Incoming Books and Their Sources (5)

December was a month of book acquisition frenzy – as if I had to buy up everything before the shops closed for one or two days on Christmas Day. (Well, I knew no one was going to buy books for me as a present, and I was right!) I was planning to calm down in the New Year, but a couple of things have slipped through the net since. Plus all of you horrendously well-read bloggers tempt with various tidbits which are sometimes available at the local library… My book trolley is groaning under the weight. But the time has now come to put all of these new books in their rightful place on my shelves, so that they can patiently wait to be read.

The Turgenev Hangover

After reading my first novel by Turgenev as part of my Russians in the Snow, I wanted to explore more by this writer, so I got one of his earlier and one of his later books. Not necessarily the ones people recommended on Twitter, but the ones that sounded most appealing to me from the blurb (dangerous strategy, I know!).

The Brophy Bunch

A few days before Christmas, just as I started my holidays, Brigid Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey tweeted a little quiz about Brophy’s novels and life. My results were pretty woeful so I thought I should remedy that by reading two of her novels which come highly recommended: Jacqui liked both of them but it was her review of The King of a Rainy Country which made me choose that one, while Melissa was very pleasantly surprised by her first encounter with Brophy in Flesh.

My Hometown Buddies

As I was reading some German-language reviews of Marlen Haushofer, I came across the comment that she will always appeal to a niche audience, rather like Ilse Aichinger and Gerhard Fritsch, and will never have the acclaim (or controversy) of fellow Austrian writers Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek or Ingeborg Bachmann. I had read Aichinger before, but not much of Fritsch (who committed suicide at quite a young age). Plus, both of them are Viennese, so I consider them my ‘local’ people. As for Erich Kästner, he lived for a while in the city I hope to move to in the future, Berlin, but I came across his journal Notabene 45 about Germany during the dying days of WW2 and straight after in a review in the daily Viennese newsletter to which I subscribe – so again a connection to the city of my childhood.

Zoe approves of this book, clearly.

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues at work, who is of Nigerian descent but has lived in a very white middle-class neighbourhood in London and gone to a grammer school in Kent. She recommended this book The Scramble for Africa to me, which she read to understand a bit more about her own background. I have always been fascinated by the way the great powers carved up a continent for its riches, not unlike Eastern Europe, I suppose, being at the mercy of constantly shifting borders and alliances.

Still in Africa

I attended a LRB session with the Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah being interviewed by Kamila Shamsie, after I very much enjoyed reading his novel Admiring Silence. So I was delighted to order a signed copy of his latest novel, After Lives, as well as finding a second-hand copy of his By the Sea.

The review copies, much loved by Zoe

Lola Lafon trained to be a dancer for quite a while, as well as spending a good portion of her childhood in Romania, so I have a bit of an affinity for her work. I am therefore really pleased that Europa Editions have sent me the ARC for her latest novel to be translated into English, Reeling (which does have a ballet theme). Meanwhile, Fum d’Estampa has a new book of short fiction out by Catalan author Bel Olid, while Canongate has a quirky Korean novel about a sixty-five year old female contract killer entitled The Old Woman with the Knife.

Vlogger’s Delight

The two books above (in this slightly shaky picture) winged their way towards me after hearing Liv Hooper, bookseller and one of my favourite bookish YouTubers, talk about them. Little Scratch is experimental fiction about an averag day in the life of an average woman, while The Least We Can Do is a manifesto about inclusivity and ethics, freedom of speech and moral discourse in the bookselling and publishing industry.

Rumer has it…

There was so much love for Rumer Godden from quite a range of bloggers in the past few years, especially HeavenAli, Harriet Devine and Fiction Fan, while Peter Leyland on Twitter said how much he had enjoyed listening to a radio adaptation of The Battle of Villa Fiorita, so I thought I’d expand my horizons beyond The Greengage Summer and The Black Narcissus. I’ve already read Villa Fiorita, which was good, but much sadder than I expected.

The American contingent

After the death of bell hooks, I just had to remind myself of her inspiring work, while various bloggers are to blame for the other temptations: Kaggsy was responsible for Gentleman Overboard, a neglected and strange little book; Guy Savage assured me I would love The Husbands; and I think I got Shelter after reading an interview with the author Jung Yun about her latest novel O Beautiful, which sounded less interesting to me.

The library books

I am now fully invested in the Brontë Sisters mystery series, so I got the latest (third one) from the library and am more than halfway through. For Your Own Good is our next Virtual Crime Book Club read, so I hope to finish it by the 31st of January, when we have our next meeting (I just picked it up today). As for The Appeal, yes, I admit, I succumbed to all the buzz about this and Janice Hallett’s even more recent one, The Twyford Code. It had better not be a disappointment, or I will blast all of my Twitterati!

Best of the Year: Modern Classics

I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.

The Old British Library Reading Room in the British Museum, which I loved with all my heart and where I wrote most of my Ph.D. thesis.

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts [unclear who the translator is unfortunately]

Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.

Max Blecher: Adventures in Immediate Irreality

I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.

Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny

The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn

A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball

How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.

Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.