By Theophile Gautier and ETA Hoffman respectively.
And now for something completely different. I listened to this on a free audiobook and it really was well written (and read). I have read one of Gautier’s novels before – I think it was Mademoiselle de Maupin and really enjoyed it. Sometimes a bit of decadence and symbolist writing is just what you need on dark December days. This novel kept you guessing and you really couldn’t tell what was real and what was dream after a while. Was he a village priest with strange dreams of living in Venice with a vampire courtesan, or a decadent nobleman who had strange dreams of being a parish priest as he slept? Very enjoyable.
The Deserted House
This was in a similar ‘vein’: supernatural and full of thwarted love, melancholy and madness. Again, an excellent read. Hoffman is not quite as lyrical as Gautier – more matter-of-fact. This was read on a kindle. The first story I have read on it and I did get lost in Hoffman’s world, but the experience wasn’t as satisfying as a physical book. Maybe the kindle just isn’t as tactile as a book. Still, this was a free download from a great site called manybooks.net which I have been visiting quite regularly looking for books I have been meaning to read. It isn’t a patch on the Tomcat Murr – there isn’t any strange humour. Definitely worth my time.
Two very good short pieces written in the first half of the 19th century and read in two different modern methods.
Soundtrack: Scott Walker – 30 Century Man.
Retold by Robert Chandler.
A great little book. I really enjoyed all the stories as retold by Robert Chandler. The last story of Ivan the Old Soldier is excellent. It ends:
There was just one thing – if he began a story before supper no one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. He had to always ask for a bowl of soup first. It was better like that. After all, you can’t just live on stories without any food.
The folk-tales are amazingly surreal, creative and amusing. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen and really highlights that something has been lost in the modern popular stories on TV, in movies or pulp fiction.
Soundtrack: The Byrds – Eight Miles High.
By Antal Szerb.
I had no expectations before reading this book, but was left very impressed by the end. It didn’t just tell a story but had many very interesting asides involving the characters and their thoughts. The analysis of how death is viewed in different societies was thought provoking – Szerb obviously was a very knowledgable man and you can tell.
I particularly liked that the characters constantly changed. For a few pages you would think you had a handle on the absolute of one of the participants, a truth would be discovered, but then everything would change. This is a marked difference to the usual novels where each character has a core and once you discover what it is then this purpose forms the story and the actions. Not so with Journey by Moonlight. The irony is that much of the story relies on coincidences that you can see coming, which does give a surreal, fantastical edge to the action. However, despite such foresight you never really know how each character will respond to what has been set up.
This was a very unusual book and at times I felt a little out-to-sea because of the inconstancy of the characters. I have to admit I liked this and part of the novel’s intrigue was how the characters would change and act. The ending was perfect and the final sensation was that I had just eaten a sumpuous dinner with many fine flavours, the brandy at the end hinted at the evening ahead.
Soundtrack: anything off the Eels ‘Tomorrow Morning‘ album.
By Andrzej Stasiuk.
Nine was quite different from Fado and White Raven.Having said that – it was a good ‘different’. I saw a quote from Irvine Welsh in the usual back cover superlatives and the novel has some similarity with his work – or the tone. The book is very gritty but also surreal at times there are flights of fancy and leaps about within the narrative so you have to concentrate to make sure you really understand what is going on. Generally though, it is quite an easy read – you are drawn into the seedy Polish underworld. I’ll keep looking for books by Stasiuk. This was well worth reading.
Soundtrack: Camper Van Beethoven – Pictures of Matchstick Men
By Antoine De Saint-Exupery.
This is maybe the third time I have read The Little Prince and it gets better each sitting. A perfectly formed little book and quite a stunning work of genius. It can probably be seen simply as a strange children’s tale but it also works as a surreal book for adults too.
I think I enjoyed it more this read than previous because I knew the story and was thinking more about the allusions and the themes. There’s not much else I can say. Everyone should read it and enjoy it simply as a story or to think about the things being said. In a way I can’t help thinking of Swift because of the use of parables or tales and the critical attitude to the world of humans or adults. Though obviously it is much gentler and contains some hope for the future. With Swift hope for humanity is a moot point.
Anyway. The episode with the fox was good along with the concept of ‘taming’ and the last two pages are brilliant – particularly the second to last page. Somewhere out there is a very small planet inhabited by a prince who loves a rose but who keeps the rose in a dome because of a rogue rose-hungry sheep that should have been drawn with with a muzzle. Very interesting that De Saint-Exupery decided a muzzle was required even though the sheep is only doing what it would do naturally in a world of scarce resources.
By Bohumil Hrabal
An amazing imaginative novel. This is exactly what I like. The story is so many different things all at once and there are constant surprises and quirks that make this novel sublime. Everything I have read by Hrabal has been fantastic – did he write anything bad? Freed from commercial constraints it seems he wrote whatever he wanted to write. The only negative is that perhaps I could see the end coming however I am not sure how else he could have ended the novel.
Such a singular, powerful voice throughout and again a different voice from his other books. I started this from London to Paris on the Eurostar very early in the morning so the dream-like tone of the novel was even more pronounced. I enjoyed this very much.
By Andrey Platonov.
An absolutely fantastic collection of short stories. Usually I don’t enjoy shorter works. I always feel as though it is a ‘greatest hits’ album where the songs may be fine in their own right but they are the compositions made more palatable for the audience because they have to have the immediacy of a three minute pop song and in the end ‘shift units’. The stories (or songs) usually have no real link between them. The prose pieces in the Return all work together. There is the same atmosphere found in Platonov’s novels. The works are pervaded by a melancholy strangeness coupled simplicity of prose which focuses on working people and the difficulties of existing. There is hope in each story, even though it may not be immediately apparent, shown by the incredible resilience of ordinary people and their ability to care.
It is interesting that the only other collection of stories that I have enjoyed as much as this, Stasiuk’s ‘Fado’, had strong thematic links between the works also. This has left me pining for more Platonov novels so until the final two are translated I may have to read ‘Soul’ again and perhaps the newer translation of ‘The Foundation Pit’. Platonov was a genius.
Soundtrack: The Chills – Pink Frost
By Hamid Ismailov
Both frustrating and brilliant. I don’t quite know what I feel about this book overall. It was worth reading as it exposed me to a new atmosphere and a different way of living. There were fantastic passages where you got caught up in the enthusiasm but then it seemed to dip and you didn’t really care about the next few pages. Maybe it was written over a long period of time – some parts – particularly the end felt like they had been tacked on. The end was quite strong though. This is experimental in that the plot and narrative are almost invisible but that being the case the form needs to hold it together and it didn’t quite.
I laughed out loud at several episodes or turns. Maybe a loose collection of associated short stories would have been better – or perhaps that is what it really is under the guise of a novel. All very confusing – which is a good thing. A book shouldn’t always leave you nodding in a self satisfied way, sometimes there has to be head-scratching and incomprehension.
The author definitely communicates the life of the town of Gilas and the surrounding area very well. There is a large dose of imaginative interaction and at the books end I did have the sensation of having experienced some new, along with the frustration. The assimilation of Communism and Islam was very interesting – and there didn’t seem to be the clash you would expect. Perhaps the novel shouldn’t be called ‘The Railway’ as the railway doesn’t play a great part – it is more of an aside. ‘The town of Gilas’ would have been better. The town, families, history and local characters are what this novel is about. The inhabitants travel and indulge in improbable picaresque escapades but it is always to Gilas and Uzbekstan they return.
I think it was worth my time reading this. Someone else may disagree.
By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Half-way through this book after reading six of the seven stories I thought this was ok – and only just. However the last and longest novella that makes up half the book was excellent. There were quite complex scientific principles espoused with humour and a dollop of intrigue – at least they seemed complex to me. If the ideas wern’t complex then Krzhizhanovsky did a good job of making them seem so. It’s a real pity some of the other stories are a bit patchy. Also a real pity there are no longer works like Memories of the Future in translation. There is another collection of stories but given my lack of affinity with the ones in this book I may just leave it. Should another novella appear I will definitely read it. As I said, a couple of the stories were fine but some just seemed deliberately zany with no real point to the absurdity. Absurdity can give form to a story ala Gombrowicz but here something just didn’t ring true. Perhaps I am being unfair and am happy to be persuaded otherwise if anyone has a different take on it. I might even try a re-read on some of the stories due to the strength of ‘Memories’ and its strange atmosphere. If my opinions change I will do a separate post. This is worth reading for the ‘Memories of the Future’ novella.
Soundtrack: Anything off ‘Distortion’ by the Magnetic Fields.
By Nicholas Royle
This was good. I like to feel at the end of a novel that I have been educated in some way. I had this sensation after finishing Antwerp. I need to look into the following areas:
1. Antwerp. I have only been to Belgium once for work and most of it was spent working unfortunately. This was in Brussels – not Antwerp.
2. Paul Delvaux. I like surrealism but have never really been conscious of Delvaux. This needs further investigation.
3. Harry Kumel. I had never heard of Kumel but have seen Last Year at Marienbad by Resnais which is discussed along with Kumel in the novel. I wonder if there is some sort of box set on Amazon.
4. Belgian designers. Apparently their work is cut very nicely but with an absence of colour which quite suits me.
This novel engages you almost immediately and is structured in an interesting way as it moves towards the final climax. It is a thriller of sorts but with many interesting art and film references. If it was purely a thriller I might not have been so engaged but the meat on the bone was a sometimes hinted back story for each of the characters and the general art and film context within which it was set.
At the end I was left nodding with a few more more creative roads to investigate, which is what a good book or piece of art should engender. In my opinion.
After the the Russian behemoths I read immediately prior to this, Antwerp was a welcome change before my next read – the Oxford Reference Grammar. Very enjoyable.