Sunday miscellany 7

The book facing wrong way round represents two ebooks

A very library-heavy week, starting with an ebook I borrowed on Monday night when I’d finished Mariana Mazzucato and needed something that I could gallop through as a restorative. I chose Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, his first Sally Lockhart mystery, which I knew I’d read years ago but could barely remember. It’s a great pastiche of Victorian detective and sensation novels, although there’s a bit too much dwelling on Sally’s beauty (she’s sixteen, Philip, calm down) and any novel where opium smuggling is a major plot point is bound to sail close to the wind of orientalism. (I think he just about manages to avoid it, but really, what do I know.) The mystery plot—with its riddles, buried treasure, dark secrets, and obscure identities—is a lovely homage to Collins, Dickens, Braddon et al., and I admire his courage in leaving two big strands of plot untied at the end (thus cleverly ensuring a sequel, but also vanishingly rare in children’s fiction now).

Another Russian Spring book next: Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which I liked a lot more than I expected to. It’s a novel but the form is closer to an episodic story collection, over the course of which the character of our hero, Pechorin, is built up. It starts with “Bela”, in which a third-person traveler is told a story by Pechorin’s old army acquaintance, Maxim Maxymich; in this story, Pechorin arranges the abduction of a girl from a mountain tribe in the Caucasus to be his lover, and it all ends very badly. It doesn’t give the reader a positive view of Pechorin, and (not coincidentally) the next story features our narrator getting a glimpse of the man himself, as he behaves with surprising coldness to Maxim, who thought they were friends. The subsequent three sections are told in the first person and purport to be excerpts from Pechorin’s journal. So we get an increasing zoom lens on who this character is and why he behaves as he does, and although you may well not like him by the end, you do feel you have a fuller picture. (The third section, “Taman”, was much admired by Chekhov and is basically a smuggling story, featuring a brave and homicidal woman who hearteningly eludes Pechorin’s understanding, while the fourth—”Princess Mary”—is the longest but maybe the least exciting, taking place as it does within the gossipy confines of a society resort town, and the fifth is “The Fatalist”, which might be the first literary representation of the game we call Russian roulette.) Pechorin is said to be in many ways a self-portrait by his creator, Lermontov, who, weirdly like his protagonist, died in a duel at the age of twenty-six. A Hero of Our Time certainly is a psychological portrait, but the strength of the novel for me lies in its stunning landscape descriptions of the Caucasus mountains and in the associated sense of heightened atmosphere that Lermontov evokes. (I think “Taman”, so short and so anomalous, might be my favourite section for this reason.)

Now, at this point in the week, I had a few conversations with a few different people, and it became apparent that I am, at present, death-haunted. I think this has several contributing factors, including but not limited to: two years of global extreme peril during which I have been totally unable to see most of my family; my grandpa’s death just before covid struck; a friend’s unexpected death last year; my grandmother’s decline in health, which I saw vividly when I visited a few weekends ago and which hit me harder than anticipated; and my own strong awareness that my chronic illness means survival conditions for me are a narrow window which any kind of social breakdown (like a bomb or a war but also, more immediately, the re-election of the Tories and the persistence of austerity) causes to narrow even more. I’m talking this through with the appropriate people, but in the meantime I thought I’d read around it, and went to the library accordingly.

I’ve read four death books so far: Julia Samuel’s Grief Works, Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am; Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life, and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind. Two worked brilliantly for me; the other two were probably not written with me and my particular situation as their imagined primary audience, so I can’t blame them for not being quite what I needed. The two that nailed it for me were the O’Farrell and the Clarke. I Am, I Am, I Am is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes with Death”, and it is a memoir told through near-death experiences. O’Farrell’s childhood illness, which meant she had to relearn how to walk, and her daughter’s severe autoimmune condition, give the book a flavour that chimes well with my diabetic experiences; unlike the other books, this is not primarily about terminal illness but about bad (or rather very good) luck, chronic ill health and unpredictability. The book opens with an absolute banger of a chapter in which eighteen-year-old O’Farrell escapes a man on a lonely mountain path who, the next week, kills another young woman in exactly the way he tried to kill her; it closes with an essay on keeping a chronically ill child alive. It blew my socks off, made me empathise with my parents, and made me cry over lunch. A fantastic book. Clarke’s Dear Life is a memoir by a palliative care doctor whose beloved GP father is given a terminal cancer diagnosis. Structurally and formally, it worked well for me; I liked Clarke’s voice, I liked the narrative drive, I liked her deft touch with characterization (especially of her own family), and I loved the clear stages of the dying process that she outlines. The final chapters had me crying again, as her own father slips away from her. Mannix’s With the End in Mind actually does many similar things, but it’s structured in a more didactic, workbook-y fashion. There are also sections in different typeface which seem designed to provide retrospective, liner-note-type commentary on each chapter/essay, which I think is unnecessary and takes the reader out of their immersion in the stories. I didn’t dislike the book, but it felt much more like the work of someone with an evangelical educative mission, which made it less effective for me (though, no doubt, extremely effective for others in different circumstances!) And Julia Samuel’s Grief Work is really about bereavement, not death; about the psychological impact of being bereaved in different ways, and of how we work through it. On the whole, it struck me as fairly useful, if inclined to be a little vague or inconclusive, but Samuel has a very unfortunate habit of describing her patients’ physicalities that meant I found it hard to trust her. The emotional fragility of a woman whose beloved young partner has just died is “belied”, apparently, by her “thickset” frame. Nah mate. Please just let fat people be sad too. Thanks.

Now I’m kind of stuck. The death books have been great and I’ve got one more to read from my checkout pile, which is Tender by Penny Wincer (about the act of caring/being a carer for someone. I’m not sure if that’s going to be a hit or a miss and am trying to gee myself up to give it a shot. I’ve also been trying to read Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch, which I’ve been anticipating for weeks; the problem is that it’s got such diverse plot strands, even if they do all come together in an authorial feat of brilliance eventually, that getting into it has proved surprisingly tricky for my current headspace. My remaining two Russians don’t feel appetizing; they’re Nabokov’s Pale Fire (which I’m 98% sure will be like the Yuknavitch–too brilliant for me to handle right now) and Gogol’s Dead Souls (which I’m 98% sure is depressing). I don’t really know what’s wrong with me at the moment, but I feel bone-weary and brain-weary. Might just comfort-read a bit more Bill Bryson.

Sunday miscellany 6

No book stack photo this week, but look at our lovely new desk! It’s a proper study now (ignore the box…)

This week started off with Dostoevsky’s Memoirs From the House of the Dead for Russian Spring, partly because I wanted to piggyback off the portrait of the Russian penal system that Resurrection gave me last week. It’s based on Dostoevsky’s experience of prison in Siberia, where he spent four years as a young man for political offenses. Although he establishes a frame story that the text is actually a memoir he found in a boarding house, that gets abandoned pretty quickly and is rarely alluded to. The book is best known for its set pieces: prisoner bathing day at the local banya (everyone stays pretty filthy, but it includes a famously elaborate depiction of undressing while remaining shackled); Christmas Day (progressively raucous, lots of drinking, some music, better food than usual, limited religious observance); amateur theatricals organized by some of the prisoners (genuinely delightful, a mood-lifter for everyone, no cynicism or violence from the spectators, just pure escapism and happiness). Dostoevsky specializes in character studies, from the two guys who successfully flee the prison by bribing a guard to the one Jewish man in their barracks (who does his own work on Christmas Day just to prove to everyone else how little he cares for the holiday) to the violin-playing convict who could be hired by the hour by other prisoners. Vodka smuggling, nighttime card games, universal deep affection for the prison horse: it’s all here. Class distinction comes across very strongly, too. Dostoevsky’s point of view character, like himself, is a member of the petty nobility, and although his fellow prisoners eventually allow as to how he’s all right, it’s apparent that he will never be “one of them”. It makes his imprisonment, in some ways, even lonelier, and it’s an intriguing glimpse into how the stratifications of the Russian class system could not be overcome even by the otherwise substantial leveler of criminal conviction.

I picked up Madwoman by Louisa Treger after this, which is also about imprisonment in a way: it’s a historical novel (out in June) about Nellie Bly, a real newspaperwoman in 1880s New York who led an extraordinary, trailblazing life. Among other things, she voluntarily entered a private insane asylum in 1887, undercover, in order to report on conditions in such institutions. Her experiences, and what she wrote about them, changed the conversation in America about mental health treatment. Madwoman is a very thoroughly researched book—in some ways it reads like a creative biography, with its focus much more on Bly as a person than on the mental health history angle. Relatedly, in its early pages the book is very interested in Bly’s childhood, which was blighted by tragedy: she loses her beloved, supportive father and gains an abusive drunk for a stepfather within a few chapters. It’s when her mother takes the then-remarkable step of seeking a divorce and moves with her children to Pittsburgh that Bly steps into her own as a wage-earner, and eventually as a reporter. (Her stint in Mexico—still aged only 21—for six months, sending reports back to Pittsburgh, is skipped over, which I’m sorry for; perhaps that episode needs a novel of its own to do it justice, though!)

I’m still reading Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. It’s great, very thought-provoking (and very helpful for my thesis in its lucid explanations of how early economists defined “value”, “production” and “[economically] useful”, as well as a handy lil rundown of Marx). It’s also about money and therefore hard—not inherently, and not because Mazzucato is confusing—she can write very clearly—but because I don’t read about money or the economy very often, and I have to stop to sense-check a lot. The book is both helpful and interesting, particularly in giving shape and voice to some thoughts I’ve had about how the twenty-first century seems to construe value, but it’ll be nice to finish it and get back to reading that I a) feel qualified to have an opinion on, and b) isn’t quite such an extended mental effort.

I spent a few hours reading in the sun in our communal garden today, and although I brought the Mazzucato along and made an effort with it, I also brought a perennial favourite, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I’ve read it so many times now, it’s just a simple relaxing treat on a sunny Sunday before a bank holiday. While I was out there, I watched a pigeon get nobbled by a sparrowhawk about ten feet from my picnic blanket, after which a magpie tried to mug the hawk for the pigeon’s carcass. The glories of Nature, eh!

Sunday miscellany, 5

The guy on the front cover of Triffids is really giving me Bill Murray, idk

I spent the vast majority of this week reading Leo Tolstoy’s final, and much lesser-known, novel, Resurrection. It was published in 1899 but took him at least ten years to write, which makes some things about it more readily understandable. The premise is that a nobleman sits on a murder jury and discovers that the defendant is a maidservant named Katusha Maslova whom he seduced and abandoned a decade ago. Because of a culpable lack of attention to procedure on the part of both judge and jury, Maslova is acquitted of poisoning but not exculpated of “intent to murder”, and so despite being innocent, she is sentenced to Siberian exile. Nekhlyudov, the nobleman, decides to go with her to atone for his part in destroying her life, and even offers her his hand in marriage. From this summary, I had assumed that the first sixty pages or so would be taken up with the above and that the novel would then follow Nekhlyudov and Maslova into Siberia. Instead, most of the novel takes place before the convicts’ departure, as Nekhlyudov tries to find bureaucratic and legislative solutions to Maslova’s wrongful conviction only to discover the hollow cynicism at the heart of Russian social institutions. Very powerful scenes depict life in the prison (not just from Nekhlyduov’s perspective; the scenes focalized through Maslova’s eyes, in which female prisoners chat, comfort each other, share contraband, and get into fistfights, are brilliant). The forced march of the convicts—men, women, and the children they’re bringing with them into exile—is one of the best known set pieces in Russian literature, in which two men die of heatstroke; the policemen, prison officers and local doctors collectively responsible for their deaths run the gamut from incompetence to cruelty, but none can be individually accused of murder, and this failure of the collective to take responsibility for suffering is (through Nekhlyudov) Tolstoy’s great theme. Nekhlyudov himself is an interesting creation, often patting himself on the back for his liberal, self-sacrificing intent, but with his pretensions always punctured—frequently by Maslova herself, who rarely responds to him in the ways he expects or wants, and thereby transcends the character type of the wronged woman to be a real and surprising individual. There is a lot of anger and indignation in Resurrection, in ways that I think probably do hamper it from being great. That’s not to say that great literature can’t be angry, but that it has to find a way not to be eaten alive by its own anger, and Tolstoy often doesn’t manage to keep a tight enough rein on his social ideas, doesn’t ensure that they’re always in service to his story. Still, very glad to have read it.

John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, meanwhile, took very little time—I actually stretched out the reading experience because I was enjoying it so much. Most people, I imagine, have read it at school or know it from the BBC adaptation, but although I knew of it, I’d never read it til now. Its treatment of women, for 1951, feels relatively equitable (this is now the first thing I look for in post-apocalyptic fiction, particularly older specimens); the narrator’s love interest, Josella, has to get some self-deprecation in, but she’s tough-minded and independent. Given its publication date, and the suggestion near the end that Cold War satellites were ultimately responsible for the disaster, I’m particularly intrigued by its imagery of islands and siege: in the countryside, triffids surround the houses that contain survivors like an ocean, making those houses de facto islands of civilization, safe while one stays within boundaries but hard to move between. The eventual solution is to join a colony of mostly sighted people on the Isle of Wight: an island province in an island nation, and one that—at the time of Wyndham’s writing—had just repelled foreign invasion in World War II. It doesn’t feel like Wyndham advocates insularity per se, more that there is an element of haunted-ness in the British psyche at this time that manifests itself in this imagery of tactical defensive positioning. Oddly, no one in the novel talks about the war at all, which has only just occurred to me but which now seems like a gigantic, and meaningful, omission. I don’t know. I mean, it’s also just a great science fiction novel about scary plants. (It does take characters a disturbingly long time to begin to admit that triffids seem to have rudimentary consciousness and communication abilities. THEY ARE DEFINITELY TALKING, GTFO.)

Finally, I read Antonia Honeywell’s chapbook short story A Last Gift For My Father yesterday, and loved it. It’s a deceptively simple story about a girl seeking her father’s approval, but there are undercurrents of cold unease: misogyny, casual violence, and a whiff of sexual threat make the girl’s devotion to her father something queasy and alarming, something we know isn’t safe. What I like about the story so much is that Antonia (she’s my friend, I can’t call her Honeywell in a review, sorry) doesn’t leave it there, but follows the girl’s developing sense of self as she and her mother flee their domestic situation, then as the girl leaves home, makes mistakes at university, starts working, falls in love and starts a family. It is a story that insists we are more than the sum of the things that happened to us. It also acknowledges that we can be happy and fulfilled without having everything tied up neatly in a bow; that there are some parts of our lives we have to decide to close ourselves, because we won’t be provided with closure. The attention to process and detail is wonderful, whether it’s a chocolate factory production line (“enrobing” nougat in melted chocolate), varieties of heirloom apple, or the sartorial habits of the father’s mistresses. It’s published by Seventy2One, and the entire print run is now sold out (yay!) but keep checking the website—they produce regular chapbooks of short literary fiction, and I think they’re going to be big.

AOB 1: I forgot to confess to the purchase of two books last week! I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t. But I get a free pass for these, I think, a) because I’ve read them both before but didn’t own copies, b) because they were in my local Oxfam for £1.99 each, and c) because they were both absolutely pristine Oxford World’s Classics editions. The first was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which is one of my favourite childhood books of all time; I found, somewhat to my surprise, when last re-reading it, that I have about 70% of it memorized (probably aided by the gorgeous 1995 animated film). The second was Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope, the third of the Barsetshire series. I read all of these in totally different (and largely janky) paperback editions, a few years ago, and I’ve been thinking fondly of re-buying them all in a uniform edition, as I’ve mostly done for the Palliser series. It felt providential.

AOB 2: I’ve found a great podcast called Tipsy Tolstoy which has proved very useful for Russian Spring. Most of the books on my list haven’t been covered by them yet, but of my limited Russian reading, they’ve got a great two-episode miniseries on Fathers and Sons (which they translate, probably more accurately, as Fathers and Children), a five-episode series on Crime and Punishment (which I think I’d have to reread before such a deep dive), another five-episode series on Anna Karenina (likewise), two on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and one on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The hosts, Matt Gerasimovich and Cameron Lallana, are engaging, funny, and have genuinely good analysis—they met while studying in Russia, one is currently pursuing a PhD in Slavic Literature at Northwestern and the other is currently applying to grad school. Go check it out!

Sunday miscellany 4

Those cards in the background are for my lovely M, who’s having a birthday on Monday!

It’s starting to look like three books a week is a comfortable goal for me at the moment. The era of five books a week was (not coincidentally) the era when I was commuting three hours a day by bus, which I’m certainly not anymore, plus there’s the whole balance of research reading and leisure reading to bear in mind. Three a week is something I’m pretty happy with, though. At the moment, it means I can split the week between one book from my “new” TBR, one Russian Spring book, and one book from the Great Unread in the flat. That feels like a really good division.

I started off the week with Louise Hare’s forthcoming (April) Miss Aldridge Regrets, a great example of the perennially popular Golden Age pastiche mystery. Set in the 1930s and starring a mixed-race singer, it’s a cut above most of the subgenre—there’s plenty of social commentary about class and race, including the difference between being a mixed-race woman in London and being the same person in America (even New York). Two identical poisonings occur within days of each other, one of them at sea on the Queen Mary’s Atlantic crossing. Lena Aldridge is the only person who was at both crime scenes—but she knows she didn’t do it, so who did? And why are they trying to frame her? It’s an absolute page-turner; I started it on Monday before work and finished it after work, and it’s by no means a short book, about 400 pages in proof. I don’t read crime often, but I very occasionally enjoy a historical mystery, and this one delivers. There are a few too many suspects who are a touch difficult to distinguish from each other (I kept trying to keep the tycoon’s son-in-law, the company owner’s grandson, and the theatrical fixer straight in my head; all unpleasant, entitled men), and the writing is capable if not very memorable. But I found, to my surprise, that I felt genuinely invested in who’d done it, and that the revelation actually worked. Worth picking up.

The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya, is a very different proposition, and a reminder of the wonderful capaciousness of the novel form. (Novels are a bit like dogs, I think; they can span a gamut of style and content while still recognizably being the same thing, the way the doggy spectrum runs from chihuahuas to Great Danes.) The Slynx was a Russian Spring book and I nearly didn’t get on with it; it moves slowly, and its protagonist, Benedikt, is not a hero. In fact he’s something of an idiot everyman, unable to grasp the simplest notions of abstraction or metaphor. In some ways that’s not his fault, since he lives 200 years post-nuclear holocaust. One of his neighbours is an Oldener, someone who was born pre-Blast and has had their life unnaturally lengthened (as a result of radiation, it is implied), and who of course remembers details of what the world used to be like. He tries to educate Benedikt, amongst other ways by giving him access to pre-Blast books, but Benedikt—although he loves the books—can’t move past a kind of primal covetousness for them that leads him to ever greater acts of oppression towards other people. The brutal, brave conclusion Tolstaya suggests to us is that “art” has no innate power to inspire or uplift without a cultural substrate. Civilizations can’t be rebuilt; the handful of people who still inhabit Moscow have their own culture now, and it’s not going to understand Pushkin in the same way. It’s not going to understand Pushkin at all, Tolstaya implies. And what hasn’t changed about human nature is its baser side: greed, desire, self-centeredness. It’s not necessarily a book I enjoyed reading, but I am slightly in awe of it. It can’t have been an easy thing to write. (And indeed it took Tolstaya fourteen years; she started it in 1986 under Gorbachev and finished it in 2000 under Putin.)

Pace is not a problem in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a party to which I know I have come very late. Summerscale’s exploration of a Victorian crime that shocked 1860s Britain is built on narrative and characterization—novel-esque-ness, if you like—which is, in many ways, part of her point. The murder of three-year-old Saville Kent at Road Hill House in Wiltshire sparked not only a morbid fascination among Britain’s newspaper readers, but inspired (or at the very least contributed to a culture that subsequently produced) some of the nineteenth century’s most famous detective novels. Dickens maintained a long interest in the case (Summerscale sees both his Inspector Bucket, from Bleak House, and the siblings in the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood as inspired by Road Hill). Wilkie Collins was completing the serialization of The Woman in White as the case unfolded, and drew on several elements of it for his later novel The Moonstone. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret is also brought in, and Edgar Allen Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin. It’s not so much that Summerscale is claiming direct lines of descent from the real crime to literature, as that she’s writing both a history of the crime and a history of the idea of the detective, which inevitably involves detective literature. Jonathan Whicher, brought in from the Metropolitan Police to solve the crime, was part of an eight-man detective squad that had only been created a few years previously. His conclusion was (it turns out) the right one—but justice wasn’t fully served for a while yet. I won’t spoil, but the complex interplay of Victorian fears about madness, the domestic sphere, privacy and class mobility creates a rich brew of suspicion. And Summerscale reminds us that Saville Kent was a real little boy, who lived too briefly and was horribly killed; I think it’s easy for true crime writers to allow their readers to lose sight of the reality of murder victims, but she does not. Highly recommended, on multiple fronts.