thorold faces the weathers of his instruction in Q4
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You, Hate and Love, companions of this poet
Where cities of fire sustain me, and where
The glaciers clash together the northern tundras'
Shall face these weathers of my instruction.
Then travel courageously, notorious couriers
Into the icelock, and beyond its zero
Seek out my love.
Remind him first of all how he survives
The flower of death blown over that relinquished
Meadow where lover and plough break
Lover and flower alike.
But let him not believe that a winter invoked
Can blight the bespoken summers nor silence him
Being that one who called time upon time,
Lesbia to the ancient stones.
Epilogue (Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli): Catullus, as translated by Muriel Spark
43 books read in Q3 (Q1: 63, Q2: 38):
Author gender: F 13; M 30 (Q1: F 19; M 44, Q2 F14; M24)
By main category: Fiction 28; Travel 3; Sailing 3; Literature 3; History 3; Science/Eng 2; Art history 1
By language: French 9; English 20; Italian 1; Dutch 7; German 3; Spanish 3
(Of the English books, 2 were translations - from Norwegian and German, respectively; one French book was a translation from Finnish, one Dutch book was a translation from French which I've since bought in the original...)
By original publication date: 5 were published before 1900, 10 in the last five years. Mean 1978, median 1992.
By format: 6 physical books from the TBR (28 in Q2!); 3 re-reads from the shelves; 6 paid e-books; 22 library books; 6 free/borrowed elsewhere
34 distinct authors read in Q3 (54 in Q1; 32 in Q2):
Author gender: F 7; M 27
By country: FR 6, USA 1, UK 7, NL 5, DE 4, AU 2, ES 2, others 7
Q3 was a bit of a strange time for reading - I was travelling for a big chunk of July and half of August, but my plans (and much else) were thrown out of kilter by an unexpected death in the family. And then there was a lengthy spell of wet weather in the last part of September that messed up some other plans...
The consequence of all this seems to have been that after making quite a hole in the TBR in Q2, I filled it up again in Q3 by reckless consumption of library books since I came home, and of ebooks whilst travelling. And I managed to bring back a few extra books for the TBR from both of my longer trips away.
On the other hand, I do seem to have read quite a lot of books I wanted to, and discovered at least some stuff I didn't know about: looking through my list, there's not all that much that I would exclude from the "highlights"!
Highlights of Q3:
- French 19th century fiction took up a big chunk of the last three months, in particular I got a lot out of Nana, Pot-bouille, and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes
- I read seven Muriel Spark novels in Q3 - all worthwhile, but the highlights were The Mandelbaum Gate and the re-read of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
- Some interesting travel/seafaring books, I think the ones that struck me most were Jacob van Lennep's diary of his walk around the Netherlands published as De zomer van 1823 and Henry Havard's sailing trip fifty years later, La Hollande pittoresque, voyage aux villes mortes du zuiderzeé.
- Also very interesting in this category was Dan Taylor's bike-ride through pre-referendum Britain, Island story
- Two superb recent Spanish novels, Sefarad by Antonio Muñoz Molina and La forma de las ruinas by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
- Günter Grass's late novel Grimms Wörter and Rushdie's Quichotte: a novel were both unsurprisingly good.
- I rather got sidetracked away from the RG Turning the tables theme read, but In the castle of my skin and Demain j'aurai vingt ans were both very interesting, and I've got a couple more late entries lined up
Reading plans for Q4
- more fun with the TBR
- more Zola and Balzac
- more Spanish/Latin American lit, possibly linked to travel plans...
- Gerald Murnane
- finishing up the Spark Project - two or three more novels and a couple of biographies lined up
- the RG "Mitteleuropa" theme read
I must have been averaging more than two books a week for pleasure at least since I got my first tickets for the junior library, if not longer, with a bit of a dip during the years when I was doing a job that was mostly reading, so forty in a quarter isn't so extraordinary for me, especially now I'm retired. My trouble is that the next book is always more interesting than the one I'm reading at the moment, I have to remind myself to slow down sometimes.
I read three of Alejo Carpentier's novels a few years ago, but didn't get around to this one, which is perhaps the most famous. The "Turning the tables" theme is an excuse to read it at last.
Los pasos perdidos (1953; The lost steps) by Alejo Carpentier (Cuba, 1904-1980)
Like all of Carpentier's books that I've read so far, this turns out to be about the contrast between the rich, "baroque" post-colonial culture of Latin America and the failed enlightenment rationalism of the Old World. The narrator is a composer, Cuban-born but living in Europe (or possibly the USA - Carpentier likes to keep things unspecified). He has an unfulfilling but well-paid job writing music for advertising films, and is married to Ruth, an actor.
He's just finished work on a film project, and Ruth has gone off on tour, when he gets an invitation from one of his university contacts to make a journey to the South-American rainforest to look for musical instruments used by indigenous people. He's reluctant, but his girlfriend Mouche proposes that they go and spend a couple of weeks together at the university's expense in a nice hotel in the South American capital city and browse the local antique shops for drums and flutes.
Needless to say, it doesn't work out like that, and they have to make the full journey after all, travelling through a succession of zones that illustrate the rich complexity of the local culture, with its intertwined threads of Conquistador, African and Indigenous influence, increasingly dominated as they get nearer to the forest by the astonishing energy of the natural environment. The narrator transfers his affections from Mouche, who turns out not to be sufficiently crease-resistant for up-river travel, to Rosario, a fully-attuned local woman who embodies everything the narrator likes about where he is and, as a bonus, even reminds him of his Cuban mother. And they find themselves in a simple rainforest community, where time seems to have been frozen since the stone age, and where the narrator would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of his life in harmony with nature.
Whilst the Edenic valley inevitably turns out not to be the escape he thought it was going to be, the journey helps him to see the metropolitan world he's been living in more clearly, and understand how futile and tired its cultural themes are without the enriching elements the post-colonial world offers.
This is a full-on symbolic journey through all the senses, where the impressions the narrator gets from the world around him are more important than the concrete events of the plot: it's a book full of scents and tastes and images and textures as well as language, natural sounds and music. Beethoven, Bach, botany, birdsong, 17th century painters, Homer, Shelley, Goethe and Shakespeare, ... even Alberic Magnard gets a look-in. But Stravinsky and Picasso are conspicuous by their absence: Carpentier obviously doesn't hold with the modernists' way of rediscovering the Primitive. Very interesting!
The public image (1968) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
Although she doesn't seem to have any outstanding acting talent, Annabel has been successfully marketed by a famous Italian film-director and his clever press secretary as "the English lady-tiger" (a demure exterior supposedly concealing unseen reserves of frightening sexual energy), and she is well on her way to mainstream stardom as a result. Her husband, Christopher, a failed actor and scriptwriter, is made to appear in the background of all the PR photos as the devoted helpmeet - a role imposed on him by press secretary Francesca as poetic justice for his wandering hands.
Eventually, just as Annabel is moving herself and her baby son into a lovely new Roman apartment, Christopher goes off the rails, hitting Annabel where he knows it will hurt most, right in the middle of her public image. She goes into expert damage-limitation mode, and seems to have everything under control, but it isn't as simple as that...
This is a very short novel even by Spark's standards (Alice Munro has written "short stories" longer than this), and it's another one where the reader has to do a lot of the spadework of filling in the bits of the narrative Spark didn't bother with, but there's a lot to think about - not just the tyranny of PR and the superficiality of the film industry, but also the way society still has ridiculous and contradictory expectations of women in public life as professionals, spouses, parents and sex-objects, and the damage that trying to live up to those impossible expectations can do. And in passing it's also a little love-song to Rome, and a compact manual on Italian perceptions of Englishness (and English perceptions of Italianness).
Drive your plow over the bones of the dead (2009; English 2018) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (UK, 1962- )
Olga Tokarczuk originally trained and practised as a psychologist. She's been writing novels since the early 90s, and started to grab the attention of English-speaking readers last year when Flights won the Booker International. She's also a well-known thorn in the side of the xenophobic right-wing politicians who claim to speak for Poland these days.
It doesn't take much to guess that William Blake is going to be playing a big part in this novel: apart from the title and the chapter epigraphs, he's also there in the text - the narrator, a semi-retired English teacher, is helping one of her former students to translate Blake into Polish. And the whole moral compass of the narrator's slightly-crazy-but-disturbingly-sane way of describing the world she lives in comes from Blake's disconcerting, prophetic way of calling out the hypocrisies of our everyday life as though they were simple and glaringly obvious things.
But it's also an edgily-uncomfortable parody of the cosy-murder genre. A succession of men meet gruesome deaths in the area around the small hamlet where the narrator lives, and she tries to help the police with her observations and astrological insights. The victims are all prominent members of the local hunting club, and they die in ironic ways that make it look as if the animal kingdom is taking revenge on them for their cruel sport. There's an Ovidian undercurrent here as well, and all sorts of references to folk-tales.
Probably not a book you will want to read if you have venison in your freezer, but very enjoyable - in a slightly disturbing way - for the rest of us. Lots of unexpected little bits of observation.
When I read The dark flood rises two years ago, I realised that I'd somehow missed Drabble's previous novel. Time to rectify that!
The pure gold baby (2013) by Margaret Drabble (UK, 1939- )
Drabble takes advantage of being in her seventies to write a novel with a very long time-base that has nothing at all of the constructed feel of an historical novel about it. It's rather like what she does in the Headleand Trilogy, following a set of female friendships over several decades, but stretched out to something like fifty years.
At the core of the story is the relationship between anthropologist and journalist Jess and her daughter, Anna, who has special needs and has to be cared for constantly. Jess has a group of women friends, including Eleanor the narrator, who all move in the same North London liberal middle-class professional world, and mostly have children of the same age. Drabble uses this to look at the way attitudes and behaviour in the group change with age and changing times (there's a lot of "...which we then still believed to be healthy"), but also as a frame on which to hang wider reflections on historical change. Through Anna, and contacts Jess makes as a result of caring for her, we learn about the ways attitudes and professional practices around mental health changed between the R.D. Laing era and Austerity, and we also move outside the strict timeframe of the book to look at - for instance - the different ways various famous writers dealt with having a "mad" family member (Jane Austen's family doesn't come out of the comparison well!).
Jess is an anthropologist for a reason, of course, and there's also a thread in the novel about our attitudes to Africa and how they have changed - Livingstone and Mungo Park are important offstage characters in this, and there are various present-day African characters who flit in and out of the story.
On the other hand, this also seems to be a novel that puts the whole idea of ageing and historical change into doubt, since Anna, the charming and lovable centre of the story, is also a person who doesn't develop emotionally or intellectually, and who doesn't experience time in the way a "normal" adult would.
I always enjoy Drabble's writing - she has a marvellous way of telling us things she feels we ought to know without ever seeming to lecture us. But this was a little bit less satisfying than some of her others, perhaps because she felt inhibited in what she could do with the character of Anna without appearing intrusive or patronising?
Perhaps the real mystery of this book is in the cover-art. David Bailey's 1962 photograph of Jean Shrimpton in New York is admittedly rather lovely, but since the story has absolutely nothing to do with New York, models, the swinging bit of "swinging sixties", or streetcars, it's not easy to see the relevance. Odd, when this is a book where quite a number of significant photographs play a part in the story, that they should hit upon one that doesn't...
Fortuitously, here’s a guide to Drabble-country from today’s Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/05/north-london-trail-of-the-libera...
Symposium (1990) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
Ten sophisticated people sitting round a dinner-table in a posh part of Islington. In the short time that elapses between the hors d'oeuvre and the dessert we need to fit in about a dozen suspicious deaths, some Marxist nuns, a TV documentary everyone half-remembers, art-thieves, crooked manservants, a possible ménage-à-trois, a girl who's married her best friend's dad, a madman from the Kingdom of Fife, an Australian millionairess, the fruit counter at M&S in Oxford Street, and a preraphaelite beauty with a gift for being (at least) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Go on, Muriel, you can do it!
This is Spark at her zaniest, as usual with a hard edge somewhere just out of sight, but very much in the mood of The abbess of Crewe.
Aiding and abetting (2000) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
Anything but predictable, Spark chooses this novel to try out her own peculiar slant on "true crime". A man walks into the consulting room of a fashionable Paris psychotherapist and tells her that he is the 7th Earl of Lucan, on the run from the police for more than 25 years. A disturbing statement at the best of times, more so in this case, as Dr Wolf is already treating another patient who makes the same claim, and furthermore she appears to have something to hide herself...
Spark has fun playing around with the idea of what it would be like to spend such a large part of your life as a fugitive, and with such a nasty crime on your conscience (if indeed you have a conscience). And she enjoys hypothesising about how (and why) Lucan's friends could have protected him for so long. Interestingly, she has her imagined Lucan reflect that his fellow-peers mostly failed to exhibit class solidarity, and that it is his gambling pals who have been financing his undercover lifestyle. She resists the temptation to romanticise Lucan himself, though: he comes across as an arrogant, selfish bore. And he gets treated to a suitably Sparkish ending, too.
The Margaret Drabble book also caught my attention. Yet another author I've yet to get to! The Millstone has been on my TBR for ages for no good reason other than I keep picking up other titles, but I do want to get to it soon. This one sounds great.
Enjoying your Spark marathon too.
Betrachtung (1912; Contemplation/Meditation) by Franz Kafka (Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, 1883-1924)
Like his near contemporary, Rilke, Kafka grew up in Prague, but spoke German as his first language, learning Czech at school. He wrote in German, but in later life he also took a serious interest in Yiddish culture. Unlike Rilke, he earned his own living, staying in Prague and working for an insurance company for most of his adult life. His literary work was done in his spare time, and little of it was published in his lifetime (and of course he famously asked his friend Max Brod to destroy the unpublished work after his death, something Brod failed to do...).
The short story collection Betrachtung was Kafka's first work to be published in book form, in 1912. Most of the eighteen stories had previously been published in literary reviews. They are all very short, ranging from a tweet-length 41 words ("Die Bäume") to just under 1500 ("Unglücklichsein").
All the stories seem to be in one way or another about the narrator's alienation, mechanically following the rules and duties of modern, urban life but also somehow only watching it from the outside, in a detached, almost voyeuristic way, unable to break through into participation. Only the child-narrator of the first story, "Kinder auf der Landstraße", can fully enjoy taking part in contact with others in play, and even there there's already a strong hint that the adult world is a different matter.
The stories are written in terse, clear language, although there are sometimes hints that we are supposed to imagine them as extracts from a longer narrative - several of the stories open with a conjunction, for instance. The images are generally very concrete, but occasionally a text runs off into a flight of fancy - the dull shopkeeper on his way home in "Der Kaufmann" spends the few moments he is alone, going up in the lift, apostrophising a set of imaginary winged creatures that turn into runaway horses, then comes back to earth to ring the doorbell and greet the maidservant.
Not "Kafkaesque" Kafka, perhaps, but you can see how it only needs to go a little bit further to become that.
I did not know this author before yeasterday (I feel always so unread when this happens, discovering the name of an author the day he or she is Nobelised...), so your review caught my eye. I'll see if I give it a try, this title or another.
I've got several Spanish novels that have been on the TBR much longer than this one (found in a secondhand bookshop a month ago), but I wanted to make sure I read it while the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI mission was still in my mind. This is the third of Muñoz Molina's novels I've read — no English translation yet, unfortunately, but it has been translated into at least French, German and Dutch.
El viento de la Luna (2006) by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain, 1956- )
It's the hot summer of 1969, and our 12-year-old narrator is following the progress of the Apollo XI moon mission from his home in the small town of Mágina in southern Spain (this fictional version of the author's birthplace, Úbeda, appears in several of his other books). He puts himself imaginatively into the minds of the astronauts — their isolation and the unknown dangers they face reflect in unexpected ways on his situation as an adolescent. But the high-tech world of spaceflight also seems bizarrely out of step with the backward semi-rural life he knows, where the family still gets its water in buckets from the well and uses a mule and a donkey for transport.
Big changes are happening for the narrator. He feels like a stranger in his own body, struggling to cope with the mental and physical changes of adolescence (and the constant masturbation-guilt). But he's also the first person in his family of peasants and market-gardeners to go to secondary school, and no-one at home can quite make sense of his passion for books; he no longer sees anything of his primary-school friends, who are all now doing apprenticeships or working in the fields, but at the Salesian school he's with bourgeois boys who can't relate to his peasant background and the way he has to work in the holidays.
The world in 1969 is in an exciting state of flux too: spaceflight above all, but there are also things like television, running water, tourists in short skirts and sunglasses, gas cookers, telephones, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, refrigerators, aeroplanes towing advertisements for products no-one he knows would have any idea what to do with... His reading is racing ahead of his Catholic teachers, too: he is aware of the narrow-mindedness of the maths-teaching headmaster, who likes to use Darwin, Nietzsche and Galileo as examples of thinkers punished by God for their presumptuousness, and is beginning to see through the charismatic young Father Peter — keen on the dignity of physical labour, although he's never actually done any — who sees the narrator as vocation material and keeps trying to persuade him to read Teilhard de Chardin.
Underlying all this, there's another, largely suppressed layer, with the people of Mágina still working through the consequences of things that happened thirty years ago in the Civil War. A prosperous neighbour is dying of cancer, which the narrator's grandfather (who had been a policeman under the Republic) sees as a very inadequate punishment for the way he cheated them of their savings at the end of the war; another neighbour is found hanged in his house — it's treated officially as suicide, but everyone in the street thinks it must have been delayed revenge.
Obviously, either the young Muñoz Molina was very precocious, or his adult self has been guilty of a little time-compression for dramatic purposes, but it's easy to suspend disbelief and engage with his vivid descriptions of the world of his childhood. A lot of it felt very like what I remember from that time, the excitement of all those acronym-filled technical diagrams of the Saturn V and the Apollo capsule to cut out and keep from magazines, the conviction that the world would never be the same as it was for our parents (different war, same principle), the realisation that our dim teachers had been fobbing us off with religious nonsense, the knowledge that space was quite different and actually much more interesting in reality than it was in H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and so on. All those things you see so clearly in your early teens, which have a way of becoming nuanced and difficult later on...
Appointment in Arezzo : a friendship with Muriel Spark (2017) by Alan Taylor (UK, - )
Alan Taylor met Muriel Spark and her friend Penelope Jardine when he went to Italy to interview them for The Scotsman in 1990. They discovered a shared sense of humour and a common Edinburgh background (quite a few decades apart) and hit it off immediately, and that evening in a restaurant in Arezzo led to a friendship that was to last for the rest of Spark's life. It sounds as though she treated him as a kind of honorary stepson: Taylor and his family were invited to house-sit for the ladies when they went off travelling in the hot summer, when required he acted as an informal research assistant for Spark's writing projects and escort on her professional travels, and he had to sympathise and advise on endless domestic disasters. He has gone on to edit Spark's collected novels, and has written many introductions to her books and essays about her.
This modest and entertaining memoir of their friendship is more like an extended review of Spark's importance as a novelist than a name-dropping exercise, though. We get glimpses of Spark in private life and a discussion of her endless fights with biographers and memoirists — Taylor is conscious that he's on thin ice in this regard, so he stresses that everything he's written has been checked and approved by Jardine — but the real focus is on how she came to write those wonderful novels and why we should go on reading them. Perhaps redundant, but enjoyable anyway! And I learnt a few interesting things about Spark I didn't know, for instance that William Shawn provided her with her own office at the New Yorker that she could use whenever she happened to be in the city — she insisted on having it redecorated, because she found the colour-scheme too drab.
Vie de ma voisine (2017) by Geneviève Brisac (France, 1951- )
Geneviève Brisac is a publisher of children's books and has also written several series for children herself; she often broadcasts on France Culture. Her novels for adults include the 1996 Prix Femina winner Week-end de chasse à la mère (translated as Losing Eugenio).
Shortly after moving into a Paris apartment, the narrator is buttonholed by one of her new neighbours, an elderly lady. "I want to talk to you about Charlotte Delbo," she says, "I heard you talking about her centenary, and I knew her."
The narrator doesn't need asking a second time: she's very excited to talk to someone who can tell her more about the Auschwitz survivor and political activist Delbo, who means a lot to her as a poet. She goes to tea with her neighbour, they talk about Delbo and her times and the Holocaust, and gradually the narrator manages to persuade her neighbour to tell something about herself as well. It's the life-story of the neighbour, Jenny Plocki, that eventually gives her the core for this book.
It turns out that Jenny was born in 1925, her parents Polish Jews who had emigrated to work in France, both of them active in left-wing political organisations. They had a market-stall selling hosiery in Vincennes. When the family are arrested in the "Vel d'hiv round-up" of 16 July 1942, Jenny and her brother are saved from deportation by their French birth, but the parents are sent to Auschwitz. Teenage Jenny survives in Paris with the help of a non-Jewish schoolfriend and her mother. After the Liberation, she becomes a left-wing activist and is involved in feminist causes, whilst working as a primary-school teacher and campaigning for progressive education. Her life-partner is the prominent Trotskyist Jean-René Chauvin, himself an Auschwitz survivor.
A lovely little memoir dealing sensitively with unlovely times — with echoes of Modiano's Paris — and a reminder that we really ought to take the time to listen to other people's stories. And a book that is likely to send you off chasing another reading list!
Jenny Plocki: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenny_Plocki
Charlotte Delbo: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Delbo
The chemistry of tears (2012) by Peter Carey (Australia, 1943- )
A good old-fashioned alternating-narrator novel: in the present day we have horologist Catherine, whose life for the last thirteen years has revolved around a secret affair with her married colleague Matthew, trying to cope with her very private grief at his sudden death as she throws herself into a complex restoration project at work. And in 1854, there is Henry, who has already lost one child and is desperately afraid of losing another, on a quixotic mission to the Black Forest to commission a German craftsman to build an extravagantly complex automaton which Henry has come to believe is the only thing that could cheer up his sick son, Percy.
All this is complicated further by Catherine's boss, Eric, who seems to know much more about what's going on in her life than he ought to, and Sumper, the German mechanic Henry engages, who turns out to have trained with a slightly fictional version version of Charles Babbage ("Sir Albert Cruickshank" here — Ada Lovelace does get a brief mention under her own name, though), and to have ambitions to build more than a simple automaton.
In essence this seems to be a book about the kind of things grief does to us when we aren't able to accept other people's sympathy and support, for whatever reason. And to that extent it works well, but there's a lot of other stuff here, some of which works, but much of it seems to be only very vaguely relevant. There's obviously a loose end of the thread about putting excessive trust in technology that goes right back to Oscar and Lucinda, and there's also Carey's long-standing fixation with the motor-car that keeps popping up, and the Brothers Grimm, and maybe a Frankenstein thing...?
I didn't feel Carey handled the mid-Victorian narrator as convincingly here as he has in other books, and there's an awkward tension between the realistic expectations he builds up and the constructed, non-realistic way the world of the book develops, that leaves the reader puzzled rather than unsettled. Fun at times, but not one of his best.
Memento mori (1959) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)
In a typically contrary move, Spark chose to write her definitive novel about old age when she was barely forty, thus leaving herself free to write about teenagers when she was in her eighties...
Most of the characters in this book are at least twice the author's age, but you wouldn't think it: this is a book that seems to convey what it's like to be very old just as powerfully and convincingly as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Old Filth, or The dark flood rises. The characters see themselves as engaged in a constant struggle:
How primitive, Guy thought, life becomes in old age, when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the Pole. And how simply the physical laws assert themselves, frustrating all one's purposes.And there are still the effects of deceptions and love affairs from before the First World War working themselves out between the characters, there are relatives and hangers-on (many of them no longer young themselves) angling for legacies, there are the usual small catastrophes of everyday life, which have so much more impact than they used to, there is the threat of ending up in a Home or — far worse — in the Maud Long Ward(*) at the hospital, with no recourse other than the largely-empty threat to change your will. And to cap it all there is a mysterious voice on the telephone saying "Remember you must die".
Not much fun, clearly, but still surprisingly funny.
(*) Maud Long seems to have acted in quite a number of British TV plays and series in the late fifties, so this was probably an in-joke of some kind.
Not sure if Carlota is available in English, but you can probably find all his books in French, if you need a translation.
Someone else here in CR was talking about his James Earl Ray book, Como la sombra que se va, recently. (ETA: SassyLassy and Kidzdoc)
Finding books like Vie de ma voisine is one of the many reasons why it's so great that we still have public libraries with real people who know what they are doing picking the books to put on the shelves!
I have discovered Charlotte Delbo a few years ago and I am fascinated by this person. What she did, and how she rebuilt her life after the war. If resilience means something, she is a true example of what it is. She's gaining popularity at the moment in France, I don't know why but she deserves it.
This book does not seem to be really about her, but it's right up my alley and I might give it a try. Thanks for your review!
I read his early novel The plains a month ago. This is one of his more recent books:
A history of books (2012) by Gerald Murnane (Australia, 1939- )
This collection includes the novella-length "A history of books" as well as three shorter pieces, all dealing in different ways with the author's memory of the books he has read (or not-read, in some cases), and exploring the conceit that it is these books that have formed the most significant moments in his life. All four stories are billed as "fiction", something the narrator reinforces (or undermines) by reminding us repeatedly that it is fiction we are reading. In the first three, the narrator seems to share much of his background and career with what we know of the author, but "Last letter to a niece" takes us a few steps further into the realm of fiction by imagining a narrator for whom the people he encounters in books are so much more real to him than those of the "real world" that he has been unable ever to engage properly with that real world: his only significant relationship is with the niece with whom he only communicates in writing.
Murnane is intrigued by the way literature works through words in sentences, whilst what he remembers of books is in the form of images and feelings. He finds he can remember few of the millions of words he has read, and when he acknowledges that he can remember a phrase or sentence it is usually one of astonishing simplicity, like "The boy's name was David," a sentence that opened a story by one of his creative writing students, and which — as Murnane unpacks it — turns out to be making the most astonishing claims for the power of fiction.
Especially in the title-story, Murnane enjoys teasing us by referring to the books he is talking about in the most indirect and allusive way possible, hardly ever mentioning the title or the author's name (the only book actually mentioned by name — after several pages of riffing about marbles and the colours in the cover image — is Das Glasperlenspiel, of which the narrator claims to have read the first hundred pages (further than most people get...!). Authors' identities are hinted at through odd facts and relative chronology, e.g. "The author was an Englishman and a contemporary of the man who had read at least part of the book but had later seemed to forget it". This one was Brian Aldiss, as is obvious from the images Murnane remembers from the book, but others are harder to spot, particularly since Murnane often omits basic parameters like gender and nationality. (There's a Publisher's Note at the end of the book teasing us further by sowing doubts: "The authors of the books referred to in ‘A History of Books’ are believed to include...")
He also constantly distances himself-as-narrator from himself-as-subject by talking about the subject as "a boy of ten years", "the man lying on the couch", "a man aged almost forty years", etc. And there's an almost forensic carefulness about language, about distinguishing the things he projects from his memory of books from those he actually saw:
The man remembering the book that he had read forty-five years before saw in his mind several adjoining image-rooms in which the image-walls were covered with image-books on image-shelves. The image-rooms were part of an image-flat in an image-city in image-Europe.— This is talking about a book that seems to be Canetti's Auto-da-fé. It can be maddening, but it's also fascinating and weirdly beautiful. Murnane seems to be doing that thing literature is supposed to do and so rarely achieves, unpicking the world and making us look at it in a completely new way. Except that here it's not the real world he's unpicking, but an imagined world taken from books that partly overlaps (or not) with our own imagined worlds.
>27 AlisonY: I really enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda back in the day, not sure how well it’s stood up to the passage of time. Most of the other early ones are good too, Bliss, Illywhacker, The tax inspector, but later on it gets a bit more patchy. I liked True history of the Kelly gang and A long way from home, but some others left me rather unimpressed. On an off day he’s still good, but he’s someone from whom you expect more than that...
Charlotte Delbo has more first hand experience, I guess. And she is not considered to be a major writer, be it poetry, theater or memoirs.
I have the first tome of her memoirs on my shelves, Aucun de nous ne reviendra, titled after a verse from a poet I can't remember at the time of writting (Rimbaud maybe?), but I fear reading it, I must admit.
(Oh, and Parrot and Olivier in America—I liked that one too.
>31 lisapeet: >32 dchaikin: Parrot and Olivier is on my “disappointing” list — which just goes to show that we don’t all look for the same thing in books — Tristan Smith and My life as a fake are not, but I have never re-read them and don’t remember either very clearly, so that isn’t necessarily an endorsement.
Looking back, I think there might be a pattern to it: on the whole I like his “Australian” books better than the ones based on 19th century Britain/Europe. So it might simply be that I’m prepared to let him have more rope when he’s talking about places and cultures that are exotic to me as reader. In P&O, Jack Maggs, etc., I keep tripping over details that strike me as either hackneyed or inaccurate.
Moving on to a Hungarian writer who happens to be a favourite of Murnane's and who appears —anonymously like everyone else — in A history of books. I think one of the articles I read said that Murnane taught himself Hungarian to be able to read his as-yet untranslated books.
Portraits of a marriage (1941,1949,1980; English 2011) by Sándor Márai (Hungary, USA, 1900-1989), translated by George Szirtes (Hungary, UK, 1948- )
Márai came from a bourgeois background in Kaschau/Kassa/Košice, now in Slovakia, then in the kingdom of Hungary. He studied in Germany and initially wrote in German, travelling widely as a young man. In 1928 he returned to Hungary and switched to writing in his mother-tongue, Hungarian, establishing himself as one of the major novelists of the time. He soon got on bad terms with the new communist government after the war, and in 1948 he left Hungary for exile in Italy and then the USA. Few of his works seem to have been known outside Hungary until after his death in 1989, but translations have been gradually appearing since then.
George Szirtes is a distinguished English poet and taught at UEA until his retirement. He left Hungary with his parents in 1956.
Portraits of a marriage is a puzzling book for the reader, because of the way Márai added to it at widely-spaced intervals and at quite different stages in his development as a writer, apparently without changing what he had previously written, but each time shifting the tone and mood considerably and undermining our confidence in what we have taken from the earlier parts of the book.
The book takes the form of three separate monologues in the voices of Ilonka the First Wife, Peter the Husband, and Judit the Other Woman. These are followed by an Epilogue, also a monologue, in the voice of Ede, the musician who was Judit's lover and the addressee of her monologue.
Ilonka and Peter seem to be a normal, troubled bourgeois couple of the sort that we might well find in a novel by Franz Werfel or Stefan Zweig. They give us their (contrasting, conflicting) views on the story of their failed marriage and the role played by Peter's damaging obsession with his mother's maidservant Judit. There is a lot in both their narratives about the details of their everyday life, but very little reference to other people outside the immediate family — with the notable exception of Peter's friend the writer Lázár, who is obviously a kind of alter ego for the author — and no explicit reference at all to social class or historical events. We don't have any obvious way to tell whether we are meant to be in the 1890s or the 1930s, it just doesn't seem to matter. This is a story about what love means, how it can be resolved with everyday life, and what happens when different people have different expectations about it.
But then Márai hits us with Judit's monologue, addressed to her boyfriend of the moment in a hotel room in Rome sometime in the late 1940s, and obviously written after he went into exile. Judit comes from the rural underclass, her family literally sleeping in a ditch in the winter months, and has pulled herself up by her own efforts, first to become a servant in the apartment of Peter's wealthy middle-class parents, then to turn herself into a lady who could live with Peter on something like equal terms. Her analysis of the way the wealthy live and the irrelevance of Peter and Ilonka and their feelings is just disturbing at first, but we are drawn into her way of seeing things when she shows us (painfully) how the experience of the last days of the war in Budapest changed all the rules. There's obviously a lot here that is taken from the author's direct experience, including Lázár's decision that he can't go on writing under fascism and the destruction of his library in the bombardment.
And then we get the epilogue, written some forty years later, which pulls the rug out from under us again, if not quite as spectacularly as Judit has done.
Quite something, and the English translation by George Szirtes blasts along with real energy.
Another writer to explore further ...
I'm just back from a little holiday in Spain. And it's just as sunny in Holland today as it was in Andalusia yesterday — only about 20 degrees Celsius colder (ouch!). I was travelling with a group of friends so didn't get a huge amount of reading done, but there are a couple of reviews to catch up with. First of all number 11/20 in the Zolathon:
Au Bonheur des Dames (1883; The Ladies' Paradise) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
Zola's big sex-and-shopping novel turns out to have surprisingly little obvious sex, but makes up for it by giving us what's essentially a complete primer in retail theory and practice circa 1870. And some gloriously erotic descriptions of textiles and haberdashery, which help us to see Zola's point that in the new capitalist society of the Second Empire there isn't any meaningful distinction to be made between sex and shopping: they are simply two different aspects of the way society is based on the exploitation of women.
We follow the unstoppable expansion of the Bonheur des Dames from simple draper's shop to vast department store from the perspectives of its proprietor, Octave Mouret (last seen marrying into the business in Pot-Bouille), and of a young shop assistant from the provinces, Denise, who comes to work for him. And we experience the effect of the new retail phenomenon as seen by Octave's middle-class women friends — the customers whose money it is designed to extract — and from the less sanguine viewpoint of the small shopkeepers in the neighbourhood who are being crushed under Mouret's wheels.
Not Zola's strongest novel in terms of its human plot, which turns out to be a very standard sort of romance. But he more than makes up for it with the non-fiction aspect of the book, its detailed analysis of how big retail works, not only the front-of-house manipulation of customer psychology we expect, but also the behind-the-scenes business administration that makes it all possible. Right down to the economics of staff-canteen menus. All very fascinating, and surprisingly modern: it's a shock to be reminded that we're still in the age of gas-light, horses and carts, and snail-mail...
Nueva teoría de la urbanidad (2019) by Manuel Vilas (Spain, 1962- )
Manuel Vilas is a distinguished Spanish poet, who also attracted a lot of attention last year with his novel Ordesa.
These little essays playing around with the very Spanish topic of urbanidad (urbanity, politeness, courtesy) seem to have been written originally as newspaper columns (the book doesn't say where: presumably El Pais) and were issued in book form as a gift for Spanish FNAC customers.
Vilas isn't writing anything like an etiquette manual, but he looks semi-seriously at the way we behave in various different social contexts, and the way the modern world imposes certain types of behaviour on us. He's a fan of shiny Spanish shoes, black jeans and (ironed) white shirts, he doesn't approve of activities like mass-tourism and air-travel that involve standing in long queues, he feels that we should spend our holidays in the old family home in the pueblo our parents came from rather than on the beach, and he wonders what Kafka would think of our notion of the kafkaesque: would he see it as a kafkaesque misunderstanding?
Entertaining, playful, but not a book you could imagine anyone taking offence at.
Beatus Ille (1986; A manuscript of ashes) by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain, 1956- )
Muñoz Molina's first novel, written over the course of several summer holidays whilst he was still working as a civil servant in Granada, and an immediate hit when it came out in 1986. But this isn't your typical first novel: it's set up as a kind of postmodern, post-Spanish-Civil-War counterpart of The Magic Mountain, exploring the physical and emotional damage done by the war, the seductive temptations of literature, sex, death, and heroism, and the equally strong temptation to run away from all of them.
Minaya, scared by an unpleasant encounter with the police after being caught up in anti-Franco student protests in Madrid, decides to spend some time out of the way at his uncle Manuel's house in the small town of Mágina in the upper Guadalquivir valley, researching a thesis on Manuel's close friend, the forgotten Civil War poet Jacinto Solana. As Minaya slowly starts to unravel some of the mysteries of the house and its collection of assorted refugees past and present and finds a few scattered clues that seem to be leading him to Solana's missing manuscript, he also gets drawn into an affair with the enigmatic Ines, housemaid and 19th-century-French-fiction addict. And he's constantly on the verge of getting the train back to Madrid, but never quite gets beyond Mágina station.
With thirty years of hindsight you might say that Muñoz Molina is perhaps indulging himself a bit too much in his descriptions and his disorientingly unflagged changes of narrator, and hasn't quite found his leaner mature style yet. But I don't think you'd have said that if you were reading this book in 1986. He draws the reader right into the claustrophobic world of Manuel's town-house and we follow him cheerfully down the same blind alleys into which he is leading Minaya. Very rewarding.
Funny that translations into every other language except English seem to have kept the Latin title of the original: are the anglophone publishers afraid it's too foreign, or too Catholic...?
Afterthought: I found it slightly disconcerting that the foreground story of this book is set in early 1969, just a few months before that of the last of his books I read, El viento de la Luna (>17 thorold: above), and in the same fictional town, but they don't share any characters or plot, even though both feel very autobiographical. But of course they were written 20 years apart and not meant to be read as a series!
Anyone who follows my reading at all will know that I have a fondness for slightly offbeat literary and philosophical views of cycling. This one, spotted on the "recent acquisitions" table at the library, takes me a bit out of my comfort zone into the region of competitive cycling, but it definitely ticks the "oddball" box...
Hoe word je een wielerfan (en blijf je er een)? (2019) by Matthias Vangenechten (Belgium, 1992- )
A young Flemish bike-sport blogger who's a little too clever for his own good takes a deeply-ironic look at the art of enjoying professional cycling from the comfort of your own sofa. So ironic that the book includes an ironic send-up of the conventions of ironic cycling fandom, and comes with its own "copy and re-use" pro-forma review text. So it's probably advisable to take precautions against the risk of disappearing up your own orifices whilst reading it. But it is quite amusing.
"It's not about the bike", as we all know, and as far as Vangenechten is concerned it's not especially about the riders either: pro-cycling is a fictional construct centred about the watcher, and defined by the complex interaction of media, sponsors and professionals (drug companies, team managers, doctors, trainers, pharmacists, mechanics, riders) who all depend on keeping you entertained for their survival. If you treat it as a competitive sport, you are doomed to disappointment (especially if you are Flemish and buy into the "cradle of cycle-sport" myth), but if you accept it for what it is it can be very rewarding.
Vangenechten oddly never mentions Roland Barthes's famous 1955 essay, “Le Tour de France comme épopée”, but this is essentially the same argument: professional cycling works because it packages itself as an epic narrative, populated by quasi-mythical figures who take on the attributes of an Achilles or an Odysseus in our imaginations. Vangenechten takes this a step further by looking in some detail at the way the journalist Karel Van Wijnendaele used the cyclist-as-hero construct to promote unsavoury Flemish-nationalist ideology in the 20s and 30s, and the way being a cycling fan is still often a cover for hardline sexism and national chauvinism (he—ironically—claims to have risen above that by mentioning women's cycling several times and by pointing out that Flanders hasn't produced an important road-racer in living memory)...
And of course there's a lot of fairly predictable discussion about professional cycling and drug use. Vangenechten isn't quite sure which way to jump on this: on the one hand, drug-use scandals and police raids are much better entertainment than boringly predictable Tour de France stages in which absolutely nothing happens until five seconds before the riders reach the finishing line, but on the other hand an arms race between big pharmaceutical companies that kills some riders and turns the rest into implausible machines isn't very good for the idea of cycling as narrative.
One interesting suggestion he makes — something that Barthes also thought about, but wasn't in a position to develop further — is that television has undermined a lot of the drama and excitement of cycling we used to get from written accounts. A rider making a solo breakaway over several hours of a race is a very dramatic event on paper, but it doesn't make for good television, and the teams know this and modify their tactics accordingly.
Fun, but probably not quite enough to persuade me to draw the curtains and spend summer days in front of the television...
>43 thorold: Enjoyed your review. I have to keep myself away from watching sport on TV. I know too many people (all men) my age who must spend half their lives in front of the TV watching sport, although I am tempted by the tour de France, but I now limit myself to watching the last 5 kilometres of the stages.
Every summer in France we spent our mornings watching the Tour de France with our grandfather and we loved every moment of it. It's a beautiful spectacle even if you watch it for the sublime scenery of France rather than the cycling itself. The fact that the cycling itself is beautiful is merely a bonus. I have to admit I haven't watched it since the Lance Armstrong days as I no longer am in France during that time of year but it was always a real pleasure even when I look back on it I realize we were basically spending 5 hours in front of the tv. Fortunately summer days are long in France so we still managed to get in plenty of summer activities.
I used to enjoy watching the Tour — I think I would fit into Vangenechten's typology of cycling-watchers as "the Proust aficionado", a type characterised by taking great aesthetic pleasure from seeing the race whilst irritating true fans by boasting about being entirely uninterested in who wins or loses. But I had one summer when I was trapped at home by an injury and ended up watching practically the whole race live on daytime TV, and after that I could never face it again...
One nice thing in Vangenechten's book I forgot to mention: there's a long-running controversy among Dutch-speakers about the etymology of the informal word for a bike, fiets, with about five main theories, all equally impossible to prove, and all defended to the death by their respective proponents. Vangenechten slips in an entirely new one: he claims that the word was first used by Zeeland dairy farmer Adrianus Laegerland in 1897, when he reasoned "if this is a bicycle bell (fietsbel) then the vehicle it is attached to must be called a bicycle (fiets)" — beautifully elegant, but somewhat undermined by the way Vangenechten slaps himself on the back in the next paragraph for having come up with the convincing circumstantial details of the date and the name "Adrianus Laegerland"...
A history of aerodynamics and its impact on flying machines (1997) by John D. Anderson, Jr. (USA, 1937- )
Anderson is (emeritus) professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland and Curator of Aerodynamics at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. I suspect that he's no longer quite as youthful as Wikipedia's mugshot implies...
I read a lot of "history of technology" books, and I'm used to the typical storyline: whereas we've been taught to expect that technological advances should come forth out of the results of fundamental research, in practice, it's most often the other way round. Engineers use inspired guesswork and empirical research to develop machines to solve real-world problems, and scientists are inspired by their success to investigate the underlying basic principles. The engineers then incorporate those into their design strategy for future iterations. (A familiar example is the interaction between heat engine technology and classical thermodynamics.)
Anderson's take on the relationship between theoretical aerodynamics and aircraft technology is rather different. The two disciplines seem to have developed in almost total isolation from each other. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists had sorted out the equations governing the flow of fluids by about the end of the 18th century, culminating in the work of Navier and Stokes in the 1850s, but no-one in the scientific establishment saw any real practical application for this work — the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine was plainly ridiculous, and in any case the equations could only be solved mathematically for certain trivial cases.
At the same time, a series of largely self-taught enthusiasts — from Leonardo, George Cayley, and Otto Lilienthal to Samuel Langley and the Wright brothers — were doing practical development work to try to make a machine that could support itself by motion through the air, inspired by observations of real-world phenomena like the flight of birds, and either ignorant of or unable to make use of the work done by the theoreticians. Langley is often brought into histories of aviation as the representative of the big bad scientific establishment, but Anderson presents him as a classic American autodidact not so different from the Wrights, except that he took advantage of the Civil War to blag his way into an academic post without any qualifications and was thereafter in a better position than they to get research funding.
It was ultimately the success of the Wrights that got scientists in Europe interested in working on applied aerodynamics (and governments interested in funding them): Russia, Germany, France and Britain all had dedicated fluid dynamics research institutions set up before 1914. Ironically it had the opposite effect in the US, at first: Langley's embarrassing failure and the Wrights' aggressive defence of their patents combined to discourage anyone from venturing into the field, and when the government finally decided that it needed an aviation strategy there was a lengthy turf war between different organisations that felt they should be in charge of it before the NACA could start operations properly in 1920.
It's surprising to read that the aircraft of World War I were still designed largely empirically by practical engineers, who saw little reason to pay attention to the work of the theoreticians. That doesn't seem to have changed much until the early 1920s, when theory had advanced so far that it could actually start to make sensible design recommendations. At the same time, experimental tools were improving, with the construction of better wind tunnels in all the main research institutes.
The book takes the story up to about the mid-1950s, looking quite closely at how the collaboration between theoreticians, experimentalists and engineers led to the development of machines capable of supersonic flight. But it doesn't go into things like the development of computational fluid dynamics in any detail.
Anderson isn't the most elegant of writers — at least three times he tells us that this or that scientist was "not developing his theories of air flow in a vacuum" — and he can be alarmingly brusque in his biographical summaries, but he does present the difficult scientific content very clearly. And it's good to see that, since he's an academic writing for academics and no private person is ever likely to buy a book like this on impulse anyway, his publishers have allowed him to include plenty of those scary-looking equations without which a book like this would soon become unintelligible. (But I was glad that I won't be taking an exam on any of this...)
A peripheral thought: I don't know whether this is to do with Anderson's own professional background or reflects a limitation in the thinking of aerodynamicists in general, but when he's talking about early experimenters trying to find the most effective way to generate lift he never mentions anyone taking a look at what happens in the sails of ships (he does mention windmills a couple of times in passing, but the only mentions of ships are in the context of water-flow around their hulls). Everyone who's ever sailed against the wind knows that air flowing over a curved sail generates a normal (lift) force towards the convex side of the sail as well as the (drag) force in the plane of the sail, and that efficient sailing depends on proper adjustment of the conditions to get smooth (laminar) airflow over both surfaces of the sail. Surely at least some of the people trying to build flying machines must have been in a position to imagine a sail turned round to make a wing?
It's ages since I read anything by Thomas Bernhard, at least partly because I've been rationing myself. I've still got two or three major works to go, though, so I thought it was time I allowed myself another one:
Alte Meister (1985; Old Masters) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931-1989)
Atzbacher has been asked to meet his friend, the recently-widowed music critic Reger, in front of Tintoretto's White-bearded man in the Kunsthistorisches Museum at 11.30. He gets there early, spends 120 pages or so daydreaming, then they meet and Reger rants for most of the remaining 200 pages about what's wrong with the world, the arts, Austria and Vienna, in the best Bernhardian style. But then, two pages from the end of the book, Reger suddenly remembers the somewhat trivial reason why he asked Atzbacher to come.
Not a book to read if what you are after is a fast-moving action story, then, but you wouldn't expect that from Bernhard anyway. The ranting here is of the very finest quality, though, and the absurdity of the situation keeps us wanting to know more: why does this man who claims to hate all art, especially old art, choose to sit religiously in front of the Tintoretto three mornings a week for thirty years? Reger's diatribe is not only ludicrously and magnificently negative about everything (Vienna, it seems, has the dirtiest toilets, the most corrupt Catholic-National-Socialist judges, the most hypocritical politicians and the most mediocre writers and artists in Europe. Amongst other things...), but turns out to have been cunningly conceived to lead us into a very moving analysis of what it's like to lose the person who's been at the centre of your life for many years. Bernhard calls this book a comedy, but the distraught Reger's reaction to the death of his wife is obviously a fictional working-out of Bernhard's reaction to the death of his life-companion Hedwig Stavianicek in 1984. Only Bernhard could imagine a character who fights his way out of a near-terminal depression by reading Schopenhauer...
After reading Drive your plow (>8 thorold:), I was keen to persuade our book club to try Tokarczuk, and we settled on this one as the only one of her books we could get hold of without waiting weeks for publishers to catch up with the Nobel announcement(*). This is the book that in Jennifer Croft's translation won the Booker International last year.
Flights (2007; English 2017) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Jennifer Croft (USA, Argentina, - )
At first sight, this is an idea for a book so crazy that you are inclined to suspect that it could have been the result of a silly party game — after the third bottle of wine has gone round the writer gets her friends to write down things that could be subjects for a parody of the postmodern novel, and, suitably blindfolded, she draws out "air travel", "museums of anatomical specimens" and "old maps"...
...but of course that's unfair. Whatever the method that led her to pick these particular themes, Tokarczuk knows what she's doing, and she stitches them into a complex but very satisfying whole, using a mixture of first-person observation in the persona of the author, fragments of fictional stories, and historical anecdotes, illustrated in a pleasingly incoherent way by a selection of old and slightly offbeat maps of places that mostly don't have anything obvious to do with the text.
Some things work better than others: the whole flight=fugue, arrival=death, aircraft=womb (etc.) thing has been done by so many other people, and the last part of the book almost reads like a rehash of Tennyson's "Ulysses". But she does manage to keep our attention, even there, and she does a lot of unexpected things with the other major thread about anatomical exhibitions and tissue-preservation (parts of which are also quite well-trodden ground for postmodern writers). And she's simply such a good writer in detail as well: wherever we are in the book there are unexpected images and pieces of observation to make us go back and read a passage again, with even more pleasure than the first time.
(*) See below (probably) for the major concession I had to make to get this through...
Stories (2017) by Susan Sontag (USA, 1933-2004)
Critic and essayist Susan Sontag isn't really someone you think of as an author of fiction, but she did write a few novels (notably The volcano lover and In America) as well as eleven rather diverse short pieces of writing that can't quite be classified as essays or reviews and thus seem to have been filed almost by accident in the "fiction" pile. Eight of these appeared previously in a 1978 collection called I, etcetera; this posthumous Collected stories adds "Pilgrimage" and "The letter scene", which don't seem to have been published in book form before, and "The way we live now", which was published as a standalone book in 1991. (Irritatingly, although the Collected Stories has a short general introduction by Benjamin Taylor, it doesn't have any details about the publishing history of the stories at all.)
There's a huge range of forms and subject-matter going on here. "Pilgrimage" is a lovely, presumably autobiographical, story of the acute embarrassment for a clever teenager in 1940s Los Angeles of being taken, against her will, to meet her absolute literary hero, Thomas Mann. Of course the narrator has grown up — didn't we all? — listening to Stravinsky and Schoenberg and reading Joyce, Kafka and Dostoevsky, but Dr Mann seems to think that American high school students are going to want to talk about Hemingway, a writer she's barely even heard of...
"The letter scene" and "Doctor Jekyll" are reimaginings of Pushkin and RLS, respectively, but each is taken from a very strange angle, and it doesn't really help much to be familiar with the original. "Project for a trip to China" and "Unguided tour" are both travel stories, with the first being an account of a trip the narrator hasn't made yet (and a reflection on the offstage death of her father) whilst the second is a kind of cubist composite view of all the travel fiction you've ever read.
"American spirits" and "The dummy" are — marginally — more normal pieces of satirical fantasy-writing; "Baby", a series of monologues set in a psychotherapist's office, seems to be another cubist composite image until you get to the poignant ending; "Debriefing" is a sad but also oddly upbeat little piece about depression in the city, and of course "The way we live now", which originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1986, was Sontag's fictional treatment of the AIDS crisis, told entirely in indirect speech and never mentioning either the name of the patient or that of the disease.
Magnificent writing, sometimes quite obscure and needing a bit of work, but always worth pursuing. And the book would be worth having just for "Pilgrimage".
Original version of "Pilgrimage" in the 1987 New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1987/12/21/pilgrimage-susan-sontag
(I don't have anything against graphic novels as such — I can see that they offer all sorts of possibilities for the artist that aren't there in a purely textual work — but they seem to be one of those things, like football, science-fiction, meat-eating and prog rock, that I've always been able to live quite happily without...)
Blankets (2003, 2017) by Craig Thompson (USA, 1975- )
This is about the size of a young telephone directory, but, rather disconcertingly, it only took me an afternoon to work through it. I feel rather sorry for all the trees that got ground up to make that 1.5 kg pile of paper...
In the space of about 600 pages, Thompson tells us about his childhood and adolescence in an Evangelical family in a small town in a snowy part of the American Midwest, about sharing a room with his little brother, being bullied at school, falling in love, being discouraged from pursuing his passion for drawing, and struggling with magnificent religious Doubts of the George Eliot variety (believing or not-believing eventually turns out to revolve around a fine distinction of Hebrew conjunctions, if I understood it right).
The pictures are lovely, funny and clever, and Thompson uses them in non-obvious, non-linear ways to tell his story, but after a while I found it all a little bit too cloyingly whimsical and sentimental in that very American-coming-of-age way, where you can be nostalgic for family cosiness and small-towns and snowy days and the music of twenty years ago at the same time as complaining about how it was all oppressing you and preventing you from expressing your true self.
Autobiographical stories also often have the problem that things that would be important threads in a constructed work of fiction don't resolve themselves, simply because they pass outside the narrator's knowledge at a certain point. That happens in life, we do lose track of people who have been important to us, but in a book like this it's very disconcerting when a whole large area of the plot is just closed off with one phone-call (even if that does get justified later on with a bit of footprints-in-the-snow imagery). And especially when the characters in that area of the plot were so much more interesting than the ones in the narrator's own family...
It seems to be difficult for any kind of modern coming-of-age story to present loss of religious faith as anything more complicated than a disagreement about rules of (sexual-) behaviour with dim and narrow-minded parents and pastors. Thompson tries, and he shows his narrator having a real struggle letting go of the Sunday-school/New Testament image of Christ he's grown up with, but in the end it once again seems to come down to the people around him being too narrow-minded to leave him with any alternative to a complete rejection of them. Surely there must be more to it than that?
I'm obviously not the target audience for this sort of book: I grew up in a quite different time and place and with a different set of adolescent problems to worry about. It didn't really work for me, but there's no obvious reason why it should have, and it obviously has been a very relevant and helpful book for a lot of other people in different situations.
This caught my eye mostly because there were piles of it everywhere I went in Spain last month, but also partly because I've enjoyed several of Pérez-Reverte's historical novels and Spanish history is a subject I'm interested in anyway:
Una historia de España (2019) by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Spain, 1951- )
Arturo Pérez-Reverte's very personal account of Spanish history was originally published as a newspaper serial between May 2013 and August 2017, in 91 short parts that take the story from ancient times to 1982. In book form it seems to have been a surprise bestseller, judging from the fact that it went through seven printings between March and June 2019. Not bad for a history book that hasn't even gone into paperback yet. But Pérez-Reverte is a pretty big name in Spain...
He says that his main intention in writing these articles was to give himself an excuse to spend time reading more about Spanish history and to have fun subverting matters that are normally taken far too seriously, but he clearly also wants to use the platform that his standing as a novelist gives him to provoke readers into thinking seriously about history themselves, into questioning what they've been told (including what he tells them), and perhaps learning something from it that might help shift Spain away from the endless cycle of repeating the mistakes of the past.
Pérez-Reverte doesn't comment directly on current Spanish politics, but he clearly feels that irresponsible and self-interested politicians are once again busy leading the gullible people into chaos, undoing all the achievements of the post-Franco renaissance of liberal democracy. It's interesting in this respect to see how the tone of the articles gets more and more serious as they go on. At the beginning, he's mostly just poking fun at the myths Spanish people (especially those who grew up under Franco) were fed at school; later on, especially when he gets to 1936, it all starts getting more deeply felt and pessimistic.
That doesn't mean that the language gets more scholarly, though: Pérez-Reverte writes throughout in a very earthy style, peppered with (metaphorical) references to bulls, testicles, and the descendants of ladies of negotiable affections. And all sorts of other things I had to look up. Not the sort of Spanish you would expect from a member of the Real Academia, and all the more effective because of that. He's constantly hammering home the point that whatever you are told about history is someone's personal and very debatable interpretation of the facts, and it's up to you to check up and find out how far you can trust them. And at the same time he is surreptitiously convincing us that Spain has been a casa de putas since time immemorial, run by incompetent kings, corrupt politicians and fanatical bishops to the detriment of the people who actually do the hard work and produce something. A history of suicidal civil wars and doomed foreign ones, interrupted by only the very briefest periods of peace and stability.
There aren't many heroes in this book, apart from the mostly nameless men and women who have died fighting bravely for what their masters believe in. Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V and Franco stand out as rare examples of competent and efficient leaders, but that doesn't mean that Pérez-Reverte approves of any of them; Adolfo Suarez is just about the only politician who gets any kind of praise. Of course Cervantes, Velasquez and the rest of the stars of the Golden Age come in for their share of favourable comment, but Pérez-Reverte also makes the point that none of them really enjoyed the sort of standing they might have had outside Spain because they were all contaminated by the country's dark reputation. He suggests that the "Black Legend" would never have been such an issue for Spain if Philip II hadn't been so keen on making war on all the countries with the most advanced printing cultures. If he'd moved the capital to Lisbon and focussed his energies on overseas trade instead of fighting Protestantism, things might have been very different. (My thought: he would have built Mafra instead of the Escorial...)
One point where Pérez-Reverte might perhaps be accused of falling short — at least when looked at from a non-Spanish vantage point — is that he says very little about Spanish persecution of Jews. He doesn't explicitly mention the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and he lumps the persecutions of the 14th and 15th centuries together with the persecution of other minorities (Moors, heretics, etc.), which he decodes as simply a convenient way expropriating the wealthy to pay off part of Ferdinand and Isabella's war debts. I think this comes mostly out of his desire to debunk the myth of Al-Andaluz as a tolerant multi-culti paradise, a notion that was only ever true by comparison with the extreme intolerance of other places at the time, but has somehow taken on its own out-of-context life in recent years.
Obviously this isn't a book intended for non-Spanish readers, and it did occasionally feel as though I was overhearing talk of family scandals not intended for my ears, but it was rather fun, and I learnt a few new idiomatic expressions. Which I will almost certainly never dare to use...
Re flying (>48 thorold: >53 thorold:) — I went to see Dawkins promoting his latest book last night (I didn't know about it, but a friend had a spare ticket and roped me in at the last minute). I've no great interest in the new book, Outgrowing god, which seems to be a rehash of The god delusion for teenagers, but was interested to hear that he's working with someone else on a book about human and animal flight. Should be fun when it comes out.
Alarming to think that the last time I went to a talk by Dawkins must have been in Oxford around the time The extended phenotype came out, when we were both much younger...
Something totally unrelated, although it is a Nobelist, albeit one of an unusually tentative variety:
La petite bijou (2001; Little Jewel) by Patrick Modiano (France, 1945- )
Like all of Modiano's books that I've read so far, this short novel is about someone who seems to be adrift in the world, in search of a missing parent. And full of atmospheric bits of Paris geography and weather and a general feeling of mid-20th-century Frenchness that belies its actual publication date.
As far Thérèse knows, her mother ran off to Morocco and died there many years ago, after dumping her with friends in the country. But she's just seen a woman in a yellow coat in the crowds at Châtelet métro station who looks exactly like the last photo she has. Against her better judgement, she follows the woman to an unwelcoming apartment building in a remote suburb, but she doesn't quite have the courage to accost her.
We soon learn that Thérèse has a very insecure grip on life, mostly focussed on trying to sort out her memories of childhood. Her job is to look after a (nameless) little girl whose parents show every sign of being as untrustworthy as her own (...and the author's); two people she's met attempt to help her, one of them a translator with two names that seem to be interchangeable, the other a pharmacist with no name, but she has trouble accepting support from either of them.
An unsettling view of the fragility of the human condition. Not a book to read just before going to bed...
A new consignment of Sontag from my last raid on the library:
Against interpretation, and other essays (1966) by Susan Sontag (USA, 1933-2004)
This was Sontag's first essay-collection, first published in 1966 when she had broken out of academia and was starting to make her way as a critic in New York and Paris. It includes several of her most famous pieces — "Against interpretation", "On style", "Notes on camp", etc., as well as a selection of book, film and theatre reviews.
"Against interpretation" sets the tone for the whole book, really: Sontag is on a mission to persuade the world of the arts that they have all been focussing too much on content at the expense of form. Works of art (novels, films, paintings, poems, plays, ...) should not do their aesthetic work through the ideas they present, but by the elegance and originality of the way in which they engage with the viewer. This is a message which she develops further in many of her reviews, and it is also at the heart of "Notes on camp" — camp is all about the disconnect between style and substance.
Picking the book up fifty years on, the first thing that struck me was the tremendous confidence and authority she expresses. About everything from philosophy and anthropology to Japanese science-fiction films and New York "Happenings", she has read all the relevant background literature (like all properly-scary critics, she's normally better-informed than the author whose work she's taking apart), made up her mind, and tells us without any equivocation or self-doubt exactly what's good and bad about the work. I can well imagine that the presumption of this young woman telling them what to think must have made quite a few elderly male readers of the Partisan Review and NYRB splutter over their cornflakes back in the early sixties...
It's interesting to see how many of the names that really mattered (to someone like Sontag) in the early sixties have faded into the background a bit now: Sartre, Genet, Camus, Antonin Artaud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Simone Weil, Robert Bresson, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard. We still know who most of them are, and perhaps have one or two of them in our personal pantheons as well, but we'd be unlikely to come up with that exact list. Barthes and Foucault were only just beginning to show up on the map then, and Derrida (whose first major book only came out in 1967) doesn't even get a mention. (There is also the interesting question of how much room she leaves for non-French intellectuals. Answer: not much. We do get mention of a handful of Germans, Hungarians, Russians, Japanese and maybe two Americans in the course of the book, but France occupies about 95% of the seats in her intellectual debating-chamber at this point...)
In a silly anachronistic way, it's also amusing to see how often Sontag writes things in a way that would set 21st century feminists' teeth on edge. When she opens her essay on Camus with the memorable sentence, "Great writers are either husbands or lovers", we're supposed to understand that she's using that image to make us imagine two particular kinds of relationships between writer and reader, and that this doesn't have anything to do with the gender or sexuality that either of them happen to have in real life. We still understand and enjoy the image, of course, but she'd never get away with that nowadays!
Something similar applies to her comments about "homosexuals" at various points, e.g. in "Notes on camp" and in her review of Blues for Mister Charlie. Baldwin gets taken to task for using a play that's ostensibly about racism to deal covertly with his own sexual hang-ups — a perceptive judgement by Sontag, but the way she delivers it is more than a little brusque.
Sontag may well have been right in philosophical, aesthetic terms that "form" should be more important than "content" in art, but she certainly didn't have a feel for which way things were going in the real world. Just two chance examples that came up whilst I was reading this book:
(i) The new BBC series Novels that shaped the world: a whole series that looks at the novel purely in terms of its social and political content, with no interest in form at all beyond the occasional comment on how books achieve their rhetorical effects.
(ii) The exhibition "Foute boeken" (offensive books) currently on at Museum Meermanno. An entire exhibition predicated on the idea that the content of books can violate social norms and be offensive to us, either deliberately or in hindsight. Well-intentioned, but still slightly troubling as an idea: an exhibition of things the viewer is supposed to disapprove of struck me as having nasty overtones of "Entartete Kunst".
La joie de vivre (1884; The joy of life/Zest for life/The bright side of life) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
So, after the sex-and-shopping of Au bonheur des dames, Zola comes up with an indisputable beach novel. No-one can say he wasn't ready for the airport-bookstall era...
The basic scenario of this novel is very simple: little Pauline comes to live with her aunt and uncle in a remote village on the Normandy coast after the death of her parents. One horror after another strikes the family, in the gratuitous kind of way only Hardy and Zola can get away with, and Pauline herself has to cope with some pretty nasty stuff in her life, but (without resort to religion) she somehow manages to retain almost Ann-of-Green-Gables levels of optimism whilst all around her are dying in excruciating pain, losing their homes to floods, failing in business, etc. And by some miracle, Zola manages to make her a likeable and sympathetic central character despite this.
Having discovered the value of obstetrics as a way of building a climactic scene in Pot-bouille, Zola goes one better here, with what Yves Berger claims in the preface of my edition must be the longest and most gruesomely-detailed childbirth scene in French literature. If it isn't, by any chance, I'm pretty sure I don't want to read the book that outdoes it. But again, it's not gratuitous, it's there to remind us of the absolute horror that the most normal event in life can turn into, the pain women are expected to go through, and the rather inadequate resources of the medical profession of the time for dealing with it ("...I can save either your wife or your baby...").
He also scores what must surely be another first here by bringing in menstruation as a major symbolic element. Being Zola, it is not delicately and indirectly alluded to: we get all the gory details we would like. And of course there is a social point to make here as well as a symbolic one: Zola shows us the imbecility of Mme Chanteau's reluctance to explain to her ward what's happening to her body when she bleeds for the first time. Fortunately, Pauline happens to be in a position to deal with the question by reading it up in her cousin's medical books, and copes in a very enlightened modern way. She continues to alarm other characters throughout the book with how clued-up she is about sex and unembarrassed talking about it: obviously Zola wants us to see how much better life would be for young women if they all acted like that.
Other than the ob/gyn element of the book, we get some hardline rural poverty (including domestic abuse, alcohol abuse, and all the rest), seaweed chemistry, coastal defence (four years before Der Schimmelreiter), veterinary problems of dogs and cats, and the usual financial/inheritance/dowry shenanigans. And quite a bit of Schopenhauer — obviously Zola felt things were at risk of becoming too cheerful if he didn't deploy some heavy weapons...
A relatively minor work in the sequence, but still with some interesting ideas and subject-matter.
...so nothing stands between me and Germinal any more!
The gap of time : the Winter's tale retold (2015) by Jeanette Winterson (UK, 1959- )
Obviously Hogarth Press commissioned Winterson to do The Winter's Tale in their series of high-profile Shakespeare retellings because it's a play about an adopted child being reunited with her biological parents, something Winterson has written about from personal experience. She tells us in her postscript to the novel that she's always identified with Perdita. But of course it's not just a play about Perdita...
The play is all about the consequences of Leontes going off the rails and groundlessly accusing his wife of adultery with his best friend. Shakespeare doesn't seem to be interested in why or how he gets this mad idea into his head (but he does make sure the audience realise it is a mad idea, and that there is never any doubt of Hermione's innocence). He wants to explore how — through a combination of good luck and repentance — Leontes almost manages to turn back time and put things right after all. This idea of the attempt to reverse time is at the core of Winterson's version of the story (even down to the deliberately corny introduction of a De Lorean car into the plot at one point...).
Leo is a powerful London venture-capitalist, his schoolfriend Xeno writes computer games, his wife MiMi is a Parisian chanteuse, and Pauline is his Jewish PA and later business partner. The "pastoral" plot is set in New Bohemia, a city that seems to be somewhere on the Mississippi, where Shep and Clo run a piano bar, and Autolycus (inevitably) turns out to be a secondhand car dealer. As a 21st-century novelist, Winterson can't really allow Leo to escape psychological motivation as Shakespeare does, so she gives him a backstory that makes it difficult for him to trust women, as well as a schoolboy romance with Xeno.
Maybe a bit corny, although the Rebel without a cause bit was a clever addition. The extra understanding Winterson's experience brings to the Perdita story is probably more productive, and it's also something I'll have in the back of my mind next time I see the play. Being reunited with your biological parents after 16 years can never be a straightforward happy-end curtain scene for any real child, even if it does mean that you can now marry the boy you love...
It all sort-of works as a story, despite the reader knowing how it's going to end, and in fact Winterson exploits our pre-knowledge of the plot a few times by not writing scenes which are really redundant, or by playing with the sequential order of the narrative. Fun, and clever, but it's very much a work that depends on Shakespeare's play, not a standalone novel. And there's no bear.
(When I saw the title I guessed that Winterson would insert her story into the sixteen year silence between the two halves of the play, during which Hermione is presumably standing very still, pretending to be a statue of herself, and Perdita is growing up to be a shepherdess. But that's obviously another story waiting to be written...)
Reis bij Maanlicht (1937; Dutch 2004; Utas és holdvilág/Journey by moonlight/The traveler) by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1901-1945) translated from Hungarian to Dutch by Györgyi Dandoy
Antal Szerb seems to have been best-known in his own time as a literary scholar and promoter of Hungarian literature, but he was also an anglophile (Hungarian translator of P.G. Wodehouse!) and a keen traveller in Italy, interests that come out in the subjects of his two novels. Because of his Jewish descent he was forced out of academia in the 1930s; he was killed in a concentration camp in 1945.
Journey by moonlight sometimes reads like Where angels fear to tread as rewritten by someone brought up in the spirit of German romanticism. Mihály is an emotionally-troubled young man who after years of drifting has tried to anchor himself in the bourgeois "real world" by marrying Erszi. Unfortunately, she has married him largely for the opposite reason: she is looking for a Tyger to drag her away from boring respectability. So it's perhaps not such a surprise that when, a week or so into their Italian honeymoon, Mihály accidentally gets on the wrong train and loses touch with his new bride, he doesn't make any great effort to find her again.
Mihály is still carrying around a lot of emotional baggage from his claustrophobic teenage friendships with a group of avant-la-lettre goths, addicted to role-playing games and death-imagery. In the meantime one of them has taken his own life (or possibly been murdered), another has become a Franciscan friar, another has adopted the persona of a wheeler-dealer crook, and only Éva, the girl they were all (including her brother) in love with, seems to have turned out halfway normal.
Lots of glorious Italian tourist-trail atmosphere, hardly spoilt by the posters of Mussolini on every wall, lots of romantic longing and fantasising about death, but all set off against common-sense reality with a delightfully ironic detachment. As in Forster, the Italian zest for life is set up in opposition to northern melancholy and over-analytical thinking, but unlike Forster he's clear that work and business belong on the "life" side of the scales, together with sex and pasta, whilst art and love and (mystical-)religion are classified with the other death-wish items.
This is another one I found out about through rebeccanyc : her review is here http://www.librarything.com/work/10100/reviews/107010054
I particularly remember going to see his Rigoletto and Mikado in London in the 80s. Witty and original and full of colour at a time when most things you saw on the stage were grey and minimalist.
Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) by Richard Dawkins (UK, 1941- )
I don't really need Dawkins to persuade me that Darwinian evolution is an amazingly powerful idea (...or if I did, he already did the job forty years ago), but there's still a lot of pleasure in following his devastatingly clear explanations of some of the more unexpected places where it can lead us.
In this book, Dawkins looks at a selection of topics including the design of spider-webs, the possible shapes of shells, and the surprisingly complex sex-life of figs, as well as going in depth into two of the areas that are regularly held up as too complex to have "evolved by chance": vision and flight. The objections of Mrs Darwin and more recent doubters are rapidly dealt with, as Dawkins sets out the convincing evidence that both have developed many times, independently, in different parts of the evolutionary tree, and to many different levels of sophistication, and shows how even something as complex as the camera-eye we have nowadays could have developed through a series of quite plausible intermediate stages.
As in The blind watchmaker, there is a lot of reference to experiments with computer-simulations of evolutionary processes done by himself and other researchers, and Dawkins doesn't try to hide the limitations of such simulations, which can only assess the success of a mutation in terms of arbitrary pre-defined rules, whilst in the real world such mutations may (or, more likely, may not) turn out to overcome problems that we could only define with hindsight.
In his penultimate chapter, Dawkins tries to show us what an amazing thing life is, by setting out some of the challenges we would have to overcome to create an artificial system with the same properties. One of the pre-requisites, he tells us, would be a clearly impracticable machine he calls a "3D-printer", which would be able to create copies of actual physical components under the instructions of computer code. Not much more than twenty years later, I have such a machine on my desk...
As others have said, Dawkins is less enjoyable to read than he could be because of his constant and sometimes rather strident diatribes against the straw-men who are trying to confound him with silly, weak arguments against evolution. In the privileged environment of the printed page it's easy to start doubting that these straw-men actually exist (or, if they do, that anyone actually takes them seriously), and we often rather wish he would just get on with telling us about the science. But of course they do exist, they ignore scientific arguments, and Dawkins clearly sees it as part of his duty as a public communicator of science to warn us against them.
Fun to see that there were lots of references to Henry Havard, who turned up in my Q3 thread as a travel writer but is really better known as an authority on the history of French furniture.
The Dawkins book I read just before this was all about how evolution can only move in the direction of short-term improvement (upwards on "Mount Improbable"); interesting to follow it with an author who is convinced that you can't impose that kind of pattern on human history, and that we are exceptionally good at unlearning useful things and then reinventing them a century or two later.
Clean and decent : the fascinating history of the bathroom and WC (1960) by Lawrence Wright (UK, 1906-1983)
Lawrence Wright rather unexpectedly turns out not to have been a historian or a building engineer: his day job, in which he achieved quite some recognition, was architectural painting. Like Evelyn Waugh's Charles Ryder, he seems to have spent a lot of his working life recording grand buildings that were on the point of being demolished. He also seems to have had quite a distinguished career as an RAF officer in World War II: Penguin's thumbnail bio records that he remained a keen glider pilot in civil life. This was his first book, the accidental result of a commission to put together a display on "the history of the bathroom" for a building trade exhibition at Kensington Olympia, and it has turned into a minor classic of social history, in the same sort of tradition as E.S. Turner's What the butler saw.
Wright takes us through a more-or-less chronological account of our ancestors' approach to personal hygiene and the artefacts involved, from ancient times to around 1914. He's writing to entertain, so he does tend to pick out quirks and eccentricities at the expense of the "big story" sometimes — and there is no shortage of quacks, crazy inventions and ridiculous superstitions in this field, many of them very funny as Wright describes them. But he does have a message of sorts: he has no faith in the conventional idea of the continuous improvement in social conditions facilitated by technical improvements and scientific knowledge. As far as he's concerned, you can already find most of the technical elements of good sanitation in Minoan civilisation, and at least some of them persisted through Roman times into the culture of medieval monasteries and castles. The dirty, plague-ridden cities of the early modern period were like that not because people were ignorant about the causes of disease or because they didn't have the tools to do any better, but because they had other things they wanted to spend their money on, just as (working-class) people of Wright's own time are more likely to use their precious savings to buy a TV set than to install a bathroom. Change happens through fashion, legislation or peer pressure, not through the unstoppable force of history.
Obviously this isn't necessarily an argument you can defend very far (and Wright doesn't make any claims to generalise it), and there are other narratives of sanitation and public health that would come up with a different answer, but it is interesting to be made to look at things this way for once.
One odd thing — among many — is how the fashion for steam-baths reached Western Europe first with the Romans, then with returning crusaders, then with 17th/18th century orientalists, then in the late 19th century, and then again (too late for Wright) with the fashion for all things Scandinavian in the sixties, being quickly forgotten again each time.
There is also, incidentally, some pretty sharp criticism of the inefficiency of mid-20th century British plumbing practices there, very little of which seems to have had any effect. But it is striking to remember how much has changed since 1960, when baths were (at best) weekly, showers unknown, most older houses didn't have bathrooms, and those that did usually had them in the form of rickety extensions or crudely partitioned half-bedrooms. And no-one you knew had a second bathroom or even a "guest cloakroom".
Incidentally, Wright has a lot of fun with the evolution of bathroom language, where the trend to euphemism that has been going on for as long as anyone can tell (a garderobe in a medieval castle wasn't necessarily for hanging clothes any more than the equivalent place in a modern American home is for bathing or resting) has meant that we have to keep on inventing new words to take the place of those that have shifted in meaning. And he points out how it works in other ways as well, with innocent words like stews and bagnio (he could almost have added sauna) that started out simply meaning "bath-house" shifting to refer only to places of prostitution.
Ultimately, though, this is a very diverting and funny book: Wright has a sharp eye for interesting bits of period artwork (who else would have pointed out Albrecht Dürer's roller-towel?), and he is also an expert at spotting the ridiculous in the source material, and has a knack for deflating quacks and charlatans very efficiently. He refuses to take the past more seriously than it deserves, and there are some fantastically absurd throwaway lines here. Just a couple of examples:
On the end of the Roman Empire: "As Lord Grey might have said, the taps were being turned off all over Europe; they would not be turned on again for nearly a thousand years."
On the legendary founder of Bath: "Bladud was that rather rare combination, a leper, a swineherd, and a glider pilot."
It sounded like an interesting follow-up to Milkman — Belfast seen from the viewpoint of the protestant community, and dealing with the aftermath of the Troubles rather than looking back to them.
The Fire Starters (2019) by Jan Carson (UK, - )
The summer "marching season", when East Belfast protestants commemorate the Battle of the Boyne with processions and bonfires, is a long-standing flashpoint for riots and civil disorder. In this particular year, it threatens to get even more out of control than usual, with a sinister masked figure posting videos on social media encouraging young people to start fires in defence of their "civil rights". Naturally, there are plenty who do so without stopping to think which rights they might be defending and how starting fires could help. This is Belfast, after all, and it's the middle of summer. The tourist board are hoping visitors will turn up to enjoy the city and its unexpected attractions, but it seems to be a lost cause when there are negative stories on the BBC News every night...
Against this background of the barely suppressed legacy of generations of community violence, we follow the story of two fathers frightened — for quite different reasons — of what they may have brought into the world with their children. One is a "normal enough" story of the heritage of violence; the other takes us off into a magic realist dimension. Jonathan has been picked, for unknown reasons, by a Siren to become the father of her child. Now he's convinced himself that baby Sophie will be genetically programmed to lure people to their doom the moment she starts speaking. In his plight, he discovers that Belfast is actually full of the concerned parents of children with unexpected powers, but he still has a hard time sharing his problem. He's a respectable doctor, he can't go around telling people he believes in supernatural beings.
This is obviously in part a fable about the powerful, unpredictable waves of love and fear for their children that parents experience, and in part a way to lead us into the strangeness of the mindset that goes with growing up in Northern Ireland and the way that engages — in good and bad ways — with the power of storytelling. Carson wants us to see the cult of reason and the protestant distrust of getting involved with symbolism and myth as elements that make it harder for people to share what they really feel about what's wrong with their lives. Carson is bending the edges of realism to achieve something a little bit like what Anna Burns did in Milkman by twisting some of the basic rules of language. I'm not sure if it works completely, but this is still a very interesting book, if a slightly disturbing one.
(*) ...and then read the book and liked it
This is one I bought secondhand in March this year, not long after hearing Coe reading from Middle England (which I read then as well).
The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010) by Jonathan Coe (UK, 1961- )
Maxwell Sim, a depressed, middle-aged toothbrush-salesman struggling to recover from his wife leaving him, is a character straight out of Coe's Middle-England. In another world he could have been Herzog and/or Willy Loman; in this one, the figure he comes to identify with most strongly is that very English heroic failure, the deranged yachtsman Donald Crowhurst. A role-model for all of us...
As always with Coe, this is a clever, witty novel, full of sharp social observation, and keeps on undermining our expectations in cunningly contrived ways. It's a story in which just about all the characters have the wrong idea about some of the key events in their lives. All the same, the "big reveal" in the final chapters, the key thing that Maxwell fails to realise about himself, isn't likely to come as a surprise to many readers. But that scarcely matters, this is a book to enjoy for its detail, and for Coe's obvious warm affection for his self-hating character. I enjoyed Coe's take on Crowhurst, and it was fun to see the way he also brought in L.T.C. Rolt and Narrowboat, amongst many other peripheral storylines.
We could probably have done without the cameo appearances by the author, but they didn't really do any harm, and did allow him to weasel out of the boring obligation to wind up the threads of the story after having got to the essential point of resolution, so I suppose they did just about serve a purpose.
>67 thorold: What would an update of Wright's book make of the North American trend to more bathrooms than bedrooms I wonder, each more luxurious than the last?
Will be interested in hearing your take on the Pilgrimage quartet, which I first heard of through the reviews by steventx, which sadly aren't on LT anymore. At the time, I searched for the books, which were somewhat difficult to find, and gave up. Maybe after your reviews, I will go out looking again.
Whilst I was looking for that I saw that there was a group read in the Virago group in 2015 - bookmarking that for future reference as well: https://www.librarything.com/topic/206217
Wright would have been amused by the multiplication of bathrooms and the absence of any obvious link to an improvement in cleanliness, I'm sure. I was sorry he was writing too early to say anything about the rise and fall of the avocado bathroom suite, too. What he would clearly have loved, but probably never got to see, is the glorious historical collection of bathroom fittings now on display at the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.
I'm looking forward to getting to grips with Pilgrimage, but I don't think I'll get to it before January now.
Meanwhile, clearing a bit more space on the TBR, another instalment of Boswell, whom I've been reading at the rate of rather less than one book a year since 2008.
Boswell on the Grand tour : Italy, Corsica and France, 1765-1766 (1955) by James Boswell (UK, 1740-1795), edited by Frank Brady (USA, 1925-1986) & Frederick A. Pottle (USA, 1897–1987)
We left Boswell at the end of 1764 and the previous volume after his triumph in getting to spend quality time with both Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland. He was under strict instructions from Auchinleck Castle to return home after that, but he somehow managed to negotiate permission to spend another four months away visiting Italy (not that his father could see how spending time in Italy could conceivably be of any use to a young lawyer...).
Needless to say, April came and went without young James showing up in Ayrshire. Braving the inevitable paternal wrath, he succeeded in hanging about in Italy until October, and then, instead of Scotland, he headed for Corsica for a few months. From there, he makes a leisurely tour back through France and England, not getting back home until early March of 1766.
So what was he up to in Italy? Well, basically the usual: "sex, religion and politics", as Brady summarises it in his introduction. And in all of these he manages to be gloriously inconsistent in the way only a Boswell can be.
"Politics" covers Boswell's flirtations with the exiled Jacobites in Rome, Avignon and Paris, as well as his meeting and forming a close friendship on the opposite side of the political spectrum with the radical politician John Wilkes, also in exile at the time. But bizarrely, at the same time as becoming genuinely close to Wilkes, Boswell was also making friends with Lord Mountstuart, a wealthy young man on the Grand Tour, who just happened to be the eldest son of Wilkes's worst enemy, the Prime Minister Lord Bute. He travelled with Mountstuart and his entourage for a couple of months, whilst exchanging gloriously flippant and intimate letters with Wilkes.
Politics becomes a bit more serious when he goes to Corsica, where Rousseau had encouraged him to go and meet the rebels who were setting up an independent state in opposition to their nominal Genoese overlords (who had been obliged to allow French peacekeepers in, with the inevitable consequences of that...). He meets and makes friends with the Corsican leader Pasquale de Paoli, and learns about his struggle to turn Corsica from a backward feudal society into a modern state worthy of its status as poster-child of the Age of Enlightenment. But more importantly, he seems to go through a sort of revolutionary transition himself, as the serious man-to-man attitude Paoli adopts towards him gives him a new kind of adult self-confidence at last (and makes him a bit less entertaining as a writer...).
"Religion" isn't quite so much at the forefront this time, but we do see Boswell having serious discussions with everyone from radical deists and atheists to Dominican and protestant theologians. And attending services in Rome without the usual obligatory protestant expressions of disgust at the showiness of Catholic worship.
As far as "sex" goes ... well, Italy had a good supply of clever, attractive, aristocratic ladies who were said to be not too literal in the way they interpreted their marriage vows. Boswell was keen to test this hypothesis, and generally had two or three promising experiments on the go at once. Needless to say they didn't all end well: at one point a lady rather humiliatingly tells him that she wouldn't engage a good cook if she knew he was going to leave in ten days. But there's one Sienese lady who is still sending him teasing letters in Italian a couple of years after his return to Scotland. The correspondence seems to have petered out after Boswell made the sort of error that normally only happens in stage-plays: Girolama got a dull note intended for the English Chaplain in The Hague (which she had to have translated), whilst the Chaplain got a love-letter in Italian...
Meanwhile, of course, Boswell had evenings when all his fine ladies were busy, the consequences of which we see in his account books — he carefully recorded what he spent on prostitutes, condoms, and treatment for venereal infections.
And at the same time as all this, he's still thinking about settling down and getting married: there's the mad project of marrying Belle van Zuylen (which we already know about, because the letters concerned, although dating from the end of 1765, were printed in Boswell in Holland), there is mention of a London cousin, then another cousin in Ireland, and then yet another cousin who was on the trip to Ireland with him...
But his most spectacular and unlikely sexual exploit is saved for the end of the book.
So there's a lot going on in this book, but it's also a bit trickier to keep a sense of Boswell's voice here than in some of the earlier parts because there are so many different kinds of texts that the editors have had to put together. The Corsican part of the journal was published in 1768 and made Boswell's name as a writer; the Italian and French journals (not only called that: for the most part they were written in those languages too, as language-practice) keep stopping and starting, so the editors have to pad out the gaps with letters (also in three languages) and excerpts from Boswell's "memoranda" (rough "notes-to-self"). And the "cross-channel" passage was apparently so sexually-explicit that it was destroyed by a Boswell descendant, and the editors have had to reconstruct it from the recollections of another family-member who had read it...
Must take on more Boswell sometime.
Eliza Eliza (1965) by Ilse Aichinger (Austria, 1921-2016)
When her twin sister was sent to England in a Kindertransport, Ilse Aichinger stayed in Vienna with her Jewish mother: her traumatic experiences as a teenage unperson in her own city formed the basis for her famous novel Die größere Hoffnung (Herod's Children, 1948), which brought her within the orbit of Gruppe 47. However, she seems to have lost faith in large-scale prose works after that, and spent the rest of her writing career on radio plays and short, but highly-prized, essays and prose pieces.
Meine Sprache und ich, wir reden nicht miteinander, wir haben uns nichts zu sagen.
This was Aichinger's second collection of "stories" (Erzählungen), but you shouldn't expect actual narratives. They are surreal, dream-like flights of fancy, in which words, most of them very concrete, often domestic or agricultural in range, seem to be chosen with a calculated randomness so that sentences make short-range sense but fight against every attempt our minds make to impose some kind of long-range order or message or symbolism onto them. There are giants, like the milkmaid of St Louis, and dwarves, like the infantry who accompany Diogenes on his journey; there is a gigantic fan in the title story; there are hares who decide after living for many generations in the sandy bay of Port Sing to mount an expedition to the (unexplained and inexplicable) Sacred Mountain, and so on. Random travel seems to be a recurrent theme: a farmer in search of weather proverbs sails from Brittany to Western Scotland, goes thence by rocket to Utah, and ends up by the sacred river in Mecca. But there are theories, the narrator points out, that Mecca is not on a sacred river. Tell that to the crocodiles.
In the late story "Meine Sprache und ich", the narrator's language becomes a character in her own right, the two of them are travelling over various frontiers together, and it is the language, not the narrator, who appears suspect to the border guards. Aichinger seems to have had a deep-rooted and growing distrust for language herself, and she constantly feels the need to challenge assumptions about words and their meanings and associations. The stories are wonderfully disorienting and disturbing, but it doesn't do to read too many at once, or you end up like a visitor to a giant gallery of abstract art...
I read this in the original 1965 hardback edition. When I checked against the volume Eliza Eliza: Erzählungen 2 in Aichinger's Complete Works (2015), I saw that there are four post-1965 stories included there: "Die Rampenmaler", "Ajax", "Die Geschwister Jouet" and "Meine Sprache und ich".
All these stories also appeared in the collections Nachricht vom Tag (1970) and Meine Sprache und ich (1978).
I don't know why I still haven't picked up a Zola or two from the secondhand store as your reviews always make me want to read his work. I shall make that my 2020 mission (probably maybe).
Interested in your review of the Jan Carson novel. I've not heard of her before. I was at a book reading last week as part of the CS Lewis Festival in East Belfast, and three writers were reading from a book called Belfast Stories. Lucy Caldwell, David Park and Glenn Patterson are three of the better known local writers who have contributed. Three lesser known writers (outside of NI) were reading their stories that evening. The one who stood out was Wendy Erskine, who had a great comic tone to her writing (and also great comic timing in the delivery of her reading). I think she's one to look out for in the future.
The Boswell sounds fun. One for the list.
A literature of their own : British women novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977, 1982) by Elaine Showalter (USA, 1941- )
The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of — what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness. She could write no more.
(Virginia Woolf, "Professions for women" (1931), in The death of the moth)
The point Showalter keeps coming back to in her discussion of women novelists in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain is how what women could write about was constrained by their own upbringing, social norms and — above all — the prejudices of (real or imaginary) male readers. She sees this active or passive censorship (vividly dramatised by Woolf in her famous lecture) as the thing above all others limiting the literary achievement of women during this period. Geniuses like George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë were able to circumvent it to some extent by using non-explicit techniques to get their message across, but for most writers it meant at least a fudged ending to their stories, if not an abject surrender to convention. There was almost a breakthrough with the sensationalist writers of the sixties and seventies (Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the many imitators of her bestsellerLady Audley's secret), and Showalter has obviously had a lot of fun rediscovering their work. But she finds that they didn't quite have the nerve to push things as far as they might have, and were overtaken by the political campaigning literature around the turn of the century, which Showalter finds of little literary interest, being so concerned not to distract attention from the Suffrage issue by offending other sensibilities.
She moves on to looking in some detail at the "aesthetic" writers of the post-1914 period, Katharine Mansfield (who probably shouldn't be here, being neither British nor a novelist, but never mind...), Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson. There's a valuable, detailed look at both Richardson, whom Showalter clearly admires, even though she was writing herself into something of a dead end, and Woolf, whom Showalter finds it very difficult to like. Showalter likes Woolf as a critic and essayist, and points out how her mental health problems could be related to the way she was discouraged from relating properly to her own femininity by her father, husband and sister. However, she can't help finding most of Woolf's fiction limited, prejudiced and irrelevant to the feminist cause. Perhaps she'd have seen this differently a decade or two further on, but in the world of the early seventies she certainly wasn't alone in this. (The arguments here reminded me a bit of what John Carey says about writing and class in The intellectuals and the masses, for instance.)
Looking at her own time, Showalter doesn't attempt a complete survey of British women's writing, but focusses on a small number of writers whom she considers relevant to both the development of the literary tradition they inherited and the advance of feminism, in particular Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble. I wouldn't argue with that, but it does mean that some important (in hindsight) writers like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark only get mentioned in passing. And of course there's a big gap in the middle of the century Showalter doesn't look at at all — from Ivy Compton-Burnett and Rebecca West to Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, it's radio silence. And what happened to Angela Carter? — surely Showalter ought to have known about her at the latest by the time of the revised 1982 edition?
Also missing, as Showalter acknowledges, is any reference to working-class authors. Obviously there weren't many working-class women writing novels in the nineteenth century, but by the 1970s there would have been a few to choose from: Jessie Kesson would be an obvious example, or the Manchester socialist novelist Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. Neither make it into Showalter's otherwise very interesting and useful Biographical Appendix.
A bit of a period piece, then, but it made me more interested than I expected to be in obscure nineteenth century novelists — a few more names have been added to the reading list!
Katalin Street (1969) by Magda Szabó (Hungary, 1917-2007) translated by Len Rix (UK, Zimbabwe, 1942- )
Three families live side-by-side in a prosperous middle-class idyll between the Castle and the river in Pest in the mid-1930s. It's always summer, the four children are constantly in and out of each other's gardens, and the three girls are all, in their different ways, in love with Bálint. Then comes the war, and everything changes...
Szabó plays around with time, space and narrative voice to commit us to her characters before we have quite worked out what it is that has happened between them, and she leaves a lot of key words unsaid (but all the more powerfully present precisely because we know they ought to be there): maybe that was a strategy that was originally imposed on her by the need to beat the censor. But it also means that the different external forces that operate in the book — Nazis, the Red Army, Stalinists, the rebels of 1956 — are oddly undifferentiated from each other, and we are brought in to a close-up view of what is happening in the relations between people rather than being allowed to think about the big outside events that may be causing them. Parents and children, siblings, good and bad reasons for lovers to come together, jealousy, obsession, distraction: it's all there, and all quite frightening in its simplicity.
Another Hungarian writer I need to explore further!
- It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: if you’re reading Zola in English, be wary of old (censored) translations. Especially the last three or four I’ve read, anything that would have been acceptable for publication in Britain before 1960 would take most of the point of the book away. Or read him in French...
- I was wondering if you knew about Jan Carson. She’s been very well reviewed in the papers, but hasn’t had much impact on LT yet. Obviously the EU literature prize (which I’d never heard of before) must come with invitations for public appearances. I’d be curious to know how her attempt to turn Belfast into Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia comes across to a local... :-)
I’ve heard of Glenn Patterson, because he’s often on the radio, but never read any of his novels. Probably time I did. Noting the other names you mention. NI lit is obviously becoming a thing. Or possibly a Thing!
From what I've read of The Fire Starters online post reading your review, it seems Jan Carson has captured spot on the idiocy of many of those involved in the 11th night bonfires. And I'm a Protestant! The 12th July used to be a nice day out - especially for those who live in country towns. It was a day of catching up with people you hadn't seen in a long time and enjoying the music. Now, especially in Belfast, it has been overtaken in many places by louts, who take great joy in getting a rise out of everyone by building the most ridiculous bonfires for 11th night. In recent years the councils have now stepped in to control this more, and this summer past at least one bonfire was pulled down for being ridiculously unsafe. If you asked many of them, I honestly don't think they'd know the history of why they even celebrate the 12th!
So in answer to your question, I think it's probably best that Belfast writers don't use too much embarrassments past and present as their plot fodder!
I haven't read a Szabó I didn't love. Right now, I'm trying to muster the courage to walk to the library and return Iza's Ballad, which I finished a couple of days ago. Generally, I don't mind not owning the books I read, but there are some exeptions, and this is one...
The Fire Starters has gone into my everexpanding wishlist.
In the meantime here's another relatively fat hardback from the inexhaustible TBR pile. I enjoyed Arno Geiger's earlier novel Es geht uns gut three years ago and picked this one up in a charity shop a few months later. This one hasn't been translated yet, as far as I can tell, but a couple of his other novels have been.
Alles über Sally (2010) by Arno Geiger (Austria, 1968- )
Sally and Alfred have been together for about 25 years, with respectable jobs, three children nearly grown-up, and a house in the Vienna suburbs. Their marriage starts to go through a rather rocky patch when Alfred falls into a kind of mini-depression after their house is burgled, and Sally, always the more dynamic of the two, finds it hard to cope with his passivity.
Geiger explores with a mixture of slightly-barbed irony and affectionate humour some of the peculiar forms a long-term relationship between two people can take, and the ways it develops over the course of time. The book is structured as a rather conventional bourgeois-realistic novel, but there's always a slightly knowing literary jokiness just below the surface as well. Sally likes to retire to her private space in the attic, for instance, where one of the unread books Geiger has placed conspicuously on her bedside table is a biography of Marlen Haushofer. Or at another point we get an unexpectedly-transposed version of Molly Bloom's monologue...
As in Es geht uns gut, one of the things that struck me about the writing here is how comfortable Geiger seems to be writing from a female point-of-view: in fact his women characters seem to be much more solid and three-dimensional than the men. Although it does verge slightly on the voyeuristic at times — there didn't seem to be any real need for both of Sally's daughters to be naked the first time we met them.
Pleasant, intelligent writing, but nothing very challenging.
- A minor disappointment with this one: when I picked it up I saw that the opening chapter is set in a hotel room in Hebden Bridge, a place I used to know well. I was curious to see how that would be dealt with in an Austrian novel, but in fact it plays no further role, except possibly to tempt us into looking for a "Sylvia and Ted" storyline that isn't there...
(This has been quite a Hungarian day: I also went to hear the Rotterdam Phil playing Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra this afternoon. But I'm not having goulash for supper...)
The Pendragon legend (1934) by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1901-1945) translated by Len Rix (UK, Zimbabwe, 1942- )
This novel was the slightly frivolous by-product of a year Szerb spent doing research in Britain for his work on literary history. It's a bizarre and very entertaining pastiche of half a dozen genres of popular literature, especially gothic novels, murder mysteries and John Buchan/Dornford Yates thrillers.
The narrator, János Bákty, is a Hungarian scholar, working on 17th century English mystics in the British Museum Reading Room and a little bit less wise in the ways of the world than he thinks he is, who accidentally gets an introduction to the reclusive Earl of Gwynedd, and is invited to come and have a look at some interesting books in the library at Pendragon Castle.
As is only right and proper, he gets an anonymous phone call warning him not to go, and shortly before setting off for Wales he meets a Suspiciously Friendly Stranger and a Femme Fatale who both happen to be heading that way as well. Evidently he has unwittingly got mixed up in something dangerous...
Things continue with strange occurrences in the middle of the night, ghostly horsemen, stolen manuscripts, secret passages, Rosicrucians, desperate dashes over the mountains in bad weather, a kidnapping, the narrator failing to spot glaringly obvious clues, sexual temptation, and in short just about everything you would want from an adventure story (apart from a proper car chase, perhaps).
There are Dornford-Yates-like levels of crass sexism, but it's transparently there as a joke at the narrator's expense:
... no woman has ever yet taken an interest in an intellectual matter for its own sake. Either she wants to woo the man by a display of attention, or she is seeking to improve her mind, which is even worse. ... But the instant I gauged her true intellectual merit something was released inside me, and I became aware again of how young she was, and how lovely. I can never feel much attraction to a woman whom I consider clever—it feels too much like courting a man. But once I had realised she was just another sweet little gosling, I began to woo her in earnest.
I particularly enjoyed the beefy German woman-of-action, Lene, an Oxford undergraduate who uses Emil und die Detektive as a practical guide to detective work, and has set herself the apparently impossible task of getting an effete upper-class Englishman to have sex with her. (Ultra-violence turns out to be the answer...)
There are all sorts of scholarly allusions and obscure jokes, as you would expect. I was a bit puzzled by the name of the village where Pendragon Castle is situated, Llanvygan. As there's no "v" in the Welsh alphabet, I was starting to suspect that it must be some kind of Hungarian counterpart to Llareggub. But Googling it turns up someone who speculates that it might be meant as an archaic spelling of "Llanfeugan", which would be the church of St Meugan, an early British saint of dubious authenticity sometimes said to have Arthurian connections. However, for the same money you could go further: Wikipedia suggests that variant spellings of Meugan include Mawgan and Machan. Could this be a jokey reference to Arthur Machen buried so deep that only a philologist could find it? Nothing I've learnt about Szerb could rule that sort of thing out...
Great fun, and it does make you think a bit about some of the conventions of sensational fiction.
Long road to nowhere (1985) by Amryl Johnson (Trinidad, UK, 1944-2001)
Most of Amryl Johnson's poetry seems to be exploring her own reactions to returning as a visitor to the Caribbean, in particular Trinidad, where she spent her early childhood. In fact, there's a big overlap between this collection and her prose travel-book Sequins for a ragged hem. But that doesn't matter: there are some very impressive poems here, including the frequently-anthologised "Granny in de market place" and a sequence of poems taking us through the carnival in Port of Spain. A poet who sadly died far too young and deserves to be better-known.
Three poems (2018) by Hannah Sullivan (UK, - )
By contrast, this is Hannah Sullivan's is first collection, which — deservedly — won her the T.S. Eliot Prize. She teaches at New College, Oxford.
These are quite academic poems, which seem to take forms, topics and phrases borrowed from T.S. Eliot and other early twentieth century writers as their starting-points (sometimes seriously, sometimes jokily) but recast them into a very 21st-century frame of reference and a woman's perspective (famously culminating in a first-hand account of the experience of undergoing a C-section operation). The references are fun if you spot them, but I don't think it matters if you don't, as the writing is more than strong enough to stand up for itself. Sullivan has a lot to say about the Big Topics of birth, death, motherhood, etc., as well as plenty of sharp observations of the idiocies of modern life. Really excellent.
Penguin modern poets. 11 (1968) by D M Black (UK, 1941- ), Peter Redgrove (UK, 1932–2003) & D. M. Thomas (UK, 1935-)
The three male, British poets in this classic collection are all quite distinguished (D.M. Thomas is better known as a novelist than a poet; Scottish writer D.M. Black is a well-known psychotherapist in his day-job), but maybe I was reading it at the wrong moment, none of them really grabbed me. The pieces included here from Black and Redgrove are mainly in a surrealist vein, something that perhaps worked better in 1968 than half a century later, and the same probably goes for D M Thomas's science-fiction lyrics. Very David Bowie...
I quite enjoyed Black's long poem "Without equipment", which slides into nonsense language and then back to normal speech, and Redgrove's Wordsworthian lyric, "The Force", but there wasn't much else that stuck with me on a first reading.
Wait a minute....
As I lay like a beached whale
Having the dishes done in my uterus....
(I know - perhaps needs a little work to get to Sullivan's Oxford level).
(That's copyrighted, by the way, just in case anyone was thinking of making a few million out of it).
Actually, that’s not so different from the mood Sullivan goes for. She describes panicking as the anaesthetist (who “had something of the hockey team about her”) gets to work, then a few pages later:
Once they began, I was calmer,
I enjoyed the gush of the knife, and the sound of the scissors,
The slop of my bowel being set to one side,
The look on the surgeon’s face, his attentiveness and shock,
‘Can someone pass me the forceps, please?’
If you dig around a bit on the BBC you should be able to find the episode of The verb with her and the other T.S. Eliot Prize shortlisted poets reading.
Just came across this gem in Geraldine Jewsbury’s letters (from 1845):
One day last summer I called on the man I get my books from, and we had a long chat over the counter. ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘if only half the books that are sold in Manchester were read, it would be a different place.’
‘Why,’ said I, ‘how do you know they are not read?’
‘Oh, only last week, for instance, a gentleman came to me and brought the measure of a new bookcase he had bought, and told me to fill it properly with books and to see that the bindings matched, so I just sent him safe works such as all libraries have. ... The man will never open them, but would be very angry if his friends should ever say, “Why did you buy this rubbish?”’
Plus ça change...
Today there are 110 books with 128 996 book-days of waiting to be read between them (18% down). Mean is now 1183 days, median 931. I think that means I'm winning, slowly...
Duitsch Leesboek - Eerste stukje (1922; 1st edition 1885) by F A R Beekman & G A C van Goor, 29th edition edited by J W Haverkamp
Wie freundlich ist der Lehrer! Er gab mir dieses schöne Buch, ich freue mich sehr.
(How nice the teacher is — he gave me this lovely book, I am very happy.)
This is a charming old schoolbook, a German reader for Dutch children, which builds up from simple sentences to short stories, newspaper articles, poems and scenes from plays. Not much in the way of great literature, but everything is very edifying and optimistic in tone, eminently suitable for sheltering kids from harsh realities and difficult questions. I don't think you could read more than two or three of these pieces at a time without becoming a little unwell, but in small doses it's quite attractive. Of course, all the German text except the beginners' exercises is set in Fraktur, as was usual at the time in German books, so modern readers who aren't used to that will have a hard time making sense of it.
What struck me about it is the way it suggests that schools at the time must already have been teaching by exposure to the real language, rather than by building up from grammar and vocabulary exercises, and although it looks very dry by modern standards, it does show that textbook authors were trying, within the limitations of the time, to make learning entertaining for the children.
1922 adverts from the publisher:
(The successors of J.B. Wolters are still in business as Wolters-Kluwer, but they sold off their educational publishing arm, then called Wolters-Noordhoff, in 2007. My main Dutch-English dictionary is a two-volume Wolters from the 1980s)
Some lie and some die (1973) by Ruth Rendell (UK, 1930-2015)
It's 1973, and the long-haired, middle-aged owner of a local stately home has organised a festival — or rather 'festival', there are a lot of scare-quotes in this book — in his grounds, so Kingsmarkham is being invaded by swarms of young people in jeans, beads and afros. Inspector Burden is horrified, and is obviously not far from sending for dogs, horses and riot gear, but his infuriatingly patronising boss, Superintendent Wexford, puts him to rights: 'Why can't you expand your mind a bit? They're only a bunch of kids come to enjoy themselves.' When the inevitable mutilated corpse is found in the festival grounds, Wexford goes on tormenting the unfortunate Burden in much the same vein, even to the point of letting Burden's teenage son, a devoted fan of the headlining artist, supply the crucial clue from his detailed study of the NME.
Rendell is self-aware enough to realise how ridiculous the attitudes of the older generation to youth culture appear from the point of view of their kids, but she still manages to incorporate most of the classic prejudices into her portrayal of the rock-star and his entourage. Not to mention the very embarrassing caricature figure of Louis 'Mbowele, philosophy student and heir-apparent to the dictator of a postcolonial African country...
The structure of the investigation is a bit wooden as well, even to the final two-chapter exposé by the detective to the suspects gathered in a hotel room. Not quite old enough to be forgivably quaint, and too short to be a satisfactory book to take on a journey, this is one that has probably passed its read-by date.
PS: The joys of alphabetical order. I see that the late Baroness Rendell has to squash in between Mary Renault and Gerard Reve on my shelves. I suppose she would cope, but I can't imagine her finding it a very comfortable spot!
For reasons you can probably guess, I (a) woke up rather early this morning and (b) needed something to take my mind off the 21st century, so I got through the last 150 pages or so faster than I expected (especially since it turned out that the PDF from archive.org ended in a 50-page publisher's catalogue...)
Selections from the letters of Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle (1892) by Geraldine Jewsbury (UK, 1812-1880), edited by Mrs Alexander Ireland
... but Geraldine Jewsbury herself still survives, independent, courageous, absurd, writing page after page without stopping to correct, and coming out with her views upon love, morality, religion, and the relations of the sexes, whoever may be within hearing, with a cigar between her lips.
Virginia Woolf, "Geraldine and Jane" in The Common Reader, 2nd Series
If you've heard Geraldine Jewsbury's name, then it might be because Jeanette Winterson borrowed it for a character in Oranges are not the only fruit, or it might be that you've read one of her novels (Zoe was reissued in recent times by Virago, and The half-sisters is in the Oxford World's Classics series). But most probably you've read Virginia Woolf's clever, witty essay "Geraldine and Jane", in which she makes affectionate fun of the gauche, provincial spinster-novelist who somehow managed to wedge herself into the life of one of the great Victorian literary households.
Miss Jewsbury was the daughter of a Manchester businessman. She mixed in intellectual circles there from fairly early on, and sometime around 1840 (when she was in her late 20s) she was invited to visit one of her heroes, the historian Thomas Carlyle, at his home in Chelsea. It turned out that she got on very well with Mrs Carlyle, and the two women launched into a lively (often tempestuous) friendship, mostly carried out by letter. All but one of Jane's letters to Geraldine were destroyed, but Annie Ireland, when she was writing her biography of Jane, came across some 150 of Geraldine's letters, which are published here. Mrs Ireland is a rather infuriating editor, since she took it upon herself to blank out almost all the personal names mentioned in the letters, irrespective of whether they are people Geraldine is being rude about, lovers, passing celebrities, or simply members of her household or people who come to tea (it's usually obvious from the context when she's talking about her brother Frank, with whom she lived for many years, for instance, but his name is blanked out in every letter except the last one. WHY????). And when she does deign to give us a footnote, it's usually to tell us that "Nero" is Mrs Carlyle's dog. She presumably didn't want to cut into potential sales of her biography of Jane by duplicating material... Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any modern edition of the letters.
All the same, it is fun to read the letters, following Geraldine's crazy rush through the emotions and her much calmer reflections on religion, the role of women in society, literature, plain starching, medicine, the pleasures of smoking, and "George Sandism". She disapproved of the fashion for imitating the great French writer, even though she herself liked to wear men's clothes and smoke cigars, often asserted that she was in love with a married man, and had at least one serious lesbian affair besides her — probably — unrequited passion for Jane. On religion she's gloriously inconsistent as well — sometimes she's talking about her unshakeable faith or sitting piously in church (even if the book she has open in front of her isn't necessarily a prayer-book); at other times she's mocking respectability, Unitarianism, Tractarians, and religious hypocrisy. And she seems to have a sneaking admiration for the Roman Catholic Church, even though her most famous novel is about a Catholic priest who finds he has no faith.
One unexpected side-alley for me was when I chased up Geraldine's references to a friend she calls "the Chevalier", and whom Mrs Ireland uncharacteristically identifies in a footnote: he's the Austrian musician, globetrotter, diplomat and presumed spy, Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm (1778-1858), pupil of Joseph Haydn, who seems to have come to rest for a while in Manchester in the 1830s and 40s (amongst other things putting on a performance of The Creation). He apparently liked to entertain Geraldine with raunchy reminiscences of Talleyrand and Chateaubriand. I'd never heard of him, but thanks to the wonders of streaming, I've been listening to quite a bit of his music (fun, in a sub-Mendelssohn kind of way). He sounds like an interesting character to follow up.
A frustrating book if you're trying to piece together a connected story — Woolf had obviously read Mrs Ireland's biography of Jane as well — but nevertheless an entertaining and uninhibited Victorian voice, and a lot of interesting people moving about in the background: Dickens, W.E. Forster, Mrs Gaskell, G H Lewes (if George Eliot is there as well, she's buried between the blanks), Jenny Lind, Mrs Browning (curious to see that the unfortunate Nero suffered from the same dog-napping problems as Flush), and many more. If only we could be sure which was which out of all the blanks...
Woolf's essay: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91c2/chapter15.html
Geraldine Jewsbury texts on archive.org: https://archive.org/search.php?query=geraldine%20jewsbury
Mrs Ireland's biography of Jane Carlyle: https://archive.org/details/lifejanewelshcar00irel/page/n8
I hadn't heard of Rosita Steenbeek before, but it turns out that she's a moderately well-known novelist and actress and obviously quite an interesting character in her own right (...and in her own books). Her first and best-known book, De laatste vrouw was a (presumably autobiographical) story of a young Dutch actress who arrives in Rome and has relationships with older men who are clearly thinly-disguised versions of Fellini and Moravia.
Amsterdam-Delphi op de fiets naar het orakel (2012) by Rosita Steenbeek (Netherlands, 1959- ), photos by Art Khachatrian
After the third time her partner Art had spent part of his summer holiday cycling from Amsterdam to her house in Rome, novelist Rosita Steenbeek shifted from a "rather you than me" attitude to feeling that it would be nice to share this experience with him next time. To realise a childhood dream, she proposed Delphi as the destination for their joint trip, and Art got busy on the internet and with his tame cycle mechanic, putting together the perfect pink touring bike for her.
Although this book has the format of the typical "journey log" travel book, with a chapter a day, full of routes, distances, elevations and stopovers, bad weather, bad roads, mechanical trouble, finding hotels with space for bikes and veggie-friendly restaurants, and all the rest of it, it often feels more like a novel in disguise, because the thing that really interests the author about the journey is the way the relationship between "Rosita" and "Art" develops and deepens in the course of it. The view is ironic and detached, but very penetrating, so the reader is made to think of them like characters in a novel rather than like the normally rather opaque figures of a mainstream travel story, or the deeply pessimistic, lonely traveller of typical (male) literary travel writing. There are bitter arguments with shouting and gesticulating and riding off in different directions, often alarming but also gloriously comical, but they always end in reconciliation.
But we do get plenty of scenery as well, as the two of them head through Germany and Switzerland and down the Adriatic coast of Italy to the Brindisi ferry, as well as local history, churches, fruit, Art's bike component addiction, and a few interesting people met along the way. And it's also an entertaining account of what it's like for a not-especially-athletic and not-especially-young person to move outside their comfort zone and find that they can cope surprisingly well with doing something you might think of as more appropriate for a student vacation. A nice blast of summer to read this in the middle of winter!
Gedanken in der Bibliothek : Essays über die Literaturen Europas (1946; Gondolatok a könyvtárban / Reflections in the library) by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1901-1945), edited and translated to German by András Horn
A collection of Szerb's essays was published in Hungary as Gondolatok a könyvtárban in 1946, shortly after his death. Later expanded editions appeared in the seventies, and there are various translations which all seem to have picked different subsets of essays, presumably those most likely to appeal to readers in that market. The German edition I read contains the following essays:
- Stefan George (1926)
- Der Hofmann (Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano) (1927)
- Ibsen (1928)
- William Blake (1928)
- Pre-romanticism (only the section about Jean-Jacques Rousseau) (1929)
- Dulcinea (Cervantes) (1936)
- Gogol (1944)
The first two essays between them take up more than half the book, and are very theoretical in their approach, with little detailed reference to the actual texts they are meant to be talking about — they show an amazing confidence, maturity and breadth of knowledge for a writer who was still only in his mid-twenties, and they expect the same sort of intellectual agility from the reader. Szerb sets out some big ideas about political and philosophical history, taking as his starting point the idea that European civilisation was at its best and brightest in the organically catholic and Catholic society of the early renaissance, before that nasty Martin Luther came along and infected us all with self-consciousness and individual responsibility. Which is fine if you see humans as a sophisticated form of social insects, but a bit hard to get your head around otherwise...
The remainder of the book is a little more down-to-earth. All the books he is talking about are clearly ones that he cares about very deeply: even with Rousseau, a thinker it's easy to blame for all kinds of evils in his own life and in his influence over others, Szerb's starting point is the enormous pleasure he got from reading the first volume of the Confessions. He also, only half-frivolously, credits Rousseau with demolishing the (malign) predominance of French culture in Europe — and with starting the Swiss tourist industry.
The Blake piece is much the most detailed, as Szerb is writing for Hungarian readers who are unlikely to have much idea who Blake was or why he matters. By the time they've read this, they'll be writing off for copies of the prophetic books. In between a compact biography and a description of his emotional response to Blake's writings, Szerb sneaks in a swift Freudian analysis of the origins of the prophetic writings as well.
The Cervantes essay is probably the most enjoyable. On the surface it's a study of a character (Dulcinea) who doesn't actually appear in the book (as far as we know...), but in reality it is there to show us just how deeply Cervantes upset conventional ideas of how narrative works and thoroughly deserves to be thought of as the inventor of the novel. And every line is full of Szerb's love of the book.
I know what you mean, though — that sort of adventure usually turns out to be infinitely more pleasurable in retrospect than it is whilst you're struggling up an endless hill in the rain with heavy lorries thundering past...
I bought this in February 2012, together with her other book (Gustav Mahler : Erinnerungen), which only had to wait a year to be read...
Mein Leben (1960) by Alma Mahler-Werfel (Austria, 1879-1964)
As a little girl, Alma Schindler travelled around the Adriatic on a ship specially chartered by Crown-Prince Rudolf to take her father to the scenic parts of the Habsburg dominions he had commissioned him to paint. A few years later she was studying composition with Zemlinsky (one of her fellow-students being Arnold Schönberg), being pursued by Gustav Klimt and receiving crates of books from Max Burckhard. Then she met the newly-appointed director of the Hofoper, a certain Gustav Mahler, and reader, she married him...
...and that would have been enough for most people, but Mahler died in 1911 when Alma was only just in her early thirties. We've still got to fit in a stormy affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, a wartime marriage (and peacetime divorce) with Walter "Bauhaus" Gropius, and what seems to have been the most important relationship in her life, with the writer Franz Werfel, whom she started living with whilst still married to Gropius, and eventually married in 1929. And of course there's a lot of European cultural and political history to get through in that time too. Modernism, the Great War and its aftermath, the rise of fascism, antisemitism (Alma was from a patrician Austrian background, whilst both Mahler and Werfel were of Jewish descent), the path into exile at the start of the war, the German exile community in transit (or in Transit) in Marseille, Los Angeles in the days when it was Vienna-on-the-Pacific, and so on.
Alma seems to have known absolutely everyone. Everyone who was anyone in music, of course, as well as writers, painters, politicians, actors; not just Austrians and Germans, but French (Ravel spending inordinate amounts of time making himself beautiful in her bathroom), Italians (Margherita Sarfatti, whom Alma tried to persuade to found an international league of fascists against antisemitism), British (she met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in America and they became firm friends; there's also a magnificent cameo appearance by GBS in Venice), Irish (a glorious snapshot of James Joyce and Franz Werfel on a pub-crawl in Paris), Americans (the appalling Mr and Mrs Upton Sinclair, who committed the sin against good taste of installing a stairlift), and so on... Not everyone gets a mention, though: Alma is unsurprisingly coy about her friendships with prominent Austrian fascist sympathisers like Anton Rintelen, and there are a few unexplained absences from the index, like Elias Canetti, who was a regular visitor to her Vienna house.
As you would expect, these memoirs are not entirely frank, and you can probably get a more detailed list of Alma's lovers and their chronological overlaps on Wikipedia, if that's what you're after. Since she'd written another book about her time with Mahler, that part of her life is treated in a very condensed way here, and she also doesn't say very much about Gropius, who was still alive at the time of writing and whom she had treated rather badly. In 1915 she suddenly tells us that she's decided to marry him, with only a vague mention that she'd known him earlier (in reality, they had a holiday affair in 1910 that led to a serious crisis in her marriage with Mahler). And he fades out of the book just as quickly, once Werfel arrives.
Something that amused me was to see how Alma's attitude to Richard and Pauline Strauss had changed since the earlier book, where they are portrayed quite nastily, as Bavarian buffoons and terrible misers. Twenty years later, she's expressing great respect for his music and admiration for his friendship and support of Mahler's music. And she has apparently seen the point of Pauline, who makes a very strong team with her husband in private life, however clumsy and tactless she may be in public. (But Richard is still made to talk in comic Bavarian dialect...)
Alma as a mother is tricky to get hold of in this book. Obviously it must have marked her that only one of her four children survived into adulthood: when she's writing about her daughter Manon, who died of polio at eighteen, it sounds sincere and very moving, and she does keep coming back to her feelings about that, but at other times she seems to be able to go for fifty or sixty pages at a stretch without mentioning any of her children, and she often seems to have parked Anna and Manon somewhere whilst she went off on her travels. Of course, in some ways, she really still was an upper-class woman of the late nineteenth century, however much she asserted her right to be taken seriously as an intellectual in her own right and associated with modernists. You just need to look at what she says about her "servant problems" in Beverly Hills to remind yourself of the cultural gap between her and us...
Lively and fun in a highbrow-voyeuristic sort of way, if you don't mind being buried in an avalanche of dropped names. Very interesting if you want some background to Werfel's novels; if you want to know more about Mahler, read the other book.
I expect purists wouldn’t count Wells, Elgar, J.K. Jerome and the like as really belonging to “early cycling”, because they are all from the “Safety” era, but I can’t think of any major writers who rode high-wheelers(*). I’m sure there must be someone. Leaving that quibble aside, Three men on the bummel is probably my favourite cycling book from that era, so far. A little more recently, there are gems like Trouble for Lucia and The third policeman.
I did read a very nice historical novel by Uwe Timm about the end of the high-wheeler era, Der Mann auf dem Hochrad last year, but that was written a hundred years after the event. Earlier this year I read Voort in ‘t zadel, kameraden!, a very entertaining digest of early Dutch writings about cycling. Something I’m still looking to explore further.
(*)I’m wondering about Conan-Doyle - something to check
If you were to reverse Barthes's image and imagine the Rougon-Macquart novels as a cycle race, then I suppose L'Assommoir
would be the the Mont Ventoux, Nana the Tourmalets and Germinal the Alpe d'Huez...
The "altitudes" in the profile above are actually numbers of copies of Zola's works on LT. (Thérèse Racquin is the only non-cycle novel to have significant numbers of copies.)
Roughly 1 in 5 of all the Zola books catalogued on LT (19.1%) are copies of Germinal.
Germinal (1885) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
If you thought L'Assommoir was as gruelling as an account of working-class life can be, well, you ain't seen nothing yet! Germinal is longer, tougher, more political, more complex, more engaged, more physical, more ambiguous, more everything. It's the ultimate industrial novel of the nineteenth century. Bar none. Zola takes us into the epic survival struggle of a mining community in the north of France with an unmatched closeness of observation and a viewpoint that is tied right down at the level of the miners and their families. We are only allowed to step back to our "normal" middle-class liberal novel-reader's viewpoint for a few short interludes where the strangely detached and unreal existence of the bourgeois management families is contrasted with the harsh reality of the miners.
It's not obvious how Zola did it, or how much is actual reportage and how much his own interpolation, but he shows us so much graphic detail of the practicalities of living with seven people and next-to-no money in a two-room cottage, or of how men, women and children work in the appalling underground conditions of the mine, that we can't help being drawn in and imagining ourselves in that situation.
And of course this is all about how that kind of life brutalises people and makes the normal conventions of social existence irrelevant. The brutality — of course, this is Zola we're talking about — comes out in the irresponsible and unrestrained sexual behaviour of the miners, in the anything-but-submissive behaviour of the women in the community, and in the frightening outbursts of violence that mark the big strike that forms the centrepiece of the action.
We see that the miners are hopelessly caught in the power of the capitalist mining companies, who are free to reduce their wages to the very limit of starvation. When they strike for more money, they are doomed to lose: they will always starve before the owners do, when it comes to the crunch the owners can always call up police and army to back them up, and there's always the real risk that by stopping work they give the earth the chance to take its revenge on the mine and thus do themselves out of a job... The miners look to socialists and anarchists for help, but the attractive picture of world revolution and the eventual overthrow of capitalism is belied by the revolutionaries' short-term political ambitions, which always end up overriding the miners' need for bread and a fair wage. And of course Zola's readers would have the fate of the Paris Commune fresh in their minds, and would be more than sceptical about revolutions.
Makes Sons and lovers look like a walk in the park...
Zola seems to have been a keen cyclist in the 90s, possibly not yet at the time he was writing Germinal. See here for some family photos featuring various safeties and Mme Zola's trike. http://www.archives-zoliennes.fr/?s=Bicyclette
Tsing-Boum (1969) by Nicolas Freeling (UK, 1927-2003)
Freeling came from an eccentric English family, fond of globe-trotting, and initially made his living as a chef. He is said to have started writing his first crime novel when he was detained by the police as a suspect in a criminal case in Amsterdam, where he was working at the time. As a crime-writer, he was notorious for impetuously Reichenbaching his heroes, including his first and most famous creation, Amsterdam Commissaris Piet van der Valk, killed off after ten novels to be replaced for a while by his widow, then by a Strasbourg detective, Henri Castang. Given his day-job, it's probably not a coincidence that Freeling named his Dutch detective after a well-known hotel and restaurant chain.
Bizarrely, there were two rival TV adaptations of the van der Valk stories in the 70s, one British and the other German/French, which both cast British actors (Barry Foster and Frank Finlay) in the main part and had to be subtitled when they were shown in the Netherlands(*). The British one had a ridiculously catchy signature tune that was much more memorable than the show itself.
This is the eighth of the van der Valk novels. It's the late 1960s, and a housewife has been gunned down in her provincial Dutch apartment in what looks oddly like a military-style assassination. The trail seems to lead to her past as a nurse in Vietnam at the time of Dien Bien Phu, and van der Valk finds himself trying to pick his way through the French military bureaucracy without stepping on too many toes made sensitive by the political fallout from that disaster and more recently from Algeria. As you would expect there is a lot of food-talk, some gentle mocking of French peculiarities as seen by a Dutch (i.e. British) outsider, a stack of opera references(**), and quite a lot of self-deprecating jokes about the conventions of spy fiction.
Fun to spot some of the very 60s things going on — Dutch people coming home for lunch and eating a cooked meal in the middle of the day; everyone smoking; van der Valk buying himself a Playboy to read at the airport; water-filled sofas made of transparent plastic; telephones disguised as ornaments. What a long time ago it all was!
(*)I wonder if there's a standard insulting term for the cultural appropriation involved in foreign actors playing Dutch characters ... "clogging up", or "cheeseface", perhaps...? Or simply "van der Valking"? :-)
(**) Including the title, which turns out to be a line from Wozzeck, making a pleasing link back to Alma Mahler (>107 thorold:). But no bicycles.
Thinking about it, it is odd that of the two famous Amsterdam detective series of that time, one is said to have been written as a result of the author getting locked up, the other (Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra & de Gier) by someone who had to join the police auxiliary to avoid being made to do military service. In other cities, you don’t really stop to ask yourself what makes people write crime novels set there...
Something seasonal, mostly because a comment by benitastrnad on the "What are you reading" thread got me thinking about German travel books...
The Kickleburys on the Rhine (1850) by Mr. M. A. Titmarsh (William Makepeace Thackeray, UK, 1811-1863) (Read in The Christmas books, which is Vol.XIII of my dingy old complete Thackeray)
Thackeray's 1850 Christmas Book is a jolly little account of a summer holiday trip the author makes with a lawyer friend to the German spa-town of Rougetnoirburg (not too hard to identify as Baden Baden). Like the other Christmas Books, it's only about fifty pages long, plus a dozen or so full-page drawings by the author.
As a bonus, it comes with a preface in which the author reproduces in full a mocking review of the book that has appeared in the Times and then proceeds to tear the pompous reviewer into very small pieces. Something that authors are always advised against doing, but in this case he doesn't seem to have much to fear. It's a satirical book anyway, he's already warned readers that the Times advises them not to buy it and he's sold out the first edition within a week...
It isn't really a book about Germany, it's a send-up of the English abroad, a good topic for satire then as now. Mr Titmarsh's fellow passengers on the boat to Antwerp include an appalling noisy, snobby, selfish and self-important Englishwoman, Lady Kicklebury (widow of a baronet) who tyrannises her servants, her two daughters and her son-in-law, whilst slobbering all over anyone they meet who appears to be either rich or aristocratic (and thrusting her unmarried daughter at any of them who appear to be rich and single). Needless to say, the unmarried daughter, Fanny, whom Titmarsh is also half in love with, has quietly arranged for the man who's courting her to travel to Germany on the same boat. And there's a splendid humiliation lined up for Lady Kicklebury in Rougetnoirburg.
In passing, we get a few little glimpses of German scenery (most of which no-one is looking at, as already indicated by the man in the frontispiece), and a few comic notes on the economy of Rougetnoirburg, which depends entirely on the casino proprietor Lenoir, whilst the palace of the hereditary prince crumbles slowly away.
A pleasant little diversion, which still does exactly the job it was designed for 170 years ago.
The popularity table above is a fairly good guide, I think: perhaps Le ventre de Paris, Pot-Bouille and La Terre deserve to be a bit higher in the list and Nana a bit lower, but that’s probably down to things like marketing and availability of translations.
Tiefer Winter : Geschichten von der Weihnacht und vom Schneien (2007) by Robert Walser (Switzerland, 1878-1956), edited by Margit Gigerl, Livia Knüppel and Reto Sorg
This is another posthumous, thematically-linked collection of writings by the great Swiss eccentric, in this case picking up on his fascination with winter, snow, and Christmas, which runs right through from his early lyric poems to the micrograms of his later years. The editors make much of the way the romantic death of the poet Sebastian in Geschwister Tanner seems to prefigure Walser's own death on a solitary Christmas walk in the snow fifty years later: however, common-sense suggests that we shouldn't read any more into that than the fact that Walser still took the same pleasure in winter weather that he had as a young man.
What shines out of all the pieces is Walser's unique ability, under the cover of a layer of deprecating irony, to capture naive, childlike reactions to the things he experiences. He seems to work rather like a post-impressionist painter, simplifying and universalising what he sees (and hears, and smells, and feels) without losing sight of the essential details that help us to keep a hold of it imaginatively.
Possibly it is a bit cruel to pack together a writer's descriptions of the same things, published in quite different contexts over a period of some forty years, into such a compact mass, where we can't help seeing certain images and descriptive quirks coming back over and over again. But this would be a great little book for dipping into, and it would certainly make an excellent "Christmas book".
Aspects of Provence (1952) by James Pope-Hennessy (UK, Ireland, 1916-1974)
Travel in Provence is not, and never has been, all roses and orange-blossom, although the scents of both these flowers are wafted down the heat-locked streets of Avignon, and mingle with the smell of garlic, oil, bad drains and warm red wine.
A picnic is one of the most difficult meals in the world to manage well; to make it not merely enjoyable but even decent demands considerable intelligence and taste.
How many of us have not felt a certain sneaking satisfaction, towards the end of a long day of sightseeing, at finding the penultimate chapel, or the final museum, firmly, irrevocably, shut?
Pope-Hennessy was a classic example of that characteristic mid-20th century British type (still far from extinct today...) which we usually refer to by Quentin Crisp's term: "the stately homo". Descended from a grand Catholic Anglo-Irish family (his grandfather is supposed to have been the model for Trollope's Phineas Finn), public school and Balliol, little jobs in publishing and on the fringes of the diplomatic service (ended by a compromising friendship with Guy Burgess), honourable war service, little books of art history/travel, and a series of solid biographies, including one of Queen Mary that brought him the requisite recognition from the royals and a minor decoration. Sadly his trueness to type also included being murdered in his London flat in 1974 by a bit of rough he'd picked up.
This is a gloriously idiosyncratic little book, zooming around the landscape of south-eastern France apparently at random, full of witty put-downs of earlier travellers in Provence and disparaging remarks about the way the French look after their cultural heritage, and sometimes written from absurd heights of cultural superiority, but it does keep coming back down to earth to show us how much there is to love and appreciate in the scenery and culture of the region and in the lives of some of Pope-Hennessy's heroes who have lived there — in particular van Gogh, Frédéric Mistral, Gounod, Cézanne and Zola, as well as the philosophe Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues.
Like all really good travel books, this one contains next to no useful information (and whatever it does contain must be 70 years out of date), is a constant delight to read, and makes you want to go and see the places described for yourself. Excellent.
Googling the story, I found this nice anecdote about Sheridan Morley, presenter of the very highbrow arts show "Late night line-up". He had a lunch appointment with JPH on the day of the murder, so the police wanted an account of his subsequent movements. He told the officer that he was presenting a live TV programme at the time of the murder. "And did anyone see you, sir?" ... https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2007/feb/24/politics.guardiancolumnists
Well done on a 21 day turnaround on new purchases. I'm a good bit beyond that, but to be fair I don't have a huge amount of books on my TBR pile - maybe 30 at most (also excluding those that have festered for decades because they're of no real interest).
I keep on counting stuff as TBR as long as there’s a reasonable chance I will read it eventually, and I have discarded a few things that in retrospect are obvious mistakes. But I still can’t seem to gat down much below 100 books on the TBR for long.
He's a well-known poet, I think this novel is only his second prose work.
Ordesa (2018) by Manuel Vilas (Spain, 1962- )
In subject-matter, this is the classic middle-aged male novel: dealing with divorce, parenthood, career stasis, and the death of elderly parents. And even a brush with alcoholism to make sure we tick all the boxes. The sort of book to make a wide curve around when you spot it in a bookshop.
But it's also a sophisticated postmodern literary novel, mixing fiction and non-fiction in complicated ways, including putting family photos into the text. And for all its mid-life crisis navel-gazing, there isn't a hint of self-pity here. The narrator looks at himself and the world around him with a clear, ironic gaze, and he's managed to retain his sense of the ridiculous.
The portrait of the narrator's parents is also fresh and unsentimental. They are eccentrics who never quite managed to fit into the world they lived in, and the narrator is quite open about all the things he never thought to ask them and will now never know, the family funerals he never went to.
What emerges from the text and from the small collection of lyric poems that serve as an epilogue, is an unpretentious, low-key and quite charming picture of provincial Spain in the second half of the 20th Century. There are no big political or religious conflicts going on in anyone's life here, no love stories, no great cultural moments, just the universal business of birth, death, parents and children, work and holidays.
A bit of a slow-burn book, I wasn't really sure if I liked it until a few hours after finishing it...
Propriété Privée (2019) by Julia Deck (France, 1974- )
Julia Deck seems to specialise in first-person unreliable narrator novels. In this one, a middle-class couple, a successful town-planner and her husband who has been off work for many years because of mental health problems, move out of their Paris flat into a new suburban development. Everything is lovely out in the green-and-pleasant fringes of the city, apart from the non-working sustainable technology of the new houses and the appalling neighbours, that is...
The tone gradually shifts from suburban farce to murder mystery, and we're never quite sure how much we can trust what we're being told. Enjoyable, but sometimes it does feel a little too much like a TV script pretending to be a novel.
I myself studied Ancient Greek for a few years in a small, exclusive group with an eccentric teacher (at secondary school, not college, though). Bizarrely enough, none of us (AFAIK) subsequently followed careers in violent crime.
The secret history (1992) by Donna Tartt (USA, 1963- )
This is a 1990s remake of Crime and punishment with a dash of Gatsby, set on the campus of a small college for thick children of rich Americans in Vermont. By some mistake never fully explained, half a dozen bright, ambitious young people have wound up there and are being taught Greek by a charismatic tutor who must be some three decades over the statutory retirement age if even a fraction of the legends about his past are true.
Naturally, their intensive studies draw them into an unhealthily tight-knit relationship, and before long the bonds within the group are being tested by their shared knowledge of a dreadful secret.
Despite the silly premises it’s built on, this turns out to be quite a gripping story, with some interesting observations of the way class and privilege operate in US society. It doesn’t seem to make as much as it might of the classical background: most of the time the kids might as well be studying microbiology or town-planning for all the influence it has on the way they think. And for my taste there was rather too much booze-and-pills stuff in the last part of the book.
Interesting and ambitious, but I felt it had been oversold. Not easy to see why it would be considered a modern classic.
>136 rachbxl: If you get the chance, read a sample before you commit to it. You’ll soon see if his voice works for you or not.
Gerald Murnane counts as one of the writers I’ve been most pleased to find out about this year. This is the third of his books I’ve read. And every bit as enigmatic as Propriété Privée.
Inland (1988) by Gerald Murnane (Australia, 1939- )
In the first part of this book, the narrator is a Hungarian aristocrat looking out from his library over the grasslands of the Alföld and imagining his editor and translator reading what he has written in the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute for Prairie Studies on the Great Plains of the USA. But about a third of the way through, he is replaced by an Australian writer looking out over the grasslands of Victoria and reflecting on the books on his shelves, his adolescence in various places around Melbourne and the girls from that time he has lost touch with. But there’s no suggestion that these two imagined sets of writers and readers exclude each other, or even that they are actually different. There’s still great play being made with the colours red, white and green, there are unidentifiable quotations that look as though they come from Hungarian writers, and there is a lot of talk about areas of grassland between watercourses that are sometimes European, sometimes Australian and sometimes North American.
Murnane clearly wants to frustrate our instinct to pull a story from the text at the same time as making us think about the kind of exchange between writer and reader that is going on in a fictional text and the way both sides manipulate it. Is the page a window, or a mirror, he asks. Calvino has clearly sneaked into the story somewhere. Hang on, what was that institute called again...?
Mind-bending and an enormous pleasure to read, like everything I’ve read by Murnane so far.
200 books read (assuming I don’t finish anything tomorrow).
Author gender 68f 132m
Language 118 EN, 28 FR, 22 DE, 16 ES, 12 NL, 4 IT
One of the unexpected (but useless) benefits of selling our souls to big data is the way we get to link up those trade names we’ve seen around the place since forever and work out where they come from.
L’Oeuvre (1886; The masterpiece ) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)
So, how do you follow a coup de force like Germinal? If you’re Zola, then apparently the way to do it is with a jolly little vie-de-Bohème tragedy of young artists. Something completely different, in any case, and it’s somehow rather fitting that the hero of this book, the painter Claude Lantier, has finished up as one of Zola’s least-known characters, whilst everyone remembers his brother and sister.
The charm of this book comes from the way it draws so strongly on Zola’s friendship with his Aix-en-Provence schoolfellow Paul Cézanne. There are affectionate recollections of the walks they used to take in the hills around Aix, and glorious night-time rambles around Paris with a cantankerous bunch of young artists and writers.
But of course Claude is a Zola character, so his artistic brilliance is offset by a powerful self-destructive instinct. His canvases, achieved with so much blood, sweat and tears, are invariably designed to be rejected by the academic jury of the Paris Salon, but ten years later everyone is borrowing from his ideas. And he’s sucked into a kind of distorted Pygmalion plot, where his passion for the image-woman he is painting draws all the life out of his relationship with his wife, the model for the picture.
Not a top-flight Zola, perhaps, but probably deserves to be better known, not least for everything he tells us about the art-world in 1860s Paris.
A little gem hidden in here...🙂
>147 sallypursell: Good to see you here! One of the great things about LT, and CR in particular, is how we’re all provincial in different ways. We all look for interesting books in our own places and find unexpected things in them from time to time. It’s always fascinating to watch that, and a lot of the time we get reading ideas from each other. Long may it go on. I’m hopeless with unhappy endings too — even the most predictable and unshocking death in a book or film can have me reaching for the tissue box. All part of the fun, I suppose...
I went looking for my review and discovered that it was close to the end of 2016 when I finished it, and as my reviews usually fall off at year end, it suffered from the timing and was reduced to notes. All that is a way of saying I am impressed by how you keep up.