Category Archives: Non Fiction

Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Review copy

Translated by Andrea Bell

 

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Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Hitler, My Neighbour: Edgar Feuchtwanger with Bertil Scali

Edgar Feuchtwanger (b. 1924) had a happy childhood with loving parents. His uncle was author Lion Feuchtwanger, and the Munich-based Jewish Feuchtwanger family mingled with intellectuals of the day. It’s 1929 and 5 year-old Edgar describes an evening with family when the subject of Mein Kampf comes up. Although the talk is light (who wrote the best book, Hitler or Lion Feuchtwanger), the subject matter is not: Lion Feuchtwanger, who was an early, vocal critic of the Nazis, argues that they will all be in trouble if Goebbels and Hitler have their way:

“Hitler’s a thug,” Uncle Lion replies, “a former prisoner, a schemer leading a band of good-for-nothings. They’ll do anything. They’re like the barons in the Middle Ages wanting to add another kingdom to their land. They want castles, gold and serfs. Like the barons, they’ll use the Jews to whip up hatred in the masses, who are just as superstitious as in those days.”

“Which is the gist of your novel,” says my father.
“Which is selling better than Mein Kampf.”

Of course we all know what lies ahead for Germany and the Jews, but these are still early days. As this memoir continues, the years pass, and Hitler comes into power, but before that, in 1929, the Feuchtwangers gain a new neighbour. Hitler moves in across the street. His house has the name of his cleaner “Winter” outside, but everyone knows who really lives there. Even at this point, members of the Feuchtwanger family debate Hitler’s staying power. By 1933 when Hitler is appointed Chancellor, the question of leaving Germany arises, but the family still remains. In 1934, Edgar is woken up by noise in the street outside of Hitler’s house as The Night of the Long Knives takes place.

Hitler my neighbour

In any household there’s the reality of the adults and the world of children. Little Edgar goes off to school, sucking up propaganda, innocently drawing swastikas without realizing their significance, and attends a screening of Triumph of the Will. Edgar is aware of danger and while he worries when his parents leave the house, he seems largely oblivious to the specific danger pointing towards his Jewish household.  By 1936, however, when Edgar loses his beloved nursemaid due to Nuremberg Laws forbidding Jews to employ staff with “German blood” under the age of 45, the realization of his Jewish identity hits hard. Soon Edgar is ostracized by former playmates at school.

The memoir recreates the surreal nature of having Hitler as a neighbour. Edgar can literally see Hitler’s apartment from a window. Here’s a man who controls what is happening to the Feuchtwanger family, and yet he passes Edgar and glances at the child and his nursemaid “quite benevolently.” Edgar notes Hitler’s social life and how he regularly hosts lunches for “a bevy of twenty girls.” The Feuchtwangers even go to the same dentist as Hitler. Hitler remains a distant figure for Edgar, an object of curiosity–in spite of the fact he lives right across the street. His presence is marked by lights behind curtains, noises during the night, and various comings and goings. This is a remarkable story.

I’d intended to read Hitler, My Neighbour for German month, but it was originally written in French.

Review copy

Translated by Adriana Hunter

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What You Did Not Tell: Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower’s memoir What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home is an exploration of his family’s lost past. The memoir opens with the death of the author’s father–an event which leads Mazower to dig through his father’s diaries. “I thought I knew my Dad well,” Mazower ruminates, “but the day he died I began to realize how much of his life was unknown to me. “ Thus begins the author’s journey which reaches back to his long-dead grandfather, Max, who died in 1952, 6 years before Mark Mazower’s birth. Ultimately this is a memoir that explores a family fractured by displacement and political upheaval–a family that was forced to transform, reinvent their lives and settle into a new, completely different social reality.

What you did not tell

The author’s research uncovers a remarkable history. Jewish Max Mazower, born in Grodno was a political activist in the Bund, an organizer working with a cover name. 1909 found Max living in exile, but he reemerged only to find employment with a British typewriter company. As a “continental manager,” he worked in Russia, but in 1919, Max was forced to escape St Petersburg when he was “tipped off” that arrest was imminent for the charge of espionage. Max had every reason to worry about his safety in Russia:

Since 1901 he had been sent twice to Siberia, escaping both times; he had lived an exile’s life in Switzerland and Germany; and he had run Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Lódź. He had been on the run, arrested, and questioned many times over, and he had sacrificed the prospect of domesticity for the cause of socialism.

While part of the book is Max’s story, other chapters spread to other family members, including the author’s grandmother Frouma. One of the most fascinating sections concerns André, a child Max may or may not have fathered.

The story that had come down in the family was that when he was a baby, André had been brought by Max to London shortly before the First World War after André’s mother, Sofia, a fellow revolutionary, had died. In the absence of a birth, marriage, or death certificate, it was hard to be sure. Max had preserved an almost total silence about how or why this had come about, and he never mentioned the subject to Dad.

André reinvented himself several times and clearly saw his life in opposition to Max’s beliefs. The author recalls how his father was drawn, sometimes rather unhappily, into André’s life.  Another of my favourite sections concerns Max’s wife, Frouma and her child Ira from an earlier union.

While in many ways this book is a testament to the author’s love for his father, it spreads to an appreciation for other family members and the many hardships they endured. This is a very personal memoir, but it also offers a panoramic view of a world of revolutionaries, party affiliations, and countries in flux. Because the memoir is so personal the unknown fates of many relatives seem especially poignant. While Max built a new life for himself in England, one brother, Zachar, was in Vilna while another, Semyon, was in St Peterburg.

“Three brothers and three choices, or better-since choice does not feel quite right–three wagers on fate is how it might seem.”

Frouma had some relatives who survived occupied France while others survived in Russia, so while the fate of some relatives is known, others simply vanished. What conclusions can you come to when you realize that your relations were in a city that became a ghetto with all of the inhabitants carted off for death? Common sense leads to the obvious conclusion, and yet there’s no definitive knowledge. People just vanish. Relatives disappear forever, and the obvious conclusion just doesn’t seem enough. Reading the memoir brings the thought that  life is a very fragile thing. Max made the right choices at the right time; plus he was lucky while so many others were not.

Maps and photographs magnify this memoir, and of all the photographs included, for this reader, the most meaningful is the photo of the author with his father on Hampstead Heath. This photograph says a great deal about the man whose life was impacted, indirectly, by revolution, upheaval, uncertainty and danger.

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A Short Life of Pushkin: Robert Chandler

I like a good biography, but selecting a book, sometimes from dozens written on an individual, can be a challenge. I want it to be the right one. What if the biography skips over chunks of a life? Then I end up reading another book and reading cross-over material.

Then there’s the completist biography. I’ve eyed, for example, the three volume set on Kafka by Reiner Stach. I’m tempted. Sorely tempted, but do I want to read around 1800 pages about Kakfa? Yes, he’s a fascinating man, no argument there, but exhaustive biographies can be just … well exhausting, and it’s often easy to lose the details when there are masses of them.

So when I saw translator Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, I was torn. Is this the Cliff Notes version? Did I want short? What if it was too short? What was the author leaving out and why?

A short life of Pushkin

Chandler examines Pushkin’s life and work in just over 160 pages. By trimming the fat, and I’ll get into more of that later, Chandler, left this reader with succinct details and a strong sense of the path that led to Pushkin’s early, tragic death.

Pushkin’s early life is examined in light of significant, shaping events, including the importance of his maternal grandfather, Abram Gannibal, and Pushkin’s  attendance at the “prestigious Imperial Lyceum, where he was “part of the first intake of thirty students.” Not a great deal of time is spent on Pushkin’s childhood, but we are told the essentials. There are times when the author ‘condenses’ behavior, but still leaves in a few significant details. For example we are told that Pushkin had many love affairs, but only the ones that left a mark on Pushkin, and generated creativity, are explored.

Most of us know, even without reading a biography. that Pushkin, an impetuous man from the sounds of his behaviour, fell foul of the Tsar and censorship very quickly. For this he was sent into exile. Many occasions are noted in which “Pushkin was to be saved by his friends. Unlike many children of emotionally distant parents, he had a gift for finding substitute parents who were affectionate and reliable. This may, perhaps, point to an underlying good sense in him that can easily be overlooked.”

He can’t have been too wild, as he was ‘adopted’ by several families, and yet the propensity to shock, outrage and offend was there, but was perhaps teased into prominence by frustration caused by censorship and lack of funds.

Pushkin’s southern exile began badly. During his first weeks in Yakaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) he seems to have tried hard to offend people, going as far as to attend one dinner in transparent muslin trousers and without underwear. The wife of the town’s civil governor led her three young daughters out of the room.

It’s choice details like this that pack a wallop.

There’s also a strong sense running through this lean biography of Pushkin’s self-destructive urges: his gambling, his desire to break free from society, his jealousy regarding his young, beautiful wife, and especially towards the end of his life, the duels he fought.

Significantly, the author mentions how Soviet critics, the “creative imagination” of one man and the vilification of Pushkin’s wife, Natalya have collectively impacted the impressions we have of Pushkin’s life.

Pushkin’s tangled relationships with both Tsar Nicholas I and censorship are charted, and in the dangerous political climate, Pushkin was watched, monitored and censored. Author Robert Chandler takes an interesting stance:

A great deal has been written about Pushkin as victim. The difficulties of his last years, and his eventual death, have been blamed on the Tsar–or more generally-on court intrigued. This view is too simple. The relationship between the Tsar and Pushkin was complex, and it certainly included mutual respect and affection. 

Snippets of a letter written by Pushkin to his wife are included, and this serves as a good foundation for the state of Pushkin’s mind when he challenged d’Anthès (his brother-in-law) to a duel. Another decision by the author is not to delve into the various conspiracy theories of Pushkin’s death. Conspiracy is mentioned (as it should be) but rapidly discarded. And instead the author, stating that “the truth is elusive,” follows the known facts and details of Pushkin’s final duel.

When I approached this biography, I was particularly interested in how the author would handle three topics:  Pushkin’s relationship with the Tsar, the behaviour of Pushkin’s wife, and conspiracy theories about Pushkin’s death. These three areas of interest are all tackled efficiently. I’ve read about the conspiracy theories and frankly, reading a biography that just dealt in the facts, while mentioning the theories, was oddly freeing. By concentrating on the known facts, and only mentioning rumour and conjecture, the author leaves us with plenty to ponder and also much concrete information to hang onto.

Review copy.

 

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Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

Review copy

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Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.

Browse

The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Kurkov Andrey, Non Fiction, Smith Ali

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Filed under Non Fiction, Weldon, Fay

Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Is It All In Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan, M.D.

It is not necessarily the greatest suffering that receives the greatest consideration and sympathy. Illness is not scored in that way. Deadly disease obviously scores higher than others. After that there is an unofficial ranking system for illness in which psychiatric disorders are the out-and-out losers. Psychiatric disorders manifesting as physical disease are at the very bottom of that pile. They’re the charlatans of illness. 

In Is It All In Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, M.D. Suzanne O’Sullivan, whose specialties are neurology and clinical neuropathy, offers a casebook of patients who presented with powerful physical symptoms and yet in time various illness and diseases were systematically ruled out. This left these ill, debilitated people, technically speaking, or at least in the eyes of the doctors who treated them, with nothing wrong, no diagnoses.

Up to one-third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have neurological symptoms that cannot be explained; in these people an emotional cause is often suspected. It is very difficult for a patient to be given the news that their physical illness may have a psychological cause. It is a difficult diagnosis to understand, let alone accept. And doctors can be reluctant to offer it up, partly for fear of angering their patients but also for fear of what they might have missed. Patients often find themselves trapped in a zone between worlds of medicine and psychiatry.

The book’s introduction builds a pathway to the case histories here, and I particularly loved the way the author pointed out that “modern society likes the idea that we can think ourselves better,” and while accepting that a “positive mental attitude” is invaluable, Suzanne O’Sullivan argues that “society has not fully woken up to the frequency with which people do the opposite–unconsciously think themselves ill.” The lead-in intro paves the way with commonly acknowledged physical symptoms caused by emotions or stress, and from this common point of acceptance, the author takes into her patient casebook.

 is-it-all-in-your-head

As for the case histories, there’s a range: Pauline, a 27-year-old woman with an extensive medical history, whose been ill since age 15. A general feeling of being “unwell” morphed into burning pain when passing urine. Then followed years of, how can I say this, being bounced around the medical community, being given vague diagnoses and even an unnecessary appendectomy. Finally after losing the use of her legs, Pauline ended up in a wheelchair. If you think this sounds bad, well just keep reading Pauline’s case; it’s truly appalling. I’m not going to blame the doctors here because if a person keeps complaining about pain & various other symptoms, the doctors are going to keep looking for causes (that’s their job,) and that, at the very least, led to even more complications for Pauline who ended up being kicked out of the hospital only to suffer seizures right before her release.

Wheelchair-bound Matthew is convinced that he has Multiple Sclerosis ( he can’t feel anything in his lower body, yet “despite the lifelessness of his legs the reflexes reacted as they should”) ; Shahina‘s problems began when someone accidentally steps on her hand. Yvonne becomes blind after a few drops of glass cleaning solution accidentally land in her eyes.  The treatment given her by the junior doctors and medical students is appalling, (“there’ll be no Oscars for that performance.”) Alice, I found perhaps the most interesting of the case histories, since her story started with breast cancer and from that moment on, the experience tapped into Alice’s subconscious mind. Camilla spent years with unacknowledged grief which manifested itself in other ways.

The most disturbing, controversial chapter concerns Rachel, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue symptom/ME and ends up in a locked psychiatric unit. Rachel seems to be the other end of the spectrum–someone who does indeed have something physically/clinically wrong with her even though Dr O’Sullivan argues that “psychological factors and behavioral issues, if they are not the entire cause, at the very least contribute in a significant way to prolonging the disability that occurs in chronic fatigue syndrome. Do I know that for sure? No, nobody does: but I am influenced by the lack of evidence for an organic disease. ME/CFS sufferers do not usually have any objective physical findings to explain their fatigue. They have been likened to those who had multiple sclerosis before that disease was properly understood.”  Fatigue (CFS) is a problem as it tends to gather up the label of malingering and that is so unfair. And on the subject of Rachel, just because a patient makes a big demonstration of being unable to do something doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. We all bring our characters to our illnesses and our diseases. Some of us suck it up and some of us don’t.

The chapters go back and forth from the case history under examination to other cases and also the history of various medical practices. This can be distracting, even though I can understand why the author took this approach. Some of the stories were tied up too neatly with a bow, but I suppose that is how the doctor’s casebook ends when the patient walks through (or wheels out of) the door for the last time and lands on someone else’s patient list. Ultimately this was an interesting read–even though I didn’t agree with the author about every issue.

In a matter of semantics, I had a bit of a problem with the book’s byline: True stories of Imaginary Illness as it implies, at least to this reader, that the patients in these pages ‘imagined’ their illnesses as in fabricated. But the whole point of the book is that these patients suffered very real physical symptoms as a result of psychological distress. They weren’t imagining anything.

Review copy

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Filed under Non Fiction, O'Sullivan Suzanne