inserts bizarre new words into all of them, but it's also rewarding in a conventional memoir-reading sort of way, with wafts of nostalgia, embarrassment, comedy, pain, plus the pleasure of reading about places and times outside our own direct experience. And admirably concise: Brooke-Rose never seems to stray over a 200-page limit in any of her books, and in this one she finishes comfortably within that distance.
This is one that appeared on the TBR shelf in May 2008, which makes it the longest resident there by a three-year margin (the gap mostly thanks to my dispersal mission of last week). This particular edition was issued in February 1891 (there's still a publisher's slip inside the front cover announcing that the next volume in the series will appear on the 1st of March 1891), so it's also the oldest book on the TBR shelf. I don't remember where it came from, but I have a vague feeling that someone gave it to me as a present, knowing that I was going through a Scott phase at the time. That evidently passed before I got to it...
Quentin Durward (1823) by Sir Walter Scott (UK, 1771-1832)
Sir Walter Scott was an Edinburgh lawyer who started his literary career as a collector of the poetry of the Scottish Borders (with the help of his almost exact contemporary, the shepherd-poet James Hogg), became a popular writer of narrative verse himself, and then emerged as the worldwide bestselling author of the day with his invention of the new genre of serious historical fiction, as defined in Waverley (1815). He reacted by building himself a castle with the dream-library we all aspire to, and Queen Victoria made him a baronet. However, as happened in many areas of 19th century business life, Scott's unprecedented success opened up territory where the rules of sound financial practice hadn't fully been worked out, living off advances on a whole string of books he hadn't written yet, and a financial crisis in 1825 brought the whole stack tumbling down and left him essentially writing himself to death to clear his debts.
Quentin Durward came just over halfway through the Waverley Novels, in 1823, and was Scott's first experiment with a novel set "over the water". It's 1468, and our eponymous hero is a manly young Scotsman of noble ancestry, left orphaned and penniless by the effects of a fine old traditional Scottish blood-feud with a neighbouring clan. He comes to France to enrol with the mercenaries of the King's Scottish Archers, where his uncle is already serving. But he doesn't do his career prospects much good when he falls in love with the beautiful Countess Isabelle, who has inadvertently put herself at the centre of the latest instalment in a long-running power struggle between Louis XI and her guardian, Charles the Bold of Burgundy.
As often happens in Scott, the author doesn't seem to find it very easy to work up a further interest in the hero, having once set him up as a sex-god, brave fighting man and figure of impeccable chivalry, so Quentin becomes largely someone that things happen to. The same applies to Isabelle, who is offstage and silent practically all the way through the book, with only one big scene of her own near the end. So the focus of the novel comes to rest more and more on the complex character of Louis XI and the various shady types in his entourage. Louis is portrayed as someone who despises the traditional models of kingly behaviour and is trying to remodel himself as a prototype of the ruthless, cunning Machiavellian ruler (just in time: Machiavelli would be born the following year!). But feudalism isn't quite dead yet, and Scott has a lot of fun with the resulting ideological conflicts. And, of course, his lawyer side comes out in various mentions of abstruse principles of feudal law and custom. So, a bit flat as an adventure story, moderately interesting as a political novel.
As usual, Scott allows himself to move historical events around a bit to suit the convenience of the plot. Conventions have changed in the meantime, and a modern writer wouldn't get away with doing this as blatantly as Scott does, but there's no real deception involved - Scott always explains just how he's cheated in his detailed notes.
I wonder if modern writers don't do this as they don't have as much faith in their readers' knowledge of the actual events, although as you say, Scott always lets the reader know when he does it.
Perhaps it was reading Scott's Introductions that put the fear of God into future generations of historical novelists and established a "do as I say, not as I do" principle?
Gilgi - eine von uns (1931; Gilgi - One of us) by Irmgard Keun (Germany, 1905-1982)
We all know about the German writers banned by the Nazis who went into exile: lions like the Mann brothers and Stefan Zweig, or committed communists like Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht. But they weren't all like that. Irmgard Keun was a bright young woman who wrote a couple of very successful "chick-lit" novels in her mid-20s that managed to annoy the Nazis so much that they banned her as soon as they came to power ("Asphaltliteratur mit antideutscher Tendenz") - she rather bravely tried to sue the government to recover her lost earnings, but eventually gave up and went into exile in 1936. She published a few more novels in the late 30s, then went undercover during the war. She was reported to have taken her own life in Amsterdam, but it later turned out that she was back in Köln, living under a false name. After the war she seems to have been largely forgotten, and was unable to work much as a result of alcohol problems, but she was rediscovered in the late 1970s as a feminist hero of the Weimar period and republished. Sadly, she died not long after that.
Gilgi - eine von uns was Keun's first novel, the story of an independent-minded young woman who, as Keun did, works as a typist in an office in Köln and studies languages at the Berlitz School in the evenings (in her unfinished memoirs, Keun took five years off her age to match Gilgi's situation even better). She is living at home with her middle-class parents, saving up to go travelling, and knows how to have fun whilst keeping men at a safe distance. Everything is very much under control, until her 21st birthday, when she gets some unexpected news from her parents. Shortly afterwards, she meets a man rather different from those she's known up to now, and the firm she works for starts to get into difficulties. She has to do a lot of growing up in a very short space of time.
There are interesting parallels with Keun's second book, Das kunstseidene Mädchen: Gilgi is someone who is determined to be independent and make her own rules for life, irrespective of what society expects of her - and to a certain extent she manages it, although it's a difficult and often frightening process, whilst Doris in the later book is destroyed by the impossible expectations of what life should be that she has been given by popular culture.
Keun's writing with its blend of simple, direct (but often ironic) language, naturalistic dialogue (a lot of it in Kölsch in this book), and passages of freeform stream-of-consciousness is very individual, but obviously heavily influenced by her mentor Alfred Döblin - not quite Berlin Alexanderplatz as retold by Bridget Jones, but somewhere in that direction. Fun, but also moving, and very socially-aware.
As to Scott, it's difficult to advise: like all really popular writers, he combines superb technical skills with some faults that are maybe more obvious from a safe distance than they were to his contemporaries. He's a lot better than you think he's going to be, but he can be very long-winded, especially in the opening and closing passages of his novels, and some people are put off by his occasional fondness for fake archaic dialogue.
Back to one of my occasional (re-)dips into Sir Angus, prompted partly by reading Margaret Drabble's biography of him a few months ago:
No laughing matter (1967) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)
This was Wilson's sixth novel, following Late Call, and it's the one in which he feels safely old enough to play around with a set of characters that clearly owe more than a little to the somewhat raffish Edwardian family he grew up in. The Matthews parents - "Billy Pop" and "The Countess" - grew up in a time when no-one was rash enough to suggest that people of their class would ever stoop to working for a living, but their inherited capital has long since dwindled away, and they are openly despised by their six children for their Micawberish lifestyle, surviving in the wreck of their London home, No.52, on debts and thin air. We follow the Matthews children - Quentin the Muggeridgesque journalist, Gladys the businesswoman, Sukey the headmaster's wife, Margaret the novelist, Rupert the actor and Marcus the art-queen - plus their aunt, their grandmother, and their cook-housekeeper through a series of vignettes from a few years before the Great War through to 1967.
Along the way Wilson takes the opportunity to remind us of some of the less palatable aspects of middle-class Englishness in the 20th century, especially the support for Stalinism and fascism in the thirties and Eden's palaeolithic colonialism of 1956. And there are plenty of satirical barbs aimed at just about every movement in literature, theatre and the visual arts, from Maugham and Noel Coward to the Angry Young Men and sixties folk music.
Wilson keeps us off our guard by shifting from straightforward narrative into Margaret's novelist's view of events (where the Matthews family become the imagined Carmichaels), or presents a scene between Billy Pop and the Countess as though it were part of a drama of the time, complete with stage directions and audience reactions, or he moves into the world of "The Game", where the children satirically act out scenes from their parents' lives in the nursery of No.52.
A very clever, entertaining but also morally sophisticated read: It isn't a hymn to conservative values and respectability, of course, but Wilson does seem to be keen to show us the dangerous consequences of the kind of intellectual detachment and lack of social responsibility that go with a certain flavour of Englishness (of course the English don't have a unique claim to those faults, but Wilson is attacking what he knows best). Those who consider themselves too good, too rich, or too clever to get their hands dirty in life are the same people who closed their eyes to the evils of Hitler and Stalin.
Regarding Scott, I enjoyed Rob Roy and Ivanhoe quite a lot. I've also read St. Ronan's Well. According to my short review from 2013, "St. Ronan's Well is the only one of Scott's novels that takes place in the 1800s. In his introduction, Scott actually apologizes to Jane Austen and two or three others of 'the women' then writing similar novels for horning in on their territory, as it were, but says he did it simply to try his hand at something new." I don't recommend the book as a place to start with Scott.
I haven't read St Ronan's Well - my favourite Scott novels so far are Old Mortality and The Heart of Mid-Lothian, but I agree that Rob Roy is pretty good too. Ivanhoe is enjoyable but I think it's rather over-rated...
Back to the low-hanging fruit: I bought this in early 2015, after very much enjoying Sostiene Pereira. Despite being a novella of only just over 100 pages, it stuck on the TBR for four years.
Il filo dell'orizzonte (1986; The edge of the horizon) by Antonio Tabucchi (Italy, 1943-2012)
A life-long admirer and translator of the work of Fernando Pessoa, Antonio Tabucchi taught Portuguese literature at the universities of Genoa and (later) Siena, and spent a lot of his time in Lisbon. As a writer of fiction he was often rumoured to be in the running for a Nobel, but never actually won. A lot of his work has been translated into English, including this novella. His most famous works are Sostiene Pereira (a historical novel set in Lisbon in the 1930s) and Notturno indiano.
Spino, a failed medical student, is working as a mortuary attendant in a small port on the Gulf of Genoa. He's somehow slipped into middle-age without ever quite making his mind up whether to go back to college and try again, or indeed deciding where his long-standing but undefined relationship with Sara is going. One night, the body of a young man killed in a shoot-out between police and gangsters is brought in to the mortuary. The police have little idea who he is, beyond a false ID in the name of "Carlo Nobodi", and don't seem to be making much effort to find out, but Spino somehow becomes interested and starts to investigate on his own account.
He follows up a few clues which don't lead anywhere very concrete. They do however put him indirectly in touch with people who seem to know something, who summon him to a chain of increasingly scary but inconclusive appointments - a low-life patisserie, a shop selling under-the-counter hair-tonics, a cemetery at closing time, the docks late at night. The solution to the mystery posed by the plot of the book remains elusive, but through his investigation, Spino seems to be coming closer to making sense of the mystery of who he is himself.
Very atmospheric, wistful, allusive, dark - not at all the conventional crime story Tabucchi pretends to be writing, more a philosophical investigation than a forensic one. And rather beautiful.
All I knew about the various claims for the survival of Louis XVI's son was that they were such tired old conspiracy theories that Mark Twain could mock them without further explanation in the 1880s. I was intrigued when Wikipedia told me that one of the most celebrated claimants to be the real Louis XVII, and the one who features in Löhr's book, Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, ended up in Delft, just down the road from me. A bit more googling told me where he was buried, and that sounded so unlikely that I had to go and check it out, but it turned out to be true.
Opposite the Nieuwe Plantage tram stop, where I must have waited dozens of times, there's a rhododendron shrubbery screening the view of an electrical substation. I never spotted in all those years that in between the bushes there are four tombs, all that's left of a cleared 19th century graveyard, and one of those is modestly marked "ICI REPOSE LOUIS XVII". What odd things can lie unsuspected just out of sight...!
(Sadly, it turns out that the romantic fiction was just that. DNA tests have ruled out any possibility that the remains buried behind the tram stop were those of a child of Marie Antoinette. So now the Bourbonist websites are focussing on documents "exposing" the unreliability of historical DNA evidence...)
Delft gravesite: https://www.monumenten.nl/monument/58841
Das Erlkönig-Manöver (2007) by Robert Löhr (Germany, 1973- )
Robert Löhr is a Berlin-based journalist, dramatist, puppeteer and TV scriptwriter, who seems to specialise in making fun of the idols of German cultural history. I've previously read his 2012 novel Krieg der Sänger, which re-imagines the singing competition at the Wartburg (cf. Tannhäuser) as a murder-mystery weekend.
Imagine it's early in 1805, and you're the ruler of a small German duchy who has received a piece of secret information that might just give you the opportunity to undermine Napoleon's power and stop the relentless march of his armies across Europe. But to make use of it would require a delicate and highly-dangerous secret mission into occupied territory to free a political prisoner who may - or may not - be the real Louis XVII. Whom do you send for to undertake this tricky task? Yes, you got it in one! This has to be a job for the Middleaged Quarrelsome Ninja Poets.
Goethe (for this is Weimar, of course) assembles a crack team: he's supported by the crossbow-toting Schiller and the politically-unreliable jungle survival expert, Alexander von Humboldt. In Frankfurt they are joined by the lovely Bettina Brentano (20) and her jealous fiancé Achim von Arnim, a man who knows a thing or two about medieval verse. And there's a psychotically-trigger-happy young Prussian lieutenant with a comedy about a Broken jug under his arm who seems to have attached himself to the group as well...
They set out on their quest with the requisite quarrels about politics, poetic style, geology, and the like, as well as an astonishing number of bad puns, unconscious quotations from themselves and from each other, and references to every adventure story from William Tell to Crocodile Dundee (Mark Twain gets a look-in too, of course). And, needless to say, it doesn't go well. There are some impressively choreographed Errol Flynn window-smashes and sword fights, some jokes set up so far in advance that we have to stop in admiration for the author's restraint. And some that in more enlightened times would have led to the author being taken out and shot (the prison scene where Schiller, disguised as a monk, finds himself listening to an account of the sorrows of the young warder, for example...).
An entertaining and often very funny corrective for anyone inclined to take German literature too seriously, and interesting evidence that there are still a few historical novelists brave enough to follow Scott's example and just move around any awkward facts that don't fit the narrative.
>108 haydninvienna: According to Worldcat, it’s only been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, so far. I wouldn’t hold your breath, English language publishers will be working out how many of their potential customers have heard of Goethe and Schiller, and how many of those would recognise a quotation from Faust or William Tell, and coming to a number close to zero...
Löhr’s only book that has made it into English is The chess machine, translated by the late Anthea Bell, which puts him in pretty distinguished company. That sounds interesting too.
I heard today that a former colleague has a book about Naundorff coming out soon - watch this space...
Putas Asesinas (2001) in Cuentos completos (2015) by Roberto Bolaño (Chile, 1953-2003)
This was Bolaño's second published short story collection, containing thirteen stories written in the late 1990s. (The English-language collections Last evenings on earth and The Return mix together the stories in Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas in a different combination.)
As in the first collection, there's a strong element of auto-fiction, with many of the stories either narrated by or focussing on a Bolaño-like character called "B.", "Arturo Belano", or just "I". Happily, there's rather less of the "women coming to a bad end" theme than there was in Llamadas telefónicas, however. And there are also several stories where the protagonist is someone we wouldn't easily mix up with the author - notably the title story, where we have to revise our ideas about what's going on several times in the space of a few pages, "Buba", where the narrator is a retired football player, and "El retorno", where the narrator is a ghost.
One theme that seems to keep coming back in these stories is the way literary reputation comes and goes. It's there very memorably in "Últimos atardeceres en la tierra" where Arturo, spending a holiday in Acapulco with his father (something both of them are a bit uncomfortable about) becomes interested in the fate of the obscure surrealist poet Gui Rosey. In "Vagabundo en Francia y Bélgica" B looks for traces of a forgotten Belgian writer, and in the last three short pieces in the collection we get the narrator's random reflections on a book of photographs of post-war French poets, and more focussed thoughts about two of his compatriots, Pablo Neruda and Enrique Lihn.
I'm still finding it hard to put my finger on what precisely it is that grabs me about Bolaño's style, but there is something quite special about the direct, unapologetic way he addresses the reader and takes it for granted that you are following him, however much he might seem to be wandering from the point.
>115 kidzdoc: Thanks, Darryl! Yes, Last evenings on earth and The Return together contain all the stories from the first two Spanish collections, but split differently, for some reason. We only found that out when we picked Last evenings on earth for our book-club and half of us started reading it in Spanish and the rest in English...
This next book is a follow-up from Das Erlkönig-Manöver (>104 thorold:) - I felt I wanted to know more about the real Bettina von Arnim after reading about the fictional one. Turns out that it isn't quite as simple as that:
Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (1835; Goethe's correspondence with a child) by Bettina von Arnim (Germany, 1785-1859)
Bettina Brentano was the daughter of a wealthy Frankfurt businessman. As a young woman she composed Lieder-settings and may have collaborated with her brother Clemens and her future husband Achim von Arnim on their influential folksong collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn , but what she's chiefly remembered for is her prose writing and her political engagement for liberal and revolutionary causes, activities she was only really free to take up publicly after Achim's death in 1831. She seems to have known and/or been related to just about everyone interesting in early-19th-century Germany.
On the face of it, this is a rather creepy book: by making friends with his elderly mother, a gushing young woman of 22 gets an introduction to a distinguished poet, who is married and in his fifties. She bombards him with letters setting out her passionate feelings for him, describing her erotic fantasies, and so on, to which he replies, briefly, in the ratio of about 1:5 letters. Even when he breaks off the correspondence, she goes on writing unsent letters. And after his death she publishes the whole thing, editing where necessary to make it all look less one-sided, and rededicating one or two sonnets he wrote for other women to herself...
But of course, it isn't quite like that. For one thing, Bettina might not have known Goethe personally in 1807, but she hardly needed an introduction: he'd been in love with her mother and at least a close friend of her grandmother (the novelist Sophie von La Roche), whilst his parents and the Brentanos were part of the same small world of Frankfurt high-bourgeoisie. Moreover, even though it draws on the real Bettina's friendship with the real Goethe, this isn't the authentic correspondence it purports to be, but a carefully structured work of auto-fiction, in which a fictional Bettina (unimpeded by trivialities like the fact that the real Bettina got married in the middle of all this...) pours her heart out to an idealised Goethe whilst his dutiful wife withdraws to a discreet distance and watches indulgently (in real life, Bettina almost came to blows with Christiane Goethe at an exhibition in Weimar in 1811...).
Also, we're probably not entitled to jump to the conclusion that this is all about sexual obsession. The Bettina of the letters and diaries recklessly seems to mix up the language of platonic friendship, religious ecstasy and erotic love when she's talking about her feelings in the abstract, but when she talks directly about what she imagines or wishes for between Goethe and herself, it's normally at the level of deep spiritual connection, and the explicit physical images never go beyond a bit of cuddling. The only time things ever get really steamy is in some of the early letters addressed to Goethe's mother in which she's remembering her friendship with the poet Karoline von Günderrode - she manages to write Karoline's lover Friedrich Creuzer out of the story and manipulate us so far that we jump to the conclusion that poor Karoline killed herself out of frustrated passion for Bettina. Hmm.
Bettina's meditations about love and longing are beautifully characteristic of the whole German Romantic movement, but there are an awful lot of them, and the book (over 600 pages!) would be all but unreadable if that's all there was to it. Fortunately, she knows exactly what she's doing, and turns the dial back from 11 from time to time to give Goethe (i.e. us) a bit of emotional relief with lively descriptions of where she is and what she's doing, or reminiscences of her childhood (or Goethe's - she has memorised his mother's anecdotes as well). And whatever the real Bettina was like, the Bettina of this book is always entertaining and enterprising, whether she's climbing trees, mountains, convent walls or ruined castles, riding bare-back, boating, hopping from ice-floe to ice-floe across frozen rivers, shooting, dressing up in men's clothes to travel through a war-zone, rescuing wounded soldiers, passing secret papers to revolutionaries, or lobbying crown-princes and slapping distinguished poets. She certainly makes herself sound like the Calamity Jane of Romanticism! These adventures in turn are often tied rather beautifully into "Wordsworth-moments" where she shifts into a kind of prose-poem register, perceiving some deep philosophical truth after staying up all night to watch a thunderstorm, getting rescued from an island by an ancient mariner, listening to a nightingale, etc.
Definitely not for everyone, and I probably wouldn't have tackled it if I'd realised how long it would take me to read it, but still quite rewarding. Maybe I'll follow it with a biography...
Unheimliche Erscheinungsformen auf Omega XI (1974) by Johanna Braun (Germany, DDR, 1929-2008) and Günter Braun (Germany, DDR, 1928-2008)
(Latest entry for the "Horrifying author photos" competition - if these links are broken, be grateful...)
Johanna and Günter Braun were a husband-and-wife writing team, originally from Magdeburg, later Schwerin. Their first collaborations were on children's books, and they later shifted to science fiction for adults; the quietly subversive, anti-establishment tone of their books and their willingness to challenge received ideas on issues like gender and sexuality made them a minor cult success with young people in both East and West Germany in the 70s, and eventually led to them being unable to go on publishing their work in the DDR. (It doesn't look as though any of their books have been translated into English)
This was the Brauns' second science-fiction novel, an ironic space-travel epic that reminds us that there's nothing very new about climate emergencies, pollution, and genetic manipulation - some of us were already panicking about such things fifty years ago...
Some centuries ago, a dissident group calling themselves the Lumens left the Earth to carry on with their banned experiments into modifying the human genome on the world Omega XI. There has been no contact with them in the meantime, but recently Earth has received messages from Omega XI in which the Lumens report that their continued existence is threatened by "sinister manifestations" and ask for help. The authorities on Earth are worried enough to send a fact-finding mission to Omega XI: aboard the capsule for its journey of several years are our narrator, Merkur Erdenson, a young cosmonaut famous for his improvisational problem-solving skills, and his commander, Elektra, a woman who is notorious for doing everything by the book (the Brauns obviously had a passion for classical character names). Naturally, they start bickering the moment they meet, and of course we all know what has got to happen in any comedy when a man and a woman who dislike each other are forced to co-exist in close proximity...
On the face of it, the situation they find on Omega XI when they eventually get there is a textbook Marxist parable: the small Lumen community of dominant, unproductive consumers is supported by a large subject class of productive slave-workers, and the problem that is threatening the Lumens' existence is a climate catastrophe brought on by a ludicrous overproduction of consumer goods. Everything, down to items like furniture and bathroom fittings, is treated as disposable and replaced daily for reasons of "hygiene". But there's more to it than that - what the Brauns really want to explore is the way rigid, authoritarian and humourless patterns of thinking allow problems like this to multiply and inhibit our ability to solve them. It wouldn't have taken a huge stretch of the imagination for their readers to compare Omega XI with a planned economy where rigid norms lead to pointless waste and a ludicrous underproduction of consumer goods...
The authors' background in writing for children has given them a deceptively simple, very clear style, where they like to say exactly what they mean at exactly the moment when you're not expecting them to (the same trick that makes Roald Dahl and Erich Kästner, for instance, so much fun to read). The action passages sometimes come over as slightly-too-crude slapstick, but the more analytical parts of the book, where Merkur is reflecting on his experiences, work very well.
The handling of gender in the book is a bit mixed - on the plus side, Merkur never shows any sign of having a problem with working for a female boss - not at all a foregone conclusion in 1974, even in the DDR - and her role as commander is always carefully separated from her gender-identity in the narrative. But on the minus side, the part of the plot where Elektra's systematic analytical skills come into play is less convincing than the parts where Merkur playfully comes up with the unexpected solution. And he's the one who gets to tumble into bed with several different women, whilst she (as far as Merkur knows, anyway) has a rather less exciting time sexually.
Fun, and a lot less dated than I was expecting.
>116 thorold: The next time anyone talks to me about the modern world losing its moral fibre I'm going to point them right back to these 18th and 19th century German poets - they were all at it like rabbits.
The distinguished poet, the long suffering wife, a disinterested love interest and erotic letters with the unrequited love's daughter. Now where did these historical poets get their inspiration from... And what was with Bettina sending erotic letters on a lesbian love interest to the guy's mother? Who does that?
Historical fiction's a funny thing, isn't it? It's the rub of the plain reading enjoyment versus major embellishment of the truth.
>117 thorold: (Latest entry for the "Horrifying author photos" competition - if these links are broken, be grateful...)
I did have a little guffaw to myself over that. I actually thought they were two pictures of the same guy taken at different time periods, but now I see that one of them was the wife. They make a lovely couple. I don't enjoy SF, but it was worth reading this review just for that great opening comment alone.
Another one from the recent end of the TBR pile. Interestingly, where the last book I read takes waste as the pre-eminent symbol for the failure of organised human societies, this one seems rather to be interested in waste as a symbol for memory, and thus of the stuff that mades us human and individual:
The museum of unconditional surrender (1996) by Dubravka Ugrešić (Yugoslavia, Croatia, Netherlands, 1949- ), translated by Celia Hawkesworth
Dubravka Ugrešić is a literary scholar who taught in Zagreb, Berlin, and at several US universities and has been writing novels since the 1980s. She left Croatia in 1993 - mainly because of her well-publicised opposition to Balkan nationalism and to the war - and now lives in Amsterdam. I read two of her novels ten years ago, but have rather lost sight of her since then, for no good reason.
Ugrešić seems to have a gift for catching memorable names in transit and fixing them as titles for her novels, whilst they evaporate from the institutions she took them from almost before we know it. The S-M club "Ministry of Pain" in my home city seems to be long-gone (if it ever existed), whilst the museum in Berlin-Karlshorst that gave her the title for this novel was only actually called "Museum der bedingungslosen Kapitulation des faschistischen Deutschlands im Großen Vaterländischen Krieg" between 1986 and 1994, when the changing tide of history made it adopt the more prosaic title "Deutsch-Russiches Museum". (Between 1967 and 1986 it was simply the Museum of the Soviet armed forces in Germany.)
... And one more thing: the question as to whether this novel is autobiographical might at some hypothetical moment be of concern to the police, but not to the reader.
This book fixes on the idea of collage as an artistic medium for representing broken worlds, specifically in this case the experience of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the wars of the 1990s, and exile. Ugrešić gives us fragments of childhood memory, random objects, the quotations and anecdotes that form the detritus at the bottom of a literary scholar's mind, a diary kept by the narrator's mother, the haphazard accumulation of history in the city of Berlin, encounters with other exiles in Berlin and elsewhere, and all kinds of other bits and pieces, including, when we are least expecting it, a clear departure from the world of realistic representation. There is a lot of rubbish, lovingly picked through so that we can think about the history of why and how that item was discarded, and what might have happened to it before then, there is plenty of kitsch (snowglobes!), but there are also apparently serious reflections from major writers - in particular Isaac Babel, Joseph Brodsky and Miroslav Krleža - there is highly personal stuff mixed in with the most fleeting and impersonal encounters, there are fragments of narrative mixed in with passages that resist any attempt to make them into stories...
There are, as the author (or is it already the narrator?) has warned us in the preface, patterns and links that seem to impose some kind of structure, but we are urged not to worry too much about them: names and images and anecdotes come back in crazily different contexts in bafflingly similar forms. It does all seem to work, perhaps because Ugrešić is a narrator with the kind of authority we want to listen to, perhaps because the patterns in the material are so deep that they go straight to our subconscious - but it's a disturbing experience, as it's evidently meant to be. Even if you haven't lived through a collapse of the order and structure of your world on the scale that Yugoslavians experienced in the 90s, everyone who reads this will probably have had some kind of trauma (or near-miss) in their lives that this speaks to.
Re Bettina - that isn't all, there's yet another disturbing level I didn't go into, in the way she keeps representing herself in quasi-sexual contexts as though she were still a child - but that's almost a 19th century convention...
El Aleph (1949, 1952) by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, 1899-1986)
Jorge Luis Borges probably counts as the most influential and the most-frequently-taught foreign-language writer in 20th century English literature: he had the unusual gift of combining literary genius (rare, but not that rare) with an ability to produce texts of an exceptionally classroom-friendly nature (practically unique). His stories are short, clever, accessible to young people, but full of diverse and complicated philosophical and literary references, and operating at an exalted intellectual level that sails magnificently over most of our sensitivities about topics like gender, sexuality, political ideology and religion.
This was Borges's third major collection of short stories, and like all the others has appeared in several different versions with different contents - the one I read was based on the 1952 edition, containing seventeen stories and a short Epilogue.
The stories pick up a good range of the famous Borges themes: there are three labyrinth-stories (one Cretan, one Arab/Persian, one a Conan Doyle parody), a couple of gaucho stories riffing off the Argentinian epic Martín Fierro, several paradoxes in which death doesn't work the way we expect it to, a couple of stories about medieval thinkers (Islamic in one case, Christian in the other), a couple of Buenos Aires crime stories with odd twists, and a monologue by a condemned Nazi war criminal that forces us to look again at any comfortable assumption that we can cut 1933-1945 out of our picture of German culture and carry on with the rest. And of course there is the eponymous Aleph - a point in which we can see all the points in the universe from all directions - and its counterpart, the Zahir - a trivial thing that we can't stop thinking about. Just about all the stories address the limitations of the narrator's - and even more the reader's - knowledge of events. Frequently, the narrator tells us that the text is incomplete and must be revised, or adds material that has come to light subsequently.
Women, as usual in Borges, are mostly absent or in the background. Only the story "Emma Zunz" has a female protagonist. Borges makes a point of telling us that its plot was suggested to him by his friend, the dancer Cecilia Ingenieros, but once he's taken the step of letting a woman into one of his stories he seems to be quite happy to let her act with the same kind of limitations and autonomy he gives to his male characters. "El Aleph" and "El Zahir" both have dead, offstage women who act only as romantic love-interest for the narrator; a couple of women sneak into the end of "Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva" but we only get to see them at second-hand. Other than that, it might as well be "Billy Budd"...
Coming back to these stories after many years, I was impressed again by the clarity and conciseness of Borges's writing. However complicated the mathematical, historical, philosophical or theological issues he's dealing with, his sentences never get tangled up in them - on the face of it, everything looks clear, bright and logical. It's only when we step back for a moment that we realise what an astonishing paradox we've just been tricked into accepting.
Overrated or not, Borges is simply someone you have to re-read from time to time: there's no way around it!
Time, wider reading and general accumulation of random knowledge obviously do make a big difference when reading someone whose writing refers to so many other works and authors, but I don't think Borges is someone who expects emotional maturity in the reader - mental agility matters much more.
With some Spanish writers I've definitely found that I reacted to the flow and tone of the original in quite a different way to translations, but that might be less so for Borges - he's not a very colloquial writer, and I'm probably not very well tuned into the particular flavours of Argentinian Spanish anyway. Obviously what I should be doing is reading his poems...
The flight from the enchanter (1956) by Iris Murdoch (UK, 1919-1999)
Murdoch's second novel masquerades as a straightforward bit of fifties English social satire, with an odd assortment of characters whose strategies for hiding from the unpleasant realities of life are somehow starting to unravel. And it comes with the kind of farcical set-pieces that belong to that sort of story: the disastrous party, the guest hidden in a cupboard when someone else turns up unexpectedly, the frustrated suicide attempt, the shareholders' meeting turned into a riot by a group of elderly Suffragettes, the quango whose male, civil-service minded managers are routed in a subtle administrative coup d'état plotted by the clever young women they brought into the organisation to do the typing...
But this is Iris Murdoch, even if it's very early Iris Murdoch, so we know there has to be something else going on. The title is one obvious clue - the enigmatic, charismatic press baron Mischa Fox, mysteriously connected to so many of the characters, seems to exert his influence more as a magus than as a businessman, and his slimy sidekick Calvin Blick is also more sorcerer's apprentice than henchman. And there's that puzzling dedication to Elias Canetti. Could it be that there's a (twisted) parallel being made to Die Blendung/Auto-da-fé? Admittedly, the only character whose little world survives the book unscathed is the scholar Peter Saward in his book-cave, but the story of Rainborough and his manipulative ex-typist, Miss Casement, definitely has a Canetti flavour to it, as does that (with the genders reversed) of Rosa and the Lusiewicz brothers.
And then there's that gloriously silly opening chapter, a parody of the opening of Vanity Fair, which seems to promise us that Annette will become a subversive, scheming Becky Sharp, but then turns round and shows us her impulsive playfulness as a mere regression to childhood. And much more: you could probably get two or three essays out of the character names alone. A very complicated book, with a lot of not-quite-hidden depths that don't for the moment detract from the entertaining comedy (with a couple of background patches of real tragedy) going on in the foreground.
Otherwise, my experience so far (and I still have quite a few to read or re-read) is that they are all worth reading. The general principle seems to be that the early ones are funnier and the later ones more densely philosophical. I really liked The black prince and The philosopher’s pupil, both of which I read fairly recently, and which are somewhere in the middle.
Under the net and The sandcastle have the same sort of fifties flair to them as The flight from the enchanter, which is fun if you like that sort of thing.