New Year, Final Book Haul

Since I’ll be practically selling my kidneys (and almost certainly my parents’ old age security) in order to buy out the ex’s share of the house, I have to be very, very careful with money for the foreseeable future. So no more book buying for me this year – and this time I mean it!

However, before this frugality kicked in, I had a final splurge of French and Swiss books which I might struggle to find back in the UK, plus some that had been preordered in November or so, but got delayed in the Christmas frenzy post.

The French contingent

I finally bought myself a copy of Montaigne – not one translated into contemporary French but a ‘rejuvenated and refreshed’ edition, based on the 1595 version. I bought an abridged version of The Three Musketeers, in the hope that my younger son would fall for its charm. I got two Goncourt winners (smaller Goncourt prizes – for debut and the one given by high school students, which is often far better than the main one) and wanted to get the 2018 Goncourt winner that Emma rated so highly Les Enfants aupres eux – but they’d sold out and were waiting for the poche edition to appear some time in 2020. Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist this fictionalised biography of Tsvetaeva at a second-hand bookshop. The bookseller said I was the first person there who seemed to have heard of Marina Tsvetaeva, so we had a good long chat about her, how she is my favourite poet, but my Russian friend prefers Akhmatova.

The Swiss contingent

My good friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whose translation of Ramuz so impressed me, was delighted to take me to a bookshop in Lausanne and recommend some more Ramuz and other Swiss writers. I ended up with Fear in the Mountains and with this trilogy by Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer who taught herself to write in French. This trilogy has inspired other writers, a film (The Notebook) and even a video game, believe it or not!

Books arriving while I was away

Sadly, Michelle’s second novel Unfurled, which I’d wanted her to sign for me, arrived long after I’d left for Geneva. I had also ordered an Olga Tokarczuk which Tony Malone reminded me had been translated into English: Primeval and Other Times. I’ve been collecting quite a few books about the difficulties of writing and the importance of perseverance lately – Dani Shapiro’s one comes highly recommended. Last but not least, following the death of Alasdair Gray, whom I’ve never read, I wanted to sample some of his writing,but was not sure I could commit to a full novel, so chose these stories instead.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Finally, I have selected a few contenders for the January in Japan challenge. Heaven’s Wind is a dual language anthology of 5 women writers (each represented by one short story, all translated by Angus Turvill) and makes me feel like I almost remember enough Japanese to read it in the original. The translation notes at the back, though, make it clear just how little I am able to grasp the nuances nowadays. Another shortish story about insomnia by Yoshida Kyoko, Spring Sleepers, in that rather lovely publishing initiative by the Keshiki UEA Publishing Project. Then I have Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), one of the most beautiful collection of supernatural stories in Japanese literature dating from the 18th century, which has inspired many, many later books and films. A classic of Japanese crime fiction and the author with the highest profile currently in Japanese literature consumed in the West make up the rest of my small selection. Now all I have to do is keep up with the reviewing!

Like a painting, Mont Blanc from the train window.

The holidays were nice, and reminded me once more just how much I miss that particular part of the world. They had the potential to be truly spectacular holidays, but alas, not quite! Sadly, you cannot escape all your problems or the nuisance people in your life, even at times of peace and joy to all humankind, even at a distance of a thousand miles. Stroppy teenagers changing their minds about things at the last minute and bringing plague-like flu symptoms with them meant that there was far less writing, skiing, fondue and chocolate eating, wine drinking, snowshoeing, meeting of friends than I’d planned. I am nevertheless incredibly grateful to my friend Jenny for allowing us to use her flat and partake in her impeccable literary tastes.

Best of the Year Books (Classics and Non-Fiction)

Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.

Two of the books (Montaigne and Travellers in the Third Reich) were library loans, but the rest are here.

Classics:

Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out

Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker

Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage

Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed

Non-Fiction:

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda

Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive

Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos

Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.