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thorold is knee-deep in non-fiction in Q3

Club Read 2016

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1thorold
Jul 4, 2016, 3:17am Top

Continuation from my Q2 thread

2thorold
Jul 4, 2016, 3:36am Top

I spent the first weekend of Q3 on the IJsselmeer and didn't have a great deal of time for reading, but fittingly enough I've started a couple of new books for the new quarter. The time of women by Elena Chizhova is a recent novel I picked up almost at random for the Reading Globally Russian theme; Home: a short history of an idea is a second go at Rybczynski after I was not quite sure about How architecture works. So far Home: a short history of an idea strikes me as a bit flimsy - a lot of generalising from assertions and skipping over detail. But I'm only three or four chapters in.

3thorold
Jul 7, 2016, 2:00am Top



I've posted a review of The time of women over on the Reading Globally Q3 Soviet and Post-Soviet Writers thread.

4thorold
Edited: Jul 7, 2016, 8:59am Top

Towards the top of my Q2 thread I posted a list of things I was thinking about reading next. Needless to say, I didn't read very many things off that list. But it did feel like a useful exercise, all the same. So I'll try it again. In principle, everything on the previous list that I haven't read yet still applies. Priorities, as I see them just now, might be:

Soviet/Post-Soviet writers for the Reading Globally theme read - I've got off to a start there already, and I'm hoping to get further inspiration from anisoara's comprehensive bibliography. There's a shameful amount of russian literature I haven't read, even some really obvious classics...

Crime - as usual. Still one or two Fred Vargas titles to go, and most of Grijpstra & de Gier

The physical TBR shelf is getting quite overloaded. I want to read at least one more Thomas Bernhard this quarter, and I should try to finish one or more of the long books that seem to have been sitting there forever. Among the recent acquisitions, I'd like to get to Violette Leduc and Eric Jourdan quite soon.

Writers at risk - the Q2 RG theme - never came to much for me, but I'd still like to follow up one or two of the things I was talking about, in particular South Africa (not that I'm being hassled, but a second South African colleague joined my department at work recently...).

5thorold
Edited: Jul 9, 2016, 11:14am Top

....anyway, this time it hasn't taken me quite as long as it did in Q2 to justify the subject-line:

Home: a short history of an idea (1986) by Witold Rybczynski


This could have been a very interesting book, and there's some very good stuff in the last four chapters or so, but Rybczynski's over-enthusiastic pitch to his publisher seems to have trapped him into writing several chapters about the early history of domesticity that he didn't really have enough material for when it came down to it. As for the opening chapter, an obviously-recycled magazine article about Ralph Lauren that has little to do with the rest of the book, the less said the better...

Where it starts getting interesting is when Rybczynski gets to the 19th century and discusses how style, technology and user requirements competed to influence people's expectations of how homes should be designed and built. Architects and designers don't come out of this story very well, and Rybczynski's real heroes this time seem to be the pioneers of "domestic engineering" (later called "home economics"), people like Catherine Beecher and Christine Frederick, who encouraged American women to take control of their own workplaces and insist that houses be arranged in practical, efficient ways. That was something completely new to me, which looks as though it might be interesting to follow up further.

Rybczynski argues quite forcefully that "comfort" is the element that is most important in measuring the success of any environment designed for people, and condemns "style" as a harmful influence that leads us to overlook important usability questions. Austere modernism comes out of the equation worse than retro-styles, interestingly: he argues that 18th-century furniture designers were better at ergonomics than their modern counterparts because they worked by gradual improvement of established designs, whilst 20th-century fashions force the designer to produce something ground-breakingly different every time. He also comes out strongly against de-cluttered interiors - a kitchen is a workshop where tools should be within reach; a bathroom without anywhere to leave your soap is just silly - so it's pretty obvious that no-one has paid much attention to this book in the last thirty years...

6dchaikin
Jul 9, 2016, 10:35pm Top

Mark, interesting review of Home. That last paragraph of your review, in particular, is fascinating--with a several ideas to think about

7thorold
Jul 10, 2016, 12:35am Top

>6 dchaikin: Yes, very striking how he seems to accept the idea of the architect as creative genius at face-value in How architecture works, but thirty years earlier he was effectively dismissing the whole profession as a bunch of irrelevant posturing alpha-males who don't understand how buildings are used. Le Corbusier was a hero in 2013 but a fool in 1986. I suspect that there was a bit of posturing for effect on Rybczynski's side too!

8thorold
Edited: Jul 11, 2016, 3:09am Top

It's starting to feel almost like summer. Went for a long walk in the dunes and on the beach today. During the lunch stop I sat under an oak tree and read most of the novella Salam, Dalgat! (review over on the Soviet thread).



On the train home I started reading another Penelope Fitzgerald, which is always a pleasure, even if it doesn't allow me to cross anything off the TBR...

9thorold
Edited: Jul 11, 2016, 4:05am Top

The gate of angels (1990) by Penelope Fitzgerald


A delicate little sketch of a young physicist in 1912 Cambridge whose rationalist convictions about the way the world should be are challenged on every side by the way it actually is: modern physics, the complexities of human emotions, feminism and the women's suffrage movement, M.R. James and his ghost stories, the European political situation, etc., etc. As you would expect from Fitzgerald, it's full of gloriously unexpected, subversive details and it's a delight to read, but perhaps she overdid her instinct for compression a bit: there are an awful lot of Big Ideas lurking around on the fringes of this book, but they rely very heavily on the reader to fill in the blanks.

As in The blue flower, we are expected to notice how the men keep themselves busy theorising and analysing whilst the women are solving real-world problems. St Angelicus College, which manages to function entirely without female assistance, is shown to be an absurdity that has never contributed anything useful to the world except as a model of bloody-minded reaction.

When she talks about external historical events, there is obviously a bit of simplification and time-compression going on (e.g. with Marsden and Geiger's visit to Cambridge in the last chapter: what they presented probably didn't come as such a surprise to Cambridge scientists as Fitzgerald implies, given that Rutherford had published his model of the atom a year earlier). It's not a super-realistic historical novel, and it's clearly not intended to be, but it gives a plausible feel to the pre-war Cambridge that it describes, without any intrusive anachronisms.

10thorold
Jul 23, 2016, 6:18am Top

I'm just back from a short holiday staying in a splendid 16th century house (courtesy of the Landmark Trust) and exploring some of the stately homes and gardens of south-east England.


(The bunting seems to be left over from the Queen's birthday: nothing to do with Brexit, as far as I could tell.)

Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter

We were amazingly lucky with the weather, and there was plenty of opportunity for relaxing in our own garden with a book. Or several books...

11thorold
Jul 23, 2016, 6:36am Top

L'armée furieuse (2011: The ghost riders of Ordebec) by Fred Vargas



This is almost a parody of the classic Adamsberg mixture: while the main plot line is about a series of murders in a Norman village after a young woman sees a band of ghostly riders carrying some local malefactors away in the forest at dead of night, there's an important subplot about a young man of north African descent wrongly accused of murdering a prominent businessman, and a charming animal story about a pigeon. And the usual little tensions between the eccentric members of Adamsberg's team. It feels at times as though Vargas might be getting a little bored with the formula. This one doesn't quite have the bite of a book like Sous les vents de Neptune, and it's not very easy to buy into the idea that Adamsberg's career is yet again on the line, but there's enough original detail and interest in the new characters introduced here to keep us entertained and interested.

12baswood
Jul 23, 2016, 6:49am Top

Ah yes, Christopher Lloyds garden at Great Dixter, well worth a visit.

13thorold
Edited: Jul 23, 2016, 7:16am Top

Just like a lady (1960) by Nina Bawden



This was Bawden's sixth novel, originally published in 1960. It's a wry, satirical account of the effects of the sort of attitudes to class and gender that were prevalent in lower-middle-class England in the immediate post-war period. Lucy is a clever young woman who realises that she should be able to rise beyond the limited world of her suburban, shopkeeping aunt and uncle, but all her efforts to do so go wrong in comically inglorious ways and she finds herself without any obvious reason entering into an unwanted marriage and a passionless extramarital affair, whilst inadvertently hurting the people who really do care about her. This looks superficially like a modern version of any one of a whole list of cautionary nineteenth-century novels about married life, but there's also a sense that the moral of the book is just as tongue-in-cheek as the rest. The apotheosis of the boy-next-door is presented to us in too arbitrary and implausible a way for us really to see him as Lucy's proper destiny: the point seems to be that 1950s England is a world where social mobility is visible to everyone as a possibility, but for most real people the reality will turn out to be two steps forward, one step back.

The social criticism is perhaps a bit crude and not very well worked out, but the observation and comic detail is superbly well done. It's a pity that Bawden's novels for adults aren't better known: she was definitely one of the better writers of her generation, well up there with the Angry Young Men, but probably overlooked because her children's novels were so popular.

14thorold
Jul 23, 2016, 9:31am Top

L'entreprise des Indes (2010) by Erik Orsenna (France, 1947-)

 

Erik Orsenna (real name Erik Arnoult) is as solidly Establishment as only a French socialist can be: grandes écoles, LSE, minister, adviser to Mitterrand, member of the Académie Française, winner of the Prix Goncourt, etc., etc. He's a specialist in international development economics and also well-known as the author of a series of playful novels dealing with French grammar, starting with La grammaire est une chanson douce.

L'entreprise des Indes is an historical novel in which we hear about the background to the European "discovery" of the Americas from the point of view of Christopher Columbus's younger brother Bartolomé. In retirement in Santo Domingo in 1511, he is being interviewed by a young Dominican, Bartolomé de las Casas, who is trying to investigate the origins of Spanish cruelty against the Indians. Although Columbus is sickened himself by the atrocities that he has witnessed and failed to prevent, he blames the Dominicans for instigating the persecution of the Jews in Spain and Portugal, and isn't much inclined to cooperate with his namesake. Instead he talks about his experiences as a mapmaker in Lisbon, his relationship with his brother, and the various drives that came together to bring about their great "enterprise". He speculates about the nature of exploration and discovery, suggesting that the real motivation for seeking a westward route to China had less to do with commercial exploitation and acquisition of territory (although these were needed as bait to secure royal investment) than with a simple boyish urge to push back boundaries and achieve recognition.

With all this macho conquistadoring going on, there isn't much room for female characters, but during his time in Lisbon, Bartolomé is very preoccupied with the fate of the many sailor's wives in the city (at one point he diversifies from map-making into selling them evidence of their husbands' deaths overseas so that they can remarry) - unmarried himself, in Orsenna's version he seems to become a kind of proxy for his brother's wife, taking over after her death as a mother-figure for his nephew and a "feminine" influence on Christopher, who of course left him behind on his first two voyages.

Entertaining, and nicely done, but I don't think it tells us anything very new about colonialism.

15thorold
Jul 24, 2016, 4:26pm Top

One of the things I made a mental note of thirty years ago when I was reading up on Thackeray's life and work was that I really ought to find out more about his friend Edward FitzGerald.
Of course, I did nothing about it until I read Sebald's The rings of Saturn five years ago, which made FitzGerald sound even more interesting. That made me start looking for a biography, but for some reason it was another two years before I actually came across a copy of one, and by that time I'd almost forgotten again why I wanted to read it, so it got buried in the TBR pile until I found it again this weekend and thought it was about time for a bit of Victoriana...

With friends possessed: a life of Edward FitzGerald (1985) by Robert Bernard Martin (USA, 1918-1999)



Martin was an English professor at Princeton who wrote a string of biographies of eminent Victorian literary figures after his retirement. He's particularly known for his book on Tennyson, which won all sorts of prizes at the time (I thought I had a copy, but I can't find it: maybe I read it as a library book?).

The one thing everyone knows about Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) is that he translated Omar Khayyam. Which makes you picture him, knowing nothing else about him, as a Burton-like figure crossing deserts on his camel and smoking a hookah. So it's a bit of a shock to discover that the person responsible for bringing the glass-of-wine-beneath-the-boughness of the Orient into so many British and American readers' lives was neither a traveller nor a serious scholar, but actually lived a relatively reclusive life, most of it in rural Suffolk, dabbling in this and that as the fancy took him. He didn't produce any other significant published works apart from the Omar Khayyam translations during his lifetime, but he was one of the great letter-writers of an age of great letter-writers, and had a voluminous correspondence with all sorts of interesting people, not least Thackeray, Alfred and Frederick Tennyson, Fanny Kemble and the Carlyles.

FitzGerald's life seems to have been shaped to a great extent by his uncomfortable relationship with the very wealthy family he was born into: his inherited wealth made it unnecessary for him ever to think about a serious career, but he was clearly embarrassed by his mother's conspicuous consumption and his father's disastrous business ventures, staying away from his relatives as much as he decently could and spending as little as possible on himself, eating simply and going to considerable lengths to avoid making work for his servants.

FitzGerald's sexuality is obviously something of a puzzle, but Martin seems somewhat over-fastidious in his refusal to draw any conclusions at all. If you put together the evidence of a string of intense, possessive friendships with men from outside his own social and intellectual circle, a tendency to pick up fishermen, an obvious lack of interest in women, and a brief and disastrous attempt at marriage rather late in life, it seems to be pretty obvious which way FitzGerald was inclined. From his friends' reactions when he told them about his plans to marry Miss Barton, it's clear that - even in an age where there was no socially acceptable discourse for talking about homosexuality - they had drawn their own conclusions. Martin also hints that the Lowestoft fishermen were joking openly about his motives for hanging about the port. There's also the telling observation that whilst the poet's love-objects in Omar Khayyam's original text are sometimes male and sometimes female, FitzGerald avoids specifying any genders at all in his translations. Hmm.

Martin gives a very clear, amused yet affectionate account of FitzGerald's life, avoiding drowning us in facts and quotations, but doing a good job of explaining his strange, elusive character to us and showing us why he thinks him worthy of our attention. The bad news is that reading this book isn't going to get me out of reading the letters as well...

16thorold
Jul 25, 2016, 10:02am Top

>12 baswood: Yes - I know next to nothing about gardening, but that one really impressed me. It seems to start from the same kind of "structured overcrowding" approach I use for organising my bookshelves, but the result is somehow a lot more beautiful!

A lot to enjoy, but also a lot to make me roll my eyes, not least the posters at Hever Castle urging you to "GET MARRIED IN STYLE AT THE CHILDHOOD HOME OF ANNE BOLEYN".

17SassyLassy
Jul 25, 2016, 2:30pm Top

Envying the trip to Great Dixter, amused by the description of Erik Arnoult, and interested in your review of With Friends Possessed. Somehow the book on Fitzgerald seems a lot more attainable than a trip to Great Dixter.

18dchaikin
Jul 25, 2016, 10:37pm Top

Always interesting here. Enjoyed your last three. I had never heard of Edward FitzGerald. Sounds like quite a character.

19thorold
Jul 26, 2016, 3:14am Top

>17 SassyLassy: >18 dchaikin:
Thanks for the feedback. I was probably a bit unfair to Erik Orsenna, whom I know only from that one book and his Wikipedia page. But someone who ticks so many boxes probably deserves a bit of teasing!

If you're curious about FitzGerald, there's a lot to be said for reading The rings of Saturn, where Sebald brings together in a few pages his reading of Martin's biography and some of FitzGerald's letters with his experience of visiting the places where he lived. (There are a lot of other good reasons for reading Sebald as well, of course...)

20thorold
Edited: Jul 30, 2016, 9:37am Top

...and somehow we always come back to crime. I'm jumping quite a long way ahead of myself in the Montalbano series, with one I happened to find in a charity shop. At least, being a beach story, it seems quite seasonal:

La pista di sabbia (2007: The track of sand) by Andrea Camilleri (Italy, 1925- )



A classic Montalbano story, with all the essential ingredients: perfect Sicilian food, weather and scenery, organised crime, disorganised policemen, and slightly too many beautiful women trying to get into the Commissario's trousers. As usual, the dialogue is sharp and extremely funny, but there's always a darker undercurrent in the background as well.

This one starts out with Montalbano waking up from a nightmare to discover that someone really has beaten a horse to death on the beach outside his house during the night: unfortunately, the body vanishes whilst the cops are waiting for the espresso-maker to boil, leaving only a trail in the sand. There seems to be a connection with clandestine horse-racing organised by the mafia, but Montalbano also finds himself invited to a slightly surreal amateur race-meeting for amazzoni organised by an eccentric aristocrat. Camilleri (82 when this was published, but you wouldn't know it) is allowing Montalbano to start feeling his age a little (reading-glasses), and he also seems to be scattering plenty of allusions to Dante around, but I suspect that this is all part of the joke...

(Someone in another thread was commenting on Montalbano covers the other day - this one is a reproduction of a strange but rather splendid 19th century ex voto from a Sicilian church, which if nothing else demonstrates that Sicilians must have gone in for reckless driving well before the age of the motor-car...)

21thorold
Edited: Jul 30, 2016, 5:59pm Top

And a minor diversion, prompted by Rybczynski, but also tying in to some extent with The Group - Mrs Frederick would have been a contemporary of the mothers of the young women in McCarthy's novel:

The new housekeeping; efficiency studies in home management (1913) by Christine Frederick (USA, 1883-1970)
(read as a PDF from Archive.org)

Christine Frederick seems to have been a classic case of the intelligent, highly-educated middle-class American woman brought up to think of herself as a future leader of the nation only to find herself committed to a full-time career in laundry, cooking, cleaning, and child-care. Instead of rebelling against the expectations of society - or even asking her husband why he never washed the dishes - she decided to take a long hard look at what she was actually doing and how it could be improved. She hit upon the idea of taking the "business efficiency" techniques that were being used to improve workflow in factories and offices at the time and applying them to her own workplace. Her experiments allowed her to identify quite a number of areas where she could save time and effort by making simple changes in the arrangement of her kitchen or the scheduling of her tasks. She is generally credited with being the first to insist on things like standardised heights for kitchen worktops, the window over the sink and the draining board to the left of it (so annoying for those of us who happen to be left-handed!).

The new housekeeping (1913) sets out her basic methodology in a way that she obviously hopes any middle-class woman should be able to apply. Frederick points out that wealthy women don't have a problem with housework, they pay someone else to solve it for them; the poor, she considers, are brought up to hard work and have much simpler homes to run. She returned to the subject in 1919 with Household engineering, a more comprehensive look at how an understanding of housework should inform the design of homes.

The new housekeeping is less about solutions than about how women should see running a home as a business (in which the woman is the "junior partner" and the wage-earner the "senior"!). Amongst other things, she advocates keeping a good filing system and clear financial accounts, cost-benefit analysis for investments in equipment, time-and-motion studies for common tasks, scheduling of jobs to minimise the need for what we would call multi-tasking, and above all making the effort to think through why and how things are done. She's quite conscious that a lot of readers will be put off by the apparent complexity of all this, and she goes to some lengths to demonstrate simple ways she has found to implement these ideas in practice.

For women who keep a servant, she recommends establishing proper employment conditions - fixed hours and guaranteed free days, overtime payments, incentives for training, and if possible allowing the servant to live out. This sort of thing would have been completely unthinkable in Edwardian England - obviously the reason for books like this one in the USA was that servants were already becoming an unaffordable luxury for most middle-class families, a couple of generations before the same thing happened in most of Europe. Frederick's ideas don't seem to have had any noticeable impact in Britain, but the French (Paulette Bernège) were more interested.

Most of Frederick's attitudes come over as very rational and modern, but every now and then you have to do a double-take and remind yourself that this was written a century ago. The most striking thing, of course, is her unquestioning acceptance of gender-roles. She never for a moment suggests that married women might want to have a career or that their husbands might want to do anything in the home except eat, sleep and relax. Rather oddly, she doesn't see any contradiction in having a career herself - we gather from what she says that as well as looking after a home and two small children, she is on the editorial staff of a women's magazine and runs a test-kitchen where she evaluates equipment for manufacturers. Another thing that struck me is her evangelism for the giants of American capitalism. She repeatedly tells her readers to stick to name-brands, to have faith in their trade-marks and advertisements, to believe what it says on the list of ingredients, not to fall for price-cutting and "own brand" products, and so on. Could it be that the Fredericks had something to do with advertising before they moved into efficiency...?

Not all of her practical ideas have stood the test of time either: many things she advocates, like the "fuelless stove" (what we would call a haybox) and the "kitchen elevator" (an icebox made to sink through the kitchen floor into the cool basement) were made redundant by the sharp drop in the price of electricity shortly after The new housekeeping came out. And modern kitchen designers have evidently not followed her teaching that all frequently used tools should be within reach and nothing should be stored below waist level.

Image of kitchen workflow from Household Engineering (much the same illustration is in The new housekeeping as well):

22thorold
Jul 31, 2016, 4:35am Top

A couple of further thoughts on Frederick:
- Usually after our dinner I wash forty-eight pieces of china, twenty-two pieces of silver, and ten utensils and pots, or eighty pieces in all... (Ch.2) - This for a couple with two children under five! She goes on to explain that she has managed to cut 15 minutes off her washing-up time by creating a better workflow, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to her that she could do even better by simplifying the service a bit. How does anyone manage to use 12 items of china per head for one meal?

- When I think of the women of my grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' generation (Frederick would probably class them as "poor"), I remember them as great organisers and collectivisers: in particular, they were all heavily involved in the Co-Operative movement, taking control of their own purchasing supply-chain. "Organise" is not a word Frederick likes to use, outside the context of filing systems. Her women are supposed to sit on their own, solving their problems by pure thought.

23dchaikin
Jul 31, 2016, 9:09am Top

So, the Frederick book is genre horror?

No, actually, your review is quite fascinating. And I'm very entertained by the illustration. (Is the refrigerator door on the porch??) Interesting look into pre-WWI America.

24thorold
Jul 31, 2016, 9:40am Top

>23 dchaikin: I thought at first it might be a way to allow the butcher and milkman to deliver without coming into the kitchen, but it seems it's just the door where you put the ice in.

The refrigerator should preferably form a permanent part of kitchen construction, and be built into the wall space so that it can be iced from outside. This plan saves the tracking of ice delivery into the kitchen and makes it possible to use very little ice or none in winter months.

25dchaikin
Jul 31, 2016, 10:38am Top

Ok, that's a really interesting detail.

26thorold
Jul 31, 2016, 5:14pm Top

Article about Paulette Bernège (in French) http://d-fiction.fr/2012/12/si-les-femmes-faisaient-les-maisons-la-croisade-de-p...
Together with Le Corbusier, she tried (and failed) to persuade a government commission in the late 1920s to change French housing law to oblige architects to take efficiency principles into consideration.

27baswood
Jul 31, 2016, 8:18pm Top

Fascinating review of Christine Fredericks's book. I believe in 1913 that people who would have freezers and garbage disposal openings in England would have had servants at that time.

28thorold
Aug 4, 2016, 3:33am Top

Back to more conventional territory, continuing my reading of Penelope Fitzgerald's novels:
(To forestall the inevitable question: Fitzgerald was her married name - I don't know if her husband was related to Edward FitzGerald. It's not unlikely, as he does seem to have been from an Anglo-Irish background, but he evidently wasn't one of the wealthy Fitzgeralds.)

The golden child (1977) by Penelope Fitzgerald



Fitzgerald had already produced a couple of biographies when she wrote this first novel: apparently she undertook it chiefly as a way to to amuse her dying husband. Uncharacteristically, in view of the sort of novels she later became known for, it's a satirical crime thriller, set in an unnamed large museum of antiquities in Bloomsbury, which is staging a hugely popular but completely fraudulent Tutankhamen-style exhibition of borrowed treasures. Complex rivalries between the different factions of museum administrators boil over, in the best Civil Service tradition, into violent crime and international espionage.

It's a perfectly respectable crime thriller, with a good mix of jokes, clues, and cliffhangers, but with hindsight we would expect a bit more than that from a Fitzgerald novel, and this one doesn't quite deliver. It seems to have been a bit of a false start for her. The very black comedy and the cynical view of human nature seem to be borrowed from Evelyn Waugh and (more directly) Simon Raven, but Fitzgerald doesn't have the shameless arrogance that allows those writers to get away with their utter contempt for everything and everyone. What is entirely characteristic for her is the extreme compression of the plot, which leaves some threads and some characters rather undeveloped. It would have been nice to see something of Waring Smith's permanently offstage wife, for instance. But everything is over, the mystery solved and the clay tablet decrypted, before we really have time to draw breath.

29thorold
Aug 4, 2016, 6:47am Top

In the meantime, I'm still pressing on slowly with Carlo Emilio Gadda. A parcel with a couple of Persephone books came yesterday - I'm tempted to make a start on one of those, as well...

>27 baswood: Don't read too much into the "garbage disposal opening" - it's a work table with a hole in it and a pail on the shelf beneath, so that you don't need to walk over to the bin when you're scraping plates or peeling spuds. Within the reach of anyone who can afford a saw and a bucket, but I don't suppose many people, rich or poor, would have wanted one.

30thorold
Edited: Aug 8, 2016, 3:18am Top

Back to fiction again, and another of those silly misunderstandings where I ended up with two copies of a book in different languages. This was recommended to me by a friend in a context that made me assume it must have been a classic of Dutch literature, and I went to quite some trouble to get hold of the Dutch edition, only to discover that it was a translation from French (rather oddly, the Dutch version came from a publisher in France!). So I ended up reading the original as an ebook, and only the introduction of the translation...

Les mauvais anges (originally published 1955, reissued 1985; Wicked angels) by Éric Jourdan (France, 1938–2015)

 

The French gay novelist Éric Jourdan, who died just over a year ago, seems to have been unusually successful at keeping biographical data out of the public eye: all that Wikipedia knows about him is that he had a Welsh/Basque father and a Tyrollean/Savoyard mother, that he wrote under many different names, and that the distinguished American/French writer Julien Green became his adoptive father. Geert Hekma, in the Introduction to the Dutch translation, speculates that the long gap in Jourdan's known output between the late fifties and the early nineties may indicate that Green was claiming all his time during this period.

Les mauvais anges is the story of teenage cousins Pierre and Gérard whose friendship develops into a passionate and all-consuming love affair during one of those idyllic long summer holidays in the country that French fiction does so well. With hindsight, one of the most remarkable things about it is that it was written when Jourdan was only sixteen (but that probably didn't seem so odd in 1955, given that an eighteen-year-old had taken the world by storm with Bonjour Tristesse the previous year).

One of the least remarkable things about Les mauvais anges, sadly, is that the book's "immoral content" immediately drew the attention of the authorities. France didn't exactly have literary censorship in the 1950s, but the committee that examined the book was able to ban booksellers from displaying the book or selling it to minors, so it was effectively killed, apart from translations and a few limited editions published by private subscription. A second attempt to publish it failed in 1974, and it was only with the 1985 reissue that you could buy it over the counter. (The introduction of the French edition speculates that the extreme length of this ban was at least partly due to defeatism or lack of interest from Jourdan and his French publisher - after all, they could have pointed to what Genet had got away with doing in print without any official interventions...).

So, how does it hold up? Not surprisingly, the many critics who contributed fore- and afterwords to the two editions I have all see it as a triumph of lyrical, passionate writing, a milestone in gay literature, etc. Up to a point, they are right. There is a freshness and originality, especially in the early chapters where the boys are discovering the nature of their attraction for each other, that really stands out. It is pretty obvious that Jourdan didn't have any good models to work from, and was forced to do without the repertoire of clichés we might expect. It is a stunningly vivid description of two teenagers with nothing else in their heads apart from sex, sex, sex and sex. But, as the book progresses, Jourdan seems to run out of steam a bit. He doesn't really manage to turn Pierre and Gérard into clearly distinct characters. They swap roles and attributes all the time, until you are puzzled to tell which is which. When one of them observes "We are Romeo and Romeo, we are Tristan and Tristan" I felt that he had hit the nail on the head. He could equally well have said "We are Narcissus and Narcissus."

The other thing I didn't get on with in the later part of the book is the eroticisation of violence that increasingly takes over the plot. And that's largely a matter of taste. There are valid reasons for putting rapes and beatings into a novel, and there's a case for using the description of violence as a metaphor for sexual passion, but when it goes too far - as it does here - it can easily become repulsive. And it leads Jourdan into an ending that I don't suppose anyone much over the age of seventeen can take seriously as a Grand Tragic Finale.

(ETA: I've just realised what it is that the cover of the Dutch edition reminds me of. I wonder if the designer used to do railway timetables...?)

31thorold
Aug 7, 2016, 4:24pm Top

Back in the real world, today was the Deventer book market. It's the first time I've been able to go for years, because I have another "fixed point" in England that normally overlaps with it. Very impressive: it's said to be the biggest in Europe. Unfeasibly big to browse in one day, anyway. The whole river-front and much of the town centre is full of stalls selling secondhand books of one sort or another, and there were huge numbers of book-hungry browsers getting off the train with me in the morning, most of them armed with empty backpacks and trolley-cases.

There were lots of tempting things on offer, several of which I failed to snap-up due to indecisiveness (rule for next time: if you see something good, buy it right away, you'll never remember where you saw it if you try to go back later). Prices seemed to be generally low and a lot of the dealers were obviously just clearing stock as fast as they could (lots of "three for the price of two" offers and the like). Which was nice for the customer, but I wonder how many of those dealers will still be there next year...?

I didn't find any of the things I was really looking for, but came back with a modest (and alarmingly cheap) haul. I found that one of the books I bought still had a publisher's invoice in it: the original purchaser in 1962 had to pay NLG 14.90 (EUR 6.77); 54 years later I paid EUR 5.00. That one clearly hasn't kept pace with inflation!

Bad photo out of the window of the train with an iPhone, but it gives an idea of the scale of the thing:

32baswood
Aug 7, 2016, 5:11pm Top

Hope it didn't rain

33thorold
Aug 7, 2016, 5:28pm Top

No, luckily it stayed dry for once. And the forecast was good, too, so people didn't stay at home.

34thorold
Aug 8, 2016, 2:17am Top

...and another dip into the fifties with the book I read on the train to and from Deventer, but didn't quite finish before I got home. I have a biography of Taylor on the TBR, but I've only read four of her novels so far:

The sleeping beauty (1953) by Elizabeth Taylor (UK, 1912-1975)

 

Taylor is a very interesting novelist: in the tradition of the ironic, mildly subversive English-woman-novelist-who-gets-compared-to-Jane-Austen, but also a little bit off to one side of it. The books have a mood of quietly pleasurable pessimism that sits somewhere between Barbara Pym's "grateful to be back where we started from" view of the world and the doom and gloom of Anita Brookner. The irony is carefully dosed, so we are often tricked into taking her characters seriously at the beginning only to find her, a chapter or two down the line, making us see how absurd they really are by sticking in a couple of beautifully observed and entirely ridiculous details. In this book there's a running joke that most of the characters are secretly addicted to betting on horseraces, taking considerable pains to prevent their friends (who have the same vice) from finding out about it, for instance.

Like one or two of her other novels, this takes as its starting point the death of a husband and the consequent changes in a middle-aged woman's life, but in this case it isn't really the widow Isabella who is at the centre of the novel, but her male friend Vinnie, who falls, French Lieutenant's Woman style, for a mysterious woman he has glimpsed walking on the beach. It turns out that the "mystery woman", Emily, has had major plastic surgery on her face after a car accident and has locked herself away from the world ever since: the question is whether the middle-aged Vinnie has the qualifications to be the prince who awakens her. And whether a plot complication so absurd that it must have strayed in from either a Victorian novel or a soap opera can prevent the necessary happy-end?

A very good read, full of entertaining detail and anything but a romance.

35Simone2
Aug 8, 2016, 2:54am Top

>34 thorold: Sounds interesting. I recently read Blaming,the other novel Taylor wrote about a widow, and was impressed by her style. In that case I didn't like the storyline very much, but this one seems more interesting.

36thorold
Aug 8, 2016, 3:27am Top

>35 Simone2: Yes, this one is a lot less claustrophobic than Blaming.

37SassyLassy
Aug 8, 2016, 9:36am Top

>34 thorold: That does sound wonderfully Victorian in plot. I like your description of ...the ironic, mildly subversive English-woman-novelist-who-gets-compared-to-Jane-Austen, and have to confess I usually avoid these authors, but the more I hear of Elizabeth Taylor, the more I think I should try her. This sounds like a good start.

As an aside, how do you manage to read on trains? I used to be able to do it really well on long runs, but now find myself mesmerized by the passing world.

38thorold
Edited: Aug 8, 2016, 10:48am Top

>37 SassyLassy: And I didn't even mention the L.P. Hartley-ish subplot about the children sent off to the seaside with their nanny and nurse... :-)

Re trains: it doesn't always work, and I usually don't even try to read if I'm making a journey for the first time. On familiar journeys, the train is probably less distracting than being at home. Looking out of the window or watching other passengers for a while is a brief, finite distraction, which leaves you still sitting there with the book in front of you, whereas making a cup of tea or emptying the washing-machine often leads into other little tasks, and you never get back to your armchair. Sometimes I'm too sleepy to read on the way home, though.

I've tried audiobooks on the train: that allows you to look out of the window and enjoy a book simultaneously. But it means wearing earphones, which is a nuisance. And unless you sit in a "quiet" area and annoy other passengers with whatever is leaking from the earphones, the book has to compete with other people's (phone-)conversations and the endless loudspeaker announcements. I found it more trouble than it was worth.

39thorold
Edited: Aug 9, 2016, 5:15am Top

And this week's dose of 19th century ephemera, a book that caught my eye in Deventer for no very good reason:

Rambles round reformed lands (1889) by the Rev. James I. Good, D.D. (USA, 1850 – 1924)



The Rev. Dr. Good turns out to have been a prominent clergyman in the American Reformed Church in Pennsylvania, who also taught at the Central Theological Seminary and served for a time as president of the General Synod (thanks, once again, Wikipedia!). He published a number of historical works about the Reformed Church in Europe, the most popular on LT being Famous women of the Reformed Church, with 16 copies - it's fun to see that one of the top LT recommendations for that book is John Knox's First blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women.

Researching his historical works, Dr Good, like any conscientious nineteenth-century writer, wanted to see things for himself, and made a series of visits to the places associated with the great figures of the Reformation. Visits he would most certainly not have used a popish word like "pilgrimages" for, although that was clearly what they came down to. This travel book about his experiences in Switzerland and Germany is evidently intended as a frivolous spin-off from his more serious work. But we can't reasonably expect very high standards of frivolity from a Calvinist pastor in search of Zwingli's birthplace...

I was expecting to dip into this book, have a good laugh at its period quaintness and prejudices, and put it back on the shelf. But I found myself warming to Dr Good's style in an odd way: he's so patently a kind and sincere person, despite his frequently expressed prejudices against Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, "rationalists", foreigners (other than Reformed clergy), Jews and black people (the last of these doesn't really come into play in this book, but I deduce it from his reaction to the Black Madonna at Einsiedeln). He reminds me very much of certain kindly old clergymen and church elders I knew when I was a child (obviously, they would have been at least a generation younger than Good) - people you feel too much respect for to want to disagree with them, even when they are exhibiting 20/20 tunnel vision. His style really has all the elements of that type: the rambling anecdotes about vaguely embarrassing misunderstandings (usually involving going into a church by the wrong door); the unsubstantiated tales in which unnamed and unverifiable people experience good fortune as a result of following the Reformed faith; the ludicrously weak pulpit puns (standing on a bridge in Berlin: "And here (I am almost ashamed to confess it) I find myself on a spree."). Silly, but so delightful, at least when it's a century away and not happening over an interminable Sunday tea when you really want to get away and play in the garden.

Dr Good seems to have been unlucky with his printer, but his loss is our gain. Apart from the unfortunate title page layout ("yes, but what about the square ones?" was my automatic reaction...) we get a whole string of unconventional American spellings of German place names: Frankford for Frankfurt and Meurs for Moers being the most striking. A few historical figures also get Americanised in a rather Mark Twainish way - "Thomas A. Kempis" was easy enough to decode, but "John A. Lasco" took me a moment or two longer to work out (he's more usually either Johannes a Lasco or Jan Łaski). And I really had to struggle to identify the nasty "Rosseau" with good old Jean-Jacques.

An engaging little bit of fun, but also mildly interesting in filling in a few little gaps in my knowledge - I wasn't really conscious of the distinction between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions in German protestantism, for instance, but reading his account of things like the Diakoniewerk in Kaiserswerth (which I knew of as the place where my mother's parents met) the pieces started to fall into place with what I already knew.

40baswood
Aug 9, 2016, 8:27am Top

No doubt a Good book. Enjoyed your review of another world

41dchaikin
Aug 9, 2016, 9:02am Top

Three more great reviews, Mark. The Deventer book market sounds like quite a place to visit.

42SassyLassy
Aug 9, 2016, 9:57am Top

>39 thorold: I have to confess when I first saw this title my immediate thought was of an quasi religious agricultural movement, but I prefer your geometric take on it. It is fun to read personal accounts from other times, especially when the authors are put into new settings for them.

I wasn't really conscious of the distinction between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions in German protestantism Good grief... a whole 'nother world to sort out. I have to sit down and work out Covenanters, Conventiclers, Cameronians and others of their ilk whenever I read certain authors. This sounds equally as painful.

First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women... I always thought that was one of the best titles ever, but that is about as far down the John Knox path as I go.

43thorold
Edited: Aug 9, 2016, 10:44am Top

>40 baswood: You've caught the tone precisely. I strongly suspect him of hiding behind a newspaper in the college SCR (or faculty club, or whatever they have in Reformed colleges), hoping to overhear one of his colleagues asking another "Have you read the Good book?"

>42 SassyLassy: Covenanters, Conventiclers, Cameronians - only in Scott, surely?
Yes, it could so easily have been about soil improvement. I missed that.

44thorold
Edited: Aug 11, 2016, 4:45am Top

Another brief diversion: I'm about halfway through the Elizabeth Taylor bio, and keep getting reminded that I've never read anything by Ivy Compton-Burnett, whom Taylor regarded as the "greatest living novelist" (the two of them eventually became great friends). Anyway, Scribd for once turned up something useful:

A god and his gifts (1963) by Ivy Compton-Burnett (UK, 1884–1969)

  

Ivy Compton-Burnett was widely regarded as one of Britain's most distinguished writers during her lifetime, but seems to have fallen off the radar subsequently. I don't remember anyone talking about her at all when I was young, and I think I even had her mixed up in my mind with the American lady who wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy at one time! She published some twenty novels between 1925 and 1963, usually consisting almost entirely of dialogue and having titles containing the word "and".

This was Compton-Burnett's last novel published during her lifetime, a complicated multi-generation family saga set in what seems to be a big Edwardian country house, although there are no references to external events that could give us any real clue to when it is set. The story centres around Hereward Egerton, heir to the estate and title and also a successful popular novelist. As we gradually discover, he is shamelessly exploiting everyone in his extended family (and beyond), with all sorts of dire consequences that keep coming to light as the story goes on, but his psychological power over the family is such that they just have to keep on forgiving him and adapting their lives to the new situation he has put them in. Whether or not she had anyone specific in mind, there are plenty of real-life examples of the "great artist" who behaved like that and mostly got away with it: Eric Gill would be an obvious example.

The book is written throughout in Compton-Burnett's notoriously stylised manner, in which there is no narratorial exposition at all, and almost all the work is done by direct speech. The speeches are tagged only when absolutely necessary. Most of the time you have to work out who is speaking from the content of the speech (sometimes you have to wait for the reply to be sure). The speeches themselves make no attempt to mimic natural conversation: they are there to tell us what the characters are thinking and trying to communicate with each other, not to mimic the way they say it. Each chapter is conspicuously structured like an act of a play (but without the helpful programme note that says "Act II: Seven years later"). We start off with two or three characters on stage discussing something, then gradually almost the whole cast comes on to give us their opinions, and the act closes with a few banal (but ever so slightly ambiguous...) platitudes from Galleon the butler, who serves chiefly as a Greek Chorus.

The idea of all this seems to be to create a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt - to put all the stage machinery of the novel in plain view so that the reader can't drift off into comforting preconceptions about Edwardian families, but looks critically at what is going on in this one as though seeing it for the first time. Given the metaphor of the god that runs through the story, there is obviously also a more conventional pattern of allusion to Greek drama going on as well. I'm not sure if I'm a complete convert, but it was an interesting experience, and certainly I was left with very little sympathy for Hereward by the end of the book!

I probably need to read some more...

Edit: having read a bit further in the bio, it's clear that Taylor always felt rather overawed by Dame Ivy and her circle, so it was probably too much to say that they were "great friends".

45ELiz_M
Edited: Aug 10, 2016, 11:33am Top

>44 thorold: I don't remember who first put Ivy Compton-Burnett on my radar, but your review reinforces my desire to, eventually, read some of her works.

46thorold
Aug 10, 2016, 11:42am Top

>45 ELiz_M: To give credit where it's due, one of the recent things that woke me up to my ignorance was LolaWalser posting an excerpt on the "judge a book by page 39" thread earlier this year.

47FlorenceArt
Aug 10, 2016, 1:54pm Top

I had never heard of John Knox or First Blast of the Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment of Women. I agree with >42 SassyLassy:, what a title! And the monstrous women were queens, no less! I read the first few lines on Gutenberg. The guy certainly didn't mince his words.

Compton-Burnett is a familiar name, but I have never read her books. A God and his Gifts sounds interesting.

Hey, both touchstones were right the first time! What a surprise. I wonder if they finally fixed them?

48thorold
Edited: Aug 10, 2016, 3:58pm Top

>47 FlorenceArt: I had never heard of John Knox or First Blast of the Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Whatever happened to the Auld Alliance? :-)

The funny thing about that title is that even when you know perfectly well that Knox wasn't using "regiment" in the modern military sense (couldn't even have known about it), the image you got into your head the first time you heard it at school is the one that sticks there. Like the Diet of Worms.
Terry Pratchett's very clever Monstrous Regiment is based on that schoolroom joke, of course.

I love the way the 19th century editor of the Gutenberg text decides that Knox would have hung up his hat and sung a nunc dimittis if he'd been able to see the reign of Queen Victoria!

49thorold
Aug 10, 2016, 4:52pm Top

I skipped the first half of tonight's Prom (not really a fan of Dutilleux) and instead got out the obligatory box of tissues and watched Brief Encounter (1945), which gets a lot of mentions in the Taylor bio. I hadn't seen it for a very long time. I suppose it's the most-parodied film in British cinematic history - everyone from Kenneth Horne to Victoria Wood has had a go at it - but it's actually much better than I remembered it. Lots of British bathos, endless cups of tea, dialogue by Noel Coward, sound-track by Rachmaninov, all sorts of steam trains pounding through Carnforth station, and a very nicely done comic sub-plot with Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey to set off the main action. Celia Johnson's accent is almost as alarming as Carey's, but it starts to seem quite normal surprisingly quickly, and she and Howard are really quite perfect together.

(It was interesting to see from her Wikipedia page that one of Celia Johnson's last roles was in the BBC adaptation of Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.)

Victoria Wood's version of Brief Encounter, which is almost as good as the real thing and only 4 minutes long: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajC4Az4wscc

50thorold
Aug 11, 2016, 4:37am Top

>47 FlorenceArt: I wonder if they finally fixed them?
Apparently not: I just saw that The other Elizabeth Taylor brings up Hamlet as top touchstone. Was the other Other Elizabeth Taylor ever in Hamlet? I know she was courting Burton at the time he did it, but that wouldn't cause a touchstone, would it?

51FlorenceArt
Aug 11, 2016, 3:39pm Top

>50 thorold: Yeah, I guess that was too much to hope...

52baswood
Aug 14, 2016, 8:40am Top

>44 thorold: Interesting, I did not know that about Ivy Compton-Burnett's writing style.

53thorold
Aug 15, 2016, 3:06pm Top

Back to Project ET:

A game of hide and seek (1951) by Elizabeth Taylor



This seems to be one of Taylor's best-known novels. Superficially it's a reworking of the plot of Brief encounter - a happily-married woman finds she's desperately in love with Another Man. Taylor clearly enjoys planting a string of tongue-in-cheek references to the recent film in the text to show us that she's well aware of this overlap - and incidentally diverting any suspicion that there might have been such a situation in her own life (as we now know there was). But if it's Brief encounter, then it's Brief encounter as it would have been if they'd got E.M. Forster to do it instead of Noel Coward. There are all kinds of extra layers of frustration and miscommunication (especially between generations) going on alongside the main storyline, there is more ambiguity than you can shake a stick at, and there's a gloriously undefined ending where you have to decide for yourself how it all might have worked out. And of course a whole lot of wonderfully subversive lines, and some absolutely beautiful set-piece scenes. There may be a few bits of the book that feel like pastiche Forster, but then you get something like the scene in the café with the pork chops and you think "only Taylor could have written this".

54thorold
Edited: Aug 15, 2016, 3:54pm Top

...and another Back-to-School classic: I had some friends round for dinner on Friday, and this novella came up in the conversation for some reason I can't recall. It turned out that several of us had read it at school, but no-one could remember anything about it except that it was very depressing and about a railwayman and his little daughter (we were half right - the child is a boy!). So, time for a re-read:

Bahnwärter Thiel (1888) by Gerhart Hauptmann (Germany, 1862-1946)

 

Hauptmann was the 1912 Nobel Prize winner and probably the most celebrated writer in Germany around the time of the first world war. Like a lot of European writers around the turn of the century, he was interested in movements like Socialism and Naturalism. The novella Bahnwärter Thiel was his first published work.

Thiel is a railwayman who is responsible for operating a remote and little-used level crossing in the depths of the Spree forest (not far from Berlin), a posting that suits his gentle, solitary character. Nonetheless, he surprises his neighbours by getting married. His first wife unfortunately dies giving birth to their son, and as widowers tend to do in such situations, he soon marries again. The second wife soon produces a baby as well, and when she starts doing the evil stepmother thing we already know we're heading for tragedy, and it's a safe bet that someone is going to end up under a train.

It isn't quite as much fun as it is in a Zola novel to watch the headlights of the express heading towards us from page one onwards, but there are some interesting elements to the story: the detail of Thiel's everyday working life and his relationship with the solitude of the signal cabin is very well done. For a story published in the 1880s, it's also remarkably explicit about the way Lene uses her sexuality to keep control of Thiel. But of course it's also a remarkably misogynistic story...

55thorold
Edited: Aug 20, 2016, 12:39pm Top

A little while ago, I realised that I've never actually owned any Persephone books. For some reason, they haven't crossed my path often enough to make an impression. Obviously a situation that needed urgent rectification. As chance would have it, the first I came across is not one of their usual interwar British novels, but a biography written by the Founder of Persephone Books herself:

The other Elizabeth Taylor (2009) by Nicola Beauman (UK, 1944 - )

 

Nicola Beauman worked in art galleries, publishing and journalism before setting up Persephone Books in 1998. Her first book was A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 (1983), and she has written several other biographies besides this one.

Literary biography is always a tricky form to get right - writers don't tend to have very interesting lives, and the one really interesting thing about them, their writing, is also the one thing about the subject that the reader usually knows inside-out before coming to the biography. At its worst, a literary biography is little more than gossip, leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that you've learnt things about the writer's life that they wouldn't really have wanted anyone to know (and you would prefer not to as well); at its best it can be a kind of extended critical study, helping you to appreciate things you'd missed in the books and putting them into the context of the writer's career.

Beauman evidently had a very hard time with this book, and she's very open about the problems she encountered. She clearly feels very strongly that Elizabeth Taylor is an important and unfairly neglected writer who deserves the recognition of a full-scale critical biography, but she's also well aware that Taylor herself would have hated the idea, and indeed had taken active steps to make an eventual biographer's task more difficult. Moreover, in assembling information about Taylor's life and trying to come to honest critical conclusions about her, she inevitably stepped on the toes of Taylor's family and friends. One of the most memorable and revealing passages in the biography is not about Taylor at all, but an extended parenthesis in which Beauman tries to describe her feelings about sitting with the elderly Ray Russell as she copied out Taylor's love letters to him from the thirties and forties: "...copying, copying, copying; depressing because one knew the sad end of the affair, yet one of the lovers was sitting there, his sadness written in every line of his body." This is not a book that will motivate you to take up the biographer's trade!

The young Betty Coles seems to have had quite a streak of wildness in her - an active member of the High Wycombe Communist Party, female lead for the local Am-Drams, tutor to one of Penelope Fitzgerald's Knox cousins, and a regular visitor to Eric Gill's household. Beauman sees no reason to believe the rumour that she was seduced by Gill, but it's quite likely that she had an affair with one of Gill's pupils, and certain that she was in love with Ray, the "boy who sold the Daily Worker in High Wycombe High Street".

But then in 1936 she unexpectedly turned herself into a respectable upper-middle-class housewife, marrying local businessman John Taylor, whose family owned a toffee factory. And inadvertently started using the same name as a little girl who would shortly become "the" Elizabeth Taylor. For the rest of her life, she determinedly stuck to the bourgeois, domestic role she had created for herself. Even after the war, when her first books appeared, she took care to give the impression to anyone who asked that her writing was only a kind of hobby. In those days, you could have bought quite a decent small house in Britain with what the New Yorker paid for one short story, but Taylor made a point of not wanting a room of her own to write in (although she does have a woman to "do" for her three days a week - that was perfectly acceptable Buckinghamshire behaviour).

Beauman sees Taylor's attitude in this as one of the main things that contributed to the dismissive way that the literary establishment treated her work. The fifties were not the right time for a writer to be sitting at home with one eye on the Aga and the other on her manuscript, and it didn't help if she wrote novels that were all about personal relationships between middle-class people, with never a Big Idea or a factory worker to be seen. It was almost inevitable that she got pigeonholed as a "lending-library" novelist (we would call it "chick-lit"), and ignored by all but a few perceptive critics. Sadly, she died far too young in 1975, with most of her books out of print, and didn't get to enjoy the revival in her reputation that would start when Virago started reprinting all her novels in 1982.

I enjoyed reading this biography, and it left me feeling enthusiastic about reading the few Taylor novels I haven't tackled yet (and the short stories, which I'd overlooked altogether, but were clearly a key part of her work). And I liked Beauman's very transparent approach to the task. Nothing to quibble about, really: if you enjoy Taylor's novels, read this as well; if you don't know them, then you probably should...

56thorold
Aug 22, 2016, 2:04am Top

Even though August isn't over yet and I've still got holidays to come, it's starting to feel like the end of summer - most of the local schools are back today, the bus timetables have reverted to normal, there's a band of bad weather passing through - the sky looks more like November than August - and I've run out of Adamsberg novels...

Temps glaciaires (2015: A climate of fear) by Fred Vargas



By bringing in a reference to Iceland at an early stage, Vargas tricks us into thinking that this is going to be some kind of "Adamsberg meets Nordic Noir" novel, but in the event it turns out to be a very solidly French crime story, with Robespierre, Danton, Fouché and their revolutionary contemporaries playing a significant role. Of course, Adamsberg does get his trip to the North, and there are some archaeological in-jokes (clues in post-holes!), an animal story involving a not-so-wild boar, a restaurant that serves fabulous pommes paillasson, and plenty of tensions within Adamsberg's team of determinedly eccentric detectives. As usual in Vargas, the serial-killer plot is extravagantly subtle and implausibly complex, but it's great fun.

I do hope we don't have to wait too long for the next one!

57baswood
Aug 22, 2016, 11:52am Top

Enjoyed your review of The Other Elizabeth Taylor

58NanaCC
Edited: Aug 22, 2016, 6:35pm Top

The Other Elizabeth Taylor sounds like a good find. I haven't read anything by Taylor, although I do have access to a few on my daughter's book shelf. I might have to try a couple.

Edited to add..I actually have one of my own, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics). I think that sounds like a good place to start.

59thorold
Aug 23, 2016, 2:05am Top

>58 NanaCC: Mrs Palfrey was the first one I read - with hindsight it's less obviously characteristic of her work than the books mentioned above, but it's definitely one of her best books.

60SassyLassy
Aug 23, 2016, 2:12pm Top

>55 thorold: Great review! After presenting all the reasons/excuses I had been employing to avoid reading Elizabeth Taylor, you have somehow managed to turn it around so that I would like to read something by her. I liked your thoughts on the relation between the biographer and subject.

61thorold
Aug 23, 2016, 2:42pm Top

>60 SassyLassy: Thanks! ...and in the meantime, I've been enjoying another ET classic!

Angel (1957) by Elizabeth Taylor



This is a rather uncharacteristic book for Taylor, but it is based on her usual mix of sharp humour and comfortable pessimism. It's an extravagant, satirical fantasy about an appallingly bad and very successful popular Edwardian novelist. The only one of Taylor's books to be set in part outside her own lifetime, it opens in 1900 and ends sometime in the 1940s. Although the fictional Angel Deverell's life and work seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the real (but still gloriously improbable) novelist Marie Corelli, Taylor is obviously also doing a "there but for the grace of God..." thing, weaving in elements from her own experience as a beginning novelist and imagining how she might have ended up if she had been born without a sense of humour and the self-protective instinct to hide herself in conformity. Both of these lacks leave the unfortunate Angel extremely vulnerable to being hurt by the people she comes across, and it's paradoxically this very vulnerability that also makes it possible for a few people in her life to love her. It's a gloriously funny book, but also a surprisingly touching and sad one. Not to be missed!

(There was a film version in 2007 with Romola Garai and Charlotte Rampling - I haven't seen that yet.)

62kidzdoc
Aug 24, 2016, 8:57pm Top

Nice review of Angel, Mark. Based on the ratings on LT I seem to be the only person who didn't like this book!

63thorold
Aug 25, 2016, 5:39am Top

>62 kidzdoc: Well, Beauman says it's a novel that divides readers! Why didn't you like it, Darryl?

64kidzdoc
Aug 25, 2016, 7:12am Top

>63 thorold: I can't remember the details well, since I read Angel several years ago, but I found her to be an extremely annoying character, which I think is the main reason I disliked this book.

65thorold
Edited: Aug 26, 2016, 4:57am Top

This book has been sitting around on my TBR shelf since summer 2008. It was vaguely current when I ordered it - it had recently won a major pize - but I seem to have forgotten all about it in the meantime. A journey gave me the opportunity to have a proper go at it...

Es geht uns gut (2005) by Arno Geiger (Austria, 1968 - )

  

This is a multi-generation family saga centering around a villa in the bourgeois Viennese suburb of Hietzing, and covering a time period from the 1930s to 2001. So, there's obviously a Buddenbrooks thing going on in the background, with family events linked to significant events in Austrian history, but the episodes are not presented in a chronological sequence, so that we have to fill in a lot of gaps ourselves, and make guesses that later might - or might not - turn out to be right. And whilst Buddenbrooks is about the gradual collapse of the family and its strong, shared values, Geiger evidently wants to show us a family where the necessary ties between generations and between husband and wife were never there in the first place. The patriarch Richard is shown trying to continue to hold the family together according to a system of values that wasalready out of date in his parents' time (whilst by no means living up to those values himself); his grandson Philipp is equally futilely trying to disconnect himself from his family and their past.

A rather depressing novel, but also occasionally very perceptive and funny in its descriptions of upper middle-class life. And sometimes very perceptive: Geiger seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to make the chapters written from the perspective of the women in the family ring true.

66thorold
Edited: Aug 27, 2016, 2:43am Top

...and, since Dan has been tempting me to look at Greek drama:

Antigone by Sophocles (Athens, 5th century BCE), translated by Anne Carson (Canada, 1950 - )

   

Antigone is a play that has plenty of resonances for modern audiences. It's often been used in situations where there's a conflict between political authority and private conscience - Athol Fugard's theatre company during the Apartheid years famously created a play in which two prisoners on Robben Island are staging Antigone, for instance.

The plot is surprisingly simple - two of Antigone’s brothers, fighting on opposite sides, have been killed during a failed attack on Thebes. Their uncle Kreon, the ruler of Thebes, has decreed that the rebel’s body may not be buried. Antigone defies the order, going out to perform a symbolic burial rite for her brother. Bad things ensue, for Kreon and everyone else.

For the Greek viewer, this is presumably meant to be primarily about the after-effects of the Oedipus story rumbling on, and about Kreon acting ultra vires by trying to assert authority over the dead, but Sophokles doesn't allow you to see it simply as the tragedy of Kreon. Antigone’s clarity of conscience is at the heart of the play, and is what has made it such a beacon for people confronted by oppressive government.

Anne Carson's translation is obviously meant in the first place to make this play performable by modern actors in front of a general audience. She avoids archaism and "high language" and keeps the text simple and punchy. Since the actors are going to find the right cadences when they speak the lines anyway, she doesn't bother with punctuation, which initially makes it rather odd to read, but isn't really a problem - it forces you to imagine the sound of the lines.

67thorold
Edited: Sep 7, 2016, 5:37am Top

And, since I'm on holiday and have a bit of time, I finished another trilogy.

Solea (1998) by Jean-Claude Izzo



Third and blackest of Izzo's Marseille novels. Fabio Montale is in an impossible position: a mafia killer is looking for Fabio's friend, the investigative journalist Babette, who has gone into hiding after finding out more than is good for her about money laundering systems and the political links of organised crime. The killer wants Fabio to lead him to Babette, and proposes to murder Fabio's friends one by one until he finds her. Meanwhile, Fabio's despair about the departure of his girlfriend Lole is only getting worse.

Not a cheerful, optimistic book, by any means, and the sunny passages in the earlier books about Mediterranean food and music have largely been replaced by excerpts from official reports and newspaper articles about the growth of organised crime in Europe. The message is essentially that if we don't confront the problem, it will destroy our society; but anyone who does try to do something about it had better be prepared to see their own life and everything they hold dear destroyed. I guess Izzo knew he was dying when he wrote this one.

68thorold
Sep 4, 2016, 7:40am Top

During my holiday, I managed to knock off a couple more doorsteps that have been on my list for a while.

This one, which I had to read fairly quickly to avoid having to cart my mother's copy of it across the North Sea, is a 700-page seventies feminist classic from East Germany, thus ticking quite a few boxes for themes I've been pursuing lately:

Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura (1974; The life and adventures of Trobadora Beatrice, 2000) by Irmtraud Morgner (DDR, 1933-1990)

  

A wonderfully wild and unruly book that brings together elements of feminism, fairy-tale magic realism, steam locomotives, fundamental physics, and hard-line socialist realism, with multiple narrators collectively undermined by a subversive layer of playful irony. You never quite know what to take seriously, or what's coming next, with stand-alone stories, poems, travel writing and factual articles interwoven with fragments of several different stories about several different sets of characters that might or might not overlap, including a series of long excerpts from an unpublished novel by Morgner (which had in fact been suppressed by the censor a few years earlier).

The central conceit is that the trobadora Beatriz, Comtessa de Dia, on realising that 12th century Provence was not yet ready for a woman who writes poems eroticising men, has done a deal with Persephone and obtained eight centuries of Sleeping Beauty time from her. The money runs out in May 1968, and it is a couple of surveyors building a new autoroute who are the first to penetrate the thorn hedge and wake her. She has fun at first, aided and abetted by her dragon-below-the-waist sister-in-law, the Fair Melusine, but soon comes to realise that soixante-huit hasn't led to anything and that France is still not the feminist paradise she was hoping for, so she moves on to a small country in the East where she has heard that women are treated as the full equals of men. In Berlin, she meets the single mother and S-Bahn driver Laura Salman, and the two form a writing partnership based on Beatriz's notion of trobadora and minstrel. Then Beatriz goes off in quest of a unicorn called Anaximander...

Morgner uses this complicated framework to explore many different aspects of gender relations in the modern world, especially the discrepancy between legal equality and social equality (women might have the same career opportunities as men in theory, but they still end up doing most of the childcare and housework), and attitudes to women's role as creative artists and in scientific research (a female physicist finds she needs to believe in her own magical powers if she is going to combine science with childcare responsibilities; a female nutritional scientist finds it useful to be able to change sex on demand...). There's a lot of ostensible praise for the wisdom of the East German model of society, but quite a lot of that is subtly undermined by comments elsewhere in the book. Socialism is clearly good for women - or at least it would be, if we were doing it right.

Very entertaining, full of interesting period detail about life in the DDR, but definitely not just a period-piece.

 

Wikipedia: Comtessa de Dia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comtessa_de_Dia
Wikipedia: Melusine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melusine

69thorold
Edited: Sep 5, 2016, 8:43am Top

The other big thing that I was busy with in my parents' garden and on trains and planes yesterday was the first of the three big Robertson Davies trilogies:

The Salterton Trilogy:

1. Tempest-Tost (1951) by Robertson Davies


The novels making up the Salterton Trilogy were written in the fifties, whilst Davies was still relatively young, and obviously draw heavily on his own experience as an actor and newspaperman in the UK and Canada. They are more straightforwardly satirical in feeling than his later novels and, especially in the first two, Davies is clearly having a hard time restraining his inner Trollope from inserting too many sardonic one-liners. There's a general theme dealing with the conflict between provincial philistinism and metropolitan culture (although he doesn't let the cultural big guns have it all their own way), and he's also obviously very interested in parents-vs.-children, and in how the roles people define for themselves end up constraining their personalities - an idea that also comes up in the later novels.

This first novel in the trilogy introduces the provincial university town of Salterton and most of the important characters in the trilogy in a relatively light-hearted romp in which the Salterton Am-Drams are putting on a garden production of Shakespeare's Tempest, a play that is clearly a bit too ambitious for them. Offset against all the splendidly (but perhaps predictably) comic business of the rivalries and love affairs between the members of the cast there is the semi-tragic story of the Stoner-like schoolmaster Hector Mackilwraith, which gives Davies the chance to dig a little bit deeper into both the magic of the stage and the intellectual poverty of the school system (his thumbnail sketch of teacher training in Canada is scarily plausible).

2. Leaven of Malice (1954) by Robertson Davies


A few years after the events of Tempest-Tost, Salterton is thrown into chaos by an unexpected announcement in the Engagements column of the local paper. The novel is essentially a farcical campus comedy, and it's not hard to guess where the plot will end up, but of course there is rather more than that going on. Both the central characters in the romantic comedy are trapped in destructive but loving relationships with their parents, and Davies has fun exploring how parents can abuse the loyalty of their grown-up children. Meanwhile, through the character of the editor, Gloster Ridley, Davies, drawing on his own second career, invites us to think about what local newspapers actually do, and why (and incidentally makes it clear that "news" is among the least important things in a paper).

3. A mixture of frailties (1958) by Robertson Davies


The most substantial of the three parts of the trilogy, in which Mrs Bridgetower continues to torment her long-suffering son from beyond the grave through the gloriously malevolent terms of her will. Much of the story takes us away from Salterton, as we follow the working-class Canadian girl Monica Gall who is sent to England to study singing as the first beneficiary of the Bridgetower Foundation. There are a few scenes in mid-Wales, where Davies's family came from, and we get a lot of Anthony-Powellish exploration of Bohemian life in London, and a lot of in-jokes about professional musicians and critics. Monica comes under the influence of a talented young composer (vaguely reminiscent of the young Britten, but heterosexual) and gets involved with the publication of a Little Magazine, and it all sounds much more like 1938 than 1958, as Davies himself seems to realise rather late in the day. The climax of the novel is the production of an opera based on The golden ass (somewhat later, Davies actually wrote a libretto for such an opera himself - it was produced in Toronto in 1999, after his death).

The message seems to be that real art will come out on top, despite - or perhaps even helped by - provincial human frailties and pettiness. There are some very good bits in this book, but because it is more ambitious than the previous two, you also notice the weak points a little more than you otherwise might. The portrayal of the fundamentalist protestant sect Monica's family belongs to, in particular, is unconvincing: anyone who's ever been involved with a group like that knows that it wouldn't have been so painlessly easy for Monica to get away from them. Either there would have been a huge and damaging row before she could go, or she would have been sent to London under the close escort of members of the sect based there. I didn't much care for the gratuitously comic gay couple, either...

70baswood
Sep 4, 2016, 11:58am Top

Very interesting to read read your review of The life and adventures of Trobadora Beatrice. I have a recording of her song A Chantar M'er on a CD titled "Nuits Occitanes: Troubadours songs" by Ensemble Celadon and Paulin Bundgen. It was good to find out a little more about the Beatriz de Dia from wiki. I note that the book is mainly about life in the DDR and that would be interesting too. Enjoyed your review.

71FlorenceArt
Sep 4, 2016, 4:16pm Top

>68 thorold: Sounds like fun!

72thorold
Sep 5, 2016, 2:13am Top

>71 FlorenceArt: Definitely

>70 baswood: Morgner doesn't say very much about trobadoras apart from the obvious, really. She implies that the Comtessa was the only female poet of the time, which isn't true, and she doesn't go into how the songs were performed. I was a bit disappointed that Beatriz and Laura don't literally go around singing (but the steam engines were a nice bonus...!).

I hadn't thought of looking for recordings - I found the one you mention on Spotify, as well as a few others. I think "Estat ai en greu cossirier" is rather more representative of Morgner's view of Beatriz than A chantar. All about how she wants to be a pillow for her knight's naked body...

73thorold
Edited: Sep 5, 2016, 4:29pm Top

I usually have a suitably battered old paperback with me when I go on trips, in case my e-reader stops working. But I realised when I unpacked my bag on Saturday that this particular book must have been back and forth across the North Sea at least three times without ever being opened. So it seemed to be about time to add a bit of Simenon to my French crime spree...

Les quatre jours du pauvre homme (1949; Four days in a lifetime) by Georges Simenon (Belgium, France, etc., 1903-1989)

 

Simenon, for those who've been living on another planet, was the best-known French crime writer of the 20th century, and is very probably the most-read French author internationally after Dumas and Jules Verne. He grew up in Liège in Belgium, where he started as a reporter for the local press in his teens, and later lived in France, the US, and Switzerland. He's notorious, amongst other things, for his vast output of books - it apparently took him seven days to write a Maigret novel, which is less than it takes some people to read one - and for the even more spectacularly large number of women he claims to have slept with. And he lived to 86, despite never being photographed without a pipe in his mouth.

Perhaps inevitably, some of Simenon's novels are rather forgettable and some themes come back a lot too often, but the books are always entertaining and solidly constructed, and there is a surprisingly high proportion of really first-rate crime stories among them. A few of his books, like L'homme qui regardait passer les trains, would have a good claim to be treated as serious literary novels in their own right if anyone else had written them, and his style of crime fiction has had a big influence on many writers. The emphasis tends to be on the process of unpealing the psychological and social influences that push someone across the line from respectable life into crime rather than on action and logical puzzles, but when he does write an action sequence - especially a chase - it is rarely dull or predictable.

Les quatre jours du pauvre homme is a 1949 non-Maigret story, framed as a tragedy, and describing two 48-hour periods in the life of François Lecoin, whom we first meet engaging in a classic Simenon plot-device, deceiving his wife into believing that he has a regular job when in fact he's been unemployed for months. Debt, drink, despair and disgust with his bourgeois roots have brought him to the bottom of the heap, but a crisis in his life seems to give him the strength of character and resource to make a new start.

Lots of lovely low-life Parisian detail in part one, and in part two we get an interestingly detailed look at the way a dodgy weekly scandal-sheet operates - this obviously must be drawing on Simenon's early journalistic experiences. Another interesting touch is that the Paris police who are the heroes of so many of his books here appear in quite a different light, as unscrupulous and corrupt. So well worth a look, but not really up there with the best of Simenon's fiction.

74edwinbcn
Sep 7, 2016, 12:35am Top

I see you rated The gate of angels (3.5) a bit higher than I did. Actually, I did not get the story, and it did not entice me in any way.

75edwinbcn
Sep 7, 2016, 12:47am Top

Wow, I guess I could have managed a short novella, given the time I spent reading your thread. Lots of interesting stuff. I'd rather follow you reading Elizabeth Taylor than Penelope Fitzgerald, although I have a few unread novels of the latter.

Bawden and Morgner would probably interest me, perhaps a different book of Éric Jourdan.

76thorold
Sep 7, 2016, 5:13am Top

>75 edwinbcn: That's what LibraryThing is all about: learn about new things you want to read whilst using up the spare time in which you might otherwise have been able to read them :-)

Taylor is a lot more interesting than Penelope Fitzgerald. I've enjoyed the Fitzgerald novels I've read so far, but I don't think I'd really want to go back to any except Offshore and perhaps The Bookshop.

77thorold
Edited: Sep 7, 2016, 3:47pm Top

Jenny Erpenbeck turns out to be a rather neat way to follow on from both Robertson Davies - in her day-job she is an opera director - and Irmtraud Morgner - she comes from a prominent family of East German intellectuals. I read and very much enjoyed her earlier novel Heimsuchung a couple of years ago, and I've had this one in my sights since then:

Aller Tage Abend (2012; The end of days) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany, 1967 - )

 

Essentially, this is the ubiquitous "20th century German history novel", looking at two world wars, the Holocaust, and the rise and fall of communism through episodes in the life of a character whose life-span covers most of the century. The central character obviously draws to some extent on the life-story of Erpenbeck's grandmother, the communist poet and playwright Hedda Zinner (also born in pre-WWI Galicia, a party member in the 20s and 30s, exiled in Russia during the Nazi period, lived in East Germany from 1945, and died not long after the Wende).

With a few extra complications thrown in - a Jewish grandmother, a couple of absent fathers, and some interesting locations - this would have given most German novelists more than enough material for a 600-page epic (or 1200 if it was Günther Grass). Erpenbeck does it - very elegantly - in under 300, and makes it all much more interesting by bringing in a risky structural device in which the fully developed story-line in each episode turns out to be a "what if it all ended here?" dead end, with an intermezzo before the next section of the book to sketch out a simpler version of the story that allows us to go on to the next episode. She uses this to explore the arbitrary, chancy nature of real life - or, more to the point, of death - and its contrast to the organising power of narrative. It sounds like a gimmick, but I found it works surprisingly well. And someone who writes as well and elegantly as Erpenbeck can probably get away with almost anything...

The book does have its quirks, but I found them endearing rather than off-putting. Erpenbeck obviously doesn't much like giving her characters names, which makes the first part of the story rather hard work for the reader, because we don't have one single point of reference and the character who is "die Mutter" in one paragraph can easily become "die Tochter" or "die Großmutter" in the next, as we shift to a different point of view. It's worth persevering, though, because the characters become less generic as we go on (by the last chapter, the central character has even acquired a surname!). And of course she's a director, so, as in Heimsuchung, there's a lot of business with stage-props of various kinds. If you say in the first chapter that there's an edition of Goethe on the wall, then - well, you know how it goes.

78thorold
Sep 8, 2016, 2:03am Top

A minor detail from Aller Tage Abend that struck me was the mention of the Vienna hearse-tram 7031. I had to look this up, of course, and found that it did really exist: it was converted from a standard trailer of the municipal tramways in 1918 and used to transport the dead from several Viennese hospitals to the Central Cemetery during the Spanish 'flu pandemic. A shortage of horses after the war had made it difficult to use normal hearses.

79thorold
Edited: Sep 9, 2016, 2:56pm Top

Another minor detail from the Erpenbeck is that, whilst the Galician town is never named in Part 1, later on the central character says that she was born in Brody. Fifteen years or so after those events, Brody was fought over in the Polish-Soviet war, which by chance is the subject of this next book, which I picked because it's been mentioned a couple of times already in the "Soviet and post-Soviet" thread:

Red cavalry (1926) by Isaac Babel (Russia, 1894–1940), translated by Boris Dralyuk (Russia, US, 1982 -)

   

A remarkable assembly of short pieces of writing, somewhere between journalism, short-story collection and novel, making up a composite picture of the experience of war in a Cossack Red Army cavalry unit fighting against the Poles in 1920.

This isn't an anti-war book, of course - as far as Babel and his readers were concerned, their country was being attacked from all sides and had every reason to defend itself - but it's a book that makes no attempt to conceal the cruelty and disorder that go with the suspension of the normal limits of civil society. Passages that seem to be celebrating the exuberance, skill and bloody-mindedness of the Cossacks are set against descriptions of rapes, brutal torture and casual vandalism, and those in turn with lyrical passages where the narrator caught up in the beauty of something in the towns and villages that they are all busy destroying.

The Catholic and Jewish religion of the locals is particularly involved in this: the narrator feels obliged to mock the superstition and exploitation that goes with it, but clearly still has the relics of a religious (urban Jewish) upbringing and the respect for religious leaders and sites that goes with that: in a church with excrement and holy relics scattered over the floor, we get a loving and detailed description of the wonderful naive wall-paintings in which the saints are clearly all modelled on local characters. There are similar tensions going on when the narrator comes into contact with local Jews. He's clearly simultaneously attracted and disgusted by the Hasidic shtetl-culture.

This must have been a very tricky book to translate, as Babel is constantly switching voices and registers without warning, drawing on everything from high literary language to extremely coarse dialect. Dralyuk seems to have done very well and most of the text reads quite naturally, but this isn't a book where you can ever escape from the awareness that what you are reading is a translation. Dialect is always a problem: I found it disconcerting that his Cossacks were using so many Americanisms, but of course it's almost impossible to write earthy dialect that doesn't have some sort of regional marker to it. There were passages I had some trouble making sense of at first, but that probably comes from Dralyuk's poetic instinct to render the full complexity of Babel's layering of images, leaving the reader with a lot of unpacking to do (one of these is the "milk" passage Dralyuk discusses in his English Pen article).

Very interesting, and definitely a book that increased my motivation to learn Russian (although I suspect that it would be quite challenging for a beginner...).

Boris Dralyuk on translating Isaac Babel: http://worldbookshelf.englishpen.org/Writers-in-Translation-blog?item=26

80thorold
Edited: Sep 11, 2016, 3:27am Top

Back to French crime: I had this one in mind as something someone mentioned on my previous thread:

On ne s'endort jamais seul (2000) by René Frégni (France, 1947- )

   

René Frégni sounds like a very interesting person: like Izzo, he started out from a rough, working-class Marseille background. He discovered a passion for writing while doing time for desertion in a military prison, he worked for a while as a psychiatric nurse, and spent some 20 years teaching creative writing in prisons. So he probably knows what he's talking about when it comes to crime.

Antoine, a widowed postman, goes off the rails when his seven-year-old daughter, the only person in his life who really matters to him, goes missing. The police are doing their best, but they haven't come up with any solid leads. Fortunately, like just about every honest citizen of Marseille who has ever graced the printed page, Antoine has a close friend from primary school days who is now a notorious gangster (and another who is now a celebrated prostitute and the unofficial mascot of OM ...!).

I was looking forward to this book, but it didn't really live up to my expectations. Probably more my fault than the author's: for one thing, I've got Jean-Claude Izzo fresh in my memory, a writer Frégni clearly also admires very much, but wisely doesn't try to imitate. So I'm looking for things in the book which aren't there and don't actually need to be there, like Izzo's political engagement and his wide interest in Marseille as multi-culti melting-pot. This is a straightforward revenge thriller, and that's the second problem I have with it: it's a book driven by the central character's need to find whoever's responsible for the pain he's suffering and do something unspeakably violent to them. There are plenty of sound literary precedents for that, but it isn't something I'm looking for in a crime novel. In fact, any novel in which the characters have a technical discussion about different types of guns before going on a senseless killing spree is liable to put me off, even more than a novel in which the make and model of every car that appears is described in detail.

Maybe I need to try one of Frégni's other books.

81thorold
Sep 11, 2016, 8:21am Top

...and one more from the TBR shelf:

Uncommon people (1998) by Eric Hobsbawm (UK, etc., 1917-2012)

  

The late, great, British historian Eric Hobsbawm needs a thumbnail bio even less than Simenon. If you want the facts, the Guardian obituary is here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm
Hobsbawm hit the headlines a year or so ago when MI5 finally released some of their files on him, after years of denying that he was under surveillance. See Frances Stonor Saunders's very interesting article about Hobsbawm as-seen-by-the-spooks in the LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n07/frances-stonorsaunders/stuck-on-the-flypaper

This book is a collection of essays published over a period of some fifty years, dealing with a wide range of major or minor topics on the fringes of some of Hobsbawm's major interests, in particular on the history of working-class political movements, peasant revolutions, brigands and jazz (all of which he wrote full-scale books about at various times). If you've ever wondered about why shoemakers were notorious for their radicalism, who Harold Laski was, how Peruvian land-occupations work, why the iconography of the French revolution is all about bare-breasted women when Russian revolutionary art specialises in shirtless men, or if you simply don't know your Sidney Bechet from your Duke Ellington, this is where you will find the answers.

And even if you're not especially interested in the questions Hobsbawm addresses to start with, or if some of his material has long-since been overtaken by events (e.g. his thoughts on Vietnam, published in 1965), it's always interesting to follow him on the journey, never ceasing to be astonished by the authority, clarity of vision and breadth of reference he is able to bring - apparently - to just about any topic that comes to mind. Not an especially useful book for most people, but definitely one that will give you something to think about.

82dchaikin
Sep 11, 2016, 5:30pm Top

>66 thorold:. Oooh. I really need to catch up here...

83dchaikin
Sep 11, 2016, 6:52pm Top

>66 thorold: enjoyed your commentary. I liked Antigone, but it is was little too straightforward in some ways, even if the son doesn't quite act out the way we might expect. Certainly works as a protest peace.

I'm also reading your ET reviews, including her biography. Great posts, Mark. Fascinating.

84dchaikin
Sep 11, 2016, 9:28pm Top

Terrific stuff here, Mark. I didn't even know there was a Soviet-Polish war in 1920, but the Jewish element in Red Cavalry sounds fascinating to me. Fun comments on Hobsbawm. But good stuff, top to bottom here.

85thorold
Sep 12, 2016, 5:37am Top

>82 dchaikin: - >84 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan!
I must admit being a bit hazy about the P-S war too. It was one of the many conflicts on the Russian borders that followed the Revolution and the end of the Great War, which Churchill, with his usual gift for memorable oversimplification, called "the wars of the pygmies". Definitely not pygmies in this case, and quite a headache for Britain and France when it looked for a while as though the Russians were going to squash Poland and march to Berlin. Babel's stories are set around the point where the tide turned and the Poles started pushing the Red Army back.

86thorold
Edited: Sep 14, 2016, 3:09am Top

I think I must have earned another Thomas Bernhard by now - anyway, there were two left on the TBR shelf, so why not...?

Das Kalkwerk (1970; The Lime-works) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931-1989)



Das Kalkwerk was Bernhard's third full-scale prose work, seven years after Frost, and appeared around the time when he was beginning to be taken seriously as a major writer. As it happens, it's the earliest of his works I've read so far: reassuring to see that the characteristic Bernhard style was already well-established, even though the structure of this book is quite different from the others I've read so far, in which a Bernhard-like narrator is always either the central character (Holzfällen, the memoirs) or the person who observes and analyses the central character (Wittgensteins Neffe, Der Untergeher).

In Kalkwerk, the narrator is a neutral, transparent observer, who reports without comment what he has heard about Konrad (whom he apparently doesn't know) from Konrad's acquaintances Fro and Wieser, complemented by the various opinions of the people in several local pubs. It's easy to understand why Bernhard needs to set up this wall between the narrator and Konrad, because Konrad is the cynical, depressed, frustrated and alienated Bernhard-figure frighteningly taken to the extreme and somewhere beyond. At the outset of the book, we learn that Konrad has murdered his wheelchair-bound wife and has been found by the police hiding in a frozen cesspit. Bernhard uses his customary 200-page paragraph to analyse the process of intellectual self-destruction that brought Konrad to this point, at the root of which is the apparently seminal monograph On Hearing that Konrad has been working at for the last twenty years, without ever quite having the courage to realise it on paper.

As the title implies, the former lime-works where Konrad has chosen to live is a major character and source of symbolism throughout the book. He has supposedly picked it because of its remoteness and freedom from distractions, but in fact it turns out to be in the middle of all kinds of rural activity. As a functional industrial building it is meant to embody his disgust for prettiness and bourgeois country-house life, but we quickly realise that it also expresses his unproductive lifestyle, and his failure to break with his bourgeois roots (the works was part of his family's business empire). And it obviously has more than a hint of the tomb about it, and on a prosaic level it seems to reflect elements of the decrepit farmhouse Bernhard describes buying for himself in Meine Preise.

There is a wonderful Whatever happened to Baby Jane struggle going on between Konrad and his wife, as they spar about food, her clothes, Konrad's interminable hearing-tests according to the method of Urbantschitsch, and above all, about which book he should read to her from: she prefers Heinrich von Ofterdingen, but he is dedicated to Kropotkin's memoirs. Even when his wife isn't ringing her little bell, Konrad is disturbed by interminable visits from the locals, or the thought that there might be a visit from a local, or a passing huntsman or forester might be making a noise in the woods....

I don't want to repeat my comments about Bernhard's style for the umpteenth time: it is what it is, and it's splendid, but it's best to experience it at first hand. But one detail I haven't commented on before, which struck me especially in this book, is the extent to which Bernhard enjoys peppering us with Austrianisms, even whilst pouring contempt on every aspect of Austrian prettiness and quaintness. He clearly gets real (and no doubt perverse) pleasure from foregrounding words like Jänner, Fleischhauer, Rauchfangkehrer, Störschneider, Zuhaus - words which are just so much more fun that their standard German counterparts. And why not?

87dchaikin
Sep 14, 2016, 7:18am Top

>86 thorold: great review. Thinking about your analysis of the lime-works.

88thorold
Sep 15, 2016, 6:48am Top

>87 dchaikin: So am I - it seems to be one of those books where the process of assimilating it goes on after you stop reading. I think I'm beginning to make sense of Kropotkin vs. Ofterdingen.

89thorold
Edited: Sep 19, 2016, 4:20am Top

...As I said, two books keep coming up in Kalkwerk: "der Ofterdingen" and "der Kropotkin". As I read Novalis's novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen quite recently, I felt I ought to get to grips with the other side of the coin as well. After all, it must be about time for some more 19th century memoirs:

Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899) by Peter Kropotkin (Russia, etc., 1842–1921)

 

Kropotkin certainly had an interesting life: quite apart from telling us about the complexities of anarchist politics, secret societies and being a political prisoner in several different countries, he gets to describe his experiences growing up in an aristocratic family in Moscow, serving as a page at Alexander II's court in St Petersburg, taking part in all sorts of exciting expeditions into unknown country as a young officer on the Amur river, and doing important scientific research (he was a physical geographer). So these are by no means dull memoirs! But they are sometimes a little bit frustrating. Kropotkin was writing from English exile in 1899, with the Russian revolutions still to come, and at a time when many of his friends and political associates were still in danger of reprisals from the Russian authorities. So there are plenty of important things in his life he doesn't tell us about because they haven't happened yet, and others that he's forced to leave rather vague. And others again that he's written about elsewhere and doesn't repeat - this isn't a work of political philosophy, although of course the whole text is informed by his political ideals.

And there are also a surprising number of normal, practical things in his life he simply seems to have forgotten to write about, so that, for example, his wife pops up in the text for the first time about three hundred pages in, as though she's always been there, but he in fact he has never told us her name or anything about when they married. (English Wikipedia doesn't mention her at all, but the German version tells us she was Sophie Ananiew, and they married in 1878, when he was living in Switzerland. From what Kropotkin tells us himself, we can deduce that she was a scientist and had studied at Geneva university.)

The book was written in English (he later made a Russian version as well), but it never feels like a book written in the author's second language. Especially in the earlier parts of the book, there's a lot that is moving, entertaining, exciting, and exotic, but it's never - at least once it gets out of the classroom - boastful. Kropotkin must have been a remarkable man, and he presumably knew it, but he doesn't want to be the one to say it. There's a lovely moment shortly after he has arrived in England for the first time, under a false name because he's on the run from the Russian police, and is doing some scientific journalism. The editor of Nature asks him to review a couple of new Russian books that have come into the office. Of course, they turn out to be publications of his own scientific work, written whilst he was in prison, and he is put into something of a quandary: should he blow his cover or infringe scientific ethics by reviewing his own work? He compromises by summarising the books without expressing an opinion on their merits (which would of course have got him anathematised here on LibraryThing...).

Worthwhile, definitely, but a bit patchy. The opening chapters are marvellous, and I can see how you might become a dedicated fan of this book, but it's probably not the book you should turn to first if you want to learn about anarchist political ideas or the history of the workers' movement.

---

So, what was going on in Bernhard's mind with Kropotkin vs. Ofterdingen? I'm not completely sure, but I think part of it is to do with the role of creative self-realisation. For Novalis, the poet's first duty has to be to create literature. The poet can engage with the world to deepen his understanding, but he has to take it for granted that the world will be satisfied with nothing but poetry in exchange. Kropotkin is teaching the opposite (he's talking about science rather than literature, but in this case it doesn't change anything): as a human being, living in the world, your first duty is to work with others to make the world a better place. Intellectual curiosity and creative realisation are good things in themselves, but they are never as important as relieving suffering and helping others to work against oppression and inequality. By promoting Novalis, Frau Konrad is telling her husband "you're a failure if you never write that book"; responding with Kropotkin, Konrad is asserting that there are more important things to do first. Of course, if Kropotkin were holed-up in a lime-works, he wouldn't be hiding from the activity around him, he'd be raising the consciousness of the forestry workers and their wives, and he would probably welcome a spell in an Austrian prison as a chance to compare it with French and Russian ones...

90thorold
Edited: Sep 19, 2016, 3:11am Top

I finished another couple of short books during a very pleasant sailing weekend on the IJsselmeer. Both are collections of (sometimes very) short stories, the ideal thing for reading when you're relaxing in the harbour, watching other boats coming in with their crews all trying to look as though they've been battling the elements in the North Atlantic rather than cruising between Friesland and North Holland on a sunny afternoon.

One is a long-term resident of the TBR shelf and an old acquaintance; the other a writer I've been meaning to try for some time, and was reminded of by Volker Weidermann's Lichtjahre, which I've also been reading in the background, but may never finish, since every chapter adds a few more names to my wishlist...

Kleist, Moos, Fasane (1987, 1989) by Ilse Aichinger (Austria 1921- )

 

Aichinger is a very distinguished Austrian writer, Holocaust survivor, member of Gruppe 47, recipient of all sorts of important prizes, but famously reluctant to publish anything except very short essays and stories in later life. She's probably best known for her 1948 novel Die größere Hoffnung (Herod's children).

I picked Kleist, Moos, Fasane off the shelf largely because of its intriguing title, without any clear idea of where it fits in Aichinger's work, and was immediately sucked in by the opening story, in which she looks back at her early childhood in her grandmother's kitchen in Vienna, in the years before the Nazis came to power, when she could still go to school like any normal little girl. Die Kräfte der Kindheit hielten die Welt zusammen. Und die Küche meiner Großmutter lag mitten darinnen. And she reflects on the arbitrariness of connections that only have meaning for the people who happen to have experienced them, like gym, needlework and singing (the three possibilities of afternoon school) or Kleist, Moss and Pheasants, which happened to be the names of three streets in the neighbourhood. Magnificent writing, in which everything is coloured by the grief we know is coming next, but nothing is twee or sentimental.

The book is in three sections, put together slightly arbitrarily (like Kleist, Moss and Pheasants). In the first part are half a dozen autobiographical short stories written between 1959 and 1982. In the second part are thirty years worth of notes from the author's diaries - sometimes a year gets a few pages, sometimes nothing. 1965 is represented by only one sentence: Einsicht bei Tageslicht, eine Hasengruppe. (Something like: "Insight by daylight, a playgroup."). Not all of them are so gnomic, and reading through them in sequence you can really start to make sense of Aichinger's growing doubts about the expressive possibilities of language.

In the third part of the book we get several essays about writers and writing. There's a hurried, but clearly very deeply felt, obituary tribute to Thomas Bernhard (added in the 1989 2nd edition), there are her thoughts on Adalbert Stifter and Georg Trakl, and there are tributes to Nelly Sachs and Franz Kafka in her acceptance speeches for their respective prizes - the Kafka piece is a wonderfully Kafkaesque conceit in which she describes how she once read a single sentence from one of Kafka's letters which filled her with a "strong dark happiness" that scared her so much that she never dared to read anything else he wrote.

A somewhat random taster, but definitely yet another writer I need to explore further.

91thorold
Edited: Sep 19, 2016, 3:07am Top

...and

Der Stimmenimitator (1978, The voice imitator) by Thomas Bernhard



Mini-Bernhard! - a brilliant, entertaining collection of very short stories, mostly around 100-250 words, framed either in a Bernhardesque version of the style of newspaper column-fillers or in the form of a dinner-table anecdote, and invariably involving one or more of suicide, murder, insanity, and prison. And always with one innocent-looking word placed in a critical position where it undermines the claim of the story to be taken as a report of anything but a world ruled by unbearable dullwittedness. Most of the characters in the stories are semi-anonymous ("a 35 year old carpenter from ..."), but slipped in here and there are stories about people we recognise - a note about the death of an unnamed writer who can only be Ingeborg Bachmann, for instance, or an account by a care-home worker of looking after the elderly Knut Hamsun (...but he didn't discover until afterwards that Hamsun was a great writer). So we have to wonder how many of the others might be real as well...

Probably a very good place to get a feel for Bernhard, especially if you're someone who is easily scared by the notion of 200-page paragraphs. None of that sort of thing here, but there is the classic Bernhard irritation with the world and its stupidity, from which death or insanity are the only reliable escapes.

92kidzdoc
Sep 19, 2016, 3:50am Top

Wow, lots of great reviews here! I'll have to catch up in a day or two.

93Simone2
Sep 20, 2016, 1:05pm Top

>91 thorold: Wow what a great review. I must absolutely read this Bernhard. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

94thorold
Edited: Sep 22, 2016, 5:32am Top

>92 kidzdoc: >93 Simone2: Thanks! The Bernhard is not to be missed.

As I've already mentioned a couple of times, I'm working my way through Volker Weidermann's Lichtjahre, which is a sort of upmarket bluffer's guide to post-war German lit. And I keep finding writers I want to follow up. This one was a book that caught my eye because I recognised the author as someone mentioned in Weidermann. Before proceeding further, I should probably have checked back more carefully to see whether she was mentioned favourably...

Das Windei (1987) by Gisela Elsner (West Germany, 1937-1992)



Elsner was born in Nürnberg and lived in and around Munich for much of her life. She was a participant in some Gruppe 47 meetings, and she may have given Grass the inspiration for the celebrated opening sentence of his Tin Drum (see the article linked below). Her 1964 novel Die Riesenzwerge (The Giant Dwarfs) was a big success, but after that she had trouble interesting the public in her work. Her hard-line communist views didn't help to make her any more popular in Bavaria (she left the West German communist party for a while in disgust at its support for Gorbachev). She has been enjoying something of a posthumous literary comeback lately, which is probably largely due to the efforts of her son, Oskar Roehler, who has made a couple of biographical films about her.

Das Windei (The wind-egg) was one of Elsner's last novels: it's a rather heavy-handed satire on the aspirations of West German capitalist consumer society. Heiner Wurbs, whom we first meet as a schoolboy in the 1940s, is the archetypal victim of the system, a man with the muscles of a Greek god who knows no way to measure his own worth except by acquiring real-estate, consumer goods and fashionable friends. His tragedy, of course, is that he isn't very good at it: he believes the propaganda, scrapes and saves and ruins his life to make mortgage payments, and is left with little but negative equity to show for it.

There are some very funny moments, and some sharp bits of satirical observation, like the TV interview in which a journalist tries to persuade the Bundeskanzler to explain exactly what the "self-correction mechanism of the free market" actually is, and the scene where a bankrupt businessman invites his friends to a last dinner in the old home but doesn't have anything but radishes and herb-tea to offer them. From time to time, you get a strong feeling that this was someone on very much the same wavelength as Günter Grass. However, Elsner doesn't seem to be able to step back far enough from her political agenda to give the book some perspective, and the result feels a bit clumsy. She is constantly hammering away at the same point, as Heiner fails as a home-owner, a landlord, an employee, an entrepreneur, a husband, an adulterer, a consultant, a son, and a keep-fit enthusiast.

Interesting, but probably not the book on which someone who was obviously a very interesting outsider should be judged as a writer.

---
Katrin Schuster on Gisela Elsner in Der Freitag (May 2012): https://www.freitag.de/autoren/katrin-schuster/eine-lebende-unter-toten

95thorold
Edited: Sep 22, 2016, 1:51pm Top

...and another name I got from Weidermann, but a pretty unequivocal recommendation this time: "Maron is the best (woman-) author that the DDR produced."

Stille Zeile sechs (1991; Silent Close No.6) by Monika Maron (DDR/Germany 1941 - )

  

Monika Maron is from Berlin, and worked as a machinist and a reporter before writing her first novel, Flugasche (Fly-ash, 1981), which was considered controversial because it dealt with the DDR's industrial pollution problem: the book was only ever published in the West. Maron left the DDR with her family about a year before the wall came down.

Stille Zeile sechs was written whilst the dust of reunification was still settling, and is clearly meant as a gesture of closure. It deals with the classic problem that (metaphorically, at least), you have to kill your parents to make a revolution. As the only group of Germans with a solid, documented claim to have resisted Hitler, the reactionary generation of Stalinists running the DDR had an even stronger psychological advantage over their children than most, and Maron (who happens to be the step-daughter of a government minister from the early days of the DDR) is essentially saying with this book that it was only the death of her parents' generation that made the reform of the DDR possible, and that her own generation had to deal with this symbolic parricide before it could move on.

The narrator is Rosalind Polkowski, who has given up her academic job researching the early history of the labour movement in Saxony and Thuringia because she can no longer bear to "think for money". Instead, she agrees to take on the relatively mindless task of working as amanuensis two afternoons a week for an elderly man, Herbert Beerenbaum, who is writing his memoirs. Beerenbaum is a communist of the first generation, survivor of concentration camps and Russian exile, and has held important offices in the Workers' and Peasants' State. And of course it becomes increasingly difficult for Rosalind to take dictation and keep her mouth shut as he piles up the lies and platitudes and ignores the harm he has done, particularly when she finds out that Beerenbaum was responsible for hurting one of her own friends.

The big political story of this surprisingly short novel is mixed in with other threads of discussion about the anti-intellectualism of the founding generation of communists, about the male community of the local pub, the geography of Berlin, the untranslatability of Don Giovanni, and much else. Very rewarding and entertaining.

96thorold
Edited: Sep 23, 2016, 2:24am Top

I've mentioned this book often enough in the last few days: it's about time that I finished it and posted a review!

Lichtjahre: eine kurze Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von 1945 bis heute (2006) by Volker Weidermann (Germany, 1969 - )

  

Volker Weidermann is a literary journalist and the author of the 2014 novel Ostende 1936.

The subtitle of this book is a little misleading - it isn't really a short history of post-war German literature, but rather a collection of short essays about some 150 German writers active in the post-war period. Weidermann avoids making any direct generalisations about literature as it exists in the German-speaking region, the role it has or should have in connection to German history and politics, the way it is controlled by publishers and journalists and writers' clubs, the way its annual cycle of prizes sometimes makes it seem more like a competitive sport than anything else, how it deals with regional differences, the way it's perceived outside Germany/Switzerland/Austria, etc., etc. - he sticks to the particular and only addresses those questions in passing, as and when they come up in the lives of individual writers. What this book is mostly about, in roughly equal measure, is sharing his gossipy journalistic interest in the lives of authors, and in discussing the way he reacts to what authors have written. It's unapologetically subjective - he claims that his inspiration was the semi-frivolous little book Deutsche Literaturgeschichte in Einer Stunde which the poet Klabund published in 1920, although it isn't hard to imagine that a large part of the motivation for putting together a book like this might have been the possession of a healthy backfile of his own newspaper articles and interviews about writers...

It is basically an anthology, so we can play "who's in and who's out". Essentially, he seems to have picked his candidates from amongst poets, dramatists and authors of literary fiction written in German and published between 1945 and 2005. There are a few essayists and diarists, but hardly any authors of genre fiction (the only crime writer apart from Dürrenmatt is Jakob Arjouni). Most writers who are included are there because Weidermann likes their work: only a few who are too big to ignore (Günter Grass, Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym) are there to be slapped down, and some notoriously successful mass-market authors (Simmel, Konsalik) are ignored altogether. With hindsight, the most embarrassing omission must have been Herta Müller - a literary journalist who failed to see the 2009 Nobel coming in 2006 obviously has some explaining to do! I had the feeling that he might have been under-representing both German-speakers from outside Germany/Switzerland/Austria and writers with an immigrant background, but so much has changed in Germany in the last ten years that it's hard to assess that objectively now. And of course there are authors I've read in the last ten years who might well appear in an updated edition of this book, but were unknown at the time (e.g. the DDR author Werner Bräunig, whose 1960s novel Rummelplatz was only published in 2007).

Obviously, in a book where most authors don't get more than two pages each, the opinions are usually quite summary, but most of the time he's given us enough context to understand how he gets there. But not always: in a couple of cases he plays with us, setting up the question "is it worth fighting through the obscurity of this author's prose?" and feeding us a string of good arguments for why we should attempt it, then concluding that we needn't bother.

There is perhaps a little hint of sexism in his choices and in the language he uses to describe writers: it's not blatant, but over the 150 or so mini-bios, you can see that he reacts to women writers in a different way from men. With Ingeborg Bachmann it almost seems that he's more interested in her role as a literary femme fatale than in what she wrote, but that could simply be because she only appears once in her own entry, but five or six times in those of others! Not a show-stopper, but something to bear in mind.

In any case, subjective as it obviously is, I found this a useful and entertaining book, even when I didn't altogether agree with his conclusions about the few authors I have read. It's meant to be readable, and Weidermann is obviously good at what he does. And it told me about a lot of writers I've overlooked through not reading the German papers regularly and only getting to visit big German bookshops once or twice a year. Not all of those will be writers I want to explore, but at least they are on my radar now, and I have some idea of a context to put them in when I do come across them.

97thorold
Edited: Sep 25, 2016, 5:29pm Top

...so of course I had to go and look at the original as well:

Deutsche Literaturgeschichte in einer Stunde : von den ältesten Zeiten bis zur Gegenwart (1920) by Klabund (Germany, 1890-1928)

  

Klabund (pen-name of Alfred Henschke) was a German poet and playwright, remembered in particular for his anti-war stance during WWI and for his play Der Kreidekreis (The chalk circle) which was later adapted by Brecht.

This little book doesn't quite live up to its claim to tell you everything you need to know about the history of German literature in an hour (it took me about twice that to read it), but it comes pretty close. It takes you from the early middle ages to 1920 in under a hundred pages, pausing for breath halfway through with an extended discussion of Goethe, but otherwise devoting little more than a paragraph each to the writers discussed. Like Weidermann, Klabund is shamelessly subjective in his choices and opinions, but he does make some gestures towards grouping writers into movements and styles and relating them to what is going on in the world around them. A fun little book, and probably a good jumping-off point for exploring the German classics, as long as you remember to take what Klabund tells you with a pinch of salt.

98thorold
Edited: Sep 25, 2016, 5:26pm Top

And yet another novel about the DDR, the one which Weidermann picks as the best Wende-novel (although that's perhaps mostly because Brussig is even bitchier about Christa Wolf than Weidermann himself...):

Helden wie wir (Heroes like us, 1995) by Thomas Brussig (DDR/Germany, 1965 - )

  

Brussig makes us look again at the fall of the Berlin Wall and see it as the chaotic farce it really was, by showing us the last months of the DDR through the eyes of his appalling anti-hero, trainee Stasi officer Klaus Uhltzscht, a young man who is unable to write more than three sentences without mentioning his penis. There are some clever and occasionally very funny insights into the dreary ordinariness of what was wrong with the East German state: Brussig wants to establish that the state's terrorisation of its own citizens would not have been possible without widespread passive acceptance and active collaboration by ordinary people in what the system was doing. And that Christa Wolf could easily be confused with an Olympic figure-skating coach. But I found the insistent, Martin-Amis-like, blokey bad taste very wearing after a few chapters, and was rather relieved to get to the end...

(It would be interesting to know what Hobsbawm would have thought of the difference between the German cover - a classical statue with stuck-on male genitals - and the English one - naked female breasts. The former is very relevant to the development of Klaus's sexual mis-education, the latter just seems to be telling the reader "this is a titillating book".)

99thorold
Edited: Sep 26, 2016, 5:34pm Top

OK, just one more German novel, then I'll stop for a bit. Honestly. I can give them up any time I want...
This one is an author who's too recent to appear in Klabund or Weidermann, but came highly recommended by Darryl and a few other Club Read members:

Ein ganzes Leben (2014, A whole life) by Robert Seethaler (Austria, 1966 - )

 

Robert Seethaler is an Austrian actor and the author of several novels, of which Der Trafikant (2012) seems to be the best known. The English translation of Ein ganzes Leben (by Charlotte Collins, 2016) was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

I was a little bit afraid when I started this short novel that it was going to turn out to be Heidi for grown-ups. And indeed, there's a goat-herd on the very first page. But I needn't have worried. As others have said, this is an unusually delicate and subtle narrative that looks for the ordinary behind the extraordinary. Andreas Egger lives in a spectacularly beautiful part of the world and undergoes hardships and experiences that most of us would think of as worthy of an epic with all possible bells and whistles, but what Seethaler wants us to learn about him are the things that make him just like all other human beings who are born, grow up, work, are caught up in the forces of history and nature, work some more, and eventually grow old and die. Sounds corny, and it easily could have been, but it isn't, and I think that means that Seethaler is either an extraordinarily talented or an extraordinarily lucky writer. Probably the former.

100thorold
Edited: Sep 29, 2016, 2:45pm Top

A break from German Lit (but not from Germany!) with a book that I've seen a lot of glowing reports of here on Club Read. It fits in with my dips into the "long 18th century" and the German branch of the Romantic movement (Novalis) earlier this year, and it also caught my eye because I've been looking out for more on Alexander von Humboldt since reading Daniel Kehlmann's wonderful but not very historical account of him in Die Vermessung der Welt - which was the third book I reviewed on LibraryThing when I joined in 2007...

The invention of nature (2016) by Andrea Wulf (UK, etc., 1972 - )

 

Andrea Wulf has written several previous books about the history of science and horticulture, which have won her strings of awards. She did a lot of the research for this book, including journeys to a lot of the places Humboldt visited in his travels, whilst she was Eccles British Library Writer-in-Residence in 2013.

Alexander von Humboldt (Prussia, 1769-1859) was one of the biggest scientific stars of his generation, and there are still hundreds of places and species around the world named after him, but he's rather dropped out of fashion in the English-speaking world. He's not someone who comes up in most modern accounts of the period, and if you hear his name then it will usually be because a near-contemporary is citing him: it wasn't until quite recently that I even worked out the very basic fact that there were two Humboldts, Alexander the scientific explorer and his brother Werner the educationalist and linguist, after whom Berlin University is named.

Wulf's biography aims to put that right, by showing us Humboldt as the person who taught his contemporaries that when you look closely at nature with the eyes (and instruments!) of a scientific investigator, you need to go beyond mere cataloguing to discover the interconnectedness of the things you see into a larger picture: species with habitat, predator with food source, etc., and you can also see evidence of long and short-term changes. As well as looking at Humboldt directly, she looks at him through the eyes of some of his most important readers (in particular, Darwin, Haeckel, Thoreau, and John Muir) to show the enormous influence Humboldt's way of looking at the world has had on the development of what we are likely to think of as much more recent ideas - evolution, ecology, environmentalism, climate change, investigation of the effects of pollution and deforestation, and so on. And it was Humboldt who coined the word "cosmos"!

I vaguely knew about some of that already, but I didn't know that Humboldt was also a firm critic of slavery and colonialism and an associate of Simon Bolivar (I probably should have known that from Gabriel Garcia Marquez). It was probably these political views that prevented Humboldt from getting permission to visit British India.

I enjoyed the discussion of Goethe's influence on Humboldt and vice-versa, but I was a little disappointed not to get more on how Humboldt influenced other poets and artists: the title made me think the book would be more oriented towards how science changed the interpretation of the concept of "nature" in literature, but in practice all we get on that is a couple of paragraphs about Wordsworth and Coleridge. Probably fair enough, since that's a topic that's been dealt with quite often already by literary scholars, but it would have been interesting to see how someone approaching the question from the science side sees it.

This is an enjoyable and very accessible book, sometimes a touch pedestrian in its efforts to be accommodating to the ignorant ("Voltaire, the French thinker"), but generally very agreeable to read. It isn't a super-detailed biography of Humboldt, but I'm sure there are plenty of those gathering dust in libraries if you want to know about the parts of his life that didn't fit into Wulf's book, like his travels in Mexico. Although Wulf talks a lot about Humboldt's writing, she doesn't quote from him very extensively, so the book left me wanting to try him out first-hand and see if the magic Darwin found is still there (it clearly was for Wulf). Which I consider a plus point for the book.

101thorold
Sep 29, 2016, 2:52pm Top

>100 thorold: I was disappointed to discover that they don't actually require the Eccles writer-in-residence to reside in Eccles. I suppose they'd have to pay more than 20000 pounds to get someone to do that...
(It turns out that it was endowed by someone called Eccles, nothing to do with Lancashire.)

102baswood
Sep 29, 2016, 3:38pm Top

Interesting to read about Alexander von Humboldt, who is new to me.

103thorold
Edited: Sep 30, 2016, 3:31pm Top

Another German writer I discovered through Lichtjahre.

Drehtür (2016) by Katja Lange-Müller (DDR/Germany 1951 - )

  

It's scarcely a random sample, but interesting to see that, like Jenny Erpenbeck and Monika Maron (see above), Katja Lange-Müller also turns out to be a child of the former ruling classes of the DDR - her mother was a prominent East German politician, and her father an executive in the state media. After a string of disagreements with the authorities (which resulted, amongst other things, in her being sent off to do a compulsory internship in a carpet factory in Ulan Bator), she left the DDR in 1984, shortly before the publication of her first book, Wehleid. Weidermann mentions that apart from her books, she's also played an important role as mentor to various young German writers.

Asta, returning to a country where she no longer belongs from a nursing job in Nicaragua, is at Munich Airport, outside one of the revolving doors, smoking her duty-free cigarettes and reflecting on her life while she decides what to do next. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn more about who she is, but it also becomes clear that at least some of her memories are imaginary, and Asta even starts to wonder whether she might be a fictional character herself.

Lange-Müller uses Asta's nursing experience to reflect on why and how people help each other, and what unintended consequences this helping and not helping can have. In passing we touch on burkas, Che Guevara's East German colleague Tamara Bunke, sewing machines, Mother Teresa, North Korea, and a host of other minor topics. And we also get time to explore some of the weirder unintended features of the German language.

An interestingly offbeat little book, quite bitter and negative at times, but at others very worthwhile. And rather funny, in unexpected ways.

104thorold
Sep 30, 2016, 4:58am Top

Reading stats for Q3

Taking the opportunity to post these, even if the quarter has a few more hours to run...

I seem to have read quite a lot in Q3, especially in the last few weeks. Total for July to September 2016 is 42 books, slightly less than half of them in English.
Despite the thread title, non-fiction only accounted for 10 of the 42.

Q3 distribution by language and genre:



Month-by-month overview January to September 2016:

105ELiz_M
Sep 30, 2016, 6:56am Top

>104 thorold: Very nice! I am tempted to scroll back up to see if I can determine what is "literature" and what is "fiction", but I must be off to work....

>100 thorold: excellent review. I hadn't noticed that lack of direct quotations (the downside of audio). I'll be interested to see what you think of Humboldt's writings, if you get to them!

106thorold
Sep 30, 2016, 7:52am Top

>105 ELiz_M: In practice, I use the "literature" category in my list for secondary literature, books about writers and writing, i.e. >15 thorold: >55 thorold: >96 thorold: and >97 thorold: in Q3.

I've had a first look at Humboldt's texts, but I'm still trying to get a feel for what it's sensible to tackle in which edition and in which language.

107SassyLassy
Sep 30, 2016, 10:59am Top

>106 thorold: I like that definition. I have always been reluctant to separate actual fiction into literature versus fiction, and have never known how to label my secondary literature books, but your system works.

As usual, I am amazed at the sheer volume and quality of your reading.

108thorold
Oct 1, 2016, 1:13pm Top

>107 SassyLassy: Thanks - Compliments are always welcome!
The secret to reading a lot of books seems to be to pick short ones...

I've made a new thread for Q4, you can find it here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/233926

Group: Club Read 2016

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