Happy National Poetry Day!

In the UK we celebrate National Poetry Day on the 7th of October and the theme this year is choice. I feel I have to celebrate somehow, because poetry – because it has done so much for my mental health in the past few years, both the reading and the writing of it (however infrequently the latter might have shown up). Here is a very rough first draft written in a spurt of creativity (32 poems in 5 days) during an unforgettable journey to Provence. OK, admittedly it’s not a very celebratory poem, but it’s been so long since I last posted one, I’ve forgotten how to do it properly!

Cialdini’s Science of Persuasion: The Principle of Consistency

Ask for small commitments first, then, when the large requests come, they will find it impossible to say no.

Last week I cleared out boxes

loft-bound for the longest time.

cards and letters

from the days when e-mail felt transient

international phone calls expensive.

Too few of yours: even then

you favoured silence as a method.

Sheet after sheet of colourful stationery

with my giggly, high-pitched scrawl,

careful to place no demands at all

while reasonable placed a noose around my neck.

Frog in water, you settle to boil

concession by shrug

you end up with a life adjacent

paths choked by weeds.

I never saw a destination without

wondering at the journey towards it.

Genuflection along the road to Calvary.

Incoming Books (and Their Sources)

I think you all know by now that I am very weak-willed when it comes to books. I have periods of almost feverish book acquisition, followed by periods of… more moderate consumption. Abstention is rarely, if ever, possible. So I thought it would be interesting (at least for myself, if for no one else) to see what are the reasons for recent acquisitions. What are the drivers for my book choices? Alas, in many cases, I read a review and then rush so quickly over to buy the said book that, by the time the book arrives in the post, I have forgotten just where I first saw it mentioned, but I suspect most of the initial impulse came from Twitter.

Barbara Demick: Her latest book, Eat the Buddha, about life in Tibet under Chinese rule, has been out since summer of 2020, but I only recently came across a review of it in Asia Nikkei. When I heard about her previous books (about North Korea and Sarajevo), I thought she sounded exactly like the kind of anthropologist I wanted to become, delving deeper beneath the headlines but investigating people’s current problems and lives. Perhaps investigative journalists are the anthropologists of today, if they have the luxury of spending time in those communities. So I went on a bit of a spending spree and got all three of her books: Besieged (about Sarajevo), Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) and Eat the Buddha.

Yulia Yaklova: Punishment of a Hunter – I saw Poppy Stimpson, the publicist from Pushkin Press, talk about this one on Twitter (or maybe I saw it on the translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s feed) and was intrigued by the 1930 Stalinist Russia setting in Leningrad (written however by a contemporary Russian writer). So I immediately asked Poppy for an ARC, and she kindly sent me one. I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, as well as a lot of their other publications.

Catherine Fox: Angels and Men – This one comes a little more out of the left field. I was jubilating on Twitter about my older son going off to study at Durham, and one of my friends, Con Martin, who blogs as Staircase Wit, mentioned this book, which is set in a northern cathedral town (obviously Durham). I have only passed through the town twice, once as a tourist, once for university open day, so want to get more of a feel for the place, and what better way to do it than through fiction.

Joy Williams: Breaking and Entering – The American writer Joy Williams has a new book out Harrow, which is all post-apocalyptic and dark. I read some contradictory reviews about it, but I also read that most people thought some of her earlier work was well worth reading, and quite a few raved about this particular one: ‘Two young married drifters break into vacation homes in Florida. Ferocious and perfect.’

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer – This is quite a funny story. I had read many enthusiastic reviews and recommendations about this from fellow writers, so much so that I was convinced that I had bought it. I went to search for it on my bookshelves recently and discovered that no, I did not own it. Mad scramble to get hold of a copy, as it has that wonderful approach to ‘writing craft’ that Lucy Caldwell also advises: ‘When you cannot figure out how to do something in writing, read examples from writers who do it well and try and figure out how they make it work. Then develop your own solution.’

H.P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror – To my utter surprise, this was a request from my younger son. He hasn’t been much of a reader in recent years (perhaps GCSE English didn’t help), but he read Orwell’s 1984 over the holidays and then tried The Call of the Cthulhu by Lovecraft and was eager to read more. I found this edition in Waterstones Gower Street, which is snugly and fortuitously placed halfway between my place of work and the Tube station.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or The Torn Curtain – I have mentioned this before: as part of Noirwich, I attended the interview with the two (male) Polish authors and their translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and was so intrigued by the concept and the charisma of the authors, that I had to get my own copy.

Ann Quin: Berg – I first heard Quin mentioned on Backlisted podcast, made a note of the name and planned to search for her in the Senate House library. Then I saw several people whom I follow on Twitter also mention her: Charlus Kinbote aka TotheHappyNone recently bought several of her books, David Hering has been doing a Quin readathon in September, and there was a review of about her books being reissued in the Sydney Review of Books.

Not visible on the pile above are the books I downloaded on my Kindle recently. Quite a few of them are because I know the authors in real life and want to follow their latest releases. That is the case for the following:

  • Rebecca J. Bradley: Seconds to Die (Rebecca is the organiser of our Virtual Crime Book Club and I’ve been following her blog and her work for 7-8 years now)
  • Nikki Dudley: Volta – I attended a writing for Mums workshop with Nikki, and she was a wonderfully encouraging tutor for experimental fiction, but this is a bit of a departure for her, as it’s a psychological thriller.
  • Claire Dyer: The Significant Others of Odie May. I met Claire virtually during lockdown, as she is one of the organisers of the Poets’ Cafe in Reading (which went online for a while). I have always appreciated her poetry, but this book is crime fiction.
  • Matt Wesolowski: Deity. I’ve met Matt at several Orenda events or crime festivals, and have read all the books in the Six Stories series, with the exception of this one.

Last but not least, I do try to get books from the library as well. I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Tokyo Redux by David Peace. I have also requested (and am on the waiting list) for Magpie by Elizabeth Day and hope to read the most recent Louise Penny soon. After spending September binge-reading the Cazalet Chronicles, I wanted to find out more about their author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, so I just borrowed a biography written by Artemis Cooper. The best thing about libraries, however, is the haphazard finds while browsing the shelves, and I came across a book by Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder. A Golden Age crime author who appears in the British Library Crime Classics series (especially in anthologies), he has also been favourably reviewed by trustworthy blogger friends such as Fiction Fan (with one exception), Booker Talk and Classic Mystery Blog.

Clearly, most if not all of my impulsive physical book purchases are a result of recommendations by people whose opinion I trust, i.e. bookish Twitter and blogger friends. Articles in literary journals only serve to reaffirm (and justify) my decision.

I also want to support writer friends and acquaintances, and although I don’t much like Amazon and don’t want to order physical products from them, I know that buying e-books at least helps their Amazon ranking. (I should also make more of a habit of leaving reviews on Amazon, rather than just Goodreads or my blog)

Finally, when it comes to libraries, I can afford to be more adventurous and rely on serendipity, knowing that if I hate a certain book, I can just return it without any fuss or expenditure. Sadly, the local libraries are getting less and less adventurous, with a tendency to spend their limited budget only the sure-fire bestsellers or literary prize winners. Still, I suppose that saves me from having to buy any of those… More money left for the smaller, quieter, quirkier books, authors and publishers.

#6Degrees of Separation: October 2021 starts with one of my favourite writers

Not only is the monthly Six Degrees of Bookish Separation one of my favourite literary memes, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, but this month it starts with a famous short story by one of my very favourite writers! Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ starts out jauntily enough as the description of a traditional event in small-town America but gets more and more disturbing and sinister in every paragraph. When it was published in The New Yorker on June 26th, 1948, it received the highest volume of readers’ letters that the magazine has ever experienced.

Some were baffled, some were outraged, a few thoroughly enjoyed it… and my first link the chain features a controversial story that also appeared in The New Yorker and went viral. Except that this story was published in 2017 and therefore the uproar was mostly on social media rather than via readers’ letters. I am talking, of course, about ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian. The other thing it has in common with Jackson’s notorious short story is that it starts off as the description of a mediocre/bad date such as we have all known, but becomes more and more disconcerting as you read it (and perhaps even more uncomfortable in retrospect).

How can I resist a cat as my second link? Which takes me to a masterpiece of observation of unreliable humans and a rapidly changing society through feline eyes, in Natsume Soseki’s I Am A Cat. Yes, it’s a chunky book – and you may be surprised to hear that Soseki intended it to be a short story at first, but was convinced to add more and more stories to it, as it appeared serialised in literary journal Hototogisu in 1905/06.

Rather a leap in my next link: Soseki studied for two years in England, at UCL, and was utterly miserable most of the time. So I thought I would turn to someone else’s more joyful (and satirical) journey around England, namely Karel Capek’s Letters from England, which convey a bemused, not entirely uncritical but on the whole admirative glance at England in the 1920s.

An unimaginative link next: Capek’s book was published in 1925 and so I looked for other books published that year. I ignored two firm favourites, The Great Gatsby and The Trial, and instead turned to Anita Loos and her best-known comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nowadays the book is better known for its film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe as the blonde and Jane Russell as the brunette. At the time of publication, however, Anita Loos was hugely popular as a scriptwriter, playwright, novelist and actress.

Who can ever forget this iconic scene of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’

She provides the link to the next book, because she wrote the stage adaptation for Colette’s novella Gigi in 1951. It made a star of Audrey Hepburn, although in the screen version she was replaced by Leslie Caron.

For my final link, I use Audrey Hepburn again. In the film version of the musical My Fair Lady, she in turn replaced Julie Andrews, who starred in the stage version. The musical is of course based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is far more of an indictment on the English class system (and accents) than is apparent in the (admittedly, rather lovely) musical.

My little chain has perhaps been less well travelled this time, but it has included a short story, a novella, non-fiction and a play, so I tried to travel through genres this time. Where will your six links take you this month?

Friday Fun: Reading in Your Library

I can downsize quite easily if I live all by myself – but I will need a special room just for my books, somewhere to read, write, and just admire all the imacculately arranged shelves. The ideal would be the Whatley family’s specially-commissioned library in Texas (first picture below), but some of the others might also do…

Isn’t this just the best? A dream! From Texas Monthly.
Not quite as many bookshelves, but not bad, with comfortable chairs and sofas for group reading. From doornob.com
If the above are too bright, here is a quieter, less glarey place, from 1stDibs.com
Another darker, cosier room, halfway between a boudoir and a library, from House Beautiful.
Love the way these bookshelves make use of everysingle bit of wallspace (the back wall is missing a few more shelves, though). From DecoratedLife.com
Less glamorous, but perhaps more achievable, this reading nook in a house available for rent on AirBnB.

September Reading and Watching Summary

September used to be a rather lovely month in my calendar, as I always enjoyed the still warm but not excessively hot days and the return to school fervour. But for the past two years, it has not been a happy occasion. School in Covid times has proved an anxious and challenging enterprise, while both last year and this year, September brought rather devastating personal losses: the death of Barney (our gentleman cat) in 2020 and of my dear friend Csaba in 2021.

Reading

So I have been once again mostly in search of easy, comforting reading, and the two books I was reading for two different book clubs were not quite hitting the spot. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club, is rather gruelling in its subject matter, a car crash you can foresee but not quite stop. Meanwhile, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I read for London Reads the World Book Club (although unfortunately, I had to pull out of the meeting at short notice) is about life in the ‘grey zone’ between two warring factions in the Donbass region of the Ukraine. Although there is nothing too graphic or horrible in the novel, there is an unsettling, ever-present underlying rumble of threat of death, torture, fighting.

So it was with a real sense of relief that I turned to a rather uncharacteristic read for me: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which I understand was originally intended to be a four-book series, but then had a fifth volume added to it much later. This went down so well (as you’ll have seen from my recent review) that I have now embarked upon the Romanian equivalent of the nostalgic family saga: the Medeleni trilogy (often published as four volumes, because the last book is very long). This one takes place just before and after the First World War, rather than the Second, and was written much closer in time to the events described in the book (he wrote the entire series in record time 1925-27). Yet it too describes a vanished world in minute and loving detail. I am tempted to continue rereading all the volumes and to write a thorough review and comparison.

Watching

I’ve been in the mood for less dark and gruesome films as well, so there have been quite a few with deadpan humour and slightly surreal experiences, such as the Icelandic film about an escalation of neighbourly conflict Under the Tree, or the challenges of young love on holiday in All Hands on Deck (filmed in my beloved Rhone-Alpes), the irresistible Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim doing their best to seem utterly unglamorous in the tale of life of nuclear plant workers in Grand Central, the impressive Japanese animation Akira, which looks as fresh as if it had been created yesterday, not back in 1988, and my first acquaintance with a Hal Hartley film, with its fantastic and slightly ridiculous dialogue, Amateur. I also had a tender moment with Ghibli Studios’ Whisper of the Heart but failed to impress the boys with Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

Whimsical scene from Whisper of the Heart

Going Out

Although I have missed theatres and live music performances so, so much, I am less and less comfortable about going out, because it appears that all social distancing or other safety measures have been dropped, and people are closely packed together in public transport or at cultural venues. I ventured to the Royal Albert Hall to see the Classic FM Live concert with my older son (who is now nearly as keen on classical music as I am), as our last ‘treat’ before he went off to university. I assumed it would be a good experience, as they sent several emails beforehand about the Covid-secure measures they were taking, that they recommended wearing masks and that we would have to bring either a proof of vaccination or negative test to be allowed into the venue. Imagine my surprise and discontent when I discovered that nobody checked us at all at the entrance, that no one worse a facemask in the auditorium, and that there were huge queues of people jostling into each other at very close quarters both for the toilets and the bar. It felt like hypochondria, but I felt quite unwell for several days after this, and actually had to do a PCR test to make sure I hadn’t fallen ill.

Translation and Other Literary Pursuits

Since I wasn’t quite ready to go out, I brought the events to me – fortunately, there are still lots of literary and other events being livestreamed. I attended a workshop on writing for the theatre run by the Young People’s London Poet Laureate Cecilia Knapp, based around her play Losing the Night, which was going to be performed and toured starting in March 2020. I also attended several of the Noirwich events: David Peace talking about the final volume in his Tokyo trilogy, Megan Abbott speaking about the current enthusiasm for true crime shows, as well as Maryla Szymiczkowa – the pen name of charismatic Polish crime writing duo, Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski and their translator Antonia Lloyd Jones, about their semi-cosy feminist historical crime fiction set in late 19th century Krakow. I have recently resubscribed to the Asymptote Book Club and attended a Q&A with the author and translator of the August book club title, Jonas Eika’s After the Sun, transl. Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg.

I also had the novel experience of being interviewed together with Romanian author Bogdan Hrib about the recently published novel Resilience by Dr Noir (aka Jacky Collins). I don’t think I am cut out for being filmed on Zoom, as I move around too much, nod and smile inappropriately and constantly, but it was great fun having to think carefully about the work of translation and to justify some of the choices I made.

I’m also very excited about another translation-related work I will be involved in this year. The Stephen Spender Trust is a champion of multilingual poetry and storytelling, and they run an annual programme for creative translations in schools. I will be working together with a primary school to encourage children to have a go at translating seasonal and other poems from Romanian. I briefly worked as a language teacher in primary school and also helped out regularly at my sons’ schools when they were small, so it will be lovely to go back into that environment and feed children’s curiosity about other cultures before they grow too old or jaded to care.

Last but not least, as part of the events surrounding International Translation Day (30th of September, the Feast of St Jerome, patron saint of translators, because he translated the Bible into Latin, although this particular event took place on the 28th), I had the pleasure of seeing one of my fellow ‘classmates’ from the BCLT Summer School, Sebastián Gutiérrez, among the three translators talking about the power of theatre and translation for exploring identity and equality.

Comfort Reading: The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I never watched more than a few episodes of Downton Abbey, although my mother was very fond of Upstairs Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga TV series when I was a child. Family sagas were not for me, I decided, especially when they show uncritically all those ridiculous English class differences.

The Cazalet Chronicles, however, are a bit of an exception, because although they depict the 1930s-1950s, a time of great social changes, and a period that Elizabeth Jane Howard (born in 1923) knew quite well, they were in fact written in the mid 1990s (the last one appeared even later, in 2013, shortly before the author’s death). Issues such as sexual desire (or lack thereof), contraception and abortions, incest and homosexuality are addressed with a frankness which mark them out as modern. Yet the style feels old-fashioned at times – or rather, it feels as though these books might easily fit into the type of books published by Persephone, Dean Street Press or the British Library Women Writers collection. Above all, the characters are very much a product of their time and education – there are no attempts to modernize their outlook on life, which I think a 1950s reader would have completely understood, but which can prove frustrating at times to the present-day reader. Yet, of course, it also provides an insight into a very different set of beliefs and behaviours, and ultimately that world dies out and the older generation is left behind, vulnerable and shaken. The books are often critical (sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly, of the habits, lifestyles and beliefs of the upper middle classes, yet there are also fascinating blind spots, because the author was of course a product of this very social class.

The lynchpin of the action is Home Place, the family home of the Cazalet patriarch and matriarch, affectionately known as the Brig and the Duchy. Their unmarried daughter Rachel lives with them, unable to quite admit to herself that she has a lesbian attraction to her good friend Sid. Their three sons are all married and have children, the older two fought in the First World War, and the eldest, Hugh, suffered some serious injuries. Hugh is happily married to the domesticated Sybil, while Edward gallivants about like a bachelor, although he is married to Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer and is not quite fulfilled with domestic life. The youngest son Rupert dreams of becoming an artist, but was left a widower with two young children and is remarried to the beautiful, much younger and petulant Zoe, so he has to work to support his family. We follow the fate of this generation – watch them mature (or not), fall out of love (or not), have babies, fall ill, die or be left mourning, over the course of World War Two and the immediate post-war years. The story never quite loses sight of them, but shifts more towards the younger generation: beautiful Louise, who wants to become an actress, over-sensitive Polly, Clary who wants to be a writer, plus a lively assortment of brothers and cousins.

Chapters or sections of chapters move seamlessly from one point of view to another, and it’s astonishing how vivid and clearly differentiated each point of view is. The grown-ups often behave badly, are confused or feeble, observed with merciless acuity in their vacillations, while the children get all the best lines. Howard really seems to understand children’s psychology exceptionally well and has a great ear for dialogue and children bickering.

‘People don’t have black walls, Polly, I should have thought you’d have known that.’

‘Why don’t they? People wear black clothes and there are black tulips.’

La tulipe noire was actually very dark red. I know. I’ve read the book. It’s by a man called Dumas. It’s actually a French book.’

‘You can’t read French.’

‘It’s so famous you can get it in English. I can read French, but not so that I can understand it properly. Of course I can read it.’

The Cazalets are not aristocrats, but they are well-off at the start of the series, with the rare hardwoods and timber business their father has set up. The Brig keeps building new wings to the house or converting cottages on the grounds to house the family when they come for the holidays – and during the war, when they all need to evacuate to the countryside, that seems like great foresight, as does the Duchy’s rather austere approach to food and heating. We don’t get to see much of the story from the servants’ perspectives, with the exception of the rather touching Miss Milliment, the governess, who home schools all the children while they are small and the girls until they grow up. The boys are sent off to boarding school (even though they hate it, just as much as their fathers before them hated it), while the girls are not very well educated at all, as they are expected to just marry. There is a certain soap opera quality to the events and personal entanglements being described, but the author does an amazing job of zooming in onto poignant little vignettes, and then telescoping years into short chapters and paragraphs. By spending time with the same people over such a long number of years, you realise that their personal tragedies subside, their broken hearts mend, life moves on even though they might have the occasional twinge of regret. It’s a mature author’s reckoning with life: everything is about endurance, nothing lasts forever, and small pleasures and contentment might still be around the corner, if we know how to find and appreciate them.

It’s the lovingly described details of the house, the decorations, food, clothing, parties and so on, which make the series for me. It’s a rich social fresco, and we can see how tastes and product availability change over time. The author achieves this wealth of detail through almost exhaustive photographic description and enumeration – which could get boring, but, because it is historical domestic detail, ends up being quite fascinating.

The larder was cool and rather dark with a window covered with fine zinc mesh, in front of which hung two heavily infested fly papers. Food in every stage of its life lay on the long marble slab: the remains of a joint under a cage made of muslin, pieces of rice pudding and blancmange on kitchen plates, junket setting in a cut-glass bowl, old, crazed, discoloured jugs filled with gravy and stock, stewed prunes in a pudding basin, and in the coldest place beneath the window, the huge, silvery salmon, its eye torpid from recent poaching, lay like a grounded zeppelin.

This wealth of food and presents in the first volume give way to the deprivations of the war years, and then the long years of rationing after the war too. In the final volume, Home Place is starting to look terribly threadbare, especially now they no longer have an army of servants to help run it. The author is also very much interested in clothes and make up, and we get almost a blow by blow account of how clothes and mores both change in the 1940s and 50s, ending with some of the younger members of the family wearing jeans.

I believe that Elizabeth Jane Howard intended this to be a four-book series, but was then persuaded to write a fifth volume nearly two decades later to wrap up some of the storylines. Many readers feel that this final volume is weaker than the rest, and the styles is noticeably different -with faster, snappier changes from one point of view to another, or group portraits, including that of very minor characters, as if to cater for a shorter attention span of readers. It’s only when the family all come together again for Christmas at Home Place towards the end of the book that the detailed descriptions of games and conversations, food and clothes reappear, and they provide a moving contrast to the full house at the start of the series.

This beautiful new edition which came out in June 2021 was irresistible, so I gave myself the whole series as a birthday present.

I know I said that the protagonists are typical of their time, but I did find it disappointing that none of the women, of either the older or the younger generation, seem to find (or even seek) fulfilment outside the domestic realm. Clary is the only one who pursues her writing, but we are not entirely sure how successfully she will be able to combine family life and her art. I feel that Villy is particularly hard done by: beautiful, well organised, loyal and eager to help all others, she seems to have a natural talent at so many things, but has been raised by a prudish mother who told her sex was ‘the horrid side of married life’. Faced with a selfish husband who thinks only of his pleasure and comfort, she clearly suffers from not being able to use any of her skills fully, but both the author and the people around her judge her for being bitter and full of ‘self-pity’, even when she ends up (spoiler alert) being abandoned by both her husband and several of her older children. I would have liked to see Villy throw a proper diva-like tantrum at some point and punish the whole Cazalet family, who (with one exception) ultimately side with Edward, their half-hearted criticism of his behaviour notwithstanding.

There is something irresistible about reading all the volumes in quick succession and thus achieving complete immersion into this kind of world and family. I felt much the same about reading Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy or the (one-volume, but a massive volume) The Eighth Life (for Brilka). Perhaps I like family sagas after all, when they combine successfully with the description of a vanished world that I never knew.

Friday Fun: More Tiny Escapes

If you don’t have a garden or a big enough one for a shed, then these little chalets, huts, houses might tempt you – most of them are open to paying overnight guests.

Isn’t this a fairytale little forest hut? I might even look after the flowers for a week or two. From Onekindesign.com
A frame huts are the world’s easiest design, yet look stunning, from Riverwoodchalet.blogspot.com
If you hanker more after the beach rather than the forest, this Caribbean beach hut might be just the thing for you. Le Pirate Beach Club.
Sadly, the appeal of the British shepherd’s hut has been tainted by David Cameron’s association with it, but you can see why I originally loved the idea of it. From Fabulous Fleece Company.
Especially when you see how luxurious some of them are on the inside. From Stylist Magazine.
I can only imagine what my great-grandfather or my great-uncle would have made of such luxuries, from cottagesinsswaledale.com
The ones they lived in during the summer, when they took the sheep up the mountains, were more like this.

Reading Plans for the Rest of 2021

I am really enjoying my aimless September wanderings of reading without a purpose and often with no intention to review. It provides a much-needed break and gives me the time and leisure to immerse myself in the rapidly-changing world of 1930s and 40s Britain, the world of the Cazalets. Although I will be wary of overburdening myself with obligations in the future, I do like to have a bit of a plan for my autumn and winter reading. So here are my current plans (as always, they are subject to change, depending on internal whims and external events).

October: Romanian Fun Reads

Family sagas have not been my cup of tea, generally, but now that I’ve succumbed to the charm of the Cazalets, I was thinking of rereading one of my favourite series of books when I was growing up – the three volume (sometimes published as four volumes) saga At Medeleni (that being the name of a country home in the Moldova region of Romania). I might not have time to sink completely into it, but I could try the first volume, when the main protagonists are children, and compare it with the Cazalets or with the Palace Walk trilogy by Mahfouz, which I also need to finish at some point.

Then I thought I might as well make it a fun month of reading Romanian literature – as in, reading without a professional editorial eye, wondering whether it would be worth translating or not, whether for Corylus or someone else. Here are the books I’ll be contemplating:

  • Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni, Vol. 1 – The Unsteady Border.
  • Doina Ruști: Mâța Vinerii (The Book of Perilous Dishes) – YA novel set in 1798 Bucharest, a fantastical tale about a magic recipe book. The blurb says: ‘Merchants, sorcerers, spiritists, cooks of the Princely Court, lovers, haughty young ladies, ambassadors from diverse lands, mercenaries, officials of the Sublime Porte, princes in exile and princes newly enthroned, schemers of all sorts, revolutionaries, Bonapartists, tricksters, and envoys of Sator populate the carnivalesque space of this novel of fantasy, whose deeper levels lead far into the distance, towards worlds we could scarcely imagine.’ The book has received a translation grant and will be published by Book Island in the near future.
  • Ioana Pârvulescu: Life Begins on Friday – this historical time-travelling crime but literary novel won the European Union Literature Prize in 2013 and has been translated into English.
  • Bogdan Suceavă: Grandpa Returns to French (my own translation of the title – untranslated collection of short stories). I know the author slightly, worked with him briefly on the same literary journal, plus he was born in the town where my parents live now in Romania. He is a Mathematics Professor at a university in California, but is a highly skilled prose writer.
  • Radu Pavel Gheo: Good Night, Children! The story of four childhood friends, growing up in Communist Romania, who all dreamt of emigrating to the ‘promised land’ and return to their home country and their friendship in their thirties; older but are they any the wiser? The story of my generation, I suppose.

November: German Literature Month and Novella in November

I’ve always taken part in the German Lit Month and want to take part in the Novellas in November one too this year, since both of these initiatives are hosted by some of my favourite bookish bloggers. (Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck and I believe their definition of novella is any work under 200 pages). So I’ve found a way to combine these two themes by choosing to read German-language novellas. Or, very short novels in some but not all cases. If you’ve read the original announcements for German Lit Month on Lizzy’s and Caroline’s blogs, you’ll have seen that the plan is to read:

  • Books from Austria 1-7 Nov: I have a collection of short stories by Marlen Haushofer, which includes the novella-length We Kill Stella.
  • Books from Germany 9-14 Nov: Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hoffmann (almost a novella, only 180 pages long)
  • Books from Switzerland 15-21 Nov: Friedrich Glauser: The Spoke (again, novella-length – only 130 pages)
  • Books from Elsewhere 22-28 Nov: Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, a crime novel set in Krakow in 1893, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, written by a dynamic Polish writing duo publishing under the pen-name Maryla Szymiczkowa, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
  • Here, There and Everywhere 29-30: Dana Grigorcea: The Undying. This sounds like an utter wild card, a vampire crime novel that isn’t really about vampires by a Romanian author writing in German and living in Switzerland.

December: Russians in the Snow

Under Karen’s (aka Kaggsy59) nefarious influence, I have been steadily adding to my pile of Russian books, and it always feels most suitable to read them when curled up inside with the wind blowing a blizzard outdoors. Even if they are set during the hot summer months spent in the countryside. Last year I managed to read The Karamazovs and was planning to reread The Idiot this year, but the book (in the translation I really like from the Raduga Publishing House in Moscow) is at my parents’ house in Romania, and I am not sure I will get a chance to pick it up before then. Therefore, I am wisely selecting quite short works this time, allowing myself room for sudden lurches in mood.

  • Bulgakov: Diaboliad, transl. Hugh Aplin – satire about Soviet bureaucracy
  • Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield – a satire about Soviet space race
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, transl. Anna Summers – There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In – well, it will be the month when my older son comes back from his first term at university!
  • Marina Tsvetaeva: Poems (maybe comparing different translations, although of course I can’t read the original Russian)

Friday Fun: Being a Film Star

Last week I headed back to my workplace for the first time in 18 months and mentioned that, despite the discomfort of commuting and fear of Covid, one of the absolute perks of my job is working an iconic building such as Senate House. I have always been an Art Deco fan, and the architect, Charles Holden, was clearly also influenced by the Bauhaus style when he proposed a grandiose scheme in the early 1930s. Lack of funding and the start of the war meant those plans were abandoned and only a small fraction was actually built. Nevertheless, it is an impressive building both inside and out, and has starred in many a film or TV series. You can find a full list of films, TV productions and advertisements in which the Grand Old Lady has played a part here, but I’d just like to highlight a few personal favourites.

The Ministry of War was actually located at Senate House during WW2 and inspired Orwell, so it’s only natural that 1984 should be filmed there. (And no, our Room 101 is not the same, although it seems to be popular with visitors.)
The tower of the library stood in for Gotham City Town Hall in at least two different Batman films.
One of the films I adored as a child (because of David Bowie and because it was far too naughty for my age) was The Hunger. Senate House was obviously Park West Clinic back in 1983. From British-Film-Locations.com
The Bodyguard TV series had one very explosive episode filmed in Senate House, when the PM (played by Keeley Hawes) gives a lecture at St Matthew’s College. The college library is of course Senate House Library.
The Cloisters, or passage linking the north and south wing of the building was the entrance to the American Embassy in the TV series Silent Witness. They were filming this when I went there for my job interview, so you can imagine my confusion.
I meaen… why couldn’t the interview have been the day that Cillian Murphy was filming Batman Begins?
I was very surprised to find out that Patrick Melrose’s hotel in New York City bore more than a passing resemblance to the central hall.
This is what it might look like on a more typical occasion such as graduation.

A Great Loss

Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.

Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.

They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.

Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.

Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.

Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…

I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.

Farewell to thee! but not farewell

To all my fondest thoughts of thee:

Within my heart they still shall dwell;

And they shall cheer and comfort me. 

Anne Brontë