Six Degrees of Separation: August Wild Card

I only take part intermittently in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, but it’s one of my favourite monthly reading challenges. This month the starting point for the logical chain of six books is the last book you posted in the July chain. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take part in the July chain, although I loved, loved, loved reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children (complete with singing, howling and dancing for the wild rumpus). So I will start instead with the last one in June, which was I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

Robert Graves was great friends (and possibly more) with Siegfried Sassoon, when they were both officers in the same regiment during the First World War. So for my first link I picked Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which I read and hugely enjoyed in my youth, when I was craving to come to England to study and dreamt that I would be riding all day (thanks, pony books) and sailing (thanks, Swallow and Amazons), while visiting friends in amazing country piles (yep, Brideshead Revisited). Of course, the real England was nothing like that when I did move over here, but I can completely see the nostalgia element and appeal in Sassoon’s work (a bit like Le Grand Meaulnes).

The fantastic Quentin Blake illustrating Roald Dahl

Of course, fox-hunting is horrible, so my next pick is a fox that gets its revenge on humans: Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a difficult man, but I loved his books when I was a child, he certainly got my own children reading and we all loved visiting his house at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

Another Buckinghamshire literary light was John Milton, who lived in Chalfont St Giles for a short while (trying to escape the plague in London) and completed Paradise Lost there. I’ve tried and tried to read Milton, but have never been able to struggle through the whole of his paradises.

Another book I’ve never been able to read all the way through, although I hugely enjoyed parts of it, is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Yes, I know, it’s a damning confession to make. I do like the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, though, if that counts.

Petipa also, more famously, choreographed (or helped Lev Ivanov to do so) The Nutcracker, which is based on a short story by ETA Hoffmann. Although the ballet is regularly performed as a feel-good Christmas special, in Hoffmann’s hands it was much darker (like all of his ambiguous stories).

Finally, as we all know, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a sad tale of a woman being betrayed by a man and yet sacrificing herself for him. Far removed indeed from the Disney version – and I have the feeling the upcoming live action remake is not going to touch these darker aspects either.

So this month we’ve undertaken a journey from Ancient Rome to Buckinghamshire, from paradise to Spain, Russia (or thereabouts) to Denmark. A great pleasure, as always, to take part in this. Where will your 6 connections take you?

Nominations for #WIT Top 100

Women in Translation Month is coming up very soon, and for this year, the founder and host of #WITMonth Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. You are all invited to take part, if you follow some basic rules:

I’ve selected ten books that instantly came to mind, without me having to go through my bookshelves in detail. I could have chosen so many more, but these are ones that have really changed my world, shaken my foundations, taught me what it means to be a woman and an artist and other such fundamental things. And, instead of telling you what the book is ‘about’, I will just give you a 3 word (or thereabouts) summary and a quote from each.

Looking at the list, I guess none of them are really cheerful, happy books, are they?

Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) – bourgeois turns bohemian

 I had wanted myself to be boundless, and I had become as shapeless as the infinite. The paradox was that I became aware of this deficiency at the very moment when I discovered my individuality; my universal aspiration had seemed to me until then to exist in its own right; but now it had become a character trait: ‘Simone is interested in everything.’ I found myself limited by my refusal to be limited.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) – meeting, connecting, empathy

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?

Veronique Olmi: Bord de mer (Beside the Sea) – depressed mother, heartbreak

You force yourself to live as best you can, but everything keeps fading away. You wake up in the morning but that morning no longer exists, just like the evening preceding it, forgotten by everyone. You inch forward on a cliff edge, I’ve known that for a while. One step forward. One step in the abyss. Then you start over again. To go where? No one knows. No one cares.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina – victim of imagination or men?

Some people live and some people contemplate others living. I am amongst those who contemplate. And you?

Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) – shining prince ages

You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world’s decay.

Yosano Akiko: Midaregami (Tangled Hair) – poetry of female desire

A star who once

Within night’s velvet whispered

All the words of love

Is now a mortal in the world below —

Look on this untamed hair!

Clarice Lispector: Complete Short Stories – capricious, scintillating, sad

Mama, before she got married… was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about… liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter.

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Drumul acuns (The Hidden Way) – social critique of inter-war Romania

The snobbery of Papadat-Bengescu’s protagonists is a defining trait of the Romanian bourgeoisie, of humble and precarious origin, without any aristocratic ancestry, and therefore keen to integrate into top-tier society at any price, either by falsifying their family history or by making unjustifiable moral compromises.

Critique from Autorii.com

Gabriela Adamesteanu: Dimineata pierduta (Lost Morning) – political family saga

How little of what lies within us we are able to convey through words! And how few of those words are received by others. And yet we keep on talking, firm in the belief that the sun of rationality will light up our souls… Otherwise, what would our lives be like if we view conversations as being as complicated as blood transfusions? It’s only when we’re at our lowest ebb that we are haunted by this suspicion, but we cast this suspicion aside as soon as we possibly can.

Marina Tsvetaeva: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul (or any other of her poetry) – quirky, passionate, ruthless

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!

Mood-Boosting Books in the Library

A couple of years ago I discovered that there is a trend now to promote ‘mood-boosting books’ in our local libraries (and perhaps nationally). Perhaps this is to counteract the trauma caused by the daily, weekly, monthly news cycle, or perhaps it’s a bread and circuses distraction so that the population stays calm and carries on. Whatever the reason behind it, it was something I welcomed, even as an inveterate and unrepentant reader of noir literature.

However, the selection is somewhat controversial, to say the least. No disrespect to the librarians who made the selection from what were probably limited resources, but I cannot resist suggesting some alternatives to the more blatant discrepancies between stated purpose and actual effect on the reader.

Completely gratuitous image of Aidan Turner as Poldark – and no, not the torso…

The choice of the Poldark series may have more to do with the phwoar appeal of Aidan Turner’s torso than with the actual storyline, which is often full of cruelty, grim poverty and sadness. If you were aiming for a family saga in which you can sink in, forgetting about your own worries for a minute, then I would recommend Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance or the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.

I recently borrowed The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, which was also on that mood-boosting shelf, expecting a book about a cat adopting a youngish couple to be charming and tender. Well, yes it was, but also rather wistful and sad, connected to the end of an era (Showa) and perhaps an end of a certain way of life in Japan. For a cheerier account of cats as saviours, try A Streetcat Named Bob or The Good, the Bad and the Furry. And if you want a satire of a changing Japan, then Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic.

Portrait of Natsume Soseki with his cat, by Okamoto Ippei.

I’ve laughed before how Alice Munro was mysteriously shelved under Happiness with her stark and unflinching short stories. I could say the same about The Miniaturist, or Chekhov’s short stories, or Louis Sachar’s Holes or A Month in the Country or even The Camomile Lawn. I suppose the idea is to read something about triumph in the face of adversity, but some of the titles seem to wilfully misinterpret what could make people happy. Maybe reading about other people’s suffering makes us more content with our own life?

There are, of course, some excellent choices that I cannot help but agree with: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the irrepressible Adrian Mole, The Enchanted April, Matt Haig’s The Humans and even Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (aka These Foolish Things, although I have problems at times with the ‘white tourists going to exotic locations and poking gentle fun at them’.

What other books would you recommend to people who need escapism or cheering up? Top of my list would be Pippi Longstocking, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs. What would be top of your list?

#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?

#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

#SixDegrees April 2019: From How to Be Both

I’m still on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but I could not resist joining in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked from one book to the next to form a total of six. The reason why I particularly wanted to take part this month is because Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is the starting point and it’s a book that I’ve been really curious about (I like outrageously experimental ideas) but somehow still haven’t read.

I have read one other book that relies on a dual narrative, however, and is very experimental (although not in the publishing format) and that is Michèle Roberts’ Flesh and Blood, which makes the reader work to piece together the two halves of the story of a broken relationship between mother and child, like doing up a zip.

From here it’s just a small step to Michèle Roberts’ memoirs Paper Houses, which I greatly enjoyed, and not just because I had the good fortune to meet the author and attend one of her workshops. This has everything that I ever dreamt of in my teens: living, working and loving in London in the 1970s, being part of the Spare Rib collective, marching and protesting, being an ardent feminist and also a lover of men, a thoughtful, introverted writer and also a sociable global nomad.

Political protests form the link to my next book. One that I’ve not read but am very interested in, if only I could find it in a library: The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, set in Cairo in 2011. The government is crumbling; the people are in open revolt; and two members of the political underground, Mariam and Khalil, are determined to change the world as the meaning of revolution evolves in front of them.

Another revolution, another city links to my next choice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was the blight of my Year 7 English. It wasn’t so much the story itself that annoyed me but having to analyse it to death in a class that couldn’t care less about the whole matter.

One book that we also had to read at school in Year 8 or 9 was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which definitely appealed more to all of us. A science fiction/horror classic. Now that I look back on the reading choices at our English school (Lord of the Flies was another), I can see that they were quite conservative and very UK-centred, although we were supposedly an international school.

My final choice, however, is a bit more international and was the book we read in our French class: Vipère au poing, that ‘cheery’ family drama by Hervé Bazin. Good choice from our French teacher, because it’s a vivid, shocking, often funny book of teenage rebellion. The evil mother Folcoche made such a strong impression on me that I’ve never quite forgotten her or the book.

So my literary association journey this month was mainly based around London and Paris, Britain and France, with a stopover in Cairo. Also, a predominance of the colours red and green in terms of covers. Where will your literary chain take you?



Charles Simic: Bridging the Abyss

Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.

Photo from the Poetry Center

Charles Simic is a Puliter Prize winning American poet of Serbian origin, and one of the few modern poets in the US who doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ‘school’ or style. Yet he is always recognisably himself: pared down, short poems polished to perfection like small gems, no fancy diction or ‘swallowing a thesaurus’ type of vocabulary, but containing big ideas.

I like the conciseness of the lyric and I like to tell stories – an impossible situation! Brevity has always impressed me! A few striking images and goodbye… How to say everything with the minimum of words is my ideal.

Born in Belgrade and witnessing the indiscriminate bombing of the city as a small child, he is deeply distrustful of absolutist statements or those who claim moral authority. Partly surrealist, deceptively simple but never simplistic, he remains preoccupied with history and truth, the search of meaning in a world that seems determined to destroy all innocence.

I continue to believe that poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.

Where does he get all his inspiration from? Simic has no qualms about admitting that it’s from his personal experience.

Form is the extension of content, so it’s not an invention – something out of nothing, but a discovery of what is already there… Poetry is the archeology of the self. The bits and pieces one keeps digging up belong to the world – everybody’s world. It’s a paradox that has always amused me. Just when you think you’re most subjective, you meet everybody else.

But if poetry is about universal experience, then why is it so little appreciated and read? Simic has quite trenchant views on that and I can’t help wondering what he feels about the current popularity of Instagram poetry.

… why more people don’t read poetry? I suppose for the same reasons more people don’t read philosophy. Philosophy is important, was alayws important, but very few people in any age have read it. No point kidding ourselves! The human animal is lazy. Thinking is work and so is poetry… You notice how all those imported Eastern phiosophies, when they come to the West, reduce their theologies to the simplest possible terms? A two-word mantra and off you go! That’s all you need, kid! Imagine if someone actually tried to make them study the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and poets?

            War
The trembling finger of a woman
Goes down the list of casualties
On the evening of the first snow

The house is cold and the list is long.

All our names are included.

The tragic in Simic’s verse is always tempered with something uttered so baldly, it almost becomes comic. As he describes it, the world is a mix of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the absurd: ‘dopiness is at the heart of much human activity.’ I love the juxtaposition of abstract and very concrete indeed, of high-minded, high-falutin’ ideals and the boring old everyday.

        Mother Tongue
Sold by a butcher
Wrapped in a newspaper
It travels in a bag
Of the stooped widow
Next to some onions and potatoes

Toward a dark house
Where a cat will
Leap off the stove
Purring
At its entrance
The young Simic with his father, from This Recording/Poetry.

For a boy who learnt English only after he emigrated to the States at the age of 16, to then go on to become the Poet Laureate… Not a bad accomplishment, right? Oh, and the title of this post? It’s from a quote of his: ‘Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.’