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thorold faces the weathers of his instruction in Q4

Club Read 2019

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Oct 1, 5:08am Top

You, Hate and Love, companions of this poet
Where cities of fire sustain me, and where
The glaciers clash together the northern tundras'
     Assaulted waters,

Shall face these weathers of my instruction.
Then travel courageously, notorious couriers
Into the icelock, and beyond its zero
     Seek out my love.

Remind him first of all how he survives
The flower of death blown over that relinquished
Meadow where lover and plough break
     Lover and flower alike.

But let him not believe that a winter invoked
Can blight the bespoken summers nor silence him
Being that one who called time upon time,
     Lesbia to the ancient stones.

Epilogue (Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli): Catullus, as translated by Muriel Spark

Edited: Oct 1, 6:47am Top

Continuation of my Q3 thread: https://www.librarything.com/topic/308638

For a change, not a photo of autumn woodlands, but a reminder of my sailing trip along the Channel coast this summer: one of Raoul Dufy's paintings of the old port of Le Havre, as seen in the big Dufy exhibition in the MuMa

Edited: Oct 1, 7:57am Top

Summary of Q3 reading

43 books read in Q3 (Q1: 63, Q2: 38):

Author gender: F 13; M 30 (Q1: F 19; M 44, Q2 F14; M24)
By main category: Fiction 28; Travel 3; Sailing 3; Literature 3; History 3; Science/Eng 2; Art history 1
By language: French 9; English 20; Italian 1; Dutch 7; German 3; Spanish 3
(Of the English books, 2 were translations - from Norwegian and German, respectively; one French book was a translation from Finnish, one Dutch book was a translation from French which I've since bought in the original...)

By original publication date: 5 were published before 1900, 10 in the last five years. Mean 1978, median 1992.

By format: 6 physical books from the TBR (28 in Q2!); 3 re-reads from the shelves; 6 paid e-books; 22 library books; 6 free/borrowed elsewhere

34 distinct authors read in Q3 (54 in Q1; 32 in Q2):

Author gender: F 7; M 27
By country: FR 6, USA 1, UK 7, NL 5, DE 4, AU 2, ES 2, others 7


Q3 was a bit of a strange time for reading - I was travelling for a big chunk of July and half of August, but my plans (and much else) were thrown out of kilter by an unexpected death in the family. And then there was a lengthy spell of wet weather in the last part of September that messed up some other plans...

The consequence of all this seems to have been that after making quite a hole in the TBR in Q2, I filled it up again in Q3 by reckless consumption of library books since I came home, and of ebooks whilst travelling. And I managed to bring back a few extra books for the TBR from both of my longer trips away.

On the other hand, I do seem to have read quite a lot of books I wanted to, and discovered at least some stuff I didn't know about: looking through my list, there's not all that much that I would exclude from the "highlights"!

Highlights of Q3:
- French 19th century fiction took up a big chunk of the last three months, in particular I got a lot out of Nana, Pot-bouille, and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes
- I read seven Muriel Spark novels in Q3 - all worthwhile, but the highlights were The Mandelbaum Gate and the re-read of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
- Some interesting travel/seafaring books, I think the ones that struck me most were Jacob van Lennep's diary of his walk around the Netherlands published as De zomer van 1823 and Henry Havard's sailing trip fifty years later, La Hollande pittoresque, voyage aux villes mortes du zuiderzeé.
- Also very interesting in this category was Dan Taylor's bike-ride through pre-referendum Britain, Island story
- Two superb recent Spanish novels, Sefarad by Antonio Muñoz Molina and La forma de las ruinas by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
- Günter Grass's late novel Grimms Wörter and Rushdie's Quichotte: a novel were both unsurprisingly good.
- I rather got sidetracked away from the RG Turning the tables theme read, but In the castle of my skin and Demain j'aurai vingt ans were both very interesting, and I've got a couple more late entries lined up

Reading plans for Q4
- more fun with the TBR
- more Zola and Balzac
- more Spanish/Latin American lit, possibly linked to travel plans...
- Gerald Murnane
- finishing up the Spark Project - two or three more novels and a couple of biographies lined up
- the RG "Mitteleuropa" theme read

Oct 1, 5:09am Top

reserved 3

Oct 2, 4:29am Top

43 books in a quarter - wow!!!!!! And you don't pick easy reads, either!

Oct 3, 11:31am Top

>5 AlisonY: I suppose the real puzzle is how I still end up with books that spend ten years on the TBR pile when I'm reading at that rate :-(

I must have been averaging more than two books a week for pleasure at least since I got my first tickets for the junior library, if not longer, with a bit of a dip during the years when I was doing a job that was mostly reading, so forty in a quarter isn't so extraordinary for me, especially now I'm retired. My trouble is that the next book is always more interesting than the one I'm reading at the moment, I have to remind myself to slow down sometimes.

I read three of Alejo Carpentier's novels a few years ago, but didn't get around to this one, which is perhaps the most famous. The "Turning the tables" theme is an excuse to read it at last.

Los pasos perdidos (1953; The lost steps) by Alejo Carpentier (Cuba, 1904-1980)


Like all of Carpentier's books that I've read so far, this turns out to be about the contrast between the rich, "baroque" post-colonial culture of Latin America and the failed enlightenment rationalism of the Old World. The narrator is a composer, Cuban-born but living in Europe (or possibly the USA - Carpentier likes to keep things unspecified). He has an unfulfilling but well-paid job writing music for advertising films, and is married to Ruth, an actor.

He's just finished work on a film project, and Ruth has gone off on tour, when he gets an invitation from one of his university contacts to make a journey to the South-American rainforest to look for musical instruments used by indigenous people. He's reluctant, but his girlfriend Mouche proposes that they go and spend a couple of weeks together at the university's expense in a nice hotel in the South American capital city and browse the local antique shops for drums and flutes.

Needless to say, it doesn't work out like that, and they have to make the full journey after all, travelling through a succession of zones that illustrate the rich complexity of the local culture, with its intertwined threads of Conquistador, African and Indigenous influence, increasingly dominated as they get nearer to the forest by the astonishing energy of the natural environment. The narrator transfers his affections from Mouche, who turns out not to be sufficiently crease-resistant for up-river travel, to Rosario, a fully-attuned local woman who embodies everything the narrator likes about where he is and, as a bonus, even reminds him of his Cuban mother. And they find themselves in a simple rainforest community, where time seems to have been frozen since the stone age, and where the narrator would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of his life in harmony with nature.

Whilst the Edenic valley inevitably turns out not to be the escape he thought it was going to be, the journey helps him to see the metropolitan world he's been living in more clearly, and understand how futile and tired its cultural themes are without the enriching elements the post-colonial world offers.

This is a full-on symbolic journey through all the senses, where the impressions the narrator gets from the world around him are more important than the concrete events of the plot: it's a book full of scents and tastes and images and textures as well as language, natural sounds and music. Beethoven, Bach, botany, birdsong, 17th century painters, Homer, Shelley, Goethe and Shakespeare, ... even Alberic Magnard gets a look-in. But Stravinsky and Picasso are conspicuous by their absence: Carpentier obviously doesn't hold with the modernists' way of rediscovering the Primitive. Very interesting!

Oct 4, 5:06am Top

And another Spark novel, also from the Muriel Spark Omnibus 4:

The public image (1968) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


Although she doesn't seem to have any outstanding acting talent, Annabel has been successfully marketed by a famous Italian film-director and his clever press secretary as "the English lady-tiger" (a demure exterior supposedly concealing unseen reserves of frightening sexual energy), and she is well on her way to mainstream stardom as a result. Her husband, Christopher, a failed actor and scriptwriter, is made to appear in the background of all the PR photos as the devoted helpmeet - a role imposed on him by press secretary Francesca as poetic justice for his wandering hands.

Eventually, just as Annabel is moving herself and her baby son into a lovely new Roman apartment, Christopher goes off the rails, hitting Annabel where he knows it will hurt most, right in the middle of her public image. She goes into expert damage-limitation mode, and seems to have everything under control, but it isn't as simple as that...

This is a very short novel even by Spark's standards (Alice Munro has written "short stories" longer than this), and it's another one where the reader has to do a lot of the spadework of filling in the bits of the narrative Spark didn't bother with, but there's a lot to think about - not just the tyranny of PR and the superficiality of the film industry, but also the way society still has ridiculous and contradictory expectations of women in public life as professionals, spouses, parents and sex-objects, and the damage that trying to live up to those impossible expectations can do. And in passing it's also a little love-song to Rome, and a compact manual on Italian perceptions of Englishness (and English perceptions of Italianness).

Oct 4, 8:51am Top

This is another one from the Booker International shortlist, and of course it fits into the Mitteleuropa theme read too.

Drive your plow over the bones of the dead (2009; English 2018) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (UK, 1962- )


Olga Tokarczuk originally trained and practised as a psychologist. She's been writing novels since the early 90s, and started to grab the attention of English-speaking readers last year when Flights won the Booker International. She's also a well-known thorn in the side of the xenophobic right-wing politicians who claim to speak for Poland these days.

It doesn't take much to guess that William Blake is going to be playing a big part in this novel: apart from the title and the chapter epigraphs, he's also there in the text - the narrator, a semi-retired English teacher, is helping one of her former students to translate Blake into Polish. And the whole moral compass of the narrator's slightly-crazy-but-disturbingly-sane way of describing the world she lives in comes from Blake's disconcerting, prophetic way of calling out the hypocrisies of our everyday life as though they were simple and glaringly obvious things.

But it's also an edgily-uncomfortable parody of the cosy-murder genre. A succession of men meet gruesome deaths in the area around the small hamlet where the narrator lives, and she tries to help the police with her observations and astrological insights. The victims are all prominent members of the local hunting club, and they die in ironic ways that make it look as if the animal kingdom is taking revenge on them for their cruel sport. There's an Ovidian undercurrent here as well, and all sorts of references to folk-tales.

Probably not a book you will want to read if you have venison in your freezer, but very enjoyable - in a slightly disturbing way - for the rest of us. Lots of unexpected little bits of observation.

Oct 4, 9:02am Top

>8 thorold: Fortunately I don't have venison in my freezer (or anywhere), since I have this in my virtual pile and have been hoping to get to it one of these days soon.

Edited: Oct 5, 10:21am Top

>9 lisapeet: Just as well! I just noticed that yesterday (4 October) was being promoted here in Holland as "don't eat animals day". Irrelevant for me, as I don't anyway, but had I known, I could hardly have picked a more appropriate book!

When I read The dark flood rises two years ago, I realised that I'd somehow missed Drabble's previous novel. Time to rectify that!

The pure gold baby (2013) by Margaret Drabble‬ (UK, 1939- )


Drabble takes advantage of being in her seventies to write a novel with a very long time-base that has nothing at all of the constructed feel of an historical novel about it. It's rather like what she does in the Headleand Trilogy, following a set of female friendships over several decades, but stretched out to something like fifty years.

At the core of the story is the relationship between anthropologist and journalist Jess and her daughter, Anna, who has special needs and has to be cared for constantly. Jess has a group of women friends, including Eleanor the narrator, who all move in the same North London liberal middle-class professional world, and mostly have children of the same age. Drabble uses this to look at the way attitudes and behaviour in the group change with age and changing times (there's a lot of "...which we then still believed to be healthy"), but also as a frame on which to hang wider reflections on historical change. Through Anna, and contacts Jess makes as a result of caring for her, we learn about the ways attitudes and professional practices around mental health changed between the R.D. Laing era and Austerity, and we also move outside the strict timeframe of the book to look at - for instance - the different ways various famous writers dealt with having a "mad" family member (Jane Austen's family doesn't come out of the comparison well!).

Jess is an anthropologist for a reason, of course, and there's also a thread in the novel about our attitudes to Africa and how they have changed - Livingstone and Mungo Park are important offstage characters in this, and there are various present-day African characters who flit in and out of the story.

On the other hand, this also seems to be a novel that puts the whole idea of ageing and historical change into doubt, since Anna, the charming and lovable centre of the story, is also a person who doesn't develop emotionally or intellectually, and who doesn't experience time in the way a "normal" adult would.

I always enjoy Drabble's writing - she has a marvellous way of telling us things she feels we ought to know without ever seeming to lecture us. But this was a little bit less satisfying than some of her others, perhaps because she felt inhibited in what she could do with the character of Anna without appearing intrusive or patronising?


Perhaps the real mystery of this book is in the cover-art. David Bailey's 1962 photograph of Jean Shrimpton in New York is admittedly rather lovely, but since the story has absolutely nothing to do with New York, models, the swinging bit of "swinging sixties", or streetcars, it's not easy to see the relevance. Odd, when this is a book where quite a number of significant photographs play a part in the story, that they should hit upon one that doesn't...

Fortuitously, here’s a guide to Drabble-country from today’s Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/05/north-london-trail-of-the-libera...

Edited: Oct 5, 8:50am Top

...and I'm getting closer to closing the Spark-gap:

Symposium (1990) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


Ten sophisticated people sitting round a dinner-table in a posh part of Islington. In the short time that elapses between the hors d'oeuvre and the dessert we need to fit in about a dozen suspicious deaths, some Marxist nuns, a TV documentary everyone half-remembers, art-thieves, crooked manservants, a possible ménage-à-trois, a girl who's married her best friend's dad, a madman from the Kingdom of Fife, an Australian millionairess, the fruit counter at M&S in Oxford Street, and a preraphaelite beauty with a gift for being (at least) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Go on, Muriel, you can do it!

This is Spark at her zaniest, as usual with a hard edge somewhere just out of sight, but very much in the mood of The abbess of Crewe.

Oct 6, 6:18am Top

...a Spark a day...

Aiding and abetting (2000) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


Anything but predictable, Spark chooses this novel to try out her own peculiar slant on "true crime". A man walks into the consulting room of a fashionable Paris psychotherapist and tells her that he is the 7th Earl of Lucan, on the run from the police for more than 25 years. A disturbing statement at the best of times, more so in this case, as Dr Wolf is already treating another patient who makes the same claim, and furthermore she appears to have something to hide herself...

Spark has fun playing around with the idea of what it would be like to spend such a large part of your life as a fugitive, and with such a nasty crime on your conscience (if indeed you have a conscience). And she enjoys hypothesising about how (and why) Lucan's friends could have protected him for so long. Interestingly, she has her imagined Lucan reflect that his fellow-peers mostly failed to exhibit class solidarity, and that it is his gambling pals who have been financing his undercover lifestyle. She resists the temptation to romanticise Lucan himself, though: he comes across as an arrogant, selfish bore. And he gets treated to a suitably Sparkish ending, too.

Oct 6, 4:05pm Top

Catching up on your reviews. The Booker shortlisted book sounds fantastic - noting that one.

The Margaret Drabble book also caught my attention. Yet another author I've yet to get to! The Millstone has been on my TBR for ages for no good reason other than I keep picking up other titles, but I do want to get to it soon. This one sounds great.

Enjoying your Spark marathon too.

Oct 6, 4:29pm Top

>13 AlisonY: Read The Millstone first - in a lot of ways, The pure gold baby is The Millstone plus fifty years of hindsight.

Edited: Oct 7, 4:47am Top

Another short in-between read. I've had the complete Kafka on my e-reader for ages:

Betrachtung (1912; Contemplation/Meditation) by Franz Kafka (Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, 1883-1924)


Like his near contemporary, Rilke, Kafka grew up in Prague, but spoke German as his first language, learning Czech at school. He wrote in German, but in later life he also took a serious interest in Yiddish culture. Unlike Rilke, he earned his own living, staying in Prague and working for an insurance company for most of his adult life. His literary work was done in his spare time, and little of it was published in his lifetime (and of course he famously asked his friend Max Brod to destroy the unpublished work after his death, something Brod failed to do...).

The short story collection Betrachtung was Kafka's first work to be published in book form, in 1912. Most of the eighteen stories had previously been published in literary reviews. They are all very short, ranging from a tweet-length 41 words ("Die Bäume") to just under 1500 ("Unglücklichsein").

All the stories seem to be in one way or another about the narrator's alienation, mechanically following the rules and duties of modern, urban life but also somehow only watching it from the outside, in a detached, almost voyeuristic way, unable to break through into participation. Only the child-narrator of the first story, "Kinder auf der Landstraße", can fully enjoy taking part in contact with others in play, and even there there's already a strong hint that the adult world is a different matter.

The stories are written in terse, clear language, although there are sometimes hints that we are supposed to imagine them as extracts from a longer narrative - several of the stories open with a conjunction, for instance. The images are generally very concrete, but occasionally a text runs off into a flight of fancy - the dull shopkeeper on his way home in "Der Kaufmann" spends the few moments he is alone, going up in the lift, apostrophising a set of imaginary winged creatures that turn into runaway horses, then comes back to earth to ring the doorbell and greet the maidservant.

Not "Kafkaesque" Kafka, perhaps, but you can see how it only needs to go a little bit further to become that.

Oct 12, 5:35am Top

>8 thorold: You read her just before she got the Nobel prize, quite timely!
I did not know this author before yeasterday (I feel always so unread when this happens, discovering the name of an author the day he or she is Nobelised...), so your review caught my eye. I'll see if I give it a try, this title or another.

Edited: Oct 13, 6:05am Top

>16 raton-liseur: Pure chance, and the fact that she was on the Booker shortlist - I don't think it's ever happened to me before that I managed to anticipate the Nobel judges quite that closely!


I've got several Spanish novels that have been on the TBR much longer than this one (found in a secondhand bookshop a month ago), but I wanted to make sure I read it while the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI mission was still in my mind. This is the third of Muñoz Molina's novels I've read — no English translation yet, unfortunately, but it has been translated into at least French, German and Dutch.

El viento de la Luna (2006) by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain, 1956- )


It's the hot summer of 1969, and our 12-year-old narrator is following the progress of the Apollo XI moon mission from his home in the small town of Mágina in southern Spain (this fictional version of the author's birthplace, Úbeda, appears in several of his other books). He puts himself imaginatively into the minds of the astronauts — their isolation and the unknown dangers they face reflect in unexpected ways on his situation as an adolescent. But the high-tech world of spaceflight also seems bizarrely out of step with the backward semi-rural life he knows, where the family still gets its water in buckets from the well and uses a mule and a donkey for transport.

Big changes are happening for the narrator. He feels like a stranger in his own body, struggling to cope with the mental and physical changes of adolescence (and the constant masturbation-guilt). But he's also the first person in his family of peasants and market-gardeners to go to secondary school, and no-one at home can quite make sense of his passion for books; he no longer sees anything of his primary-school friends, who are all now doing apprenticeships or working in the fields, but at the Salesian school he's with bourgeois boys who can't relate to his peasant background and the way he has to work in the holidays.

The world in 1969 is in an exciting state of flux too: spaceflight above all, but there are also things like television, running water, tourists in short skirts and sunglasses, gas cookers, telephones, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, refrigerators, aeroplanes towing advertisements for products no-one he knows would have any idea what to do with... His reading is racing ahead of his Catholic teachers, too: he is aware of the narrow-mindedness of the maths-teaching headmaster, who likes to use Darwin, Nietzsche and Galileo as examples of thinkers punished by God for their presumptuousness, and is beginning to see through the charismatic young Father Peter — keen on the dignity of physical labour, although he's never actually done any — who sees the narrator as vocation material and keeps trying to persuade him to read Teilhard de Chardin.

Underlying all this, there's another, largely suppressed layer, with the people of Mágina still working through the consequences of things that happened thirty years ago in the Civil War. A prosperous neighbour is dying of cancer, which the narrator's grandfather (who had been a policeman under the Republic) sees as a very inadequate punishment for the way he cheated them of their savings at the end of the war; another neighbour is found hanged in his house — it's treated officially as suicide, but everyone in the street thinks it must have been delayed revenge.

Obviously, either the young Muñoz Molina was very precocious, or his adult self has been guilty of a little time-compression for dramatic purposes, but it's easy to suspend disbelief and engage with his vivid descriptions of the world of his childhood. A lot of it felt very like what I remember from that time, the excitement of all those acronym-filled technical diagrams of the Saturn V and the Apollo capsule to cut out and keep from magazines, the conviction that the world would never be the same as it was for our parents (different war, same principle), the realisation that our dim teachers had been fobbing us off with religious nonsense, the knowledge that space was quite different and actually much more interesting in reality than it was in H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and so on. All those things you see so clearly in your early teens, which have a way of becoming nuanced and difficult later on...

Oct 13, 5:53am Top

And a little bit of Sparkology:

Appointment in Arezzo : a friendship with Muriel Spark (2017) by Alan Taylor (UK, - )


Alan Taylor met Muriel Spark and her friend Penelope Jardine when he went to Italy to interview them for The Scotsman in 1990. They discovered a shared sense of humour and a common Edinburgh background (quite a few decades apart) and hit it off immediately, and that evening in a restaurant in Arezzo led to a friendship that was to last for the rest of Spark's life. It sounds as though she treated him as a kind of honorary stepson: Taylor and his family were invited to house-sit for the ladies when they went off travelling in the hot summer, when required he acted as an informal research assistant for Spark's writing projects and escort on her professional travels, and he had to sympathise and advise on endless domestic disasters. He has gone on to edit Spark's collected novels, and has written many introductions to her books and essays about her.

This modest and entertaining memoir of their friendship is more like an extended review of Spark's importance as a novelist than a name-dropping exercise, though. We get glimpses of Spark in private life and a discussion of her endless fights with biographers and memoirists — Taylor is conscious that he's on thin ice in this regard, so he stresses that everything he's written has been checked and approved by Jardine — but the real focus is on how she came to write those wonderful novels and why we should go on reading them. Perhaps redundant, but enjoyable anyway! And I learnt a few interesting things about Spark I didn't know, for instance that William Shawn provided her with her own office at the New Yorker that she could use whenever she happened to be in the city — she insisted on having it redecorated, because she found the colour-scheme too drab.

Oct 14, 5:59am Top

Another spur-of-the-moment selection from the "French fiction" section of the library. I think I'm getting too fixated on those yellow Grasset covers — I should try some other colours occasionally. And yet another novel that hardly even pretends to be fiction:

Vie de ma voisine (2017) by Geneviève Brisac (France, 1951- )


Geneviève Brisac is a publisher of children's books and has also written several series for children herself; she often broadcasts on France Culture. Her novels for adults include the 1996 Prix Femina winner Week-end de chasse à la mère (translated as Losing Eugenio).

Shortly after moving into a Paris apartment, the narrator is buttonholed by one of her new neighbours, an elderly lady. "I want to talk to you about Charlotte Delbo," she says, "I heard you talking about her centenary, and I knew her."

The narrator doesn't need asking a second time: she's very excited to talk to someone who can tell her more about the Auschwitz survivor and political activist Delbo, who means a lot to her as a poet. She goes to tea with her neighbour, they talk about Delbo and her times and the Holocaust, and gradually the narrator manages to persuade her neighbour to tell something about herself as well. It's the life-story of the neighbour, Jenny Plocki, that eventually gives her the core for this book.

It turns out that Jenny was born in 1925, her parents Polish Jews who had emigrated to work in France, both of them active in left-wing political organisations. They had a market-stall selling hosiery in Vincennes. When the family are arrested in the "Vel d'hiv round-up" of 16 July 1942, Jenny and her brother are saved from deportation by their French birth, but the parents are sent to Auschwitz. Teenage Jenny survives in Paris with the help of a non-Jewish schoolfriend and her mother. After the Liberation, she becomes a left-wing activist and is involved in feminist causes, whilst working as a primary-school teacher and campaigning for progressive education. Her life-partner is the prominent Trotskyist Jean-René Chauvin, himself an Auschwitz survivor.

A lovely little memoir dealing sensitively with unlovely times — with echoes of Modiano's Paris — and a reminder that we really ought to take the time to listen to other people's stories. And a book that is likely to send you off chasing another reading list!


Jenny Plocki: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenny_Plocki
Charlotte Delbo: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Delbo

Oct 14, 10:35am Top

>17 thorold: Oooh, I loved El viento de la luna! I should really read more of Antonio Muñoz Molina...

>19 thorold: This is going into my wishlist.

Edited: Oct 15, 8:06am Top

A Peter Carey novel I hadn't read before:

The chemistry of tears (2012) by Peter Carey‬ (Australia, 1943- )


A good old-fashioned alternating-narrator novel: in the present day we have horologist Catherine, whose life for the last thirteen years has revolved around a secret affair with her married colleague Matthew, trying to cope with her very private grief at his sudden death as she throws herself into a complex restoration project at work. And in 1854, there is Henry, who has already lost one child and is desperately afraid of losing another, on a quixotic mission to the Black Forest to commission a German craftsman to build an extravagantly complex automaton which Henry has come to believe is the only thing that could cheer up his sick son, Percy.

All this is complicated further by Catherine's boss, Eric, who seems to know much more about what's going on in her life than he ought to, and Sumper, the German mechanic Henry engages, who turns out to have trained with a slightly fictional version version of Charles Babbage ("Sir Albert Cruickshank" here — Ada Lovelace does get a brief mention under her own name, though), and to have ambitions to build more than a simple automaton.

In essence this seems to be a book about the kind of things grief does to us when we aren't able to accept other people's sympathy and support, for whatever reason. And to that extent it works well, but there's a lot of other stuff here, some of which works, but much of it seems to be only very vaguely relevant. There's obviously a loose end of the thread about putting excessive trust in technology that goes right back to Oscar and Lucinda, and there's also Carey's long-standing fixation with the motor-car that keeps popping up, and the Brothers Grimm, and maybe a Frankenstein thing...?

I didn't feel Carey handled the mid-Victorian narrator as convincingly here as he has in other books, and there's an awkward tension between the realistic expectations he builds up and the constructed, non-realistic way the world of the book develops, that leaves the reader puzzled rather than unsettled. Fun at times, but not one of his best.

Oct 15, 8:27am Top

>19 thorold: I really like the sound of Vie de ma voisine. And I really should get round to reading some Muñoz Molina; which others have you read?

Oct 15, 8:40am Top

...and the Final Spark (-novel, in this read-through...):

Memento mori (1959) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


In a typically contrary move, Spark chose to write her definitive novel about old age when she was barely forty, thus leaving herself free to write about teenagers when she was in her eighties...

Most of the characters in this book are at least twice the author's age, but you wouldn't think it: this is a book that seems to convey what it's like to be very old just as powerfully and convincingly as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Old Filth, or The dark flood rises. The characters see themselves as engaged in a constant struggle:
How primitive, Guy thought, life becomes in old age, when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the Pole. And how simply the physical laws assert themselves, frustrating all one's purposes.
And there are still the effects of deceptions and love affairs from before the First World War working themselves out between the characters, there are relatives and hangers-on (many of them no longer young themselves) angling for legacies, there are the usual small catastrophes of everyday life, which have so much more impact than they used to, there is the threat of ending up in a Home or — far worse — in the Maud Long Ward(*) at the hospital, with no recourse other than the largely-empty threat to change your will. And to cap it all there is a mysterious voice on the telephone saying "Remember you must die".

Not much fun, clearly, but still surprisingly funny.

(*) Maud Long seems to have acted in quite a number of British TV plays and series in the late fifties, so this was probably an in-joke of some kind.

Edited: Oct 15, 9:26am Top

>22 rachbxl: I've read Sefarad — highly recommended and available in English, also drawing on the southern Spain heritage but much more cosmopolitan in scope; and Carlota Fainberg — maybe a bit more of a niche literary game, but fun as well. Definitely looking to read some more.

Not sure if Carlota is available in English, but you can probably find all his books in French, if you need a translation.

Someone else here in CR was talking about his James Earl Ray book, Como la sombra que se va, recently. (ETA: SassyLassy and Kidzdoc)

Finding books like Vie de ma voisine is one of the many reasons why it's so great that we still have public libraries with real people who know what they are doing picking the books to put on the shelves!

Oct 16, 9:08am Top

>19 thorold: This one sounds really interesting. I had never heard about it (and never read anything by Genevieve Brisac except a -not so good- child story).

I have discovered Charlotte Delbo a few years ago and I am fascinated by this person. What she did, and how she rebuilt her life after the war. If resilience means something, she is a true example of what it is. She's gaining popularity at the moment in France, I don't know why but she deserves it.

This book does not seem to be really about her, but it's right up my alley and I might give it a try. Thanks for your review!

Edited: Oct 16, 2:33pm Top

Australia again, a Victorian every bit as eminent as Carey, but not quite as well-known. I only heard about Murnane for the first time quite recently, when he was being tipped as a potential Nobelist (well, not this time, but he would deserve it if he ever did get it...).

I read his early novel The plains a month ago. This is one of his more recent books:

A history of books (2012) by Gerald Murnane (Australia, 1939- )


This collection includes the novella-length "A history of books" as well as three shorter pieces, all dealing in different ways with the author's memory of the books he has read (or not-read, in some cases), and exploring the conceit that it is these books that have formed the most significant moments in his life. All four stories are billed as "fiction", something the narrator reinforces (or undermines) by reminding us repeatedly that it is fiction we are reading. In the first three, the narrator seems to share much of his background and career with what we know of the author, but "Last letter to a niece" takes us a few steps further into the realm of fiction by imagining a narrator for whom the people he encounters in books are so much more real to him than those of the "real world" that he has been unable ever to engage properly with that real world: his only significant relationship is with the niece with whom he only communicates in writing.

Murnane is intrigued by the way literature works through words in sentences, whilst what he remembers of books is in the form of images and feelings. He finds he can remember few of the millions of words he has read, and when he acknowledges that he can remember a phrase or sentence it is usually one of astonishing simplicity, like "The boy's name was David," a sentence that opened a story by one of his creative writing students, and which — as Murnane unpacks it — turns out to be making the most astonishing claims for the power of fiction.

Especially in the title-story, Murnane enjoys teasing us by referring to the books he is talking about in the most indirect and allusive way possible, hardly ever mentioning the title or the author's name (the only book actually mentioned by name — after several pages of riffing about marbles and the colours in the cover image — is Das Glasperlenspiel, of which the narrator claims to have read the first hundred pages (further than most people get...!). Authors' identities are hinted at through odd facts and relative chronology, e.g. "The author was an Englishman and a contemporary of the man who had read at least part of the book but had later seemed to forget it". This one was Brian Aldiss, as is obvious from the images Murnane remembers from the book, but others are harder to spot, particularly since Murnane often omits basic parameters like gender and nationality. (There's a Publisher's Note at the end of the book teasing us further by sowing doubts: "The authors of the books referred to in ‘A History of Books’ are believed to include...")

He also constantly distances himself-as-narrator from himself-as-subject by talking about the subject as "a boy of ten years", "the man lying on the couch", "a man aged almost forty years", etc. And there's an almost forensic carefulness about language, about distinguishing the things he projects from his memory of books from those he actually saw:
The man remembering the book that he had read forty-five years before saw in his mind several adjoining image-rooms in which the image-walls were covered with image-books on image-shelves. The image-rooms were part of an image-flat in an image-city in image-Europe.
— This is talking about a book that seems to be Canetti's Auto-da-fé. It can be maddening, but it's also fascinating and weirdly beautiful. Murnane seems to be doing that thing literature is supposed to do and so rarely achieves, unpicking the world and making us look at it in a completely new way. Except that here it's not the real world he's unpicking, but an imagined world taken from books that partly overlaps (or not) with our own imagined worlds.

Oct 16, 12:21pm Top

Catching up. Shame about the Carey novel - I was poised over the laptop to add that one to my wish list until i got to the 'but' in your review. I've not read anything by him yet. I nearly grabbed Oscar and Lucinda a few weeks ago in the secondhand shop and now wish I had, as it wasn't there when I next popped in. I think that's the one I'd like to have a go with first.

Oct 16, 1:57pm Top

>25 raton-liseur: Yes Delbo sounds interesting— a French Nelly Sachs? Certainly something I want to follow up. Brisac references quite a few memoirs of other interesting people from the time as well.

>27 AlisonY: I really enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda back in the day, not sure how well it’s stood up to the passage of time. Most of the other early ones are good too, Bliss, Illywhacker, The tax inspector, but later on it gets a bit more patchy. I liked True history of the Kelly gang and A long way from home, but some others left me rather unimpressed. On an off day he’s still good, but he’s someone from whom you expect more than that...

Oct 16, 4:25pm Top

>28 thorold: Hum... I had not heard about Nelly Sachs before...
Charlotte Delbo has more first hand experience, I guess. And she is not considered to be a major writer, be it poetry, theater or memoirs.
I have the first tome of her memoirs on my shelves, Aucun de nous ne reviendra, titled after a verse from a poet I can't remember at the time of writting (Rimbaud maybe?), but I fear reading it, I must admit.

Edited: Oct 17, 9:28pm Top

Catching up. I’ve been catching up a while. Fascinated by all the Sparks and the Ali Smith references to Spark. Vie de ma voisine sounds terrific. Lots of great stuff here. You even predicted a Nobel...

Edited: Oct 17, 10:40pm Top

>27 AlisonY: I've had Oscar and Lucinda on my shelf for years because so many people told me I should read it. I haven't yet, but someday... I'm a fan of The True History of the Kelly Gang and the mostly unloved The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (though granted I read that one long ago—I might think differently of it now). I have a few of Carey's newer ones too, but Oscar and Lucinda is the one that calls to me.

(Oh, and Parrot and Olivier in America—I liked that one too.

Oct 18, 1:16am Top

>27 AlisonY: , >31 lisapeet: I’ve only read My Life as a Fake, it was decent enough that I’ve wondered about Peter Carey (and Malaysia). But also perhaps within Mark’s list of “you expect more than that”

Oct 18, 3:28am Top

>30 dchaikin: A bit too much to say I “predicted a Nobel” — I read a book everyone else was reading (Because shortlisted for another big prize) by one of the people also being tipped as an outsider for the Nobel. It happened to be the “right” one...

>31 lisapeet: >32 dchaikin: Parrot and Olivier is on my “disappointing” list — which just goes to show that we don’t all look for the same thing in books — Tristan Smith and My life as a fake are not, but I have never re-read them and don’t remember either very clearly, so that isn’t necessarily an endorsement.

Looking back, I think there might be a pattern to it: on the whole I like his “Australian” books better than the ones based on 19th century Britain/Europe. So it might simply be that I’m prepared to let him have more rope when he’s talking about places and cultures that are exotic to me as reader. In P&O, Jack Maggs, etc., I keep tripping over details that strike me as either hackneyed or inaccurate.

Oct 18, 3:52am Top

Enjoyed your review of A History of Books - There are not many takers on Librarything.

Oct 18, 7:20am Top

>34 baswood: No, Murnane seems to have been largely unknown outside Melbourne until quite recently, when everyone started writing newspaper articles with the — by definition unverifiable — claim that he was the greatest English writer you've never heard of.

Moving on to a Hungarian writer who happens to be a favourite of Murnane's and who appears —anonymously like everyone else — in A history of books. I think one of the articles I read said that Murnane taught himself Hungarian to be able to read his as-yet untranslated books.

Portraits of a marriage (1941,1949,1980; English 2011) by Sándor Márai (Hungary, USA, 1900-1989), translated by George Szirtes (Hungary, UK, 1948- )


Márai came from a bourgeois background in Kaschau/Kassa/Košice, now in Slovakia, then in the kingdom of Hungary. He studied in Germany and initially wrote in German, travelling widely as a young man. In 1928 he returned to Hungary and switched to writing in his mother-tongue, Hungarian, establishing himself as one of the major novelists of the time. He soon got on bad terms with the new communist government after the war, and in 1948 he left Hungary for exile in Italy and then the USA. Few of his works seem to have been known outside Hungary until after his death in 1989, but translations have been gradually appearing since then.

George Szirtes is a distinguished English poet and taught at UEA until his retirement. He left Hungary with his parents in 1956.

Portraits of a marriage is a puzzling book for the reader, because of the way Márai added to it at widely-spaced intervals and at quite different stages in his development as a writer, apparently without changing what he had previously written, but each time shifting the tone and mood considerably and undermining our confidence in what we have taken from the earlier parts of the book.

The book takes the form of three separate monologues in the voices of Ilonka the First Wife, Peter the Husband, and Judit the Other Woman. These are followed by an Epilogue, also a monologue, in the voice of Ede, the musician who was Judit's lover and the addressee of her monologue.

Ilonka and Peter seem to be a normal, troubled bourgeois couple of the sort that we might well find in a novel by Franz Werfel or Stefan Zweig. They give us their (contrasting, conflicting) views on the story of their failed marriage and the role played by Peter's damaging obsession with his mother's maidservant Judit. There is a lot in both their narratives about the details of their everyday life, but very little reference to other people outside the immediate family — with the notable exception of Peter's friend the writer Lázár, who is obviously a kind of alter ego for the author — and no explicit reference at all to social class or historical events. We don't have any obvious way to tell whether we are meant to be in the 1890s or the 1930s, it just doesn't seem to matter. This is a story about what love means, how it can be resolved with everyday life, and what happens when different people have different expectations about it.

But then Márai hits us with Judit's monologue, addressed to her boyfriend of the moment in a hotel room in Rome sometime in the late 1940s, and obviously written after he went into exile. Judit comes from the rural underclass, her family literally sleeping in a ditch in the winter months, and has pulled herself up by her own efforts, first to become a servant in the apartment of Peter's wealthy middle-class parents, then to turn herself into a lady who could live with Peter on something like equal terms. Her analysis of the way the wealthy live and the irrelevance of Peter and Ilonka and their feelings is just disturbing at first, but we are drawn into her way of seeing things when she shows us (painfully) how the experience of the last days of the war in Budapest changed all the rules. There's obviously a lot here that is taken from the author's direct experience, including Lázár's decision that he can't go on writing under fascism and the destruction of his library in the bombardment.

And then we get the epilogue, written some forty years later, which pulls the rug out from under us again, if not quite as spectacularly as Judit has done.

Quite something, and the English translation by George Szirtes blasts along with real energy.

Another writer to explore further ...

Oct 18, 8:15am Top

>24 thorold: Thanks. Since I asked you, I have remembered that I've had El jinete polaco on my TBR shelves for years, so maybe I'll just start with that.

Oct 18, 9:10am Top

>33 thorold: just playing, Mark, about Tokarczuk. Hope that didn’t come across wrong. Definitely was the “right” one to choose.

>35 thorold: another fascinating review. Noting Márai.

Oct 19, 5:47am Top

>35 thorold: Interesting! I know Sandor Marai by name but never bothered explore what he wrote. Making a note...

Oct 20, 1:13pm Top

>35 thorold: Portraits of a Marriage sounds fabulous. Another unknown (to me) writer that you've added to my heaving wish list.

Edited: Oct 31, 7:12am Top

>37 dchaikin: - >39 AlisonY: Yes, I think Marai is someone worth looking into, although from the reviews of his other books it does seem that it's monologues all the way (like Browning!), so maybe he needs careful dosing.

I'm just back from a little holiday in Spain. And it's just as sunny in Holland today as it was in Andalusia yesterday — only about 20 degrees Celsius colder (ouch!). I was travelling with a group of friends so didn't get a huge amount of reading done, but there are a couple of reviews to catch up with. First of all number 11/20 in the Zolathon:

Au Bonheur des Dames (1883; The Ladies' Paradise) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


Zola's big sex-and-shopping novel turns out to have surprisingly little obvious sex, but makes up for it by giving us what's essentially a complete primer in retail theory and practice circa 1870. And some gloriously erotic descriptions of textiles and haberdashery, which help us to see Zola's point that in the new capitalist society of the Second Empire there isn't any meaningful distinction to be made between sex and shopping: they are simply two different aspects of the way society is based on the exploitation of women.

We follow the unstoppable expansion of the Bonheur des Dames from simple draper's shop to vast department store from the perspectives of its proprietor, Octave Mouret (last seen marrying into the business in Pot-Bouille), and of a young shop assistant from the provinces, Denise, who comes to work for him. And we experience the effect of the new retail phenomenon as seen by Octave's middle-class women friends — the customers whose money it is designed to extract — and from the less sanguine viewpoint of the small shopkeepers in the neighbourhood who are being crushed under Mouret's wheels.

Not Zola's strongest novel in terms of its human plot, which turns out to be a very standard sort of romance. But he more than makes up for it with the non-fiction aspect of the book, its detailed analysis of how big retail works, not only the front-of-house manipulation of customer psychology we expect, but also the behind-the-scenes business administration that makes it all possible. Right down to the economics of staff-canteen menus. All very fascinating, and surprisingly modern: it's a shock to be reminded that we're still in the age of gas-light, horses and carts, and snail-mail...

Oct 31, 7:07am Top

I bought a little pile of Spanish books from a big shop in Madrid — when I unpacked them I saw that they'd slipped in a free extra. Since it was only about sixty pages long, and I'm not someone who looks a gift book in the mouth, I read it right away...

Nueva teoría de la urbanidad (2019) by Manuel Vilas (Spain, 1962- )


Manuel Vilas is a distinguished Spanish poet, who also attracted a lot of attention last year with his novel Ordesa.

These little essays playing around with the very Spanish topic of urbanidad (urbanity, politeness, courtesy) seem to have been written originally as newspaper columns (the book doesn't say where: presumably El Pais) and were issued in book form as a gift for Spanish FNAC customers.

Vilas isn't writing anything like an etiquette manual, but he looks semi-seriously at the way we behave in various different social contexts, and the way the modern world imposes certain types of behaviour on us. He's a fan of shiny Spanish shoes, black jeans and (ironed) white shirts, he doesn't approve of activities like mass-tourism and air-travel that involve standing in long queues, he feels that we should spend our holidays in the old family home in the pueblo our parents came from rather than on the beach, and he wonders what Kafka would think of our notion of the kafkaesque: would he see it as a kafkaesque misunderstanding?

Entertaining, playful, but not a book you could imagine anyone taking offence at.

Edited: Nov 4, 12:01pm Top

This was one of the books I actually chose on that visit to the FNAC in Madrid, and the one I was reading during much of my holiday in Andalusia:

Beatus Ille (1986; A manuscript of ashes) by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain, 1956- )


Muñoz Molina's first novel, written over the course of several summer holidays whilst he was still working as a civil servant in Granada, and an immediate hit when it came out in 1986. But this isn't your typical first novel: it's set up as a kind of postmodern, post-Spanish-Civil-War counterpart of The Magic Mountain, exploring the physical and emotional damage done by the war, the seductive temptations of literature, sex, death, and heroism, and the equally strong temptation to run away from all of them.

Minaya, scared by an unpleasant encounter with the police after being caught up in anti-Franco student protests in Madrid, decides to spend some time out of the way at his uncle Manuel's house in the small town of Mágina in the upper Guadalquivir valley, researching a thesis on Manuel's close friend, the forgotten Civil War poet Jacinto Solana. As Minaya slowly starts to unravel some of the mysteries of the house and its collection of assorted refugees past and present and finds a few scattered clues that seem to be leading him to Solana's missing manuscript, he also gets drawn into an affair with the enigmatic Ines, housemaid and 19th-century-French-fiction addict. And he's constantly on the verge of getting the train back to Madrid, but never quite gets beyond Mágina station.

With thirty years of hindsight you might say that Muñoz Molina is perhaps indulging himself a bit too much in his descriptions and his disorientingly unflagged changes of narrator, and hasn't quite found his leaner mature style yet. But I don't think you'd have said that if you were reading this book in 1986. He draws the reader right into the claustrophobic world of Manuel's town-house and we follow him cheerfully down the same blind alleys into which he is leading Minaya. Very rewarding.


Funny that translations into every other language except English seem to have kept the Latin title of the original: are the anglophone publishers afraid it's too foreign, or too Catholic...?

Afterthought: I found it slightly disconcerting that the foreground story of this book is set in early 1969, just a few months before that of the last of his books I read, El viento de la Luna (>17 thorold: above), and in the same fictional town, but they don't share any characters or plot, even though both feel very autobiographical. But of course they were written 20 years apart and not meant to be read as a series!

Edited: Nov 5, 6:47am Top

From the sublime to...

Anyone who follows my reading at all will know that I have a fondness for slightly offbeat literary and philosophical views of cycling. This one, spotted on the "recent acquisitions" table at the library, takes me a bit out of my comfort zone into the region of competitive cycling, but it definitely ticks the "oddball" box...

Hoe word je een wielerfan (en blijf je er een)? (2019) by Matthias Vangenechten (Belgium, 1992- )


A young Flemish bike-sport blogger who's a little too clever for his own good takes a deeply-ironic look at the art of enjoying professional cycling from the comfort of your own sofa. So ironic that the book includes an ironic send-up of the conventions of ironic cycling fandom, and comes with its own "copy and re-use" pro-forma review text. So it's probably advisable to take precautions against the risk of disappearing up your own orifices whilst reading it. But it is quite amusing.

"It's not about the bike", as we all know, and as far as Vangenechten is concerned it's not especially about the riders either: pro-cycling is a fictional construct centred about the watcher, and defined by the complex interaction of media, sponsors and professionals (drug companies, team managers, doctors, trainers, pharmacists, mechanics, riders) who all depend on keeping you entertained for their survival. If you treat it as a competitive sport, you are doomed to disappointment (especially if you are Flemish and buy into the "cradle of cycle-sport" myth), but if you accept it for what it is it can be very rewarding.

Vangenechten oddly never mentions Roland Barthes's famous 1955 essay, “Le Tour de France comme épopée”, but this is essentially the same argument: professional cycling works because it packages itself as an epic narrative, populated by quasi-mythical figures who take on the attributes of an Achilles or an Odysseus in our imaginations. Vangenechten takes this a step further by looking in some detail at the way the journalist Karel Van Wijnendaele used the cyclist-as-hero construct to promote unsavoury Flemish-nationalist ideology in the 20s and 30s, and the way being a cycling fan is still often a cover for hardline sexism and national chauvinism (he—ironically—claims to have risen above that by mentioning women's cycling several times and by pointing out that Flanders hasn't produced an important road-racer in living memory)...

And of course there's a lot of fairly predictable discussion about professional cycling and drug use. Vangenechten isn't quite sure which way to jump on this: on the one hand, drug-use scandals and police raids are much better entertainment than boringly predictable Tour de France stages in which absolutely nothing happens until five seconds before the riders reach the finishing line, but on the other hand an arms race between big pharmaceutical companies that kills some riders and turns the rest into implausible machines isn't very good for the idea of cycling as narrative.

One interesting suggestion he makes — something that Barthes also thought about, but wasn't in a position to develop further — is that television has undermined a lot of the drama and excitement of cycling we used to get from written accounts. A rider making a solo breakaway over several hours of a race is a very dramatic event on paper, but it doesn't make for good television, and the teams know this and modify their tactics accordingly.

Fun, but probably not quite enough to persuade me to draw the curtains and spend summer days in front of the television...

Nov 5, 9:19am Top

>43 thorold: fun review, and as always from your reviews I learnt some stuff! I didn't realise that TV has affected the tactics in cycle races - very interesting. I wonder what other sports similarly have adjusted the playing field to up the on-couch drama?

Nov 5, 6:37pm Top

>44 AlisonY: Football, cricket and rugby just to name three.
>43 thorold: Enjoyed your review. I have to keep myself away from watching sport on TV. I know too many people (all men) my age who must spend half their lives in front of the TV watching sport, although I am tempted by the tour de France, but I now limit myself to watching the last 5 kilometres of the stages.

Nov 5, 10:07pm Top

>43 thorold:, >45 baswood:

Every summer in France we spent our mornings watching the Tour de France with our grandfather and we loved every moment of it. It's a beautiful spectacle even if you watch it for the sublime scenery of France rather than the cycling itself. The fact that the cycling itself is beautiful is merely a bonus. I have to admit I haven't watched it since the Lance Armstrong days as I no longer am in France during that time of year but it was always a real pleasure even when I look back on it I realize we were basically spending 5 hours in front of the tv. Fortunately summer days are long in France so we still managed to get in plenty of summer activities.

Nov 6, 5:58pm Top

>44 AlisonY: - >46 lilisin: Please bear in mind that any information you get from me about sport is even less reliable than what Vangenechten says. :-)

I used to enjoy watching the Tour — I think I would fit into Vangenechten's typology of cycling-watchers as "the Proust aficionado", a type characterised by taking great aesthetic pleasure from seeing the race whilst irritating true fans by boasting about being entirely uninterested in who wins or loses. But I had one summer when I was trapped at home by an injury and ended up watching practically the whole race live on daytime TV, and after that I could never face it again...

One nice thing in Vangenechten's book I forgot to mention: there's a long-running controversy among Dutch-speakers about the etymology of the informal word for a bike, fiets, with about five main theories, all equally impossible to prove, and all defended to the death by their respective proponents. Vangenechten slips in an entirely new one: he claims that the word was first used by Zeeland dairy farmer Adrianus Laegerland in 1897, when he reasoned "if this is a bicycle bell (fietsbel) then the vehicle it is attached to must be called a bicycle (fiets)" — beautifully elegant, but somewhat undermined by the way Vangenechten slaps himself on the back in the next paragraph for having come up with the convincing circumstantial details of the date and the name "Adrianus Laegerland"...

Edited: Nov 9, 5:54am Top

Time for another of those impulsively-selected technical books I'd never dream of buying for myself. I must stop being distracted by library books and try to get to grips with the TBR...

A history of aerodynamics and its impact on flying machines (1997) by John D. Anderson, Jr. (USA, 1937- )


Anderson is (emeritus) professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland and Curator of Aerodynamics at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. I suspect that he's no longer quite as youthful as Wikipedia's mugshot implies...

I read a lot of "history of technology" books, and I'm used to the typical storyline: whereas we've been taught to expect that technological advances should come forth out of the results of fundamental research, in practice, it's most often the other way round. Engineers use inspired guesswork and empirical research to develop machines to solve real-world problems, and scientists are inspired by their success to investigate the underlying basic principles. The engineers then incorporate those into their design strategy for future iterations. (A familiar example is the interaction between heat engine technology and classical thermodynamics.)

Anderson's take on the relationship between theoretical aerodynamics and aircraft technology is rather different. The two disciplines seem to have developed in almost total isolation from each other. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists had sorted out the equations governing the flow of fluids by about the end of the 18th century, culminating in the work of Navier and Stokes in the 1850s, but no-one in the scientific establishment saw any real practical application for this work — the idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine was plainly ridiculous, and in any case the equations could only be solved mathematically for certain trivial cases.

At the same time, a series of largely self-taught enthusiasts — from Leonardo, George Cayley, and Otto Lilienthal to Samuel Langley and the Wright brothers — were doing practical development work to try to make a machine that could support itself by motion through the air, inspired by observations of real-world phenomena like the flight of birds, and either ignorant of or unable to make use of the work done by the theoreticians. Langley is often brought into histories of aviation as the representative of the big bad scientific establishment, but Anderson presents him as a classic American autodidact not so different from the Wrights, except that he took advantage of the Civil War to blag his way into an academic post without any qualifications and was thereafter in a better position than they to get research funding.

It was ultimately the success of the Wrights that got scientists in Europe interested in working on applied aerodynamics (and governments interested in funding them): Russia, Germany, France and Britain all had dedicated fluid dynamics research institutions set up before 1914. Ironically it had the opposite effect in the US, at first: Langley's embarrassing failure and the Wrights' aggressive defence of their patents combined to discourage anyone from venturing into the field, and when the government finally decided that it needed an aviation strategy there was a lengthy turf war between different organisations that felt they should be in charge of it before the NACA could start operations properly in 1920.

It's surprising to read that the aircraft of World War I were still designed largely empirically by practical engineers, who saw little reason to pay attention to the work of the theoreticians. That doesn't seem to have changed much until the early 1920s, when theory had advanced so far that it could actually start to make sensible design recommendations. At the same time, experimental tools were improving, with the construction of better wind tunnels in all the main research institutes.

The book takes the story up to about the mid-1950s, looking quite closely at how the collaboration between theoreticians, experimentalists and engineers led to the development of machines capable of supersonic flight. But it doesn't go into things like the development of computational fluid dynamics in any detail.

Anderson isn't the most elegant of writers — at least three times he tells us that this or that scientist was "not developing his theories of air flow in a vacuum" — and he can be alarmingly brusque in his biographical summaries, but he does present the difficult scientific content very clearly. And it's good to see that, since he's an academic writing for academics and no private person is ever likely to buy a book like this on impulse anyway, his publishers have allowed him to include plenty of those scary-looking equations without which a book like this would soon become unintelligible. (But I was glad that I won't be taking an exam on any of this...)

A peripheral thought: I don't know whether this is to do with Anderson's own professional background or reflects a limitation in the thinking of aerodynamicists in general, but when he's talking about early experimenters trying to find the most effective way to generate lift he never mentions anyone taking a look at what happens in the sails of ships (he does mention windmills a couple of times in passing, but the only mentions of ships are in the context of water-flow around their hulls). Everyone who's ever sailed against the wind knows that air flowing over a curved sail generates a normal (lift) force towards the convex side of the sail as well as the (drag) force in the plane of the sail, and that efficient sailing depends on proper adjustment of the conditions to get smooth (laminar) airflow over both surfaces of the sail. Surely at least some of the people trying to build flying machines must have been in a position to imagine a sail turned round to make a wing?

Nov 9, 8:32am Top

>48 thorold: I can’t say whether any of the pioneers of practical aerodynamics ever saw the similarity between a wing and a sail, but I’m sure that somewhere back in the mists of time I read some book or other that made the connection explicitly. Trouble is, I now have no idea what book it was.

Edited: Nov 11, 8:58am Top

>49 haydninvienna: Thanks! It would be strange if no-one had made the connection. (I've got another aeronautical engineer lined up to quiz about this, when he gets back to the cold hemisphere...)

It's ages since I read anything by Thomas Bernhard, at least partly because I've been rationing myself. I've still got two or three major works to go, though, so I thought it was time I allowed myself another one:

Alte Meister (1985; Old Masters) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931-1989)


Atzbacher has been asked to meet his friend, the recently-widowed music critic Reger, in front of Tintoretto's White-bearded man in the Kunsthistorisches Museum at 11.30. He gets there early, spends 120 pages or so daydreaming, then they meet and Reger rants for most of the remaining 200 pages about what's wrong with the world, the arts, Austria and Vienna, in the best Bernhardian style. But then, two pages from the end of the book, Reger suddenly remembers the somewhat trivial reason why he asked Atzbacher to come.

Not a book to read if what you are after is a fast-moving action story, then, but you wouldn't expect that from Bernhard anyway. The ranting here is of the very finest quality, though, and the absurdity of the situation keeps us wanting to know more: why does this man who claims to hate all art, especially old art, choose to sit religiously in front of the Tintoretto three mornings a week for thirty years? Reger's diatribe is not only ludicrously and magnificently negative about everything (Vienna, it seems, has the dirtiest toilets, the most corrupt Catholic-National-Socialist judges, the most hypocritical politicians and the most mediocre writers and artists in Europe. Amongst other things...), but turns out to have been cunningly conceived to lead us into a very moving analysis of what it's like to lose the person who's been at the centre of your life for many years. Bernhard calls this book a comedy, but the distraught Reger's reaction to the death of his wife is obviously a fictional working-out of Bernhard's reaction to the death of his life-companion Hedwig Stavianicek in 1984. Only Bernhard could imagine a character who fights his way out of a near-terminal depression by reading Schopenhauer...

Nov 11, 6:24pm Top

>50 thorold: Like the sound of that one.

Nov 12, 2:13pm Top

>48 thorold: this was a fun review and commentary on technological development. I listened to David McCullough’s take on the Wright brothers, and one item that stood out was how they had to define the physics of a propeller - despite their use with ships, this has never been worked out.

Yesterday, 5:30am Top

>52 dchaikin: Yes, Anderson also talks a bit about the complications of propeller design and how the Wrights were the first really to have a proper go at finding out how to make one to work in air efficiently.


After reading Drive your plow (>8 thorold:), I was keen to persuade our book club to try Tokarczuk, and we settled on this one as the only one of her books we could get hold of without waiting weeks for publishers to catch up with the Nobel announcement(*). This is the book that in Jennifer Croft's translation won the Booker International last year.

Flights (2007; English 2017) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Jennifer Croft (USA, Argentina, - )


At first sight, this is an idea for a book so crazy that you are inclined to suspect that it could have been the result of a silly party game — after the third bottle of wine has gone round the writer gets her friends to write down things that could be subjects for a parody of the postmodern novel, and, suitably blindfolded, she draws out "air travel", "museums of anatomical specimens" and "old maps"...

...but of course that's unfair. Whatever the method that led her to pick these particular themes, Tokarczuk knows what she's doing, and she stitches them into a complex but very satisfying whole, using a mixture of first-person observation in the persona of the author, fragments of fictional stories, and historical anecdotes, illustrated in a pleasingly incoherent way by a selection of old and slightly offbeat maps of places that mostly don't have anything obvious to do with the text.

Some things work better than others: the whole flight=fugue, arrival=death, aircraft=womb (etc.) thing has been done by so many other people, and the last part of the book almost reads like a rehash of Tennyson's "Ulysses". But she does manage to keep our attention, even there, and she does a lot of unexpected things with the other major thread about anatomical exhibitions and tissue-preservation (parts of which are also quite well-trodden ground for postmodern writers). And she's simply such a good writer in detail as well: wherever we are in the book there are unexpected images and pieces of observation to make us go back and read a passage again, with even more pleasure than the first time.


(*) See below (probably) for the major concession I had to make to get this through...

Today, 8:40am Top

Another library book:

Stories (2017) by Susan Sontag (USA, 1933-2004)


Critic and essayist Susan Sontag isn't really someone you think of as an author of fiction, but she did write a few novels (notably The volcano lover and In America) as well as eleven rather diverse short pieces of writing that can't quite be classified as essays or reviews and thus seem to have been filed almost by accident in the "fiction" pile. Eight of these appeared previously in a 1978 collection called I, etcetera; this posthumous Collected stories adds "Pilgrimage" and "The letter scene", which don't seem to have been published in book form before, and "The way we live now", which was published as a standalone book in 1991. (Irritatingly, although the Collected Stories has a short general introduction by Benjamin Taylor, it doesn't have any details about the publishing history of the stories at all.)

There's a huge range of forms and subject-matter going on here. "Pilgrimage" is a lovely, presumably autobiographical, story of the acute embarrassment for a clever teenager in 1940s Los Angeles of being taken, against her will, to meet her absolute literary hero, Thomas Mann. Of course the narrator has grown up — didn't we all? — listening to Stravinsky and Schoenberg and reading Joyce, Kafka and Dostoevsky, but Dr Mann seems to think that American high school students are going to want to talk about Hemingway, a writer she's barely even heard of...

"The letter scene" and "Doctor Jekyll" are reimaginings of Pushkin and RLS, respectively, but each is taken from a very strange angle, and it doesn't really help much to be familiar with the original. "Project for a trip to China" and "Unguided tour" are both travel stories, with the first being an account of a trip the narrator hasn't made yet (and a reflection on the offstage death of her father) whilst the second is a kind of cubist composite view of all the travel fiction you've ever read.

"American spirits" and "The dummy" are — marginally — more normal pieces of satirical fantasy-writing; "Baby", a series of monologues set in a psychotherapist's office, seems to be another cubist composite image until you get to the poignant ending; "Debriefing" is a sad but also oddly upbeat little piece about depression in the city, and of course "The way we live now", which originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1986, was Sontag's fictional treatment of the AIDS crisis, told entirely in indirect speech and never mentioning either the name of the patient or that of the disease.

Magnificent writing, sometimes quite obscure and needing a bit of work, but always worth pursuing. And the book would be worth having just for "Pilgrimage".


Original version of "Pilgrimage" in the 1987 New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1987/12/21/pilgrimage-susan-sontag

Today, 9:47am Top

As I mentioned in >53 thorold: there was a quid pro quo for adding Tokarczuk to our book club's reading list, and that was to allow our resident manga and graphic novel enthusiast to put forward a suggestion from his preferred genre. By our rules he had to propose something he hadn't read yet himself; nonetheless, this seems to be a very well-known graphic novel.

(I don't have anything against graphic novels as such — I can see that they offer all sorts of possibilities for the artist that aren't there in a purely textual work — but they seem to be one of those things, like football, science-fiction, meat-eating and prog rock, that I've always been able to live quite happily without...)

Blankets (2003, 2017) by Craig Thompson (USA, 1975- )


This is about the size of a young telephone directory, but, rather disconcertingly, it only took me an afternoon to work through it. I feel rather sorry for all the trees that got ground up to make that 1.5 kg pile of paper...

In the space of about 600 pages, Thompson tells us about his childhood and adolescence in an Evangelical family in a small town in a snowy part of the American Midwest, about sharing a room with his little brother, being bullied at school, falling in love, being discouraged from pursuing his passion for drawing, and struggling with magnificent religious Doubts of the George Eliot variety (believing or not-believing eventually turns out to revolve around a fine distinction of Hebrew conjunctions, if I understood it right).

The pictures are lovely, funny and clever, and Thompson uses them in non-obvious, non-linear ways to tell his story, but after a while I found it all a little bit too cloyingly whimsical and sentimental in that very American-coming-of-age way, where you can be nostalgic for family cosiness and small-towns and snowy days and the music of twenty years ago at the same time as complaining about how it was all oppressing you and preventing you from expressing your true self.

Autobiographical stories also often have the problem that things that would be important threads in a constructed work of fiction don't resolve themselves, simply because they pass outside the narrator's knowledge at a certain point. That happens in life, we do lose track of people who have been important to us, but in a book like this it's very disconcerting when a whole large area of the plot is just closed off with one phone-call (even if that does get justified later on with a bit of footprints-in-the-snow imagery). And especially when the characters in that area of the plot were so much more interesting than the ones in the narrator's own family...

It seems to be difficult for any kind of modern coming-of-age story to present loss of religious faith as anything more complicated than a disagreement about rules of (sexual-) behaviour with dim and narrow-minded parents and pastors. Thompson tries, and he shows his narrator having a real struggle letting go of the Sunday-school/New Testament image of Christ he's grown up with, but in the end it once again seems to come down to the people around him being too narrow-minded to leave him with any alternative to a complete rejection of them. Surely there must be more to it than that?

I'm obviously not the target audience for this sort of book: I grew up in a quite different time and place and with a different set of adolescent problems to worry about. It didn't really work for me, but there's no obvious reason why it should have, and it obviously has been a very relevant and helpful book for a lot of other people in different situations.

Group: Club Read 2019

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