Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Guermantes Way - post VI

The thing about Proust is that it tends to stretch into the weekend hence why I have tried to do a lot of reading today and will do the same tomorrow.

Bullet points between pages 382 - 456

* Following his tryst with Albertine he plans the meeting with Mme de Stermaria, who he had been assured by his friend Saint-Loup is looking for a physical and emotional involvement with Marcel but she lets him down and fails to meet for their dinner date

* Ironically after he had decided he no longer had any interest in Madame de Guermantes he is invited to go for dinner there and she speaks to him and seems to show a great deal of interest in him even mentioning the times she noticed him while out walking

* He uses Albertine as a diversion but he is crushed by the failure to meet with Mme de Stermaria but just as he is weeping over her Saint-Loup arrives and takes him out for dinner showing him kindness although he upsets him by telling him that he told Bloch that Marcel really didn't like him

* He goes to the Guermantes for dinner and although believing gossip that the husband and wife are separating finds them together and is introduced into their circle of friends, which includes Royalty

* The situation is left that M. de Charlus is expecting Marcel at 11pm and Saint-Loup warns him that if he fails to attend then his uncle will give up on him

We pick up on what de Charlus wants tomorrow...

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Guermantes Way - post V

A really good day’s reading for a change. For the benefit of the librarian who said nothing happens in the book there has already been an insight into how the Dreyfus case divided friends and families

Pages 268 - 382

* Still in the setting of Mme de Villeparisis’s salon there is an exchange with a German Prince that makes Marcel realise that his father will never get the backing from his friends to be elected to the Academy

* Madame Swann turns up and tells him that Norpois has attacked him behind his back and then Saint-Loup tells him that his aunt believes that he doesn’t like her because he never talks to her there then follows a moment of clarity for Marcel about his position with Mme de Guermantes

“I knew that I did not appeal to her, that I had no hope of ever making her like me.”pg285

* He is on the brink of heading off for another stay at Balbec and knows he won’t see her again before he goes

* As he leaves the gathering he is accompanied by M de Charlus who although acting strange for most of the time has a proposition from Marcel and on the way towards telling him moans that being anti-Semitic, which was all the rage following the Dreyfus case is opening up society to patriotic nobodies

* M de. Charlus outlines a proposition to take Marcel in hand and give him every chance to advance in society but in order to go ahead with the plan he needs to see him everyday to get to know his tastes and opinions better and for him to avoid going into society

* But things change rapidly as his grandmother becomes ill and starts to decline. A doctor recommends she gets some fresh air but she has a stroke while out and then takes to her bed and after a protracted illness passes away marking the end of chapter one

* Saint-Loup finally finishes with his mistress after falling out of love with her but not before she accuses Marcel of trying to seduce her while her lover was back in his barracks

* Saint-Loup tells Marcel that he has come across Madame de Stermaria (who I can't remember) in Morocco on his travels and she is recently separated from her husband and implies in the letter that she would be keen to pick up again with Marcel

* At the same time Albertine, the old flame from Balbec reappears, but he doesn't love her anymore. She comes to his room and although at one point interrupted by Francoise they make love and although it gives him the chance to answer some of the questions he asked back in Balbec it is still loveless

A visual temptation

Following the launch of Sony’s Reader device to handle e-books it has to be said that it looks good (judging by pictures on the web). Of course there are still lots of buts that you might discover while using it but the web site for the product seems to be sleek and the product looks like it would work well in certain situations (picture from Sony web site). If there is a flaw then it is around the issue of where the Reader is going to be used. I can see it working very well on holiday, where packing one device rather than a couple of heavy paperbacks appeals. But on the train I would feel uncomfortable having to use a device that you have to look at, which means the muggers can see it as well. One of the attractions of the iPod is that it is hidden in a pocket and you can not do that with the Sony Reader without defeating the aim of the product.

book of books - And Quiet Flows the Don

I am still posting reviews relating to stories of families torn apart by the Russian revolution, following last weeks reading of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Mikhail Sholokhov was one of the writers who managed to write and survive in Stalin’s Russia and that does have a tendency to taint a bit his works but there is quality here that manages to last long after the descriptions of whites and reds have faded from the memory.

Plot summary
Very similar to War and Peace in terms of ambition and feel. It follows a Don Cossack family through trials and tribulations of family life and then the upheaval of the First World War and the start of the revolution with the first signs of uprising in 1905. Russia is at war with Japan and failing to make progress. The novel sketches the family of Gregor, the main character with his brother, sisters, mother and father working in the fields to make a living. The book ends with the revolution starting after Gregor and his brother have already served in the First World War and been decorated for bravery. But the system starts to collapse and some lives are taken, very cheaply, in the battle to assert dominance in the Don.

Is it well written?
This book won a Nobel prize and you can see why because he overlays detailed descriptions and images of peasant life in the Don with a mounting political story that is developing in the background that breaks in on the personal story. The theme of the book is that just when you think something or someone is dead then it/they come back again. So Gregor, the main character has a relationship with his neighbour and his wife and just as you think he is happily settled down he goes off with his mistress with alarming consequences.

Should it be read?
As a study of peasant life in Southern Russia and a tale of the hardship of those people it has echoes in Grapes of Wrath and once the revolution starts the novel and the relationship between the reader and the characters changes because you too are forced to pick sides and work out who you want to support because there are moments when Gregor sits on the fence leaving it up to the reader to work out their own position. The 650 pages go very quickly because it is well written. But as I said at the top the differences between Sholokhov and Pasternak are marked because one had Stalin’s favour and it does make me wonder if that detracts from the book? Even so it deserves to be read.

Leads to
This is the first volume so it naturally leads to the second, The Don flows home to the Sea, and working backwards would work well with Dr Zhivago and Speak, Memory as a run of titles on a similar theme

Version read – Penguin paperback

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Guermantes Way - post IV

Despite it being a press day on the magazine I work for, meaning that it was hard work from morning till the close of business, I was determined to raise my reading above 60 pages, otherwise I will never get through this Volume in time to start the next one on Monday.

Bullet points between pages 187 - 267

* Marcel goes straight from the theatre to Madame de Villeparisis where he comes across a number of women who for various reasons have been limited to the fringes of society

* Madame de Guermantes arrives and starts to display her particular brand of social mixing, which is to appear sometimes to be almost above those people she has deigned to visit

* For a long time he has wanted to be part of the circle that Madame de Guermantes socialises with and now he gets a chance to mix with some of them and finds his friend Bloch already in that world and Legrandin trying desperately to break into it

* As well as the theme of reoccurring meetings there are also moments when people say something that is meant for someone else but is overheard and confusion reigns and often humour, for the reader at least, is the outcome

* There is an interesting moment when Madame de Villeparisis admits that M. de Norpois, her lover, is in the library but as he enters the room he pretends to have come just off the street and grabs any hat he can get and walks awkwardly into the room to discuss the Dreyfus case with Bloch

* The old diplomat avoids getting involved with a debate about the guilt of Dreyfus instead using his political skill to sidestep any pinning down of his own opinions

* Saint-Loup turns up and then for the first time Madame de Guermantes finally talks to Marcel but then things get bogged down in diplomatic discussions and he loses the chance for intimate conversation

More progress tomorrow…

reading homework

My wife attended a session at my son's primary school yesterday on how to read with your children. Sadly I was work otherwise I would have been interested to have gone to have heard what was said. She reported back and apart from some of the usual stuff you would expect about reading often and not worrying too much about whether the words are right as long as it seems to make sense (maybe my son should try Proust?) there were a couple of things that stood out for me.
Firstly was that it is good for children to see their parents reading. I do all of personal reading alone on the train and so it jolted me a bit to maybe get the books out when he is around.
Secondly, if children's books are left strewn all over the place (has this teacher been to my house?) then they will not grow up to respect books.
My homework is to tidy up the children's books then sit down and read some Proust in front of the kids...could think of worst ways to spend the weekend.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Guermantes way - post III

The world is a very small place and the circles that Marcel moves in are crossing with each other all the time with sometimes awkward results. This really is like a soap opera with old whores from Volume II turning up in the most unexpected places.

Also talking of circles of repetition tomorrow I will try and get beyond just a meager 60 pages a day…

Bullet points between pages 121 - 187

* It becomes clear that because of problems with his mistress Saint-Loup is not going to be heading back to Paris anytime soon and be in a position to sell his friend’s virtues to his Aunt

* After some consideration the plan that the narrator comes up with is to praise a painting by Elstir that he knows that Aunt has and asks Saint-Loup if he will by letter recommend him and ask if his aunt would allow a visit to see the picture

* Following hot on the heels of his mistress Saint-Loup gets leave to go abroad and that leaves Marcel in the position of after two weeks going back or staying on and hanging out with Saint-Loup’s friends

* He tries to speak to his grandmother on the phone and the isolation and nervousness he feels after losing contact with her on what was at the time a very new technology means that his whole instinct is to return to Paris

* Once back he discovers that Saint-Loup has not made any introductions for him with his Aunt and so he resorts back to his stalking tactics trying to catch her attention by ‘meeting’ her on daily walks

* To prove that the world is a very small place when Marcel finally meets Saint-Loup’s mistress it turns out to be a prostitute that he knew in the past and he muses on the fact that what any man could have paid 20 francs for has cost Saint-Loup a million

* He goes for dinner with Saint-Loup and his mistress and is taken into their fragile world of threats and arguments that make it clear that this is a relationship that is painful at times to both and must surely end in the ruin of one or both of them

* More cracks show in the theatre after the dinner and Saint-Loup and his mistress get into an argument about a dancer and his rage is directed on a journalist who he hits in the face

One of the themes of the book so far is the Dreyfus case, which splits friends with Saint-Loup being pro Dreyfus and Marcel’s father and quite a few others being against. In a nutshell Dreyfus was a senior artillery officer, who also happened to be a Jew, who was accused of giving secrets to the Germans. He was quickly found guilty and locked up on Devil’s Island and despite the lack of evidence against him it became a political issue, hence why people like Marcel’s father wanted him locked up. In the end justice did prevail and Dreyfus was released, pardoned and was in time to serve his country with honour in the First World War.

E - 're we go

The other week I commented on a story about developments with roll-up screens and commented that things had gone a bit quiet on the e-book front. However they are quiet no longer following the move by Sony to take the wraps off its e-book store, which according to Reuters will launch next week.
The idea is that deals with the top six publishers will provide the store with about 10,000 books that are designed to be read on the manufacturers portable reader device that the news wire reports is finally ready to go after the e-book store launch was held up earlier this year because of technical glitches.
It will be interesting to see if making books available as digital downloads has the same impact on the book business as the equivalent in music has on the high street chains including most obviously HMV. There is always a great deal of talk about platforms, media and audiences around these types of developments and no doubt the type of people who download books will be different to those who buy paperbacks and the market should grow. All we need to cap it off is Apple’s iPod’s incorporating books and the market should be complete.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Guermantes Way - post II

Far be it for me to have a dig at the great Marcel Proust but somebody should have taken him in hand when it comes to his love life because he verges on stalking women and then putting them up on pedestals that they don’t even know are in existence. First he did it with Gilberte, then the girl from Balbec and now his sights are set on Madame de Guermantes.

Bullet points between pages 61 – 120

* His tactics of making sure that Madame de Guermantes sees him on her journeys too and from her home are frowned upon and even though Francoise makes it clear the tactics are backfiring he ignores the warnings

* However he sees sense at some point and although changing his plan of attack by focusing on her nephew Saint-Loup as a route to her, at least he gets away from the carriage stalking routine

* Down at the barracks where Saint-Loup is stationed there is an insight into how fragile Marcel is with a fear of an unknown hotel room and then high states of nervousness fuelled by nothing other than his imagination

* After a few weeks he finally plucks up the courage to ask Saint-Loup to sing his praises to his aunt but oversteps the mark when he asks to borrow her photograph but manages to get the friendship back on track by showing a great interest in the art of war

Bearing in mind the first world ear was not too far away for Saint-Loup and his friends there are hints of what might be coming with a mention of the Schifflen plan and a brutal assessment of some future battle tactics to take the offensive at any costs

Book of books – Dr Zhivago

When most people think of Dr Zhivago they immediately think of the David Lean film and I should imagine think that it is pretty faithful to the book so there is no need to go any further and actually read Boris Pasternak’s novel.

The reason for posting this review now is that the memory of the Nabokov experience in revolution is still fresh in the mind after reading Speak, Memory last week.

Of course the film falls far short of the book and goes further in that it answers some of the questions left hanging in the film and takes Yuri’s character on for quite a while after Lara exits the dacha and heads off into safety.

Plot summary
The story follows the main character, Yuri, who becomes a doctor and is happily married with a child when the revolution tears his life apart. Running parallel to his story is that of Lara who also finds her life and her love entwined with the revolution but from the angle of the worker not the fringe aristocrat. Three things happen to take Yuri, who is also a sensitive poet, and shake- him out of his normal life: the first world war, revolution and civil war. He loses his wife and child, who seek exile in Paris, falls in love with Lara then loses her and then forms another relationship that is with a poor woman. Each time he seems to fall in love with someone at a lower level in society before finally dying a humble death. At his funeral the different circles he has lived in momentarily and awkwardly come together - the perfect metaphor for the fact Russia could never return to its former situation.

Is it well written?
The major difference between the film and the book is that in the novel there is not as much of an attempt made to get the reader to like Yuri. You can observe with him and understand why his experience is parallel with what was happening to the entire country. There are a couple of speeches that Yuri makes that stand out as expounding the theme of turmoil the first when Yuri talk about how “the roof being taken off the country” and the freedom it gives to everyone to do as they like. The second speech is by Lara, who talks about the tearing up of lives and blames the war for it. It is hard to sympathise with a man who goes from woman to woman but that restlessness and corrosion of the social codes is exactly what was happening in the country and partly why it is hard to side with Yuri. To be able to do illustrate the turmoil caused by wars and revolutions through the story of one man is quite an achievement.

Should it be read?
The main question I was left with at the end of the book, which has been billed on film posters as ‘the greatest love story ever told’, was who was it that Yuri loved? Was it his wife? Lara? Russia? I came to the conclusion that it was a time of innocence that he loved and sought solace in poetry and nature where people can be idealistic, without having to resort to violence. The other theme that has been an influence on numerous other writers and is not unique to Pasternak is the idea of echoes through time with people turning up in places where they would least be expected and enemies and acquaintances cross paths time and time again. Ironically it is the idea that someone you once loved will come back that is the most romantic aspect of the novel for me. This should be read but maybe not by those people looking for a mushy love story but by those prepared to empathise with a man who keeps having any form of security ripped away from him.

Leads to
More books set against the backdrop of the revolution – Mikhail Sholokhov’s two volumes about Don Cossacks or of course some of the heavy non-fiction stuff of which the list is pretty long but Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy is a good starting point.

Version read – Vintage paperback

Four a year not a classic rate of reading

Penguin really seems to be fixated on the idea that people who enjoy reading will only manage to get through four books a year. The publisher quotes research to that effect back in the summer on the re-launch of its classics range. An article on The Book Standard and a mention on the daily Bookseller blog reveal that the publisher and Amazon are starting a Penguin Classic Reading Group @ The plan is to get through four books a year starting with Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
It’s a great idea but why limit it to just four books a year. With the greater interaction that the web offers surely it would have been possible to get several groups going or at least a book a month?

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Guermantes Way - post I

Back to the Proust this week and at the rate of pages read today easily right through the weekend no doubt. For those that don't remember the contents of the first two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past the basics are that you are following the memories of Marcel Proust as he recalls his youth with his family and the people they meet. The main characters apart from Marcel are his mother and father, the maid Francoise and the Swanns, who Marcel develops an unsuccessful relationship with their daughter Gilberte.

That is only the briefest of sketches and brief is of course not a word that you would use in connection with anything to do with Proust’s richly dense descriptions but it will hopefully suffice as we embark on Volume III

Bullet points from pages 1 – 60

* The family has moved and the story starts with Francoise the housekeeper trying to get her bearings and a description of the apartment they now inhabit as part of the Hotel de Guermantes

* Through dialogue between Francoise and the footman it is possible to discern the situation of both families – Marcel’s and the de Guermantes - with the later not being in the house for too long but having all the airs and graces of ancient landed gentry

* Marcel is determined to ingratiate himself with the de Guermantes social circle, much in the way that he did with Madame Swann's in Vol II. His apparent breakthrough in his quest comes at a night at the opera where all of the main players in the Guermantes social set are in attendance

“The duchess, goddess turned woman, and appearing in that moment a thousand times more lovely, raised towards me the white-gloved hand which had been resting on the balustrade of the box and waved it in token of friendship, my gaze was caught in the spontaneous incandescence of the flashing eyes of the Princess, who had unwittingly set them ablaze merely by turning her head to see who it might be that her cousin was thus greeting, and the latter, who had recognised me, showered upon me the sparkling and celestial torrent of her smile.”pg 55

* He then tries to catch the eye of the Duchess by hanging around on the route her carriage takes hoping that by looking as if he is deep in thought he might be catch her attention without looking like he was desperate for it

The immediate question that tomorrow's reading might solve is whether or not he manages to break into the Duchess of Guermantes social circle…

Stockings full of dross

If things have gone according to plan then Santa usually brings an armful of books with him down the chimney when he visits this home for Christmas. But I just hope his book buying elves have got taste because with a reported 60 celebrity memoirs on the shelves this yuletide according to both The Independent and The Times fighting it out for attention it might be difficult to avoid one of them ending up in the stocking.
The worst possible scenario is that waiting for me under the tree will be the life story of a 20 something nobody that won a reality show/played football/slept with another star/went topless and wants to explain why they are not shallow/or the old crusty luvvie looking back over 40 years of anecdotes very few people have any interest in.
Roll on Boxing Day and buying your own selections in the sales…

Sunday, September 24, 2006

revolutionary reviews

Bearing in mind the turnmoil that Nabokov and his family faced running away from the revolution it seems apt to post some book reviews next week that are set against the background of that period of history. So expect to see some thoughts about Dr Zhivago, Quiet Flows the Don and the Don Flows to the Sea as well as some historical stuff including the opus on the revolution, A People's Tragedy by Dr Orlando Figes (someone who once taught me about historical research but sadly not about russian history).

bookmark of the week

This is a slice of a portrait by Gutsav Klimt of a picture called Judith I, which was painted in 1901. I saw the picture in a gallery in Vienna on a holiday there years ago, pre children, when my wife and I walked around the city enjoying everything to do with Art nouveau (or the secession movement).
Since seeing the Klimt at the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere I think some of the Klimts they had have since be reclaimed as property that was taken by the Nazi's and has recently been auctioned by the rightful owners. The impact of seeing rooms with original Klimt paintings in was almost overpowering and something that, although only a slice, this bookmark reminds me of.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

book of books - Speak, Memory

I came to Speak, Memory not only off the back of the first two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past but also as a Vladimir Nabokov virgin. A friend at work has lent me Lolita but it is still waiting to be read so I knew very little about the man and his writing style. This book is like a symphony; it starts slowly but builds and then finishes leaving you catching at the impressions it leaves in its wake.

Plot summary
In a nutshell this is a memoir of Nabokov’s life from the age of zero to around 37ish. But because of where he was living – Russia and then later Berlin – and the timing 1899 – 1936 it is also an insight to a family and the changes to relationships and destinies that happen as a result of revolution and war. There are some very typical family moments, but then there are others that it is almost impossible to relate except through the powerful description – his father almost fighting a duel, the crumbling of everything they have known and owned and the bitter twist of his father’s assassination.
At the same time as being a memoir it is also a book about exile and the different ways to react to being deprived not so much of your fortune and property but of the places that meant so much to you as a child and as a family and it is thoughts around that subject that linger after the final page has been read.

Is it well written?
I did find it slightly difficult because of the jerky way the narrative develops but in his defence it starts slowly because his memories are not so strong so he tries to develop the story from the age of around three, which is probably too early to make much sense. The parts of the story that I would have liked to have seen developed is around the revolution because things like the First World War and the events of October 1917 are just sketched lightly as background events only intruding in details when they directly involve his family. It would have done no harm to the casual non-historically intelligent reader to place the story in more of a historical context. That said the actual style of the book is of a very high standard that does challenge you to either agree or disagree with the way he reacted – rejecting a lot of exile company and psychoanalysis - to his predicament.

Should it be read?
In a way this is an ideal book for a student of Russian history because it provides an insight into the consequences of the revolution for a family that was on the aristocratic fringes. There are also some tantalisingly short references at the end of the book to what it felt like to be living in Hitler’s Berlin at the start of Hitler’s reign. This is a book that would appeal to anyone who has read Nabokov’s books but because of the historical value of the story it should be read by a much wider audience.

Leads to
On the memoir level it would either lead to Proust, Joyce and a host of others that have concentrated on the minutiae of life for a fictional or autobiographical character. It also leads to more Nabokov including the famous Lolita.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, September 22, 2006

Speak, Memory - post V

The book ends with yet another war looming and his wife and son entering the picture. It is a cruel irony that for a man who lived through the Russian revolution to finally find yourself exiled in Berlin with the rise of Hitler, which of course means moving again and uprooting the small roots that have been put down.

Bullet points between pages 218 – 237

* As a result of the revolution there is a significant émigré literary community and Nabokov looks back on his relationships, mostly strained, with those poets and novelists and exposes the bitterness they feel at being exiled

* There are numerous bits that put a smile on your face and one in particular is when he leaves a café with an émigré writer who has very kindly said to him that he will die in dreadful pain in complete isolation

“Gingerly opening his overcoat, he began tugging at something under his armpit. I came to his assistance and together we finally dragged out of his sleeve my long woollen scarf which the girl had stuffed into the wrong coat. The thing came out inch by inch; it was like unwrapping a mummy and we kept slowly revolving around each other in the process, to the ribald amusement of three sidewalk whores. Then, when the operation was over, we walked on without a word to a street corner where we shook hands and separated.” Pg 220

* He talks about the years he spent in exile dreaming of chess solutions and the whole section is a great metaphor for the fact so many exiles expected to return to Russia at some point when the Reds were checkmated but of course that didn’t happen

* He then tries hard to remember the environment his child spent his first years in moving from Berlin to Paris and discusses the problems with memory then the book closes with the family about to board a boat to New York

A full review will appear tomorrow…

Speak, Memory - post IV

After four days reading Speak, Memory you start to fall into the style of the book, which is so praised by its admirers. Each chapter ends with a profound summary of a relationship with the time or character described in the preceding pages.

There is also a Proustian ability to paint wonderful pictures with words but what is also here is a self criticism that is deeper and a personal history that is far more contextualised than Proust. You are continually reminded of the year and his age, which is helpful because of the sheer amount going on in his life and around him in Russia.

Bullet points between pages 167 - 218

* Despite the date being given as 1914 the war feels a long way off as Nabokov discovers poetry and girls and develops a sensitive side that links into his appreciation of nature

* He falls in love with a girl Tamara who shares a magical summer with him in the woods and fields in his parent's country home but when they get back into St Petersburg, with its complete lack of privacy the relationship starts to unravel

* Because his father is involved in liberal politics he remains behind after Lenin seizes power in St Petersburg hoping that the communists can be extracted from the revolution without losing the gains in freedom it has bought

* After the family go to the Crimea the world they once knew starts to fall apart. Even on the way down in the train the respect for their compartment has disappeared and red army soldiers try to break into it all the time and then of course the families money is gone so they are reliant on a few old jewels

* His father comes and stays with them but the sense of danger is so high that the men in the family patrol the house ready to fight of a challenge from Red Army soldiers until the Reds leave as the Germans come and then the Whites come to fight and set up their own government in the region, on which Nabokov's father takes a position as minister of Justice

* After the Whites are defeated the family flees to Europe via Greece and Nabokov ends up at Cambridge University along with his brother. You really sense the wrench that leaving causes as he heads away from his homeland and all that he has known through his childhood

* He then talks about his brothers but the sense you get more clearly than anything else is of a family that had once been close geographically if not emotionally being spread across countries leading to the breakdown of relationships

* His time at Cambridge is looked back with mixed emotions because he never really settled in and even when he goes back years later to get a teaching job he struggles to fit in with the surroundings even then

I am keeping the last 19 pages to read on my way into work and will post the final segment of bullet points in the morning...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Roll up and read all about it

A few years ago there was a great many predictions made about e-books and how we would all one day be downloading books electronically onto a portable screen and dumping the traditional paperback.
Not surprisingly, like an awful lot of things in the computing world the hype ran away with itself and the reality was that there really was no technology people would feel comfortable with. But things might be about to evolve again after the boffins at Cambridge University came up with a roll-up laptop screen. All the details can be found on the BBC’s site. Although the emphasis is on using the technology for laptops it will not be too long before someone cottons on to using it as a screen to support an MP3 type device that can store books. If I was a technical person I might just have come up with something worth marketing but until someone else gets it right I’ll carry on with the traditional old paperbacks.

Speak, Memory - post III

The great thing about Speak, Memory if you are a fan of Russian history is that this is an insider’s view of not just the revolution but also the slow build-up towards it with the Tsar and his method of governing Russia so out of step with liberals and the peasantry.

Bullet points between pages 84 – 166

* Nabokov describes a family holiday in the South of France where he meets 10-year-old Collete who he develops a friendship with but because the parents don’t get on it ends when she goes back to Paris

* There is a whole series of mini chapters developing his passion for butterflies. You sometimes forget that writers can have had a former life and for Nabokov his other life was very scientific, and he even had a butterfly species named after himself

* The politics between governesses and tutors is comically covered with the Swiss governess Mademoiselle taking umbrage at almost anything

* In describing his tutors there are stories of one who fell in love with his mother, another who punched him in the face when angry but a real affection comes through for Lenski, who becomes a laughing stock when he holds magic lantern shows.

* Lenski blows his fortune on a Crimean theme park, flees to France and then the story goes cold but it is appreciated that Nabokov goes to the trouble to try and find out what happened to people

* An entire chapter is dedicated to the story of his father, who was assassinated by Russian fascists in Berlin in 1922. There is a very powerful passage when he discovers his father is going to fight a duel and he realises that he might lose him only to come home and find it has been called off because the other side has apologised

* Then the recollections move on to his cousin Yuri who after reading War and Peace becomes focused on the idea of military honour. Nabokov points out that he found his honour dying in the civil war after single handily trying attacking a red army machine gun nest

Reading tomorrow should cover the First World War and the revolution. Interesting times…

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Philistine at the front desk

The purpose of this blog is to share my reading experiences and most are good but today there was an exchange with a librarian which was so bad I still feel incensed about it.

After taking back Volume I of the Proust book I read over the last fortnight I had to ask for the next volume. After making it obvious that going to the stock room was too much trouble the librarian then shuffled back to the desk holding the copy of Volume II and uttered the following words:
"Here is a book where between pages 1 and 10,000 nothing happens. It is a book where nothing happens nothing at all," said in a voice that implied the book was not worth reading.
he then stamped it and handed it to me.
I'm left wondering:
* Proust is a world renowned author and if "nothing happens" in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past then why is it such an accepted masterpiece?
* Why is a librarian being so rude about literature and what on earth is someone like that working in a library if they clearly have a problem with certain books?
* Surely there should be some sensitivity about spoiling the enjoyment of a book for a reader and saying unhelpful comments might detract from the enjoyment of reading that title?

Maybe I'm overreacting but don't you agree it seems crazy that you go to get a book out of a library and the staff behind the counter do their best to dismiss the literature.

Speak, Memory - post II

Again there have to be apologies because of the volume of writing and meetings I am committed to at work at the moment the time for reading is really getting squeezed hence the very low number of pages read. Will promise, to myself at least, to improve.

Bullet points between pages 42 – 84

* There is a great deal of family history in Chapter 3 that establishes that he has descendants in the Russian nobility and also in German aristocratic circles

* The story is much more enjoyable when he tells stories about some of his family, particularly his uncles, one of them leaves him his estate, and the relationship between some of those family members and the Russian political scene

* He talks about the time his father has to spend behind bars because of his involvement in calling for further reforms from the Tsar following the peasant uprising in 1905 and he mentions the politics of the landowner and peasants

* There are an odd couple of paragraphs where he says in response to someone that he does not miss the money that the revolution cut him and his family off from but he misses the childhood memories that were cut off after he went into exile

* For those people interested in the art of writing there is a very interesting passage at the start of chapter 5 when he admits that a lot of the foibles and possessions that surrounded his childhood he has given to his characters in his numerous books and there isn’t much left that he hasn’t used in books

Tomorrow would see the recollections cover more of the painful ground of the revolution and the move into exile…

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Glitzy, fresh but still second-hand

The arrival of a new bookstore is always something that encourages a trip to investigate and the arrival of Japanese second-hand chain Book-off could be something very interesting indeed. According to The Times the bookstore has been able to take the shame out of buying secondhand through a process of book cleaning and rigorous checks on standards of the goods on offer. The chief executive Mayumi Hashimoto is quoted in the paper as saying: "Nobody really likes second-hand books when they smell."
it will be fascinating to see if the London store planned for the Regent Street area can make a difference with its upmarket glitzy approach. All most people, myself included, will be interested in is firstly the breath of the stock and then secondly the prices.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Speak, Memory - post I

While I gather the energy to tackle the third volume of Remembrance of Things Past by Proust I am going to read other childhood/adult memoirs that are in a similar style starting with Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory. I had a tough day at work so I'm afraid read very little but anyway here are the highlights from the foreword and chapters one and two. I am reading the penguin 1969 paperback version.

Bullet points between pages 3 - 41

* In the foreword nabokov admits that the chapters were written for numerous publications not in order and he faced a challenge putting them into a chronology as well as making sure he could do research on his family, which he improved on between the first editions and the following versions of the book

* He describes the process of trying to go back in time to discover memories as one fraught with frustration:
"I have journeyed back in thought - with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went - to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits." pg18

* He places his early years in the context of a Russia at war with Japan (1905) and there is a story about a general who comes to his house as a child and uses matchsticks to demonstrate the difference between a calm and stormy sea who he then meets during the Russian civil war again asking for a light for a cigarette as he tries to flee the red forces. The way he talks of the double meeting is incredibly Proustian:
"The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography." pg23

* He was very close to his mother because of numerous childhood illnesses and the same ability to see words and colours and a shared passion for mathematics

* The years then skip past with the first world war, the revolution and exile for his family being described in a sentence. The constant through all of those events is his mother who he describes in loving detail as a widower wearing both her own and her husband's wedding rings

Book of books – Remembrance of Things Past Volume One

This is the first volume of three in the Remembrance of Things Past series by Marcel Proust published by Chatto & Windus including Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove and you cannot really start this book without making a commitment to reading the entire series. It is seen as one of those mice and men type dividing books that distinguishes the serious reader from the airport novel consumer. Maybe that’s too harsh but it certainly demands a lot because of the scope of the challenge and the dream like content that forces you to concentrate hard on the story.

Plot summary
Swann’s Way
This is very much an introduction to the world of a boy and his extended family including his mother, father, grandparents and aunts. The story is based for the most part at a family home in Combray, which is visited by a neighbour called Swann who comes alone even after he is married with a daughter because the family do not approve of his choice of wife. The family enjoy walking and one of the routes goes past Swann’s house and it is there that the narrator sees his daughter and falls in love with her. The book then moves focus and picks up the story of Swann and his love affair with an unfaithful woman Odette de Crecy and her social circle and it ends with him vowing never to see her again after he discovers she has been unfaithful to him.

Within a Budding Grove
Having ended the first volume with Swann appearing to split from Odette the second volume picks up the story with him married to her with a daughter. Marriage it seems finally changes Odette and also has an influence on Swann who as a result becomes socially ostracised. The narrator and his family are also living in Paris now after helping sort out the affairs of an aged aunt who dies. The narrator falls in love with Swann’s daughter Gilberte but when the relationship breaks down, partly because he overstays his welcome, he switches his friendship to her parents, in particular Odette. The location of the book shifts again with the narrator and his grandmother going to Balbec for a three month break. Part of the reason is that the narrator has serious health problems with asthma and a highly-strung nervous system. In Balbec he meets more friends of the Swann's including an artist and a man he suspects of having an affair with Odette and replacing his affections after the Gilberte episode he falls in love with Albertine but fails to get very far with her because of a misunderstanding over a kiss. He then packs up, just as the hotel is shutting down for winter, and heads back to Paris inspired by love and the sea setting it up for Volume III.

Is it well written?
The style is a mixture of dense description and dialogue between characters and it feels as if you are stepping into someone’s dream. There are passages that quite simply take your breath away and there are other moments where he very simply moves the story on when there could have been an opportunity to stretch it out. The character of the narrator obviously has the advantage of looking back over many years so for instance he can talk about the motivation of Swann over his love affair with Odette in a way that he couldn’t have possibly known about at the time. The clever thing that Proust does, which doesn’t become apparent until you start to get into volume II is that the characters keep coming round again with his family, the Swann’s as well as locations like Combray and Balbec repeatedly coming round and influencing the development of the story.

Should it be read?
The name Proust echoes round the literature world and so if you are serious about literary name dropping it’s got to be on the lists. But that fails to appreciate just how beautiful this book is with writing style that inspires others as well as making the reader think of their own youth and family. There have been moments of comedy, the grandmother opening the window and letting the wind cause havoc, and moments of great pain, when Swann discovers his love in unfaithful, but what links it all is a sense of a greater story, which is quite simply of life and love and that makes it accessible to anyone. I am not sure I could have stayed with this book before my thirties but am enjoying it now and it has the ability to take me back to how I felt as a teenager as I tried to mix with adult company and develop my relationships with girls. In a nutshell so far (only two volumes) the verdict is that these books are wonderful.

Leads to
It goes without saying that it leads to the next five volumes of Remembrance of Things Past but also there are other writers, some of which I will start in between volumes of Proust, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory and to some extent Ulysses by James Joyce that are all said to be influenced by a Proustian style

Version Read – Chatto & Windus hardback 1982

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Within a Budding Grove post VII

I have just finished Within a Budding Grove and am going to head off to bed because it is late and provide a full review probably tomorrow of the first two volumes in Remembrance of Things Past

Bullet points between pages 907 - 1018

* Adding to the feeling that the social world the narrator is living in is very small it turns out that Elstir the artist not only has a picture of Odette Swann in his collection but he is the same artist who used to frequent the gatherings organised by the Verdurin’s

* Elstir has one use though and that is to introduce the narrator to the girls, in particular Albertine the ringleader and although he is close to her he seems to have yearnings for each of them in turn

* The artist’s enthusiasm for the sea is infectious and the narrator is moved to focus on the beauty and magnificence of the sea and the cliffs

* He concentrates all of his time on the girls and lets his friendship with Saint-Loup lapse and spurns the social company of his grandmother and her friends

* After going around with a couple of the girls he settles on Albertine and falls in love with her and she invites him back to her room in the hotel but as he goes to kiss her she warns him she will ring the bell and as he ignores her she does and proves that she is not going to be an easy conquest

* He then spends some time describing Albertine’s financial situation explaining that she often has to rely on the support of others because her family is not well off

* In an exchange he asks why she wouldn’t let him kiss her and she explains it has to do with her morals and that he shouldn’t have asked but betrays the jealously she feels over his relationships with some of her friends

* The narrator realises that he had found in the faces of the girls the things he wanted to find which weren’t necessarily there and things start to end with Albertine going back to Paris and then one by one the friends disappearing leaving him alone in Balbec

* The hotel is getting ready to close for the winter and the Balbec chapter is coming to an end and he packs up and leaves the resort for a return to Paris ending a stay of three months by the sea

The description remains vibrant right until the end and it is impossible to step away from the vivid pictures Proust paints not just of the sea, the hotel but the people that populate the story.

Bookmark of the week

I don't know where it comes from but I have a love of Russia and Russian literature and history. This bookmark is a bit gimmicky in that you get the chance to pull Catherine The Great across a scene in front of the Winter Palace. It was bought at The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House in London after visiting a display about 300 years of photography at the Hermitage. I have to say if money was no object I'd be back in Saint Petersburg in a flash. My only time in Russia involved spending three days there and three days in Moscow with a night on the sleeper train.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Within a Budding Grove post VI

I have spent today reclaiming a garden from waist high grass and brambles so sadly even after that was finished my aching limbs and numbing tiredness made reading Proust more difficult than usual. Still the aim is to get Volume II finished tomorrow and go onto some Proustian type reading next week while I wait for Volume III to be ordered from the library reserves.

Bullet points between pages 876 - 906

* The narrator is becoming fixated with women and his attention is drawn by a group of girls that seem to hang around together and populate the beach en masse at various times so erratic that it leaves him wasting most of his time waiting for them

* His grandmother is angry by his wasting time on the girls because he has been invited to the studio of Elstir, an artist Swann was very positive about, and she feels he is missing out on the chance to mix with some artistic thinkers and further his mind

* When he finally does visit Elstir's studio sure enough the experience has a powerful impact on him as he looks at the seascapes and appreciates the artists attempts to capture and moment and emotion in a way that photography was starting to do

* Under the sway of the artists enthusiasm all of the negative points the narrator felt about Balbec church, which initially coloured his whole view of the town are challenged and proved to be unfounded

* The girls he had been hoping to see come up and he discovers that the ring leader of them is called Albertine Simonet and she comes from a middle class background not the aristocratic one he had imagined

The last 111 pages beckon tomorrow...

Illiterate kids?

If anyone from Channel 4 is reading this blog then following on from Jamie Oliver’s fat kids and Ian Wrights Unfit Kids then maybe the next in the series could be something like Philip Pullman’s illiterate kids? It makes sense after this week’s disappointing Key Stage 3 performance in reading to get out there and highlight the problem teenagers are having with reading.
If nothing else there is surely the attraction of a spin-off – How to get your child to read – type book that will sell in droves and get parents interested in the issue.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Within a Budding Grove post V

Proust really proves that it is a small world and despite moving his location to Balbec he continues to come across people that not only know his family but also Combray and the Swanns.

Bullet points between pages 782 - 876

* The narrator and his grandmother become friendly with Mme de Villeparisis, a well to do lady who takes a liking to them both and takes them out in her carriage she also introduces her nephew Saint-Loup to the narrator and the two become friends

* Bloch, who is mentioned throughout Vol I and Vol II reappears and because of the narrators friendship with the aristocratic Saint-Loup shows his illbreeding and jealously and acts sometimes in a most unusual almost insulting manner

* Saint-Loup’s uncle turns up and is a Guermantes who lives near Combray. Unless my memory is growing weak his other name Baron de Charlus is the same as the man who Madame Swann was having an affair with when they lived in Combray? Sure enough the narrator asks if she was his mistress but the nephew denies it

* The Uncle invites them to tea but seems to have forgotten to tell anyone else about it so there is an embarrassing moment that when the narrator reminds him of the invitation he blanks him not once but twice and then only talks to the grandmother

* Saint-Loup and the narrator get invited round to Bloch's home for a meal which is full of well intentioned boasting by the father but Bloch upsets things by being rude about Saint-Loup's uncle and Gilberte

* As the holiday season draws to a close there are some beautiful descriptions of the changing light and the darkness that arrives earlier at night

* The narrator keeps seeing women who he takes a fancy to and sets his sights on a group of girls and after hearing one of them mention the name Simonet discovers they are staying in the same hotel

Could do better

Following on from what I was saying the other day about the encouragement my four year old was getting over reading but the diminishing interest in what older children are doing out come statistics to back that impression up. According to the latest key stage three results children of 14 are not reading as well as they should be. The Guardian reports that both the Conservatives and Liberals have described the results, with a third of children not reading at the required level, as “unacceptable”.
Of course they would say that but this is far from being simply a political issue. In a texting, sound byte culture children probably don’t feel the need to read even a 100 page novel. Add to that the fact that we are increasingly entering a period where reading, barring the Richard & Judy book club, is not even on the cultural radar you start to put the problem into a wider context.
If the aim is to get more children reading then the benefits of doing it have to be explained and a culture of encouragement increased. For those of us who grew up with Jackanory the wonder of a book never had to be explained. It is no good just blaming Labour for failing teenage readers the finger of blame needs to be pointed at a lot more targets.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Within a Budding Grove post IV

It is inevitable this book will stretch into the weekend but to keep things going here are today's highlights.

Bullet points for pages 700 - 782

* The story changes location from Paris to Balbec on the French coast and the narrotor travels down with his grandmother and Francoise, the housemaid, in a train to start his holiday

* In a break from arriving in Balbec and heading off on a branch line train to the seaside the narrator quickly walks round the town, which fills him with dissapointment, falling far short of his expectations of a beautiful town with a stunning church

* In the hotel there is a very sweet passage described as he communicates through a partition with his grandmother who wakes early to fetch him milk during a bout of illness

* He describes his surroundings and you can sense the fear of bein in a strange room with alien bits of furniture but he talks about the development of habit, something that dominates his life, can smooth over those concerns

"Habit which was even now setting to work to make me like this unfamiliar lodging, to change the position of the mirror, the shade of the curtains, to stop the clock…”pg721

* The idea of a change of scene might be a good one for normal people but the narrator admits that because of his neurotic naturemaybe it isn’t such a good idea putting him in an unusual situation – what saves him is the sea which calms and fascinates him

* To be honest things then get bogged down in a description of the social scene in the hotel, which is by no means as grand as Madame Swann's in Paris but has the same snobbishness about it with gossips and wannabes

There are a couple of really understated comic moments involving the grandmother who firstly puts Francoise on the wrong train heading off miles in the wrong direction and then secondly while having lunch regrets missing out on the sea breeze and opens the hotel window allowing the wind to come in and send menus and newspapers flying everywhere

Challenged classics

Banning books is something that has a Hitlerite feel about it and so it is with interest that next week is Banned Books Week with libraries and bookstores across the US at least celebrating the works of fiction that at one time or another faced getting banned from libraries.
Some of the titles will cause raised eyebrows because for today's reader they seem relatively mild but for instance Mice and Men ran into resistance because it promoted euthanasia and of The Great Gatsby because of its sexual references. To see the full list of the reasons why the books were challenged look at the American Libraries Association site. Some of the challenges to get books removed from libraries now seem pathetic and thankfully these great classics remain in circulation.
It’s also good to see that Google Books is throwing its weight behind the campaign to encourage people to read the 42 books on the banned/challenged list.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Within a Budding Grove post III

There is still a great deal to read but as the chapter Madame Swann at Home ends there is a shift in time and a shift away from the intensity of the association with the Swann's.

Bullet points between pages 630 - 700

* Having decided to stop seeing Gilberte the narrator sets out to keep away from her and is in a state of torture as he waits for a letter that never comes from her pleading with him to come back

* He starts spending time with Madam Swann to make sure that she passes on details about him to her daughter and is content to hear that Gilberte has been trying to get him to commit to coming round for tea, something he always gets out of doing

* There is a real sense of teenage love with letters being written and torn up and moments of agony and you get the feeling that the plan might have backfired and Gilberte feels she is better off without him

* Madame Verdurin makes a brief appearance with the explanation that Swann now limits his wife to seeing her just twice a year

* There is then quite a long description of how Madame Swann is living, with her development of her own style, as well as a comment about how her husband appears slightly trapped in seeing her how he used to do

* After resisting invitations to see Gilberte he finally decides that he will pay a surprise visit to her but on his way sees her with another boy and any chance of rekindling the relationship is shattered

* Even Madame Swann appreciates that he will never see Gilberte again but asks him not to stop seeing her as a result of the end of the friendship with her daughter

* With the start of the chapter, Place Names: The Place the narrator has moved from Paris to the Normandy coast and two years have gone by but he is still haunted by his love for Gilberte

*It is easy to forget that the narrator has health problems - asthma, nervous anxiety amongst others - so a trip to the coast is just what is required according to his doctor but he finds parting from his mother difficult and thinks of her life without him

For those of us with interests in history one interesting passage involves Madame Swann explaining that Madame Verdurin is having electricity in all of her rooms and has a telephone, both innovations she sees fit to do without and then later the narrator talks about taking a journey to the coast in a motor car to make it a more comfortable experience.

Lessons to learn

My son has just started school and less than a week in he has been sent home with a reading book which the teachers and myself and wife are expected to fill in. Already there is a note about how he followed and read from memory some of a book called Look Out and it really struck me that what is going to help him read is that constant encouragement and praise that he will get from his teachers and parents.
The complete lack of encouragement older readers get, not just adult but also teenage, might explain why reading levels are so low. Parents seem to disengage from their children’s reading as they get older and from personal experience nobody ever talks to me about reading, despite knowing it is my main interest.
Part of the reason for doing this blog was to get some feedback and interaction and maybe there needs to be a way that people who read, but don’t join reading groups, can get some sort of encouragement. I don’t have the answer but there is a lot we could learn about the approach taken with four and five year olds and the differences further up the age range.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Within a Budding Grove post II

I have to confess that the more I read around Proust and discover that I am currently reading an old translation and Penguin went off in 1995 to get an more up-to-date version it reminds me of why sometimes libraries can be limiting in their choices. Judging from the checkout slip at the front of this volume not too many people have bothered to read Proust in my local library hence why they would be quite satisfied sticking with an old translation.

Anyway on with the bullet points…

Bullet points from pages 551 – 630

* As a result of marrying Odette Swann is isolated from quite a large social circle so they work hard to ingratiate themselves with people and are determined to advertise their success when they do make contacts

* Swann for so long torn by jealously over Odette’s affairs has fallen in love with another woman but keeps the relationship hidden from his wife and at this stage we find out nothing more about it

* As Madame Swann plays the narrator the sonata by Vinteuil that had produced such a powerful effect on Swann the boy is unable to appreciate the music on first listening and this develops into more general comments on how history can provide the right perspective to measure what is great art

* A childhood dream is finally realised as the narrator meets Bergotte, the writer he admires, and they talk and discuss opera and literature but the narrator comes away unable to decide if he is good or bad and then as he is driven home in Bergotte’s carriage the writer calls Madame Swann a whore

* Gilberte is analysed with her split personality being attributed to her father and mother with the worst parts, the tendency to cancel a meeting without warning or to be stubborn being attributed to her mother

* The narrator is introduced via a friend Bloch to brothels and although he never seems to do anything he makes the mistake of giving them some of his aunts old furniture and then is tortured by the contrast of that god-fearing woman and her belongings in that context

* Because the narrator, so long locked out of Gilberte’s world is now able to come an go to the house when he pleases things come to a head with Gilberte starting to show signs of impatience with him and after a particularly difficult encounter the narrator, despite being besotted, resolves never to see her again

We will need to see if he can keep his resolve tomorrow…

Tasteful competition

There is a fascinating piece in this month’s Literary Review by John De Falbe about the future prospects for the independent bookseller, which some have argued will be dead within 15 years. He argues that copying the supermarkets and high-street chains is never going to work and one answer lies in the expertise the independent can offer, avoiding a straight fight on price. He says that the main reason people visit independents is because of taste and so the influence of publishers has to be balanced with the taste of the proprietor.
Having set off last night to buy some books not just on price but availability I found that the only people really able to cater my needs were independents that were operating via the web as well as a shop front. There has always been the cliché about the web levelling the playing field but for the independents it is surely true to some extent and an awareness of site naming and key words on the site would get those specific tastes promoted higher on Google and give those independents more of a fighting chance.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Within a Budding Grove Post I

Time for a minor celebration as this is my 100th post. Sticking with the Proust reading I have gone straight from Volume I of Remembrance of Things Past into Vol II. This is because the book I am reading is a three volume set, with the first including Swann’s Way and Within A Budding Grove.

I am reading the 1982 Chatto & Windus edition but if are reading along in the separate versions it’s just a simple case of maths to see where the equivalent page numbers on the daily bullet points are.

The advantage of going straight into Vol II is that some of the questions left from the first volume are answered while others develop.

Bullet points from pages 463 – 550

* Swann appears to have changed after marrying Odette and has become a social climber keen to name-drop and the same characters from the first Volume still populate his life with the Verdurin’s, Cottards and a character called Marquis de Norpois becoming the link between the narrator and the Swann family

* The narrator continues to suffer from sickness and anxiety and is introduced one evening to de Norpois because his father believes his ex ambassador friend with influence might be able to secure a future for his son

* However the little writing the narrator has done is dismissed by de Norpois and his favourite writer Bergotte is savaged as a novelist without any great works to his name

* As de Norpois recounts an evening with the Swanns a brief explanation of the marriage, which Odette appears to have given up all hope of becoming a reality, is sketched out with the results that both Swann with his fear of social exclusion and Odette’s character both seem to have been allayed and improved

* The other theme of the book is the infatuation the young narrator feels for Swann’s daughter Gilberte, who finally invites him into her home and social world after he is ill and his presence missed from their casual park playing sessions in the Champs-Elysee

During the summer in a round-up of summer reading recommendations Will Self recommended Proust because he said it was like a soap opera and it does leave you with cliff hangers. These are the ones that might be answered with tomorrow’s chunk of reading: will Gilberte and the character of the narrator find love? Swann is mentioned as dying when is that going to be? Will Swann ever patch it up with the narrator’s family, with which he fell out over their reaction to his marriage to Odette?

Checking out the books?

Interesting comments made by author Susan Hill over the weekend covered in today’s Guardian about the declining state of libraries as they move away from being focused on being a source of reading material and evolve to become 'social centres'. I have to admit that I only recently joined my local library and found that more floor space seemed to be going into providing computers for people to surf the web, as well as things that provide an income like DVDs and CDs.
Some big libraries I have visited manage to provide all of that without appearing to compromise the number of books they offer. The problem comes when the ratio of floorspace to non-book entertainment stays the same in a smaller library. That not only reduces the books on offer but changes the atmosphere into something very different from the past, where the focus was on books and the noise levels were lower. Changes might be bringing more young people through the door the sad thing is that they come to surf the web and not to read literature.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Swann's way post VII

Volume I finally ends in a flurry of deep description and a passing of the torch of obsessional love from Swann to the narrator.

Bullet points for pages 415 - 462

* The focus shifts back to the original narrative point of view with the boy now living in Paris and because of his nervous disposition on the brink of a trip to Florence and Venice he ends up being told by the doctor to stay behind in Paris

* The result is that he starts going out to the Champs-Elysee and there starts playing with a bunch of people including Gilberte Swann, the daughter of M. Swann, and he falls in love with her

* In turn not only does Gilberte seem to be oblivious but also when he asks her to meet up seems to relish in letting him down – something she must have learnt from her mother who it is finally revealed is Odette

* Swann no longer gets on well with the family he knew so well at Combray and it must be because they disapprove of Odette and as we know in the previous chapter Swann is prepared to sacrifice his social standing and sanity to be with her

* Volume I ends with Proust contrasting the days of Madame Swann walking around in beautiful clothes and waiting for her carriage with the motorcars and fashions of his day and expresses regret at the changes

“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed out life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” Pg462

bookmark of the week

This is an unbuilt design by Frank Lloyd Wright called the Mile High Illinois "Project" and although never built it is seen as an inspiration to architecture students. I visited Frank Lloyd Wright's house and studio in Oak Park near Chicago and was amazed at the level of detail he went too to make sure his vision of the world was realised. He designed furniture as well as the building and his home has a very special feeling to it and his studio was an inspirational workplace that really thought not just of the architects and their working environment but of the whole impression it would make on clients.
This paper bookmark reminds me of that visit and his designs.

No more Watering down the web

It is a positive thing to see Waterstones breaking away from Amazon and getting its own site, which has the chance to ask advice from instore experts. It has a fresh feel and is somewhere I may well go and get books delivered to my local store. I'm glad to see Waterstones get a proper site because all it seemed to be doing on Amazon was using the dot come giant as a catalogue showroom and now it can at least tap into the numerous orders for books that are flying around cyberspace.

Swann's Way post VI

Almost at the end of volume one in the multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past and it has kept up a high standard right the way through the first 400 pages.

Bullet points between pages 385 - 415

* Swann is being ripped apart by jealousy and receives an anonymous letter that details the numerous affairs Odette has had and he starts to question her about them and starts to realise his love for her is dead

* She is absent for almost a year on a cruise with the Verduins and in that time he uncovers evidence that she has been unfaithful and so as he starts to change his life he opts to visit his family home in Combray

* The chapter ends with him dreaming of Odette but resolving never to see her again as he heads off away from Paris:
"To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type." pg415

The last forty odd pages of Vol I beckon tomorrow...

Book of books - Napoleon

Before the link with Napoleon, which featured in last week's reading with Scarlet and Black, gets too weak here are bite sized reviews of a few books examining the man's career and downfall.

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon, Part I - the rise by Robert Asprey
Having before this book having ever specifically set out to read anything about Napoleon this seemed to be agoodd starting point. It takes the story of his life up to around 1805, when the invasion of Austria was a huge success. The problem with a rise and fall is that of course there is always amixturee of both happening and you do wonder if failures are understated to underline how badly things went after 1805. It is easy to get through and even if it cannot match other more weighty tomes it gives you the bones to go off and put the meat onto.

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon, Part II - the fall by Robert Asprey
It sticks to exactly what happened with the various campaigns in Spain and Russia and the eventual defeat at Waterloo and his exile and death. In this respect it is a bit too simplistic and fails to appreciate that in the long-term some of the things he did for France and his vision of Europe were to last and as such it was not a complete fall. It is a good book if you want the basics but it was always going to be difficult splitting Napoleon's life into two halves because it was ups and downs.

Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts
An interesting attempt to look at two great generals without retreading old ground so that they are compared via their impact on each other. There is a feeling that Napoleon never really rated Wellington until the midway point of the Spanish campaign and then came across him at Waterloo. Both men were different with Wellington being a very defensive general and Napoleon one that loved to attack. Andisappointmentnt with the book is as a result of feeling that there could have been more said about the two men.

Napoleon by Paul Johnson
Quick to read and to the point. A different style from some of the other books, notably Asprey, because this is a mixture of thematic and episodic. Johnson seems to come down against Napoleon claiming his skills were forgotten and in modern times he would have been tried for war crimes because he killed so many people. There is then a suggestion that Napoleon inspired Hitler and Stalin. Not all of the commentary on Napoleon is agreeable or seems to be fair but at least this is an author with strong opinions and once you know where he is coming from it makes the book easier to put into context.

Billy Ruffian by David Cordingly
A book looking at the ship Bellerophon, that fought at the Nile with Nelson as well as at Trafalgar but went down in history because it was the ship that Napoleon surrended to. The cover shows a famous picture of Napoleon walking the deck with the rest of the ship's company staring at the great figure. A good read in terms of offering a different slant on those momentous events and apart from the Nile and Trafalgar the main commentary is about Nelson. That is a shame because for parts the Billy Ruffiadisappearsrs from the narrative and as a result it is not the best place to get either a history of Trafalgar or the last stages of Napoleon's life.

personal opinion - is that for all of his personal foibles (women and his obsession with respect) Napoleon was a genius on the battlefield able to take advantage of the large blocks of troops and canons in a way no one else could. His time however was ending as he struggled in vain to cope with guerilla war tactics in Spain and because of his character his alliances across Europe started to crumble. Nonetheless a military genius all the same.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Swann's Way post V

For anyone who has ever been involved in a love affair that was not the right one but ended in a bad way the experience Swann starts to go through with Odette will seem all too familiar as the love ebbs away to be replaced by hate.

Bullet points between pages 300 – 385

Things start to break down between Odette and Swann and he is barred from the Verdurin’s, where he saw her most nights, as they finally turn on him and Mme Verdurin slams Swann in a conversation with Dr Cottard:

“’Heaven preserve us from him; he’s too deadly for words, a stupid, ill bred boor’.” pg315

His jealousy starts to make him go between moods of great affection and then dislike and things are manipulated more by the influence of the Verdurin’s who are trying to get Swann away from Odette and are promoting an alternative in the form of Forcheville

What makes things even more difficult is the monetary relationship between them with Odette quite happy to accept his gifts and exploit his wallet when it suits her. The problem for Swann is that even when he is resolved not to visit her and ignore her he just can’t seem to do it

Things get almost embarrassing then the mood breaks when Swann goes to visit his old social set and as he is about to leave he gets dragged back into the room and he hears the music, which he was entranced with when he first met Odette

The music acts as a mirror for his old feelings and he realizes how much in love he was and how unhappy he is now and as the music ends he seems to have completed some sort of transformation in his feelings

“From that evening onwards, Swann understood that the feeling which Odette had once for him would never revive, that his hopes of happiness would not be realized now.” pg85

Where his relationship with Odette goes from here is unclear but there is a part of you, that has developed feelings of affection for Swann, that wishes he would have the strength to break free of her. Maybe he will tomorrow…

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Swann's Way post IV

A more positive day on the reading front because I read through lunch to make up some more pages.

Bullet points between 205 - 300

* The third chapter of Swann’s Way moves location again to the social world of the Verdurin’s and into this world Swann is invited. The chapter is entitled ‘Swann in Love’ and your initial thoughts are of a woman but it seems it might be something different as Swann develops a longing for a piece of music

* It also becomes plain that the narrative voice has changed to one reporting back on second hand information that Swann has given him rather than something that the narrator has experienced themselves

* Swann is allowed to join the Verdurin’s little clan, which includes a painter, pianist and a doctor, but makes things awkward after he drops into conversation some of the influential contacts he has, which Madame Verdurin can’t compete with

* Swann goes to the evenings at the Verdurin’s with a woman called Odette, who he is two-timing with a maid. He starts to think that he is wasting his time with her but one night when she isn’t at the gathering he seems to realise how much her absence pains him

* He finally finds her and she is alarmed at his behavior he is gripped with passion and she surrenders herself under his fumblings and caresses and then people start to notice that Swann has changed an no longer goes into society or chases women instead spending most nights in Odette’s company

* The love of Odette is combined with the love of the musical piece he heard at the Verdurin’s and he makes her play it to him sometimes twenty times over losing himself in the moment and lifting himself out of his barren life

* His love for Odette is consuming but it starts to open up from intense evenings and their differences, jealousies and different attitudes to society start to indicate that when the honeymoon period is over there will not be much love there

* In a very uncomfortable moment Swann, who has kept his inner thoughts to himself, is challenged by the group and because of his show of knowing other people and intelligence they start to turn against him

* Odette starts to become a kept woman with only money as the link between them although Swann is paralyzed by her still and he is unable to react even as he falls out of favour with the Verdurin’s and with Odette

* One night his jealousy overpowers him and he sneaks back to her house and believes he has discovered her with another man and knocks on the shutters only to discover it is the wrong house

In a strange way the book has been leading up to this focus on Swann and it is a noticeable change from the innocent dreams and observations of the first couple of chapters. This is now a much more adult type of fantasy with lust and jealousy dominant emotions.

Book of books – Dead Souls

One of the themes of Scarlet and Black is the exposure of an ambitious man and this is also brilliantly done in Gogol’s Dead Souls. Seen as one of the most important novels not just in Russian literature but beyond because although it is described as a poem it is ground breaking because it was the first major novel to come out of Russia and feels as fresh as fiction being written today. It was never really finished because of the author’s death and what you get is a complete first part and then some idea of what would have happened to the character as he developed him.

Plot summary
An ambitious man, Chichikov picks a small provincial town where a handful of rich landowners live to launch his plan to buy the lists of their dead peasants – the dead souls – so that while they still remain on the official census he can build himself up to be a gentleman owning hundreds of souls. He ingratiates himself with the landowners by runs into trouble when they start talking to each other but Chichikov seems so much more worldly wise and oils the wheels of bureaucracy with money that book one ends with him seeming to be triumphant. Book two includes the theme of repentance but just like Sorel in Scarlet and Black the regrets only come when the world has come crashing down and he ends up with nothing. It is interesting to see that the bribes that the clerks and officials take were a feature of Russian politics then and to some extent never really went away.

Is it well written?
I always believed that Dead Souls was mainly set in St Petersburg because of its reputation of Gogol’s description of the old Russian capital but in fact most of the action takes place in the country and the descriptions not just of places but also the various landowners he comes across sets up some of the literary stereotypes that crop up again in places like Dostoyevsky’s work. It is sometimes heavy going, because after all it conforms to the 19th century techniques of explaining all at the risk of the pace of the story, but is well worth reading if you are interested in Russian history and literature.

Should it be read?
Without a doubt if you ever go onto read anything by some of the Russian greats in literature this book and author are either name checked directly or the influence on the style is in evidence. This book had such a powerful effect on Russian literature and is at the same time a cutting satire on greed and the social ambitions of the wealthy that is remains relevant to a readership today.

Leads to
The obvious next destination is Dostoyevsky, Pushkin’s Onegin, Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time and because of the similarities Scarlet and Black by Stendhal.

Version read – Penguin Classics paperback

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Swann's Way post III

It is hard to read Proust quickly because of the depth and richness of his descriptions so it is worth taking that little bit longer to read through, hence the lower page rate than usual. If you were to rush it you might miss things like this:

“But in summer, when we came back to the house, the sun would not have set; and while we were upstairs paying our visit to aunt Leonie its rays , sinking until they lay along her window-sill, would be caught and held by the large inner curtains and the loops which tied them to the back of the wall, and then, split and ramified and filtered, encrusting with tiny flakes of gold the citronwood of the chest-of-drawers, would illuminate the room with a delicate, slanting, woodland glow.” (pg145)

Bullet points between pages 145 - 204

The family is very much cantered when in Combray on the idea of taking walks and they have the choice of going in two directions, on of which is Swann’s Way because it goes along the border of his property

When with his granddad and father the narrator goes down Swann’s Way because they believe Swann and his family to be absent but in fact his wife and daughter are there and the narrator sees the daughter and although she insults him seems to fall in love with her

Eventually the old bedridden aunt Leonie does die leaving his parents to sort out the legal affairs and a distraught Francoise who was devoted to her mistress to the last showing all that she loved not hated her

Because his parents are too busy to walk he goes alone after a spell reading a book and his sensuality is starting to develop and he talks of women in a way that he has not done so far in the book

Having exhausted his description of the “Meseglise way” the family set off on the alternative “Guermantes way” and that includes walking past some of the grander parts of the town Combray and the route hugs a river, which they cross numerous times on the route

He talks about his future plans to become a writer but admits he doesn’t know what type of books he would write and daydreams that he father would sort it out but then comes to the conclusion that would not work and so denounces literature

He finally looks back and concludes that even if he went back down the routes he had walked as a young man he would not be able to recreate the same feelings and the best memories are those left and reconstructed in the mind

“So the “Meseglise way” and the “Guermantes way” remain for me linked with many of the little incidents of the life which, of all the various lives we lead concurrently, is the most episodic, the most full of vicissitudes; I mean the life of the mind.” (pg 200)

book of books - Scarlet and Black

I have to confess I found Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black quite heavy going. Maybe it was because the story took a long time to develop to the point at which the book developed a pace that carried you along with it. But principally the reasons for the problems with engagement come from the lack of feeling you have for the hero Julien Sorel. His craven ambition combined with an ignorance born of a peasant upbringing does not make an attractive combination.

Plot summary
The main focus of the tale is a young man who has managed to attract the sympathy of the village priest who has helped him in learning Latin to escape from the clutches of his uncaring father and two brothers who are the village carpenters. Set in 1825-30, with the ripples from Napoleon’s all conquering domination to his post-Waterloo demise into exile and death on St. Helena, this is a very political book. Bearing in mind the different factions, royalist and Napoleon, the differences between rich and poor and ignorant and learned this is a minefield that Sorel is landed in. he almost navigates his way successfully through it because he is handsome but a couple of affairs and an inability to control his emotions eventually lead to his ruin after he tries to kill a former lover then demands the jury find him guilty and guillotine him, which they duly do.

Is it well written?
The book is split into two parts, a total of 45 chapters, with each chapter starting with an aphorism that is often directly incorporated into the text or sums up what is about to happen. This is a clever technique but most authors stick to using it at the start of a book and leaving it at that and it does tire after 45 chapters. The other problem is that you are kept waiting a little bit too long for the collapse of arrogance and there is equally not as much repentance as you would expect leaving you with an unsatisfactory ending. It cannot be accused of not being well written but the problem with Scarlet and Black is that the pressure of the politics of the time have not translates well into the 21st century.

Should it be read?
It is on all the classics lists and my edition was deliberately designed for Open University students to use – as someone who had underlined it here there and everywhere obviously had done. As a guide to what was happening in rural France after Napoleon had been defeated it is a very good scene setter. But it is hard not to compare it from the view point of a man who is overly ambitious and falls down with Gogol’s Dead Souls and from a Napoleonic political view with War and Peace and for my money this book sadly can not match either of those works.

Leads to
If you like the idea of someone getting their comeuppance then Gogol's Dead Souls is another powerful read. Otherwise it is onto more classic French literature or into Napoleonic/post 1815 French history

Version read – Penguin paperback

The long or short of it?

One thing struck me last night when hearing Prof John Sutherland talk about fiction and his former role as a reviewer of the London review of Books. He said that he used to produce 2-3,000 word ensemble reviews of fiction on a regular basis.

I work on a magazine that has carried out research and we used to run features of 2,000 words but apparently readers will not stick with something more than two pages long and so we have cut down our pieces to 1,500 words. That seems to be about right, particularly for fiction where as Sutherland said at his talk last night, that you can’t give the plot away so there isn’t too much you can say.

It must be an academic thing because I also got in trouble when doing an MA because I wrote my essays like feature pieces – highly readable but possibly brief – and almost failed as a result. The problem with taking that two paragraphs to a page never use a short word academic route when writing about books is that you alienate and turn-off a huge potential audience. As my old boss said to me fairly regularly it is harder to say something important with a small amount of words and to achieve that marks out a better writer.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How to pick a novel

Spent a very interesting hour in the London Review Bookshop in London this evening hearing Prof John Sutherland, author of How to Read a novel, telling us that really his advice was all about how to pick a novel and how to read it was something best left to the individual.

The main points of his argument were that the way to choose a book was more difficult than in the past because of the sheer volume of books coming out but was made easier by the following things:
* Bookshops because of the large choices they carried and the ability they offered for browsing
* Dust jackets, which could provide valuable information about a book
* The blurb, which is often written by the author, that is in his own description “like the cheese on the mousetrap”
* Page 69, using a technique that is not his own but is useful, he said that by picking up a novel and reading page 69 it would give a flavour, like listening to a couple of bars of a song on the radio would and help the reader choose if it was worth reading more

In a nutshell that was his main advice about choosing a book. He added that the restriction he argued on reading was not so much money but time and those people who were serious about reading had to make an investment of time.

The other things he said that stood out included a comment on the impact of the second hand book market, with the note that it was having an impact on academic course because books of years gone by were now back in circulation thanks to the likes of eBay and Amazon. “Second hand used to be the weak arm of the book trade now even books that are out of print do not go out of circulation.”

Another point was that a novel still has the power to do things that other forms of discourse are failing to and pointed to novels that have taken on class and sexual issues.
“The novel is doing something that journalism can’t, it is maybe something sociology can do but it doesn’t have the reach as large as a novel can.”

His final point was that the relationship between writer and reader is changing from master and slaves to something more equal because of:
Book festivals
Reading groups
Fan fiction sites

One glaring omission on that list is of course literary bloggers and the increasing discourse that is going on in cyberspace. That should have been on the list because it is growing as an area.

My personal thoughts are that it is obvious that book jackets and blurb help choose a book but it is still so subjective about what makes a great novel and to get people like me who stick with the classics to move to current fiction is going to take a lot more than a fancy picture because as Sutherland said we only have so much time and I sure don’t want to waste it on another Da Vinci Code type offering.