White Chappell

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By Iain Sinclair.

There’s a lot in this novel and many of the references I will have missed. I was constantly going to google and researching things that were said. However, while it was not a euphoric enjoyable read, it was simply good. There’s still much I haven’t read by Sinclair – and will need to take time over the years to discover more of his books. I think he should be considered a great writer.

 

 

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Sulamyth

By Alexandr Kuprin.
I wasn’t sure about this to begin with but it ended up quite an engaging little story. The translation was fine and for a few hours I was transported to a very different world: one of wise rulers, poetry and intrigue. Very different to the previous Kuprin I read – the Duel. The sumptuous, fantastical nature of the story was an interesting juxtaposition to what I have read recently. This was few pence on the Kindle store – well worth it.

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Trips to the Moon

By Lucian of Samosata.

I loved this little book. Very Rabelaisian – or perhaps ‘Rabelaisian’ should be renamed ‘Samosatian’. What an imagination. There’s much that we lose here as many of the references that Lucian makes are to works that have not survived from his heyday – around AD125. Still, well worth reading. This made me chuckle:

The campaign thus happily finished, they made an entertainment to celebrate the victory, which, as is usual amongst them, was a bean- feast. Pythagoras alone absented himself on that day, and fasted, holding in abomination the wicked custom of eating beans.

 

 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book Two

By François Rabelais.

Book Two is right up there with Book One however it is more linear. Part of what I liked about Book One was that it wasn’t dictated to by the story. The story was told, but chapters were sometimes ever increasing tangents. Book Two is far more straightforward as each chapter follows the other – the absurdity is within the episodes themselves. Frère Jean is a fantastic creation – a warrior ex-monk is search of the divine in a bottle:

But from good wine you can’t make bad Latin.
 

In Book Two you meet comic genius mixed with a sublime imagination and ideas. Rabelais is a revelation.

 

 

 

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Russian Fairy Tales

By Ivan Bilibin and Alexandr Afanasev.

Great fairy tales with fantastic illustrations by Bilibin. Digitally, only a couple of pounds from iBooks or Amazon. I did see this on eBay for £400. Tempting. Some of these tales I have read before and very interesting are those which are variations.

 

 

 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book One

By François Rabelais.

This first book is quite cohesive. I guess Rabelais didn’t know himself  if he would write another and the impetus seems to be his own amusement and that of his friends. This was a very enjoyable experience and  as a result I took my time reading Book One. I like the way the episodes aren’t really connected they just sort of flit about and are not as linear as most novels.

Pantagruel makes you laugh, consider things philosophically and stimulates the imagination: it doesn’t get much better than this. I can now see where many of the writers I love got a great deal of their inspiration. There were free translations I could have found for the kindle but I decided that if I was going to make the effort to read all five books then it should be with the best translation – by most accounts Professor Screech’s translation is the best. There are many footnotes – but they don’t get in the way as the book is the kind that stimulates you in bursts as it is all angles and the footnotes don’t interfere but add to the richness of the text. The rest are coming up shortly.

 

 

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Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes.

I always knew I would love Don Quixote because of the amusing and surreal bits and pieces that had been mentioned to me over the years. Because of the length and comittment to the cause required by the novel I knew I had to find the right time. So, a holiday in Spain seemed to be perfect, and it was, as I did want to be completely focused and consumed by the world of Quixote and Panza in the sun and heat of Spanish lands.

The novel is split into two parts each were published a decade apart. The second part is more controlled (if controlled is the right word) and the writing seems better and smoother. Again it is difficult to really assess this in translation. The first part jumps all over the place and has several stories within stories and is less about Panza and Quixote than part  two. In the first, anything can happen, and the two characters frequently overstep the line due to their madness and sanity which they possess in equal measure. Panza has a different type of madness which seems to grow as the novel progresses – maybe due to the association with Quixote. I can see why people have been entranced by the book since 1605 when part one was written. The humour transcends the centuries and cultures. The world of Cervantes is alien to us in the way that the world of the Knights Errant is ridiculous to the readers of Cervantes day. Then and now readers are drawn into Quixote’s world and marvel and his madness and intelligence, and Panza’s proverbs.

The second book I liked less because everyone knows about Quixote due to the first part being published and authored by Cede Hamete Benegeli – so meta-fiction very definitely meets knight errantry. Also, the extended period at the Duke and Duchesses residence is not very exciting – after this however it picks up and there is a return to form. The characters seem a little more typecast too:  Cervantes may have promoted the elements of the novel that his audience liked from part one and focused on these. There are far more Panzaian proverbs and there are no separate stories within the story of part two as he was criticised after the first volume for distracting the reader with these. In my opinion, the edges, and the fact you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next does give part one the sharpness and steel that part two lacks. Having said this, in totality there is nothing I have ever read quite like Don Quixote. All other modern picaresque fantasies are just shoots from the tree grown by Cervantes.

Part one is an absolute masterwork. There are some fantastic turns of phrase and nearly every sentence is loaded and perfectly formed. I must say I loved some of Panza’s proverbs. We should all pick our time when we begin our journey with Don Quixote, mine took five weeks and I can see that I will be returning for shorter skirmishes with rereads of certain episodes.

Following are some quotes from the novel that I thought were great (and there are a multitude more):

“I didn’t deserve to leave in this way; but man proposes and God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him, and time changes the rhyme, and nobody should say, ‘That’s water I won’t drink,’ because you’re in a place where you think there’s bacon, and you don’t even find a nail; God understands me, and that’s enough, and I’ll say no more, though I could.” [Panza]
 
“He’s doing the right thing,” said Sancho Panza, “because if you give the cat what you were going to give to the mouse, your troubles will be over.” [Panza]
 
“May God hear and sin be deaf,” said Sancho.
 
“There can be no doubt,” said Sancho, “that this demon is a decent man and a good Christian, because otherwise he wouldn’t swear by God and my conscience. Now I think there must be good people even down in hell.”
 

And finally:

“…the benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?”

 

Note: translation is important and Edith Grossman’s translation is excellent. The footnotes are thorough too.


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Pushkin

By D S Mirsky.

What an excellent biography. When I was searching for a good description of Pushkin’s life and work this volume, written in 1926, was recommended and I found it detailed and well-written. Since it was published there have been numerous biographies which probably take the scholarship of certain aspects of Pushkin’s life further – but this is a concise and fairly objective analysis. Mirsky didn’t seem to have an axe to grind in a particular direction – though he is very dismissive of Belinsky and the other critics of the 1830s and 40s. What does come through loud and clear in the biography is the subjugation of Pushkin’s genius by the authorities. Pushkin wanted to travel extensively but wasn’t allowed, everything he wrote had to be given to the Tsar and his officials to be read before they could be published. Sometimes, as in the case of the play Boris Godunov, the consent was not given unless changes were made and so Pushkin simply didn’t publish his play. How different Pushkin’s life and art could have been if he had decided to rebel and leave Russia to find his own way. The problem was that Pushkin seems to have been a very likable and passionate man but a person that deep down wanted to please others. As a result, apart from a brief sojourn to the army in Caucasus, he never really acted against the wishes of the authorities after his banishment as a young man.

What makes this biography even more interesting is the story of the biographer DS Mirsky. Mirsky was a prince and member of the aristocracy and fought for the Russian army against the Germans in WW1. After the revolution he fought for the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks but managed to escape as the Bolsheviks took control. Mirsky ended up in London and wrote several books while lecturing at the University of London. More detailed information is found on his wikipedia page. Mirsky then converted to Communism and returned to Russia in the 30s. In 1937 he was arrested and died two years later in a labour camp. His History of Russian Literature was much admired by Nabokov – and his biography of Lenin is considered definitive.

I have always considered Pushkin a genius, but after reading this biography I believe that he may not even have achieved his full potential due to the situation he was placed in by the Tsarist authorities. Imagine what a Pushkin could have written if he had roamed Europe in the same way that Byron did? A very thought-provoking biography.

Here is a link to Lermontov’s poem about the death of Pushkin, which in turn displeased the Tsar and as a result Lermontov was exiled to to the Caucasus. And so the cycle continued.

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Russian Sketches, Chiefly of Peasant Life

By Leskov, Grigorvich, Nekrasov, Lermontov.

The Leskov story ‘The Sealed Angel’ is the longest story here and it really is very intriguing. It follows the tribulations of a group of old believers and their dealings with the religous orthodoxy. There is much description of the iconography and the story is well told. I have been considering reading some Leskov for a while – I did once see the Shostakovitch opera ‘Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District’ which was brilliant. Grigorovich also had a few stories here and they didn’t really do much for me. A little too heavy on the description and not enough substance.

The poem by Lermontov was excellent as were the ‘poems’ by Nekrasov. I put ‘poems’ in quotes because they seemed prose to me – but that may have been the translation. I had wanted to read something by Nekrasov previously, due to his associations with both Belinsky and Dostoevsky, but he is known more as a publisher than a poet and works were difficult to find. Again this collection was read on kindle and downloaded from openlibrary.org – the advent of ebooks have opened up millions of novels and collections which were difficult to source and read previously. The ease of access means things can be read on a whim due to some random association – that has to be good.

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