Tag Archives: Pushkin Press

The Mystery of Henri Pick: David Foenkinos

“Writers are mad, everyone knows that. And ones who aren’t published … they must be even worse.”

In The Mystery of Henri Pick, Delphine, a young, ambitious book editor travels to the small town of Crozon to visit the bookshop that houses a library for rejected books. The library founded by bookshop owner Jean-Pierre Gourvec was inspired by Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion:

Writers came from all over France to rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published. Their words were erased like sins.

Was the Crozon library a gimmick or a homage to those writers who slaved for years only to receive rejection after rejection? During their trip to the bookshop, Delphine and her boyfriend, Frederic, who wrote a book that failed miserably, discover a manuscript, The Last Hours of a Love Affair. The novel, authored by local pizza shop owner, the now deceased Henri Pick, is a marvel, and Delphine carries it back to Paris for publication.

A storm of controversy erupts in the publishing world, and most of it centers on Henri Pick. How could a man whose claim to fame was creating the Stalin pizza write this amazing book? His widow Madeleine and his daughter Josephine are perplexed. How could Henri have written this masterpiece without their knowledge? Just how well did they know Henri? Did he have a secret life?

The well-publicized discovery of the manuscript leads to unexpected complications as various residents of Crozon become embroiled in Henri Pick’s sudden, posthumous fame. And controversy erupts in the publishing world when someone declares the discovery a “farce.”

This delightfully frothy novel pokes fun at publishing industry and the way in which marketing can make or break a book. The ‘discovery’ of the book makes it a phenomenon and maybe it deserves to be but the media grabs onto the myth behind the novel and a publicity explosion ensues.

At one point, I thought the story would go in one direction, but it did not. The novel ultimately, for this reader, in its exploration of what makes a bestseller, became a little too coy and superficial, but in spite of this I still enjoyed the gentle comedy. After the last page, I thought this would make a great film, so it was no surprise to learn that there is a film starring Fabrice Luchini or that the book’s author David Foenkinos is a screenwriter.

Swiss authors are often the best when it comes to boredom and solitude.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Taylor

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A Nail, A Rose: Madeleine Bourdouxhe

“One part evil is always much more powerful than one part good. Evil has a habit of leaking, spreading out, overlapping.”

a nail a rose

I came to author Madeleine Bourdouxhe a few ago via the film Gilles’ Wife– a great, if somewhat depressing film. The book was a stunner. I also read Marie which I found disappointing. So on to a short story collection from Pushkin Press: A Nail, A Rose. Here’s the contents, and there’s an excellent introduction from translator Faith Evans who provides a bio of the author, an analysis of her work and a recollection of meeting the author.

A Nail, A Rose

Anna

Louise

Leah

Clara

Blanche

René

Sous le Pont Mirabeau

For those who’ve read Madeleine Bourdouxhe before, it shouldn’t come as a revelation that some of these stories depict the toxic, brutal relationships between men and women. In A Nail, A Rose, it’s WWII, Irene is walking at night, recalling her lover Danny:

Danny and Irene: that she did understand, she understood it perfectly, and she thought it meant she could understand the rest of the world as well: Danny and Irene, and the whole world. But she would never understand the line that ran between them, like an arrow with a sharp point at either end. And the whole world was now this line. 

Her memories include the times of their “savage” “love-making” full of “hope and despair,” when she’s suddenly jolted back to reality by an attack from a hammer-wielding assailant. She confronts her attacker, and suggests that they divide the contents of her handbag. One thing leads to another and then he’s holding her with an obvious erection. The next day, the assailant, Jean, shows up at her house to check on her:

What a strange episode this man who’d not been afraid to return. Neither perfection nor eternity; some good, some evil. And while she waited, the mould was rising in layers, in the world and in her heart.

The stories have a dream-like quality to them as though the women featured here drift through their experiences. If you’ve read, Gilles’ Wife (or watched it) you know what I mean, and while Madeleine Bourdouxhe writes about the inner life of women, we repeatedly see women who exist on a physical level while their minds hook them, by the necessity of survival, into a different realm. In Blanche, for example, the main character is “an absent-minded woman” who “often forgot things” and is considered “stupid” by her bore of a husband.

It was then that Louis had passed the kitchen door with his hat and coat–“Goodbye, Blanche.” She waited for the layers of air to re-form themselves and be healed, for them to join up again and for the air to be one, without fissure or tremor, and for peace to inhabit her.

The gem of the collection is Sous le Pont Mirabeau. There’s something special about this story, something different, shimmering, and perhaps that’s because it’s based on the author’s own experience. In this tale, a young woman gives birth to a baby girl the day the Germans invade Belgium. Loaded into a lorry with her newborn, she makes the hazardous journey to France. Many people, seeing the mother and baby, give assistance, and the story, set amidst a moment of human tragedy, glows with hope and strange, surreal experience:

In the evening, the roads were dark yet they thronged with people, bumping into each other, still hoping to find somewhere to spend the night. It was full of people and quite dark, until the great green and red arc lights shone out over rooftops, walls and faces. 

She stayed still for a moment, the child in her arms, overawed. Above her was the beauty of the guns. A second of immobility was enough to embrace, and reject, the beauty of the guns, denuded, useless, miraculous, valuable only in their own right. But what if this beauty was meant to become embedded in the secret of all things, to flourish on the greens and the reds of nature and the rhythms of the earth? Or perhaps to be exploited, warped, faded, false as the beauty of the helmeted warrior and his steel blade false as the beauty of the dead hero–kissed, corrupted, rejected? Above her was the beauty of the guns.

Translated by Faith Evans

Review copy

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The Marquise of O: Heinrich von Kleist

Kleist’s Marquise of O was a third or fourth re-read for me, and there are some books that yield fresh results each time. This is true of Kleist’s novella–one of the few Kleist wrote (the excellent intro from translator Nicholas Jacobs mentions) that actually has a happy ending. How can you not like a happy ending? And yet for this read, I found the ending happy … yes … but a little incongruous. Back to that later.

The Marquise of O

So here’s the plot which was, apparently, based on a real, sensational event, and as we can imagine Kleist’s story caused quite a stir too.

The story begins with the Marquise of O, “a woman of impeccable reputation and mother of well-brought up children” putting advertisements in newspapers that “she had inexplicably found herself in a certain condition, that the father of the child she would bear should make himself known, and that out of the regard for her family she was resolved to marry him.” This is a bold but desperate move taken by the Marquise, and then the tale moves backwards in time.

It’s the Napoleonic Wars. In a Northern Italian town, the widowed Marquise of O and her children live with her parents. With news that war approaches bringing foreign troops, “even Russians,” the Marquise’s father, the Commandant, urges his wife and daughter to flee, but before they can escape, the citadel is surrounded, and after much fighting the foreign troops break into the castle. Some soldiers find the Marquise and drag her out into the courtyard. They are about to rape her when a Russian officer appears and “with angry thrusts scattered the dogs lusting after their booty.” The Russian, Count F., then offers his arm to the Marquise and escorts her to her rooms. Here she faints. The Commandant surrenders to Count F who then proceeds to be a Great Hero by dashing over the castle ramparts performing all manner of astonishing deeds. 

The Commander-in-Chief (the Count’s uncle) of the Russian troops learns about the “criminal assault” on the Marquise and tells Count F to round up those responsible and have them shot. Count F says he cannot identify them, but since one of the men was wounded by Count F as he rescued the Marquise, it’s not long before the general has the wounded man interrogated, the remaining perps are found and then shot. 

From this point, Count F has a special place in the Marquise’s eyes, so she and her parents are horrified to hear that he is subsequently killed on another battlefield. Yet the rumours are false, the Count still lives and he returns to the Marquise and her family. He expresses a desire to marry the Marquise and has interrupted an important mission to accomplish his goal. The Marquise’s father cannot understand the Count’s urgent wish to marry his daughter, but the more the Commandant prevaricates, the weirder the Count becomes. 

All agreed that his behaviour was utterly strange and that he appeared to be used to capturing women’s hearts, like fortresses by assault.

The Count won’t go away and the Marquise finally agrees to not marry another until he returns from Naples. The Count is torn between hopeful and disappointed as he tells the Marquise’s family he wanted to marry her immediately. What’s the rush?

Well it soon becomes clear what the rush is. The Count FINALLY leaves, and the Marquise begins to feel ill. She’s stunned to learn she’s pregnant but her father is horrified; she claims she did not have sexual intercourse with anyone, but he doesn’t believe her, and throws her from the house. It’s this that drives the Marquise to publicly advertise for the father of her child to show himself. It’s a desperate move designed to show her parents that she is innocent. 

SPOILER ALERT:

It’s a great little story that was made into a great film by one of my favourite directors Eric Rohmer. For this reread, I was struck by the fairytale aspects of the story (rape aside). Here we have mortal enemies shooting each other one minute and sitting down for tea together the next. Of course it’s a class thing. 5 men were executed for attempted rape, and the noble is forgiven. He’s a dashing hero, a persistent suitor but if you peel away the glamour, his actions were despicable even if they are covered with a patina of courteous gallantry. 

review copy

translated by Nicholas Jacobs

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The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Kafka

Kafka’s The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man includes a stellar introduction from translator Alexander Starritt. I have respect for intros from translators; after all they are the ones who slaved over the words, mulling over one choice over another, so if anyone ‘deserves’ to write an intro, it’s the translator IMO. Starritt’s intro is lively, fluid, and well … interesting:

In English, the word that usually follows ‘Kafkaesque’ is ‘nightmare’. Hardly the thing to make you think, ‘Hurray, a new translation. No Netflix for me tonight.’ And in truth, Kafka’s work is more respected than it is loved.

These first sentences hit a chord with me. I have lost count of the number of times The Metamorphosis popped up again and again in literature class after literature class. Yes the story (while I liked it) became a ‘No-Exit’-Not-Again nightmare in itself.

Unhappiness

Starritt argues that these short stories present an entirely different view of Kafka, and I agree. These stories are mercurial, some are absurdist, and the closest thing I could compare to is absurdist Russian fiction. These stories (and some are extremely short) are not at all what I expected from Kafka. Some stories are flash fiction–if we could imagine such a term applying to Kafka. Other stories are longer, and of course, as is with all collections, some stories are stronger than others.

The title story: The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man is a good idea of what to expect here. I read it on my kindle and it’s just over a page long. This is a single man who rues the things he’s missing:

It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation

The last lines were unexpected and made me chuckle. Again–not at all what I expected from Kafka.

In The Married Couple, a sales rep takes his sample case to a man known as N. The sales rep and N used to work together, but now N, a much older man is bed-bound and possibly close to death. Yes, perhaps this sounds like the sort of thing we’d expect from Kafka, but the final delivery is not.

A First Heartache is a short tale of a trapeze artist who in the quest to perfect his art becomes increasingly isolated. The abnormal becomes normal and he clings to his life on the highwire. He:

had arranged his life in such a way that, initially out of a striving for perfection, then out of increasingly tyrannical habit, he stayed on his trapeze day and night for as long as an engagement lasted. His modest needs were catered to by a rota of attendants who were posted below and hauled everything up and down in specially made containers.

The trapeze artist is “in constant training, of keeping his art at its peak.” This becomes a way of life, this increasing isolation, and the only thing that disrupts this routine are the unavoidable transfers from venue to venue, which badly disrupted his peace of mind.”

Another top pick has to be In the Penal Colony, a story of a researcher who travels to a penal colony only to be invited to attend the execution of a soldier “who’d been sentenced to death for disobeying and insulting a superior officer.” The story centres on the machine that will do the deed. It’s a diabolical contraption designed by the former (deceased) commandant. The machine is sadistically designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering over a twelve hour period before the final coup de grâce.

While the officer explains the machine’s processes of torture “with great zeal,” the condemned man, who has no idea of the fate that awaits him is at first disinterested (the officer and the researcher speak in French) but then he becomes increasingly curious as the machine’s mechanisms are explained:

The condemned man looked as submissive as a dog, as if they could have let him wander around the slopes on his own, and would only have needed to whistle for him when they wanted to start the execution. 

The officer’s matter-of-fact approach to explaining the machine is, of course, bizarre and yet entirely believable. This method of execution has become an institution in the penal colony, but now it has fallen out of favour. The condemned soldier has not been given a trial and is unaware that he has even been sentenced to death. According to the officer, “it would be pointless to tell him.” Torture and death as spectacle: what is there about these things that appeal to people? The matter-of-fact bureaucratic manner in which the sadistic death is explained moves the execution away from the idea of suffering and into efficiency. Couldn’t help but think of the Nazis.

This collection rolls in at just under 200 pages. I think the stories are best read one at a time, rather than in chunks.

Review copy

Translated by Alexander Starritt

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The Bear and the Paving Stone: Toshiyuki Horie

“There is nothing more dangerous than a stupid friend. A wise enemy is far better.”

In The Bear and the Paving Stone Japanese author Toshiyuki Horie gives us three tales which explore friendship, the importance of shared memories and the elusiveness of human motivation.

The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Sandman is Coming

In the Old Castle

In The Bear and the Paving Stone, a young Japanese translator meets his friend Yann in Normandy. The two men haven’t seen each other in some time, and Yann, a “perpetual freelancer, unbound by a company schedule,” works part of the year and uses his wages to travel and take photographs. Yann has the tendency to drop out of sight, and this time the translator catches Yann, who is living in a remote cottage miles from the closest village, just before he leaves for Ireland. The two young men spend some time together reminiscing about their shared past, and discuss a range of topics including Bettelheim, Littré  and the holocaust. At one point, Yann puzzles over the question why people don’t flee when war moves close to their homes, and the narrator ponders on the subject:

In the limited reality that I knew, I’d never have to flee for my life, and it was unlikely to happen now. If I went somewhere, I always returned. I left Paris and came to this village; soon enough I would go back to Paris, then I would go back to Tokyo. But in a way I was always at home. If you were to make a contact sheet of all my journeys. and looked at them retrospectively, it would be clear that all my travels were return trips, and that I never drifted anywhere. In that sense, Yann and I were different. Even though there’s something about us that’s connected, we’re moving in different directions, and we’re never going to collide. 

The Bear and the Paving Stone is a philosophical novella which captures conversations between two men who share values. The talks not only reveal shared opinions but also reveal, possibly, the reasons behind Yann’s restlessness and his interest in war photography. In arguably the novella’s best scene, Yann offers his guest a photograph as a gift, but it’s a gift the translator doesn’t want. He would prefer “a quieter image.”

When Yann travels to Ireland, the translator spends time with Yann’s landlady,  and again a few casual conversations reveal a great deal of pain. By the conclusion of the story, the translator begins to understand why his friendship with Yann works so well.

The bear and the paving stone

In The Sandman is Coming, another very interior tale (even though it’s set on a beach), the narrator meets a woman walking on the beach with her daughter. The narrator used to be a friend of the woman’s brother, but 18 years have passed, and during that passage of time, the brother has died after a long illness. The woman, who once seemed to have the possibility of a good career, dropped out of school and married, but the marriage ended in divorce.

It’s the second anniversary of the death of the narrator’s friend, and he’s come to visit the family, and he finds himself taking a walk with his friend’s sister on the beach. There’s something melancholy about a deserted beach–especially if the day isn’t bright.

The third story: In the Old Castle, a translator takes a train to meet an old friend. The friend. “had always had trouble finding a girlfriend,” but now he supposedly has found “the one.” The new girlfriend isn’t quite what the translator expected. For one thing, she’s ten years older and rather shabbily dressed, but she’s also interesting. The friends decide to explore an old castle which is undergoing a restoration. Even though the place is overseen by a grumpy, antisocial groundskeeper and a Doberman, the narrator and his friend climb over a fence into the ruined castle, and of course, things don’t go well.

Of the three tales, The Bear and the Paving Stone was easily my favourite. It’s much deeper and stayed with me long after the conclusion. In this rich story, the author explores a range of subjects including how our choice of friends says a great deal about us, but it’s only in the best of friendships that we learn more about ourselves.

Translated by Geraint Howells

Review copy

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The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.

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The Beauties: Essential Stories: Chekhov

“I realized how unnecessary, trivial and false everything had been that prevented us from loving each other. I realized that when you are in love, you must start your reflections about your love with what is highest, what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, or sin or virtue in their accepted senses–or you shouldn’t reflect at all.”

The Beauties, from Pushkin Press, is a splendid collection of Chekhov short stories. These 13 stories examine many facets of Russian life through the themes of love and loss, and that elusive, shimmering moment: when all that is important in life becomes crystal clear.

Here’s the contents:

The Beauties

The Man in a Box

A Day in the Country

A Blunder

About Love

Grief

The Bet

A Misfortune

Sergeant Prishibeyev

The Lady With the Little Dog

The Huntsman

The Privy Councillor

The Kiss

The Beauties is told by a man who recalls seeing two remarkably beautiful girls over the course of his life, and he notes how this beauty struck him on two different occasions: the desire to be near beauty, and also a sadness, a sense of longing.

Whether I envied her beauty, or whether I was sorry that this girl was not mine and never would be mine and that I was a stranger to her, or whether I had a vague feeling that her rare beauty was accidental , and like everything on earth, would not last; or whether my sadness was that special feeling aroused when a person contemplates real beauty-God only knows!

I loved The Man in a Box (a Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich story) for its intense character study of the neurotic teacher Belikov:

That man showed a constant, overpowering urge to surround himself with a sort of wrapping, to create an outer box for himself, which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences. Reality upset him, frightened him, kept him in a constant state of alarm; and perhaps it was to justify this timidity on his part, his aversion towards the present time, that he always praised the past, and things which had never been. 

Although Belikov is in many ways, an introvert, nonetheless he dominates his surroundings and manages, through his warped sense of duty, to make everyone in his circle miserable. Belikov’s downfall, his bête noire, if you like, is love which appears in the form of Varenka, the sister of another teacher.

The Beauties

About Love is another one of Chekhov’s Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich stories. The narrator, Aliokhin relates how he fell in love with a married woman, and how we question love too much, intellectualize it when in fact we should just act:

And we too, when we’re in love, never stop asking ourselves questions–whether this is honorable or dishonourable, sensible or stupid, where this love is leading, and so forth. Whether all that’s good or not, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s unsatisfying and upsetting and gets in the way. 

My favourite story in the entire collection is The Bet. This is a story that covers a fifteen year period and concerns a bet (19th century Russian bets always seem extreme) that takes place over the question of whether or not the death penalty is preferable to a long, solitary prison sentence. I can’t say much about this story without giving away some of its most delightful elements, but I will say that this story shows how well Chekhov understood human nature and why he is a master of the short story.

A couple of the short stories are a touch too sentimental for me, but overall, this is a magnificent collection. Of course, it includes The Lady With the Little Dog, which is arguably Chekhov’s most famous story–at least it seems to be the one that makes the anthologies so often. I’ve read this story many times, and yet I read it again, and this time I found it even more poignant than I remember. This collection is superb: either a great introduction of those new to Chekhov, or a great reminder of this writer’s phenomenal talent.

I wish Gooseberries had been included, but it isn’t, so now off to read it.

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Review copy

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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.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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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

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