The book that inspired 1984 and Brave New World

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Clarence Brown

we_yevgeni_zamyatinSo, I finally read the book that inspired Orwell’s 1984 (my brief write-up here).  Many other dystopian novels have similarities, including Huxley’s Brave New World (my review here) although Huxley said he was inspired by HG Wells, as was Zamyatin himself.

We wasn’t published in Russian in Russia until 1988, well over sixty years after it was written. Its first publication was in English in 1924 – it had been banned in Russia and had to be smuggled out to the West. Zamyatin was a marine engineer by training, and according to Wikipedia, he oversaw ice-breaker construction for the Imperial Russian Navy during WWI. Based in Newcastle in the UK, he saw large scale collective labour working in the Tyne shipyards.  He drew on these experiences, plus those of the Russian Revolutions in his writing.  In 1931, he appealed directly to Stalin to leave the country, and surprisingly was allowed to go, joining his wife in Paris where he worked with film director Jean Renoir, dying in poverty in 1937, aged 53.

The translation I read by American, Clarence Brown, was published in 1993 – the first English translation from Zamyatin’s original manuscript, rather than from an edited MS.  The other translation freely available in the UK is a 2007 one by Natasha Randall.  I’ve briefly compared the opening chapters (thanks to Amazon’s look inside feature), and think I prefer Brown’s – it’s slightly less modern, more of its time, post WWI, making my vision of the story itself more Fritz Lang than Ridley Scott.  But enough of this, let’s look at the book…

I, D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, I am only one of the mathematicians of OneState. My pen, accustomed to figures, is powerless to create the music of assonance and rhyme. I shall attempt nothing more than to note down what I see, what I think – or, to be more exact, what we think (that’s right: we; and let this WE be the exact title of these records). But this, surely, will be a derivative of our life, of the mathematically perfect life of OneState, and if that is so, then won’t this be, of its own accord, whatever I may wish, an epic? It will; I believe and I know that it will.

In OneState, everyone has a number rather than a name – men are odd, prefixed by consonants, women even, prefixed by vowels. D-503 is 120 days away from what will be the biggest achievement of life – sending the first INTEGRAL ship into space.  His life is ruled by numbers. He believes fervently in the mathematics of happiness as determined by The Benefactor, and policed by the Guardians.

I’ll be completely honest with you: Even we haven’t yet solved the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day – from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 – the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you’ll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe – let them call me idealist and dreamer – but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 846,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours.

D-503 lives in his glass cube of a house, only lowering the blinds with permission when his assigned beloved O-90 brings her pink ticket round during Personal Hour,  and D-503 is genuinely fond of O, who is short and rounded, and looks forward to her visits.  Life goes on, unquestioningly, until …

One day during the March, D-503 and O are joined by a sharp faced woman I-330 who tells D to come and see her in Auditorium 112. D is perturbed but when an order arrives, he has to obey, and this is the beginning of the turning upside-down of his entire world.

Yes, I-330 is part of the revolution, and to his annoyance, D finds himself reassigned to her – and she teases him, plants the seeds of ferment in his brain, and he is hooked.  She shows him how it used to be, before the big green glass wall went up, via the ‘Ancient House’ – the only relic and museum, and there are no pink tickets needed there.

… it’s also clear that what I felt yesterday, that stupid “dissolving in the universe,” if you take it to its limits, is death. Because that’s exactly what death is – the fullest possible dissolving of myself into the universe. Hence, if we let L stand for love and D for death, then L=f(D), ie, love and death …
Yes, that’s it, that’s it. That’s why I’m afraid of I-330, why I fight against her, why I don’t want … But why do those two exist side by side in me: I don’t want and I want? That’s just what’s so horrible: What I want again is that blissful death of yesterday. What’s so horrible is that even now, when the logical function has been integrated, when it’s obvious that it contains, as a hidden component, death itself, I still want her, my lips, my arms, my chest, every millimeter of me wants her ….

D raves like a madman, recklessly driven by I-330: he lusts, he rants, he gets paranoid, does whatever she wants, yet still the logician in him misses order – he’s not good at entropy, and he misses O – he thought he was ‘happy before …  I won’t tell you how it develops, there are two possible endings – but which one?

I was really glad to have read this novel.  It is – was truly ground-breaking. Plotwise, those of us who’ve read the classic dystopias that came after We, the aforementioned 1984 and Brave New World in particular will not find anything new.  It’s a shame in a way, that it tends to get read after those, for they are both more instantly readable in comparison; D-503’s demented ravings during the second half of We are quite hard to follow at times, but they also make him human and a memorable character.

D-503 is a learned man, his diaries are full of references to ancient philosophers and the like, and late in the book when he is summoned before The Benefactor, the biblical take of their debate is quite fascinating.  Zamyatin’s vision is remarkably prescient – not only a satire of Stalin’s Russia, but with the glass wall and an informer on every corner it could be Berlin.

Most interesting for me were the discussions on the nature of happiness. Can it really be reduced to an equation?  Can you truly be happy in a world lacking imagination?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Clarence Brown (Penguin Classics 1993)
We: Introduction by Will Self by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Natasha Randall (Vintage 2003)


My first book jar read

A while ago, inspired by Alex in Leeds’s creation of a book jar – see her page here, I made my own.

I didn’t have a large kilner jar to hand, but did, chocoholic that I am, have an empty Quality Street one. Roughly 200 slips of paper went in with titles from my TBR, and the jar sat there by the sofa waiting, and waiting. The original plan was to use it when I couldn’t decide what to read, but my daughter pre-empted that – jumping the queue of books waiting in my bedside pile, and picking my next book for me from the jar.

Fingers crossed…


… and Yay, she picked one I’ve wanted to read for ages. We by Yevgeny Zamyatkin, the inspiration for Orwell’s 1984. I’m thirty pages in and loving it already.

Ancient Animal Antics

Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal by Ramsay Wood

kalila 1 The animal tales re-told in this volume originated in antiquity. Written in Sanskrit and known as the Panchatantra, they came out of India over 2000 years ago and were later absorbed into Persian and Arabic traditions. Told in five parts, this volume contains the first two sets of tales both of which are about friendship – its loss and gain. The larger part is Kalila and Dimna named after two of the main characters, followed by Zoric and Friends, (Zoric being a rat).

The stories use a framing device.  A young and inexperienced King, Dabschelim, who is not liked by his subjects, is led to an ancient scroll written by King Houshenk which contains thirteen rules of how to be a great king and tells him that the rules are illustrated in a series of stories of which a certain Dr Bidpai is the storehouse. Dabschelim summons the aged Bidpai, a professor who is not a fan of the king, and Bidpai promptly ends up in the dungeon. However Dabschelim’s curiosity gets the better of him and he decides he will listen to Bidpai’s stories.

Thus are we introduced to the world of two jackal brothers, Kalila and Dimna.  Chalk and cheese, Kalila is the sensible one, Dimna is sly and cunning, and a toady to Lion, the King of the Animals.

‘May it please Your Majesty,’ Dimna said, ‘I have come to offer my slender capacities to Your Majesty’s service. Please condescend to use me in whatever way Your Majesty sees fit, for even a little toothpick proves a comfort to the greatest king when food sticks between his teeth.’
The lion was as astonished as he was pleased at these unexpected words, and immediately formed a good impression of Dimna.
‘Well spoken, jackal,’ he said. ‘You have stepped boldly yet respectfully forward, and deserve the trial which you request. You are welcome to this court and to our presence.’
And from that time onward Dimna increasingly enjoyed the lion’s company.

When a giant bull ox gets abandoned by its owner in the Lion’s range, Dimna seeks to convince Lion that the bull Schanzabeh, whose bellowing has perturbed the plains, is a rival – whereas the bull has no intentions of the sort. Later, things will come to a head at the Lion’s mother’s birthday party, when the King leads the hunt…

All along, the conniving Dimna then tells Lion further animal tales to illustrate his scenarios, and in some of these tales, the animals tell yet further tales – so at times there are four levels of nesting!  That may seem complex, but it’s not so, they flow quite naturally into and out of each other.  I gather that some of the stories within the Panchatantra also appear in the slightly earlier Aesop’s fables.

Wood is a natural storyteller, and really these stories deserve to be read out loud – I narrated them to myself in my head.  Working from older translations, in his retelling he has ordered and formatted the tales into one long narrative of modern but respectful language.  On the page they seem simple like Aesop, but in their framing device of a storyteller who may be in peril, they have more in common with the Arabian Nights.  There is life, death, humour and plenty of politics to entertain us in these pages.

CCF06222013_00000A note on the edition – this 2008 paperback from SAQI is a lovely thing.  Squarer than your usual book with French flaps there is plenty of space around the text.  Little illustrations of the animals add to that, and the addition of apposite quotations from authors, thinkers, statesmen etc. in the margins add to the pleasure of reading.  A fascinating introduction by Doris Lessing, and learned postscript and family tree of the Bidpai literature, gives some background to the stories.

Wood, a Texan based in London, is a founder member of the London College of Storytelling and I found his re-telling of these tales to be charming.  Funnily enough, the author contacted me to offer a copy of the second volume of these tales, just as I was contemplating reading the first which I had bought some time previously – serendipity at work! I’m looking forward to the next book which has his re-tellings of the other three parts of the Panchatantra – Fables of Conflict and Intrigue.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal by Ramsay Wood, Saqi paperback pub 2008.
Kalila and Dimna, Vol. 2: Fables of Conflict and Intrigue from the Panchatantra, Jatakas, Bidpai, Kalila and Dimnah and Lights of Canopus by Ramsay Wood, 2011.

Come dine on – oops – with me…

The Savages by Matt Whyman

savagesNot since I read the wonderful book, The Radleys by Matt Haig, (reviewed here), have I found a YA novel such fun.  Just look at the cover – you know it’s going to be hilarious.  You can sense that the Savages are a close family – like The Munsters or The Addams Family perhaps, and the strapline tells you they probably have a huge secret… 

The story begins at the end of a family dinner, cooked to perfection by mother, Angelica. After her younger brother Ivan has left, fifteen year old Sasha seizes the opportunity to tell her parents about her new boyfriend Jack – who is a vegetarian.

Events then flash forward:

Before the story broke, Sasha was all set to turn sixteen with only her exams standing in the way of the best summer of her life. Then the truth emerged. Overnight, as if a spell had been cast from above, she and her family became monsters.
…Besides, with every last scrap of evidence out in the open, from phone records to witness statements and even the grisly report from the drainage experts, it only takes a little imagination to get under the skin of the Savage family, and come close to the truth about what really happened.

What follows, to fill in what happened, is an hilarious black comedy involving using their house as the location for a commercial shoot, a bulimic super-model, a journalist turned investigator who is digging into Titus’s business affairs, and boyfriend Jack of course, alongside plans for more gourmet dinners.

The Munsters 1964-6

The Munsters 1964-6

To all external appearances, the Savages appear totally normal – unlike the Munsters who (mostly) appear monsters, but are totally benign.  The Savages’ family secret has its basis in true history, explained by grandpa Oleg. This helps to humanise them,  which is necessary, because we do find ourselves wanting to like this strange family.

Whereas in The Radleys, the teenagers don’t know their family are vampires, apart from the baby, the Savages are fully aware of their family secret. When Jack challenges Sasha to go veggie for a month, teenager that she is, that is her chance to rebel against her family traditions. Little does she know that (natch) Jack’s intentions are not entirely honorable, and also that this relationship could also signal the beginning of the end…

Having the time-honoured themes of a portrait of family life and teenagers growing up at its core, allows Whyman to have great, gory fun with the Savages. There are laughs aplenty, and some imaginative set-pieces, yet there was enough depth to satisfy this adult reader. I loved it – and I’ve managed to fudge around the Savage’s secret too! (9/10)

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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Savages by Matt Whyman – Hot Key books, pub June 2013, paperback 288 pages (12+)
The Radleys by Matt Haig.

“This land is your land, this land is my land…”

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landThe above quote from Woody Guthie seemed to fit the overarching theme of this novel perfectly.  It’s all about the illusion of The American Dream, its transitory nature – it certainly doesn’t last for any of the characters in habiting the land in Patrick Flanery’s accomplished second novel.

In a prologue set in 1919, we start off with the forebears of Louise, who inherit a large farm after a lynching. Later, Louise now a widow is forced to sell the land after her husband dies, just retaining her little house by the woods.

Paul Krovik, the purchaser and property developer, has a grand vision for the land – creating his own community with his dream home in pride of place. But, he’s a cheapskate – he uses unseasoned wood, he’s no architect either and his designs have flaws. He only gets 21 houses and his mansion built before the lawsuits come in. He’s bankrupted and the banks foreclose, allowing Nathaniel, Julia and their son Copley, to move down from Boston to the big house as they follow their own dreams.

There is tension right from the start, for after the story of how Louise’s family came by the land, we move to the present day as Louise visits Paul in prison.

‘I came Mr. Krovik. Here I am, just like you asked in your letter. So-.’  …

‘I really never imagined you’d come see me,’ he says.
‘No, I bet you didn’t. And to be frank, neither did I.’ …

‘I guess we used to neighbours, though, sort of. Didn’t we? Friends, even.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Louise says. ‘We weren’t really neighbours, and we certainly weren’t friends.

You can immediately sense that the nub of the novel will revolve around what happened to put him there, and this gives an edge of psychological drama to the whole book. To say more on this aspect would be to risk spoilers though.

Flanery gets each of these five characters to tell that story, taking it in turns as they take the lead voice in the action and each will have their own trajectory in the failures of their personal American Dreams. The strangest is these of Nathaniel, who newly promoted to the HQ of a multinational security company who doesn’t believe in privacy, is tasked with working out how to put prisoners in privatised jails to proper work generating income for the company. It soon becomes clear that he’s signed up to be one of the tentacles of a new Big Brother – a spookily prescient vision.

Nathaniel has no illusions about the nature of his company’s corporate campus development, or of the kind of work EKK is going in the city. It is promoting a vision of how, from the core of self-professed corporate personhood, a new conception of the body politic can radiate across and subsume the previously blighted urban landscape. Companies must, by their nature, attend to the image they project in the world, and by suggesting in it national headquarters, located dead in this country’s heartland, that it is not just an inward-looking corporation, but one focusing its gaze outward, seeing the world around it, attending to it, to the people who live within it, to the way its presence might be interpreted by those who look upon it, the company communicates the truth of its mission: involvement in all kinds of business, in potentially every kind of business.

The only character that we really warm to throughout is seven year old Copley – a quiet, but observant child, who has some odd mannerisms, we wonder if he is on the edge of the Asperger’s spectrum. His new school is run by Nathaniel’s company, where everything is observed and subject to rules. He doesn’t thrive, and his over-stressed parents don’t seem to believe a word he says, about school, and about the house. Copley’s voice stays rigidly to the clock, his paragraphs each prefixed with the time.

Alongside all these tensions is an underlying sense that Mother Nature is just waiting to reclaim her land too, for this land east of LA is prone to sink holes appearing. It adds another layer to this novel of the fear of failure, warped businesses and dysfunctional families. This is a slowburning story, building up over its 400 pages or so to a real climax. Flanery’s writing is lucid yet subtle, a real pleasure to read, definitely making him one to watch. (9/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine Review Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery, pub May 2013, Atlantic Books, Hardback 432 pages

What the DITLOID?

As I’m mid-book at the moment (I’m enjoying Patrick Flanery’s latest Fallen Land very much), I thought I’d have some fun with you instead to fill the gap…

one-day-in-the-life-of-ivan-denisovichI learned a new word at the weekend – Ditloid. It turns out to be an acronym for ‘Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘, missing the ‘one‘ in front – the novel by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. But what does it actually mean?

Well it’s the name that was coined by the Daily Express for those number and letter puzzles where you get something like:

52 = C in a P,
or variation 52 = N of C in a P
with the solution: 52 = (number of)cards in a pack.

Which of course leads us to 1 = D in the L of I D, or 1 = D I T L O I D if you’re being hardcore!

So here are some other literary ditloids for you to solve – in a mixture of the styles above – have fun!  You can post some for me too if you wish – there’s a challenge!


  • 0.5 = H of a Y S (by C N A)   Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • 1 = F O the C N (by K K)      1 Flew over the cuckoo’s nest by Ken Kesey
  • 3 = M in a B (by J K J)          3 men in a boat – Jerome K Jerome
  • 5 = L P (by A C)                   5 Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
  • 7 = P of W (by T E L)           7 Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence
  • 10 = F from N (by A M)        10 – Force Ten from Navarone by Alistair MacLean
  • 12 = N of T of H (by A M)     12 (Number of) Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  • 20 = F of a R Y (by X G)       20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo
  • 39 = S (by J B)                    39 Steps by John Buchan
  • 40 = R of L (by E S)             40 – The 40 rules of love by Elif Shafak
  • 44 = N of a H on S S (by A M S)  44 = (Number of a house on) Scotland St – A McCall Smith
  • 50 = S of G (by E L J)          50 Shades of Grey by E L James
  • 84 = N of a B in C C R (by H H)  84 = Number of a bookshop in Charing Cross Road (84 Ch.Cross Rd) by Helene Hanff
  • 101 = N of D (by D S)         101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
  • 2001 = A S O (by A C C)     2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
  • 1000 = N of S S (by K H)    1000 (Number of) Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  • 20000 = S U the S (by P H)  20000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton

Hope you had fun

‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’…

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

almost lizardI’m twenty-one years old today, and once I’ve finished this little introduction I’m going to kill myself. …

Not many can spend their final few weeks on this earth writing their autobiography, a to-the-minute summary of all that has occurred within their lifespan. But most of us leave this world not of our own volition. Most of us make the decision to hang on in there as if life is some precious gift that we must savour every moment of. Not me. I’ve run my course and the day I finish writing my life story – today – is the day I have chosen to die.

Yup, we know how this book is meant to end from the first page.  This whole novel is in the form of ‘possibly the longest suicide ever committed to paper.’  The book is not about how it ends for Danny Lizar, but how it got to this point…

As in most memoirs, Daniel starts by telling us about his parents. His mother, Jacqui, was the favoured older half of a pair of identical twins, born either side of midnight August 31st, meaning they were forced into different years at school by an unbending system and never bonded the way most twins do. His father, Malcolm, was brought up in a Blackpool B&B where he learned the trade as a youngster and charmed the guests. They met when Malcolm, who had been dating twin Anne, unwittingly slept with Jacqui, and realised she was the real love of his life, further alienating Anne of course.

So the stage is set-up for family life chez Lizar, (Daniel never explains where his father got his surname from). As a child, Daniel has a fairly normal life, although his father works away during the week as a restaurant manager, and he doesn’t find out about bad Auntie Anne for years.  He does have a best friend though in Alex, and their parents also become best of friends too.

The seeds that will grow up to shape Daniel’s life are sown when he becomes addicted to watching soap operas on the TV with his mum, while his dad is working.  He cautiously tries some of the things he sees on screen  – he changes the story he was meant to read to a younger class to a deliberately nasty and provocative one he composed, and is secretly pleased by the reaction from the kids and their parents.  He seeds rumours to rid himself of friends he doesn’t want – this deals with the Dominic problem, but he upsets Alex to in the process – but not for long.

Daniel starts to get obsessed, and out on his paper-round, he replay scenes in his head, writing himself into the script.  Before long he has developed his own soap concept ‘The Almost Lizard’, and it stars him as ‘Danny’ – and his family and friends, he imagines the storyline, framing and filming it in his head.

But then, Daniel takes it to the next step. He makes his life into the soap, and begins to use anyone who can move the storyline along in real life.  He manipulates  them all – as Danny. He uses rumour, being disruptive in class, cultivating the wrong type of friends, saying things for effect – anything to get the scene in the can.

He saves being normal Daniel for home where he studiously makes sure he keeps up with his homework so his parents and the school aren’t too concerned with his behaviour.

However, Daniel is well aware of the power of the cliffhanger ending to soap episodes, and how they save major ones for Christmas.  The Lizars and Alex’s family, the Proctors always spend Christmas together, and Danny engineers a spectacular climax that took weeks in the planning and that will blow the two families apart.

Being Danny has become an addiction for Daniel. His real and fantasy personalities are becoming integrated into one. He tries to disengage from his soap, but when the sniff of a good new storyline comes along, he knows he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t resist, even if he has to play the victim sometimes – as a lead character, he has to keep his popularity up after all.  There is almost nothing that Daniel/Danny won’t do to get the shot.

It continues right up into college and one eventful holiday with friends to Majorca before something happens and real life catches up with Daniel – making him a character in someone else’s storyline…

Higgerson just about pulls it off with his creation of Daniel, whose voice tells his story with the requisite drama, leavened by humour – it’s not all darkness.  He manages to keep just enough of the normal, likeable teenager that Daniel can be in his narration to make us care about what’s going to happen.  All the time we’re waiting to see whether Daniel is able to snap out of being Danny, to stop being on the road to becoming a fully-fledged sociopath.

Knowing from the start of the book that Daniel intends to die at the end of it, we can read his story as a confession, finally atoning for all the wrong-doings, the manipulation, the hurtful deeds and words, all done to the people he cares for the most. This allows us to have some sympathy with him as he realises the repercussions of all that he has done.

Call me cynical, but you can also read this confession in another way – with Danny, not Daniel as its author. The arch-manipulator, an unreliable narrator making us, his audience – for we should never forget that he needs one, part of his story too. That thought gives me the creeps slightly!

At 460 pages, this book is long – although it does have two lives, Daniel and Danny to chronicle. It was in the best soap tradition, thoroughly page-turning and full of big moments and cliff-hangers.  Some actors in soaps end up typecast and mistaken for their characters in real life when their personalities are quite different; we the audience tend to encourage this in our celebrity-obsessed times. Daniel is sort of the reverse of this.

An interesting and thought-provoking debut from a promising young author. (8/10)

P.S. The quotation at the top is from the song ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ which was written in 1964 for Nina Simone.  I was previously only aware of the hit version by The Animals from 1965.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Almost Lizardby James Higgerson, Legend Press paperback, March 2013, 460 pages

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Pym Logo BlueI’ve never read Pym, but was more than happy to join in Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas at My Porch, to help celebrate the centenary of her birth. I consulted my shelves and found four Pyms waiting for me – given that the week was well under-way already, I chose the shortest …

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

This was one of Pym’s last books, published in 1977 a few years before she died; it was nominated for the Booker Prize. She was in her sixties, and the quartet of main characters are also in or nearing that age – I sincerely hope that her own life didn’t mirror those of Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman.

The quartet all work together in an office in London, what they actually do is never specified. They all live alone in the London suburbs. Edwin is the only one who ever married, but is now a widower. He and Marcia both have houses; Letty and Norman both rent rooms. They spend more time with each other at work than anyone else, yet it is fair to say that they never really get to know each other. The office day ends and they all go off to their homes.

We never learn much about Norman’s home life, and Edwin is largely content to be a church tourist, but do we gradually get to know Letty and Marcia’s situations.

Letty had had plans to retire to the country to share a cottage with her old friend Marjorie, but that is scuppered when Marjorie falls for her local vicar. To make matters worse, Letty’s landlord sell up to a Nigerian priest, and reluctantly, she feels she has to move as the African priest and his brethren are too loud. Edwin finds her a room through his church, and she moves north of the river to share a house with the aged Mrs Pope.

Marcia goes home to her inherited house with its hoard of milk bottles in the shed and plastic bags neatly folded and sorted in upstairs drawers.  Having had major surgery in the recent past, Janice from the local day centre is trying to keep an eye on her, but Marcia fends off her advances much to Janice’s frustration. The only person Marcia would like to get to know is her surgeon, whom she secretly idolises.

Letty and Marcia’s retirement arrives …

The organization where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working. Their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party, but it was felt that a lunchtime gathering, leading only to more than usual drowsiness in the afternoon, would be entirely appropriate. …

The deputy assistant director stepped into the middle of the room and began to speak.
‘The point about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, whom we are met together to honour today, is that nobody knows exactly, or has ever known exactly, what it is that they do,’ he declared boldly. ‘They have been – they are – the kind of people who work quietly and secretly doing good by stealth, as it were. …’

Both women are thus thrust into retirement limbo. One will drag herself up to realise that she still has a life to live, the other will turn inwards and dessicate – you can probably work out which will be which.  It doesn’t stop Norman from saying ‘I wonder what the girls are doing now.’

With this novel, Pym was veering from her lighter fare into what would become Anita Brookner territory in the 1980s. Her vision of ageing spinsters alone in bedsitterland or in hiding from the real world is so sad and horribly real. It is not quite as bleak as Brookner though, for underneath is a little bit of humour à la Muriel Spark, dark and ironic.

What Pym did so wonderfully was to capture the vicissitudes of ordinary life in the 1970s for her women: those days when not everyone had a telephone, surviving on tinned food from the supermarket, and in particular, what to do with oneself when you don’t have a family support network. The men end up taking that supporting role, and they do help to give an overall balance to the novel with Norman’s flip remarks giving light relief, and Edwin’s well-meaning concern bringing us back to ground.

Although this was not comfortable reading, I enjoyed it a lot – probably falling between the works of Brookner and the best of Spark. I have another ten of Pym’s novels to look forward to, and it’ll be interesting to contrast her earlier lighter titles with this grim slice of 70s single life – however remember, it doesn’t end poorly for everyone… (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

Book Group Report – a German classic novella…

The Jew’s Beechby Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff

the-jews-beech Being a German novella from 1842, this book was an unusual choice for our Book Group. It came about in conversation because one of our group’s sons was studying it at uni, and another who teaches German, owned a copy in German which she’d never read. Luckily, translations are available from Oneworld Classics and online at Project Gutenberg.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born into Westphalian aristocracy and given an excellent education.  She became an esteemed poet and musician, however, this novella was her only work of fiction.  The central story is based on a real murder. It’s often been viewed as a prototype of the crime thriller and also has Gothic elements – you could say ‘Grimm’.

For a novel of a scant one hundred widely-spaced pages, upon reflection and after lots of discussion, we realised that a lot actually happens in this story.

It follows the life of Friedrich Mergel from birth to his death. The first half tells the story of his drunken wife-beater of a father, and how his uncle Simon adopts him after his father died, putting him over his ignored pig boy Johannes Niemand who might be his illegitimate son.

They live in a village in the middle of a heavily forested area of Germany and the first half of the story concentrates on village life, including all the gossip and tittle-tattle that thrives therein, under the eye of the local barony.  It’s a hard life for these peasants and their living relies on forestry.  It’s not until a band of tree-poachers starts chopping into their livelihood that things take on a more sinister turn, when one of the village foresters is found in the wood with an axe through his skull. Did the ‘blue-cloaks’ as the poachers are called do it? No-one is sure.

Cut to later on, and a wedding in the village. Friedrich, who’s grown up to be a bit of a dandy for a forester makes a bit of a fool of himself, especially in front of Aaron, the Jew, who demands to be paid for the silver watch bought on tick that Friedrich is showing off. Aaron will later be found murdered in the forest, near a big beech tree, and suspicion falls on Friedrich, who promptly runs away, shadowed by Johannes…

Many of the big problems of the age, seen under the lens of village life are observed – poverty, poor Johannes steals a pound of butter at the wedding feast, and then stands in front of the fire; also bigotry and anti-Semitism.   But there are also nods towards Gothic fantasy – the blue-cloaks seem to spirit themselves into and out of the woods, leaving no tracks; the dark forests themselves are foreboding and the stuff of fairy tales, Grimm’s having first been published in 1812.  The villagers are quite superstitious, and there is (to us) a bizarre episode where someone went to dig up a horse’s head that had been buried years before as a talisman against sorcery.

Here it might be appropriate to compare the two translations we read between us:

Next morning the fountain in the garden would not work, and it was discovered that somebody had moved a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse which had been buried there many years before – this was reckoned to be a guaranteed protection against witches and apparitions. (trans Lionel and Doris Thomas, 1958)

The next morning the fountain in the garden would not play, and it was discovered that some one had removed a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse’s skeleton which had the reputation of being an attested instrument against any wiles of witches or ghosts.   (trans Lillie Winter, Proj Gutenberg)

The feeling was that the Thomas’s translation was a little uninteresting, and that the Winter one had more charm despite being more directly word for word. Our German teacher commented that at least the author wrote in sentences of reasonable length unlike her contemporary Heinrich Von Kleist.

So, to recapitulate, this odd little story generated a great discussion in our book group.

Next month, we’re reading another crime novel in translation – but this time contemporary and French – Fred Vargas’ first novel The Three Evangelists.

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The Jew’s Beechby Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff, Oneworld classics paperback.

500 Must-Read Books…

500 Must-Read Books chosen by The Telegraph

Lists of books – doncha just love ’em! The Telegraph is the latest to dip a toe into the murky waters of Best of lists with their 500 Must-Read Books this weekend. Published in two supplements over the weekend, their full list doesn’t appear online yet.

*** Update – I keep checking the website, but no list for you yet. ***

Their list comprises the full world of literature, fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary. Their criteria is ‘Must-Read’ rather than say literary merit, so this allows a bit of fun to be had, with some enjoyable yet naff bestsellers. It’s split by subject, and in each part their top picks, plus a best of the rest list (BotR).

I just had to go through it checking off all those I’ve read.  If you’re not trainspotterish in your book habits, you can skip this bit …

War and History: Main – 3/20, BotR – 3/15 Including: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War and Longitude by Dava Sobel.

European & Russian Classics: Main – 1/15, BotR – 3/10 Including: Anna Karenina, and Embers by Sandor Marai (which I didn’t enjoy – soooo slow).

ridersBritish Classics: Main – 6/20, BotR – 0/15 Including: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Riders by Jilly Cooper

Latin American Classics: Main – 1/10, BotR – 0/5 Including: The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho – which I hated!

Classics from Antiquity: Main – 4/15, BotR – 1/10 Including: lots of Homer and Herodotus’ Histories – I went through a period in my 20s of devouring Greek and Roman classics.

Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy MitfordRomance: Main – 6/20, BotR – 2/15 Including: P&P of course, Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Money and Power: Main – 1/10, BotR – 1/5 Including: Machhiavelli’s The Prince.

Poetry: Main – 0/15, BotR – 0/10 Including: ZILCH! Oh dear…

Thrillers: Main – 11/15, BotR – 4/10 Including: Where Eagles Dare by Alastair MacLean, Jaws by Peter Benchley, and yes, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and lots of really good stuff too.

Richard III - Dastardly murderer or totally misunderstood?Food and Drink: Main – 2/10, BotR – 1/5 Including: Nigella’s How to Eat, and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

Crime: Main – 9/20, BotR – 4/15 Including: Fatherland by Robert Harris, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Comedy: Main – 7/15, BotR – 4/10 Including: Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, and The Commitments by Roddy Doyle.

half of a yellow sunSc-Fi and Fantasy: Main – 11/20, BotR – 5/15 Including: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. No space on their lists for Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes though…

Children’s Classics: Main – 10/15, BotR – 3/10 Including: Watership Down by Richard Adams and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.

African Classics: Main – 3/10, BotR – 0/5 Including: Disgrace by JM Coetzee and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Lives: Main – 5/20, BotR – 1/15 Including: Alan Clark Diaries Vol 1, The Double Helix by James Watson.

moby dickSports and Pastimes: Main – 0/10, BotR – 0/15 Including: Nothing!

Plays: Main – 3/15, BotR – 0/10 Including: Hamlet and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

American Classics: Main – 7/15, BotR – 3/10 Including: Moby Dick, and Beloved by Toni Morrison (which I disliked at the time ages ago, but should read again now)

Asian Classics: Main – 1/10, BotR – 0/5 Including: Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

In total I notched up 126/500. It would have been a lot less if I didn’t have a predilction for thrillers in particular, backed up by SF&F and crime, although my Greek and Roman classics also stood me in good stead.  It does highlight (as expected) that I should read more in translation, and it would be nice to learn to enjoy poetry properly.

I can rest easy though, knowing that:

  1. It doesn’t matter! – it’s not MY list of 500 must-read books
  2. I probably have around 100 more from this list in my TBR piles.
  3. It’s sunny outside and I should have been gardening!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I hope it’s sunny for you too…