Autumn

by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.

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Above: Ali Smith

This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.

The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel  is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.

“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.

“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”

The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.

In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.

“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.

“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”  
 

Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.

But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️

 

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

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“Alone with the dead! I dare not go out, for I can hear the low howl of the wolf through the broken window.”

” My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out  around him like great wings” 

This novel is the prototype for all subsequent vampire fiction, but for me the main interest was its preoccupation with women’s morality or lack of it, their perceived weakness, and their need to have male rescuers to save them from their inherent or potential wayward natures.

I think this book tells us a lot about Bram Stoker, and the 19th century ‘fin de secle’ obsession with sex, its relationship to morality and death, and Victorian male anxiety about the “New Woman”. I lost track of how many times the word “voluptuous” was used, and not in a positive way.

“The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.”

“There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped thr white sharp teeth.”

There is fascination with the erotic and desire of it here, but fear of where that desire might take you.

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Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, the son of a civil servant.  Following study at Trinity College, he married, and later became business manager to Henry Irving, the famous Skakesperian actor and enterpreneur. He wrote Dracula at the age of 50 in 1897, while employed by Irving.

Underneath a conventional life as the epitome of Victorian rectitude, Stoker must have had unfulfilled desires and uneasy thoughts gnawing at him, because he wrote in his diary of a strange dream: ” Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old Count interferes – rage and fury diabolical this man belongs to me I want him” This bad dream, with its homo-erotic undertones must have been frightening to a man like Stoker. This was the germ of the novel, and Stoker transforms these lines into part of Jonathan Harker’s experience in Dracula’s castle.

The novel opens with Harker, a young solicitor and engaged to be married, travelling to Transylvania to finalise the purchase of  a London house for a count. The horrors he encounters there almost get him killed, and then almost make him lose his sanity. For me they are the best part of the novel. Dramatic and frightening, they show Harker and Dracula in a deadly fight for supremacy of one, and survival of the other.

” This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood… the very thought drove me mad. A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.”

After Harker’s escape from the castle, strange and disturbing events begin to unfold in England: a young girl awakes with bite marks on her neck, a ship is wrecked and its crew mysteriously lost at sea, a lunatic at an asylum starts raving about the arrival of his “Master”.

The rest of the novel becomes a pursuit of Dracula by a group of young men, who are presented as the cream of Victorian manliness, but in reality come across as very irrational and emotional, qualities that are frowned upon in the women. Helping them in their quest is a so-called vampire expert, Professor Van Helsing, who indulges in long diatribes about the vampire’s powers and the peril he embodies.

The entire novel is a mixture of letters, diary entries and newspaper extracts, which makes it at times very dull and long winded. Many parts of it seem scarcely credible, such as Lucy, the young girl having been bitten by Dracula, then being given a transfusion a day over four days by four different men.

After the initial section where Harker is prisoner, we hardly see or hear from Dracula again. It all becomes a race against time, to stop the terror he has unleashed, but to be honest it all gets very turgid and boring. The only interesting character is Minna, at first engaged, then married to Harker, and definitely the brains of the entire outfit. She is very practical, getting the timetables for the trains to Transylvania, whereas the men come across as  emotional and fragile.

“He grew quite hysterical…he stood up and then sat down again, and the tears ran down his cheeks. I felt an infinite pity for him…he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, while he shook with emotion.” from Minna’s journal

Even Van Helsing, who considers himself the expert, bows down to Minna’s logic:       “Ah, that wonderful Minna! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart.”

“Our dear Madam Minna is once more our teacher. Her eyes have seen where we were blinded. Now we are on the right track once again, and this time we may succeed.”

There is a thread of fear of women’s sexuality running through the entire book. Lucy and Minna are the two female characters showing the possibilities in women’s character. Lucy is portrayed as very beautiful and dangerously wayward, hence her susceptibility to the Count, whereas Minna has a man’s logic, yet a tender moral heart that keeps her one step ahead of being enthralled to Dracula.

This isn’t a great novel by any means. It is interesting for its exploration of Victorian fears, and says more about Stoker’s obsessions than anything else.  When you compare it for example to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with its weighty philosophical themes of the ethics and responsibilities of  science, and the duty owed by a father to his child, it comes up short. It is still a fascinating story though, as can be seen by the influence it has had on the vampire fiction still popular today.  3⭐️

If anyone has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories

by Nikolay Gogol

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Nikolay Gogol was a Russian writer, of Ukrainian and Polish parents. He was born in 1809 and with Aleksander Pushkin the poet, was responsible for starting the great Russian literary awakening of the 19th century.

The short stories I have read from this collection are among his most famous: The Diary of a Madman, The Overcoat and The Nose. 

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Themes of a society dominated by bureaucracy and corruption, and of tragic and submissive heroes who live out sad, impoverished lives are evident in all these stories, and Gogol oscillates in all of them between comedy, bitter satire and tragedy.

“The Nose” is a strangely surreal story of a low ranking bureaucrat who literally loses his nose.

Kovalyov is obsessed with his ranking in the civil service, and losing his nose is an affront to his fragile image of himself in the societal system. He is further enraged when reports emerge of his nose becoming a ‘person’, obtaining a higher rank than his owner and lording it about town in a superior coach and clothing. He won’t rest until his nose is returned, and is suspicious of a number of people he thinks are responsible, because they are out to get him in his mind. The nose’s abscondment becomes a parody of the nonsensical bureaucracy that existed in Tsarist Russia. In St Petersburg there was  later even a statue erected of the nose, who has become a much loved ‘character’ in Russian culture. A fun satire about the absurdity of rank.

“My nose is driving at this very moment all over town, calling itself a state counsellor. That’s why I’m asking you to print this advertisement announcing the first person who catches it should return the nose to its rightful owner as soon as possible. imagine what’s it’s like being without such a conspicuous part of your anatomy! if it were just a small toe, then could put on my shoe and no one would be any the wiser. “

“The Overcoat” is a sad story of a lowly clerk, a copyist in a government office who is overlooked by everyone. He is barely surviving on a meagre income, and yet  is totally obedient to the system that enslaves and dehumanises him. His old overcoat is in tatters, and of course in the Russian winter, a good overcoat is essential to survival. He goes to a tailor, who tells him there is no point trying to repair the coat, he needs a new one. The poor man can’t afford it, but by literally almost starving he is able to eventually buy the most basic of overcoats, just as winter sets in.

When he receives the new coat, he feels for the first time in his life on top of the world and is invited to a party by another clerk. Here the tale takes a darker turn. A gang  of thieves robs him of his overcoat and leaves him defenceless in the snow. The police are totally uninterested in helping him recover his coat, and Akaky dies of a fever brought on by extreme cold.

In a final surreal element, Akaky comes to haunt the city as a ghost. His target is men with overcoats, that he forces to shed, a punishment for those that belittled him and brought about his death. This is a sad, haunting tale and hugely influential in later 19th century Russian literature: it was Dostoyevsky who famously wrote ” We have all come out from Gogol’s overcoat”.

“Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on …just as though he had never even existed… But who would have imagined that this was not the last of [him], and that he was destined to create quite a stir several days after his death, as though he were trying to make up for a life spent being ignored by everybody?” 

‘Diary of a Madman’ is I think one of Gogol’s best stories. It’s the only one written in the first person, and is a devastating critique on the Russian bureaucratic system and its effects on human happiness.

Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, is a minor civil servant, who is constantly lambasted and criticised by his superiors. He falls in love with his boss’s daughter, becoming obsessed with trying to gain her attention and approval.

The diary records his gradual slide into insanity, as in madness he finds the confidence he yearns for, and comes to believe he is the heir to the Spanish throne. Gogol’s portrayal of this slide is very realistic, as Poprishchin reads about the Spanish War of Succession in the newspapers, and to him it makes perfect sense he may be the heir.

” Today is a day of great triumph. There is a king of Spain. He has been found at last. That king is me. I only discovered this today. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight… The first thing I did was tell Mavra who I was. When she heard that the King of Spain was standing before her, she wrung her hands and nearly died of fright. The stupid woman had obviously  never set eyes on the King of Spain before.”  

The last diary entries are poignantly tragic as Poprishchin is taken to an asylum and becomes subject to great cruelty and corporal punishment, yet sees this as a trial to be endured to establish his right to the throne.

All three stories are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in their use of the grotesque and the absurd, but Gogol was himself a master at veering between comedy and tragedy, and it was a great loss that his last novel, “Dead Souls” was incomplete at his death, and moreover that he burnt great parts of it. But these stories are testament to his great talent in laying bare the great inequalities  of Tsarist Russia, and for his skill in simultaneously portraying human banality and suffering.

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On TBR, and the joys of reading

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” Read in order to live.”

Gustave Flaubert in a letter, 1857

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I have been active on Instagram/Bookstagram for nearly two years and have noticed how my reading habits have changed over that time. From being a laid back reader of whatever I felt like, I have changed to feeling I need to read a book just because others have reviewed it or raved about it. So, I want to get back to a more relaxed reading pace, just following my whims.

It’s a double edged sword  to always be hearing about lots of different books. It can add needless anxiety, stress, and competition, which if carried too far can be detrimental. That’s what I found anyway. I have never had a massive TBR, yet I hear that this is common. Some people’s TBRs are in the dozens or even more.

It’s great to hear about what other people are reading, but it doesn’t mean I will then rush out and necessarily buy a particular book.

I have always been a very spontaneous reader, if I become obsessed with a subject I follow it as far as I can. Recently I reread ‘Jane Eyre’, one of my favourite classics. This led to me reading Clare Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, a book recommended on Instagram. Absolutely amazing book! Well, this led to reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Brontë, as I knew nothing about her. Very much an underrated classic. Then I decided to read ‘The Brontës” a huge biographical tome by Juliet Barker. So you get the idea, I’m obsessive. That’s my favourite kind of reading, following a particular passion, rather than trends.

My favourite types of books are classics, contemporary literary fiction, biography and poetry, also books about art and artists, with occasional sprinklings of YA.

So here is my current TBR, pretty modest but I may go to the library tomorrow and see something amazing which I will then read first instead!

Gogol -it’s a bit embarrassing, but I studied Russian Literature at university, yet never read Gogol. This need to be remedied.

Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – I read this classic many years ago, and want to reread it in a new translation. This is a magnificent book, a murder mystery and a sweeping drama of sibling rivalry among three brothers.

Dracula- just because.  It has been hugely influential in current vampire literature, but I have no idea what the original story was. Hope it’s a fun read.

I would love to hear what your current TBR is, and what you are reading at the moment.

The Book of Disquiet

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by Fernando Pessoa

“My boss Vasques, Moreira the book-keeper, Borges the cashier, all the lads, the cheery boy who takes the letters to the post office, the errand boy, the friendly cat – they have all become part of my life.  … Moreover, if I left them all tomorrow and discarded this Rua dos Douradores suit of clothes I wear, what else would I do? Because I would have to do something. And what suit would I wear? Because I would have to wear another suit.”

The above is our introduction to the complex and neurotic disquieting thoughts of Senhor Soares, for whom Pessoa is the vehicle.

Fernando Pessoa was a fascinating man and writer. Ironically his surname in his native tongue, Portuguese means “person”.

He was born in Lisbon in 1888, the same year as T S Eliot, and at nine years old his family moved to Durban in South Africa for almost a decade. There he learned English to a high degree of proficiency, and later translated a number of English literary writings into Portuguese. He was well read in both English and French.

He wrote a lot of poetry, but much of it remained unpublished at his death. He worked as a translator of correspondence for various firms, and was virtually unknown when he died, having avoided not only literary circles, but society in general. His quiet demeanour in life, belied the incredible inner workings of his mind. He died in 1935, at the age of 47, leaving behind in a wooden trunk thousands of pages that still have not been fully edited.

Part of this cache was The Book of Disquiet, but to call it a book is a little misleading. Who knows how Pessoa would have wanted to present it? It consists of diary entries, some fragmentary, written across decades of his life. These have been edited into this book. I think it is true to say that there is nothing else out there like it.

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”

Philip Pullman wrote “This is the very book to read when you wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep – mysteries, misgivings, fears and wonderment. Like nothing else.”  I would have to agree.

Within Pessoa, there were a multitude of ideas, characters and styles of writing. So he took this to an unprecedented conclusion and wrote under a number of ‘heteronyms’. This concept differs from a pseudonym (Greek for “false name”). Instead heteronyms have their own style and biography as though they actually existed. Pessoa went so far as to create astrological charts for them.

“If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. what I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant.”

“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”

In The Book of Disquiet, the heteronym is Bernardo Soares, a clerk who works in the Lisbon business district, and in diary fragments relates his thoughts on life, death, the universe and everything. It is tempting to think that Soares is Pessoa, although he might deny it.

“Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.”

Was Pessoa genius or neurotic borderline madman? It’s a fine line, depending on your point of view.

This is a fascinating book, an insight into a singular mind, but not recommended if you’re feeling depressed or melancholy, as it will certainly accentuate those emotions.

“We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.”

Pessoa was intriguing to the end. On 29 November 1935, he wrote his last lines in his diary in English: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. He died the next day.

Note: All quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from the Serpent’s Tail edition, published in 2010, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Photo of Pessoa: copyright Getty Images

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Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson 

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” You have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

“I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three. You were wearing your red shirt and your mother was wearing her blue dress.”

“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

This novel is beautifully crafted, a meditation on life and death, but more particularly on what constitutes a good life, and how a good man does what he can with what he has on the small canvas of an insignificant Iowa town.

Reverend John Ames is a ‘good’ man, who has led a simple life in a small, obscure town. He comes from a long line of ministers, and he muses on the different theologies and lives of his father and grandfather. The former was a pacifist in World War 1, the latter was a fighter for the abolition of slavery and condoned violence to achieve that end.

In 1956, Ames is terminally ill, and so begins a letter to his young son, who will have few memories of him. Deceptively simple as a device, it allows Robinson to wander through a century of American history, and more particularly different types of Christianity, as well as black and white relations.

At times humorous in a very quiet and subtle way, at others poignant, “Gilead” reads like an elegy to another world.

Recommended. 5 🌟