thorold hopes to read fewer books in Q3

Tämä viestiketju jatkaa tätä viestiketjua: thorold looks for the horse in Q2.

KeskusteluClub Read 2020

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thorold hopes to read fewer books in Q3

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 30, 2020, 3:24pm

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 30, 2020, 3:27pm

Welcome to my Q3 reading thread!

Q2 looks like being something of a record quarter in terms of the number of books I finished. For obvious reasons, I had a lot more time to read than I really wanted — I hope I made good use of it! I certainly read some good books, but still, I'm hoping that I'll be spending more time in Q3 out and about, and less reading, even if there's no chance of major travel. Fingers crossed!

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 1, 2020, 4:47am

Q2 stats:

I finished 89 books in Q2 (70 in Q1). Not quite a book a day, but perilously close, especially given that some of them were pretty long.

Author gender: M 61, F 27, n/a 1 (69% M; Q1: 71% M)

Language: EN 69, NL 2, FR 8, DE 4, ES 3, IT 3 (78% EN; Q1 54% EN) — all the books from English-speaking Africa skewing the numbers here!

34 books (38%) were linked to the "Southern Africa" theme read (Q1: 28% "far right" theme)

Publication dates from 1887 to 2020, mean 1976, median 1984; 11 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 1, physical books from the TBR 54(!), physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 3, audiobooks 12, paid ebooks 5, other free/borrowed 14 — 61% from the TBR (Q1: 17% from the TBR, 43% library) — spot the lockdown effect!

77 unique first authors (1.15 books/author; Q1 1.11)

By gender: M 55, F 21, n/a 1 (71% M; Q1 71% M)
By main country: UK 18, NL 2, US 9, FR 3, DE 2, and Southern Africa: South Africa 20, Zimbabwe 4, Botswana 1, Lesotho 1, Namibia 1

TBR pile evolution:
22/12/2019 : 105 books (123090 book-days)
31/3/2020 : 110 books (129788 book-days) (Change: 14 read, 19 added)
30/6/2020 : 94 books (102188 book-days) (Change: 54 read, 48 added)

Despite "freshening" over half the TBR, I only reduced the average days-per-book of those waiting from 1180 to 1087. Browsing from the top is still the favoured mode!

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 1, 2020, 5:32am

Q2 highlights, Q3 goals

Things that really stand out in Q2:

- The Zolathon — since the start of 2018 I've been on a mission to read through the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels in publication order, in French. I finished yesterday with Le Docteur Pascal. I'd read all the really famous ones before, some in translation, some in French, but it was a long time ago, and it was really good to be able to put them in context. I still want to spend some time reading about Zola himself and the background to the books.

- Pilgrimage 3 and 4 — I read the first two volumes of Dorothy Richardson's overlooked modernist masterpiece in Q1 and completed the project in Q2. Very interesting, and probably a book I'll come back to: a lot of insight into a fascinating period from an unusual perspective, and a very individual style.

- Southern Africa — this was a theme read for Reading Globally. I'd dipped into enough writing from the region previously to know that there is a lot of interesting material out there, but after three months and 37 books (counting three from Q1) I still feel I've barely scraped the surface. It was especially good to get around to early classics like Chaka and Mhudi (when I was a postgrad I shared a house with someone who was writing a thesis on Chaka, so it's about time!). The books that impressed me most were probably those of Alex la Guma and Es'kia Mphahlele, from the mid-20th century, but I'm certainly also going to look for more Ivan Vladislavić and Zakes Mda as well. I still have a few SA books on the pile, and a separate pile of borrowed ones to read, so that isn't over yet!

- Communist propaganda — looking for apartheid-era books by South Africans, I accidentally came across some books from Seven Seas Books, an East Berlin publisher of English-language books in the sixties and seventies. When I investigated further, this led me to some left-wing British, American and Australian writers I didn't know about, as well as to some classics of DDR literature, like the collective-farm tragedy Ole Bienkopp. And indirectly to the oddest book of Q2, ... und Du, Frau an der Werkbank : die DDR in den 50er Jahren, a survey of how DDR magazines in the fifties depicted working women.

- Lesser landmarks
Lost children archive — a book that took me by surprise, there's far more to it than the single-issue story I was expecting.
Sarah Caudwell — funny legal mystery stories from the eighties, which I somehow never noticed at the time. I've still got two left to read.
Ireland — A totally unplanned sub-theme! I enjoyed a couple of Anne Enright novels and a Colm Tóibín, and even managed to sneak Dervla Murphy into the Southern Africa topic.
Q2 was also the quarter in which I finally cleared some real monsters from the TBR, including The Quincunx (nothing special), Meneer Beerta (excellent, I want to carry on with this series), and the last few leftovers from my explorations of offbeat British writers B S Johnson and Christine Brooke-Rose.

- Aims for Q3
No "big" projects at the moment.

- The reading Globally theme read for Q3 is "travelling the TBR road", something I'll certainly be doing!
- I've got quite a bit of South Africa and a couple more hefty DDR-classics to finish off from Q2
- I'm leaning towards having a go at the next volume of Voskuil's monster.
- There hasn't been much poetry going on lately, apart from Mark Doty's Whitman book: I need to do something about that

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 2, 2020, 8:40am

I usually have one or two of the free books from the Dutch book promotion week (Boekenweek) on my TBR — quite apart from recent ones that I've got in the normal way by buying books during the promotion week, the older ones frequently turn up in little free libraries. Because they are only about 100 pages long, they're great for quick in-between reads, and as a way of finding out about interesting Dutch writers. This is the 1962 gift, by Anton Koolhaas, a well-known journalist and reviewer who produced many collections of animal stories in his time:

Een schot in de lucht (1962) by Anton Koolhaas (Netherlands, 1912-1992); illustrations by Metten Koornstra, Annemieke van Ogtrop, Lotte Ruting, Theo Blom and Peter Vos


This turns out to be a form I've never come across before: a picaresque novella! A series of otherwise unrelated scenes are linked by the presence of a randomly-wandering dog, as it abandons the country-house where it is well looked after but not loved, visits a farm, wanders into town, witnesses a road accident, spends some time hanging about a station, and ends up with a depressed and lonely railwayman in his signal-box.

We catch glimpses of complex human and animal stories as the dog passes by, but the dog has always moved on before we get a chance to examine them in detail and see how they are going to end. Both from the animal and the human points of view, the view of life is a fairly bleak one, and definitely meant for adult readers: more Richard Adams than Beatrix Potter, but always with an ironic twist. The animals behave in naturalistic ways, but they have a kind of anthropomorphised consciousness that the narrator can see into. Not the sort of thing I often read, but interesting, and quite nicely done.

Fun, too, to be back in the world of 1962, with lever-frame signal boxes in the middle of nowhere with telegraph bells and buzzers, coal trains, and a station buffet with revolving doors...

In keeping with the picaresque plot, the committee commissioned no fewer than five artists to illustrate a chapter each with line-drawings. Lots of variety in style, as you would expect, and also in form: four of the drawings are double-page spreads, others are little sketches of dogs, birds and flies that pepper the margins. Fun!

heinäkuu 4, 2020, 4:48am

Still a few South Africans on the pile... This is another early book by a black South African writer:

The black people and whence they came : a Zulu view (Abantu Abamnyama, Zulu 1922; English 1979) by Magema M Fuze (South Africa, 1840-1922), translated by Harry Lugg (1882-1978), edited by A T Cope


Magema Magwaza Fuze came from an important Zulu family. He was educated by Bishop Colenso at the famous Ekukhanyeni mission station, trained as a compositor and printer (like Sol Plaatje) and remained in Colenso's circle, becoming a teacher and a notable early writer and journalist in the Zulu language. He met Cetshwayo a number of times, and acted as tutor to Dinuzulu's family during their exile on Saint Helena.

Fuze's book Abantu Abamnyama, written around 1900 and eventually published with the help of contributions from Zulu and European supporters shortly before his death in 1922, is usually cited as the first major original work to be published in the Zulu language. It seems to have been conceived mostly as a permanent record of the oral knowledge of tribal history that had been handed down to him in his youth. There's a fairly speculative general introduction about the early history of black Africans, interesting more as a record of popular received opinion at the time than anything else. It also gives an interesting insight into the sort of speculative discussions that must have gone on in Colenso's liberal Anglican circles: Fuze demonstrates logically that Adam and Eve must have been black, for example, and tells us about one particular tribe that is said to have given up agriculture and evolved into baboons, in an odd bit of reverse-Darwinism.

When he comes to the Zulu and their direct ancestors, Fuze speaks with much more conviction, and we get pages and pages of genealogies which must be gold-dust for specialists, if rather dry for the rest of us. But there's also plenty of interesting information about traditional customs and their variations, and some entertaining anecdotes explaining where particular names come from. From Shaka onwards, we get a detailed historical account from the Zulu point of view: as an enlightened Christian, Fuze obviously finds it necessary to disapprove of the excesses committed by Shaka and Cetshwayo, but he's nowhere near as critical as non-Zulus like Mofolo and Plaatje. And of course, when we get to Cetshwayo and Dinuzulu, Fuze is talking about events and people he was very close to himself, so it's a very interesting story, if a slightly rambling one. Zulus are thoroughly blamed for their many internecine wars, but wars between Zulus and non-Zulus are always somehow the fault of the outsiders.

This English translation was made in the 1970s for the University of Natal by Harry Lugg, a former Commissioner for Native Affairs in Natal, who had known Fuze well (and was in his nineties when he did the translation). He rearranged Fuze's rambling text slightly to give a more logical sequence, and the text is peppered with Lugg's comments on the words used in the Zulu original as well as the editor's notes on the historical background, so it's not the easiest of books to read. To add insult to injury, it's printed like a thesis, as a photographic reduction of the typescript (the expert compositor Fuze would not have been amused). But there's a nice 1970s look and smell to it.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 4, 2020, 6:24am

And a more mainstream history book that's been on the TBR pile since 2018. I've been circling around Frederick for a while, with books by Blanning and Roy Porter on the eighteenth century, Christopher Clark on Prussia, Norman Davies on Poland, and most recently Boswell on the grand tour meeting Voltaire but failing to meet Frederick. Definitely time to read a proper biography:

Frederick the Great : King of Prussia (2015) by T C W Blanning (UK, 1942- )


Frederick the Great is one of those endlessly contradictory figures, who can be roped in to justify almost any theory of history: enlightened authoritarian, populist aesthete, atheist champion of the "protestant cause", German nationalist icon who despised the German language and its culture, the military genius who lost as many battles as he won, and the man who launched the unprovoked invasion of a neighbouring territory three months after publishing an anti-war book.

Blanning's strategy in this fascinating biography seems to be to embrace the contradictions without taking sides, as far as that's possible, and to look into the separate strains in Frederick's political and personal situation that were pushing him in these opposing directions. Key, of course, is Frederick's terrible relationship with his father: ruthlessly bullied up to the moment Frederick William died, he enthusiastically took up everything his father hated: art, music, clothes, porcelain, philosophy, free-thinking (and conversely, he took against hunting, drinking, and heterosexuality...). But, thanks to his father's philistinism, he had a very poor education, with all kinds of gaps that couldn't easily be filled later in life. And, in an age when great powers like France and Austria were virtually bankrupt, he had inherited a huge, low-mileage army and enormous piles of hard cash that the miserly Frederick William hadn't had any interest in spending. It would have needed a lot of willpower not to start at least a small war, and the strategically vital Austrian province of Silesia seemed to be there for the taking...

We are led fairly efficiently through the many conflicts of the Silesian wars, the Seven Years War, and the Bavarian Succession, although it's pretty clear that Blanning's first interest is not military history: he conscientiously gives us a sketch-map of each of the important battles, but rarely describes them in the sort of detail that would make a map useful. The diplomacy and strategic manoeuvring in the background is much more fascinating than the battlefield action, but it does become clear that Frederick was better at emotional leadership than at battlefield tactics. When he won a battle he got all the credit because he was so much admired by his subordinates (if not by his fellow-generals). And when he didn't win, he often managed to limit the damage by moving more quickly and decisively after the battle than his opponents.

The more interesting part of the book deals with cultural and social issues. The interesting puzzle of how Berlin-Potsdam failed to become a really important musical centre, despite having a ruler who was a talented and enthusiastic musician. Mannheim and Vienna were the real musical hotspots of the time, with London not far behind. Blanning gives a lot of the blame for that to Frederick's micro-management, and to his tastes that were frozen somewhere in the 1730s. Innovative musicians would have been permanently at war with him, and word soon got around that he didn't take kindly to anyone who wanted to move on to a better-paid post elsewhere. If you were a talented soprano (or a French philosophe) you might well find a Berlin Wall restricting your movements well before 1960. So he was left with competent but not top-flight musicians, like J J Quantz and C P E Bach.

Language is the really odd thing: Frederick seems to have treated his native language in much the same way that 19th century colonial administrators thought of African and Asian languages: useful for giving orders and condescending to the locals, but scarcely a medium for high culture. French was insisted on for official business, and was the language Frederick wrote his many books and poems in — one of the causes of his famous row with Voltaire was his expectation that the great man would be willing to act as his spelling-checker. At a moment when all Europe was rushing out to buy copies of Werther (and the fancy-dress to go with it), Frederick was publishing a pamphlet arguing that it was impossible for German culture to match the achievements of French and Italian. Lessing, the most distinguished Prussian writer of the time, whom Frederick took even less notice of than he did of Goethe, charitably suggested that Frederick's highly-publicised contempt actually encouraged German writers to try harder.

Of course, the thing we really want from a 21st century biography of Frederick is to follow him into the bedroom! Blanning admits that there's no likelihood now that we will ever get conclusive information about Frederick's real sexual preferences from someone who was there at the time, but decides on the basis of the huge amount of circumstantial evidence (from the all-male parties and homoerotic artworks at Sanssouci to Frederick's abandonment of the pretence of living with his wife the moment his father was out of the way) that it's silly to try to represent him as heterosexual, as many earlier historians have done.

Very readable and interesting biography.

heinäkuu 6, 2020, 9:08am

This one popped up as "contemporary fiction for you" in my Scribd recommendations — roughly contemporary with me, I suppose, although that's probably not what they meant...

Anyway, I haven't read it since I was about seventeen, when I had to read it more or less clandestinely, not so much because anyone was afraid that I might get the wrong sort of ideas, but rather because it would have provoked comments from parents and teachers about "that terrible American woman who ruined Ted Hughes's life" ("American" being much more damning in that context than "woman"...). Attitudes have probably moved on a little since then, but I'm not going to take sides!

The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath (USA, 1932-1963) audiobook read by Maggie Gyllenhaal


An astonishing book in all sorts of ways, tipping preconceptions about gender, sexuality, mental health, and all sorts of other things into Boston Harbour with relentless determination. But also astonishing in the way it demonstrates just how much the world has moved on in the last sixty or seventy years (in no small part thanks to books like this). The description of the month Esther spends as a guest editor (=student intern) on a women's magazine reads like surreal social satire to us now, a description of a privileged world of show-kitchens, celebrity poets and haute couture millinery we can't even begin to take seriously, but of course it's directly based on Plath's experience at Mademoiselle in summer 1953.

With the perspective of half a century, a lot of the doors Plath was kicking against are standing wide open (but not all: growing up is still just as challenging as it always was, and there are still lots of difficult areas around mental health), and it's perhaps rather easier than it was in the early sixties to take exception to her narrator's very entitled, middle-class way of looking at the world. Although there were people who were aware of it even then: in her biographical note to this edition, Lois Ames quotes an evaluation of Plath's application for a grant from a literary foundation, where the assessor points out that Plath is exactly the sort of person who always wins scholarships and bursaries and it wouldn't do any harm to give one to somebody else for a change.

What doesn't change, and what will always make this a book you should read, is the radical way Plath's language cuts through to the absurdity of the world around her. Every image she deploys is even more precise and unexpected than the one before it, and you keep having to stop and ask yourself whether you really heard it right.

heinäkuu 6, 2020, 10:25am

Another from my pile of borrowed South African books.

Elsa Joubert was a distinguished Afrikaans travel-writer and novelist; this book was her big international success. Sad to see that she died three weeks ago, one of the victims of COVID-19.

The long journey of Poppie Nongena (Afrikaans 1978; English 1980) by Elsa Joubert (South Africa, 1922-2020) (author's own translation)


Poppie is the life-story of an ordinary black South African woman, who gets caught up in the injustices of the Pass Law system that was one of the cornerstones of apartheid. Her life becomes a constant struggle to stay on the right side of the bureaucracy whilst still finding time to care for her children and earn a living.

Although it's set out as a novel, Joubert makes it clear that she is telling us the story of a real person, as told to her by the woman and members of her family, with nothing changed except the names. (She shared the royalties from the book and the later stage-play with the original of "Poppie", who was able to buy a house for herself as a result.)

It's written in the simplest of language (I sampled the Afrikaans text as well as the English version: in Afrikaans it feels positively brutal in its directness), but it turns into a sophisticated exploration of what it feels like to make your life in a world you have absolutely no control over, and on the intersection between different cultures. Poppie and her family are constantly in tension between Xhosa and Afrikaans language, Christian and Xhosa culture, urban and rural ways of life, and so on, as well as having to cope with the illogical requirements of a law that deems you to be a resident of a place you have no tangible connection with, and an undesirable intruder in the region where you and your family have always lived. And takes it for granted that people living on low wages are somehow able to give up big chunks of their working time to queue up every time they need to have any contact with officialdom.

In the background of the story is South African history from World War II to the township violence of the seventies: Poppie doesn't see herself as political, she's too busy surviving and trying to make opportunities for the next generation, but when her younger siblings and her children get involved in protest, she understands perfectly well why they are angry. But she also has a pretty good idea that it's not going to end well for them.

Obviously, this is an educated, middle-class, white writer, transcribing the words of someone from a completely different background, so there's got to be an element of fraud in this, even if only at the subconscious level, but it's very convincingly done, and Joubert manages to give us the illusion that we are really seeing the world from Poppie's point of view. This seems to have been a book that opened a lot of people's eyes to the realities of apartheid, inside and outside South Africa.

heinäkuu 6, 2020, 4:16pm

I must get to The Bell Jar

heinäkuu 6, 2020, 6:03pm

Great reviews as always, and wow - what an impressive amount of books so far this year. I seemed to buck the trend with less time to read in Lockdown than normal.

Ah, The Bell Jar. I also need to give that a re-read sometime. I have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to books (even those I really enjoyed), and I must confess to remembering very little about it now.

heinäkuu 6, 2020, 9:07pm

>8 thorold: I haven't gotten to this yet but your review intrigues me because I feel like I've seen lots about it but never much mention of the plot so thank you for that!

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 7, 2020, 5:52am

>10 baswood: - >12 janemarieprice: I'm glad I re-read it, but it is a slightly odd feeling coming (back) to a book like that relatively late in life — feels almost like trespassing, somehow.

Back to the TBR shelf. This is a Dutch novel I bought in 2012, after reading a couple of other novels by Hermans. He counts as one of the alpha-males of postwar Dutch literature(*), with Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve (not that the three of them had much in common!). Hermans taught geography at Groningen University, hence his most famous novel, the geography-field-trip-from-hell Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep). That and his war novel The darkroom of Damocles are fairly easy to find in English; this one doesn't seem to have been translated:

Uit talloos veel miljoenen (1981) by Willem Frederik Hermans (Netherlands, 1921-1995)


Hermans is known for bleak, philosophical novels, so it's a little unexpected to find yourself here in what looks like a satirical campus farce, in a late-seventies register somewhere between The history man and Abigail's party. But with a hint of Stoner too! Clemens is a sociology lecturer in Groningen, middle-aged and despairing of ever making it to full professor, rapidly losing his faith in the professional advantages of sticking to Marx and Marcuse. His wife, Sita, knows that the other faculty-wives look down on her: they are all students who married their professors; she was serving in a snack-bar when she met Clemens. She has hopes of publishing a successful children's book, like her neighbour Alies, but things seem to keep going wrong with the project, roughly in proportion to the rate at which the level of sherry goes down in the "vinegar" bottle in the kitchen. Meanwhile, her beautiful daughter, Parel, also seems to be heading full-tilt down some kind of slippery slope.

There's a lot of play with academic one-upmanship, and with the L-shaped living-rooms and sofas of suburban life (and the green letterboxes that keep getting pinched from suburban front gardens), and there are plenty of the kind of painfully embarrassing coincidences that belong to that kind of farce. But it gradually becomes obvious that there's also something darker going on. Sita's little book, "Beertje Bombazijn" (which Hermans wrote and actually published, under Sita's name) has its surreal side: one of the bears plays the tambourine and keeps a gypsy on a chain to collect the money for him. And actual bears, dream-bears and teddy-bears keep popping up in the novel in bizarre ways. There are suggestions of medieval allegory in many of the character names, and a strong hint — in a gratuitous walk-on appearance by the Professor of Middle English — that we should be looking for parallels with the poem "The Pearl".

Funny, in a warped way, and with some very acute bits of social observation. But maybe a bit more heavily-layered with meaning than it absolutely needs to be.


After having it around for a few days, I'm finding that very aggressive negative kerning on the cover more and more disquieting. I suppose it's meant to give a tombstone effect...

(*) Interesting in the context of the recent South Africa theme: a couple of years after this book came out Hermans caused a scandal by giving a series of lectures in South Africa, in violation of the cultural boycott. Of course he wasn't in any way a supporter of apartheid (he was married to a non-white woman), but his act of provocation led to him being declared "persona non grata" by the Amsterdam city council.

heinäkuu 7, 2020, 12:28pm

Another borrowed South African book from the pile brought back from the book picnic a couple of weeks ago...

Propaganda by monuments & other stories (1996) by Ivan Vladislavić (South Africa, 1957- )


This is the second short story collection by Vladislavić, from 1996. The eleven stories vary from the relatively conventional to the insanely busy: there's a lot of very good stuff, but in places a good idea seems to be buried under the weight of a thousand others, as in the title story — where a shebeen-owner writes off to the Soviet foreign ministry to enquire about the possibility of acquiring a surplus statue of Lenin to decorate his newly-legal tavern — or "Autopsy", where The King is spotted coming out of Estoril Books in Johannesburg. The surreal "Isle of Capri" and the Borgesian "The Omniscope" are less extreme examples, but still seem to be trying a bit too hard.

I particularly enjoyed "The Tuba", where an old-school racist tries to disrupt a Salvation Army band and ends up making music with them, and "The Book Lover", where the narrator explores inconclusive clues to the life of an earlier owner, a woman called Helena Shein, he finds in secondhand books from in various Johannesburg bookshops (this was especially fun because several of the books concerned are ones I happened to read recently). "The Whites Only bench" is another very good story, as is "Courage", a story about an artist who comes to a remote village to look for a model for a post-liberation statue. "'Kidnapped'" (a story about not writing a story) and "The Firedogs" were fun too.

Not in the same league as his more recent book Portrait with keys, but a very interesting collection.

heinäkuu 8, 2020, 11:57am

Zolathon — The Bonus Episodes (1/??)

I'm part way through several other books, but the DHL man turned up with a packet of essential supplies from Hay-on-Wye just as I was about to sit down to lunch. This little book didn't really seem long enough to bother putting it on the TBR shelf:

Emile Zola : an introductory study of his novels (1952) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)


In just under 150 pages, Wilson manages to fit in a summary of Zola's life, a detailed appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses as a novelist, and a bluffer's guide to the entire Rougon-Macquart sequence, as well as a humorous appendix on English translations of Zola. He has the great advantage that he's writing (in 1952) at a point when Zola's reputation was at pretty much its lowest ebb in the English-speaking literary world, and not much higher in France, so there's a great feeling of freshness and discovery in his argument that Zola should be seen, like Dickens, Balzac and Dostoevsky, as a writer who offers "a wonderful, enveloping world". He is someone we should all be going out to read — provided we can read French, of course, since there were at that time no usable English versions available. The only translations he admits are the privately-printed Lutetian Society ones by Havelock Ellis, Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symonds, but they were essentially unobtainable to ordinary mortals.

Wilson's overall views on the series perhaps aren't all that radical, from a 21st century viewpoint: L'Assommoir, Germinal and La Terre are picked out as the high-points, with La Débâcle close behind. He finds flaws in Nana and La bête humaine, but interestingly also picks out La joie de vivre as a book that came very close to being great. He points out how autobiographical it is, and feels that it was "broken by the overflow of the author's personal passions," being written in the aftermath of his mother's death.

Wilson sensibly urges readers to ignore Zola's theories of literature and the dodgy scientific theories that provide some of the scaffolding for the family saga. He puts these down to Zola's rather patchy education and his perceived need to compensate for it, something we can't really blame him for. As far as Wilson is concerned, Zola at his best ignores the theory anyway, and lets the needs of the book he's writing drive what he does. When he lets the theory take over, or writes a book he's no longer interested in in the way his plan laid out, then things go wrong: in La bête humaine the crime plot that was meant for another book had to be shoehorned into a railway novel where it didn't really belong; by the time he got to L'Argent he'd found happiness in his personal life and gone from savagery to sterility in his writing.

Maybe it's occasionally a bit facile, and Wilson does enjoy making space for a memorably pithy comment, but it's stood up very well: this doesn't really feel like a book that's closer in time to Zola than it is to us!


Just compare the pleasant typography on this fifties Secker & Warburg dust-jacket with >13 thorold:; you'll see what I meant about the kerning!

heinäkuu 8, 2020, 1:27pm

BTW: for anyone who’s following my opera adventures, I noticed that the fantastic Nederlandse Reisoper production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo I saw live (it seems like a hundred years ago...) in February is now available through OperaVision:

Highly recommended! A really superb collaboration between director, choreographer and the set, costume and lighting designers. (And an all-female production team.)

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 11, 2020, 4:00pm

>16 thorold: ...and last night I saw the 2017 Covent Garden La Bohème — always a fun opera to watch, and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo was making all the right noises, but Australian soprano Nicole Car somehow managed to turn Mimì into something more like Joyce Grenfell as the school hockey captain. Least plausible death from consumption ever, but I think that could have been deliberate: we were supposed to wonder whether her illness wasn't wished upon her as the product of Rodolfo's warped romantic ideas.


Back to the TBR pile and East German classics of the sixties:

Die Aula (1965) by Hermann Kant (DDR, Germany, 1926-2016)


Hermann Kant, president of the writers' union, member of parliament and of the Central Committee, defender of censorship and tireless fighter against the evils of the capitalist West, was the public face of repressive authority in just about all the unedifying conflicts of the East German government with his fellow-writers. Volker Weidermann describes him as "the most-unloved, most-hated writer of the Wende period". It's almost disappointing to discover that he was actually quite a good writer in his early days...

Die Aula was one of the bestselling East German books of its time, becoming a firm fixture on school reading-lists, and also doing very well internationally (although I can't find any trace of an English translation). The central character, Robert, has a very similar background to Kant: he trained as an electrician, was called up for military service shortly before the end of the war, became a PoW in Poland, and followed antifascist training there (one of Kant's mentors in Warsaw was Anna Seghers, whom he later succeeded as president of the writers' union). Returning to Germany on his release in 1949, Robert gets a place in one of the new "Workers' and Peasants' Faculties" (ABFs) at a university in Pomerania, an intensive pre-university course for people who didn't get the chance to finish high-school. The novel centres on Robert's memories of his experiences at the ABF and the group of friends he made there, as recalled thirteen years later when — now a well-known journalist — he is invited to give a speech (in the great hall of the university, the Aula) to mark the ABF's last graduation ceremony before it is wound down.

So it's essentially an edifying story of keen young carpenters, seamstresses and agricultural workers who work hard to become doctors, senior civil servants, professors of Sinology, and so on, absolutely soaked in the atmosphere of the early days of the Workers' and Peasants' State, and of course permitting no doubt — in the mind of any reader Kant could imagine — that socialism is good, capitalism is bad, and the Federal Republic is worst of all. Propaganda, inevitably, but it's told with wit, irony, self-mockery, and huge amounts of energy. The characters are complicated, funny, and original, the dialogue is sharp and down-to-earth. Self-importance is never allowed to go unpunished, whether it comes from the pompous old academics who suddenly find themselves teaching students from a completely different section of society, party officials, or the students themselves. And, as we gradually discover, there is also a real personal conflict going on inside Robert: he has unfinished business with at least two of his student friends, which he is hoping to resolve through his journey into the past.

It's a very enjoyable, readable book, full of memorable anecdotes and period atmosphere and never overtly preachy, but it's a bit of a shaggy mess, and it sometimes feels as though the author has got into it but isn't quite sure how he's ever going to get out again. The ending, when it does come, feels a bit heavy-handed compared to the rest of the book. A flawed book in many ways, but one that deserves to go on being read.


Another text-heavy dustjacket, and this one, for unaccountable reasons, has got the book's epigraph on it (it's a quotation from Heine, referring to the French July Revolution of 1830)

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 11, 2020, 4:58pm

This is a book I've been mildly curious about since it came out, but never quite enough to go out and look for it. Finally, a copy strayed into my path — fun to see that it was a review copy, still with a press release, a "with compliments" slip, and a carbon copy of the review (yes, we still had carbon paper in 1988!) folded into the back cover. The reviewer's verdict seems to have been "modified rapture".

The parrot and other poems (1988) by P G Wodehouse (UK, 1881-1975)


P G Wodehouse might have made fun of poets in his stories, but he didn't in the least despise verse: anyone who's ever read one of his books will know how much he enjoyed quoting the English classics in inappropriate contexts, and anyone who knows anything about his writing career will be aware that he was a highly successful Broadway lyricist around the time of the Great War. He always had a very sharp ear for rhyme and metre.

This collection of comic verse is mostly taken from Wodehouse's very early newspaper days, between around 1903 and 1907, together with a couple of poems that appeared in later stories (like the immortal nature poem "Good Gnus", which is written by Charlotte Mulliner in "Unpleasantness at Budleigh Court"). The newspaper poems deal with issues of the day: ladies' cricket, the craze for bridge, the post-Reichenbach revival of Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells's comet, and so on. Prominent are the "Parrot" poems, part of a daily sequence printed in the Express in Autumn 1903 as an ironic commentary on the Free Trade debate of the moment, and owing more than a little to a certain American bird famous for perching above doors.

As you would expect, this is hack work, written at speed to fill empty columns, with the expectation that it would be wrapping fish the next day, and it doesn't really survive being printed in a book a century later. Everything is a parody of one kind or another, with the footprints of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and — above all — W S Gilbert visible on every page, but here and there you can see the glimmerings of original Wodehouse humour beginning to shine through.

The introductions by Auberon Waugh and Frances Donaldson are pleasant, but don't say very much (and what they do say overlaps rather!); the cartoons by David Langdon are fun, although he's rather anachronistically chosen to caricature Wodehouse as he was in his seventies, not as the sporting young man of twenty who wrote most of these poems.

Not a must-have book, but still quite a nice addition to a Wodehouse collection.


The magic of alphabetical order: this gets slotted in between William Carlos Williams and Gerard Woodward on my poetry shelf! Wheelbarrows to one side, punk and Domestos to the other...

heinäkuu 12, 2020, 12:39pm

And another literary biography — both Jonathan Coe and B S Johnson are writers I've come across only fairly recently, with nothing obvious in common, and it's fun finding out that one is a big fan of the other. Like one of those dinner-parties where you bring together friends from different contexts and discover that they've actually known each other for years...

Like a fiery elephant : the story of B.S. Johnson (2004) by Jonathan Coe‬ (UK, 1961- )


B S Johnson got a relatively late start as a writer, having come up the hard way through the education system, and he died very young, only ten years after his first book was published. Moreover, he was doctrinally opposed to the idea of fiction, all his novels and poems and most of his writing for film or stage being drawn in one way or another from his own life. So there couldn't be very much left for a biographer to do, surely?

Not so. Coe tells us he spent more than eight years, on and off, researching and writing this book, and he obviously had a hard time making his mind up about what conclusions — if any — could be drawn about Johnson's life. As a result, we get a book that, while it doesn't come in a box or have holes in the pages, is quite unusual in form by the standards of literary biography. Coe first takes us through Johnson's main works, the seven novels, and only then tackles the "life" part, following a roughly chronological sequence guided by 160 "fragments" from Johnson's writings (books, letters, rough notes, essays, application forms, etc.). He tries to make some kind of sense of how this combative, self-assured writer who always seemed to be quite certain that the peculiar theoretical path he was beating through the literary jungle was the only possible valid one, could end up messing up so many of the projects he worked on and antagonising so many of the people who could have been helping him.

Not straightforward, and Coe doesn't try to pretend that there are any sweeping generalisations to be made, but we do end up with some ideas that help us to understand Johnson a little bit better. Although it's not really clear by the end of the book whether Coe has really managed to convince himself that literary biography is a valid thing to do. He pats himself on the back a couple of times when he finds texts that Johnson has filed away noting that "this will go in me memoirs one day," but he has to step back and leave us with a bit of literary ambiguity when he comes to questions that only Johnson himself could have resolved for us, especially the big one of why he chose to end his life in November 1973.

A very interesting biography, and a book that raises quite a few questions about the way we evaluate literary success and standing, the ways writers are rewarded, and so on, that are obviously still worth thinking about now. A minor disappointment is that we don't get to learn much about Johnson's relationship with the person he regarded as his most important mentor, Samuel Beckett, presumably because Coe couldn't get permission to use their letters. But there is a lot about Johnson's other literary friendships, and a very entertaining selection of his angry letters — one of the best is addressed to a distinguished US publisher and opens with "You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke." (Coe's Fragment 84, dated 28 June 1965).

heinäkuu 13, 2020, 8:41am

"You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke." - Biting the hand before it has a chance to feed you.

heinäkuu 13, 2020, 10:20am

>20 baswood: Quite. Oddly enough, he never found a US publisher in his lifetime!
Or anywhere outside the UK, except for Hungary, where they seem to have loved his books.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 14, 2020, 6:33am

I bought this in Delft, on what turned out to be my last in-person book-shopping trip before the lockdown. In a normal year, I would have been sailing on the IJsselmeer two or three times by now...

Eens ging de zee hier tekeer: het verhaal van de Zuiderzee en haar kustbewoners (2020) by Eva Vriend (Netherlands, 1973- )


This is a book that came out of an oral history project sponsored by the Zuiderzeemuseum: Vriend discusses the social history of the fishing communities around the former Zuiderzee over the last 150 years or so, weaving in the personal stories of four fishing families, from Volendam, Wieringen, Urk, and Spakenburg respectively.

The image of the Zuiderzee fishing village, where the women "still" wear their traditional costume with its long skirts and improbable starched caps and the men their baggy breeches, striped blouses and clogs, has been an icon of Dutchness at least since Henry Havard published his bestselling travel book Voyage aux villes mortes du zuiderzeé in 1874 (see my 2019 Q3 thread). And it's probably the first image of Holland you saw at school (give or take a windmill). The idea of the "villes mortes" also appealed to the ethnologists and anthropologists of the early 20th century, who saw them as a reservoir of pure, untainted Batavian racial excellence, and had great fun for a few years measuring skulls and calculating IQs (disappointingly, neither turned out to be appreciably different from the rest of the Dutch population).

But there's also the other great image of Holland, Cornelis Lely and his mighty team of civil engineers with their steam shovels closing off the last gap in the Afsluitdijk in 1932 to turn the dangerous, tidal Zuiderzee into the tame, respectable IJsselmeer. That shortened the coastline, reduced the danger of flooding, and created the potential to drain vast areas of land that had been lost in the floods of medieval times and turn them into polders farmed efficiently and in the straightest of straight lines by progressive young pioneer farmers schooled in the latest techniques.

Vriend — who grew up in the polder and has written a previous book about these pioneers — explores the way these contradictions worked themselves out in the years after the dyke was closed, with the fishermen deprived of their former livelihood but also unwelcome in the new polders. The herring and anchovy they used to catch couldn't get through the dyke, obviously, and the new, much reduced, lake couldn't support enough freshwater fish for anything like the 3500 boats that were working there previously. Many had to move to other trades, but a surprising number stuck to fishing, working on North Sea boats when there was nothing for them on the IJsselmeer.

What Vriend finds particularly interesting is the way a few communities, like the Catholic enclave of Volendam and the very Protestant former island of Urk, managed to retain their collective identities through all the social and economic changes. In Volendam half the town went to work for one former fisherman who started a construction company just as the post-war housing boom was taking off; the other half (which Vriend tactfully doesn't say much about) opened bars, restaurants and souvenir shops to turn their village into the Torremolinos of the North. Urk, on the other hand, stuck to fishing: the money its fishermen had made during the black-market boom of the war was not put in ungodly savings accounts, but invested in modern North Sea cutters, a new fish market, and processing plants, with the result that it still counts as the main fishing port of the Netherlands. Even though very little fish is actually landed there nowadays, almost everyone in the village still works on the North Sea or in a fish-related occupation on shore.

There are a lot of very positive things in the stories Vriend tells us about the way these closed communities work, with people looking after each other without the need for much intervention by doctors and social workers, financing community projects and business ventures, and generally maintaining a happy and secure community quite different from what most of us experience in the modern, urban world. But there's also a dark side: enormous peer-group pressure to conform, contempt for outside ideas, with low rates of participation in higher education and high illiteracy; early marriage and big families, with very strongly defined gender roles (the men go to sea, the women stay at home, do the books, and look after their many babies); racism, xenophobia, homophobia, support for right-wing parties, etc., etc. It's not clear whether you can have one side of this without the other: communities that turn in on themselves are probably always going to end up with an unhealthy contempt for the outside world, but on the other hand they probably aren't quite as radically different form the rest of us as we like to imagine them.

Vriend certainly tries to nuance her account: she clearly found a good rapport with the fishermen and their families, and she stresses that many of the stereotypes we have are still based on the prejudices of the scientists of a hundred years ago, who clearly didn't have much understanding of how fishermen actually work. One thing I wasn't expecting was the way all the families she describes had moved around between ports to some extent, following the needs of the work, and how it wasn't in the least unusual that (say) a fisherman from Urk would marry a fisherman's daughter from Makkum. The ports around the Zuiderzee clearly had more in common with each other, and more contact across the water, than they ever did with the hinterland, even before the polders came.

Another thing I hadn't fully realised was how much it was deliberate policy to keep the old ports separate from the polders. Not only were the fishing families unwelcome on the new farmland, but the planners also foresaw neat central villages for the shopping needs of the pioneers: it wasn't at all the intention that they should go to Urk or to Medemblik to buy their bread and newspapers. Urk faced endless delays before it got road access to the dry land that had removed its status as an island, and even longer before it was grudgingly allowed some of the new land to build houses for its growing population. Similar, even more absurd situations arose with former ports like Elburg, Harderwijk and Bunschoten-Spakenburg, which were now entirely surrounded by land, but were not meant to be trading with that to the north of them.

Very interesting, but probably only if you know the area quite well to start with.


Picture of children from the Zuiderzee island of Marken in a 1930s British book, The Children's Everything Within:

heinäkuu 16, 2020, 10:46am

A follow-up to the Mitteleuropa theme from last year, when I read a number of books by Hungarian writers, including Katalin Street. When I saw that another of Magda Szabó's books had come out in English, I suggested it for our book-club:

Abigail (1970; English 2020) by Magda Szabó (Hungary, 1917-2007), translated by Len Rix


This book turns out to be set in 1943-44, in between Stalingrad and the German occupation of Hungary, i.e. during a period when Hungary was still fighting on the German side against Russia, but when there was a lot of anti-war feeling in the country and the Horthy government were putting out secret feelers to the Allies. So, although it's just a boarding-school story on the surface, it's one with a lot of political undertones.

Gina, teenage daughter of a widowed senior army officer, finds herself suddenly whisked off from the cosmopolitan, quasi-adult life she's used to in Budapest to the isolation of a strict, religious boarding-school in a remote provincial town. Needless to say, she isn't happy about being locked up, deprived of her nice clothes and cosmetics, and generally treated like a little girl. She reacts by being as stroppy as she can, only to find that she's added to her troubles by alienating her classmates as well as the school authorities. And her father has important work to do, and needs to be sure that she's safe and hidden away, so it's no good trying to get the school to expel her. Fortunately, the school has a secret-helper-in-residence, who communicates with girls in trouble via a statue — universally known as Abigail — in the garden.

This is all built on the classic children's fiction plot device of children getting involved in an adult story with the best of intentions but with a completely mistaken idea of what the adult story is all about, as used dozens of times (for example) by Erich Kästner. However, unlike a Kästner story, there's nothing particularly funny about the misconception in this case, nor do we have much hope that everything is somehow going to turn out all right in the end. Szabó does give us a vivid picture of how the overconfident and rather unpleasant socialite of the opening chapter turns into a scared little girl, on her own and not knowing whom she can trust, or even which side she is supposed to be on, and finally does learn to accept the right sort of help, but it's all rather uncomfortable — too childish really to work as an adult novel, but without the sort of comfortable protecting framework we look for in a children's story.

Difficult to imagine that this was written by the same person as The door and Katalin Street. But writers have to find ways to sell books as well, I suppose, even in socialist countries...

heinäkuu 16, 2020, 11:14am

Another short one:

Ann Quin's name came up a few times in the B S Johnson biography — they weren't very close, but they were both part of the same loose-knit group of experimental writers in the sixties and early seventies. Coe suggests that Quin's suicide in August 1973 was one of the things that contributed to Johnson's breakdown and his death a few months later.

I realised that I've never read any of her books. This seems to be the best-known, her first novel:

Berg (1964) by Ann Quin (UK, 1936-1973)


Hair-tonic salesman Aly Berg, alias Greb, comes to a South Coast resort in the depths of winter to murder the father who abandoned him and his mother twenty-eight years earlier. The result is a strange, dark farce, obviously strongly inspired by Beckett, but with more than a hint of the Tony Hancock/Monty Python tradition (making copious use of props like a ventriloquist's dummy and a number of dead pets). There's so much confusion with the dummy that we — and Berg — lose track of whether the father is actually dead yet or whether it's the dummy that Berg has murdered yet again; when the actual murder does take place, it hardly seems significant any more.

Berg/Greb is clearly deep in Oedipus country, attracted to his father's repulsive girlfriend Judy and in love with his possessive offstage mother, but there's also a bizarre episode where he dresses up in Judy's clothes for no obvious reason and his father tries to make love to him, and various same-sex episodes hinted at in his past.

All very odd, but with a bouncy kind of energy that doesn't feel Beckettish at all, and full of unexpected language.
A good argument for not visiting Brighton (or wherever it is), perhaps, but also a good argument for reading more Quin.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 17, 2020, 6:13pm

This is one of the Seven Seas books from Hanna Behrend's library I acquired a couple of months ago. Interesting to find a small collection of press cuttings tucked up inside it, all articles by or about Montagu from the British communist daily the Morning Star, including his half-page obituary. Professor Behrend also clipped out the death notice for Montagu's wife, Hell (the Morning Star spells her name with one "l", but Montagu always uses two, allowing for some interesting confusions!), so it wouldn't surprise me if she knew them personally.

With Eisenstein in Hollywood A chapter of autobiography. Including the scenarios of Sutter's gold and an American tragedy (1967) by Ivor Montagu (UK, 1904-1984)


Montagu is on the very left of the cover picture from the La Sarraz conference, partly cut off; Eisenstein is in front of him on the bench, next to Janine Boissounousse and Hans Richter.

Ivor Montagu was the son of a wealthy English banking family; he studied zoology but became a prominent figure in the world of international table-tennis, a left-wing film-maker and journalist, a founder-member of the cinematic trade union ACTT, and a peace activist.

He had already made several visits to the Soviet Union before he became friendly with Eisenstein at the famous 1929 conference of avant-garde film-makers hosted by Hélène de Mandrot at her Swiss château, La Sarraz. When Eisenstein and his colleagues Grigory Alexandrov and Eduard Tisse turned up, they ripped up the programme of papers and talk sessions and got everyone dressed up in their hostess's collection of medieval armour to make an improvised film (sadly, the only known print of it seems to have been lost in Japan during WWII).

According to Montagu, the three Russians didn't see the point of making any more silent films, but knew the authorities wouldn't let them make talkies until enough Soviet Union cinemas had the equipment to show them, which wouldn't be until the next five-year plan, so they had arranged to go travelling for a year. The Montagus were planning to go to Hollywood anyway, so Ivor offered to put in a word for Eisenstein there, and it wasn't long before they and the three Russians were settled into a house in Beverly Hills together, on a retainer from Paramount, and working on a number of film projects.

With the usual bizarre logic of early thirties Hollywood, a great deal of time and effort were invested in projects that stood very little chance of getting off the ground, and after six months the studio politely thanked them and wished them well for their future careers. Power struggles within the studio that had nothing to do with Eisenstein seem to have been mostly responsible, but the studio did also come under some pressure from right-wingers who didn't think a Soviet director should be making American films (not as big a deal in the thirties as in the fifties, but still relevant). Montagu describes the complex negotiations with the studio, and the group's life in Hollywood, especially their friendship with Chaplin. Plus various nude-scenes in Douglas Fairbanks's Turkish bath, confrontations with the official studio bootlegger (Montagu didn't drink), and general Hollywood name-dropping.

After a few complete false starts, some of which might have been very interesting — a Haitian revolution film with Paul Robeson; Shaw's Devil's disciple; The war of the worlds (Wells had offered it to them, forgetting that it was already sold elsewhere...); something called The glass house, about a post-privacy world — they settled on two serious projects, which were scripted out: Sutter's Gold, from the novel by Blaise Cendrars, and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The first scripts of both, co-written by Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Montagu, are included in the book. They would certainly both have come out as very political films, if they had ever been made, with some interesting non-realistic elements. But of course the studio got cold feet, and that was that.

Montagu didn't go on to Mexico with Eisenstein, but he does give us his analysis of why the Mexican film was never completed: Upton Sinclair, who found the money for the project, had no experience of cinema, and he didn't employ a producer to manage Eisenstein's work, so they just went on shooting what they thought they needed until Sinclair got scared by how much it was all costing and asked Stalin to summon the boys home.

An interesting little footnote in cinema history.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 19, 2020, 7:32am

Hmmm. Despite the relaxation of lockdown letting me get out more in the last week or so, I don't seem to have been reading much less, but I am starting to get behind with reviews. Time to catch up a bit:

This is a late entry to the Southern Africa theme — I found out about it through the Ivan Vladislavić story "The book lover" which I read a couple of weeks ago, and managed to track down a secondhand copy. The figure of Johannes van der Kemp interested me, partly because he played a big role in Buys: 'n Grensroman, the historical novel with which I opened the Southern Africa theme.

Sarah Gertrude Millin came to Kimberley from Lithuania with her Jewish parents at the age of five months. Starting in her early twenties, she published a couple of dozen books, mostly novels and biographies on themes from South African history. She was married to Philip Millin, a lawyer who became a High Court judge.

The burning man (1952) by Sarah Gertrude Millin (South Africa, 1889-1968)


I didn't realise it until I started reading it, but this goes together with Millin's earlier novel about Coenraad Buys, King of the Bastards (1949), which overlaps with it in time. I'll have to look for that: apparently she got Jan Smuts to write the foreword, which gives an indication of where she must have stood in mid-century South Africa.

Johannes van der Kemp (1747-1811) was one of the many "stranger than fiction" figures who pop up in Southern African history. An Enlightenment scholar at Leiden who became a libertine army officer, got chucked out of the service for marrying outside his own social class, qualified as a doctor in Scotland, and then, late in life, experienced a religious conversion and was one of the first group of Evangelical missionaries sent out to the Cape by the London Missionary Society, where he became a thorn in the side of the Dutch and (later) the British colonial authorities, as well as antagonising the Boers. Most improbably of all, he found common ground with the rebellious and anarchistic patriarch Coenraad Buys when the two met at the court of the Xhosa king Gaika (modern spelling Ngqika: Buys had recently become his stepfather).

In turning van der Kemp's life into an historical novel, Millin is clearly fascinated by the strong passions that drove the twists and turns of his improbable career, with its odd mixture of Enlightenment humanism, evangelical Christianity, and powerful sexual impulses. And she enjoys his provocation of the racist sensibilities of the Boers, and has fun imagining the three strong female characters she brings into his life: Susanna, the married woman who becomes the mother of his daughter; Helena, his working-class first wife; and Sally, the mixed-race teenager he marries in his old age. But I don't think it entirely succeeds: Millin is just a bit too polite, perhaps, or hasn't quite made her mind up what it is that is really driving van der Kemp. Probably she finds van der Kemp's absolute opposition to racism and slavery more important than the sincerity or hypocrisy of his religious beliefs, and she doesn't want to obscure that by offending either her religious readers or the atheist ones.

An interesting period piece, anyway.


heinäkuu 19, 2020, 8:01am

This was part of a "surprise packet" of books very kindly sent me a few weeks ago by another LT member. Arthur Machen is someone I vaguely knew about (Javier Marías, for instance, talks about him a lot), but the supernatural isn't really a big interest of mine, so I'd never got around to actually reading him.

Ornaments in Jade (1924) by Arthur Machen (UK, 1863-1947)


An interesting collection of short pieces of fiction, originally published in 1924 and reprinted in 2018 by Snuggly Books, a small press that seems to specialise in "decadent" writing and is oddly coy about telling us where it's based.

All the pieces seem to work in much the same way, with a representation of a solitary character in either a rural or a London setting that gradually shifts away from realistic description to hint at the presence of something (or more properly, "Something") terrible that is just at the edge of our perception. Machen never quite commits himself as to what the terrible thing really is, he just entices us up to the edge of the cliff and leaves us there, wondering whether there really is a yawning chasm in front of us. Lovely writing, but I think you have to be in the mood for it.

heinäkuu 19, 2020, 8:20am

...and the third of Sarah Caudwell's legal mysteries:

The sirens sang of murder (1989) by Sarah Caudwell (UK, 1939-2000)


Professor Hilary Tamar and the young barristers are faced with two suspicious deaths within a group of tax professionals handling a complex trust case referred to as "the Daffodil settlement", which of course gives us the opportunity for a few exotic location scenes in the Cayman Islands, Monaco and the Channel Islands. Writing in 1989, Caudwell's preferred epistolary technique hasn't yet been able to benefit from the invention of email, but she cleverly gets a Telex machine installed at 62, New Court, which provides her characters the opportunity to communicate in writing without the need to allow for postal delays.

Another innovation is an irresponsible visiting uncle straight out of P.G. Wodehouse, who provides his share of laughs for us, as well as allowing Caudwell her silliest dénouement scene yet. The name "Daffodil" should also put us on our guard that this story is full of ironic references to old-style British academic detective stories (such as those of Professor Tamar's Oxford colleague, Michael Innes), including a Clue of a type no-one has got away with since about 1930 (a pen bearing the initials of its owner), a Shakespeare parallel, a complete set of Biggles books, and a motive of considerable antiquity.

Very entertaining, and probably full of hidden in-jokes for tax lawyers as well.

heinäkuu 20, 2020, 3:52am

Lurking but not commenting much. Enjoyed your last few reviews. My reading has gone to pot this month - too many other things competing for my attention!

heinäkuu 23, 2020, 9:37am

>29 AlisonY: Yes, strange times...

...and I'm still two reviews behind. First the obvious follow-up to >28 thorold::

The Sibyl in her grave (2000) by Sarah Caudwell (UK, 1939-2000)


Fourth and last of the Hilary Tamar legal mysteries. And what better setting than the traditional English village, complete with pub, church, vicarage, and an antique shop kept by an old lady who knows more than she should about everyone else's business. In this case, the old lady happens to be Julia's aunt Reg, and that brings the barristers and the professor into a story of insider trading and the sudden death of a fortune-teller.

The fun and crime both seem a little more muted here than in the earlier books — or maybe that's just from reading it in the knowledge that the author died before this book could be published. There's still plenty of play with the conventions of the genre, Caudwell's usual penchant for the epistolary format, some lively dialogue, and a parallel story about refurbishment work at 62 New Court. Nice, but it makes you wish she'd had the opportunity to write a few more!

heinäkuu 23, 2020, 10:16am

And a Spanish modern classic from the depths of the TBR (brought back from the charity shop in March 2014).
baswood wrote a sonnet-review of this a few months ago: I'm not going to try to top that!

La colmena (1951; The hive) by Camilo José Cela (Spain, 1916-2002)


Like Ulysses and Berlin Alexanderplatz, this is one of those modernist books that tries to find a way for the novel to engage with the complexity of the twentieth century city, in this case Madrid in the winter of 1942. Instead of invading the consciousness of a single protagonist or showing us the shifting relationships of a small group of characters, Cela takes 160 "main characters" and shows us brief scenes from their lives over the space of a few days, rapidly cutting back and forth between different characters and also shifting backwards and forwards in time unpredictably. Some of the characters have scenes that cross-over several different storylines, others just seem to pass through without any important interactions, just providing an ironic contrast to what has gone before.

Cela doesn't want to hide anything under a veil of respectability here, which obviously accounts for the difficulty he had getting the book past the Spanish censor (it eventually had to be published in Buenos Aires). Middle-class businessmen and their wives cross paths with whores, con-men, child-abusers, voyeurs, cops, impecunious poets, and worse. There is the murder of an old woman, treated with as much attention as the ejection of a non-paying customer from Doña Rosa's café; there is a lover concealed in a laundry-hamper; several people are clearly dying of TB; there are gypsies and shanty-town dwellers and all the poverty and squalor and unemployment of the Posguerra. So there's a lot of misery, but there's also a surprising amount of dry humour around. If people are in trouble, Cela is interested in how they got there: a couple of times he breaks off to tell us what has happened to all someone's children and grandchildren for no obvious reason except that he wants us to know how that kind of family develops.

Fascinating and complicated: this is one of those books where you end up letting it all wash over you the first time through, intending to come back and read it more carefully, paying full attention to who is who. But perhaps the washing-over is the point: there's a scene where Cela talks about the way we look at our fellow-passengers in the tram and imagine their stories, and that seems to be a good illustration of what this book is trying to reproduce.

heinäkuu 26, 2020, 3:49pm

Glad you enjoyed La Colmena I think it is one of those novels that might never 'come together' how ever many times you read it. Maybe there are a couple of stories that will become clearer and add to the characters that are described, but I suspect many will stay as vignettes. For me the atmosphere created around Donna Rosa's café gave an insiders view of the culture of the times and is worth re-reading for that aspect. I don't think it is a difficult novel and readers who give it a try may well enjoy the experience.

heinäkuu 27, 2020, 8:51am

>32 baswood: You're right, it's a very approachable book. We should go on promoting it!

Getting behind with the reviews again, this is one I finished at the end of last week, another from the slowly-diminishing pile of borrowed South African books:

Livingstone's companions (1972) by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa, 1923-2014)


Nadine Gordimer's writing career covered more than sixty years: this, the seventh of her many short-story collections, comes from about a third of the way through it.

Many of the stories seem to be in one way or another about the less obvious consequences of racism and colonialism in Africa. The title story looks through the eyes of a globetrotting foreign correspondent at the empty Westminster-style ritual of a post-independence parliament in a single-party state, where the Speaker's Clerk is dressed up as a "perfect papier-mâché blackamoor from an eighteenth century slave trader's drawing room" and the Foreign Minister solemnly delivers a content-free travelogue of a recent state visit. It's not worth two lines of copy, so the journalist moves on to another assignment. His editor sends him to retrace the steps of Livingstone's last journey for the upcoming centenary of his death, and he finds himself staying in a lakeside hotel (presumably in Zambia), where his readings from Livingstone's journals are ironically juxtaposed with his observation of the white people who run the hotel and their guests, trying to attach a veneer of seventies trendiness to their crumbling heritage of colonial luxury. Gordimer doesn't make the connections for us, we can take it as the strength of Africa defeating both the out-of-place idealist and the staying-on exploiter, or we can see it as an ironic commentary on the "Christian civilisation" Livingstone was so determined to bring to central Africa.

We go on to look at white South Africans out of place in Europe, in black Africa, and in their own country; at the troubled interactions between black intellectuals and white liberals; and we even get a few good old-fashioned parent-child, sibling, or husband-wife-lover stories. But all with that dry Gordimer twist. Of its time, but not really dated.

heinäkuu 27, 2020, 9:58am

And another from the long-stay section of the TBR pile. I bought it in June 2011, after reading the novella De slag om de Blauwbrug (also from 1983), which acts as a prologue to the series De tandeloze tijd. Years earlier I'd also read Weerborstels, the 1992 Boekenweek present, which I think was the first one I ever got. That counts as an intermezzo between parts 2 and 3 of the series. A F Th van der Heijden is a big name (*) in Dutch literature, and has won all the requisite prizes at some point over the last forty years or so, and taken part in enough controversies to remind us he exists. He doesn't seem to have been translated much, though, except into German. Tonio, the book about the death of his son in a road accident, looks to be the only one that's available in English.

Anyway, back to part 1:

Vallende ouders (1983) by A F Th van der Heijden (Netherlands, 1951- )


This novel forms the first part of van der Heijden's long and still ongoing series of (semi-)autobiographical novels De tandeloze tijd ("Toothless time"). It opens in spring, 1976, with the author's fictional alter ego Albert Egberts approaching his 26th birthday and near the end of his time as a student in Nijmegen, and moves on to take him back to his parents' house in Geldrop (outside Eindhoven) to retrace the key events of his childhood that have defined his relationship with his parents and his closest friends, and in the process dig into the mystery of how we deal with the cruelty of fate's having thrown us into this nasty, irreversible sequence of birth and death. Through consuming alcohol, mainly, it seems...

The structure of the book is frustrating to deal with, because van der Heijden likes to tell us things "in the wrong order", so that we get many unintelligible teaser-references to a character or a situation before we are actually told about it. Albert's parents, who are obviously the most important characters in the book (and not only on the strength of the title — the various accidents that happen to them give the book its key image structure) don't appear until after 150 pages or so: up to that point he might as well be an orphan, and we have to sit through egregious amounts of student drunkenness before we get to the real social and narrative content. Of course, the drunkenness isn't just there for show, it tells us important things about who Albert is and what life was like in 1976, and van der Heijden is a good raconteur, but I'm sure we could have got there in half the time with someone else...

It wasn't necessarily meant as a period novel — it came out only a few years after the foreground story — but I found that aspect of it almost the most interesting, the very particular cultural environment of that generation born in the first few years after the war, moving from working-class poverty to the new world of perpetual students and subsidised artists (that wonderfully Dutch institution, the BKR...). Of course here it also has that quite specific stamp of the Dutch provinces "below the great rivers," and of Eindhoven in the days when the whole of life there still revolved around Philips and the Catholic Church (in that order).


(*) Or at the very least, a complicated one that wouldn't easily fit on official forms in most countries. His English publishers seem to have persuaded him to use the slightly less intimidating form "Adri van der Heijden".

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 28, 2020, 5:49pm

B.S. Johnson again:

Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973) by B. S. Johnson (UK, 1933-1973)


Not actual memoirs, needless to say, but a collection of short prose pieces Johnson put together during his fellowship at the University of Wales centre at Gregynog in 1970, eventually published not long before his death in 1973. It's most interesting for its Introduction, a kind of artistic manifesto (or maybe he would have preferred "manifest"?) in which Johnson sets out his ideas of what the post-Joycean novel can still do, and goes through his own novels to assess how far he has lived up to that. It's where we find his famous diatribes against "fiction" and "stories", neither of which have any place in literature as far as he's concerned. Literature "teaches one something true about life: and how can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction?" — "Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies."

Some of the remaining items in the collection are rather overwhelmed by their titles: calling a travel piece about Bournemouth "What Did You Say the Name of the Place Was?" leaves us little doubt about how much Johnson is going to like the town, for instance. "Mean Point of Impact" turns out to be a reworking of Golding's The spire under aerial bombardment, whilst "Broad Thoughts from a Home" is a clever but rather too respectful Joyce parody. "These Count as Fictions" starts with a wonderful passage about finding curly hairs embedded in the (shared) soap and drifts into a lampoon of a story-writing manual. Probably the most entertaining piece, though, is "Never Heard it Called That Before", a gloriously surreal exploration of the possible origins of the London street-name "Balls Pond Road". Typically, given what's gone before, about half the pieces in the book are such that any reasonable reader (now that Johnson is safely dead and in no position to get stroppy about it) would have to call them "fiction" and "stories"...!

Johnson was obsessive, amongst many other things, about layout and typography, so it can be no accident that the book is set in Univers with a ragged right margin, and all the titles are in American-style "title-case", where most British publishers at the time would have used sentence case. The sans-serif look is presumably meant as a nod to Bauhaus design ideas, which were very important to Johnson — he quotes Mies van der Rohe in his Introduction, and he had the same three sentences about form and materials pinned up over his writing desk.

An eccentric, funny, but very principled book. Not many people will agree with Johnson's logic, but you have to respect him for it.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 28, 2020, 12:04pm

"And," as they used to say in 1973, "now for something completely different..."

This is another one from the same very generous book parcel as the Arthur Machen (>27 thorold:). I know of Bramah as a semi-famous Mancunian, and because every secondhand bookshop in the British Isles has a few of his "Kai Lung" books gathering dust (I think I've read one or two of his stories in anthologies). But I certainly hadn't heard of this one:

The Secret Of The League (1907; reprint 1995) by Ernest Bramah (UK, 1868-1942); edited by Daniel Jencka


The first decade of the 20th century was a boom period for scare-fiction of various kinds — probably the most famous, William Lequeux's The invasion of 1910, appeared the year before this book, as did H.G. Wells's In the days of the comet (and The war of the worlds eight years before that). Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill came out in 1904 and The man who was Thursday in 1908, and even Joseph Conrad had a go with The secret agent in 1907. By 1909, the whole thing was such a cliché that P.G. Wodehouse came out with a parody version, The Swoop, in which "England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders. There was barely standing-room." — but fortunately, Clarence the Boy-Scout is on hand to save the situation.

Where others saw the danger in Germans or Martians or anarchists or chemical catastrophe, Bramah's scare-novel of 1907 is meant to awaken his compatriots to an even more serious lurking peril: the English working-class and its poisonous socialistic ambitions. The story opens in the near future (1916), in a slightly alternative world where flying is an elegant human-powered activity for the wealthy (like cycling in its early days) and where messages can be transmitted by a kind of wireless fax system (which oddly seems to have exactly the same size of address space as our familiar IP v5 - set by eight sixteen-position selectors).

Instead of getting a mere 29 seats as Keir Hardie really did in 1906 (Daniel Jencka oddly calls this election a "Labour landslide" in his Introduction), Labour have been solidly in power for some ten years, and have been grinding the faces of the rich with horrendous taxes on share dividends, First Class railway tickets, domestic servants, and similar necessities of everyday life, all the while cutting spending on the armed forces and letting colonies drop away into independence. In the latest election, however, Labour have been pushed out by even more hard-line socialists, who are threatening to do things like introduce worker representatives on company boards, set a minimum wage, and impose taxes on personal wealth. Bramah is a lot vaguer about what these governments are doing with the money they take in — there are brief passing mentions of horrific ideas like the eight-hour day and sick-pay, but the general impression we are supposed to get is that socialism is all about taking money away from the taxpayer.

Naturally enough, the right-thinking middle and upper classes are getting restive, and an enigmatic resistance organisation — "The League" — is set up under the leadership of English-Gentleman Sir John Hampden and Intrepid-Man-of-Action "George Salt", assisted by the feisty lady office-worker Miss Irene Lisle. After much obfuscation, it turns out that their tactic for bringing the government down is to organise a consumer boycott of coal, which of course puts the socialists at odds with their key supporters in the mining districts, and provokes a vaguely Chestertonian showdown in early 1919.

Daniel Jencka, who edited the book for its 1995 reprint by Specular Press, sees this as a key piece of early "capitalist fiction", but that seems to an unwarrantably American reading of things. Bramah isn't a precursor of Ayn Rand, lauding individualism and the wisdom of the free market (what's individualistic or free about a boycott?). This isn't a book about economics, however much it might sound like that: it's good old British class prejudice. Bramah's argument against socialism (and democracy) is quite simply the horribly offensive notion you still occasionally come across, that working-class people are not intelligent and responsible enough to be given control over their own lives. If you give "them" the eight-hour day, "they" will spend the other sixteen hours of it drinking and making babies. "They" talk in dialect, haven't been to Oxford or Cambridge, and don't have "a stake in the country". Etc.

It's a book that reads weirdly to readers a century later, because almost everything Bramah rails against, from processed breakfast cereal to minimum wages and universal suffrage, is something we accept without question nowadays as a necessary component of a moderately fair and free society. As he's not the most inspired and competent of satirists, it is sometimes only the context that makes it clear that we are meant to be disapproving of the things he's telling us about. Of course, it was also bad luck for Bramah that we now remember the years 1916-1919 for something rather different — although it's interesting to speculate on whether the First World War could have been prevented by the sort of disarmament Bramah condemns.

It's also a rather clumsy book: the adventure story element feels rather rudimentary and bolted-on, and we spend too much time in endless conferences of the Socialist cabinet ministers whilst the action happens offstage and largely in secret. Miss Lisle is meant to be the heroine, but she gets very little to do except send faxes and look decorative.

What did rescue it a little for me was the entertaining business of watching the editor flounder through the business of annotating the book. Back in 1995, we didn't have Google and Wikipedia, so it was a lot harder to research stuff outside your own field (I don't know what Jencka's background is, but he's obviously not an expert on turn of the century London). Sitting in a library in Georgia, you would have to make a few inspired guesses and leaf through a lot of old issues of Lloyd's List to find out what Bramah is referring to when he talks about admirals who got their only experience on the deck of the Koh-I-Noor: it was a paddle-steamer that used to take holidaymakers from London to Southend. This is one of the many references that left Jencka baffled (and he sportingly admits it!), but of course these days it's the sort of thing you can dig out in a quarter of an hour without any real expertise. And it's a joke that W.S. Gilbert did rather better some years earlier ("that junior partnership, I ween, / Was the only ship that I ever had seen"). Oddly, Jencka doesn't comment on Bramah's choice of the name "Sir John Hampden" for his leading character: does he find this too obvious for his American readers to need telling?

The period detail was quite interesting, but the book itself is neither entertaining nor edifying, so it's probably one to avoid.

(The 1909 edition of this book is now available on Project Gutenberg)

heinäkuu 28, 2020, 4:45pm

Why would anyone wish to reprint The Secret of the League especially as the original is free on Project Gutenberg; for those that want to go there? A Curio.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 28, 2020, 5:30pm

>37 baswood: Wouldn’t make sense now, but I don’t suppose it was on Gutenberg in 1995! Perhaps a more pertinent question is how I got sidetracked into writing 1000 words about it :-(

heinäkuu 29, 2020, 9:03am

>31 thorold:, >32 baswood: Thank you (I think) for reminding me that I have had La Colmena on my TBR shelves for (blushes) about 25 years. You've both made me want to read it at last!

heinäkuu 29, 2020, 3:12pm

Th>33 thorold: Excellent review on the Gordimer. I enjoyed that. I read a few other Gordimer books back in my early years on LT and sadly it was before the review feature. The Burger's Daughter is the only one I remember anything of.

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 31, 2020, 12:00pm

It's astonishing how many Gordimer books there are I didn't know about!

A slightly less famous South African woman writer:

A revolutionary woman (1983) by Sheila Fugard (South Africa, 1932- )


Sheila Meiring Fugard was born in England but moved to South Africa with her parents as a small child. She published three novels and a couple of poetry collections in the seventies and eighties. She was married to playwright Athol Fugard from 1956 to 2015; their daughter Lisa Fugard is also a novelist.

This is one of the odder books that turned up while I was in pursuit of Southern African writing: it's a non-realistic avant-garde three act play thinly disguised as a historical novel. Or novella, maybe: it's less than 150 pages long, anyway. Characters deliver long passionate speeches to each other or to the audience, you can practically see the lights going up and down on them as they step forward to speak, and it's all performed to the backing of a hypnotic (virtual) soundtrack by Ravi Shankar with a strong whiff of incense in the background.

We're supposedly in an obscure dorp in the Karoo in 1920, where the narrator, Christina Ransome, is teaching the "coloured" children of the location. She's a Red Revolutionary, a disciple of Gandhi, and a feminist, attributes not calculated to make her popular with her Boer neighbours (and only the Hindu-mystical part of them is developed to any extent). She also has a love affair with an Indian man behind her, as well as a very sexual kind of obsession with her late lover's teenage wife, Lakshmi ("Her breasts undulated beneath the sari ... her face was an open lotus ... she was a woman ready for copulation. A tantric goddess."). The words lingam and yoni pop up every two or three pages.

The action of the book turns around Miss Ransome's star pupil, the seventeen-year-old coloured boy Ebrahim. He is caught in bed with a Boer girl and accused of rape. The girl is fourteen and has learning difficulties, so even the local version of Gregory Peck (fresh from studying Egyptian papyruses in Leiden, evidently a key part of every criminal lawyer's toolkit) is going to have a hard time helping him. And of course a Boer lynch-party turns up, and things start getting even odder than they were before.

Probably not a book it would be advisable to attempt to tackle without a good supply of seventies psychoactive substances and a sitar to hand. I'm not quite sure what Fugard was trying to achieve with this book, but I don't think she did so, whatever it was.

heinäkuu 31, 2020, 12:45pm

Angus Wilson as critic again, but in coffee-table format this time. This has been on the TBR for about eighteen months:

The world of Charles Dickens (1970) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)


The text of this book is a potted biography of Dickens together with a fairly detailed critical analysis of each of his main novels, discussing the conditions under which Dickens wrote them, the things he was trying to achieve and their individual strengths and weaknesses, to which Wilson of course brings both his sharp critical sense and his own practical experience of writing novels. It seems to be aimed at general readers and stays away from technical academic language, but it does rather assume that you have actually read all, or at least most of, the books (something that more recent literary biographers can rarely count on...).

Wilson clearly loves Dickens's work, and rates him as one of the major novelists of the century, up there with Dostoevsky, and he conveys his delight very well to the reader. But he finds plenty of flaws in the books too!

The pictures, which bulk the whole thing up to 300 large-format pages, are a fairly predictable mix of illustrations from Dickens's work, period cartoons and Victorian paintings. All the usual suspects are out in force: Cruikshank, Phiz, Gustave Doré, Frith, Augustus Egg, and so on. I should think about 10% were new to me, the rest is stuff you would find in any book about mid-Victorian Britain, or any British provincial art gallery for that matter. There are 40 pages in colour, which is fairly generous for the time, and in my copy the reproductions were mostly OK, but not of superb quality, and some of the engravings in particular were lacking detail (photographed from poor originals, probably).

To anyone used to the more recent interdisciplinary way of doing things, it comes as a bit of a surprise that there's no discussion of the pictures in the body of the text. Wilson wrote the text, and then the art-editor sourced suitable pictures and then plucked vaguely relevant phrases out of Wilson's text to serve as captions. To that extent it really feels coffee-tableish: you can leaf through it just looking at the pictures and ignoring the text, if you want — but you'd be missing the best bit.


Dickens, accompanied by his most popular characters, says goodbye to John Bull as he embarks for his last lecture tour of America in 1867, by J. Proctor from Judy: Or, The London Serio-Comic Journal (30 October 1867).
(See for who they are)

Muokkaaja: elokuu 2, 2020, 9:39am

Another one from my Monster Fun Pack of Seven Seas Books (and from Professor Behrend's library). Certainly a book I wouldn't have come across otherwise, and a very interesting author I didn't know about:

On strenuous wings : a half-century of selected writings from the works of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1965) by Katharine Susannah Prichard (Australia, 1883-1969), edited by Joan Williams


Katherine Susannah Prichard, the child of Australian journalists, who was born in Fiji but lived most of her life in Greenmount, Western Australia, was a founder-member of the Australian Communist Party, a lifelong campaigner for left-wing causes and the subject of neurotic police surveillance, frequently accused of spying for the Soviet Union. She wrote twelve novels and a number of short-story collections, all firmly in the great Australian tradition of working-class realism. Judging by numbers of copies on LT, her most notable work seems to be the 1929 novel Coonardoo, which was controversial at the time because of the way it dealt with a relationship between an Aboriginal woman and a white farmer from the woman's point of view. Also relatively well-known is the Goldfields trilogy of the late forties (The roaring nineties, Golden miles, Winged seeds).

This "greatest hits" collection includes six short stories and extracts from ten of Prichard's novels, plus a small selection of poems and journalism and a short extract from a play. Obviously, a two-hundred-page selection from a fifty-year writing career doesn't give you a lot to go on, but it's enough to make you feel that Prichard is someone you might like to explore further. The novel extracts made the earlier works look like the most interesting: Prichard obviously has an eye for visual detail (especially Australian flora) and an ear for real dialogue, but by the time she gets to the trilogy, this seems to have been rather swamped by the desire to explain the political background. On the strength of this, the books I feel I'd like to read in full are Working bullocks (1926 — about forestry workers in the Western Australian bush) and Coonardoo. The short stories were also enjoyable, but Australian short story writers have a hard time getting away from the ghost of Henry Lawson.

The other items in the selection haven't aged as well: the verse is very late-Victorian in an unfortunately Lost Chord/Pale Hands I Loved kind of way, whilst the journalism all seems a bit schoolteacherish. But the prose fiction is clearly something to be reckoned with. À suivre!

ETA: ...but not for a while! Looks as though it's not easy to find her books outside Australia. Not sure if it's worth it to me to pay all that shipping.

ETA(2, Sunday): Tried again with slightly better success, partly because it turned out I'd been searching for "Katherine Susannah Prichard" instead of "Katharine Susannah Prichard" — Coonardoo is not too difficult to find secondhand, and there are even two of the very early novels on Gutenberg.

elokuu 1, 2020, 6:35am

This was a present from my niece in Berlin, which is why I happened to read it in German. Interesting to see that Aufbau used the same cover art as some of the English editions (...and the Danish edition also uses ribs and gingko leaves, but in a different arrangement). No-one seems to have uploaded a Korean cover yet but, to go by what comes up on Google, it was quite different from any of the translations (a lot of small white flowers against a dark background).

Menschenwerk (2014; 소년이 온다 ; Human acts) by Han Kang (Korea, 1970- ) translated to German by Ki-Hyang Lee


Han Kang uses this novel to address the most traumatic incident in recent South Korean history, the brutal suppression of protests against the military government of Chun Doo-hwan in Gwangju in May, 1980, which resulted in an estimated 2000 civilian deaths, many of them students and young people.

She takes as the focal point of her story the schoolboy Dong-Ho, who, during the brief interlude when the troops withdraw and the protesters are left in control of the city, comes to the improvised morgue the protesters have set up in a sports hall, looking for the friend who was separated from him when they got caught up in the unrest. He doesn't find him, but stays on to help the volunteers in the morgue, driven by an Antigone-like compulsion to express his humanity through respect for the dead as a way of dealing with the horror of what is going on around him.

Han builds out from Dong-Ho to the people around him, and looks at what happened to them in the aftermath and how it affected their subsequent lives, until she finally gets to herself as someone who didn't live that experience, but who became aware of Dong-Ho's story and found a need to tell it.

A harrowing and rather beautiful book, which doesn't attempt to offer a political or psychological explanation for how such large-scale acts of brutality can occur, but gives us some kind of insight into the complexity of their effects.


Wikipedia on the Gwangju uprising:

elokuu 1, 2020, 6:30pm

>42 thorold: I frequently get Angus Wilson confused with Colin Wilson and there is a connection. However a love of Dickens may well lead me to Angus.

>41 thorold: The Young Vic in London famously produced a couple Of Athol's plays in the 1970's. I definitely was there for one of them: perhaps it was Sizwe Bansi is dead, perhaps with Venessa Redgrave?, but I am not thinking of searching out Sheila's book

Muokkaaja: elokuu 3, 2020, 6:39am

>45 baswood: That must have been quite something! There were a couple of Athol Fugard's plays on the reading list when I was doing my OU degree, so I've seen videos and heard audio recordings, but never got the chance to see one live.

>4 thorold: - There hasn't been much poetry going on lately ... I need to do something about that

This has been on my TBR pile since February 2016 — probably a good candidate...

Gesammelte Gedichte (1993) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931-1989)


It's hard to imagine in hindsight, but before he found his characteristic prose voice with Frost in 1963 and stopped using the carriage-return key within works, Thomas Bernhard was mainly known as a lyric poet. He published three full-scale poetry collections in the 1950s, as well as several shorter bundles of poems that appeared in magazines, and two longer poems, Die Irren     Die Häftlinge (1962) and Ave Vergil (written 1959-60, published 1981). All in all, including a few bits and pieces and some revised versions, it comes to a respectable 330 pages of poetry in this posthumous collection.

As we would expect, Bernhard's verse is uniformly pessimistic in its view of the world. I think I counted eight poems that didn't make any obvious reference to death (four of them were from an anomalous early set of sonnets about Salzburg). There are signs of his bleak sense of humour, but the jokes, if they are jokes, are less obvious than in the later work.

What I did find surprising is the way Bernhard adopts quite a different persona in his poetry from the I-narrator of most of his fiction. The lyric narrator seems to be a complete Austrian countryman, drawing most of his metaphors from cowsheds, fields, and woods. Where the real Bernhard at this time had no idea who his father was, the poet has a father who has farmed these hills for many generations and has suffered in the war (in various different ways in different poems). And in a couple of poems he even gives himself some rather unconvincing children. Of course, he doesn't adopt this Heimat-persona for patriotic reasons: he wants to force us to contrast the comfortable world of nineteenth century romantic lyrics with the real darkness of a world where recent history has blasted away any thought we might have had of taking comfort in religion, human company (something which is almost always absent in these poems), or the eternal cycles of nature.

In the collection In hora mortis (talk about a redundant title..!), he largely replaces countryside imagery with language borrowed from the Psalms, to create a sequence focussing on the failures of religion to comfort us. This is about as bleak as it gets.

Another interesting thing about the lyrics when you see a lot of them together like this is the way they seem to foreshadow the "variation form" Bernhard uses in his prose — very often, later poems in a collection will pick up images from earlier poems, twist them around in different permutations, and add some unexpected depth to something that looked straightforward the first time around.

Die Irren     Die Häftlinge is the only really obviously political work here, two long poems printed on facing pages so that we read them in parallel, the lines on the left pages celebrating the (illusory) freedom of the mad, those on the right pages showing us how we are all the prisoners of an oppressive state.

Ave Vergil is an oddity: a long poem in the style of "The Waste Land," mostly written whilst Bernhard was studying in England. In a note he added when it was published in 1981, Bernhard effectively dismisses it as juvenilia, but says he's allowing it to be published because of the way it illustrates how much he was influenced by Eliot, Pound & co. — that's certainly not something you could easily deduce from his prose work.

Muokkaaja: elokuu 3, 2020, 9:06am

I had a slightly unfortunate misunderstanding with the kind person who sent me a book-parcel a few weeks ago. I thought I'd asked him not to send me any English translations from languages like French and Spanish, which I prefer to read in the original; he understood the opposite! Probably an instance of the good old "don't think of an elephant" problem — negative requests are always a bad idea. Not wishing to seem ungrateful, I'm having to improvise a bit.

This next one is even more politically incorrect than >36 thorold: and seems to show even more authorial drug use than >41 thorold:...

In this case, the French original is freely available e.g. from Wikisource so I read the introduction to the translation and then read the text mostly in French, missing out the parts the translator omits, as far as I could follow what he was doing.

Journey to the Orient. Selected, translated ... and with an introduction by Norman Glass (1851) by Gérard de Nerval (France, 1808-1855)


At something of a low point in his life (he was recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Jenny Colon, the singer he had been in love with, married someone else and subsequently died), Gérard de Nerval followed the advice of his friends and went off to spend the whole of 1843 travelling around the Eastern Mediterranean. As was the custom, he turned this into a travel book when he got home, although Voyage à l'Orient took him about six years to write and came out looking more like a work of fiction than a simple record of a voyage. He rearranged his journeys to give a better sequence, tippexed out an inconvenient travelling companion, and interpolated several novella-length stories in the text, which he claims to have heard along the way but were obviously mostly his own work.

In this abridged translation, Norman Glass gives us two of the interpolated stories plus one of the more journalistic parts of the book, the story of how Nerval bought the Javanese slave Zetnaybia during his stay in Cairo. Glass tells us that in reality it was his companion, Joseph de Fonfrède (or Fonfride) who bought the girl, but in any case it's Nerval who takes the credit for this adventure, or, as far as any modern reader is concerned, the blame. The front cover tagline of the seventies paperback gives a pretty fair assessment of what we're in for "An exotic quest for women, hashish and Eastern mystery." We can't say they didn't warn us!

By 1843, even a romantic poet on the fringes of respectable society can't get away with pretending that slavery is just a quaint local custom, so the whole Zetnaybia story is hedged about with caveats and excuses: Nerval needs a woman in the house to get around the rule that unmarried foreigners in Cairo are supposed to live in hostels; Ottoman slavery is quite different from what goes on in the Americas; we're told that Zetnaybia herself is happy with the social standing it gives her, with more rights and legal protection than a "free" Ottoman woman. Nerval is careful to avoid ever saying that he's bought her in order to have sex with her, even though it's hard to imagine what else she could be doing: she has been brought up to look beautiful, and refuses to do any cooking and cleaning. And it's obvious how the situation appears to outsiders when the Greek captain of a ship they are travelling on offers to exchange his beautiful little boy for Zetnaybia for the duration of the voyage. The whole thing ends rather clumsily, mostly due to Glass's cuts, with Zetnaybia temporarily parked in a private boarding-school for young ladies in Beirut. But there's some quite unpleasant reading here, especially the descriptions of Nerval's repeated shopping expeditions to slave-dealers who never have quite the right thing in stock. And his unapologetically racist ideas of beauty. In bad taste when it was written, worse now.

The Tale of Caliph Hakem, supposedly told to Nerval by a Druze sheik imprisoned in Lebanon, is a romantic version of the life of the 11th century Fatimid ruler who is regarded by followers of the Druze religion as an incarnation of God. Nerval seems to be particularly interested in Hakem because of the way accusations of madness go together with his role as a religious martyr — in the story he is locked up in an asylum for claiming to be the Caliph, which in fact he is. And he has a Doppelgänger, in the best romantic tradition, who likes to eat hashish with the incognito Caliph...

The third part Glass translates is the tale of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which Nerval claims to have heard in an Istanbul coffee-house. Where the Hakem story carefully sidestepped relying on supernatural elements, this includes all kinds of magic, including a full-on mythical section where Adoniram, Solomon's building contractor for the Temple project, is conducted on a tour of the earth's core by his ancestor Tubalcain. But its real charm is in the character of the Queen, who outwits Solomon repeatedly. Unfortunately, Solomon's inability to keep up with her in philosophical debate, and his poor taste in architecture and poetry seem to have more to do with Nerval's antisemitic prejudices than with any real notion of turning the Queen into a feminist hero.

Both the narratives were very entertainingly written, with all the exotic orientalist background carefully dosed not to get in the way of the action more than he needs to tease us a little. I also dipped a bit further into the parts of this very long book that Glass doesn't translate, and I had the feeling that he's doing Nerval a disservice by cutting out so much of the purely journalistic writing. There are obviously some lovely bits of description he's missing out.

elokuu 4, 2020, 3:39am

>44 thorold: Interested in Human Acts. Sounds like an interesting read - going to pop that one on my wish list.

elokuu 4, 2020, 5:54am

>48 AlisonY: Yes, not exactly a fun read, it took me a few goes to get past all the dead bodies in the opening chapter, but worth it.

This is one I've seen around quite a bit, and vaguely thought I would check out some time. I was reminded of it by a mention in Nickelini's thread the other day and got myself the ebook.

Why the Dutch are different (2015) by Ben Coates (UK, 1982- )


A quick overview of the most distinctive features of modern Dutch society, as seen by a young British professional who settled here a few years ago. Despite the "hidden heart" bit in the subtitle, it doesn't go beyond the obvious things — the Golden Age and colonialism; World War II; football; bicycles; the Zwarte Piet crisis; Pim Fortuyn, Theo Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders; euthanasia, soft-drugs and prostitution; carnival; etc. — but what it says about them seems to be sensible and well-researched.

Nothing much about the arts, except Rembrandt and Vermeer, and not much about places other than Rotterdam (where Coates lives) and Amsterdam (where he works). Maastricht, Eindhoven and Breda appear in the Carnival chapter, and there's a trip to Westerbork in the WWII section, but that's about it for geography.

Coates isn't the most exciting writer: he has learnt one trick, building chapters by breaking up passages of objective background material with short passages of mildly funny subjective experience, and he applies that scheme doggedly throughout the book. But he is clearly good at condensing an argument to the essentials, and doesn't take up more of the reader's time than he needs to.

Obviously I'm not the target audience for this book: I've been living in the Netherlands a lot longer than Coates, and there is little in what he says that was in any way new to me (except the stuff about football, which is something I have even less interest in than he claims to...). But it all seems to be reasonably fair.

One minor caveat I had was that the external baseline Coates typically compares the Netherlands to is his experience of a few years in a very high-pressure job in London, which is scarcely "normal" by anyone else's standards. Perhaps because of that he sometimes picks out characteristics as "typically Dutch" when they could equally well be called "typically German" or "typically Swedish", for example. But I still think this would be a valuable starting point for someone visiting the Netherlands or considering coming to work here.

elokuu 4, 2020, 7:14am

>44 thorold: Human Acts was a real power punch of a book. I read it years ago and I still think of it from time to time.

elokuu 5, 2020, 4:47am

>49 thorold: Although I've been to the Netherlands a number of times, both with work and for pleasure, I read this before our last trip a few summers ago. As you say, it wasn't ground breaking, but I found it enjoyable and learnt a few new things. I was conscious when I arrived at Schiphol Airport that he's not wrong when he talks about Dutch people being on average a lot taller than the average person in the UK. My husband's 6ft 2" and suddenly didn't look especially tall anymore.

elokuu 6, 2020, 5:46am

>51 AlisonY: Yes, I'm not especially tall, the first few years I was here I had problems buying clothes and had to make sure to call in at M&S whenever I went to the UK... (multiculturalism has at least encouraged Dutch shops to stock smaller sizes).

One of the oldest survivors on the TBR — this is a subject quite outside my normal range of interests. I think it came back from the charity shop (in June 2011) simply because I've enjoyed Professor Crystal's books on social and historical aspects of language; I didn't realise that he also worked on language in a clinical context. I suppose it's always interesting to take the opportunity to look over the shoulders of experts in other fields...

Introduction to language pathology (1988) by David Crystal (UK, 1941- )


This seems to be essentially what it says on the front cover, a short but intensive overview of the area covered by the medical professionals who call themselves speech therapists, speech pathologists, logopaedists, phoniatrists, orthophonists (etc.) depending on where in the world they happen to be practising, none of which names really covers the full scope of what they do. Crystal devotes the first five or six pages of the book to the evidently thorny topic of what the subject covers and what it should be called — at the time he was writing the British College of Speech Therapists had just made its second or third fruitless attempt to find a better name: I don't know if it's still such a hot potato thirty years later. But, obviously, people whose job is helping to solve other people's language problems have to be self-conscious about their own. Particularly when they are working in a field that touches on so many "sensitive" areas: child development, mental health, disability, social background...

Crystal is certainly as interested in words as you would expect: whenever he gets to an interesting new technical term in the book he pauses to gather his students around it while he takes its history and diagnoses the various incorrect ways it has been used over the years.

Otherwise, it's a rather simple book in structure, if not in content: Crystal first takes us through the theoretical clinical approaches that are relevant to language problems, then he discusses in quite some detail the physiological and psychological processes involved in producing and understanding language, and finally he looks at all the many ways things can go wrong, how those faults in the system manifest themselves and — in general terms — how they can be diagnosed. Obviously the aim is for students beginning in the field to gain an overview and learn what everything is called, and in that respect it looks as though it would be a very useful textbook. But not the 1988 edition I read, which must be far too out of date for anyone who actually needs to use this stuff.

elokuu 10, 2020, 6:52am

This hefty 750-page paperback has been looking menacingly at me from the TBR since March 2014. I think I bought it soon after I started learning Spanish, with a vague idea that it would be a quick read. I've started it a couple of times since, but always put it aside again. Precisely the sort of book that was waiting for a year like this one...

Malena es un nombre de tango (1994) by Almudena Grandes (Spain, 1960- )


A long, complicated family saga, narrated in the first person by a woman born (like the author) in 1960, but with a lot of back-story set during the Civil War and reaching back further to colonial Peru and the Conquistadors. The central theme seems to be the way bourgeois Spanish society lays down role-models of "good" and "bad" behaviour, especially for women, and the way real people fail to fit into those role-models. And of course the trouble with that is that you risk setting up an equally-coarse set of clichés in the other direction, in which all the "domestic angels" turn out to be cynical, manipulating, selfish hypocrites and all the "whores" turn out to be open, generous and honest. Grandes doesn't quite do that, but she comes perilously close. What's more, she fails to avoid the many easy plot-temptations offered by a storyline that involves two pairs of twin sisters. So, not a very satisfying book, but it is good as an immersive, long (beach-)read, with lots of good dialogue, steamy sex-scenes, and long Madrid bar-crawls (and their attendant hangovers).

elokuu 11, 2020, 5:30am

This is another short one from my Seven Seas Books pile:

Big Red (1965; Seven Seas edition 1967) by Leslie Haylen (Australia, 1898-1977)


Les Haylen was a journalist and a long-serving Australian Labour MP, who grew up in rural New South Wales and just missed serving in the First World War (the troopship he was on in 1918 was turned round before it got to Europe). He wrote five other novels before this one, also a number of plays, some travel books and a memoir.

This turns out to be a good, old-fashioned rural coming-of-age story, set on a small Australian farm against the background of the 1931 drought and the Great Depression. Red's father, Paddie, is an alcoholic; his octogenarian grandmother rules the farm with an iron rod from her wheelchair on the verandah, and it's teenage Red who ends up doing most of the farm-work. But he'd far rather be reading poetry and socialist texts...

Slightly clumsy in parts, and occasionally seems to forget which decade we're meant to be in (quite a lot reads like the author's own childhood in the horse-and-buggy days of the 1910s, but in other parts there are details of life from the fifties popping up) but obviously written by someone with real experience of rural life and knowledge of what it's like to live on a farm and in a small community. A bit too much fist-fighting for my taste, though.

elokuu 11, 2020, 6:08am

And, by contrast, a book that came out only a few weeks ago:

Summer (2020) by Ali Smith‬ (UK, 1962- )


The fourth and — regrettably — last in Ali Smith's wonderful exercise in writing about the world in (almost) real time, her "Seasonal Quartet". Everything's here as we would wish: the fourth in the series of Hockney paintings of a lane in the Yorkshire Wolds; a Dickens novel (David Copperfield this time); a Shakespeare play (less predictably, it's The winter's Tale!); a forgotten artist we should have known about but didn't (Italian painter, film-maker and novelist Lorenza Mazzetti); and an unexpected footnote of history: Einstein in Norfolk.

And of course, in the foreground, there is all the improbable nastiness of the world we find ourselves in: the Virus, of course, and his bizarre return to government; the continuing attacks on truth and meaning and language itself (ingeniously represented by a character who never actually appears in the book, a writer who is experiencing speech apraxia); climate-disaster; the small-v virus, of course, the many meanings of "lockdown"; and so on.

The themes of Brexit, xenophobia, the immigration-removal industry, and general intolerance and hate are carried over from the previous books in the sequence, and we meet some of the characters from those books again too, with a lengthy — but relevant — digression into World War II, with Daniel Gluck from the first book recalling his internment on the Isle of Man whilst we follow his sister's undercover work helping Jews to escape from Vichy France.

There are new characters, too: the teenage siblings Sacha and Robert and their mother, the former actress Grace. Sacha is a devoted follower of Greta Thunberg, but reacts with complete incomprehension when her mother suggests that she should find a more precise source than "the internet" for that glib Hannah Arendt quote she's using in her school essay. She reacts with fear and alarm to what she hears about what's going on in the world, whilst her brother takes the moral environment he's growing up in as a licence to do whatever makes him laugh. If politicians are behaving like teenage boys, teenage boys are going to have to take things a notch further, even if that means inflicting serious injuries on your sister for the sake of concretising a metaphor...

Funny, clever, subversive, and warm, but deeply unsettling and frightening. There's a hint here that humans have been faced with tough times before and have got through them with the help of crazy, fearless individuals prepared to swim against the tide, but it's barely a hint. Nothing is resolved at the end of this book, all the work is still there for us to do ourselves.

So, now I should re-read the first three...

elokuu 11, 2020, 6:15am

Those four Hockney covers again:


elokuu 11, 2020, 7:25pm

Worth Buying the books for those Hockney covers.

elokuu 11, 2020, 8:00pm

It’s nice seeing them all lined up.

elokuu 12, 2020, 1:56pm

Beautiful! I like the artwork very much.

elokuu 12, 2020, 3:51pm

>57 baswood: - >59 LadyoftheLodge: The insides of the books are quite good, too... :-)


I read the first of Henry Havard's travel books about the Netherlands last year, and decided I had to get hold of the others as well. I'm not sure if it was really necessary, because what I ended up with were some rather battered unbound copies (like most French books of the time: the purchaser was left free to decide how to bind them). It might well have been more comfortable to read the PDFs from, but I'd have missed out on that nice old-book smell.

For those who've forgotten, Havard was a French art-historian who was involved in the Paris Commune and had to spend most of the 1870s as a political exile in the Netherlands. He rapidly made friends and started to study Dutch culture (including writing the first serious academic study of Delft porcelain), and in 1874 he had an unexpected international success with a travel book about a journey around the "dead cities" of the Zuiderzee (cf. >22 thorold:), which gave a substantial boost to the fledgling Dutch tourist industry when it became a bestseller in several European languages. Naturally, the publishers wanted a sequel...

La Hollande pittoresque: les frontières menacées: voyage dans les provinces de Frise, Groningue, Drenthe, Overyssel, Gueldre et Limbourg (1876) by Henry Havard (France, 1838-1921)


In this second book, published two years after the Zuiderzee tour, Havard and his travelling companion, the aristocratic landscape painter Baron de Constant-Rebecque, make a tour of the Northern and Eastern provinces of the Netherlands, starting off in Friesland and Groningen and then heading south parallel to the German border — roughly along the line of what is now the Pieterpad long-distance walking trail — to end up in Maastricht. They stop off to look at historic cities, dolmens, country estates, prisons, fortresses, pretty girls, and other features of interest along the way, and Havard comments on what he sees, learnedly, romantically, wittily or caustically according to the case. The book is illustrated with a dozen or so etchings by Constant-Rebecque, mostly of churches or town-halls.

The hook Havard uses to hang the book on is a German school geography textbook he has come across that describes the Netherlands, together with Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, as Deutsche Aussenländer — states that are not currently part of the German Empire but are German in all other important respects. He's alarmed when his German academic acquaintances fail to be shocked by this, and reflects that when "thirty million squareheads" are fed this sort of thing from the cradle, they're not likely to object if their Kaiser decides to correct these little political inconsistencies. (Given his own recent experiences with the Prussian army, and the likely mood of his French readers, "squareheads" seems pretty mild...) Anyway, this gives him the idea of visiting the frontier areas and showing us how characteristically Dutch they are, and how different their history and cultural background is from Germany. At a couple of points he reminds us how recently German border regions like Bentheim, Berg and Kleve have been made to give up speaking Dutch and integrated into the Prussian education system.

But this is really only a hook, and it's integrated so loosely into the book that it can easily be cut out of the German edition. The main feeling we get from the book is the great pleasure Havard takes in discovering Dutch history and the artefacts it has left behind. He finds a lot of little things to criticise, but — except for the rare cases when they meet unfriendly innkeepers or burgemeesters — he's always careful to make it clear that these are minor blemishes and that the Netherlands is a fantastic place to explore, especially if you like architecture, painting and accounts of old sieges.

elokuu 14, 2020, 7:32am

>60 thorold: It's not necessarily the type of books that appeal to me, but your review has made me very curious. I've read the introduction and the first chapter online: they're delightful.

Incidently, I was intrigued by the unusual (to me) phrase "tête carrée" and had to look it up. As could be guessed from context, it means "obstinate". The sentence example in is also about Germans... There's also a second meaning, as a Québecois slur for English-speaking Canadians!

the Netherlands is a fantastic place to explore, especially if you like architecture, painting and accounts of old sieges
This would be a holiday from Hell for some people, but I've been wanting to visit all those little historic towns ever since I translated a raft of documents from a Dutch estate agent. I spent a lot of time looking at very picturesque places on Google Maps' Street View, nominally trying to make sense of the text, but also doing quite a bit of armchair touring !

Muokkaaja: elokuu 17, 2020, 6:26am

>61 Dilara86: Yes, Havard has a way of charming the reader. But it is worth coming here!
Intrigued by the idea of an estate agent trying to sell Dutch houses to the French — you normally expect it to be the other way round.


Partly for meteorological reasons, partly through laziness, I've been getting behind with reviews. I'm hoping that having a pile to do all at once will improve my conciseness.

Anyway, I've got three books clustered around 1960 that I've finished over the past few days, two of them about angry young men and one about angry women of various ages...

The first is one I bought in 2018, inspired by the Japan/Korea theme read, but I got distracted by other Japanese modern classics and never reached this one:

The temple of the golden pavilion (1956) by Yukio Mishima (Japan, 1925-1970), translated by Ivan Morris


Mizoguchi, in his teens at the end of the war, feels he's been betrayed in just about every possible direction. By both his parents, by his religious superior, by his male friends, by women, and — of course — by the state that entered and lost the war and has left him open to humiliation at the hands of American soldiers. He stutters, he's perpetually hungry, he isn't very interested in his studies to become a Zen priest, and he's convinced that he's ugly. So, your typical happy teenage boy! By a logical process that makes complete sense to him, and apparently also to the author, he comes to the view that the only thing left for him to do is to destroy the beautiful thing that seems to be at the focal point of the values of all those lines of betrayal.

This is obviously a book that has all the elements of the postwar-adolescent-rebellion novel, and is a kind of apotheosis of the twentieth century Japanese classic (temples, voyeurism, humiliation, duckweed, tea, tatami mats, suicide, mountains, ...). It's all beautifully and very concisely executed, but it can't get round the limitation that any reader who isn't a teenager at the end of his tether is likely to see Mizoguchi's solution as both irrelevant and disproportionate to the problem he's facing.

elokuu 17, 2020, 6:48am

A few years later — Algeria rather than WWII — and a slightly older central character, but a similar sort of thing. This is one I picked up during my holiday in France this time last year (I think it came from a little free library in Boulogne). It's a book that came up in discussion in the Mediterranean theme read, and I realised Le Clézio is a Nobelist I've never read.

Fittingly, it's set during an August heatwave.

Le procès-verbal (1963; The interrogation) by J M G Le Clézio (France, 1940- )


A young man, Adam Pollo, has taken over an unoccupied house by the sea in a Mediterranean beach resort. He seems to be on the run, and may be a deserter from the army and/or a fugitive from a mental hospital — we aren't quite sure, and neither is he. He stares out of the window, scribbles letters to his girlfriend Michèle in a school exercise book, and occasionally goes to the beach or into town to try to establish some kind of contact with the world, usually unsuccessfully. He follows a strange dog, teases the animals in the zoo, watches the drowned body of an unknown man being retrieved from the sea, gets drunk, goes bin-diving, preaches to a crowd, and eventually gets picked up by the police and sent off for psychiatric evaluation. A strange, disconnected, jumpy sort of novel, full of gimmicks like inserted pages from the local paper, and very much of its time, but it seems to work.

elokuu 17, 2020, 7:27am

In May I read Mena Calthorpe's novel The dyehouse, which I'm pretty sure was the first novel I'd read set in an Australian textile factory. Wouldn't you know it, another one has turned up, more or less contemporary with it. Aussie textile fiction gets the nomination for least-expected sub-genre of the year...
I found this as a result of digging around on the internet for more paperbacks published in the East German Seven Seas Books series:

Bobbin up (1959) by Dorothy Hewett (Australia, 1923-2002)


Dorothy Hewett was a well-known journalist, especially on the Australian Communist paper Tribune, and wrote two other novels after this one, as well as many stage works and poetry collections. In the fifties her day-job was in a Sydney spinning mill; later in life she took on various teaching posts. Bobbin up has been reissued a few times over the years and seems to be her best-known work; Virago also published Hewett's memoirs.

The novel, set in the hot Southern Hemisphere summer of 1957, with Sputnik 1 visible in the sky, shows us vignettes from the lives of a group of women who all work in a spinning mill in Sydney. They are of different ages and from different social situations, each has her own hopes and fears and problems to resolve, and none gets significantly more space in the book than any other: this is a proper collective, social-realist novel. There's a character who is presumably autobiographical, the union rep who has written the satirical pamphlet Bobbin up to warn her fellow-workers about what their employers are up to, and has to defend its informal style of political analysis to the orthodox Marxist-Leninists in the local Party branch.

You could call this "Germinal with better weather", because of the way it pays close attention to the real conditions that the working-class characters live in, including the ways they try to have fun, and the way we are obviously building up to a big confrontation with the employers, but Hewett cleverly chooses to end the story with the women uniting to take on the bosses (and the official union leadership, who as usual are happy to sacrifice the women to protect the interests of male skilled workers). The outcome of the dispute isn't relevant to the point Hewett wants to make, so she prefers to go out on a note of optimism. And why not?

I enjoyed this: lively, well-written and full of local atmosphere, with a lot of real sympathy for characters who might otherwise be rather difficult to like. It's obvious that these aren't representative cases or political symbols for Hewett, but real friends she's worked with.

elokuu 17, 2020, 6:47pm

Enjoyed these reviews. Bowie had Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea on his 100 list. It sounded intriguing, so it and The Sound of Waves went onto my wish list this week.

elokuu 19, 2020, 7:01am

>65 AlisonY: Yes, I can see Bowie being interested in Mishima. More obvious than a lot of the other choices on that list, anyway!


Something a bit different — well, not entirely, it's another angry-young-man story, albeit 200 years earlier.

I don't know if this is going to turn into another Big Poet Project, but I'm conscious of Schiller as something of a black hole in my knowledge of German literature — all I've ever read of his are a few lyrics here and there. I got myself a cheap "complete works" a little while ago, so there's at least the opportunity to catch up a bit. No promises about how long I will carry on with it:

Die Räuber: ein Schauspiel (1781; The Robbers) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)


Schiller's first stage-play, from 1781, still seems to be one of the best-known and gets performed fairly regularly (it used to be a classic choice as a school play). Verdi turned it into an opera as I Masnadieri.

It's a five-act tragic melodrama, in prose with a couple of interpolated songs. Franz, jealous of his older brother Karl, manages to drive a wedge between their father and Karl while he's away at university, with the result that Karl isn't able to pay his debts, is forced to flee from justice, and, radicalised by this experience, joins a kind of early Baader-Meinhof anarchist group of runaway students and professional criminals in the Bohemian Forest. The dishonest but ultra-respectable Franz commits more and more horrible crimes to get his hands on his brother's inheritance and his fiancée Amalia, whilst the honourable but outlawed Karl finds himself unwillingly complicit in all kinds of mass-murder, sacrilege, and highway robbery.

It's all quite radical by the standards of the time, but nonetheless fairly predictable up to about the end of Act Four, with a lot of action happening off-stage and being described to us in long speeches, often by messenger-characters introduced especially for that purpose, and with the central characters expressing their emotional states in high-flown language of a kind it's all-too-easy to parody.

But then it starts to get rather less predictable, with Karl, in the space of half-a-dozen pages, inventing a dialogue between Brutus and Caesar, picking up a pistol to do a to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy, and meeting what appears to be his father's ghost, whilst Franz is having the sort of sleepless night that even MacBeth would have nightmares about... (and not long after that, there's a final plot-twist that W S Gilbert later undermined by borrowing it for The Pirates of Penzance). Fun!

Very much a young man's play, full of energy and challenge-everything provocation, but also with more moral complexity to it than you might expect. Amalia is the only female character, and whilst she's made out to be strong-willed and independent, all that she actually gets to do is maintain her rather misguided loyalty to Karl.

elokuu 19, 2020, 3:12pm

>62 thorold: Intrigued by the idea of an estate agent trying to sell Dutch houses to the French — you normally expect it to be the other way round.

Quite. They were selling them as investment schemes... Not that the French never move to the Netherlands - Descartes and Fouad Laroui have been quite enthusiastic about the country - but yes the Dutch tend to like Landes campsites more than we like holiday homes near the North Sea...

elokuu 22, 2020, 2:43am

>67 Dilara86: Yes — even Proust had a soft spot for Dutch domestic architecture (as painted by Vermeer...). And Simenon came here to sail.
I know lots of French people who live in the Netherlands, and many of them seem to like it, but of course they are all (former) work colleagues. The ones that plan to stay after retirement usually do so because they have found Dutch partners (or their children have), and they invariably have a second home in France, just as most of my Dutch friends do...


Two Argentinian novels from the TBR pile:

This first one I bought during my trip to Spain in October last year. I knew about Neuman from his extraordinary and wonderful Schubertian historical novel El viajero del siglo, which I read in March 2018. That and one or two other of his books has been translated, this one doesn't seem to have been yet:

Una Vez Argentina (2003; revised 2014) by Andrés Neuman (Argentina, Spain, 1977- )


In this autobiographical novel, Neuman looks back at his childhood years in Buenos Aires and traces back his family roots to see how his ancestors — French, Creole and Galician on his mother's side; East European Jews on his father's — came to be living in Argentina, how his parents decided to migrate to Spain when he was in his early teens, and how all that ties in with 20th century Argentinian history.

It makes an interesting, lively and very varied book, full of reflections on national identity, on growing up between different languages and cultures, on the way families and social circumstances push us in certain directions (and the way some people manage to push back and go a different way), on politics and football (not so much religion, though), music, chess and ice-cream, on the box where the young Andrés kept his porn stash, on the occasional frightening collisions between settled bourgeois life and political violence, and on many other things.

It's maybe a a little bit too skittish in the way it jumps around between the serious and the trivial, and it's a little frustrating because of the way it refuses to follow any of the characters through beyond 1991. But all the same, I found it an engrossing and rewarding book.


The cover photo is credited to Cindy Tang/Unsplash — I've no idea what its relevance to the book is meant to be...

elokuu 22, 2020, 3:33am

I found another short one on the shelf, so it's actually dos veces Argentina this morning...

This was another translation I found in the book-parcel I received a little while ago. As it was such a short book and I couldn't easily get hold of the Spanish original, I thought I might as well read it in English:

Voltaire's calligrapher (2001; English 2010) by Pablo De Santis (Argentina, 1963- ) translated by Lisa Carter


A postmodern historical novel, set in Enlightenment France and full of playful reflections on philosophy, history, and aesthetics, this is the sort of thing I normally really enjoy, but somehow it never really clicked for me. Maybe it was the translation, which felt a little bit flat and lacking in linguistic bounce, maybe it was the rather over-busy plot, which seemed to be bursting out of the slim, novella-length package in all directions, not giving the characters any real chance to develop and solidify. I believe De Santis is a major figure in graphic-novel circles, and perhaps that has something do with it: the story often felt as though it would have benefited from pictures. A graphic novel format might also have fitted in better with the way the border between history and fantasy is about 90% of the way over to the fantasy side.

The general idea is that the narrator, Dalessius, trained in calligraphy and employed as a copyist by the Sage of Ferney, finds himself acting as a kind of secret agent in a power-struggle between his boss and the Dominicans, who are (of course) plotting world-domination. There are also exploding sexbots, poison-pens, time-delay inks, a program-controlled bishop, and an overnight corpse delivery service involved in the story, inter alia.

A silly quibble that disturbed me throughout was the use of the word "calligrapher" as job-description for Dalessius. This word first appeared in English in the mid-18th century in line with the rise of interest in orientalism, and it was initially only used to describe artists producing decorative versions of handwritten texts for religious or display purposes in Islamic and Far Eastern cultures. The same applies to French calligraphe — unfortunately I haven't got a historical dictionary of Spanish to hand to check the history of calígrafo, but I assume it will be similar to French. The term calligraphy goes back about a century earlier.

The main action of the book is set between the Jean Calas case in 1762 and Voltaire's death in 1778. At that time, someone like Dalessius, whose job was the old-established one of making accurate, high-quality copies of legal and business manuscripts, would have used a term like clerk, copyist (both early-renaissance), scribe or scrivener (medieval). Obviously, there's no law against using an anachronistic word in a historical novel, particularly a non-realist one, but I find it odd when a writer — who presumably knows what he's doing — puts a word like that in the centre of the foreground and doesn't trouble to tell us why he is doing so.

Muokkaaja: elokuu 23, 2020, 4:39am

More Schiller-shallowing:

Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua : ein republikanisches Trauerspiel (1783; Fiesco's conspiracy at Genoa) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)


Schiller's second full-scale stage play, another five-act prose tragedy, but with a political rather than a family theme this time, loosely based on the real story of the Fieschi conspiracy against Doge Andrea Doria in Genoa in January 1547. In Schiller's version, Fiesco is a handsome, clever and politically astute young man who joins a republican coup against the excessive power of the Doria family only to become convinced that what Genoa needs is not the quasi-democratic rule his patrician allies are aiming for, but a strong, competent dictatorship by someone with the kind of abilities that only Giovanni Luigi Fiesco can offer.

The logic of drama sees to it that Fiesco is punished for his arrogance, but Schiller doesn't seem to be quite so sure that he made the wrong decision in opting for dictatorship. Certainly, Fiesco and Andrea Doria are the characters who get all the best lines and who come across as positive forces, whilst the "noble republican" character, Verrina, is a strongly negative element, a man who is happy to mortgage his daughter's life to his political ideals ("schwer, ernst und dunkel", as Schiller sums him up in the dramatis personae).

The most interesting character is probably Muley Hassan, the archetypal Mediterranean wheeler-dealer (and a more than slightly racist caricature), who acts as a double-agent spying on the Dorias for Fiesco and on Fiesco for the Dorias, increasing his personal wealth with every passage between camps. He also has the one line in the play that has entered the German language: "Der Mohr hat seine Arbeit getan, der Mohr kann gehen" (The Moor has done his work, the Moor can go) — still a great line to quote under your breath when you feel your boss isn't giving you the recognition you deserve.

The women get more to do than in Die Räuber, but their parts aren't exactly out of the ordinary — Julia is a femme fatale to be seduced and spurned by Fiesco, Leonore a faithful neglected wife, Berta an innocent victim. Schiller does, however, remember to put in a couple of reasonable parts for Leonore's maids. And there's a little bit of Shakespearean cross-dressing in the last act.

Given all this, it's probably not surprising if you've never seen this performed on stage, but it is quite an interesting study of political character.

elokuu 24, 2020, 4:57am

I somehow never heard of Margaret Drabble's sister-who-writes-books until Possession won the Booker in 1990. I was studying Victorian poetry at the time, and my tutor was someone who had been a colleague of Byatt's in the University of London Extramural Studies Department, so I could hardly avoid reading it, and of course loved it and ended up reading all the back-catalogue too. But that was thirty years ago, so it's probably time for a re-read, especially since a Byatt-stash turned up in one of our local little free libraries and helped me fill a couple of gaps in my collection:

The shadow of the sun (1964) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


Frustratingly, this 1991 reissue of Byatt's first novel (originally published as Shadow of a sun in 1964) comes with a critical introduction by the author that already says just about everything intelligent that needs to be said about it — it's hard to know what to add!

Byatt started writing the book when she was a Cambridge undergraduate in the late fifties, and completed it as a young mother in Durham a few years later. In its subject-matter, it looks like a typical first novel: a young woman setting out on life and being pushed into a choice between what at that time seemed like mutually-exclusive possibilities: to run away ("to Mexico") and develop as a creative artist; fearlessly to investigate the creativity of others as a critic; or to find sex and security at the kitchen sink. They are embodied by the huge figure of her egotistical great-novelist father, Henry; by the Leavisite critic Oliver; and by various interchangeable Oxbridge young men.

This is England in the fifties, so class comes into it as well, of course: Anna has grown up in a very sheltered Elizabeth Taylor/Dorothy Whipple middle-class, rural, Home Counties, ponies-and-boarding-school world, whilst the puritanical Oliver has clawed his way up from a deprived working-class background, and the Oxbridge young men are an (almost) imperceptible notch grander than Anna's family.

However, it doesn't really feel like a first novel: there are bold and original flights of fancy in the descriptions (Blake and Samuel Palmer always seem to be lurking in the background, as well as the inevitable D H Lawrence) and there is a donnish self-confidence in the witty put-downs (of the ruthlessly-corseted Lady Hughes-Winterton: "God had designed her to be a cottage loaf and she had thwarted him"). Byatt brings such big guns into play in her imagery that there's occasionally a feeling of overkill, that all this literary apparatus isn't appropriate to such charming domestic circumstances, but of course that's part of the point she's making. The charm and security of middle-class domesticity is all part of the self-deception.

I wonder whether it would have been obvious to someone reading this in 1964 that it was primarily a feminist novel? With hindsight, and especially in the light of Byatt's own analysis, it's clear that it's about the way society conspires to limit the choices available to women, even when they are clever and come from privileged backgrounds. But at the time, it might have looked more like a book about adolescent choices that happened to be written from a woman's perspective.

Well worth coming back to, anyway.

elokuu 24, 2020, 12:55pm

Margaret Drabble's sister? Well, you learn a new thing every day. Didn't know that.

elokuu 25, 2020, 4:22am

>72 AlisonY: Yes, it's one of those things that seems completely obvious, once someone has told you, and you wonder why you never spotted all those similarities in the backgrounds of their novels (and all those sibling-rivalry plots...).

Schiller again:

Kabale und Liebe : ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel (1784; Intrigue and love) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)


Schiller's third play is another prose tragedy, but this time it's a love-story across the class divide in a contemporary setting on the fringes of the court of an unnamed small German state. This is the play that Verdi adapted as Luisa Miller.

The young nobleman Ferdinand von Walter has fallen in love with sixteen-year-old Luise, daughter of the humble musician Miller. Ferdinand's father, an important minister in the Duke's court, tries to frustrate the affair, first by arranging a marriage of convenience between Ferdinand and the Duke's current mistress, the exiled English noblewoman Lady Milford, and then by abusing his judicial powers to put the Miller family under pressure. Needless to say, it all ends badly, with the most famous lemonade scene in literary history...

Schiller is settling some personal scores here: of bourgeois origins himself, he had recently been involved in a love-affair with an aristocratic married woman, and he was also satirising the misrule and abuses of power of his former employer the Duke of Württemberg (in particular the way he financed an extravagant lifestyle by hiring out conscript soldiers to fight against liberty in America). But the play also makes a powerful general statement against the arbitrary power and unaccountability of monarchies and the rigidity of the class system, very much in the spirit of the revolutionary 1780s.

Interesting — particularly when we know that Don Carlos is next — is the way Schiller ignores the usual conventions governing father-son relationships. Präsident von Walter is an amoral, self-interested scoundrel, without a hint of honour or nobility. He's obtained his judicial office by having his predecessor murdered, and he is completely cynical about his son's erotic adventures, and only intervenes when his secretary, Wurm (who's also pursuing the lovely Luise), threatens him with blackmail. Yet he has a son who is the very picture of the noble romantic hero, honourable in every fibre of his being, and — absurdly, in the circumstances — proud of his centuries of noble heritage. Normally, the rules say that a hero like that should have a parent who is honourable but misguided in some way, but Schiller clearly doesn't go in for playing by the book.


That lemonade scene again:

...oops, not that one!

elokuu 25, 2020, 7:43pm

Oh I remember that advert

elokuu 26, 2020, 6:08am

Wow, I've missed quite a lot here. What a lot of interesting books you have been reading. Love the photo at the top, too. If it were another time, I would chase down a few of those books, particularly some of the South African lit and the book on Dickens. And the book about the Dutch caught my eye, but judging from your review, perhaps hanging out with my Dutch-American best buddy is a better source. She has some amazing family stories of WWII (and bringing her up which reminds me I must get to Whole Foods and pick up some stroopwafels for her birthday).

Muokkaaja: elokuu 30, 2020, 6:59am

>75 avaland: Yes, I'm sure you're better off talking to a real Dutch person! And stroopwafels are always a good thing (unless you have dentures...).
There's nothing wrong with the Coates book, it does what it's meant to, but it doesn't go very deep. Geert Mak's books, quite a few of which have been translated, might be a more interesting way in. Another book people speak well of, but which I haven't read, is Han van der Horst's The low sky. That's possibly a bit out of date by now though.

That photo at the top is from the period in spring when I was going for my daily walks round our neighbourhood at the crack of dawn: I took it because of the way the light works with the rust; it was only afterwards that I looked more closely at it and saw that the rusty bike pulled out of the canal was a fixie, something you hardly ever see in Holland (although there was a bit of a craze for them about ten years ago).


Back to Southern Africa. We had a book-club meet-up on the beach last weekend (with appropriate social distancing, and featuring natural ventilation at 5-6 Beaufort...), so I was able to return my stack of borrowed African books. Whilst packing them up I spotted one that I'd overlooked earlier, so I kept it back to read next:

The rights of desire (2000; also published in Afrikaans as Donkermaan) by André Brink (South Africa, 1935-2015)


The last André Brink book I read was the apartheid-era protest novel A dry white season. By contrast, this one is set against the background of the New South Africa, amidst the criminality and failing public services of Cape Town at the end of the twentieth century, with an underlying feeling that it's a lot easier to protest against abuses and injustices than it is to see a way forward for fixing a broken society, particularly if you happen to be an ageing white liberal.

The widowed Ruben Olivier, 65 years old (the same age as the author), lives in a big old house on the fringes of the city. His sons see no future in South Africa and are emigrating, his best friend has been murdered, and Ruben is left alone with his elderly housekeeper Magrieta and the house ghost, the 18th-century slave Antje of Bengal. The sons, having failed to persuade him to come to Australia or Canada, suggest that he take in some lodgers to provide a bit of company and security: they are thinking of a nice, middle-aged couple, but what turns up to answer the advertisement is Tessa, a thoroughly modern young woman. She and Ruben could hardly be more different, but he both likes her and (covertly) fancies her sexually, she seems to like his company (but doesn't especially want to have sex with him). When she also wins the approval of the cats, Antje and — more grudgingly — Magrieta, it's obvious that she's in.

This gives Brink the framework for a sensitive but rather complex and tenuous exploration of the interplay of love, sexual desire, history, violence and death, and the way that stories, whether fictional or derived from memories or historical documents, are never more than partial representations of the truth. We dig into Antje's story of passion, exploitation and murder two hundred years ago, into Magrieta's life as a coloured person displaced from District Six in the 1970s and now the victim of mob violence in Cape Flats, into the real story of Ruben's "happy" marriage, into Tessa's searching for a substitute for her absent father and finding only men to exploit her, and are shown the way all of these things are bound to end badly, when seen from Ruben's pessimistic (and permanently horny) perspective.

There's a lot of very interesting and perceptive writing here. There's also obviously something rather uncomfortable about spending 300 pages with Ruben's sexual obsession, but Brink knows how we are likely to react (after all, he had a long history of marrying younger women himself...), and he makes sure that Ruben is never trying to justify himself with the reader, and that Tessa's modern instinct to talk everything through prevents his obsession with her from building up into a destructive secret. (Tessa, although born in 1970, often seems to belong more to Brink's generation than her own — even the shocking modern music she listens to turns out to be The Velvet Underground...)

elokuu 30, 2020, 12:33pm

>76 thorold: Hmmm - interesting. I think I'm going to add that one to my list. I'm a sucker for dysfunctional characters.

Muokkaaja: elokuu 31, 2020, 3:35pm

A very rainy day yesterday gave me time for a Don Carlos double-bill: first reading Schiller's play, then watching a video of Verdi's version. It did keep me busy until after midnight, though...

Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien : ein dramatisches Gedicht (1787) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)



In January 1568, Philip II arrested his 23 year old son, Carlos, confining him to his palace rooms under guard. Six months later, Carlos was dead. The perfect set-up for a dark romantic scandal, but in the boring real world the Infante's short life seems to have been merely sad, unpleasant and far from romantic.

Whether it was due to an excess of inbred Hapsburg DNA, brain damage resulting from a difficult birth, teenage malaria and/or a head injury from a fall in 1562, Carlos displayed increasingly violent and unpredictable behaviour as he grew up. It is probably reasonable to assume that he was seriously mentally ill and his confinement was a medical necessity, his death probably from natural causes. Modern historians generally see no need to suspect any dirty work by the king in this case.


However, there were plenty of people who scented a propaganda opportunity here. A pamphlet circulated by William of Orange seems to have been the starting point for the legend that Carlos was murdered because he was in love with his young stepmother, Elisabeth of Valois, and involved with her in a conspiracy to seize power in Flanders in support of the Protestant rebels there. That was taken up in a novel by the Abbé de Saint-Réal in the 1670s, which in turn gave Schiller the outline for his first big verse tragedy, written between 1783 and 1787 and first performed in Hamburg.

Besides Carlos, Philip and Elisabeth, Schiller gives big parts to the Princess of Eboli, one of the Queen's ladies, and to the Marquis of Posa, a childhood friend of Carlos who is a passionate supporter of the cause of the Flemish rebels. There's also quite an important sub-plot involving the Duke of Alba and the king's confessor, Domingo, and lots of other minor parts for Spanish grandees and ladies (including, twenty years too early, the Duke of Medina Sidonia coming on to report the defeat of the Armada...!). But the best walk-on part is that of the Grand Inquisitor, who comes on about five minutes before the end of Act Five and completely steals the show.

The plot is ridiculously tangled, with everyone changing sides (or appearing to) at least twice in the course of the play, and there are about a dozen different compromising documents that have to fall into the wrong hands at significant moments. But there are lots of fine speeches as characters debate love versus duty, liberty versus order and stability, and so on.

The passion between Carlos and Elisabeth is oddly abstract — she never really commits herself, whilst he is obsessed with her without apparently ever having had the chance to talk to her. Both the Princess and Posa are obviously in love with Carlos in a very real, physical way (we're meant to read Posa's declarations of love as just the flowery language of homosocial bonding, but of course we know better...): Carlos seems to respond to both of them warmly while they are in the room, then forgets them at once and goes back to ranting about his passion for the Queen. Schiller plants the idea that he's looking for a mother-substitute (one of his first lines in Act I reminds us that his "first action on coming into the world was matricide"), but given that he's the same age as Elisabeth, it's hard to imagine how he could really see her as a mother.


Verdi's Don Carlo(s) is now considered one of his major works, but it took a long time and many revised versions to work its way into the mainstream repertoire. I watched an ARTE video of the 2017 Bastille production directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, based on the original 1867 Paris version, all five acts without any cuts, which puts it well into the Wagner bracket of length (nearly four hours of music). It's probably better known in shorter Italian versions from the 1880s (Don Carlo-without-the-s), but the French version seems to have been taking over lately. This one had a stunning cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, with fantastic performances (amongst others) from Elīna Garanča as the Princess of Eboli and Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip.

Verdi's first act is a sort of prologue, not in Schiller's play, with Carlos going incognito to Fontainebleau to have a secret look at his fiancée, Elisabeth. Just as they have met in the woods and sung a love-duet together, it's announced that Elisabeth's father has changed his mind and she's to marry Philip instead. Elisabeth nobly accepts that it's her duty to the French people to accept his decision. Apart from flattering the patriotic feelings of the French audience, this establishes the relationship between Carlos and Elisabeth much more clearly than Schiller does. Totally unhistorical, of course, as they were both 13 at the time of their brief engagement...

Verdi also sweeps out most of the minor characters, tidies up the time sequence to make it slightly easier to follow the convolutions of the plot (and save a few scene-changes), ramps up the Grand Inquisitor's part to something a decent singer would take on (Warlikowski turns him into an East European mafia boss in sunglasses and clerical collar), and introduces a ballet scene in the gardens of Aranjuez and an auto-da-fé scene to meet the needs for spectacle and giving the chorus something to do. Warlikowski transfers the garden scene to a gym, with the Queen's ladies all dressed up in fencing gear and flourishing masks and rapiers, and the Princess doing some Marlene Dietrich-style lesbian vamping, which works surprisingly well.

Very interesting to see the opera with the play fresh in my mind, although of course it isn't all that meaningful to make comparisons between versions of a work for different media written a hundred years apart and in different languages, one still (just) in Ancien Régime days and the other under Napoleon III. But any excuse to spend time on Verdi is a good excuse, I suppose, and the music is marvellous...

elokuu 31, 2020, 6:48am

I like the multimedia analysis! And definitely need to see the opera one of these days—that was a pandemic goal that I never got to (though I guess the Met is still streaming only, so there may be time...).

syyskuu 2, 2020, 10:01am

More early A S Byatt:

The Game (1967) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


This was Byatt's second novel of the sixties, whose writing overlapped with The shadow of the sun. It picks up different aspects of the same theme, the way social expectations at the time wouldn't allow a woman to be both an academic and a creative artist, or indeed both an academic and a wife and mother. But where The shadow of the sun does this by presenting a young woman with (false) choices, The Game shows us two sisters in their thirties, after their lives have been sent off down diverging tramlines, with Cassandra — the imaginative, dogmatic one — turned into a spinsterish don in an Oxford ladies' college and Julia — the one who's connected to the real world — into a successful social-realist novelist with a family and a slot on a TV arts programme.

There are plenty of hints in the text that we are meant to read these two women as different sides of the same person, but of course we're also going to be jumping to conclusions about possible autobiographical elements, and Byatt exploits that knowledge by talking about the way that novelists can't help stealing from real life, and having Julia precipitate the novel's crisis by writing a book about a character obviously based on Cassandra.

There's also a lot in the book about engagement with the real world, and what it means: Julia and Cassandra are both, in different ways, still stuck in the Brontë-ish fantasy country of the Game they played as children, which was clearly at least in part an escape from the well-meaning rootedness of their Quaker family. At the same time, Simon, the boy they fought over many years ago, is off in the rain-forest trying to convince us all that what a snake is to the world and to itself is more important than what the image of a snake suggests to a human, and Julia's charity-organiser husband Thor burns with frustration at his inability to solve the real problems that he sees around him.

Iris Murdoch's footprints are all over this, of course (Byatt was also working on a critical study of her early novels at the time), but it isn't quite a pastiche Iris Murdoch novel. One very striking element (which I'm sure some readers hate) is the way the novelist and the critic constantly seem to be fighting in the background, forcing us to be constantly aware that this is a novel we're reading: characters are forever realising why they've just said what they did, and what effect they must have been trying to achieve with those words; towards the end of the book Byatt amuses herself by parodying a Sunday Times review of Julia's book-within-a-book, in which the reviewer picks out for particular criticism some of the most memorable images in the "real" story, like Cassandra's crucifix necklace dangling in the college spaghetti.

syyskuu 2, 2020, 1:11pm

>80 thorold: Great review, and my curiosity is piqued. I've been on an Iris Murdoch kick lately, so that might be a good complement.

syyskuu 7, 2020, 1:12pm

Carrying on with Schiller: time for a dip into the horror of the Thirty Years War, which I've visited fairly recently with the contemporary account of a participant in Simplicissimus and with Daniel Kehlmann's post-modern view in Tyll.

I've always been curious about Wallenstein — partly from schoolboyish glee at discovering that most of the play is set in a Pilsener Lager, partly from the silly idea that the Piccolominis are going to turn out to be some sort of cute cartoon characters...

Wallenstein ein dramatisches Gedicht (1799) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)


In the ten years between Don Carlos and the Wallenstein trilogy, Schiller was busy with the academic side of history, taking up a post as professor in Jena and publishing various essays on the theory of history and a book-length history of the Thirty Years War. (He was also starting a family, and there must have been a certain amount of rather distracting European History happening around him as well...). But, anyway, it's probably no surprise that when Goethe persuaded him to come back to writing plays, he picked a subject from the Thirty Years War, a horrible and insanely destructive conflict that left a huge imprint on German culture.

Albrecht von Wallenstein, the Bohemian military contractor who had risen from nowhere to become the commander-in-chief of the Emperor's armies in the first half of the war, and who had turned back the seemingly unstoppable advance of Gustavus Adolphus, was not on good terms with Ferdinand II by the end of 1633. He seemed to be reluctant to bring his troops out of their Bohemian camps into action, and there were strong rumours in Vienna that he was plotting to make his own peace with the Swedes and Saxons. After he had disobeyed a direct order to deploy troops in support of the Spanish, and had aroused suspicions further by summoning a meeting of his generals in Plzeň, at which they took a renewed oath of loyalty to Wallenstein (with no mention of the Emperor), Ferdinand conducted a secret trial in absentia, condemned Wallenstein to death for treason, and issued orders for him to be brought to Vienna dead or alive. The rebellion, if it was a rebellion, collapsed, Wallenstein escaped to Cheb (Eger) with a few loyal troops, but was assassinated there before he could join the advancing Swedes.

Historians are still arguing about whether Wallenstein was selling out for personal gain (he was said to be after the Bohemian crown) or whether he was acting in the belief that it was his duty to stop the killing, in the interests of the German people (but not the Emperor). There's also the strong possibility that syphilis had driven him effectively insane by this point, and he wasn't acting rationally at all.

Schiller treats these events in a set of two-and-a-half plays. Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod are full-length five-act pieces, the first set around the Plzeň conference in January 1634 and the second in Plzeň and Cheb in the run-up to the assassination on 25 February. They are preceded by the one-act Wallensteins Lager, which serves as a prologue to the other two parts, giving us the chance to eavesdrop on what the ordinary soldiers in the camp are saying about their commander and about the political events going on around them. Significantly, none of the characters in this has a name in the Dramatis Personae — they are all "a dragoon", "a canteen-woman", "a cuirassier", "a sergeant-major", etc. It has quite a modern, film-like effect, as we shift in and out of the overlapping stories of all these people, and of course it ends with a rousing soldiers' chorus. (And if you ever wondered where Brecht got the idea for a play about a canteen-woman and her wagon, this is it.)

In the main story, Schiller seems to attract our attention more to the struggles between conflicting loyalties going on in the minds of the officers in Wallenstein's entourage than to the man himself. In particular, we spend a lot of time with Wallenstein's trusted subordinate, General Ottavio Piccolomini, who has already written secretly to Vienna denouncing his chief and is now negotiating with the Imperial commissioner for the best possible position after Wallenstein goes down, and with Ottavio's son Max, a dashing young cavalry commander who has a kind of father-son relationship with Wallenstein and has just fallen heavily in love with his daughter.

Schiller does have some fun with Wallenstein's known obsession with astrology, which he uses to make us think about how much an individual, even a powerful one like Wallenstein, has agency to change the course of history, and how much he is pulled along by a determined historical process. Schiller's audience in 1799 would probably have had good reason to be asking themselves that kind of question with an eye to what was going on in France at the time, but it also fits in with ideas he was tossing around in Don Carlos. There are echoes of Antony and Cleopatra, of course, but this isn't a Shakespeare remake.

Another interesting thread of all three plays is the way Schiller foregrounds the international, mercenary nature of the army, and tells us about the ways an army like that would have been different from the conscripted "citizen armies" of the late 18th century. Soldiers — Irish, Scots, Croats, Germans, Czechs, Swiss, Walloons, Neapolitans — are there in most cases because they don't have another viable way to earn a living; their respect and loyalty go in the first place to their commanders, the people who ensure that they get a reasonably good supply of pay and plunder and have something to eat. The changing fates of Emperors and states are something they need to be aware of in deciding when it's safest to stick with their current employer and when it might be better to switch sides, but they don't arouse abstract loyalties. Obviously, Wallenstein in his prime was someone who could talk to men like that in the right terms to make them follow him into terrible danger, but by this point he's not. It's a fascinating study of collapsing credibility.

Difficult to imagine how it would work in the theatre, but very interesting.

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 9, 2020, 5:38am

By coincidence, the other chronological sequence I'm following also had a ten-year gap whilst the author concentrated on her academic day-job. She came back with her third novel in 1978:

The virgin in the garden (1978) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


This is (in part) another novel about a clever adolescent setting out into the unknown world of adult life, the first of four novels Byatt wrote, over a period of 25 years, about the character Frederica Potter. But it feels like a much more grown-up novel than The shadow of the sun and The game. It has the kind of scale and ambition that invites you to compare it with Middlemarch and South Riding — more especially since, like the latter, it's set in a lightly-fictionalised part of Yorkshire. Dozens of characters, four or five intertwined plot lines, lots of scenery, religion, politics, literary analysis, art-history, and all the rest.

The story is set in 1953, when Frederica is seventeen, but it's explicitly framed from the point of view of someone looking back from twenty years later, and thus able to comment with ironic distance on the short-lived "New Elizabethan" cultural enthusiasms of the Festival of Britain/Coronation period. (Oddly relevant again with the current British government trying to whip up enthusiasm for Mrs May's "Festival of Brexit"...). Most of the action is set around a fictional market town and a nearby small cathedral town in North Yorkshire — you could imagine them as Boroughbridge and Ripon, for instance, although Byatt is careful not to be too specific. And there are trips out to places like Knaresborough, Filey, Scarborough, Goathland and York to keep us in a Yorkshire mood.

At the centre of the plot is an outdoor production of Alexander Wedderburn's new verse-drama Astraea at a Yorkshire stately home, in which the schoolgirl Frederica has been chosen to play the young Elizabeth I. Frederica is madly in love with the romantic Alexander, but he's far too canny to get involved with a colleague's daughter, and it looks as though Frederica is going to have to make other arrangements to lose that which she has in common with the queen. Meanwhile, her elder sister Stephanie outrages their atheist/anarchist father by announcing that she intends to marry the curate, Daniel, and her younger brother Marcus becomes involved in dangerous-sounding telepathic experiments with the sinister Lucas, whose obvious derangement seems to have gone unobserved only because no-one expects biology teachers to be even slightly normal.

There's a huge amount of interesting stuff going on, with lots of characteristic Byatt themes: the irascible father, Bill, who feels trapped in the persona of "scary political ranter" that he has created for himself; the angry young man, Daniel, who has gone into the church with a great deal of energy but without any obvious religious conviction because it was the first way that offered itself to escape from his stultifying working-class childhood and narrow-minded mother; Stephanie, choosing family life with Daniel over the possibility of continuing her academic life; Marcus, subject to hyper-realistic creative visions and unsure what to do with them; and so on. And there's the interesting and detailed story of how the play comes together out of Alexander's gifted creative opportunism, the magus-like powers of Crowe, owner of the stately home and producer of the show, Frederica's fiery naivety, and the cynical pragmatism of the professional actors and director. And any number of parallels between Frederica, Elizabeth I, and the tiny flickering image of Elizabeth II on the TV screens. And a few Yorkshire in-jokes, like the way Lucas talks about tapping into the powerful "radiation" from the prehistoric cairns on Fylingdales Moor — which we know, but he doesn't, will become the site of a secretive high-powered Cold War radar installation in the 1960s.

I don't think the story manages to move outside the "1950s as seen from the 1970s" frame and bring the (Old) Elizabethans to life, though: we don't really get any closer to them than their written words as performed on stage. So that side of the book does tend to feel a bit more like academic criticism than a novel. But the imagining of the strange world of the early 1950s in England works very well.

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 9, 2020, 12:30pm

...and I still haven't got to the bottom of the Southern Africa pile from Q2! At least two more left after this one.

Serowe: village of the rain wind (1981) by Bessie Head (South Africa, 1937-1986)


For some reason I had the idea when I ordered this book that it would be another short story collection, but it turns out to be something rather more unusual: Head expresses her gratitude to the Botswana village that has taken her in by documenting as much as she can of its history and culture through a set of about a hundred interviews with people who live there, especially older people. In so many ways, this seems to be a very African way of working, so it's a little bit of a shock to learn that her direct inspiration for the format of this project was Ronald Blythe's sixties classic, Akenfield — the 2008 AWS edition comes with a preface from Dr Blythe, who is obviously as surprised as we are, and very flattered.

Head shows us what makes Serowe such a special part of Southern Africa, focussing in particular on the influence of Khama III, chief of the Bamangwato around the end of the nineteenth century, his son Tshekedi Khama, who ruled in the mid-20th century, and the exiled South African Patrick van Rensburg, who came to Serowe in the 1950s and established various pioneering educational projects.

Khama — who became famous internationally in the 1890s because of a diplomatic mission to London to keep "Bechuanaland" out of the hands of Cecil Rhodes — was an authoritarian who imposed Christianity on his people and banned alcohol, but he was also a firm believer in development through self-help. His standing gave him the opportunity to push through some big changes in traditional custom, and in particular he abolished initiation rituals for young men and diverted the energies of the age regiments (initiation fraternities) into community service projects like building dams and schools, and kept a firm hand on the activities of foreign missionaries and traders within his territories. Tshekedi continued and expanded the community service idea, and van Rensburg added further refinements, such as producers' and consumers' cooperatives and self-financing vocational training programmes. (I've worked with a foundation that gives financial support to community self-help projects: it's astonishing to see how many of the initiatives Head describes are things I've seen people re-inventing quite independently in other parts of the world half a century later...)

Head introduces her interviewees and puts them in context, but then she lets them speak for themselves, even when they are expressing opinions she presumably doesn't share herself. Many of the older people, understandably enough, consider that Bamangwato culture is collapsing around them, and that the centralised democracy of post-independence Botswana gives them less influence over their own lives than the old regional autocracy of the chiefs, controlled as it was by the local forum of the kgotla, in which everyone (i.e. all the older males) got the chance to express an opinion.

A big topic is the shift in family structure that has resulted from Khama's abolition of polygamy and bride-prices, which obviously helped to remove some major inequalities between rich and poor and between men and women, but also indirectly led to a situation in which defaulting husbands could not easily be held to account by their in-laws, and marriage itself eventually went out of style. At the time Head was writing, 95% of children in the village were born to unmarried women. Head interviews a number of older and younger women to hear what they have to say about this (she doesn't seem to have managed to find any young men prepared to talk about it, though...).

There are some very interesting interviews with craftspeople, especially the old tanners (men), hut-builders and potters (women) who explain the traditional way their craft worked; these are set against interviews with younger people, many of them from the boiteko cooperative, who explain how they are mixing traditional ideas with technology from elsewhere. The funniest one is the elderly wood-carver, though, who clearly finds it impossible to understand how anyone could fail to find the spoon that's waiting to be discovered in a tree-branch or the stool hidden in a stump. (Or perhaps couldn't resist pulling the leg of this young South African woman who's come to ask him silly questions.)

Although it talks about a community facing a lot of very big problems (plus AIDS, which they didn't know about yet), this comes across as a very warm, positive book, really expressing Head's love for Serowe and its people, and demonstrating the way a community exists as the collective experiences of its members. And it's also a quiet challenge to Western readers with fixed ideas about "primitive" rural African societies and the things holding them back. All the speakers in this book are sophisticated, articulate people who've clearly thought deeply about their community and its needs.

syyskuu 10, 2020, 12:12pm

>83 thorold: I was mildly curious about why Byatt chose the relatively uncommon name “Wedderburn” for the playwright, but didn’t bother to look it up — By one of those coincidences that always happen, last night, in another book in my pile, I came across a version of the 18th century ballad “Captain Wedderburn’s courtship” and the penny dropped.

syyskuu 10, 2020, 11:48pm

>85 thorold: "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone..."

syyskuu 14, 2020, 11:35am

>86 kac522: Yes, that's the one!

Another Byatt re-read...

Still life (1985) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


The second Frederica novel picks up where the first one left off and takes us through to 1957, following Frederica through an incongruous spell as an au pair in the south of France and her undergraduate years in Cambridge, and Stephanie and Daniel through the challenges of starting a family and looking after the damaged-but-recovering Marcus as well as Daniel's elderly mother.

Frederica's story is largely rueful comedy, as she experiments intellectually, emotionally and sexually with a string of more or less unsuitable men. Meanwhile, we have a strong hint already in the Prologue that things aren't going to go well for Stephanie and Daniel, however sensible, pragmatic and resilient they are.

On the sidelines, the new University of North Yorkshire is launched, and Alexander is working on a new play, still in the fifties dead-end medium of verse drama, on the subject of Van Gogh's last years in Arles. This gives us the setting for the book's philosophical backbone, a long and wide-ranging discussion about how things relate to the words we use to name them and the painted images and metaphors we use to represent them, and how the human process of finding and understanding those names and images works.

Once again there's a lot about constraints on the role of women in fifties intellectual life, with social-realist detail obviously taken from Byatt's own experience both as student and as parent, and quite a bit of sharp comment on the culture of the time. Byatt is particularly hard on the boozy, macho pomposity-bashing of Kingsley Amis and the Angry Young Men — not only because of their indisputably narrow treatment of female characters, but also because they put the author in a position to declare anything he wants pompous and ridiculous, even when it's something valuable and worth preserving. That's worth bearing in mind when we look at today's funny memes!

A tighter, more claustrophobic story than The virgin in the garden, and quite tough in parts — intellectually challenging when it spins off into philosophical side-tracks, and emotionally-challenging in the Stephanie story. But never dull.

Fun to see that in 1985 Penguin were still prepared to let their cover artists have time to read the book: the Angela Barrett illustration puts characters from the story into the stage-set of Alexander's Van Gogh play (as described in the book) and plays around with some of the colour effects Byatt discusses.

syyskuu 15, 2020, 5:58am

This was a recent random find in a Little Free Library. And will no doubt soon be a random find for someone else in another one...

The geography of bliss : one grump's search for the happiest places in the world (2008) by Eric Weiner (USA, 1963- )


After years as a foreign correspondent visiting places where bad things happen, Weiner decides for a change to follow up one of those column-filler/clickbait "new research has found that" stories and visit some of the countries that consistently rate highly in world surveys of happiness. He starts off with a briefing from Professor Ruut Veenhoven at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, who is known as the "godfather of happiness studies" and runs the World Database of Happiness. This prompts Weiner to say "normally I do not associate the words 'happiness' and 'database'". I think that was where he lost me, or possibly on the previous page where he spelled "Trappiste" with only one "p"...

It's a reasonable enough journalistic travel book, written in standard self-mocking feature-article style, a bit like Bill Bryson but without Bryson's compulsion to put a hundred thousand instances of hyperbole on every page. But on places I know, like the Netherlands (soft-drugs, prostitution and Islamists) and Switzerland (chocolate, petty rules and punctual trains) it felt very superficial, nothing he really needed to visit those countries to find out. So I'm not all that inclined to trust him to be saying more than the obvious about the places I don't know, like Iceland, Bhutan and Qatar. He visits Moldova and Slough (!) as examples of "unhappy" places, but doesn't seem to find out much more about the former than that it's a poor country in a rich region, and that because of Soviet-era internal migration it doesn't have a clear cultural identity any more. We could probably have guessed that. In Slough he discovers that Betjeman wrote a nasty poem about it eighty years ago, and that the English enjoy grumbling. Hmm.

The text is larded with remarks on happiness from various Great Thinkers, and at first that is quite impressive, but there are so many of them and they have so little context that it starts feeling like a tear-off calendar, or someone who has googled "happiness quotes". It's quite possible that Weiner spent a couple of years researching this book and reading everything ever published about happiness, but if so he forgot to include his bibliography.

A pleasant enough, undemanding sort of book, but I don't think I learnt anything from it.

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 17, 2020, 11:40am

This is another from the parcel of quasi-random books I received from an LT member a little while ago. Not necessarily something I'd have thought of picking up myself, but nice to have:

Scottish love poems : a personal anthology (1975, reissued 1995) edited by Antonia Fraser (UK, 1932- )


I've somehow never got around to reading any of her biographies or historical writings, so the image of Lady Antonia Fraser that sticks in my mind tends to be the one I picked up in childhood, of her adding a touch of glamour to BBC2 panel shows otherwise populated mostly by ageing male actors and (ex-)comedians. This anthology obviously owes something to that playful side of her public persona, but its real roots seem to be in the work she did researching her Mary Queen of Scots biography, which came out about five years before this. There's one poem by Mary herself in the book (in Fraser's own translation from the French), as well as poems attributed to her ancestor James I and her son James VI.

The title of the anthology raises two obvious questions, both of which Fraser deals with by simple editorial fiat: a poem is Scottish/a love poem if I say it is. Which is probably as good a test as any other, but it doesn't make it easy to work out whether there is any kind of common thread we can pick out. Anyway, it's billed as "a personal anthology", and it is quite fun to see some of the interesting juxtapositions she sets up by putting (say) Hugh MacDiarmid's twentieth century "synthetic Scots" next to a Border ballad or to Lord Byron's Regency standard English.

Obviously, if you think of Scottish love poems you think of Robert Burns, and he is reasonably well-represented in the selection, with a mix of familiar and less familiar pieces, but it's very interesting to see how much else there is, from the early 15th century right down to Liz Lochhead, still in her twenties when this first came out. Some very well-known names, but also a lot who were new to me.

Fraser has fun dividing the topic of "Love" into semi-serious subheadings, from "Wooings" to "Old loves". She fits in a few poems that are about "other" kinds of love (mother-child, for instance), and there are a few instances of suspicious avoidance of gendered pronouns to offset all those gung-ho ballads about demon lovers carrying their ladies off across the moors on horseback. Plenty that's witty, a certain amount that's sentimental, and quite a lot that's simply miserable — more or less what you would hope to find. Not all that much apart from Burns that's straightforwardly erotic (and none of Burns's really bawdy stuff), however.

Unusually for a poetry book, I can think of a real, practical use for this anthology: it's going to be in my backpack next time I'm invited to a Burns supper, for those moments when someone says "Does anyone want to read a Scottish poem that isn't by Burns?"


Maybe the oddest piece in the anthology was Alexander Gray's "The Grave of Love", which had me really puzzled — one of those things that seems so familiar but you know you've never seen it before — until I realised that it was a Scots version of Heine's poem "Die alten bösen Lieder", famously set to music by Schumann in his Dichterliebe cycle. The Heidelberg Tun becomes "St Andrews' auld draw-well", "zu Mainz die Brück’" becomes "the auld brig ower the Clyde", and "der starke Christoph / Im Dom zu Cöln am Rhein" turns into "William Wallace / That looks across the Forth". Very odd, but it all makes sense somehow, and he manages to capture the spirit and flow of Heine's poem very accurately.

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 17, 2020, 10:36am

Byatt again: I started re-reading Possession, but realised a bit late that there's another book in between it and Still Life, which I hadn't read, so I had to double back briefly:

Sugar : and other stories (1987) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


Byatt's first published collection of short stories, which appeared in between the novels Still life and Possession, contains eleven stories, mostly written for The New Yorker or Encounter. The subjects advance in a suspiciously logical sequence through the book: women's education, mother-daughter relationships, ghosts, accusations of witchcraft, writers and mortality. The opening story, "Racine and the Tablecloth", has a younger version of Frederica (called Emily here) at boarding school in York and locked in a struggle with a small-minded headmistress who thinks academic achievement is no excuse for refusing to engage with the community life of the school, in a kind of inverted Miss Jean Brodie set-up.

"Precipice-encurled" is particularly interesting in the light of what is to come in that it's historical fiction about Robert Browning — we meet him and his sister in Venice a couple of years after Elizabeth's death, planning a visit to friends in their holiday retreat in the Apennines, and sketching out a poem about Descartes.

The autobiographical title-story also ties a lot of threads together: the narrator talks about her memories of her (paternal) grandparents, who ran a sweet factory in Conisbrough, and reflects on how much creative fiction goes into family memories: her firsthand memories are conditioned by the way her mother "improved" the facts to turn them into family anecdotes, and she herself adds her professional writer's instinct to turn events into stories. She also talks about her father's death and his passion for Van Gogh (tying into Still Life, of course) and about her passion for Norse mythology and Ragnarök, which she traces back to a book her mother had used "as a crib" whilst doing compulsory Old Norse and Icelandic for her English degree, and which she read as a young child. And that, of course, links into several of her later novels, including Possession.

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 23, 2020, 6:33am

Q3 is almost over and I seem to be getting a bit closer to making good the aim I somewhat flippantly put into my subject-line. I've been out and about enjoying what seem to be the last few days of good summer weather (let's hope they're not the last few days before the next lockdown too!), and that's been cutting into my reading time, and even more into my time for posting reviews. I've got three to catch up with. Schiller again, first:

Maria Stuart ein Trauerspiel (1801; Mary Stuart) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)


Schiller started researching Mary, Queen of Scots back in the early 1780s, but got sidetracked into writing Don Carlos instead, and didn't pursue the subject any further until Goethe started leaning on him for a new play in 1799. It was completed and first performed in the Weimar theatre in June 1800, and published in 1801. An interesting — oddly modern — detail is that Schiller involved his English translator Mellish in the project from an early stage, so that the German and English versions came out simultaneously. There have been several other English translations since, including ones by Stephen Spender and Peter Oswald. For some reason, Verdi didn't take this one on; Donizetti's (1835) is the best-known opera adaptation of the play.

The play deals with the period immediately before Mary's execution at Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587, with the action alternating between Mary in Northamptonshire and Elizabeth in London. Schiller cheats a little bit on the geography in order to make it look as though he's respecting the ideals of Unity of Place and Unity of Time, treating Fotheringhay as though it's only a short ride from central London when in fact it's close to Peterborough, at least a day's journey for a fast messenger. No trains in those days, despite Mary's reference to "...vollen, durstigen Zügen" in III.ii, which might sound like a good description of the East Coast main line! In reality, the action of the play would have been spread over about three weeks, but it is made to seem like three days.

As elsewhere, Schiller is interested in the conflict between free will and historical (political) necessity — Mary is represented as the (mostly) innocent figurehead repeatedly adopted by Catholic conspirators as a focus for their plots against Elizabeth, whilst Elizabeth agonises about signing the death warrant. She doesn't want to have the blood of a woman and a fellow-queen on her hands, but eventually recognises after yet another failed assassination attempt that it just isn't safe to keep her alive any longer. Schiller distorts history slightly by also making the negotiations for Elizabeth's marriage with the Duke of Anjou overlap with the period of the play (in fact they ended in 1581) and allowing Elizabeth's reluctance to be married and the knowledge that Mary's execution would lead to a breach with France play a part in her decision.

As always in Schiller, there's a hot-headed young rebel, Mortimer. His desire for an armed Catholic rising against Elizabeth makes him try to frustrate Mary's attempts to achieve a peaceful solution. His plot inadvertently provides the trigger for Elizabeth to make up her mind and sign the death warrant. But the hothead isn't at the centre of the play this time: the best parts go to Mary, Elizabeth, and Mary's maid Kennedy, and the men are all more or less secondary characters.


Given recent events, I was amused by the French ambassador's exit lines in IV.ii:
Ich gehe, ich verlasse dieses Land,
Wo man der Völker Recht mit Füßen tritt
Und mit Verträgen spielt

("I'm off, I'm leaving this country where they trample on international law and toy with treaties")

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 23, 2020, 9:16am

And two more instalments from my other big ongoing project, which I'll treat together because they are quite closely linked. Both re-reads — I last read Possession in 2009, and posted a review then; I don't know when I last read A&I, but probably before I joined LT:

Possession (1990) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )
Angels & Insects (1992) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


After two instalments of Frederica and a short-story collection, we move firmly into the mid-Victorian period for a couple of books.

Possession is probably Byatt's best-known novel: it won her the 1990 Booker Prize and was made into a ludicrously bad film by Neil LaBute in 2002. Through a literary love-affair between two (fictional) Victorian poets and the parallel story of the two 1980s academics who team up to trace it back through their letters and published texts, Byatt guides us though some aspects of the fascinating collision between poetry, science and religion that happened around the time of In memoriam and The origin of species — from geology to spiritualism and Norse mythology — as well as getting in a few satirical digs at modern academic life and the lure of the biographical obsession, and also making some more serious points about the role of women in literature and literary studies.

Most of all, though, it's a light, fast-moving romance with detective-story elements, and a tour-de-force of literary mimicry, in which she manages to con us into believing that she has had access to the complete works of both her poets, whose private lives seem to be pure invention, but whose themes and poetic style derive in the one case mostly from Robert Browning and in the other from Christina Rossetti with elements of Emily Dickinson. But she also slips in some truly wicked send-ups of literary biography and feminist criticism, amongst other things, and a diarist with a hint of Jane Carlyle. And some splendid Yorkshire scenery, of course!

The two novellas of Angels & Insects move the focus from Browning to Tennyson, being linked mostly by the way they refer to In memoriam. In "Morpho Eugenia" a young naturalist debates with a clergyman who is trying to resolve the idea of a benevolent creator with Tennyson's "nature red in tooth and claw", whilst his own personal life starts to mirror in odd ways that of the insect communities he is studying; in "The conjugial angel" we are back with spiritualism and Swedenborg, and looking, forty years on, at the consequences of Arthur Hallam's death and literary transfiguration from the point of view of his fiancée, Alfred Tennyson's sister Emily, who is now happily married to Captain Jesse, to the disgust of Tennysons, Hallams, and the Victorian public at large. The high point is certainly the chapter where Byatt slips in a complete critical essay on In memoriam in the time it takes the elderly Laureate to button his nightshirt.

syyskuu 23, 2020, 11:12am

>92 thorold: I think it would be interesting to read these two books back to back as you have done. Particularly The Conjugal Angel which could be seen as a partial rewrite of Possession. but with a more factual basis.

Whatever these are two extremely entertaining books - sexing up the Victorians.

syyskuu 23, 2020, 12:07pm

>93 baswood: Yes, also interesting to read them directly after the short story “Precipice-encurled” (>90 thorold:) where Browning appears in person. Even more interesting the very first time I read them, soon after studying In memoriam for OU course A102...!

As you say, it’s quite something to turn a book about Victorian poetry into a huge bestseller, whichever way you look at it. Considerable cunning required there.

syyskuu 24, 2020, 1:56pm

M - just caught up your thread and the biggest personal takeaway is that I really need to read Byatt.

Muokkaaja: syyskuu 26, 2020, 6:11am

>95 dchaikin: Excellent — my devious strategy is working...!

Back to East Germany. A few months ago I read a couple of classics from the early years of the republic; spiphany tipped me off about a couple of semi-forgotten DDR novels of the eighties that have recently been reissued. Here's the first:

Das Windhahn-Syndrom : Roman (1983; reissued 2015) by Winfried Völlger (DDR, 1947- )


Winfried Völlger sounds like an interesting character: a puppeteer, children's author, and trained photographer, who gave up writing novels to become an artist and sculptor, then went back to university late in life to start again as a musician...

This novel had its genesis in a fable about a weathercock and a church mouse that Völlger wrote in 1978, which became a children's picture-book and was broadcast as a radio play. After years of hearing about the big wide world from the winds, the weathercock goes off on a journey to see for itself, and comes back astonished and rather bruised by its experiences; this inspires the mouse to pack up its belongings and set off to explore as well, and it is never seen again. In the novel, the role of the weathercock is taken by the ethnolinguist Dr Claudia M., who, after years of studying world languages from books, gets permission to go on a field-trip to the Himalayas but soon returns to East Germany, suffering from a mental illness that makes her fall into terrifying fits of helpless, uncontrollable laughter at unpredictable moments. The narrator of the book, Claudia's childhood best friend and her not-quite-boyfriend in adult life, who happens to be a junior doctor at the psychiatric clinic where she is being treated, writes an account of what he knows of Claudia's life in the hope that it will help to pin down the cause of the mysterious syndrome.

Of course, this turns out to be mostly a book about the (unnamed) narrator's own life, full of colourful anecdotes illustrating the experience of that generation of East Germans, born at the same time as the republic, who have never experienced anything outside the boundaries of their small, landlocked island in the middle of Europe. And it's a fascinating document of its time, as well as being funny and lively and touching. Völlger admires the generation who fought for socialism, as represented by the 1920s rebel and concentration camp survivor Professor Grün, but he shows us how Grün is now so trapped in the thick concrete of official orthodoxy that he shows mild surprise when students even pretend to be listening to his stupendously-dull lectures. He gives Claudia a high mark in her viva for his course because he's so impressed by the pullover she's crocheted during the lectures.

Of course, it was never going to be easy to publish a novel which — on a crude level — is about someone who can't think of the DDR without collapsing into helpless laughter, and which on a deeper level is about the the huge psychological and intellectual cost of living isolated from the real world, and which is full of satirical portraits of officials, including officials of the Ministry of State Security. The Stasi informer responsible for watching the author had already filed a negative report in 1981, before the ink on the manuscript had a chance to dry, but Völlger was obviously as experienced and cunning in his dealings with bureaucracy as his characters are, and by deploying a mix of tried and tested methods (sowing confusion, parallel approaches, going-to-the-top, and always having a plan B) he managed to circumvent the Stasi, but it took him two years. The 2015 reissue comes with an annex containing the author's own comic account of his struggle to get the book published, as well as a drier, more academic essay on the book and its place in DDR history by Kerstin Schmidt.

Since the novel was only published in 1983 and lost all topical relevance after 1989, it only had a fairly modest success — 40 000 copies sold in the DDR, almost unnoticed in the West. Which is a shame, because it's a lovely, modest, entertaining book, with a few inevitable rough edges (the satirical account of the feminist group is very 1980s), but still well worth a look.

syyskuu 26, 2020, 6:39am

And the next part of my Byatt marathon was a very short stage. This is another re-read of a book I've had since before I joined LT:

The Matisse stories (1993) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


A cute little hardback, only 135 pages, with reproductions of three Matisse paintings on the dust jacket, and a short story inside the book related to each of the paintings. Each story also gets a Matisse line-drawing.

In "Medusa's ankles" (Le nu rose), a middle-aged academic and her hairdresser never quite manage to communicate until the professor goes postal and smashes up the salon. "Art work" (Le silence habité des maisons, the painting on the front cover) is about a middle-class "artistic family" who have to revise some of their ideas when their invaluable cleaning-lady Mrs Brown turns out to be the real artist in the story. And finally, "The Chinese lobster" (La porte noire) brings two staff members of an art college together over a Chinese meal to discuss an allegation made against one of them by a student.

This isn't a monograph on Matisse — he is away in the background most of the time, although the characters in the stories are often influenced by his ideas and by the beauty and clarity of his notions of colour. It is, though, largely about women as makers of visual art and as represented in it, especially in "Art work" where we see the comic contrast between Debbie and Robin's family, where Debbie has long-since given up her art-school dreams and taken a paying job in journalism to support her husband's largely arid and unproductive experiments with colour, with Mrs Brown, creating powerful feminist artworks on her knitting machine and from the cast-offs she gets from her middle-class employers. But all done with Byatt's normal ironic twinkle in the eye...

syyskuu 27, 2020, 4:29am

...and another short one:

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


This 1994 collection contains four short stories plus the title piece, which is in novella form. All make use of traditional fairy-tale elements reworked in various modern ways. The first two, "The Glass Coffin" and "Gode's Story", are reprints of interpolated stories from Possession, the former being a variant on "Sleeping beauty" as told by Christabel in her slightly arch Victorian voice, the latter the story of the sailor and the miller's daughter as told by the Breton housekeeper.

"The eldest sister" was apparently written in response to a challenge to writers to produce a fairy-story on an autobiographical theme: Byatt confesses that she was worried as a child that, being the eldest of three, she was doomed by narrative logic to fail at the tasks the youngest would eventually complete successfully: in the story the eldest sister deliberately steps out of the frame of her quest to avoid this hazard.

"Dragon's breath" plays around with the border between magical and naturalistic interpretations of things we experience in the real world.

"The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" (originally written for the Paris Review) is built on a much larger scale, and initially doesn't seem to be a fairy-tale at all: the middle-aged narratologist Gillian Perholt (Hmmm: Perholt = Perrault??) is on her way to an academic conference in Turkey. But then she has an odd vision whilst presenting her paper on Chaucer's Patient Griselda, she's shown around the Ankara museum by a possibly-supernatural guide, she spends time with the statues of Artemis at Ephesus, and sticks her finger in the wishing pillar at Hagai Sophia. When she buys a mysterious bottle of Djinn in the Bazaar in Istanbul, we have a pretty good idea what comes next, but it turns out that the inmate of the bottle is as clued up on literary theory as Dr Perholt, and between them they negotiate a surprisingly satisfactory outcome for the statutory three wishes.

Clever, witty, and reasonably thought-provoking — I don't regret investing time in a re-read.

syyskuu 28, 2020, 8:44am

And one from the depths of the TBR pile, the first novel of a popular Dutch novelist I've never got around to. I brought this back from the charity shop in June 2017, on the recommendation of a fellow-volunteer:

Blauwe Maandagen (1994; Blue Mondays) by Arnon Grunberg (Netherlands, 1971- )


Most readers seem to say something like "I didn't enjoy this, but I can understand why other people like it" — I was going to say something like that as well, but I have a suspicion that the only person who really got any pleasure out of this book is Arnon Grunberg. It's clever, often witty, and written with careful attention to nuances of language, but it's about 270 pages too long(*).

It's the semi-autobiographical story of an unpleasant, self-hating teenager who grows up to have the sort of self-centered, wasteful adult life that unpleasant, self-hating teenagers fantasise about, spending his time drinking, hanging around with people who hang around in bars, and having sex with prostitutes, none of which seems to give him any pleasure at all. Maybe it's meant to be a witty illustration of how hard it is to be a rebel when nothing is really forbidden, but it felt more like a sustained whinge about how terrible life is from someone who had never bothered to try to do anything to change that.


(*) My copy has 271 pages of text

lokakuu 1, 2020, 6:22am

It's October, time for a new thread, which starts here: