thorold is hoping to fall even further back in Q4

KeskusteluClub Read 2020

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thorold is hoping to fall even further back in Q4

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 1, 2020, 6:24am

Welcome to my autumn reading thread! You can find the previous thread here:

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 1, 2020, 7:08am

I seem to have been eating a lot of pumpkins lately, so a pumpkin-related poem:
First cut the gourds in slices, and then run
Threads through their breadth, and dry them in the air;
Then smoke them hanging them above the fire;
So that the slaves may in the winter season
Take a large dish and fill it with the slices,
And feast on them on holidays: meanwhile
Let the cook add all sorts of vegetables,
And throw them seed and all into the dish;
Let them take strings of gherkins fairly wash’d,
And mushrooms, and all sorts of herbs in bunches,
And curly cabbages, and add them too.

(Nicander, 2nd century bc — quoted in The Faber book of useful verse, edited by Simon Brett, no translator mentioned)

Those vegans have been around for a while, it seems!

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 11, 2020, 10:15am

Q3 stats:

I finished 62 books in Q3 (70 in Q1, 89 in Q2). A more normal total than the lockdown-inflated Q1 and Q2.

Author gender: M 36, F 26: 58% M ( Q1: 71% M; Q2: 69% M)

Language: EN 42, NL 5, DE 10, FR 2, ES 3 : 68% EN (Q1 54% EN; Q2 78% EN) — still more English than usual

15 books (24%) were linked to the "travelling the TBR" theme read, and 7 (11%) were leftovers from Q2's Southern Africa theme (Q1: 28% "far right" theme; Q2 38% Southern Africa)

Publication dates from 1781 to 2020, mean 1957, median 1976; 4 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 0, physical books from the TBR 43, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 6, audiobooks 1, paid ebooks 5, other free/borrowed 7 — 69% from the TBR (Q1: 17% from the TBR, Q2: 61%)

Formats: library 0, physical books from the TBR 39, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 6, audiobooks 1, paid ebooks 5, other free/borrowed 11 — 63% from the TBR (Q1: 17% from the TBR, Q2: 61%)

47 unique first authors (1.31 books/author; Q1 1.11; Q2 1.15)

By gender: M 30, F 17 : 64% M (Q1 71% M ; Q2 71% M)
By main country: UK 15, NL 5, US 2, FR 3, DE 1, DDR 2, ES 2, AU 3, AR 2 and ZA 8

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)
30/9/2020 : 94 books (89465 book-days) (Change: 39 read, 39 added)

There's still plenty of "freshening" going on in the TBR, but mostly at the top: the average days-per-book of what's still there on the pile is 951 days, only a small reduction from Q2. 73 of the 94 books currently on the TBR were already there at the start of Q3, so around half the books I read from the pile must have been short-stay residents.

Correction 11/10/2020: I noticed that when I first posted these numbers, I wrongly counted the Schiller plays as being off the TBR — in fact they all came from the same TBR item, a Complete Works, but I've been making dummy catalogue entries for each play in the "Read but unowned" category so that I could post separate reviews. That means the true number of books leaving the TBR was 39, not 43 as I originally said.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 1, 2020, 8:22am

Q3 highlights / Q4 goals

After being quite project-focussed earlier in the year — the Reading Globally theme-reads on the rise of the far-right and on Southern Africa; the last stages of the Zolathon — it was good to release the grip a little in Q3, so there was quite a lot of randomness in my reading over the last three months. I found myself chasing minor connections, like Australian textile fiction (Bobbin up as a follow-on to The dyehouse) and DDR fiction (Die Aula, Das Windhahn-Syndrom), tidying up loose ends from my dip into B S Johnson, and so on.

I finished Q3 partway through two new projects: I'm reading through Schiller's plays at the rate of about one a week — Die Jungfrau von Orleans will be next. And I'm also (re-)reading A S Byatt — I'm reading Babel Tower at the moment. Both of those should keep me busy for a little while longer.

The other big project that is coming up is the next RG Theme Read, on Russians and revolutions.

Books that really stand out in Q3:

- Ali Smith's Summer, the last of the seasonal quartet
- Bessie Head's Serowe, rural oral history with an African flavour
- The bell jar and Possession — both books I thought I knew too well to need to re-read!
- Thomas Bernhard's collected poems

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 1, 2020, 2:06pm

enjoyed this Nicander ode to pumpkins (and slaves!)

I meant to comment in your old thread on Le Clezio's The interrogation. I read it about 5 years ago, and my review concluded, "if you want to try Le Clezio, don't start here." : ) The other books I have read from him have a wonderful flow he doesn't really manage to hint at in this first novel, so, why i can't promise you will like le Clezio as much as I have, I think I can gently suggest you haven't really have that le Clezio experience yet.

lokakuu 1, 2020, 7:44pm

>1 thorold: Lovely photo!

>2 thorold: Not terribly impressed with 2nd century poetry;-) By those standards Julia Child would be a master! (and slaves!)

>4 thorold: "Australian textile fiction" that a thing? I might be interested in those reads. Hmmmm,

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 2, 2020, 5:31am

>5 dchaikin: Yes, I’m reserving judgement on Le Clézio — I’ve still got The prospector lined up on the TBR anyway. There was a lot I liked in Le procés-verbal, that probably didn’t come across in my review, but it’s not an easy book to take in.

>6 avaland: As a recipe it’s a bit light on detail, and as a poem it’s a bit light on poetry — maybe it was better in Greek. In his defence, Nicander was the gardening correspondent (and a physician by training, it seems), he wasn’t writing the cookery column. And the poem this is taken from survives only in fragments quoted by other writers.

I don’t think it is a thing really, I just happen to have read two in close succession! If you were writing a dissertation you’d probably call it “Australian industrial fiction” — but textiles (wool) were an important part of the economy in Australia in the 50s and 60s, and textile factories are always interesting from a social point of view because they employ a lot of women, so it’s not totally way-out.

lokakuu 3, 2020, 6:20am

The next re-read in my Byatt cycle: another big hefty full-scale novel (or two interleaved ones, depending on how you look at it...) after the two elegant little collections of short pieces. It's hard to believe that it's more than 20 years since this one came out, it still feels to me like a very recent book:

Babel Tower (1996) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


The third in the Frederica saga: we're now in the mid-sixties. Frederica's impulsive marriage to Nigel Reiver has not worked out well, and she's trying to build a new life as a literary single parent in London, teaching adult education classes, reviewing, and reading manuscripts for a publisher. Alexander is on a government committee that's reporting on possible reforms of the teaching of English in schools, and Daniel is working for the Samaritans out of a switchboard in a church crypt.

Byatt comments ironically on the challenge-everything ethos of the Swinging Sixties by bringing in a full-scale book-within-a-book, Babbletower, a fantasy novel set in a libertine community where the do-what-thou-wilt ideals of Sade and Fourier are taken to their grotesque, horrific conclusion.

The book ends in two — parallel — extended set-piece court scenes, as Frederica's marriage is ended under the still unreformed divorce laws of the time in one court, and the author and publisher of Babbletower are tried for obscenity in another. We see how clumsy an instrument the legal mechanism for determining truth is when it has to deal with the emotional reality of a marriage or the literary reality of a novel. But we've already seen Frederica trying and failing to resolve her firsthand experience of sex and love with the supposedly authoritative — but mutually conflicting! — understanding she has learnt to look for from her reading of E M Forster and D H Lawrence. And we see that each of the so-called experts who give evidence for and against Babbletower has taken something quite different from the book from what we saw in it as readers, and different again from what the author thought he was putting in.

This is a very big, serious, complicated novel of ideas, but it's also a very funny book, full of mischievous caricatures of sixties types — two dreadful Liverpool Poets, Anthony Burgess (safely dead, and therefore playing himself, hilariously), Angus Wilson (a friend of the author's sister, and therefore disguised slightly), trendy clergymen and trendier psychoanalysts, a Bowie-esque pop star, various artists, a vicar's-wife novelist, etc. Best of all, of course, but a full-scale character rather than a mere caricature, is the author of Babbletower, Jude Mason, who shares a profession and some aspects of his personality with Quentin Crisp, but turns out to have a quite different background.

Oh yes, this is a Byatt novel, so it doesn't stop with one book-within-a-book: as well as Babbletower there is a Tolkienish quest-novel being written as a serial for the children by Frederica's childcare-partner, Agatha Mond, and there is Frederica's own work-in-progress, a collage and cut-up book she calls Laminations. Not to mention the usual literary fun and games with parodies of reviews, novel reports, student essays, and the documents of Alexander's committee. And — just in passing — a lot of serious discussion of the nature of language, the sources of morality, the way these things develop in children, cults, Happenings, charismatic Christianity, ritual, the sexuality of snails, the effects of pesticides, and much more.

A lot to take in, even at a second or third reading. But vastly entertaining.

lokakuu 3, 2020, 8:43am

>7 thorold: ...textile factories are always interesting from a social point of view... Indeed! Which is why I was interested, although my interest has been 19th & 20th century US textile factories (with a nod to the earlier UK factories).

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 5, 2020, 6:28am

Following on from the fun I had with my multimedia Don Carlos day a few weeks ago, I decided to do something similar with the next Schiller play in my list. This one always gets compared to Shaw's play on the same subject — I don't have a copy of that on my shelves to re-read (and I'm not sure I could face an entire Shaw preface, even on a rainy Sunday afternoon...), but I did find Otto Preminger's film adaptation of it...

Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801; The Maid of Orleans) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)
Saint Joan (1924) by George Bernard Shaw (Ireland, UK, 1856-1950) — 1957 film version adapted by Graham Greene and directed by Otto Preminger


Schiller's work on this play in 1800-1801 overlapped with the writing of Maria Stuart. The proposed first performance in Weimar in spring 1801 didn't take place, but it was presented in Leipzig in September of that year, and the text was published a month later.

(Irrelevant fun fact: my edition quotes a letter from Schiller to Körner dated 5 January 1801, where he talks about his progress with the play and says he has "closed the old century productively". None of this innumerate nonsense we had twenty years ago when people thought the century ended in December '99!)

Maybe it wasn't a good idea writing two plays about tragic female figures, one "bad" and one "good", close together: Schiller seems to have struggled with the construction of this play, and put a lot of effort into researching the trial scenes before deciding to abandon them altogether and revise history slightly(!) by having Joan escape from English captivity and die gloriously on the battlefield.

Schiller's Joan, as we might expect, is a romantic-nationalist heroine, a young rebel whose business is to knock heads together on the battlefield as well as in the conference room to encourage the leaders of France and Burgundy to forget their petty local quarrels and unite to drive out the foreign occupying army. Any resemblance to the situation in Germany in 1801 is purely coincidental! Religion doesn't play a very large part in Schiller's presentation of the story: Joan uses religious language, of course, but the French and English leaders all, rather implausibly, seem to be children of the age of Voltaire, supremely cynical about Christian belief.

There's an interesting little bit in III:iv, which raises a few little questions about historical determinism, free-will, prophecy, and hindsight: Joan prophesies to the newly-crowned Dauphin (now Charles VII) that his descendants will be glorious kings — but only until the French Revolution:
Dein Stamm wird blühn, solang er sich die Liebe
Bewahrt im Herzen seines Volks,
Der Hochmut nur kann ihn zum Falle führen,
Und von den niedern Hütten, wo dir jetzt
Der Retter ausging, droht geheimnisvoll
Den schuldbefleckten Enkeln das Verderben!

Joan is more like one of Schiller's impetuous young men (Posa, in particular) than any of his women, although he does make the tragedy pivot on her sexuality: The moment when Joan feels a brief sexual attraction to an English knight she's about to kill in battle is the moment when she starts to lose her absolute certainty in the divine origin of her mission to unite France, and the moment when she becomes vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft — which comes, interestingly, not from the Church or the political establishment, but from her father. Schiller clearly doesn't approve of fathers. (The Dauphin, of course, also had a somewhat problematic father...).

This is really a one-girl play. The men, led by the Dauphin and Dunois (the Bastard) all have relatively minor parts; the Dauphin's mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, gets a nice, if not very extensive, bad-girl part, while his mistress, Agnes Sorel, is presented more sympathetically, but also doesn't get a huge amount to do.

Shaw / Greene / Preminger

If Shaw's St Joan isn't quite — as T S Eliot once suggested — an imprisoned Suffragette, she is certainly a graduate of Newnham or Somerville, a clever young woman who has been brought up to wear Rational Dress and dispense gratuitous advice to ignorant, prejudiced and stupid men. And she's not so much a nationalist hero as a victim of cynical English imperialism and the Catholic hierarchy. However, Shaw is a lot more conscientious than Schiller about staying within the limits of recorded history: he twists the way people say things, but not what happens.
Preminger's film cuts the length of the play by about 30%, and by getting Graham Greene to do the screenplay he made sure that it would shift the emphasis from politics to religion: we lose all the stuff about the Burgundians and Isabeau, but see more of Joan's — reported — miracle-working, and the way the church responds to it. Shaw also builds up the Dauphin into a more unconventional character than Schiller does: he's a modern young man who would far rather play hopscotch than be anointed with smelly old holy oil, and he's quite happy to let others run the country.

The thing that Preminger was most heavily criticised for at the time was his casting (through a heavily publicised talent competition) of the inexperienced teenager Jean Seberg in the main part. It's all too obvious when she's working with a bunch of sophisticated, pre-war stage actors that she doesn't know what to do with her body or her voice, and half the time she looks absolutely petrified. Sixty years later, that turns out to be the most charming thing about the film: she's beautiful, vulnerable, and her gaucherie is entirely in character anyway, taking the dated Oxbridge/Major Barbara element out of Shaw's dialogue. It's the mannered, theatrical acting of the old guys that dates the film...

Of course, there's a lot of nonsense in the film: business with horses and suits of armour that make you think of Monty Python, Charles VII processing out of Reims cathedral to the tune of a Handelian fugue, bits of Shaw's dialogue that now strike us as awkwardly anachronistic, weird mixes of location shots and painted back scenes, and so on. But it is quite fun, and the storytelling is nice and tight. Greene knew where to cut.


Bonus disc: not part of my multimedia adventure, but something else on the same subject I saw a couple of years ago

Jeannette, l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc (2017) directed by Bruno Dumont

A totally silly film, when set against the seriousness of Schiller, Shaw and Preminger — Dumont for some reason decided to make an ironic rock-musical adaptation of a couple of pious late-19th-century plays for children by Charles Péguy. Jeanne is portrayed as a very ordinary unwashed small peasant girl in bare feet and a ragged dress, sitting on a heath in the middle of her sheep and goats, speaking Péguy's ridiculously high-flown dialogue like a Sunday-school pupil forced to learn the main part in a play she never wanted to be in. And from time to time she breaks into song-and-dance sequences accompanied by a heavy-metal soundtrack. The goats are magnificent, but it all goes on for far too long, as such things usually do.

I haven't seen the sequel Jeanne (2019), but it sounds as though that continues in the same spirit.

lokakuu 5, 2020, 4:06pm

...and a quick one from the pile. This is another from my little stack of English-language paperbacks published under the Seven Seas Books imprint in East Berlin.

The volunteers (1953; Seven Seas 1958) by Steve Nelson (USA, 1903-1993)


Steve Nelson was an industrial worker who became a union organiser and a prominent figure in the Communist Party of the USA, famous at the time this book appeared as one of the victims of the McCarthy-era witch-hunts. He described that experience in his book The 13th juror, and later also wrote an autobiography Steve Nelson: American radical.

The volunteers is a memoir of Nelson's time with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He describes the process of getting into Spain illegally from France and his service as political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, in action at Brunete and Belchite, amongst other places. The purely military part of the book gives quite a vivid description of what it must have been like actually to fight in the war — a lot of the more literary accounts are by people who didn't see any front-line service — and there are some touching portraits of friends who were killed in action. But he also still seems to be busy with his work as political commissar, so there is a lot of bitterness about the evil Trotskyites, anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and liberals who undermined the unity of the Republican side. Nelson's informal style, full of working-class American idioms of the time, reads a little oddly to start with, but you soon get used to it.

The book comes with a Foreword by Joseph North summarising the circumstances of Nelson's arrest and conviction in 1953 under trumped-up sedition charges — it's notable that when Seven Seas published this book in Eastern Europe in 1958, they conveniently forgot to update it to mention that the charges had been dropped in the meantime, after Nelson took the case to the Supreme Court, or that Nelson had been one of the many people who left the Party in 1956 after the Khrushchev speech and the Soviet intervention in Hungary.

lokakuu 6, 2020, 8:17am

Good to follow your return journey through A S Byatt's bibliography. Babel Tower sounds like great fun and one I am adding to my wish list. I have got The Children's Book coming up for a read soon and so I will look forward to your review.

lokakuu 6, 2020, 8:52am

>12 baswood: I’ve still got two novels and two short story collections to go before I get to The children’s book! In case you can’t wait, my original review from 2010 is here: — I didn’t say much at the time, because lots of other people had already posted detailed reviews. There’s lots of interesting stuff there about the Fabians and E. Nesbit.

Babel tower makes most sense if you’ve read the previous two Frederica novels, although you probably can enjoy it without that.

lokakuu 7, 2020, 10:10am

A warm-up for "Russians write revolutions", read after a little goading from certain RG members...

Russian thinkers (1978) by Isaiah Berlin (Russia, UK, 1909-1997)


A classic collection of Berlin's essays on nineteenth-century Russian writers, which has suffered a bit from being too much on student reading-lists: the current Penguin edition has expanded so far that the poor little text is almost completely swallowed up in notes and editorial material. But it is worth fighting your way in thought the thickets of forewords and glossaries to get to grips with Berlin's alarmingly concise summaries of what was important in Russian intellectual life, and how the currents of European thought and the concrete events of Russian history influenced the way it developed.

Berlin's big idea, of course, is his repugnance, developed out of his experience of the first half of the 20th century in Europe, for any idea of history or politics that is founded on aggregated utilitarian principles of a common good, or on some sort of promise of future good in exchange for present sacrifice. The primacy of the rights of the individual is always central for him, and that comes through in his choice of heroes: he approves of the social thinker Alexander Herzen and the critic Vissarion Belinsky, who were always ready to dismiss an abstract idea if they didn't like it, but doesn't have much time for dogmatic opportunists like Lenin and Bakunin. Similarly, in literature his preference is for Tolstoy and Turgenev, who let their human characters drive the stories, even if it comes at the expense of the theories they are trying to promote. Poor old Dostoyevsky doesn't even get an essay to himself, although Berlin does approve of the fact that he was arrested for reading out Belinsky's "Letter to Gogol".

I loved Berlin's self-confident, offhand put-downs of things he doesn't like — for instance when he compares the Russian reception of Turgenev's A sportsman's sketches to that in America of Uncle Tom's cabin "from which it differed principally in being a work of genius". He's a critic who bores down to the essentials with great precision, but also someone who doesn't mind telling us about the simple pleasure he takes in a text.

Slightly tough going, and written from a very clear political standpoint, but it makes for a useful overview of who was who: I'll probably come back to it when I've read more Russians.

(I read this in the Penguin edition as a Kobo e-book, which had all sorts of odd formatting errors, most bizarrely the way that all the acute accents in French quotations got turned into grave accents: "èmigrè" — do publishers never read the books they produce?)

lokakuu 7, 2020, 10:58am

And guess who's back...
A short-story collection I hadn't read before, and a short novel that was a re-read (I posted a review on a previous re-read in 2012, so this is at least the third time I've read it). Both with various familiar threads in Byatt's fiction, but also linked by a new interest in Ibsen and Peer Gynt:

Elementals : stories of fire and ice (1998) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )
The biographer's tale (2000) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


Elementals plays around with different aspects of "fire and ice", often also riffing off the idea of Peer Gynt's journey to Africa, especially in "Crocodile Tears" when a Norwegian on the run from a moral failure has a transformative experience in Nîmes, and in "Cold" when an ice-princess journeys to the desert with her fiery glass-blowing husband. "A Lamia in the Cévennes" brings in Keats in an unexpected way (and sent me back to read a poem I haven't looked at for many years) when a painter finds an unexpected sea-serpent in his swimming-pool. And there are some lovely miniatures, as well, especially the Velasquez story "Christ in the House of Jesus and Mary" and "Jael", where a very English film-director looks back on an incident in her early schooldays.

The biographer's tale would be a full-scale novel from anyone else, but by Byatt standards it feels more like an extended novella, with a first-person narrator and only a single plot line. It's great fun, in any case, obviously meant as a slightly tongue-in-cheek penance for the bad press she gave biographers and biography in Possession.

Postgraduate student Phineas G Nanson (*) decides in the middle of a dull seminar that what he cares for are solid facts, and that he doesn't want to become a post-structuralist critic after all. Captivated by an old-fashioned three volume biography of a Victorian polymath, he decides to switch his research topic to the author of the biography, Scholes Destry-Scholes. But this isn't as straightforward as he imagined: Scholes Destry-Scholes turns out to be a very elusive figure, whose traces in the world are teasing, fragmentary and contradictory in a way that he would be forced to call postmodern if he didn't know better. The trail leads him to Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen, as well as to the Swedish bee-taxonomist and part-time earth-goddess, Fulla, to Scholes Destry-Scholes's lovely niece Vera, and to a possibly-dubious travel agency called "Puck's Girdle". It's all very confusing, but oddly satisfying, and full of delightfully miscellaneous information about literature, biology and the way they relate — always a core topic for Byatt.

(*) Byatt only gives away how she arrived at this rather cryptographic name to those who read the acknowledgements section attentively!

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 7, 2020, 6:29pm

>11 thorold: "a lot of the more literary accounts are by people who didn't see any front-line service"

I highly recommend Another Hill, an "autobiographical" novel by Milton Wolff, who was the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Wolff lived into his 90s. Here's a good article about him from the SF Chronicle, published when Wolff died in 2008:

lokakuu 7, 2020, 11:55am

>16 rocketjk: Thanks, sounds interesting. Wolff seems to have taken over more or less at the point where Nelson got wounded and ends his account.

lokakuu 7, 2020, 5:12pm

>15 thorold: Just for fun, Keats's description of the Lamia in her serpent form. Possibly the first psychedelic snake in English literature:

She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr'd;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv'd, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch'd with miseries,
She seem'd, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon's mistress, or the demon's self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne's tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman's mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.

lokakuu 8, 2020, 9:00am

This turns out to be the ninth-oldest book on the TBR shelf, brought back in 2013 from a holiday in Norfolk (probably from the secondhand bookshop at a National Trust property, I would guess) — interesting to see that it's also got a stamp in the back from the Student Union secondhand bookshop at UEA, dated 1996. They sold it for 25p, seven years later I paid a pound!

I've read two other Rose Macaulay books — her last, most famous, work The towers of Trebizond, and her 1920 satire Potterism.

They were defeated (1932) by Rose Macaulay (UK, 1881-1958)


Set in Devon and Cambridge in 1640-1641, on the eve of the English Civil War, packed with poets, politics, and theological disputes, intensely language-based, with a subversive feminist agenda and scarcely a description of a costume or a piece of furniture anywhere in the book, this ought to be my sort of historical novel. And it very nearly was. I loved Macaulay's very precise ear for the patterns of 17th century English — both standard and in various shades of Devon dialect — and her ruthless elimination of 20th century language. Few historical novelists can keep that up so consistently for the length of a whole book. The central characters were promising too: two teenage girls, one a tomboy and the other a scholar; an eccentric sceptical physician; and the poet and clergyman Robert Herrick.

The trouble is, these people look as though they are being set up for an adventure story, but in fact they are only there to allow the author to comment on the ideas of 17th century England. They don't develop in the course of the story, despite listening — ad nauseam — to all sorts of clever people telling each other things they already know about current events. Not much happens, except on the news, and the characters continue much as they were, until the author gets tired of them and eliminates them arbitrarily.

With hindsight, some of what Macaulay is saying about 17th century England, with moderate Anglicans caught between the hardcore puritans on one side and papists on the other on the verge of a destructive conflict, must read onto the fascism and communism of thirties Europe. But a lot of it probably reflects her own somewhat complicated religious feelings as well.

A very interesting book, as history, and a very clever one technically, but I found it a disappointment as a novel. Obviously written as a by-product of Macaulay's Milton biography.


I posted about some of the unfamiliar words Macaulay uses here:

lokakuu 11, 2020, 4:20am

This one has only been on the TBR for about 18 months, but it's been sitting half-read for several weeks, so I thought it was time to finish it! I bought it after reading Inez and feeling I wanted to read something more Mexican by Fuentes. This is his most famous book, as Mexican as it gets:

La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; The death of Artemio Cruz) by Carlos Fuentes (Mexico, 1928-2012)


Cruzamos el río a caballo.

The 71-year-old Artemio Cruz is on his deathbed: we look back at his life through a series of flashbacks, in some kind of arbitrary non-chronological order (and ending with the moment of his birth), each preceded by a stream-of-consciousness reflection by the old man in the sick-room, vaguely aware of what is going on around him but unable to communicate with his family and staff.

Cruz started as a minor player in the Mexican Revolution, a junior army officer from the back of beyond. By the end of his life, he has risen by a mixture of betrayal, corruption and a talent for survival to control a business empire, several key newspapers, and most of the Mexican government. Fuentes uses his career as a foundation for reflecting on the nature of revolutions in general and the Mexican one in particular, the way they are started by people with real wrongs to right on behalf of their communities, but somehow always end up being taken over by people with clear personal ambition and the will to power. He points out what he sees as weaknesses in the structure of postcolonial Mexican society that make it particularly susceptible to being exploited by people like Cruz.

But this is also an extended meditation on mortality, the way our lives seem to centre on outliving other people, but death always turns up sooner or later (Fuentes was only in his forties when he wrote this!). And it's a love-song to Mexico's landscape, culture, ethnic diversity and languages — at the very centre of the text is a long prose-poem celebrating the "Mexican verb" chingar (also the subject of a famous essay by Octavio Paz).

Like most "new novels" of the period, it's not an easy read, and it's often deliberately confusing, mixing very precisely timed and dated sections with passages where we are unsure where or when we are or who is talking. But there's a lot of very exciting, captivating language there, and it's obviously a book that will repay reading two or three times.


I don't usually like books with bullet-holes in the covers, but in this case it seems to make sense!

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 11, 2020, 10:05am

...and if it's Sunday, it must be time for another Schiller play (not for much longer, though: only one-and-a-half to go after this one). And a slightly poignant subject, as it reminds me that, were it not for COVID, I'd have been off to Sicily next week. No multi-media this time — the operatic versions are all pretty obscure and none has lasted in the repertoire — but I did listen to Schumann's overture for the play, of course.

Die Braut von Messina oder Die feindlichen Brüder: ein Trauerspiel mit Chören (1803; The bride of Messina) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)


Written in the winter of 1802-1803 and first performed in Weimar in February 1803, this is a largely experimental work, and one of those cases where the experiment seems to demonstrate quite clearly that the hypothesis it was based on is invalid. The play comes with an essay in which Schiller deprecates the tendency for naturalism in drama and justifies reviving the Greek idea of a Chorus as a way of making drama more abstract and stylised, better able to achieve poetic authenticity because it isn't tied to the mechanical (and artificial) business of imitating real life on a stage.

The play is a simple story, stripped to the bare bones of narrative, and with only five speaking parts plus chorus. Unlike Schiller's other late plays, it isn't tied to a historical subject: the choice of Messina for the setting is simply a dodge to allow Schiller to mix ancient Greek and Christian motifs. Like The Robbers, it's about rivalry between brothers. Queen Isabella, who clearly isn't trained in narratology, has sent her infant daughter off to be hidden in a convent, in an attempt to circumvent a prophecy that the girl would be responsible for the deaths of her brothers. Now everyone is grown up, and both the brothers, independently, have fallen desperately in love after a chance meeting with an unknown young girl in a remote convent. We don't need telling how this is going to end!

Schiller doesn't quite stick to his theoretical principle of making the chorus stand outside the narrative and comment on the action: they are treated more like an opera chorus, split into two groups representing the armed followers of the two rival princes, and they do get hands-on with the action from time to time. In fact, in a lot of ways this play resembles the libretto of a Wagner opera. Wagner clearly took a lot of his ideas about the use of the chorus directly from Schiller, but with about 900% more alliteration in the verse.

Interesting, but I don't think the story is a good match to the format. The characters somehow come over more like stylised soap-opera figures than as the modern versions of Oedipus and Jocasta they are meant to be.


Coming soon:

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 13, 2020, 9:00am

I got out of the audiobook habit a bit over the summer — mostly from reluctance to get involved in the inevitable tangles between headphones, face-mask and glasses — and forgot that I had this one hanging around about 2/3 listened-to. Time to finish it!

Swimming in the dark (2020) by Tomasz Jędrowski (Poland, Germany, etc. 1985- ) audiobook read by Will M Watt


Well, this is a strange thing! It calls itself a historical novel, and technically that's what it is, since it's set before the author's birth in a time and place he didn't experience himself, and it's also separated from the setting by being written in English but set in a Polish-speaking environment. But apart from that, it's written without any 21st century hindsight that I could spot, as a kind of simple pastiche of an eighties gay novel. Even the style feels like a fairly accurate impersonation of an immature writer of the eighties who has recently been on an American creative writing course and has read far too much James Baldwin, Edmund White and Andrew Holleran. (None of which, as far as I'm aware, is true of the real Jędrowski.)

You could say this fills a gap, in that there aren't all that many first-hand accounts of growing up gay in communist-era Eastern Europe, so maybe a book like this could help us to imagine what that might have been like. But it turns out that what Jędrowski imagines it might have been like is almost exactly the way we would have imagined it too, i.e. Giovanni's room with extra sugar-beet and pierogi, and there is very little in the way of unexpected detail to take us into the specific experience of LGBT life behind the iron curtain.

A charming, sad, love story, if you don't mind things that are a little bit overwritten, but otherwise a somewhat unnecessary book.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 13, 2020, 9:51am

Back to A S Byatt and Frederica:

A whistling woman (2002) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


The fourth of the Frederica novels brings us to 1968-1969, and into a whole series of parallel discussions and debates that were going on in biology, psychology, theology, computer science, linguistics, sociology and philosophy ( least!) about what we mean by concepts like "mind" and "consciousness" and human identity. Frederica is at one of the focal points of this, in her new role as host of an Ideas programme on the Box; Vice-Chancellor Wijnnobel and his new University are at another, in a weird pairing with the radicals and hippies who have set up an Anti-University in a nearby field; and a third, most intense focus for all this intellectual energy is formed by a Manichaean religious cult that has grown out of the harmless Quaker-led forum, the Spirit's Tigers, which we met in the last book.

The irony, as Frederica notes, is that contrary to everything Dr Leavis taught her, the one thing that doesn't seem to be playing any important role at all in all this scientific-philosophical-religious upheaval is English literature. D H Lawrence is out, Freud and Jung and Chomsky are in. Frederica's own book, Laminations, has aroused interest only among literary journalists (who like having the photo of a TV celebrity to put over their columns), whilst Agatha's Tolkienesque fantasy story Flight North has been ignored by reviewers but turns into a phenomenal word-of-mouth success.

There's a huge amount to take in here, and it's thrown at us so fast that it's easy to get lost. There is still plenty of comedy along the way, but it's offset by our awareness that there are some very bad things going on, and vulnerable people are obviously going to get hurt, especially in the cult and among the student rebels. So it's not as much fun to read as Babel Tower, but still very worthwhile.


A pity about the Vintage cover: they used what should have been a very interesting early colour photograph by John Cimon Warburg ("The Dryad", ca. 1910), but somehow made it look like generic, meaningless airbrush art. The peacock covers on some other editions are much better.

Vintage even violates the first law of modern cover design by failing to put the text label where it will obscure the model's face...

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 16, 2020, 6:46am

A quick in-between read, to make a bit of space on the TBR — books from my last little encounter with ABE Books are starting to roll in. This is one I bought in August after baswood wrote about it in his thread. I hadn't heard of Shirley Jackson, perhaps because she's more known in the horror genre, but evidently I should have!

As Bas pointed out, this came out the same year as Catcher in the rye; it fits in with all those post-war adolescent rebel books (Nada, Bonjour tristesse, De avonden, etc.) — although Jackson was at least a generation older than most of those writers — and it also fits in nicely with a few "clever-young-woman-at-college" books I've been reading lately, like The bell-jar and The shadow of the sun. I've still got Dusty Answer on my shelf as well.

Hangsaman (1951) by Shirley Jackson (USA, 1916-1965)


This looks superficially like a standard teenage coming-of-age novel: 17-year-old Natalie goes off to college as the first step on her quest to become a writer and an autonomous human being, rather than a mere extension of her parents. The other girls are there for purely social reasons and don't like her, but she eventually hooks up with a couple of other outcasts: a bored young faculty-wife who drinks too much, and the rebellious Girl Tony, who flits in and out of other people's rooms in the dark and helps herself to what she needs.

But Jackson evidently doesn't like formulas: the book is determinedly eccentric in all kinds of ways. It's written in the third person, in a precise, elegant, but slightly mad literary style — rather as George Eliot might write after her third Martini. And where every coming-of-age novel pivots on a moment of sexual self-discovery, this novel is made to pivot on two "Malabar Caves"-type moments of we-don't-know-what. Natalie goes into the woods with a man in her parents garden, and she goes into the woods with Girl Tony near the abandoned amusement park. On neither occasion are we told what — if anything — happened, but she comes out a different person both times. Indeed, we're never quite allowed to be sure that Girl Tony exists outside Natalie's own mind.

Natalie is entirely clear-sighted about the subtle mismatches in the world around her: everyone is busy telling clever girls how much potential they have and what wonderful opportunities there are in front of them, but as far as the eye can see the only role-models are clever girls who have run into the sand, married too young to faculty members (or to Natalie's father) and living out their stupefyingly boring days in an alcoholic haze, serving cocktails at parties where their husbands flirt with the next generation of clever girls. The men are allowed to carry on in their Mr Bennet delusion that the world exists purely for their own entertainment, and never for a moment notice that they are tyrannising the families they love so dearly.

But then there are also mismatches in Natalie's own mind. Does she actually have any solid reason to suppose that she is Natalie Wade, she asks herself whenever she has to tell someone her name. Couldn't she just as well be someone else, or no-one at all?

A clever, witty, slightly puzzling book, beautifully written by someone who obviously knew exactly what she was doing with her typewriter at all times, and had a very clear ear for other people's language.


Not sure what Penguin are doing with these covers: the new design with the narrow white strips top and bottom just makes it look as though they can't afford to print all the way to the edge of the page. The photograph by Anka Zhuravleva is nice enough, if somewhat generic, but it's been spoilt by brutally cropping it down the middle of the face for no obvious reason.

lokakuu 16, 2020, 11:02pm

I'm pretty sure I read "The Lottery" in either high school or college--it was standard literature class fare. When I read it again as an adult it was much scarier.

lokakuu 17, 2020, 3:55pm

>24 thorold: Yes Shirley Jackson was a discovery for me. I might be tempted to read one of her more well known horror stories before the end of the year. Hangsaman was quite creepy and the atmosphere gets quite dark towards the end. Psychological horror stories are the ones that I can relate to and so Shirley Jackson is worth another read.

lokakuu 17, 2020, 4:02pm

>25 kac522:
I definitely read "the Lottery" in high school too (Vancouver, late 1970s), and yes, for me it was creepier when I reread it as an adult

lokakuu 17, 2020, 4:50pm

>24 thorold: ...rather as George Eliot might write after her third Martini. Great recommendation!

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 18, 2020, 5:59am

The introduction to the Penguin (by Francine Prose) talks about "The lottery" as well. Obviously another of those stories all American kids and no British ones get to read at school!

Apologies in advance, but it's Schiller time again. Be assured that this nuisance will soon cease, I've only got one unfinished play left after this (plus two volumes of lyrics and prose, should I choose to continue...).

Wilhelm Tell: Schauspiel (1804) by Friedrich Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805)
Guillaume Tell/Guglielmo Tell (1829) by Gioachino Rossini (Italy, 1792-1868)
William Tell told again (1904) by P G Wodehouse (UK, 1881-1975) & Philip Dadd (UK, 1880-1916)



Like many other medieval folk-heroes, the early-14th-century Swiss freedom-fighter William Tell turns out to have left little or no solid evidence to prove that he ever existed — the earliest written mentions of his name are about a century after his supposed lifetime, while many of the stories told about him have suspiciously close parallels to much older mythological sources. Nonetheless, he has long been an important symbol of Swiss national identity, and he achieved pan-European status as an icon of liberty around the time of the French Revolution.

Schiller half-jokingly claimed that he had started writing his play in 1803 to put an end to the persistent rumours that he was working on a play about William Tell — in practice the impetus seems to have come mostly from his wife Charlotte, who had a long-standing interest in Swiss culture, and from Goethe. Schiller himself never visited Switzerland, but one of the first things he did when he started work on the play was to order a large-scale map of the Vierwaldstättersee. The stage directions show clear traces of this geographical interest: we are told exactly which mountains should be visible in the background of each scene. For the details of the Tell legend, Schiller mostly followed Aegidius Tschudi's Chronicle, written in the late 16th century. The first performance was in Weimar in March 1804, and the play was published in October of that year.

With his historian's hat on, Schiller introduces a couple of interesting nuances into the story. One aspect of this is a careful attempt to make a distinction between legitimate rebellion against a (local) ruler who oversteps his constitutional authority and wrongful attempts to usurp the divinely appointed authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. Throughout the play, the rebels make it clear that they are only seeking to restore their constitutional rights, and in the penultimate scene Tell turns away the man who has come to him for help after assassinating the Emperor Albrecht. Obviously, that is meant to be relevant to the situation in Germany at the time of writing, and also to the post-1789/post-1776 world more generally. Another nuance is the way he keeps Tell apart from the political leaders of the rebellion: he is a man of action whose personal bravery is an inspiration for others, a decent ordinary man pushed beyond the limits of toleration by an arrogant ruler, but he doesn't make speeches or take part in the Oath on the Rütli, contrary to most Swiss versions of the story.

The play is Schiller's only full-length drama not framed as a tragedy: in the title it is simply "Schauspiel" (a play). Where The bride of Messina only had five named characters, it has about forty. As well as the usual serious debates between political leaders, there are a number of big, set-piece crowd scenes with lots of different things going on at once, much as in Wallenstein's Camp. Especially interesting is the scene (III:iii) where Gessler's men-at-arms, Friesshardt and Leuthold, arrest Tell and are set upon by an angry crowd — Schiller showing us how fragile authority is when it is only based on force — and the gratuitously complex scene in the hollow way in Act IV, when Tell is setting up to assassinate Gessler and all sorts of passers-by (including a complete wedding party) threaten to get in the way.

Of the Schiller plays I've read, this is the one that I can most easily imagine working well on a stage, although it would be an expensive and complex one to produce, and of course it comes with its own historical baggage because of the way it has been adopted as a kind of nationalist ritual by the Swiss. (Hitler also loved it at one point, but is said to have lost interest somewhat when he realised people were identifying him with Gessler...)


The Overture to Rossini's last opera is one of the most over-familiar works in the pop-classics repertoire, to such an extent that it is almost impossible to perform it without irony any more in a serious concert. The Act I ballet music is also very often heard as a concert piece. But full performances of the opera are relatively rare. This seems to be partly because it is ridiculously long, complex to stage (boats, storms, crossbow-shooting...) and has a notoriously demanding tenor part, and partly because the music is so much better than the creaky and patched-together narrative. Schiller devotes a lot of time to sophisticated political discussions that don't translate easily into music, and overlooked the need for a love interest almost entirely. The opera corrects this rather brutally: Schiller's intellectual lovers Rudenz and Berta, who are rather minor characters, are moved to the centre of the story (becoming Arnoldo and Matilda, for some reason) and spend far too much time passionately singing each other's names. Tell also becomes a more straightforward, Mazzini-style political rebel, waving his arms about and making speeches about libertà.

I watched a DVD of the 1988 La Scala production of the Italian version, conducted by Riccardo Muti. It was fun, there were some very good Rossini tunes in it, but it made absolutely no sense dramatically. Possibly this was more the fault of the production than of Rossini: in any case, between them they slaughtered the coherence of the play. The ballets in Act I and Act III seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with the action before and after them — in Act III the ballet, about 25 minutes of peasant dances, comes in between Gessler's asserting his authority (done in this production as a kind of Nuremberg rally) and Tell's arrest, a very bizarre effect. Moreover, for some reason the costumes were late-19th-century and the set was made to look like the interior of a Calvinist church. Very odd for a story set several centuries before the reformation in cantons that are still predominantly Catholic to this day...


By 1904, the young P.G. Wodehouse was doing relatively well as a journalist and as an author of public-school stories for boys' magazines, but he was still far from established and was happy to take on anything that promised to pay well. His sole children's book, William Tell told again, clearly falls into this category. It was a kind of Pickwick Papers project: the publisher had already commissioned the illustrations from Kate Greenaway's nephew, Philip Dadd, some years before, but they needed a text go with them, and they obviously wanted to get the book out quickly to benefit from interest in the subject due to the centenary of the Schiller play.

Wodehouse obliged with a short, flippant retelling of the story cribbed directly from Schiller (presumably a translation, as he didn't speak German). The only entirely original part is the opening, where he condenses everything that takes up Schiller's Acts I and II into a scene where a delegation of concerned citizens visit Gessler to ask him to reduce their tax burden: he sends them packing with a comically trivial bit of torture. We might have our doubts about whether comic torture belongs in a children's book, but then again, the whole story is "don't try this at home" territory. At least two of Wodehouse's later adult books have scenes where small boys get into trouble for attempting to re-enact Tell's apple shot (in one case the Empress is asked to play the part of Tell jr.).

Where Wodehouse really enjoys himself is the scene with the two men-at-arms, which is turned into something like a London crowd jostling a couple of nervous policemen, with some of Schiller's best lines re-used in clever ways. He doesn't bother with the hollow way scene, but borrows Rossini's ending instead, having Tell shoot Gessler in the boat, directly after his leap ashore. As the pictures were done first, it's not always clear who was responsible for the line the narrative takes, of course: Dadd probably had more to do with it than Wodehouse.

Most Wodehouse biographers are rather snooty about this book, if they mention it at all (David Jasen: "If nothing else the book must have been a sore disappointment to boys who bought it in expectation of another familiar school story."). That's probably a bit unfair, and might be largely because it was very difficult to get hold of before it was digitised by Project Gutenberg. It's not great literature, but it's no worse than all the other things Wodehouse was doing to earn money at the time, and it's conscientiously executed with quite a few good jokes.

lokakuu 18, 2020, 1:10pm

>29 thorold:

This whole post was super interesting.

Schiller himself never visited Switzerland, but one of the first things he did when he started work on the play was to order a large-scale map of the Vierwaldstättersee. The stage directions show clear traces of this geographical interest: we are told exactly which mountains should be visible in the background of each scene.

I find that very cool. Over the last few years I've cruised down the Vierwaldstattersee (or Lake Lucerne, as we say in English) and looked at thousands of pictures of it, and the lake views are incredibly distinctive. Without having been there, I'm impressed he knew that, and I'm impressed he made a point of getting it so right. That's the sort of detail that I appreciate in any work of art.

lokakuu 18, 2020, 3:32pm

>30 Nickelini: Thanks!

Yes, he wouldn’t have seen it on TV. I expect he had to look at a lot of watercolours whenever Goethe came back from his holidays, though, that might have given him some ideas about Swiss scenery. He had a strong idea that he needed to make this story as specific and localised as possible, and it seems to work.

I did check out the stage directions for Act I, sc.i on the map and couldn’t figure them out until I did some Googling and worked out that the mountains behind Schwyz the map calls Mythen used to be known as Haken. With that, it makes complete sense.

lokakuu 18, 2020, 9:54pm

I did not know that Mythen used to be called Haken. Last summer my daughter climbed up Grosser Mythen with her co-workers and boyfriend and slept overnight so they could watch the sunrise. She snap chatted me the whole time so I felt like I was almost there. It's very steep, but they hauled up a BBQ and drinks, and in the morning there was someone selling coffee. If you look at pics of the top online, there isn't a lot of space up there -- it truly is a mountain peak. Anyway, because I have my own photos of the mountain and because of following my daughter's exploits, I have a soft spot in my heart for that mountain, and all the mountains around Lake Lucerene in general.

lokakuu 19, 2020, 6:52am

>32 Nickelini: It's a small world! But that sounds like a very Swiss thing to do. I had a look at the Wikipedia page for the Mythen — that confirms that Goethe had been there (to the pass, not the summit) twice and shown Schiller his pictures. They clearly are mountains that would look good on a backdrop.

Apparently there's a club for people who've climbed them more than a hundred times within one year, the record holder having something like 5000 ascents to his credit.

I haven't been in that part of Switzerland much since a long time ago (the last couple of times, which aren't all that recent either, it's been the Engadin), but I agree that it is very lovely. And full of cultural importance for Swiss people: I remember how busy everything got with day-trippers on Sundays.

Back to the Italian book you tempted me into:

Giulia 1300 e altri miracoli (2011; Alfa Romeo 1300 and other miracles) by Fabio Bartolomei (Italy, 1967- )


This is a fairly lightweight, blokey feel-good novel, obviously written with one eye on its potential as a film script (since realised). In the aftermath of the financial crisis, no-hopers Fausto, Claudio and Diego decide to put their meagre savings together to follow the Italian dream of moving to the country and opening an agriturismo (farmhouse B&B). They hardly know each other, they don't have much in common apart from a desire to get away from their current lives, and none of them has any remotely relevant skills or experience. So we know it's going to be a disaster of sit-com proportions...

With good luck and the help of some unexpected friends — including a communist veteran, an elderly local mafioso, and some African farm-workers — they manage to make a go of their shaky business, and while they are about it learn about the values of self-reliance, hard work, organic vegetables and elective families. And even that there can — sometimes — be more to relationships than sex. But they still have to deal with the problem of the old car buried under the lawn whose radio keeps on playing classical music at unexpected moments.

Alternately trivial and sanctimonious, and written from a rather tediously heterosexual-male perspective, but a nice idea, and with some good comic scenes. Probably better as a film than as a novel, but quite entertaining anyway.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 21, 2020, 7:55am

I'm running out of space on the TBR shelf: there's rather more coming in than going out at the moment, with all the Byatt re-reads and the Schiller. That Italian ebook didn't help either. To create a little breathing space, here's one I bought in May last year:

Rue des voleurs (2012; Street of Thieves) by Mathias Énard‬ (France, 1972- )


Mathias Énard is a French novelist who teaches (taught?) Arabic and Persian literature at the university of Barcelona. I've read two of his other novels, Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants, and the 2015 Goncourt winner Boussole. The three are all in some way about the confrontation between European and Islamic culture, but wildly different in form and style. He's also known for the one-sentence novel Zone, which I haven't read yet.

The narrator of Rue des Voleurs, Lakhdar, is a young Moroccan, disowned by his parents and trying to make his own way in the world, who finds himself on the fringes of the Arab Spring and the anti-austerity protests of the Spanish Indignados Movement. By accident of what he could buy cheaply in Tangier, he has acquired a passion for old French Polars, by preference Série noire titles by Manchette or Izzo. But he's also taught himself to appreciate Classical Arabic prose and poetry. In an ideal world, he would become one of the author's students when he gets to Barcelona; as it is, with capitalism apparently crumbling around him and Islam going mad, he finds himself living as an illegal migrant in the aptly-named Carrer Robadors, between drug-dealers and prostitutes.

Énard has fun with a complicated web of allusions to French, Spanish and American crime-stories, Ibn Battuta, Casanova, the Koran, the poems of Nizar Qabbani, the novels of Mohamed Choukri, and a great deal more — the Algeciras section seems to have some strong Joseph Conrad vibes, for instance. Énard may have a rather dark vision of the world we are living in, and it's clear from the start that it's going to end in disaster of some sort, but Lakhdar's ironic detective-story voice is always a joy to listen to, so it can't really be called a depressing book. Highly recommended.

ETA: Interesting design choice by Actes Sud: a very narrow book for a rather wide novelist...

lokakuu 21, 2020, 5:57am

I’ve got out of the habit of posting about what I’m watching, but there have been a few good things lately, so a quick round-up:

Pedro Almodóvar — MUBI has been having a season of his films, and that also made me dig out the ones I’ve got on DVD, so I’ve watched about ten over the last three weeks or so, roughly half his oeuvre. Some really brilliant ones like Volver and Todo sobre mi madre, some I hated, like La piel que habito, but all worth watching, if only for the astonishing use of colour and the clever opening titles. I’m probably going to have to chase up some of the ones I haven’t seen.

The secret history of writing — A recent BBC Four series, written by David Sington and presented by Lydia Wilson that several people urged me to watch. I wasn’t expecting much, because this is “stuff we all know”, but was pleasantly surprised: they managed to find quite a few interesting little corners of the subject that were new to me. And some clever graphics designed by calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander, who is famous for his work with Peter Greenaway.

The romantics and us — another recent BBC series, Simon Schama enjoying himself on his home turf. I’ve only seen the first two — so far the “the romantics” part works better than the “and us”, which involves slightly embarrassing token appearances by graffiti artists, hip-hop poets and David Attenborough to say how much the romantics influence their work. But very slick production values, decent actors to give readings, and Schama mostly saying reasonably intelligent things.

lokakuu 22, 2020, 9:06am

This is one of those random, out of context books that lands on the TBR for no good reason and sticks there for longer than it should. In this case since August 2013. I'm pretty sure that it was passed on to me by a colleague who was clearing his office in preparation for retirement, but I don't remember what explanation — if any — he gave for having it in his office or for not wanting it any more. Neither of us had jobs that would ever have necessitated the use of modernist poetry, Flemish or otherwise...

Verzameld werk. Poëzie II: Bezette Stad; Nagelaten Gedichten (1965) by Paul Van Ostaijen (Belgium, 1896-1928)


Paul Van Ostaijen was at the centre of a group of very young avant-garde writers and artists in Antwerp during the First World War. After the war he went into exile in Berlin for a few years to escape prosecution for his activities in far-left Flemish nationalist politics. There he came into contact with the full range of radical artistic movements of the time, in particular expressionism, dadaism and cubism. He returned to Belgium in 1921, ran an art gallery in Brussels for a while, and died of TB at the age of 32.

The poems in Bezette stad (originally published in 1921; English translation Occupied City, 2016) are in a form he called "typographic expressionism" in which the size and shape of the letters, as well as things like the angle of the lines on the page and the relation between text and white-space, are used as part of the poetic structure. One or two poems (like "Zeppelin") also use Apollinaire-style illustrative typography. Each main poem has a lino-cut by Van Ostaijen's friend Oscar Jespers as title page. Jespers also did a lot of the typography and some custom woodblock engravings for the poems themselves.

As the title implies, the poems are mostly concerned with Antwerp during the war: shells, refugees, Zeppelins, soldiers lining up outside a brothel, notices and advertisements in Dutch, French and German, an imitation circus poster advertising a performance by the famous knockabout trio "Godsdienst Vorst & Staat" (church, king and state), representations of music, an ode to the Danish silent film star Asta Nielsen, a view of the empty harbour, visions of death and destruction, etc. The effect is very contrapuntal, a bit like the multiple voices in T S Eliot's "The Waste land", but much louder and brasher because of the way it's all emphasised by the typography. And because Van Ostaijen was about a million times more subversive than Eliot.

Nagelaten Gedichten brings together the poems still uncollected at Van Ostaijen's death, mostly from 1920 or later. These are a bit more conventional in visual form, but still heavily influenced by expressionism. Things like flowers and musical instruments keep popping up at unexpected moments, there are sections of free association based purely on sounds, plenty of found phrases (often from other languages), and quite a number of the poems are — or claim to be — in dance forms. Some very interesting, some very funny, many simply puzzling...

Page from the poem "Music Hall" in Bezette stad (Wikipedia):

lokakuu 23, 2020, 12:30pm

Lots of good stuff here, as always!

I completely agree with Dan about The Interrogation. I read at least half a dozen books by Le Clézio after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his début novel was the one I liked the least. My favorites are Desert, Onitsha, and The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts, as I gave 4-1/2 stars to each book, and I gave 4 stars to The African and The Prospector.

I've only read one book by A.S. Byatt, the Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Children's Book, which I absolutely loved.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 24, 2020, 5:03am

>37 kidzdoc: Thanks, Darryl!

I've just received a copy of The prospector in French, I'll probably read that soon.
I've got one more Byatt short story collection to go before I get to a re-read of The children's book, I think. If you liked that, you'll probably like her other novels as well: she does that interdisciplinary/historical novel-of-ideas thing with a lovely light touch.

Meanwhile, clearing space on the TBR shelf continues! Another from my pile of East German Seven Seas paperbacks, like >11 thorold: it's from their first batch of titles, in 1958:

Maggie : a girl of the streets, and other stories (1958) edited by Karl Heinz Wirzberger (DDR, 1925-1976)


(Wikipedia photo of Wirzberger with actress Inge Keller in 1969)

Karl Heinz Wirzberger was professor of American literature at the Humboldt University in East Berlin, later Rektor (president) of the university and a fairly prominent member of the DDR political establishment.

This collection is clearly intended as an introductory reader in 19th century American literature for East German students, with a selection of ten stories by prominent writers from Washington Irving at the beginning of the century to Stephen Crane at its end. All are male, all apart from Charles Waddell Chesnutt are white. As a postscript to the collection, there's a short essay by Wirzberger giving a bit of background to the writers and the context of the stories.

There's an unstated but fairly obvious theme of social criticism throughout: Irving's "Philip of Pokanoket" exposes the genocide of the early settlers against native Americans, whilst Hawthorne's "The gentle boy" reminds us of the Puritan determination to exterminate all religious minorities other than themselves. Poe's "Hop-frog" — one of two stories in the collection I already knew — is not specific to American society, but it's a nice grotesque revenge-of-the-underdog tale. Herman Melville compares a fashionable New York church unfavourably to a London theatre in "The two temples", Bret Harte paints a sympathetic portrait of a social outcast in "Miggles", and Mark Twain demolishes small-town hypocrisy in "The man who corrupted Hadleyburg".

David Crockett's "Useful coonskin" is there as an example of the frontier tall-story, but it also conveniently happens to be poking fun at the American electoral process. Hamlin Garland's "The return of a private" looks at the effect of the Civil War on ordinary lives in the North, whilst Chesnutt's "Goophered grapevine" slips in a few hard-hitting truths about slavery and post-war reconstruction under the guise of a comic tale about the uses of superstition.

Crane's short novella "Maggie: a girl of the streets" (1893) is obviously meant to be the jewel of the collection, but it turned out to be the one I liked least. Crane's intentions are good, of course: he wants to give us an American L'Assommoir, rubbing our noses in the hopelessness of poverty and the vicious circles of alcohol, violence, and exploitation that keep people from improving their lives, the injustice of judging people for things they have no choice in themselves. But he never quite manages to show the kind of empathy with his characters that someone like Zola can achieve — he always seems to be standing on our side of the camera, commenting on his characters from a respectable, middle-class viewpoint, to the extent that the story often seems to be sliding off into an exemplary tract ("a girl of the streets", not "the individual person in this story").

Because of the way fashions in literature have changed over the years, Crane's use of dialect and his phonetic representations of drunken speech, meant to make the story more immediate and shocking to the reader, also seem to us to have the opposite effect, increasing the narrator's patronising distance from the characters and giving the impression that we are meant to think of them as people too stupid to speak proper English. And on top of that, we have the usual silly American fastidiousness about mentioning anything to do with sex, which makes Maggie's downfall, in the whitespace between two paragraphs, almost unintelligible.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 25, 2020, 3:46am

Not a proper review, but a footnote to my Schiller saga:

Yesterday I read the unfinished tragedy Demetrius, which Schiller was working on at the time of his death in 1805. It is based on the story of the Russian pretender "False Dmitry I", the first and most successful of three people who claimed to be Ivan the Terrible's son, generally believed to have died accidentally (in Romanov-inspired versions, to have been murdered by Boris Godunov) as a child in 1591. Schiller had completed most of Act I, a spectacular crowd-scene in which Dmitry appeals to the Polish Diet and King for their support, and we see that he's being manipulated by his Polish fiancée Marina and her family. There are also several scenes from Act II, where we see peasants being caught up in the rising on Dmitry's side, and the focus moves to Ivan's widow Marfa, approached by messengers from Boris Godunov asking her to disown the pretender, something she refuses to do until she's seen him. From the surviving sketches, it looks as though Schiller's idea was to show Dmitry as the well-meaning dupe of the people around him, who finally comes to realise that he isn't the real son of Ivan at all.

(Fun too to see that, even at this early stage, Schiller has already made an important change to the historical facts. Reasoning that the existence of a stabbed corpse is a major obstacle to the plausibility of Dmitry's survival, he has made the child die in a fire instead.)

It's interesting that Schiller chose this subject at a time when there wasn't much general interest in Russian history. He did his research mostly in German-language chronicles. The first major popular history of Russia, by Nikolai Karamzin, only appeared in 1818, and was the source for the great nineteenth-century flowering of interest in the "Time of Troubles". It directly inspired Pushkin's Boris Godunov (1831), on which Mussorgsky's opera (1873) was based.

I watched a video of the 2012 Mariinsky production of Boris Godunov, directed by Graham Vick and conducted by Valery Gergiev, which restores the original 1869 version, deemed unperformable at the time, mostly because Mussorgsky omitted to write in any important female parts. In the later versions there is an additional Act III, set in Poland, and a major role for Dmitry's wife, Marina Mniszech. When I've seen the opera on stage (mostly in pre-supertitle days) it's struck me as mostly about spectacle and big Russian noises; in this scaled-down modern-dress version it's obvious that it's much more an intensive psychological study of the character of Boris, and that most of the action, even when it's physically away from him, is effectively happening inside Boris's head as he comes to terms with the consequences of his crime, which eventually destroy him.

lokakuu 26, 2020, 9:54am

Next in my A S Byatt read-through, this is a short story collection I hadn't read before:

Little black book of stories (2003) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


Another one that does what it says on the tin: a collection of five fairly dark tales, where Byatt uses the extra freedom of short form to be a little bit more experimental and less tied to realism than in her novels.

"The Thing in the forest" brings a grisly fairy-tale motif into an otherwise realist story about two women who met as little girls evacuated from London during the war. The Thing is memorably horrific, but the two women's strategies for dealing with the memory of it are perhaps a bit too flip. "Body art" — originally written for a Wellcome Trust exhibition — is about a gynaecologist who rather unwisely lets a young artist loose in a collection of historic medical artefacts.

My favourite in the collection was "A stone woman", a kind of mineral counterpart to Margaret Atwood's Edible Woman: a woman metamorphoses into rock in a glorious riot of geological and mineralogical terminology and Icelandic scenery. "Raw material" is a sardonic look at the Creative Writing business: an evening-class teacher tries to persuade his students to move away from melodrama and writing-as-therapy. Naturally, he finds that the one student in his group who is not tone-deaf to language, who repeatedly produces modest little sketches of the greatest elegance and beauty, is the one with the most melodramatic life of all. The last piece, "The pink ribbon", brings together dementia, Teletubbies, the Aeneid and the London Blitz in ways that were touching but didn't quite convince me in the end: I think there was just a bit too much going on.

lokakuu 26, 2020, 10:15am

And another short-story collection. We read a couple of stories from this book for our last Book-Club meeting, and I realised that I remembered very little from last time I read it, which must have been twenty years ago, so time to re-read the whole thing:

Cross Channel (1996) by Julian Barnes (UK, 1946- )


Barnes is known for having one foot in England and the other in France; in this collection he exploits that by giving all the ten stories a common "British in France" theme, from "Dragons" where 17th century Irish mercenaries are intimidating French Protestants, to "Tunnel", set on a Eurostar train from St Pancras to Paris some twenty years in the future (the Channel Tunnel was still a novelty in 1996; the link to St Pancras didn't come into use until 2007). Along the way we meet eighteenth-century Grand Tourists, Victorian railway navvies on the fringes of Mme Bovary, a lesbian couple running a Médoc vineyard in the 1890s, a Crazy Horse girl and her Tour de France cyclist boyfriend, and the sister of a Tommy buried in a Great War cemetery. And there are little brushes with the Surrealists and OULIPO, and with the difficulties of getting a good BBC radio signal in northern France.

All with the usual Barnesian twinkle of the eye and subtle little twist on the last page: great fun, and lots of atmosphere.

lokakuu 27, 2020, 1:32pm

I lost your thread when you set up a new one - my star didn't carry over. Possibly a result of the new facelift. Anyway, have enjoyed catching up.

Julian Barnes left me a bit cold with A Sense of an Ending. I've avoided him ever since - should I be persuaded otherwise?

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 27, 2020, 5:34pm

>42 AlisonY:

Sorry, I did a manual continuation, I don’t think I had enough posts in the previous thread for an automatic one.

Not sure about Barnes, I lost touch with him rather. Re-reading that one makes me think i ought to chase him up a bit. I enjoyed his early stuff, and I vaguely remember England, England being quite fun, but I didn’t manage to get very interested in Arthur & George. I haven’t read any of the last few.

Muokkaaja: lokakuu 27, 2020, 6:07pm

I finished listening to all four of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet today. I’m not going to post new reviews, as I posted about them all first time round, which wasn’t so long ago, but I’m glad I made the effort to go give them a second go. There were a lot of things I missed first time through: the themes and characters are much more densely interwoven than I originally thought. It’s really worth reading them (or listening to them) in rapid succession Rather than a year apart as we had to originally. It’s also interesting to speculate about how much of the interconnection was planned from the start and how much woven in as a reaction to current events.

Smith’s very rhetorical writing works well on audio, although she gives her narrators a hard time with passages of text in German, French, Gaelic and probably other languages as well, plus characters of all conceivable ages and accents (Summer, for instance, has speaking parts for a toddler and a 104-year old, as well as a couple of teens, a Vietnamese man, and various French and Germans).

I’m still trying to work out what I think about Smith’s way of mixing realist gloom-and-doom about the world we live in and what we are all doing to it — and to each other — with an almost romantic message of redemption through the transformative powers of art and love and the will-to-resist. These are some of the most pessimistic books I’ve read in the last decades, and at the same time some of the most optimistic, in a different way.

I have a strong feeling that a third reading might be on the cards, but probably not immediately!

lokakuu 30, 2020, 11:02pm

>42 AlisonY:, >43 thorold: I didn't like the ending of The Sense of an Ending, but I enjoyed the book up to that point.
However, I really enjoyed The Noise of Time, which is supposed to be vaguely based on Dmitri Shostakovich. I haven't read any of his other books.

lokakuu 31, 2020, 4:43am

>44 thorold: I only read Autumn, but I did find it quite gloomy and gritty. Melancholy I don't mind in a book, but gloominess I struggle with. Perhaps it was too close to the bone for me in terms of the reality of the world we're living in. I read to escape that.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 2, 2020, 6:39am

>45 kac522: I want to read The noise of time at some point, but I've been putting it off until I've read a Shostakovich biography...

>46 AlisonY: Fair enough! It isn't unremittingly gloomy, but I can understand why you might not want to read it. The tone does get a little bit lighter in the later books. Most people seem to like Winter best of the four.

This came up in my audio recommendations after listening to the Ali Smith books: I should probably have put it aside for a while as likely to be too similar in subject:

Crudo (2018) by Olivia Laing (UK, 1977- ) Audiobook, read by the author


A short novel about a writer, Kathy, who in the summer of 2017 discovers, for the first time in her life, that she wants to give up her independent existence and get married. Meanwhile her phone is constantly telling her horror stories about Trump, North Korea, Brexit, terrorists, Grenfell Tower, seas of plastic, mass extinctions, drowning migrants, and all the rest of the nasty things we've forgotten about in the intervening three years.

I thought at first that this was going to be a bitter, satirical novel about smug, overprivileged people in the London/New York arts world who eat in expensive restaurants, buy designer clothes, and shuttle back and forth across the Atlantic to write glossy reviews of glossy openings, whilst agonising pointlessly about the state of the world. But after a few chapters I wasn't so sure: all the detailed descriptions of what the characters eat and drink (and later vomit), the clothes they try on and either buy or don't buy, the designer hotels in Tuscany, the furniture and pictures in their restored Notting Hill houses — we seem to be told about it all with a conviction that these things actually matter as much as, or perhaps more than, the offstage drama of world history.

This is obviously meant as a roman-à-clef about the author's own marriage, in which all the first-name walk-on characters are friends who will be flattered or amused by their appearance in the novel, and it also seems to be setting up some kind of symbolic link between the central character and the deceased writer Kathy Acker. Since I don't know any of these people, all that was rather lost on me.

Clever and lively descriptive writing, but I didn't really see the point, if there is one.

marraskuu 2, 2020, 7:21am

And one for the CR Russian revolution thread:

Natasha's dance : a cultural history of Russia (2002) by Orlando Figes (UK, 1959- )


Figes takes us through about two centuries of literature, theatre, music and visual arts in Russia in the space of a little less than 600 pages, starting more or less with Pushkin's generation and ending with that of Nabokov and Shostakovich. That means we don't get very much about any one topic, and a lot of potentially interesting things get left out (e.g. Tchaikovsky, who barely gets more than a footnote). But we do end up with a very handy overview of who the main players were, and why they matter, and there is a generous bibliography to get us started with further reading.

There are some rather TV-like narrative tricks used to make the book more "inviting", such as picking a particular person or house as a kind of viewpoint character in each chapter — in particular, the Sheremetev Palace ("Fountain House") in St Petersburg, where Akhmatova had an apartment for a long time, and which allows Figes to establish a narrative bridge between the late 18th century and the Stalin-period. Fortunately, he doesn't invest too much in this fashionable silliness (as far as I know, the book never did result in a commission for a TV series), it's mostly just confined to a few pages at the start and end of each section, and only detracts a little from the interest of the book.

Figes seems to be equally comfortable talking about literature and music, which is unusual, but obviously very important for a book like this. On the musical side, he is especially interested in Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and he has useful, if not necessarily very original, things to say about all of them. It was interesting to see him dismantling a lot of the usual notions about traditional sources for Russian music: most of the folk tradition (especially outside European Russia) seems to have been invented retrospectively by practitioners of art music. In literature most of the usual suspects get a fair crack of the whip — Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov in the 19th century; Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Nabokov in the 20th. Others (Gorky, Pasternak, Bunin, etc.) get a quick burst of the spotlight from time to time but aren't discussed in detail.

There's quite a detailed discussion of the Moscow Arts Theatre, of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes and of the early days of Soviet cinema (Vertov and Eisenstein), but not very much else about performing arts: even Chekhov's plays are passed over fairly swiftly. Painting and sculpture also get less space than you might expect.

A very useful, accessible introduction, but — inevitably for a book with such a wide scope — you're likely to find it rather thin on anything you already know something about.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 4, 2020, 8:48am

Another short, recent audiobook:

Here we are (2020) by Graham Swift (UK, 1949- ) Audiobook, read by Phil Davis


Summer, 1959, and three variety performers — the magician Ronnie, his spangled and plumed assistant Evie, and the song-and-dance man Jack — are doing a summer season in Brighton's end of the pier show. Ronnie and Evie are engaged, but we learn already in the opening pages that Evie has subsequently married Jack. A banal enough basis for a story, but Swift makes the most of it, delving into the backgrounds of his three characters from a vantage point fifty years on, to show us how they got to this point. He explores ideas about magic and illusion, about the different identities we put on when we go on stage — and, by implication, the performances we put on in the real world as well.

There's a lot of nice backstage atmosphere — at times it almost feels like a postwar take on Priestley's Good Companions — and a lot about the experience of wartime childhood and evacuation, the way some evacuee children found happier homes with the families that took them in than they ever had with their real parents. (I've come across two or three cases like that myself: it certainly did happen.)

Enjoyable and well-written, but not exactly challenging, even with the ingeniously postmodern (perhaps even magic-realist?) twist in the ending.


The parrot on the cover is nice, but there's something about that author photo that makes it look as though he should be holding up a slate with his prison number on it...

marraskuu 5, 2020, 5:41am

>5 dchaikin: >37 kidzdoc: (etc.) Time for a second go at Le Clézio. The English translation of this was part of the parcel I got from another LT member a while ago, but I didn't see any point in reading a French book in English, so I looked around for a copy of the original, and it turned up a couple of weeks ago:

Le chercheur d'or (1985; The prospector) by J M G Le Clézio (France, 1940- )


Loosely based on Le Clézio's grandfather, the narrator of this novel, Alexis, grows up on a cane plantation in Mauritius in the 1890s. After the family fortunes are destroyed by a hurricane, Alexis follows his father's unrealised dream of searching for pirate treasure on Rodrigues island. Naturally enough, it doesn't turn out to be a simple matter of yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, the treasure resolves itself into something more complicated and symbolic, and along the way Alexis has to confront the evils of colonialism, the horrors of the First World War, and a curiously innocent relationship with a (possibly imaginary) young woman, Ouma.

More than anything else, this seems to be a book in which the narrator's experience of the natural world around him — the tropical landscape of Mauritius and Rodrigues, the Indian Ocean, the night sky, even the shell-blasted mud of Flanders — is forever taking over from any merely human interactions and pushing them into the background. It's all very beautiful, you can really lose yourself in the descriptive passages, but on stepping back a little you do have to keep wondering about the selfishness of this man who can lose himself in contemplation of rocks, trees and stars and forget all about his sister, mother and girlfriend for dozens of pages at a time.

marraskuu 5, 2020, 6:27am

When I went to look for something to read next after Le Clézio, I noticed this, which was part of the first batch of Seven Seas books I got, earlier this year. As I've said elsewhere, the supernatural isn't a particular interest of mine, but I thought it would be fun to put this aside until October and make it a Halloween read, all the same. Oops! — I forgot all about it and overshot slightly!

The American Kay Pankey succeeded Stefan Heym's first wife, Gertrude, as editor of the Seven Seas Books series. She was married to African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey. The couple went into exile in East Germany after persecution by the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the fifties. She had previously worked for UNESCO in Paris.

Spooks in your cupboard : a collection of ghost stories by nineteenth century British authors (1963) edited by Kay Pankey (US, DDR, - )


This is a collection of ten nineteenth-century short stories on supernatural themes by more or less well-known British writers, published as a follow-up to a similar collection of American stories. Setting the cut-off date at 1900 excludes a lot of the most famous writers of ghost stories, since M R James, H P Lovecraft, and the rest mainly came to prominence in the first decade of the 20th century. Arthur Machen didn't make the cut either, even though some of his best-known stories are from the 90s: maybe the copyright owners were uncooperative. Another problem Pankey acknowledges in her introduction is that there wasn't the same magazine short-story tradition in pre-1900 Britain that there was in the US, so a lot of writers are excluded simply because their stories would have been too long for the format.

So what do we get? The big stars are Dickens's famous story "The Signal-Man" and Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost", both of which still stand up well, even when you've read them many times before. Another piece in the same subversively comic spirit as the Wilde story, but less familiar, is Conan Doyle's "The Great Keinplatz Experiment". Unfortunately this clashes awkwardly with H G Wells's "The story of the late Mr Elvesham", a slightly clumsy attempt at a serious version of the same kind of identity-switching plot.

Walter Scott's "Wandering Willie's Tale" (an interpolated story from the novel Redgauntlet) is a great piece of 17th century Border atmosphere, properly chilling in all the best ways. Wilkie Collins's "A terribly strange bed" and RLS's "Markheim" were interesting too, although both obviously owe a lot to Poe.

"The trial for murder" by Wilkie's brother Charles Allston Collins (Dickens's son-in-law), which opens the book, falls rather flat, even after editorial tweaking by Dickens. He seems to have been better as a painter than a writer. Bulwer-Lytton's "The haunters and the haunted" and Sheridan Le Fanu's "Green tea" are both very rambling and Victorian, with the actual story buried in a welter of pseudo-scholarly speculation by the narrators. Bulwer-Lytton at least has a story: in Le Fanu's case the narrative can be reduced to "clergyman sees ghostly monkey".

Moderately entertaining, but other collections of out-of-copyright short stories are available.

marraskuu 5, 2020, 8:33am

>51 thorold: was "Green Tea" a response to evolutionary theory and Darwin at all? (I saw a date for it that might fit I think?)

marraskuu 5, 2020, 9:56am

>52 tonikat: Hmm. Clergyman and monkey — it should be, shouldn’t it? It doesn’t seem to be that, not in any obvious way, anyway. The explicit background is the crossover between Swedenborg (quoted heavily in the opening part) and medical theories about mental illness (the narrator is a physician).

marraskuu 5, 2020, 11:33am

>53 thorold: ah thanks. I've heard of the story but not read it. Interesting, thanks.

marraskuu 5, 2020, 3:19pm

>51 thorold: You raised my hopes with the title - sorry it fell flat.

There is a book edited by Alberto Manguel, Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature, which does much the same thing, only I suspect better. Right from the first story I was hooked. Manguel did have the benefit of including 20th century writers, as well as writers from around the world. You've probably read many of them before ("The Queen of Spades", "The Rocking-Horse Winner", "The Argentine Ant" and so on), but a lot of the stories translated from Spanish were new to me.

There is also a Black Water 2, which I haven't read as yet.

marraskuu 5, 2020, 3:51pm

>55 SassyLassy: To be fair, I read Spooks in your cupboard because of when and where it was published, not because I thought it was going to be a good comprehensive anthology. That whole little culture of refugees from McCarthyism in East Berlin was something I never knew about.
It was interesting to see what they picked. And I’m sure I’d have been very glad of a book like that if I’d been studying English behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties.

Those Manguel books sound tempting...!

marraskuu 9, 2020, 8:55am

Lots of fine autumn days lately, so I've been getting through audiobooks quite quickly, but I'm less quick at posting reviews. A recent Julian Barnes novel I haven't read, finished a couple of days ago:

The only story (2018) by Julian Barnes (UK, 1946- ) Audiobook, narrated by Guy Mott


Barnes seems to be deliberately teasing us by taking the most overused plot idea of the Great French Novelists, the young man / older woman love story, and shifting it to the Betjemanesque setting of a suburban tennis club in the Home Counties, circa 1960. More English you can't get! It's a vehicle for the requisite amount of social comedy and gentle mocking of middle-class Englishness, but it also turns out to be a platform for Barnes and his narrator to speculate at some length — perhaps rather more length than is altogether necessary — about what it means to be in love, and how everyone has a love story that defines their life in some way.

There's a lot of play with the uncertainties of memory, the way the story we are trying to tell and the viewpoint we are telling it from define the way we remember things. The narrator, Paul, whom Barnes doesn't seem to like very much, rambles around endlessly before he gets to telling us about the moments at which he acted in ways he's now ashamed of, and at times in Part III there's a distinct feeling that the book has run into the sand.

There are some very good parts in this, but you do come out of it wishing that Barnes had written it as a short story instead of a novel.

marraskuu 9, 2020, 10:08am

I wanted to read some Chekhov: out of the bewildering array of selections and translations of his stories I somewhat arbitrarily picked this one, mostly because it happened to be newly-published:

Fifty-two stories (1883-1898) (2020) by Anton Chekhov (Russia, 1860-1904), translated by Richard Pevear (US, 1943- ) & Larissa Volokhonsky (Russia, US, 1945- )


This is the second selection of Chekhov short stories Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated: in 2000, they published a first batch of thirty of the best-known stories as well as a collection of the short novels. This new batch includes a lot of short sketches, many of them only two or three pages long, as well as a dozen or so more substantial stories.

Most are set in small towns or on country estates, usually with characters who are small landowners or minor officials — teachers, priests, civil servants, junior officers, and of course doctors. Servants and peasants are rarely at the centre of the stories: when they appear it is often in order to demonstrate how blind even the most enlightened of the educated characters are to the lives their social inferiors lead. But the stories in this selection at least are rarely overtly political: they sometimes illustrate things that are wrong with the world, but they don't offer to solve them, and they often make fun of idealists with theoretical political programmes.

The short sketches are often little more than anecdotes, with a situation — touching, comic or absurd — summed up with amazing economy, and a punchline that somehow subverts what we've just read. In the longer stories, characters struggle with financial problems, romantic entanglements, or the many kinds of rural pettiness, and it's interesting to see how often Chekhov is more interested in setting up the problem and confronting his characters with it than he is in solving it. Often the ending is left to the reader to imagine.

Chekhov was clearly an absolute master of the form, and hugely influential: that is actually a large part of the problem with stories like this, because the chances are that we've read half a dozen later stories "inspired by" before we see the original that inspired them...

Pevear and Volokhonsky get a lot of stick from critics, possibly mostly inspired by the massive, production-line scale of their attack on the classics of Russian literature, almost all of which they have translated by now. Their language is often said to be flat, uninspired, unliterary (etc.). Obviously you can't really judge a translation unless you are in the happy position of not needing one, but I put a few passages from these translations side-by-side with the Constance Garnett translations available from Project Gutenberg, and failed to see any huge differences. Sometimes Garnett uses a British word where Pevear and Volokhonsky use an American one, sometimes they use a less colourful adjective than she does, and occasionally there is a weird difference of interpretation ("fifty acres" instead of "sixty acres") that probably comes down to one or other side being better informed about 1890s Russia. Pevear and Volokhonsky do make a point of translating the jokey names Chekhov gives to some of his characters, which you might or might not like. But there's no obvious systematic difference in syntax or sentence structure: I suspect that Chekhov must be writing in such a plain, straightforward way that he doesn't give his translators enough scope to allow them to go off the rails at all.

You probably wouldn't buy this for the translations: its main selling point seems to be the way it gives a broad cross-section of Chekhov's writing. There are also some reasonably useful notes, filling us in on details of Russian life and culture relevant to the background of the stories, and a short introduction by Pevear that gives an outline of their reasons for picking the stories they have (but without mentioning that all the most famous stories are in their earlier book!).

marraskuu 10, 2020, 12:15pm

Mikhail Kuzmin, author of the "first Russian gay novel":

Selected prose & poetry (1980, 2013) by Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin (Russia, 1872-1936), edited and translated by Michael Green (US, 1937-2018)


This collection, compiled and translated by Michael Green, who taught Russian literature at UC Irvine, contains the short novel Wings and the play The Venetian madcaps, as well as a dozen or so short stories and several poems.

Wings(1906) sets the tone for the rest of the book: young men who are mysteriously reluctant to fall in love with eligible girls, oddly close to their male friends/servants, and keep a bust of Antinous in their living-rooms (apparently this was before the fashion for Michelangelo's David). Bright, apparently inconsequential drawing-room chatter, usually at cross-purposes. Trips to the opera to see Tristan. Knowing allusions to Tchaikovsky. Holidays on the Volga. Short, inconclusive scenes, little or no linking narrative or description. All very fin-de-siècle. But much more upbeat and joyful than similar works by English and German-speaking contemporaries. Fun in Venice, rather than Death there.

Kuzmin doesn't actually get to be sexually explicit, but even when his characters are too obtuse to notice what's going on in front of their noses, he makes sure that we understand that this is all about men falling in love with other men and (sooner or later) going to bed together. He doesn't see any need to defend or to condemn that. Apparently the Russian censor (at least before the revolution) was too busy looking for political subversion to waste time on mere sexual hi-jinks.

The short stories mostly develop similar plots to Wings, sometimes shifting to female narrators or moving the scene from modern Petersburg to classical antiquity or 18th century Venice.

Fish-scales in the net is a short collection of aphorisms or epigrams inspired by Kuzmin's reading, designed to look like random jottings from a notebook, but presumably actually prepared for publication by Kuzmin himself.

The Venetian madcaps (1912) is a bizarre musical farce, with a plot that draws on Figaro, Don Giovanni, commedia dell'arte and Shakespearean cross-dressing. The Count is in love with his friend Narcisetto(!), the Marquise is planning a tableau vivant in which her maid Maria will appear nude as Venus, and at least two young women are, separately, plotting to seduce the Count. For some reason, everyone has to dress up as everyone else in the second act, and it's anyone's guess what happens. Green's real interest seems to be the theatre, and this is by far the most natural-sounding translation in the collection. It also comes with a set of black-and-white reproductions of costume designs (presumably by Kuzmin himself?).

Of the poems, the autobiographical cycle The trout breaks the ice (1928) looks as though it should be the most interesting, but I found it very difficult to read in Green's translation. It's hard to know when rhyme-schemes and metres come and go in the middle of a section whether that's a deliberate effect of the poem, or the translator simply failing to keep up. The "Alexandrian Songs", mostly in free verse, seem to work much better.

I read this in a 2013 reprint of the original edition from 1980. It looks as though some of the ludicrously large number of typographical errors might be the result of the reprinting process, but that surely can't account for the way Green's footnotes end a short way into Wings and never resume. Especially in the piece Fish-scales in the net, it would have been useful not to need to Google all the names Kuzmin drops in passing. It's particularly irritating that there's no summary anywhere of when and how the individual pieces were first published: some of the information is there in Green's introduction, but other items are mentioned nowhere at all.

Also, even in 1980, the editor of a collection likely to be bought mostly by readers with an interest in LGBT literature isn't doing himself any favours with his audience by going on about "the word 'gay', so widely used in our day, and often so inappropriately". Astonishing that the publishers didn't think to delete this quite irrelevant reactionary whinge in the new edition.

marraskuu 10, 2020, 12:16pm

And another short audiobook I finished this afternoon:

Reisen nach Galizien und in die Sowjetunion. Reisereportagen (2016) by Joseph Roth‬ (Austria, 1894-1939) Audiobook, narrated by Jan Koester


This collection of Roth's newspaper reports on Russia and Galicia in the mid-1920s seems to have been put together specially for this audiobook edition, but there are quite a few collections with similar contents available in book form, in English as well as German.

Before establishing himself as a novelist with Job and Radetzkymarsch, Roth was already a top-flight journalist, working for some of the biggest Berlin and Frankfurt papers. His writing here does often have a tendency towards rhetorical bombast designed to floor any hint of disagreement from the reader, but it's (mostly) used in a good cause, to expose silliness and hypocrisy and to engage our compassion for the victims of war, hunger, poverty and disease, things that were not hard to find in Russia and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The essays range fairly widely: the collection starts off with Roth painting comic pictures of the fashion for "Ukrainian" culture in twenties Berlin (he points out that most of the things using that label weren't Ukrainian at all) and making gentle fun of the Russian émigré community in Berlin and Paris; then we move on to essays where he combines memories of Galicia during the war with its present shattered state (he grew up in a small town in that region). The main part of the collection is an extended trip to the Soviet Union in the second half of 1926. He spends time in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev; he travels on the Volga and visits Baku. He's generally impressed by what the new revolutionary government has achieved, and he's unequivocal in his condemnation of Czarist Russia. He approves of the Soviet idea of autonomy for ethnic groups — and in particular the abolition of antisemitism — but he raises doubts about how sustainable it will all be, especially in the Caucasus where the many nations all overlap with each other and are sitting on important mineral resources. He also wonders about whether Jewish identity, defined as it is by religion, makes any sense in a secular state. At the moment (1926) the Soviet Union is an attractive place for Jews to live, but how long will that go on? He didn't exactly foresee Stalin, but he certainly put his finger on some of the weak points of the new state.

Something he singles out for particular criticism is the New Economic Policy and the aggressive class of petty-bourgeois entrepreneurs who are emerging in Russian society, undermining the attractive egalitarian ideas of the revolution and threatening to turn it into something no better than its bourgeois capitalist neighbours. Well, we all know how that panned out, both in the short term and in the long term.

On the Soviet emancipation of women he is a little less than enlightened: whilst agreeing that the way the marriage market worked for peasant women in Czarist times was unacceptable in the modern world, he is very unhappy with the unromantic, "hygienic" Soviet approach to sex and relationships. He feels that (bourgeois) women should be making themselves beautiful for his amusement, not dressing in functional clothes and working in factories. He also seems to be suspiciously well-informed about the shortage of prostitutes in Moscow...

Altogether, a very lively and entertaining snapshot of Soviet life in the interregnum between Lenin and Stalin.

marraskuu 11, 2020, 3:37pm

>55 SassyLassy:, >56 thorold: The Alberto Manguel does sound interesting.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 14, 2020, 10:53am

I'm getting near to the end of my A S Byatt readthrough — only one more novel to go after this one (unless she's released any more while I was busy with the back-catalogue), plus the non-fiction if I choose.

This one is another re-read: I first read it in March 2010, a few months after it appeared, and posted a review at the time. I commented on the irony of a novel about (small-p) potters having been written by someone who — at the time — was famous for mocking the "Harry Potter" craze; this time that didn't occur to me at all, I was just remembering that her last four major novels were about Frederica Potter and her family. That might just be a little bit more relevant! :-)

The Children's Book (2009) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


This is Byatt taking the kind of big, complicated multi-centre plot structures she used to focus on 1960s England in the Frederica novels, and deploying them to look at the generation of young people born in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, the children of progressive late-Victorian intellectuals and artists. It's another technical tour-de-force, with a cast of the sort of size and complexity that normally needs a multi-volume epic to deal with it, plus a whole stack of stories-within-a-story, and all sorts of detailed technical information about fairy-tales, puppet-theatre, ceramics, suffragettes, Fabians, the First World War, medical training, and much more. All squeezed into not much more than 600 pages without losing any of the wit, charm and focus we would expect from Byatt.

At the core of the story seems to be the way the same generation that created so much of the cultural foundations for our (romantic) notions about childhood, that plotted out idealistic egalitarian, pacifist, vegetarian, free-love futures for us, were also the generation of big guns and uniforms and poison gas and dreadnoughts. Whilst showing us this process in her historical background passages, Byatt also plots this out on the small scale in the broken relationships between clever, well-intentioned parents and their clever children — picking up on the observation that children's writers, in particular, so often seem to have failed spectacularly as parents.

There are lots of familiar Byatt themes — women's education, the English class system, sisters, dominating fathers, Cambridge, etc. — but they are often handled in unpredictable ways. For instance, Dorothy, the girl who decides she wants to become a doctor, finds that the greatest obstacle she has to overcome is not any kind of active resistance to the idea of women getting medical training, but rather the way her family never seems to treat what she's doing as anything more than a pastime, to be broken off whenever something "more important" comes up. The plot is built on a lot of mysteries that look as though they will go with a big revelation scene somewhere down the line, but Byatt often sidesteps the boring necessity of giving us one: in many cases we are allowed to stay with our best guess of who the father is, whether the missing person has really drowned, or whatever.

Byatt was unlucky that this was on the Booker shortlist the same year as Wolf Hall, obviously: a year earlier or later she'd have been in with a very strong chance of getting her second win.

marraskuu 14, 2020, 12:14pm

Now I want to reread the Children’s Book too. Lovely novel

marraskuu 14, 2020, 5:14pm

I am looking forward to reading it

marraskuu 15, 2020, 11:08am

>62 thorold: I loved The Children's Book. Any recommendations on what would be a good second Byatt novel to pick up?

marraskuu 15, 2020, 3:01pm

>62 thorold: I've had that on the shelf for so long... bought it at a library sale and then just never got to it (and put off a little by some really negative reviews, which I never should let myself be). Bumping it back up, then, because it does sound good.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 15, 2020, 3:13pm

>63 Nickelini: >64 baswood: >66 lisapeet: Yes, do read it! It's a time-investment, but I think you'll enjoy it.

>65 AlisonY: It's hard to go wrong, really! If you want to try the Frederica books, you'll probably want to start with the first one, The virgin in the garden, otherwise it's hard keeping straight who's who. (But the last two are the best.) They are very similar in style and weight to The children's book, but set in the 1950s and 60s.

If you fancy something else Victorian, Possession or the back-to-back novellas Angels & Insects would be the way to go, although they are quite different in mood from The children's book.

If you want to pursue the fairy-tale aspect, there's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye...

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 16, 2020, 6:54am

Another audiobook:

Now I want to read Girl, woman, other!

Mr. Loverman (2013) by Bernardine Evaristo (UK, 1959- ) Audiobook, narrated by James Goode


On the face of it, we shouldn't feel much sympathy for Barry, the main narrator of this book: he's a closeted gay man who, at the age of seventy-five, still hasn't screwed up his courage to admit to his wife and daughters that he's been sleeping with his best friend, Morris, since they were boys at school together in Antigua more than sixty years ago. Not to mention a long history of casual pick-ups, and cruising the local cemetery back in the day. His chronic deception has led to unhappiness for everyone around him, including himself much of the time, and he's at least dimly aware of that, but he's old and male and stubborn, and he's internalised the homophobia he grew up with, so there's no obvious road out.

But this is — in an odd kind of way — a romantic comedy, and Evaristo cunningly manages to make Barry funny and engaging enough as a narrator to get us on his side (at least for the purposes of the story). We don't necessarily approve of the way he got himself into this bind, but we do sympathise with his efforts to get out of it, and with the often comic difficulties he encounters along the way. It helps, too, that Evaristo switches the narration to Carmel's point of view a couple of times, just to remind us that Barry is an unreliable narrator, and he isn't quite as much in control of the story as he thinks he is.

But perhaps what this is really about is Barry's rich, complex use of language: the man who has grown up ambidextrous in patois and Standard English, has picked up London-West-Indian along the way, and done his evening classes on Shakespeare and psychology and all the rest of it. Evaristo has endless fun with his voice, and of course it works brilliantly as an audiobook. (Except that the narrator has an irritating way of dropping into a dramatic whisper at exactly the point when you're listening out on the street and someone comes past on a moped...).

marraskuu 16, 2020, 7:10am

To be fair that sounds more fun than Girl, Woman, Other. Noting....

marraskuu 16, 2020, 9:51am

>68 thorold: This sounds very interesting!

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 21, 2020, 6:13am

If I carry on reading the Nouveaux mystères de Paris at the present rate, about one every eighteen months, I estimate that I'll get to the end of the series sometime around May, 2036. It probably wouldn't do any harm to speed up a little, just in case something serious happens to me or to the planet before then...

Du rébecca, rue des Rosiers (1958) by Léo Malet (France, 1909-1996)


The fourth in the series of Nestor Burma mysteries each set in a different Paris Arondissement — this time Nestor is kept busy in the quiet artists' studios and literary hotels of the Ile de la Cité and in the Jewish neighbourhood around the Rue des Rosiers.

It's a classic, overcomplicated noir plot, in which Nestor is working for his friend the painter Baget, who has found himself lumbered with a corpse he didn't order, and wants the murder investigation carried out as discreetly and speedily as possible; in the course of that investigation, he runs across the organised crime boss Dédé, and finds himself charged with a job he can't refuse, to look for a missing person believed to be in hiding somewhere in the Jewish community. There are various nasty echoes of things that happened during the Occupation, there is a vengeful Israeli army officer, and of course there are endless opportunities for Nestor to get knocked unconscious and come round to find a scantily-clad blonde pointing a gun at him.

Nestor's glamorous-but-untouchable assistant Hélène finds herself doing most of the actual brain-work once again, solving the mystery way ahead of her boss. This time she even gets kidnapped by the bad guys ("You're not the first Helen that's happened to," says Nestor coolly, and goes off to get drunk...).

As always, the charm is not in the ridiculous plot with its endless succession of corpses, ugly men, and beautiful women, still less in the mystery that no-one, including Nestor, really cares about any more by the end of the book. It's all about the gloriously colourful narrative style, which is up there with Chandler and Hammett, full of bad puns, extravagant similes, and exotic slang.

(In case anyone's puzzled about the title: it turns out that "faire du rébecca" is a slang expression for getting angry, provoking a fight, making trouble. About half the citations in the dictionary are from Malet, but it seems to go back to around the time of the Revolution. There doesn't seem to be any obvious connection to the Welsh Merched Beca of the 1840s.)

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 21, 2020, 7:12am

Prompted largely by a mention (by AlisonY) in the discussion about "Books about books" in the Questions thread:

Reading like a writer : a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them (2006) by Francine Prose (USA, 1947- )


A guide to stealing useful ideas from the Great and the Good, assembled by Francine Prose, who as well as being a novelist is a long-serving stalwart of the American "Creative Writing" industry — even though she admits to doubts as to whether you can, or should, teach creative writing.

That aside, Prose obviously is a good teacher, and like many good teachers of literature, she's at her best when she's taking a text apart and showing you what is special about it. The discussions of general principles might across as rather generic and predictable, but the book comes alive when she is talking about specific examples. There are detailed chapters on most of the main building-blocks of fiction: words, sentences, paragraphs, characters, dialogue, details, and gesture. With, each time, a range of examples from contemporary writers as well as from the giants of the (US) academic canon to show the effect of the choices writers make in these areas. The book ends with a chapter dedicated to Chekhov's short stories, and another on the importance of courage (by which she means intelligent rule-breaking) in literature, and of course we aren't allowed to leave the classroom without a copy of her list of required reading. Judging by the 20-30% of this that is already familiar territory to me, I should think it's worth pursuing other names on the list as well. But I'm sure no reader of this book would ever have time to read everything on the list, if they were starting from zero!

Obviously, there are topics and writers she doesn't cover: although she reminds us that rules are there to be broken, the focus is on the sort of mainstream fiction that is expected from Creative Writing students in US colleges, so there won't be much there for anyone who wants to explore the specific opportunities and restrictions of genre fiction. Nor does she deal with writing from outside the US and the most important bits of the dominant European traditions (France from Balzac to Proust, Germany from Kleist to Mann, Russia from Turgenev to Chekhov, Britain from the Brontës to Henry Green).

But to talk about the narrowness of her examples is to miss the point: she wants to show us what we can find in a text if we take the trouble to ask the kind of questions she does about how a particular passage achieves its effect on the reader, and what we can steal from that to use in our own work.

The book made me re-read one of the pieces she discusses in some detail, Kleist's novella Die Marquise von O, which I thought I knew quite well, but I found myself noticing things in it that I hadn't seen before, so the technique obviously works, at least in the short term!

It's just a pity that a book which spends so much time showing us how to spot clichés and eliminate them from our work, and how to persuade publishers to allow us to break rules, ends up with the most clichéd cover design it's possible to have on a book-about-books. There must have been someone once who was the first person to do a cover design based on book-spines, but it certainly wasn't within the last forty or fifty years...

marraskuu 21, 2020, 10:28am

Great review of The Children's Book, Mark. I absolutely loved it, and I want to reread it soon. You're absolutely right in saying that it would have won the Booker Prize in practically any other year in recent memory than 2009, which was easily the best year for the Booker since I started following the prize closely.

Speaking of Wolf Hall, the 2009 Booker Prize winner, my copy of The Mirror and the Light is staring at me, wondering why I haven't picked it up yet.

Thanks also for your very enticing review of Mr Loverman. I've owned a copy of it for a few years, but I haven't started it yet.

marraskuu 22, 2020, 6:16pm

Enjoyed your review of one of Leo Malet's Nouveaux mystères de Paris. I enjoy the Nestor Burma films that appear with regularity on French TV.

You have nudged me to get a copy of Reading like a Writer

marraskuu 23, 2020, 6:05am

I noticed that I'd still got the ebook of Bolaño's complete short stories half-read on my Kobo — I read the first two collections in it, Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, in April last year.

El Gaucho Insufrible (2003; The insufferable gaucho, 2010) by Roberto Bolaño (Chile, Mexico, Spain, 1953-2003) (in Cuentos completos)


Bolaño completed this third collection of short pieces shortly before his death in 2003. It contains five stories and the text of two lectures reworked as essays. As you'd expect, all the pieces stand out in one way or another: Bolaño wasn't someone who "just" wrote a short story, he had to push the boundaries of the form in one way or another. Equally, none is the sort of piece you put down thinking "I've read that, now I can move on." There's always going to be a bit more to it that occurs to you a day or two later, and a conviction that you'll get more out of it next time you read it...

Maybe the two that stick in the mind most are the title piece, which is a reworking of themes from Borges's famous story "El Sur", and "El policía de las ratas," a murder mystery that alludes to Kafka's story "Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse".

The Gaucho, Pereda, is a very urbanised, middle-class, retired lawyer from Buenos Aires who leaves the city after his pension disappears in the Argentinian financial crisis and goes to live a kind of rustic fantasy life on the family's semi-abandoned estancia in the back of beyond, wilfully ignoring the fact that he's in the late 20th century. Practically everything in the story refers to some classic of South American literature, especially to Borges and Cortazar, and Bolaño lets Pereda himself wonder how much he is taking from childhood memories of life on the Pampas and how much comes from books he has read.

Pepe, the rat-policeman, is said to be a nephew of Kafka's singer Josefine, thus someone who displays a psychological trait that is incongruous for the community he's living in. He finds himself investigating, in the best noir tradition, a series of unexplained deaths which don't seem to be compatible with the usual hazards sewer-rats face: predators, poison and traps. Naturally, his superior wants him to shut down the investigation and stop wasting police time, but it starts to look as though there might be a serial-killer within the rat community. Murder has hitherto been something unknown among rats: if true, it might have serious consequences...

I enjoyed the two lecture-essays as well: he manages to write about "literature and illness" with a sense of fun that must have been hard to achieve in his situation at the time (and does a wonderful analysis of Mallarmé's "Brise Marine"); in "Los mitos de Chtulhu" he demolishes most of the sacred cows of Spanish-language literature, using particularly heavy quantities of plastic explosives to dispose of García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. He's also very funny in his comments about the Spanish writer and TV literature-pundit Fernando Sánchez Dragó. You can never be quite sure how tongue-in-cheek his remarks are, but he does clearly feel that no-one ought to have that kind of dominant position of literary authority.

marraskuu 23, 2020, 7:32am

A memoir that anticipates the current fad for autobiographies written in the style of novels. I've been meaning to read it for some time, the Russian Revolution theme is a good pretext:

Speak, memory : an autobiography revisited (1967) by Vladimir Nabokov (Russia, US, etc., 1899-1977)


This book has a long history: Nabokov published much of it as essays in the New Yorker in the late 1940s, but there were also some parts he had originally written in French before the war and later reworked. It first appeared as a book under the US title Conclusive evidence in 1951; as a result of that, relatives and others provided Nabokov with further information that allowed him to revise and expand it considerably when he translated it into Russian. He expanded the English version in a similar way, and in 1967 it reappeared in its present form under the title Speak, memory (which had also been the UK title of Conclusive evidence).

It is not so much a straightforward autobiography as a literary examination of his own reaction to his memories of growing up in a privileged family in Russia before the Revolution. Chapters are arranged thematically rather than chronologically: he talks in one place about the way his interest in butterflies and moths developed, in another about his nannies and tutors, in another about his parents and uncles and aunts, in another about travelling with his family, and so on. Along the way we hear about the family estate, about his father's political career (culminating in the liberal Kerensky government), about the girls he fell in love with, the cowboy stories he devoured so enthusiastically, the delights of the Nord Express, and much else. And, almost in passing, about how all this was broken up by the events of 1917, and how the family moved into exile first in the Crimea and then in the émigré world of Berlin and Paris.

Nabokov tries to make it clear to us that he doesn't hold a grudge against the Bolsheviks for depriving him of his property — his nostalgia is for childhood, which is lost for good whatever we do, not for land and houses and servants (which he has regained to a large extent in his new American life, thanks to Lolita). But he obviously does hold a grudge against the Bolsheviks for frustrating his father's dream of a Russian liberal democracy, and he clearly hates them for being ill-bred philistines at least as much as he despises their personal ambition and totalitarian abuses of human rights. He also shows his contempt for non-Russians who see only two sides to Russian politics: extreme reaction or Marxist-Leninism, and in many cases turn a blind eye to the abuses of Lenin and Stalin. But this isn't meant as a reasoned book on Russian politics, it's a personal memoir, and he's entitled to use it to set out personal views.

There are some very memorable, beautiful passages of description and recollection, but there's also a lot of arrogant, Humbert Humbert-ish teasing of the simple-minded American readers he clearly imagines as he's writing. Some of that is very funny, and we are obviously meant to see it as tongue in cheek, but there are other places where it comes across more like an aristocrat whipping a servant for not getting precisely the required degree of shine out of his riding boots. The first time you see an obscure scientific term used for something that has a perfectly good common name it strikes you as clever and amusing; by the fourth or fifth time it's getting a bit stale, and you're only about ten pages into the book...

marraskuu 23, 2020, 9:00am

>72 thorold: Great review of the Prose book. Glad you enjoyed it. I need to order myself a copy as I read a library copy initially and it's a book I want to dip back in and out of.

>76 thorold: I've had the Nabokov memoir on my wish list for a while, and you almost nudged it up the queue until I got to your last paragraph. I'll keep it on the list but in it's current spot - I'm not in the mood for literary arrogance in my reading at the moment.

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 26, 2020, 4:11am

>77 AlisonY: Yes, I read the Prose on Scribd, but I will look out for a physical copy to refer to — especially for the reading-list in the back. Speak, memory is a lovely bit of writing, but Nabokov is basically a Russian Anthony Burgess, without the latter's self-effacing modesty...


Something a bit lighter for an "in-between read", again (was it Dan who came up with that useful phrase?). This was a book that caught my attention in a Little Free Library a couple of months ago, after I'd read Lanchester's more recent novel The Wall.

The debt to pleasure (1996) by John Lanchester (UK, 1962- )


A first novel by a literary journalist, which looks suspiciously as though it was written in response to a drunken challenge to incorporate the essential elements of as many stereotypical British bestsellers as possible into a single story. Cookery with recipes and menus, middle-class English people in rural France, artists, romance, servants, boarding-school, cottages in Norfolk, social snobbery, food snobbery, and — oh yes, I nearly forgot — a body-count that would put Midsomer to shame. All ruthlessly sent up via an appalling, unreliable narrator, very clever and often wickedly funny. The only thing Lanchester seems to have forgotten is that a novel like this should have a clergyman in it somewhere. Purists might also be disappointed to find that there's only one small scene of canine interest.

I'm not much of a foodie, so I suspect I missed some of the more subtle jokes, but this is obviously meant as a parody of those novels where you get a recipe in every chapter: our helpful narrator Tarquin never quite gets all the way through the essential details of a recipe before being distracted into telling us about something else, and you would probably get into a terrible mess if you were so silly as to try to reproduce any of his menus.

When it first appeared, this would have been an ideal Christmas present for those pretentious friends or relatives who are always going on about their cottage in France and the little restaurants they have "discovered" there. By now they've probably read it already, unfortunately, and they are more worried about Brexit and their 90 days than about aubergines or cheeses, but it's still good fun for a couple of hours.

marraskuu 26, 2020, 11:28am

>78 thorold: I read The Debt to Pleasure last year (right? last year? the year before?). I found it to be very evil fun.

marraskuu 26, 2020, 5:07pm

>78 thorold:
That sounds like one I'd like

Muokkaaja: marraskuu 27, 2020, 10:33am

Another audiobook — this is one of those oddly interesting books that doesn't fit into any of my obvious normal reading patterns, it presumably just popped up in my Scribd recommendations because it's new.

How predictable that US publishers of this edition shied away from a literal translation of the Swedish title, as used for the UK English edition, The Gospel of the eels...

The Book of Eels (2019) by Patrik Svensson (Sweden, 1972- ), translated from Swedish by Agnes Broome Audiobook, read by Alex Wyndham


An unusual, and very charming interdisciplinary look at eels, our relationship with them as objects of culinary, scientific, ecological, religious, literary, historical and philosophical interest, interleaved with the more personal story of the role of eel-related father-son bonding moments in the author's own life, and at what that tells us about recent Swedish social history.

At the centre of the story is the way that eels are in one sense quite familiar, everyday creatures — we may only rarely see them but we know they are around, or at least we think we do — and in another sense deeply mysterious, living important parts of their lives in ways that science has had great difficulties studying. We know, for instance, that eel larvae appear to migrate across the Atlantic from the Sargasso Sea, and that sexually mature eels have been seen heading towards it, so it seems to follow that that's where eels breed, but despite many attempts, no-one has actually seen any sign of them doing it (the Japanese eel is slightly less coy than its Atlantic cousins, apparently).

It almost seems too good to be true that Sigmund Freud had his first scientific job attempting to find an eel with male sex organs, in a marine science lab in Trieste. Svensson looks at this, and many other wonderful anecdotes from the history of great scientists struggling with "the eel question". And at eels in literature, with starring roles for Graham Swift and Günter Grass, as we would expect (but no mention of Arthur Ransome, sadly). There's a little bit about eels in various religions and popular beliefs, although this doesn't go quite as deep as the more zoological parts of the book. And quite a lot, as we would expect, about how eels now seem to be under threat from human activity, and how their obscure life-cycle complicates things (species are counted by numbers of breeding adults, but for the eel that's exactly the thing we know least about!).

The personal story of Svensson's relationship with his working-class father, as expressed through their night-time eel-fishing expeditions together, alternates with these more general sections of the book. And they are, like most fishing stories, much more about the fishermen than about the fish (or indeed the fishing). Quite moving at times, but also often touching and funny.

An interesting and lively book, even if ichthyology isn't your thing.


PS: There's a wonderful web-page that gives the translation of "my hovercraft is full of eels" into all sorts of useful languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu:
I can remember how we used to think that was exactly the sort of thing the WWW was useful for!

marraskuu 27, 2020, 5:23pm

>78 thorold: I have The Debt to Pleasure on my bookshelves. I had better read it to see if those menus work.

marraskuu 27, 2020, 10:21pm

>81 thorold:

Wow. Eels. I like books that narrow in on one somewhat odd topic, but I never considered reading about eels. You do make it sound interesting. Maybe one day. I just don't think of eels much. I mean, a couple of times a year I'll order unagi at a sushi restaurant. That's about it.

marraskuu 28, 2020, 8:18am

>81 thorold: I read a couple of reviews of that and snagged a galley because it actually sounded completely fascinating. I love books about the natural world, and to be honest I do love eating them as well. So that ones definitely on the pile.

marraskuu 28, 2020, 8:58am

>84 lisapeet: I love books about the natural world, and to be honest I do love eating them as well.

— Didn't try that, mine was a digital copy. :-)

marraskuu 28, 2020, 9:05am


Well, there is always the Edible Books contest, though I think that's fallen off the map a bit in recent years. I entered it one year in NYC and, though there weren't winners, my edible book got the highest bid in the silent auction afterward. Probably because it had a Buddhist theme and the fellow who ran the Center for Book Arts, where it was held, was a practicing Buddhist, but I was still proud of myself.

marraskuu 29, 2020, 5:40am

Are you already thinking about those post-COVID holiday destinations as well...?

Sakhalin Island (1895; this translation 1993) by Anton Chekhov (Russia, 1860-1904), translated by Brian Reeve


No-one quite knows why Chekhov decided to make an extended tour of the penal colonies on Sakhalin Island in 1890 — he was 29 years old, reasonably well established in medical practice and making a name for himself as a short-story writer, and he'd just had a big flop with his first major play, The wood demon. He'd also diagnosed himself as suffering from TB, which would seem a pretty good reason not to make a long and arduous journey to a notoriously cold and damp part of the world. But perhaps there was a feeling of "now or never"?

Whatever the reason, he set off from Moscow on 18 April, 1890 (just over a year before construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway started), travelling by horse-carriage, sleigh and river steamer, to reach Nikolayevsk at the mouth of the Amur on the 5th of July, from where he could embark to cross the straits to the island. He travelled around Sakhalin until mid-October, visiting (almost) every settlement and interviewing everyone he could find, returning to Moscow the "fast" way by sea to the Crimea, with stopovers in Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.

His description of the trip, written up over the next few busy years and published in 1895, is in many ways a glorious, disorganised mess: there's far too much quantitative data for a mainstream travel book, but it's too full of subjective description to be read as a social science dissertation. In the version translated and edited by Brian Reeve, the footnotes make up almost half the book, and at least 90% of them are Chekhov's own: not just references to sources, but often also lengthy anecdotes and bits of description that somehow got left of the main body of the text. The book starts off as a geographically-organised description of the settlement, but at some undetectable point it veers off into a thematic discussion of different aspects of the working of the penal colonies. (It doesn't help that this 2019 Alma Classics paperback reprint, which looks to have been cut down from an earlier version, has neither maps nor index.)

All the same, if you're reading it out of general interest rather than in search of some specific piece of information, it's a wonderful — if disturbing — book, full of Chekhov's clear, compassionate observation of what is really going on here, out of sight of the judges who routinely sentence people to penal servitude without the least idea of what that means, and also out of sight of the academics who write articles about prison reform in learned journals.

In theory, Chekhov agrees, it's a wonderful idea to make convicts do useful work during their imprisonment rather than sitting around at the state's expense, and it also sounds like a good idea to use this capacity to develop new regions. In real life, however, as the British found in the much more promising setting of New South Wales, it rarely works out like that. There are always going to be conflicts of interest and opportunities for abuse when forced labour is involved, especially when it's happening out of sight on the other side of the world. Convicts are, almost by definition, poorly adapted to become a labour force in tough conditions: people are likely to fall into crime because they can't or won't work. And it's foolish to imagine that you will be able to recruit competent, honest and highly motivated people to run remote penal settlements unsupervised. Incompetence, corruption and sadistic brutality are bound to result.

Moreover, as he found as soon as he got there, Sakhalin turns out to be a really stupid place to set up an agricultural colony. The indigenous people were migrant hunter-gatherers for a reason. It's winter for about nine months of the year, and it rains almost incessantly: the land is either mountainous or boggy taiga. So it's a good place to do small-scale fishing and trapping, but planting anything other than potatoes is pretty much a waste of effort. There was one coal mine in Chekhov's time, but it was badly managed and unproductive. Distance from markets and the lack of a proper harbour obviously also played a part in holding up the development of mining and forestry. Commercial fishing was left to the Japanese.

Most of the convicts sent to Sakhalin were serving long sentences for murder or other serious criminal offences (Chekhov was expressly banned from talking to any political offenders, but there only seems to have been a handful of these on the island anyway). The system was that after serving their sentences, they had to remain on the island as a "settled exile" for a period of from six to ten years. During this time they could farm or follow a trade to earn money. Vodka-smuggling and prostitution were apparently the only trades in which it was possible to make good money. After the expiry of the settled-exile period they were free to move elsewhere in Siberia, but not allowed to return to their home district. Conditions on the island were such that everyone who could leave did so, and there was no real settled population, so the hope that the penal settlement would lead to the development of a proper colony was not realised.

Chekhov also points out that the system made absolutely no allowance for the supposed role of the penal system in helping convicts to reform and build new lives. There was no trade training, many convicts spent their time in illegal activities (smuggling, gambling, prostitution), and only a handful had any hope of getting out of the system while they were still young enough to work.

Moreover, they were badly fed, their work was poorly supervised, and the medical services on the island were in a completely run down state. Whilst corporal punishment and the death sentence had been abolished in Russian criminal law, prisoners fell under a different set of rules, and beatings were regularly used by the prison authorities as punishment for even quite trivial offences (failing to take ones cap off when a free person passes). Chekhov witnessed a whipping, and had recurrent nightmares about it afterwards.

There was a lot here that reminded me of Solzhenitsyn, but of course the 1890s weren't the 1960s: Chekhov encountered some censorship when he published parts of the book in journals, but it was allowed to appear in full in book form.

joulukuu 3, 2020, 6:24am

I don't often admit to reading the alumni mailings that clog up my inbox, but mention of this recent publication caught my eye in one of them, and I saw it was available in audio on Scribd, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Simon Horobin teaches English language and medieval literature in Oxford. (They talk about how you know you're getting older when police officers start looking young; a fortiori when it's Oxford professors...)

Bagels, bumf & buses : a day in the life of the English language (2020) by Simon Horobin (UK, 1972- ) Audiobook, read by Shaun Grindell


A fun-run through the history of some of the odder words and phrases in common everyday use in (British) English, arranged around the activities that might make up a typical day (meals, home, work, leisure, sport, going out, etc.). It doesn't go very deep, and it's basically just a loosely-linked list of keywords and explanations — there's no kind of argument or historical development going on, so it's a book you are obviously meant to dip in and out of as the fancy takes you.

The examples are all slanted towards England, with occasional brief mention of Scottish, Australian and US regional expressions, but a strong slant towards Oxford-related topics: there are frequent references to Lewis Carroll and Philip Pullman and the sports vocabulary includes detailed discussion of real tennis, racquets and croquet as well as the more mainstream rugby, cricket and (grudgingly?) soccer. But no rowing.

This seems to be aimed at people who are curious about the history of English, but have never actually studied it, and I'm sure someone like that would find it very entertaining. I can imagine that it might also be useful source of classroom material for schoolteachers, but if you have any kind of prior knowledge then it's likely that at least 80% of his examples will be stuff you already know, so definitely don't buy it as a gift for English graduates.

A strange book to turn into an audiobook, but it sort of works, and would be a good one for listeners with a very short attention span!

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 3, 2020, 7:14am

And a book I obviously should have read long ago, but missed somewhere along the line. Possibly because I don't go in for hunting' shooting' fishing' literature (cf. >81 thorold:)!

It has been mentioned in everything I've read so far for the RG Russian theme:

A Sportsman's Notebook (1852; this translation 1992) by Ivan Turgenev (Russia, 1818-1883), translated by Charles and Natasha Hepburn


On the face of it this seems a very modest, unassuming collection of short stories, most of them little more than sketches or anecdotes, narrated by a gentleman who has inherited his grandfather's estate in the Russian countryside and goes there to shoot for a few weeks of the year. But it's considered to be one of the most politically influential texts in 19th century Russian literature.

The reason for that seems to lie in the way Turgenev's sportsman-narrator engages with the country people he meets and tries to discover their stories and the way they live. Naturally, they all turn out to be complex human individuals, each with a unique background and personal characteristics, and highly-specific relationships, problems, hopes and dreams. The serfs stubbornly refuse to dissolve into the romantic notion of "Russian peasant" (spirituality, resignation, stubbornness, tradition); the landowners equally fail to fall into any stereotypical notions we might have of gentlemanly or aristocratic attitudes.

Moreover, it often turns out that the serf characters have had their lives messed up in multiple ways by the thoughtless and arbitrary behaviour of their owners. The narrator never explicitly criticises this behaviour, but he notes its effects, and he leaves us to draw our own conclusions about whether that sort of thing is acceptable in a modern European country in the middle of the progressive nineteenth century.

The narrator is always described as a sportsman, but shooting birds doesn't enter much into the stories. The usual pattern is that he goes to a particular place in order to shoot, there's a lyrical description of the landscape, and then something happens to prevent him from getting to grips with the birds, and he meets someone who turns out to have an interesting story. More often than not, something else then happens to prevent that person from quite getting to the end of the story, so we are left dangling slightly, and have to work things out for ourselves a little. A couple of times we get someone who appears as a minor character in one story and is then fully developed in their own right in the next, but apart from that there is no overall development between the stories.

Oddly enough, Turgenev's technique reminded me very strongly of Mary Russell Mitford, a writer from a rather different background, but with the same kind of intelligent interest in how rural life works and what problems country people have to deal with. And the same sort of mix of lyrical-but-precise scenic description and realistic observation of human behaviour. Lovely, compassionate and very compelling writing in both cases.

This edition comes with an introduction by Pakistani-American writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, who talks about how relevant he still finds Turgenev's stories to the semi-feudal agricultural society he grew up in.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 4, 2020, 10:11am

One more from my Seven Seas Books pile.

Alvah Bessie was another well-known American communist, who started out as an actor in Eugene O'Neill's company, worked in Paris as a writer and translator, fought in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and later went to Hollywood as a screenwriter until his career was ended by blacklisting. Also on my TBR shelf is his non-fiction account of his experience with the HUAC, Inquisition in Eden.

Bread and a stone (1941; Seven Seas 1961) by Alvah Bessie (USA, 1904-1985)


(Wikipedia image of Bessie in Spain)

This is Bessie's second novel, from 1941, later made into a film (Hard Traveling, 1986) by his son Dan Bessie.

It's a crime novel that attempts to put flesh on the bones of that defence-lawyer's cliché, "victim of society". Ed Sloan has had an absolutely appalling life, abused in childhood, in and out of institutions, illiterate, bruised and damaged in every possible way and barely surviving in Depression America with short-term work as a farmhand and odd-job man. Just about the only good thing that has ever happened to him is meeting the widowed schoolteacher Norah and her little daughter Katy, the first people who have ever taken the trouble to get to know him and find out what sort of a man he really is. Yet, only nine months after Norah surprises all her friends by marrying Ed, he is arrested and charged with murder and armed robbery.

Although the story is framed rather like a mystery, and there are elements that we don't discover until the end of the book, there's not much mystery about what has happened: what Bessie wants us to do is to think about why it happened. How does someone who clearly isn't violent by nature or inclination get pushed into a position where the only way out he can see is to borrow a gun and go out and rob someone? Bessie doesn't come up with a single answer, naturally, but he shows us Ed has not only been deprived of education by the system he's grown up in, but he's also systematically been kept away from any opportunities he might have had to express himself or to take any decisions about his own life. Poverty, unemployment, and social prejudice — as the title suggests, all the people who give him stones when he asks for bread — have pushed him into a corner; for the first time in his life he feels responsible towards someone other than himself, but he has no other idea what he could do to save his new wife and stepdaughter from hunger and debt.

It's a very sad story, and Bessie is careful not to sound as though he's excusing Ed's crime or absolving him from responsibility for it. But he is indicting society for the way it has neglected its responsibility to look after people like Ed. (As well as careless left-wing writers who have hung on to guns brought back from the last war...)

joulukuu 6, 2020, 12:25pm

What a variety of reading! I'm especially interested in The book of eels and A sportsman's notebook.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 7, 2020, 8:38am

>91 markon: I don't think you can go wrong with either of those!


Back to French art-historian Henry Havard. I read the second of his trilogy of travel books about the Netherlands in August last year: this is the third. (But I've now discovered that he also wrote one about Flanders, so I'm not necessarily finished with him yet!)

La Hollande pittoresque: le coeur du pays: voyage dans la Hollande méridionale, la Zélande et le Brabant (1878) by Henry Havard (France, 1838-1921)


For their third journey of "exploration" of his adopted country, in the wet and stormy summer of 1877, Havard and two of his painter friends decided to take a cruise through the province of Zeeland in the trusty tjalk that had carried them around the Zuiderzee a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, the ship had undergone renovations in the meantime, and, as so often happens, came back from the yard with a whole bunch of new problems that weren't there before. Added to the aggravations of waking up in wet cabins were disputes with the professional crew, who objected to Havard's ambitious itinerary, prepared without sufficient regard to wind and tide. So there was a mutiny, and the ship was sent home about three-quarters of the way through the trip. They carried on by train, on foot, and in local boats. Which was fine, except that they then had to cope with Dutch hotels, and with landlords who felt three guests weren't enough to justify cooking dinner...

They start out in Dordrecht (which is the only justification for the mention of South Holland in the title), and visit Zierikzee, Bergen-op-Zoom and Goes before arriving in Veere and exploring the island of Walcheren in detail, including Vlissingen and the provincial capital, Middelburg. After that they make a loop through the Zeeland part of Flanders (Breskens, Terneuzen, Axel and Hulst) before returning to Brabant to visit Breda and 's-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), calling briefly in Roosendaal and Tilburg en route.

After two books, we know very well that there are two things that really set Havard's pulse racing: pretty girls in local costume, and well-stocked municipal archives. In the former case it seems to be a largely platonic, aesthetic interest, but when it comes to medieval documents, his prose has a tendency to become somewhat erotic, if not actually pornographic, in its enthusiasm. This book is no exception: in the Middelburg archives he's like an ex-convict in a sex-shop, hardly able to catch his breath as he springs from one medieval charter to the next! He is absolutely charmed by the town-hall janitor in Bergen-op-Zoom, a man who has taught himself palaeography and become a skilled archivist after coming across a forgotten store-room full of mouldering piles of parchment. Sadly, we don't learn the man's name, but Havard devotes at least half a chapter to telling us his story.

We get plenty of pretty girls, as well, of course: the field-workers who chaff the delighted artists on one of their walks, the self-confident village girls with their gold ornaments and starched bonnets, the shy toddler whose mother instructs her to kiss the nice gentleman. Havard is fascinated to learn that in Zeeland it's not usual for women to get married until they are pregnant — probably not very different from rural customs everywhere else in the world, but he wouldn't have known that without access to the work of 20th century social historians (although he might have picked up a few clues to French habits from his contemporary, Emile Zola). And what was obviously different in Zeeland was that such things were openly discussed.

Havard has a lot of fun exploring the medieval past of the smaller Zeeland ports, and the many wars, sieges, floods and fires most of them have undergone (there have been a few more since Havard's time!), even more so in Middelburg and Bergen-op-Zoom. We learn more than we probably intended to about staples and Lombards, Jacqueline of Hainaut and Philip the Bold, but it's all fascinating. Time was obviously pressing (or his companions had seen too many parchments...) by the point when they got to Breda, so there and in 's-Hertogenbosch the military history is condensed a bit, but he clearly loved both ('s-Hertogenbosch is still one of the most attractive cities in the Netherlands).

In fact, there's not much he feels the need to criticise in any way: a few unfortunate modern buildings or crass bits of demolition, some grumpy hoteliers, and the town of Roosendaal and its station (neglected and unpopular to this day...). In any case, he concludes with a warm invitation to all his readers to go off and explore the bits of the Netherlands that he has missed, promising that they will not regret it.

joulukuu 9, 2020, 6:01am

Another raid on the TBR pile unearthed this good old-fashioned swashbuckler, that has been sitting there since 2014 (I think it's been on holiday with me a couple of times and come back unread, as well...):

El caballero del jubón amarillo (2003; The cavalier in the yellow doublet) by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Spain, 1951- )


Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition...

...Except in a Pérez-Reverte novel, where we'd probably be rather disappointed if they didn't burst into the room at some point. No cause for concern this time, anyway: in this, the fifth adventure of jaded warhorse capitán Alatriste and his intrepid teenage sidekick Iñigo, we get intrigue, romance, sword fights, 17th century poets, incognito monarchs, a cross-dressing royal menina, the moonlight abduction of an old miser's beautiful ward, and more of the captain's old enemies than you can point a pistol at.

It's 1626, a new piece by Tirso de Molina is opening in Madrid, and Alatriste and Iñigo are stuck in town without very much to do. Alatriste gets involved in an affair with a well-known actress, but it turns out that she has several very powerful admirers who resent his intrusion. And then it starts looking as though there is more going on than simple sexual jealousy. Surely they can't have got accidentally involved in yet another high-level political conspiracy? Well, possibly...

Great fun, in the best Dumas tradition, but laced with Pérez-Reverte's very 20th century conviction that violence carried out with edged weapons by men in cloaks and feathered hats is no less brutal and disgusting than the modern kind, and leads to its fair share of mud, blood and pain. And that in the middle of all this glamour and poetry the Spanish Golden Age is being frittered away in greed, incompetence and infighting.

joulukuu 10, 2020, 7:08am

This was a book that was mentioned a while back by LolaWalser when we were talking about non-Western travellers to the USSR in another thread. It looked interesting, so I tracked down a copy:

Ice (2011) by Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt, 1939- ) translated from Arabic by Margaret Litvin


The narrator of this novel is Shukri, an Egyptian historian doing postgraduate work at an Institute in Moscow. The action takes us through the year 1973 with a wealth of trivial detail about being a foreign student in Moscow: shopping, Brezhnev-era queues and shortages, cold weather, student parties, news reports, excursions, and the endlessly repeated pursuit of women.

It's one of those books where all the things the narrator is not telling you seem to matter more than the smokescreen of detail: we learn nothing of Shukri's past, his reasons for being in Moscow, the work he is doing at the Institute, his plans, his reactions to what he hears on the news (amongst other things, that his country is at war with Israel), or his real feelings about the women he's chasing or the other students he spends time with in the student hostel. And that nothing is clearly key, in some way. All he ever tells us about are objective facts and his own physical sensations (cold, pain, nausea, arousal, tiredness, etc.).

We have to spend a lot of time decoding and reading between the lines, and we can't be sure that we're guessing right. It seems, though, that Shukri has been damaged in some way by his previous life, and that it's that experience that is blocking him from achieving a meaningful connection either with the reader or with the people around him. Of course, if we bring in knowledge from outside the frame of the novel, in particular that the author spent five years as a political prisoner in Nasser's Egypt, that might give us a clue, and — amongst other things — explain Shukri's curious interest in the pile of old Egyptian newspapers he's obtained from a diplomat-friend.

An odd novel, which probably needs a bit more context from Ibrahim's earlier works and Egyptian literature generally to make sense of it properly, but an interesting and unusual point of view anyway.

joulukuu 10, 2020, 8:59am

Another odd one...

The Stray Dog cabaret : a book of Russian poems (2007) by Paul Schmidt (USA, 1934-1999), edited by Catherine Ciepiela & Honor Moore


In 1984, Paul Schmidt collaborated with the composer Elizabeth Swados on a musical, The beautiful lady, set among the avant-garde poets who frequented the Stray Dog Cabaret in St Petersburg between 1912 and 1915, using Schmidt's own translations of their poems. After his death, Catherine Ciepiela and Honor Moore expanded on that idea to create this anthology of Schmidt's translations of Anna Akhmatova, Alexander Blok, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, and the rest.

Schmidt notoriously took all kinds of liberties with the texts, both in taking them out of context and juxtaposing poems from different poets to create dialogue and tell a story, and in picking styles and tones for their English voices to help characterise the poets more strongly on stage. Ciepiela and Moore are open about this, and give a summary of the most drastic changes in the notes, but this still isn't a collection you would want to use for any kind of serious study of the individual poets: it's probably better to see it as something like a historical novel that uses artistic licence to try to give you a vivid and intelligible picture of what was going on in a previous age. Taken in that way, it's interesting and lively to read, and many of the poets really seem to come alive, despite Schmidt's one-man-show effect: I thought Tsvetaeva and Khlebnikov came over particularly well. I'm not sure that I really buy Sergei Esenin as a country-and-western singer, though...

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 14, 2020, 6:59am

This has been sitting on the TBR shelf since February 2019 — I've been re-reading a few of Wilson's novels over the past couple of years, and I read his studies of Dickens and Zola a few months ago. Time for the short fiction:

The Collected Stories of Angus Wilson (1949-1957; this collection 1987) by Angus Wilson (UK, 1913-1991)


Angus Wilson published three very successful collections of short stories, all in the early part of his career. The wrong set (1949) was his first published fiction, and Such darling dodos followed it in 1950. After a couple of novels, the third collection, A bit off the map, came out in 1957. This collected edition, compiled a few years before his death, also includes one previously uncollected story, "The eyes of the peacock," from 1980. So this isn't really a "whole career" overview, as Collected Stories often are: they are Wilson doing one particular kind of thing in numerous subtly different ways, but without much obvious evolution.

The stories are usually set in that interesting grey area of the English class system where the shadier members of the upper middle classes on their way down (into scandal, bankruptcy, or fatuous incompetence) meet the more ambitious members of the lower middle classes on their way up, often in a cloud of mutual contempt and misunderstanding. The decaying ex-officers and clergymen's daughters in their Kensington private hotels or economical country cottages see the ambitious young grammar-school careerists as brash and vulgar, and are in turn seen as arrogant and irrelevant. The settings are almost invariably English: even when they venture outside England they remain in islands of Englishness, like 1930s Natal or holiday hotels in France and Italy. The only really "foreign" location is a windswept Scottish university town.

As usual, Wilson is marvellous at finding a precise social indicator in a sentence or less:
"She accepted her position as an old maid with the cheerful good humour and occasional irony that are essential to English spinsters since the deification of Jane Austen, or more sacredly Miss Austen, by the upper-middle classes..."
"He could be so nice when he forgot for a moment that he'd worked his way up from the bottom."
"...said Constance, spreading the fish-paste more thickly than she would have done for persons of her own class..."

(The mockery of Janeolatry is a recurrent theme, by the way — he doesn't seem to have anything against Jane Austen herself, but he is ruthless in his jabs at the people who use her as a shortcut to defining their own Englishness.)

Most of the fun is in the awkwardness of the social confrontations as it works itself out in elegantly barbed dialogue. The stories themselves tend to be fairly static, with a sudden twist on the last page as a character is arbitrarily killed off or a previously unspoken truth is brought out into the open. A couple of times there is an unexpected shift of perspective that forces us to go back and re-examine what we've just read in a new light, but that's exceptional. Usually we know where we're headed and we can enjoy the manoeuvres Wilson makes to get us there.

There's a lot to enjoy here. I think my favourite this time around was the story "More friend than lodger" from A bit off the map. A young woman of nouveau-riche background manages to have her cake and eat it when her stuffy publisher husband takes up with an "exciting new author," whom she recognises as an obvious con-man but allows to "seduce" her anyway. But the title story of Such darling dodos was marvellous as well: a reactionary old Roman Catholic queen is surprised and delighted to discover that he is much more in tune with the political spirit of post-war North Oxford than his Fabian sister and brother-in-law, who were so tiresomely trendy all the way through the thirties.

joulukuu 14, 2020, 9:50am

>96 thorold: That sounds fantastic. I love it when people can put their finger precisely on those bits of "Englishness" which make me squirm every time I hear them.

The only really "foreign" location is a windswept Scottish university town. Too funny but so true from the perspective of so many English.

Great review.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 14, 2020, 10:15am

>97 SassyLassy: Yes, I'm just sorry I didn't make notes of the squirmingly quotable phrases as I went along, there were much better ones than those I quoted, I'm sure...

I've stayed in St Andrews several times. It's definitely foreign!

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 16, 2020, 11:24am

I'm halfway through a Thomas Bernhard novel, but I felt I needed a bit of light relief, so I went on to the next in the Nouveaux mystères de Paris (cf. >71 thorold: above).

Micmac moche au Boul'mich' (1957) by Léo Malet (France, 1909-1996)


The fifth in the Nouveaux mystères de Paris takes Nestor Burma into the Quartier latin in the fifth Arrondissement, to be confronted by students, immigrants and a fake-medieval nightclub. And it's December, so there's also snow, winter depression and the Asian 'flu.

A promising young medical student has been found dead in his car: the police are treating it as suicide, but his girlfriend isn't satisfied with their explanation, and asks Nestor to look into it. Since she's a lovely young woman and he's not got much else to do, he takes on the case, but without much hope of doing better than the experts. And, needless to say, he's soon up to his knees in corpses, intrigue, and a secret code buried in an edition of Baudelaire. With a bit of help from the ever-resourceful — but 'flu-ridden — Hélène, he manages to sort out all the mess in just under the statutory 200 pages.

I think the title of this one is almost better than the book itself, it's definitely the most gloriously silly tongue-twister in the series. But there are also still plenty of examples of Nestor's dry humour, and a few interesting little passing references to the author's early career as a cabaret singer and surrealist in the 1920s.

There is a certain amount of racism in the way Nestor describes the black characters in the story to us, and the language he uses wouldn't be acceptable nowadays. But it's made clear to us that he recognises that the way he reacts to black people is a matter of prejudice, and not creditable to him: he even tells us that he was involved in distributing an anti-racist newspaper before the war. This could be called trying to have your cake and eat it, but it's nowhere near as bad as most things written by white people about black people in the fifties.

joulukuu 17, 2020, 4:30am

Another Bernhard-avoidance stratagem: a quick read of a novella that's been on my TBR since summer.

Tommy Wieringa is a Dutch novelist who's got a lot of attention over the past few years, but I haven't got around to him before. Half a dozen of his books have been translated into English, including this one, which was on the Booker International list last year.

De dood van Murat Idrissi (2017; The death of Murat Idrissi) by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands, 1967- )


In this short, bleak snapshot of immigration and the refugee crisis, Wieringa follows two young Dutch women, both daughters of Moroccan immigrants, on holiday in Morocco. They run into a Dutch acquaintance, Saleh, and allow him to pressure them into helping him smuggle a young man, Murat, across the Strait of Gibraltar in the boot of their hire-car. Everything goes horribly wrong, Saleh disappears with their money, and the two women are left stranded in Spain with a dead man in the back of the car.

It's all very neatly and efficiently done, Wieringa pins down the problems faced by second-generation immigrants who feel Dutch when they are with Moroccans and Moroccan when they are with Dutch people, and he turns his point-of-view character Elhan into a very interesting and believable person — her hairdresser-friend Thouraya is maybe a little bit more of a cardboard cutout. In any case, it's their background that has got them into the situation, but once in it they are ordinary people faced with the sort of problem no-one is prepared for, and they react in exactly the sort of distressed and confused way any of us might.

I didn't really see the point of the little essay on the geo-history of the Mediterranean basin Wieringa sticks in as a prologue: it is a very nice piece of writing, but it doesn't really add anything to the story except a rather incongruously academic tone. He could just as well have put in an essay on the design history of Audi cars and the way the spare-tyre well is manufactured, for all the good it does.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 17, 2020, 12:10pm

...but, however much you procrastinate, eventually even a Thomas Bernhard novel reaches the last page:

Korrektur (1975; Correction) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931-1989)


This was Bernhard's fourth novel, written in a period when he had started to become seriously involved in the theatre and appearing at around the same time as the first part of his autobiography, Die Ursache. Unusually for Bernhard, it contains a paragraph break, which comes a little beyond the halfway point, on page 194.

At the centre of the book is the narrator's close friend Roithamer, a Wittgenstein-like figure who has cut off most of his contacts with his landowning family and their seat, Altensam, to go off and do scientific research in Cambridge. The only member of his family he cares for is his sister, and he has been busy with a project to build her an architecturally innovative cone-shaped house in the middle of a forest. However, she has died before the completion of this ambitious project, and Roithamer has taken his own life.

The narrator comes to stay in the attic room in the home of their mutual friend Höller, a taxidermist, which Roithamer has been using as his Austrian base, in order to sort out the papers he has left behind. At the heart of these is a monograph On Altensam, and everything connected to it, with special reference to the Cone. Roithamer has corrected his draft of this book to create a second draft, then corrected it again, each time apparently unsatisfied that what he has written is true.

The opening paragraph of the novel is a monologue by the narrator, describing his feelings about Roithamer, his death, and his intellectual legacy; about being in Höller's house and seeing him going about his normal trade with his normal family; about the childhood the three of them shared, and so on. At the end of this, in a mad moment at the end of a long sleepless night, he tips out all of Roithamer's writings onto the bed, messing up their sequence.

In the second paragraph, he shares with us his reading of Roithamer's writings, coming at us as in arbitrary order as he picks the papers up, and the narrative voice gradually shifts to Roithamer's own (rather like the indirect narration in Kalkwerk).

Between them, the narrator and Roithamer rant against the evils of Austria, parents, landowners, bourgeois values, pollution, parents, hunting, guns, brothers, scenery, architects, doctors, Linz, parents, hypocrisy, theatre-goers, women, parents, Austria, parents, etc., discuss whether suicide is a logical necessity in the modern world or a romantic self-deception of Austrians, and give us some interesting information about statics and the properties of cones. It's impossible to sum up, but it's a good 360 pages of solid wall-to-wall Bernhard prose, so who cares what it's about? This is writing that you could probably enjoy without even being able to understand German, just for its rhythmic loops and twists: the sardonic humour and black condemnation of just about everything in our boring little lives is merely a bonus...

joulukuu 18, 2020, 5:21am

>100 thorold: That sounds like an interesting read - I'll have to take a look on Amazon to see if it's available in English.

I did chortle at your concluding paragraph....

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 19, 2020, 8:42am

One of the silly things about Christmas is that we normally only find the Christmas-themed books on our pile when it's all over until next year. I happened to see Fry plugging this book in a YouTube video recently, and thought it might be a good opportunity to put that right...

Both authors are mathematicians at UCL.

The indisputable existence of Santa Claus : the mathematics of Christmas (2016) by Hannah Fry (UK, 1984- ) and Thomas Oléron Evans (UK)


This is an entertaining little romp through various seasonal quandaries — turkey-roasting, gift-wrapping, organising secret Santa schemes, cracker-pulling, stringing tinsel around the tree, winning Monopoly games, cutting the cake, predicting what will be in the Queen's speech, and so on — as well as a look at the existence and calorie-consumption of the man himself, with an eye to showing us to what extent maths can help us to deal with these. It's mainly harmless: things like partial differential equations and Markov chains get mentioned, but you don't really need to know what they are to follow the discussion. It's all at the sort of level you would expect if you watch the occasional Numberphile video. If you watch a lot of Numberphile videos you will already be familiar with most of what's in the book, and you'll probably be buying it to give to someone else whilst putting a little money in the authors' pockets.

Good fun for a couple of hours on a dark December day. And nicely produced, apart from the embarrassing eight-pointed snowflakes that seem to have been added by a rogue graphic designer whilst the authors were looking the other way.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 19, 2020, 7:18pm

>103 thorold: The indisputable existence of Santa Claus

This book title put me in mind of a passage I just read in a book titled What I Think a collection of articles and speeches by Adlai Stevenson and published in 1955 as he was gearing up for his second run at the presidency. In a talk Stevenson gave in Texas in September, 1955, and titled, "America, the Economic Colossus," we read this on the topic of international aid:

"Idealism in modern times has not always been fashionable. Unless something can be justified by hardheaded self-interest, it is said to have no chance. But let us remember that kindness and idealism may be practical too, and, practical or not, they stand well in the eyes of God.

There are constant complaints about these heresies from men who say that in aiding the less fortunate lands we are giving away our substance and playing a sucker's game of global Santa Clause. From them will continue to come demands that technical and economic aid be stopped altogether. I wonder if even they have really missed the minor fraction of our national income--one fraction of one per cent--that we have spent on aid to underdeveloped countries since the war. I doubt it.

(Parenthetically, and speaking as a politician, I have never been able to understand this attack on Santa Claus. The attackers imply that he is softheaded and subversive, that there is nothing worse than playing Santa Claus. But surely this can't be good politics. Most of us remember Santa as a good fellow and a very welcome visitor. As a Democrat, I want to speak up for him.)"

joulukuu 19, 2020, 4:14pm

>104 rocketjk: Nice! It’s not quite the same thing, but they do have a chapter on present-giving and game theory, where they talk about how to optimise the offset between the economic cost of giving and the benefit of the “warm fuzzy feeling”.

On the bigger question of Santa Claus himself, they try to help us resolve the massive amount of empirical evidence in favour of his existence with the theoretical arguments against it set out by Richard Dawkins — but of course it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, and the real point is to make readers think about the difference between ideas of “proof” in maths and in physical science.

joulukuu 19, 2020, 6:41pm

>50 thorold: i’m catching and it will take me a while but this has me worried about my own life. 🙂 :

“ but on stepping back a little you do have to keep wondering about the selfishness of this man who can lose himself in contemplation of rocks, trees and stars and forget all about his sister, mother and girlfriend for dozens of pages at a time.”

joulukuu 21, 2020, 5:18am

>106 dchaikin: Maybe you'd better stay away from the Indian Ocean, Dan :-)


Another French writer taking frivolity seriously: This one caught my eye in the charity shop a few years ago because I'd been in Beijing the previous November. Of course I realised as soon as I got it home that it wasn't actually a travel book.
I've read a couple of other Boris Vian novels in the past, and I've got one more on the TBR shelf.

L'automne a Pékin (1947, 1956; Autumn in Peking) by Boris Vian (France, 1920-1959)


In a slightly surreal alternative version of 1940s Paris, a disparate set of eccentric characters go off, for more or less discreditable and always satisfyingly absurd reasons, to work on the construction of a new railway line in the remote and unpopulated desert region of Exopotamie, which is somewhere near the terminus of bus route 975. The railway has no obvious purpose, and due to an unfortunate planning oversight it is going to pass through the middle of the only building for miles around, which happens to be the hotel where the construction crew are staying. Meanwhile, an archaeologist and his team are tunnelling under the whole area in a quest for ancient remains.

Set against this background is a complicated network of sexual rivalries and jealousies, gay and straight, comic and tragic. And a moderate amount of accidental death, murder, medical incompetence, model-aircraft flying, and general carnage.

It's full of social satire (even if most of the people being sent up have been forgotten by now), and often very funny at a detailed level, as the narrator's careless use of figurative language turns out to have all sorts of real-world consequences, and of course it's splendidly grotesque and ridiculous at a macro-level, but Vian also manages to draw us in to sympathise with the self-destructive obsessions of his characters.

And that title? Apparently Vian was so struck by the coincidence that neither the subject "autumn" nor the location "Peking" played any part in his novel that he felt that he had no other choice than to use this title. (I would guess that that's equally true for at least 30% of the books on my shelves, so it's perhaps a good thing that Vian's insight has not been shared by many other authors...)

The edition I read was a 1960s reissue of Vian's 1956 second edition: it's fun to see that it retains the famous anomaly of having a chapter numbered XXIII fall between chapters XI and XIII of the Second Movement. It's almost certain that this was just an oversight when Vian renumbered the chapters between the first and second editions, but Vian's sense of humour is so subtle that no-one seems to be quite prepared to second-guess him to the extent of correcting this, just in case there is a buried joke there (and of course there are theories as to what this joke might be).

joulukuu 21, 2020, 6:12am

>107 thorold:

I love Vian - L'Écume des jours (in Bulgarian - my French back then was as non-existent as it is now) was one of the very few non-genre books which managed to get to me in my late teens... I am pretty sure I read the Peking one back in the early 2000s but I probably should pick up some of his and reread them (and catch up on some I had never read). Thanks of reminding me of him :)

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 21, 2020, 11:36am

>108 AnnieMod: Yes, I need to re-read L'Écume des jours one of these days. I read it a long time ago when my French was still very poor. But first there's L'herbe rouge still sitting on the pile...


This is a book I added to the pile quite recently, prompted by reading Byatt's take on being a young woman in 1950s Cambridge in The shadow of the sun and Still life. She talks about Dusty answer as one of the paradigms that don't quite fit for Frederica, Cambridge "a place of violent, suppressed, hopeless female passion and carefree golden young men." But despite that, she was obviously influenced by Lehmann's way of writing. And it was Lehmann's former lover, Cecil Day-Lewis, who published Byatt's first novel...

Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamond Lehmann (UK, 1901-1990)


A classic — and controversial in its day — coming-of-age novel about a lonely young woman who goes up to Girton a couple of years after the end of the Great War. She's in love with a boy who's in love with another boy, she has a passionate affair with a girl who leaves her for an older woman, she briefly contemplates marrying two of the cousins of the first boy. There is a quite scandalous amount of nude bathing, some dangerous driving, there is a scene where a young man and a young woman are alone together in a room at Girton with the door closed — in short, it's all very Bloomsbury-fringe, and you may need an icepack if you're of a sensitive disposition.

It's not really a romance, more a novel about a young woman trying to fit in with conventional models of love and sex and finding that they don't quite work for her. But it is certainly a book that you would find very irritating if you were a young person struggling to get value out of the university system. Lehmann's privileged heroine seems to go through her three years in Cambridge without ever thinking about anything other than passion, apart from the few hours when she's busy getting a high mark in her Tripos. And she doesn't seem to have any idea of what she might want to do with her education once she's got it.

Fun, in a nostalgia-for-student-days sort of way, quite naughty in places, and by no means as pernicious and sentimental as Brideshead, but very much a product of a certain overprivileged part of English society.

joulukuu 21, 2020, 11:57am

>107 thorold: Your description of the Viand made me chuckle, thanks for that!

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 22, 2020, 1:39pm

Hi Mark. Finally finished my catch up - of almost this entire thread. A good amount of reading here, but enjoyed it a lot, learning about random things like the Abraham Lincoln brigade and Eels. Glad you’re exploring Shirley Jackson and Le Clézio. Jackson was brilliant, lC more of run-on-description writer (imo), but wonderful one at that (err also imo). And cool to get your perspective on Speak Memory. It’s coming up for me.

After all the Byatt, I really want to read The Children’s Book. Also i want to read the Francine Prose book and anything by Bolaño. I’ll pass on Schiller, but it’s nice to know a little about William Tell, which seems to come up here and there (latest in Nabokov’s The Gift).

And, one last note, the Between Books idea is all rocketjk.

joulukuu 22, 2020, 3:32pm

>111 dchaikin: Glad you managed to find some kind of order there, Dan, it feels like a very chaotic thread this time.

Reading goal for 2021: further exploration of the connection between the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and eels! (And I really must get on to Bolaño’s novels.)

the Between Books idea is all rocketjk. — Yes, of course! Sorry, Jerry, the credit is yours :-)

joulukuu 22, 2020, 4:14pm

That’s a fine goal for 2021. 🙂

joulukuu 22, 2020, 4:34pm

I am reading L'écume des Jours at the moment along with Le Petit Prince Antoine de Saint Exupéry and find myself getting confused between the two. I am wondering if Boris Vian's book is an adult version of Le Petit Prince.

Great to read a review of L'Automne a Pékin

joulukuu 22, 2020, 5:55pm

>111 dchaikin: & >112 thorold:

Well, I don't deserve credit for all that much these days, so I'll take what I can get. Thanks, kids, for the shout outs, though!

joulukuu 24, 2020, 10:18am

And a bit more history before Christmas. This is one that I bought a couple of months ago after several other people recommended it.

I haven't seen the TV series it accompanied, but of course I know of Olusoga as presenter of many other history programmes on TV, Guardian contributor, and professor at Manchester.

Black and British : a forgotten history (2016) by David Olusoga (UK, 1970- )


From the African legionaries stationed on Hadrian's Wall to the riots in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, Olusoga takes us through nearly 900 years of black history in Britain. He doesn't quite live up to his protestations that this is "forgotten" or "suppressed" history. From general reading of British and colonial history, I knew about the majority of the events and people he talks about — at least in outline — but that's not the point: context matters, and Olusoga brings out all sorts of interesting insights by presenting these things as part of a long-term story rather than as exotic add-ons to the history of a given period or place.

It really helps, for instance, to be able to see how the Abolition fervour of the early 19th century peaked with Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 and then started to shade away into Abolitionist self-satisfaction, Confederate propaganda, economic self-interest and the beginnings of "scientific" racism in the 1860s. All things we know about, in principle, but this is the first time I've seen them all brought together and their interactions charted out.

This is an enormously valuable book because of the way it gives you that kind of overview and perspective, in an accessible, popular narrative format, without fuss, but with a generous bibliography and a good index. But of course it has to limit itself: Olusoga is really only looking at Britain's links with West Africa, the Caribbean, and the USA, with only the briefest of nods to other parts of Africa and almost nothing on Asia. And this doesn't set out to be a complete history of the slave trade or the African and Caribbean colonies, nor is it a detailed sociological study of the origins of racism: there are plenty of other places where you can read about those things.

joulukuu 24, 2020, 10:21am

Tämä käyttäjä on poistettu roskaamisen vuoksi.

joulukuu 24, 2020, 10:22am

Tämä käyttäjä on poistettu roskaamisen vuoksi.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 24, 2020, 11:09am

...and while I was busy with that, Santa seems to have stopped by. Fortunately, family tradition allows me to open presents on Heiligabend. What a good job I made that gap on the TBR shelf!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

joulukuu 24, 2020, 11:49am

>116 thorold: "It really helps, for instance, to be able to see how the Abolition fervour of the early 19th century peaked with Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 and then started to shade away into Abolitionist self-satisfaction, Confederate propaganda, economic self-interest and the beginnings of "scientific" racism in the 1860s. All things we know about, in principle, but this is the first time I've seen them all brought together and their interactions charted out."

Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams is a very interesting book to read on this topic. Williams, who was prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1961 until his death in 1981 and before that a professor of political science at Howard University, posits that the demise of slavery in the British Empire was brought about essentially by the demise of the protectionist mercantile system, and that abolitionist fervor was basically a sideshow. Basically, he says, slavery ended when it stopped being profitable. I read this book earlier this year. fyi: My full review is on the book's work page.

joulukuu 24, 2020, 11:59am

>120 rocketjk: Yes, Olusoga talks about Williams as well — he doesn’t entirely agree with him, but he does accept that the sugar industry in Jamaica was struggling by the thirties, and that the plantation owners were often happy to get the compensation and retire.

joulukuu 24, 2020, 1:01pm

Good book haul! Glad you got something new from Black and British. Merry Christmas.

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 24, 2020, 2:01pm

>121 thorold: "and that the plantation owners were often happy to get the compensation and retire."

Interesting. According to Williams, the plantation owners fought tooth and nail to keep the system of protectionism going. He makes no mention of plantation owners being happy about developments. However, in the introduction of the relatively new edition I read, Colin A. Palmer does say that subsequent research has rendered some of Williams' judgements questionable, though without specifying which ones.

joulukuu 25, 2020, 1:51pm

>119 thorold: That's quite a collection! Some are familiar - Bridge on the Drina I finished last week, Zola and the Victorians is a book hidden in the boxes in my basement for the last three years since I moved here, and I desperately want to find it.

James Robertson writes children's books in Scots. Maybe they would count for the RG quarter! Waiting to hear about it and the Molina book.

Merry Christmas to you

joulukuu 25, 2020, 3:44pm

>124 SassyLassy: Thanks, and Merry Christmas to you!

The Andric should be coming up quite soon, it’s the next book-club pick. I’m looking forward to tackling the others, but Muñoz Molina’s 960 pages of Spanish all in one go is a bit daunting. It’ll be fine once I get started, I’m sure.

I think you may have been responsible for putting Zola and the Victorians on my wish list, Darryl was to blame for the Robertson...

The one that intrigues me most is Mi vida en la amazonía : andanzas de un músico vasco en la selva peruana — I’m really impressed that my secret Santa managed to pick a book no-one else has on LT, which sounds as though it’s going to be a non-fiction version of Los Pasos perdidos.

joulukuu 26, 2020, 4:37am

Finishing off my tour of A S Byatt's fiction, just in time before the end of the reading year. This one was delayed a bit by the pre-Christmas book-buying moratorium, but as soon as knew what was in my pile of Santa packages I was free to grab the ebook. Besides, Santa brought me some Kobo credit...

This short novel was Byatt's contribution to the Myths series, an international project run by Canongate and other publishers around the world to commission contemporary retellings. In the same series I've read (without knowing that it was a series!) Margaret Atwood's radio play The Penelopiad, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, and Ali Smith's Girl meets boy.

Ragnarok (2011) by A S Byatt (UK, 1936- )


It's no big surprise that, when asked to retell a myth, Byatt chose the Norse story of the great, destructive battle that marks the end of the gods, Ragnarök. From Possession onwards, she's often mentioned her early fascination with the Norse myths, sparked off by a book she was given as a child.

In this book, she looks at the myth through the eyes of this earlier version of herself, "the thin child," growing up in rural Yorkshire during the war, and using her reading of the myths to deal with her rational and irrational fears about the war going on around her and the long absence of her father on active service. She adds further value to the myth itself through grown-up critical insights into the thinking of the 19th century German scholars who compiled her edition of Asgard and the gods, through occasional sardonic bits of characterisation, and — inevitably — the insertion of a huge amount of zoological and botanical detail. And of course she doesn't want anything to do with any silly medieval idea of Ragnarök as the end of the pagan age and the prelude to a Christian rebirth: this Ragnarök is a very 21st century one, with the Midgard Serpent turning into a colossal metaphor for human destruction of the planet.

A good book on which to end my read-through, in many ways!

joulukuu 26, 2020, 6:09am

And the first from the Christmas pile already. This looks as though it should be an obscure fringe bit of local history, but it's actually something that a lot of literary journalists have been pushing recently as one of their books of the year. Ed Caesar is a professional journalist with all the right contacts, obviously...

The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest (2020) by Ed Caesar (UK, 1980- )


In May 1933, Maurice Wilson set off from Stag Lane aerodrome in London in a secondhand Gipsy Moth, aiming to fly solo to India and climb Mount Everest when he got there. He had only started flying lessons three months earlier, he had never been to Asia before, and he had no high-altitude mountaineering experience. But he had been injured in the war, held some weird ideas about diet, was subject to quasi-religious revelations, and had an unnecessarily complicated private life, so he was obviously perfectly cut out to be an Eccentric English Adventurer. It was a pity he came from a very ordinary middle-class background in Bradford, but you can't have everything...

Obviously, Wilson didn't succeed in his quest — otherwise we would all have heard of him — and he has long been eclipsed even in the destructive self-deception stakes by more recent giants of British incompetence like Donald Crowhurst, but he got a lot closer to his goal than he had any right to expect. His minimalist approach to mountaineering has been praised by serious climbers like Reinhold Messner, who sees him as a pioneer of the "Alpine style" in the Himalayas.

Journalist Ed Caesar spent some time digging into the sparse traces of Wilson's life, and has managed to find out quite a lot about his background in Bradford, his service as an infantry subaltern in Flanders, and his peripatetic existence in New Zealand, London and South Africa between the end of the war and his sudden decision in late 1932 that he was going to make an Everest attempt. He's also found out a lot from official records about the comical cat and mouse game Wilson played with the officials of the Air Ministry and the India Office who were trying to prevent him from going lumbering into the middle of a complex diplomatic puzzle on the borders of Nepal, Tibet and India.

The resulting book makes a good story, only slightly undermined by Caesar's obvious determination to use all the information that came to hand, whether or not it was relevant, and his occasional clumsiness as a writer. We're never really going to be able to get inside the head of someone as odd and elusive and secretive as Wilson, but Caesar at least manages to show us the influences that might have been at work there. And it's refreshing to see a book like this presented as a straight piece of non-fiction: there must have been a strong temptation to take an imaginative step further and turn it into a novel (and I'm sure someone will, sooner or later), but Caesar holds back from telling us anything we don't have documentary evidence for.

joulukuu 26, 2020, 6:22pm

Merry Christmas!

joulukuu 26, 2020, 6:56pm

>127 thorold: That one grabbed my attention. I love a bit of English travelling eccentricity of old, and even better that this one is to the mountains.

joulukuu 27, 2020, 6:15pm

Ah! the eccentric English

Muokkaaja: joulukuu 28, 2020, 5:00am

>128 markon: Thanks, you too!

>129 AlisonY: >130 baswood: Yes! I didn't even mention all the hints about Wilson's dressing-up habit. He escaped from Darjeeling disguised in gorgeous silk robes as a Tibetan priest (shades of Kim) and is alleged to have carried his drag costume, including a pair of women's shoes, up the mountain with him. But Caesar is cautious about accepting those stories: he obviously suspects that mountaineers have been inflating Wilson's oddness over the years as they retell the story.


Another one from the Christmas pile. I put this on my Wishlist after it caught my eye when I was looking up Bellos as someone who has written about Georges Perec. I still want to get to his Perec biography.

Is that a fish in your ear? : the amazing adventure of translation (2011) by David Bellos (UK, 1945- )


Bellos has translated Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, Fred Vargas and many other interesting writers into English, he's a professor of French at Princeton and also lectures on translation there.

We use translations all the time in our ordinary lives and seem to take their usefulness and value for granted — even the most xenophobic American is likely to read from a translation at least once a week without ever reflecting on the fact that it is a translation — yet translators, if Bellos is anything to go by, seem to have the idea that nobody loves them. Admittedly, we do toss around clichés like "never as good as the original" and "poetry is what gets lost in translation". Many of us are prepared to read books in languages we understand imperfectly rather than trusting someone else to clarify them for us. We love to share pictures of hilariously mistranslated notices found in Asian hotels. And theorists of language have shown convincingly that it is impossible to translate meaning from one language into another anyway, and generally rejected the validity of the whole idea of translation.

In this loosely-linked collection of essays on the history and practice of translation, Bellos sets out to demolish those philosophical windmills and show us that his craft is possible, useful and necessary. He does so wittily and engagingly, but doesn't always quite manage to quell our suspicion that they were only windmills in the first place. The core of his argument, really, is that translation isn't about transferring exact semantic content, but about creating likeness, transferring the functional effect of a text. The reader of a translated instruction manual must be able to perform the task being instructed; the reader of a treaty must know what's been agreed; the reader of a novel must be entertained, informed and moved in ways that are sufficiently like the ways the original operates.

There's also a lot of very interesting information here about the things we translate and don't translate, the use of widely-understood "vehicle" languages like English and French, the difference between translations into languages with large numbers of powerful speakers and into those spoken by small groups of relatively powerless people, the (dying?) black art of simultaneous interpretation in conferences, the mysterious appearance of a pisang tree in a Bible translation, the curiously low status literary translation has in the English-speaking world, and lots of other fascinating topics.

Judging by the other reviews of this book, this is an area where linguists have deeply entrenched positions, and Bellos hasn't convinced many of them, but for non-combatants it's an entertaining and informative look into a world we normally only see through the material it produces.

(I also loved the way Bellos doesn't bother to explain the Douglas Adams allusion in his title until nearly 300 pages into the book: anyone who hasn't grown up knowing about such things clearly has no business reading a book like this!)

joulukuu 28, 2020, 6:51am

Great review of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, Mark. I've been wanting to read this book for awhile, and hopefully I'll do so in 2021.

joulukuu 29, 2020, 4:31am

Obviously I had to follow the Bellos by reading a translation, this was the first that came to hand, a Swedish crime novel picked by my Secret Santa.

One of the fun facts Bellos tosses out along the way is that it used to be possible to distinguish original Swedish texts from from English-to-Swedish translations by counting the use of adverbs to modify dialogue-marker verbs ('"...!" she said angrily.'). Swedish writers rarely used this device, while translations did so extensively. But the Swedes have apparently now started to pick the habit up as well. So I looked out for it, of course. Edvardsson seems to be old-school in that respect, if his translator is reproducing his adverb use accurately: I couldn't see any examples of 'said' + adverb.

A Nearly Normal Family (2018; English 2019) by M T Edvardsson (Sweden, 1977- ) translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles


Stella lives the preacher's-daughter cliché to the full, a teenager who has been in every possible sort of minor trouble, from smoking pot to crashing her parents' car while driving underage. She seems to be overdoing things a little, however, when she gets arrested for murder a week after her eighteenth birthday. But what, exactly, has happened: did she actually kill millionaire playboy (yes, really: they still have those in Lund in the 21st century, it seems) Chris Olsen?

Edvardsson uses the old dodge of dividing the book between three successive narrators, who each tell us a slightly different version of the story, so that we are made to guess that (at least) one of the three must be doing a Roger Ackroyd. It's all very cleverly set up, and it has a nice American-style courtroom-drama climax. Stella's father, Adam, is a clergyman; her mother, Ulrika, a lawyer. Both are pushed into uncomfortable dilemmas of professional ethics by their need to protect their daughter. There is a very up-to-date theme of sexual violence and the difficulties women face in bringing male aggression to light, as well, even if Edvardsson doesn't seem to have anything very surprising to say about this.

Where the book seems to fall down a little is in the balance between the three narrators. Stella and Ulrika are both interesting, unpredictable and witty characters; Adam isn't, he's dull and humourless, has difficulties in expressing his feelings, is sent off the rails by his monomania about proving Stella's innocence, and clearly isn't much liked by the author. Which is unfortunate, given that his first-person narration takes up the first 40% of the book and has to do all the spade-work of telling us who these people are and what has happened to them. I suspect a lot of readers will give up before they get to the Stella section.

Obviously it's also risky trying to transfer the courtroom-drama device to the Swedish civil-law system, where all the drama is supposed to happen long before the case ever gets to court. Even without being familiar with Swedish procedure, it is fairly obvious that Edvardsson must be cheating a little here, but he just about gets away with it...

Not a riveting masterpiece, but a perfectly competent page-turner with some very good bits in it.

joulukuu 30, 2020, 2:23pm

This may well be the last book I finish in 2020 — but I'm not exactly going to be out on the town tomorrow night, so who knows?

It's the other Pérez-Reverte that's been on my TBR for a little while (cf. >93 thorold:) — this one since July 2017. Bellos didn't actually mention P-R, but he could well have done, as he's a notorious translator-phobe: he insisted for a long time that his work should not be translated into any language other than French. He gave up in the end, of course, and most of his books are now available in English.

El maestro de esgrima (1988; The fencing-master) by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Spain, 1951- )


This is a standalone crime story set in Madrid in the torrid summer of 1868 (or 1968, as whoever wrote the the dust-jacket copy for the Spanish first printing seems to believe!), with support for Isabella II crumbling and talk of revolution everywhere. Unmoved in the middle of all the upheaval is the upright and somewhat hidebound middle-aged fencing-master Jaime Astarloa, who is far less interested in politics than in the theory and traditions of his art. He has nothing but contempt for those who are trying to turn fencing into a sport, rather than a skill true gentlemen have to learn for those (hopefully rare) occasions when they are obliged by honour and decency to kill each other.

Needless to say, Don Jaime is horrified when a young woman asks to be taken on for a course of advanced lessons, but of course she manages to convince him that she is no dilettante, he agrees to teach her, and before long he's hopelessly in love, and embroiled in a complex affair of murder, blackmail and betrayal...

Lots of 19th century Madrid atmosphere, some enjoyably caustic Pérez-Reverte comments on the political situation, and a lot of very technical descriptions of sword fights, with and without buttons on the ends of the foils. And even a bit of Errol Flynn-style jumping off roofs. Fun, and a nice study of a man at the end of his professional career, and of the impossibility of being honourable in a dishonourable society.

joulukuu 31, 2020, 6:52am

Well, I inadvertently set myself a challenge in that last post, so I grabbed the shortest book on the TBR pile. This has been sitting there since October 2018, and it only took a couple of hours to read. Still packs quite a punch into that short space...

L'événement (2000; Happening) by Annie Ernaux‬ (France, 1940- )


While she was a student at Rouen in the early 1960s, Annie Ernaux became pregnant and was obliged to resort to an illegal abortion, an experience she treated in the context of fiction in her first novel, Les armoires vides (1974). Twenty-five years on from that, prompted by a scare about a possible HIV infection, she decided that it was time to revisit those events in the more direct form of a memoir.

She tells us in graphic detail about the things the pregnancy and the abortion procedure did to her, physically and psychologically, and about how the people around her reacted: the friends who helped in practical ways, despite their convictions; men who were turned on by the idea that this was a girl who had evidently had sex with someone else and thus might well agree to have sex with them; the doctors who pushed her away with Catholic distaste, the others who clearly resented her for putting them into an ethical and legal dilemma there was no clean way out of, and the others again who were sympathetic but did little of practical benefit to her, all as a result of a law that put her in danger without in any way achieving its stated objective.

But there are also a lot of other little things that Ernaux takes note of with her sharp eye for social detail, like the body-language of the patients and doctors in the HIV clinic, the films and songs of the time, or the telling detail of the junior doctor in a Rouen hospital who is rude to her when she asks him a question, and later mortified to discover that she is not "some girl from the Monoprix" but a university student. A nurse ticks Annie off for putting the unfortunate doctor in a false position by not revealing her true status: she leaves us to work out for ourselves the (very 1960s) implications that it would have been perfectly acceptable for a doctor to be rude to a working class woman, and that being a student automatically makes you at least an honorary member of the middle class...

This ought to be a period piece, describing an unpleasant but almost forgotten corner of women's lives, but sadly it still seems to be just as relevant as it would have been had Ernaux been brave (or foolish) enough to write it in 1964.

joulukuu 31, 2020, 6:59am

...and I think that's it for 2020, and about time too (unless 2021 turns out to be even worse...)!

My 2021 thread starts here:

joulukuu 31, 2020, 7:35am

>135 thorold: "Mépris de classe" is rearing its head again! I haven't read L'événement - I'm finding the subject matter slightly scary- but your review is making me reconsider.

joulukuu 31, 2020, 8:13am

I enjoy Annie Ernaux's books - the french is easy to read. She must be running out of subject matter because most of her books are autobiographies, but excellent period pieces. The 1960's seem a long time ago and one would have hoped that social progress would have kept pace with technological.

happy new thread