Statistics from 2019 and Plans for 2020

According to Goodreads, I read 44,163¬†pages¬†across¬†148¬†books – so went over my target number of 120. There were times during the year, however, when I fell quite a bit behind with my reading, so it didn’t feel like I read so much. The longest book was Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals at 732 pages, the shortest was a novella Christmas at the Chateau, written by Lorraine Wilson. The most popular book that I read was Meg Worlitzer’s The Interestings (which did not quite live up to my expectations) and the least popular was Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, apparently read by only one other person on Goodreads (but well worth the effort of finding and reading).

I was lucky to have a bit of peace and quiet after the 22nd of December, staying alone at a friend’s flat just outside Geneva, so I read a lot for a week or so (my friend also has an excellent selection of books neatly lined up all over her flat). So that helped bring my total of books read in December to a wopping 17, quite a contrast to some previous months. This was a month of ‘free reading’, whatever catches my fancy. So I read 12 women writers, 5 men.

6 crime fiction novels (although two of those were unusual ones): Attica Locke: Heaven, My Home (nuanced and thought-provoking depiction of race relations, as usual); After She Wrote Him by Sulari Gentill (a clever, joyous metafictional romp); Katherine Bolger Hyde’s Death with Dostoevsky (a cosy crime on campus novel with a literary twist); Will Dean’s Red Snow (an immersive, glacial experience of Sweden’s far northern reaches, and a resolute, brilliant detective); The Raising by Laura Kasischke (another campus novel, looking at the dangers of the Greek societies); Sarah Vaughan’s Little Disasters (a drama which sounds far too plausible to any parents who have had to take their children many times to A&E).

3 non-fiction: Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie (a humorous, heartfelt description of Northern towns, although it feels incredibly dated at times – written in 2008, it refers to Boris Johnson as an aimable clownish politician, for example); Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (inspirational but very down to earth encouragement and advice for writers); Circling to the Center by Susan Tiberghien (the perfect book for when you need to take a step back and use writing, art, psychology to understand yourself and find a spiritual path, whatever way it might take).

2 books of short stories by an old favourite writer of mine, Helen Simpson: Getting a Life (about the slippery slope of motherhood) and Cockfosters (the even slippier slope of aging).

3 books about marriages (and their tensions): Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing (written almost entirely in dialogue – sharp, bitter, spot-on regarding tone); Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson; Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, although you could argue Helen Simpson’s books talk about that too.

2 seasonal books: one Christmas themed (although I tend to avoid Christmas themed books or films) but this one was in preparation for my Christmas on the Franco-Swiss border – Christmas at the Chateau by Lorraine Wilson (too brief to make much of an impression); and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness

My favourite this month is probably the book that fits into none of the above categories: All die Nacht √ľber uns (All the Night Above Us) by Austrian writer Gerhard J√§ger. An apparently really simple story about a soldier on night guard at a border crossing in an unspecified part of (probably) Germany. As each hour drags on, he remembers scenes from his own life, his grandmother’s experience as a refugee, and struggles with his orders to ‘shoot with live ammunition’ if anyone tries to cross the border clandestinely. This impressive piece of work deserves a full review, once I get back home.

In addition to the books above, I’ve also found an edition of Montaigne’s Essays that I like (there are many, many editions available), some Alexandre Dumas for my boys and an unexpected fictionalised biography of Marina Tsvetaeva by poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata.

However, these new acquisitions will not be my top priority at the start of 2020. I intend to take part in a TBR clearout, whether it’s 20 or hopefully more, and not buy any new books until I’ve significantly reduced that pile (there may still be a few late 2019 orders arriving in January, though). I also intend to continue with my geographical wanderings every month and January is for Japan, as is by now well-established courtesy of Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. I’m not quite sure which ones I’ll pick yet, but as soon as I get home, I will plan at least 3-4 reads or rereads from my fairly large batch of Japanese books.

I still have piles of Spanish and Canadian books waiting quietly for me, as well as Malaysian and Indonesian, so there will be many more countries to visit in the months ahead. Plus, a proper French read is long overdue, right?


Norwegian Proto-Feminist Cora Sandel

Born Sara Cecilia G√∂rvell Fabricius in 1880 in Oslo (and therefore an almost exact contemporary of Virginia Woolf’s) and growing up in Tromso, Cora Sandel was a painter turned writer who lived in Paris for fifteen years before and after the First World War, then moved to Sweden with her Swedish sculptor husband, whom she divorced a short while later. Her Alberta trilogy is inspired by her own life among the artist community, and her own struggles to make her voice heard (and use her creativity) in a society where women were still very much marginalised. She gave up painting after she had her son, although she deeply regretted it, and wrote her first book at the age of 46.

I should have started with the first book in the series Alberta and Jacob, which describes Alberta’s youthful struggles as a shy but creative girl in a very confined small-town society. Jacob is her brother, who becomes a sailor and finally emigrates to Australia. In the second book Alberta and Freedom, she has been succesful in her rebellion and moved to Paris, but struggles to make ends meet, to write (in the book, she has no talent as a painter herself) and falls prey to all sorts of predatory men. However, I started with the third volume, Alberta Alone, because the blurb on the back says that this is an accurate depiction of the corrosion of a relationship against the background of the aftermath of the war, and how a woman tries to reconcile her responsibilities as a mother with her creative needs.

And I’m glad I did, because it is probably the most obviously feminist of the three books. Alberta is still somewhat insecure, but she is starting to find her voice, to stop being a doormat, to fight for herself and for her son. She falls somewhat in love with a married French author: she is spending the summer at the seaside with him and his family. However, this is mainly because he seems to be the only one who understands her creative urges and encourages her to take her writing seriously. Her womanising painter husband is insufferable, tries to take her child away from her because he believes she mollycoddles him, compares her unfavourably with other women, and for most of the book she has given up trying to contradict him or tell him anything. Mostly, this book reflects the interior journey of a woman from dependence and fear to independence and pursuing a goal.

Although it was published in 1939 (the first two volumes were published in 1926 and 1931 respectively), the book contains such accurate and contemporary insights and observations both about the feminine condition and about being a writer (unsure of her own talent and lacking the support of her family), that it could have been written today.

[Alberta’s writing]…it amounted to pile in a folder. It had grown in slow stages and as far as possible in secrecy. But suddenly, when she had begun to believe that she had achieved a certain amount of order and coherence, new material had presented itself, at times in such quantities that she became sickened and felt that she could not face it… The task threatened to be endless and the old glint had returned to Sivert’s eye a long time ago when he asked after it. Or he might say: ‘Have you done any scribbling today?’ And then she felt as if he had handled her roughly, and she did not know which she detested most, herself or Sivert [her husband], or the pile of papers.

Alberta is a great procrastinator and self-flagellator when it comes to her writing and probably reflects the author’s own disdain for dilettantism. She can be equally scathing about motherhood and children, although Alberta is clearly very much concerned about the welfare of her rather sickly son.

Neither Pierre nor any other man possessed that endless patience, that faculty of being able to hang about with [children] hour after hour, of answering precisely and good-naturedly the countless questions they use to hold you fast. And those women who really do possess it are usually elderly or a little simple-minded.

But right after she gives birth, when she holds her baby in her arms, she feels:

There existed nothing more helpless or more dependent on human good-will… Her first coherent reflection had been: Now I am truly vulnerable. Now I can be hurt as never before.

The work is filled with so many precise observations, in almost throwaway lines, that I could easily quote them one after another.

It struck Alberta how stooping most women’s work is. Man stretches: he rows, or reaches out for stones or planks. He is often bent beneath burdens, but woman bends over almost all her tasks, except when she hangs up washing.

Certain moments were almost too painful to read: they resonated a little bit too much with me. Sandel is almost recklessly candid, there is no sugarcoating or attempt at political correctness in Alberta’s inner monologue.

The boy suddenly seemed to resemble Sivert in a way that was almost horrible: Sivert’s ability to dash cold water over one’s enthusiasm and extinguish it effectively and at once. It was not right that a child should be so like an adult… She put the things down to take him in her arms, but did not do so. One can be reserved in one’s love for a child, just as in other relationships.

When Sivert tells her he has fallen in love with someone else and promptly follows that declaration with a lecture on how it is in fact her fault, Alberta finally speaks up – and not only in her head.

He gave a brief lecure on woman as mother and mistress; she was either the one or the other, seldom both. Then there were those who were neither the one nor the other. Exhaustion drifted through her brain as black patches… thoughts for which she failed to find the words immediately: something to the effect that we are not divided into categories, we would like nothing better than to be both, but it takes strength and the right conditions. Not even a plant will develop all its qualities in any kind of soil…

Then he said something that left her wide awake. ‘You said, I love you, first.’

‘Did I? It must have been at some moment-? It must have been in your arms?’ Alberta searched her memory confusedly…

‘You did. And it’s a mistake. It’s the man who should say that sort of thing first.’

Suddenly Alberta did not know whether to laugh or cry. ‘You – you ninny!’ It was a word that Sivert had taught her. At home they said booby.

The fiercely individualistic Cora Sandel did not want to become known beyond her pseudonym, nor did she want to be part of the feminist movement. Her work was revered in Norway, and adapted for film, but she was only translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan in the 1960s but somehow failed to make a lasting impact.

I happened to come across some old Peter Owen editions for sale outside the Waterstones in Gower Street. I’ve been so blown away by her work that I will not only read the other books in the trilogy but have also ordered her only other book translated into English The Leech (about which I know nothing other than the title). She reminds me in a way of Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, who perhaps has more humour in her memoirs, but is equally honest and unafraid in her writing. I would love to see a resurgence of interest in Cora Sandel’s work, further translations of her work and a reissue of her novels.

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no¬†Philadelphia¬†or¬†Longtime Companion,¬†unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and¬†Nahuel P√©rez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.¬†¬†There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin‚Äôs sculptures on loan from the Mus√©e Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was¬†Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal¬†(one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, √ī mortels! comme un r√™ve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a¬†Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s¬†The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey¬†A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s¬†Autumn,¬†the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s¬†A Great Reckoning.¬†I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called¬†Alberta Alone¬†by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo,¬†the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)