Category Archives: Non Fiction

True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction Helen Garner

“People will always tell you more than you need to know–and more than they want you to know.”

At 800 pages, True Stories is a massive collection of Helen Garner’s non fiction work. A few years ago, I read this Australian author’s fantastic non-fiction  This House of Grief, and it made my best-of-year list. The book was emotionally wrenching, so I wasn’t ready for Joe Cinque’s Consolation. A compilation of the author’s work was enticing and promised, perhaps, a wide range of topics. I was right. In this book, Helen Garner gets everywhere: from a Russian ship that sails to the Antarctica, to the delivery room, the morgue, a gun show, the trial for the murder of Daniel Valerio, a bridal dressmaker’s shop, and a crematorium. She reminisces about an abandoned teaching career, makes observations of familial relationships, a mother sinking into dementia, moving, learning how to play the ukulele and the delights of being a grandmother.

True stories

Helen Garner is a writer who uses her writing to explore herself–something I noticed in  This House of Grief. So in one section of this collection, she describes how delighted she was with her appearance right before a glass of wine lands on her dress. This sort of personal anecdote may seem uninteresting for some readers, and while it’s true that I found some essays more interesting than others, I was also interested in how Garner seeks to understand herself through her writing. For anyone interested in Helen Garner (and even if you’re never read anything by her), this is an impressive collection.

Just as when I read This House of Grief, I didn’t always agree with the author, but I always enjoyed her view on life & living. Garner’s honesty adds a great deal of delight. In Regions of the Thick-Ribbed Ice (a favourite) for example, she admits how she dislikes penguins and wanted to take an orange pebble so badly from the beach in Antarctica, but managed suppressed her desire. At another point, she admits being ambushed by her love for her new granddaugher, and in yet another section, she talks about her love for the ukulele but her lack of expertise in spite of the passage of years. At one point she chronicles the search for a round table and then how a friend’s positive attitude propped up her negative feelings about the table when a craftsman derided its quality.

There are too many chapters to talk about them all, and anyway, whoever reads this is going to have their favourites. Parts are extremely personal, and yet at the same time, there are no rants about her spouses (ex-spouses) or a litany of their failings. But I’m going to talk about the things I take away from this collection:  Helen Garner’s innate curiosity about human behaviour (and that includes herself). The murder trial of little Daniel Valerio is a case in point. What on earth possessed the boy’s stepfather (the man who beat the boy to death) to “make mocking gestures, leering and waving,” to the dead child’s father? When the stepfather bragged of the beatings to coworkers, why did no one report him?

I circle round the dark area of life (mine or someone else’s) to which my curiosity is attracted, and I search for a way in. 

There are a couple of wonderful essays about the author Patrick White. Patrick White: The Artist as Holy Monster is written after Helen Garner reads Marr’s biography of White. She notes “White’s periodic cullings of even his closet friends, using tiny slights or hesitations as pretexts for a ferocious slashing away of their links with him.” Garner had the good and bad fortune to meet Patrick White on two occasions, and while she remembers his kindness the first time they met, she then recalls how badly he behaved with “random, bitchy swipes” on their second meeting. Even this meeting, though, which could end in some nasty observations about White includes Garner’s realization that she allowed White to rant about people and offered no defense–“This is something worth knowing,” she admits. She also speculates about White’s companion, Manoly Lascaris, and how he managed to endure White’s temperament.

Good manners, or great art? Are the two mutually exclusive? Women and men who serve as creators, as Lascaris did, gamble their whole lives on their instincts about their partners’ abilities: a tremendous, dizzying bet.

In Sing For Your Supper, Garner writes about writers’ festivals, and the disappointment she felt when talking to a writer whose story she admired. This is magnified as Garner attends more festivals and observes that the performances of writers at festivals may not necessarily reflect the true quality of their work.

The trouble is that the attractiveness or apparent honesty of the writer is no guarantee of the quality of the work. Plenty of good writers are jerks in person, while others who are charming and generous in the flesh are boring, phoney or feeble n the page.

Finally, Garner’s pure enjoyment of Jolley planted the urge to pick up an Elizabeth Jolley novel.

‘In the middle of the journey of our life’, when we begin to start to feel the weight of the crimes we are hauling behind us, we might turn to literature for wisdom. It is not readily available, but I have always found it in Elizabeth Jolley, even before I knew what I was looking for.

This book review is a contribution for the Australian Women Writers challenge of 2018

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Painfully Rich:John Pearson

“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you’re a business failure.”

Author John Pearson’s non fiction account of the Getty family begins with the death of J. Paul Getty. J (Jean) Paul Getty (1892-1976) was worth billions, yet, in life and in death, he was notoriously stingy. There’s the incident of how he installed a pay phone in his mansion and then his long-time faithful servants and employees who had served him faithfully for years “received scant crumbs from America’s richest table.” For all the wealth this man had, it certainly didn’t seem to make him happier, and as the stories of his children and grandchildren unfold, we can see that money didn’t make his life less complicated. J. Paul Getty comes across as an isolated, idiosyncratic man.

Painfully rich

Great wealth is, IMO, a burden, and while we see some wealthy people such as Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos and Bill & Melinda Gates creating foundations with millions of dollars, we get the sense almost immediately that Getty was definitely all about himself.  He had a large number of love affairs and he was married five times. He had five children from four of those marriages. Perhaps you’d think that you’d hit the jackpot if you met and married J. Paul Getty, but after reading this book, I had the sense that for each of Getty’s wives, it just wasn’t their day when they met J. Paul Getty.

His real love was not for women, who were incidental, but for money, which was not. And he had proved himself a faithful and romantic partner during his lifelong love affair with wealth, jealously acquiring it, and making it increase, in massive quantities, across a period of more than sixty years.

His avarice was an incidental aspect of this love. How can one bear to waste the object of one’s adoration?

Author John Pearson takes us back into Getty’s childhood. J. Paul Getty’s parents, Sarah and George, were deeply religious, George had intended to be a schoolmaster, but Sarah, three years his senior, made him promise that he’d go to law school, using her dowry to pay the fees. It’s through J.Paul Getty’s parents that we see the drive and ambition for social improvement, but in their case it was tempered and harnessed by their strict religious beliefs. When J. Paul Getty arrived, his parents had lost a ten year old child to typhoid, and so this late-life son was born to a 40-year-old indulgent mother. Yet even this wasn’t simple:

Paul, though cosseted and protected, had a lonely and loveless childhood. His mother actively discouraged contact with other children from fear of fresh contagion. And while over protective with her son, she was careful not to show him too much love in case she lost him as she had lost his sister.

Years later, Paul told his wife that as a child he was never cuddled-nor did he have a birthday party of a Christmas tree. 

As the Gettys’ wealth grew from oil, the family relocated to Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty showed an early predilection for amorous adventures and could not apply himself to formal higher education. I loved the story of how he set sail to attend Oxford in August 1912 and arrived in November, armed with a letter of introduction from the President of the United States. Exactly what Getty achieved academically is muddied (he says he got a diploma). This period was the root of Getty’s love affair with England–a love affair second only to his love affair with money, and a love affair that lasted far longer than any relationship with a woman.

It took J. Paul Getty’s father putting the squeeze on his dilettante son to turn his son from a man who spent money to a man who made money. And when J. Paul Getty’s mother got a whiff of her son’s misbehaviour (“marital fever,”) and as she saw it, his risky business tactics, she set up the “irrevocable spendthrift trust” in order to protect the “interests of his children against the possible results of his business speculation.” 

The trust sounds like a good idea, and it certainly had its tax advantages. (At one point the author states that J.Paul Getty bragged he never pay more than $500 a year in taxes.) But the trust treated the children from Paul’s various marriages unfairly with unequal division and also stated that the grandchildren would not inherit their share until the last of J. Paul’s sons were dead.

The book details the way J. Paul Getty basically ignored his children as he moved on from marriage to marriage, love affair to love affair, and how then when they were grown, he slotted them into various positions within his empire, creating rivalry and division amongst his sons.

Of course, there’s also space given to the scandals. The eldest son, George, stabbed himself  with a barbecue fork and died of a drug overdose. There’s there’s the hippie period of Eugene and the mysterious death of his second wife. And then of course, there’s the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III. His kidnappers underestimated his grandfather’s stinginess

I have fourteen grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have fourteen kidnapped grandchildren.

The kidnappers sent Paul’s ear to his mother, and negotiations for a $3 million ransom gelled with Paul’s grandfather kicking in a loan of $800,000 to his son to be repaid at 4% interest.

Painfully Rich conveys the idea that Getty’s fortune served as a curse on the family. Who wouldn’t want billions, and yet with the Gettys, it came with a price. But one final thing… J. Paul Getty can’t have been all bad. Mention is made of the Getty Museum, and I’ve been there. It’s fantastic and if you’ve never been and you get a chance, go.

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Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1768-1800): Chateaubriand

I’d intended for a long time to read Chateaubriand’s (1768-1848) memoirs, and a new translation from New York Review Books sealed my resolve. But wait… at over 500 pages, this is only a section of his memoirs–the first of four parts, and there I was feeling all proud of myself.

The memoirs start with a 77 year old Chateaubriand writing a preface as he looks over his long life. He talks about being “forced” to sell his memoirs for financial reasons, and he even expresses the idea that he wishes they could be “suppressed.” I’m not an expert on French history, or Chateaubriand, so I can’t tell if his wish for his life to remain private is sincere. But whatever the truth is, these memoirs are a gift to the world. I’m not sure that I would have liked Chateaubriand if we’d met (he mentions at one point that he is “not much interested in wit; it is almost repugnant to me,”) but this man had an incredible life and fortunately kept detailed records of incredible events and journeys.

memoirs from beyond the grave

The memoirs begin somewhat heavily with a history of the aristocratic Chateaubriand family and their family estate at Combourg, Brittany. François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand was the last of ten children, and there’s the sensation as you read the memoirs that he fell into the cracks of family life. While Chateaubriand loved his mother dearly, his strongest relationship was with his sister Lucile. Chateaubriand’s father was a distant, morose figure, but Chateaubriand was a good son and loved his family very much.

Chateaubriand notes his sisters being married off, and loving long solitary walks in the countryside, he begins to feel the first inklings of wanderlust as the family disperses. But the Chateaubriand family have other plans for this tenth child, and he’s intended for a life in the church. Fortunately, his mother offers him a moment to reflect on his future, and instead of the church, Chateaubriand comes up with a “harebrained scheme” to travel to Canada or India. Chateaubriand’s father announces he’s dying, gives him a hundred louis, and basically tells him to get his act together.

The memoirs reach a turning point at this stage. Chateaubriand leaves Combourg and nothing is ever the same again. Of course, we know that the French revolution is on the horizon…

Chateaubriand recalls travels to America, the beginnings of the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, and finally exile in England. While Chateaubriand was a Royalist, he was also a realist and understood the political scene well:

Aristocracy has three successive stages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, and the age of vanity. Once through with the first, it degenerates into the second, and dies out in the third.

At times the memoirs are not easy reading. Chateaubriand assumes he has an audience who knows what he is talking about. The sections are dated for the time he wrote them, and that adds to some of the confusion. He also mentions many people I’d never heard of (my fault not his) but when I tried to find out more information, there was very little available. The memoirs take flight, however, when Chateaubriand begins his amazing travels.

These memoirs really are an incredible read, so I’m glad that I finally got to them. There’s too much to detail, but the highlights for this reader are Chateaubriand’s brilliant observed moments such as when he visits the castle of Potsdam, the home of King Frederick the Great:

Only one thing held my attention: the hands of a clock stopped at the minute that Frederick expired. I was deceived by the stillness of the image. The hours never suspend their flight; it is not man who stops time, but time who stops man. In the end it matters little what part we have played in life. The brilliance or obscurity of our doctrines, our wealth or poverty, our joy or pain: these things have no effect on the measure of our days. Whether the hand moves around a golden face or a wooden one, whether the dial fills the bezel of a ring or the rose window of a cathedral, the length of the hour is still the same. 

That’s a brilliant quote.

Chateaubriand’s travels in North America are incredible. He lived with various tribes, and slept with various Indian women. He often solicits sympathy from his audience–for example he’s married off to an heiress for her fortune only to discover that she’s not that wealthy after all. Throughout the memoirs, Chateaubriand hears the call of duty to his class–even though, at times, he realises that his class is guilty of folly. I’d never heard of the hearth tax before, but Chateaubriand explains it well.

At one point he sees Marie Antoinette and remarks how pretty she is, but even as he writes this, there’s the shadow of death across the page. There’s a tremendous sense of loss running through the memoirs–loss for the world he knew which disappeared, loss of the family members executed during the revolution, and loss of the past.

Since that day, I have seen Combourg three times. After my father’s death, the family met there in mourning, to divide our inheritance and say our goodbyes. Another time I accompanied my mother to Combourg, when she was busy furnishing the castle for my brother, who was to bring my sister-in-law to live in Brittany. My brother never arrived. Beside his young wife, at the executioner’s hands, he was to receive a very different place to lay his head than the pillow that my mother prepared for him. Finally, I passed through Combourg a third time, on my way to Saint-Malo, before I embarked for America. The castle was abandoned, and I had to spend the night in the steward’s house. When, wandering on the Grand Mall, I looked down a dark alley of trees and saw the empty staircase and the closed windows and doors, I felt faint. I dragged myself back to the village and sent for my horses. I left in the middle of the night.

The sections of his adventures in North America are wonderfully contrasted with scenes of the Revolution. Is it possible to get two more dissimilar worlds?  These were two worlds that were both disappearing. At times this reads like an adventure story as he sees a bloodthirsty mob looking for aristocrats or when he flees to England. The memoirs end with Chateaubriand returning from exile. He’s lost everything and arrives “in France with the century.”

I brought back nothing from the land of exile but regrets and dreams. 

Translated by Alex Andriesse

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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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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.

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Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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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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Filed under Chandler Robert, Non Fiction

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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Filed under Non Fiction, Plante David

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