Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Under Western Eyes - post III

Once chance encounter with Haladin, who has identified Razumov as being a like-minded friend, leads to his life being ruined and identification with the revolutionary movement that leads to him traveling to Stuttgart and getting a mission that takes him to Geneva.

Bullet points between pages 114 - 168

* There are two important meetings in the space of a few pages with Haldin’s sister meeting Razumov with both showing signs of emotion barely able to share a word with her mistaking it for the deep emotion of a friend

* Then Razumov meets the narrator and is so rude to him that it becomes clear he is angry with the consequences of his association with Haladin and ends up describing the involvement with it all as a curse

* He then disappears from view for a while but after keeping away for a long time goes to visit the revolutionary leader Peter Ivanovitch at the house of the feminist millionaire who is supporting him

* Razumov sits there and listens to her moaning on about the Tsar and the dukes who have fleeced her of her money and then makes a play of being a dedicated revolutionary to Ivanovitch and urges him to stop prevaricating and inspire some action

* Ivanovitch urges him to bring Haladin’s sister to the house but as Razumov leaves the maid warns him against bringing her and tells him that she trusts him and will follow him anywhere and help him with his mission

Quite what will become of Razumov who believes that the revolutionary activity is immoral is not quite clear and will he finally settle accounts with the Haladin family? Maybe some answers will come tomorrow…

Conrad on the differences between us and them

The key to Under Western Eyes is that the narrator is not Russian yet involved with the major characters in such a way he is intimate with the full details of the story but still about to be detached. Conrad was clearly trying to make non-Russian readers understand what it is that motivates the characters he chose to write about and as a result apart from using the actions of the characters to fulfil that objective you also get passages where he guides the reader through the differences more overtly.

"That propensity of lifting every problem from the plane of the understandable by means of some sort of mystic expression is very Russian…I suppose one must be a Russian to understand Russian simplicity, a terrible corroding simplicity in which mystic phrases clothe a naïve and hopeless cynicism. I think sometimes that the psychological secret of the profound difference of that people consists in this, that they detest life, the irremediable life of the earth as it is, whereas we Westerners cherish it with perhaps equal exaggeration of its sentimental value..” pg 76

One of my colleagues asked me to stop reading Russian literature yesterday because it “is depressing” and might have a negative impact on me at work. Conrad would have loved that I think because it would have confirmed that western eyes do indeed look at things differently and where some see doom others see inspiration.

Lunchtime read: The Accompanist - post II

The relationship between singer and accompanist starts to develop with the later at first experiencing jealousy and then an interested detachment from the world of the famous soprano.

Highlights between pages 23 – 41 (chapters three and four)

* Sonechka manages to get the position with Maria Nikolaevna but is initially angry and jealous about the disparity between the singer, who lives a life of luxury and the rest of the population struggling in post revolutionary Russia

* The singer appears to be leading one or two affairs but Sonechka, who has the opportunity, does not pry but instead contents herself with watching it all from a distance

* On the brink of leaving to Moscow Maria gives her last performance and despite using phrases like ‘ours’ when talking to Sonechka it’s obvious the success and the evening belongs to her alone

* Finally, with her mother crying and waving her off from the platform, Sonechka heads off with Maria and her husband head off on the train for Moscow with the accompanist feeling more than ever that her employer owns her

More tomorrow..

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Under Western Eyes - post II

As the story develops you are faced with the interesting situation where the narrator, who has up to now been using Razumov’s diary as the source material adding other comments about Russian characteristics to the narration, becomes part of the story. Although they have not yet met you can start to imagine the twists that will take place to enable them to do so.

Bullet points between pages 51 – 114

* Having shopped his fellow student, who is executed after failing to provide the police with any information, Razumov becomes associated with Haladin by default and others in the revolutionary circle presume he is one of them

* He is dragged in front of the police after having his rooms searched and accuses his interrogator of treating him as a suspect but then walks out with the question of where he will go left hanging in the air

* Then the action moves to Geneva where the narrator, who is a language teacher, has been employed to help Haladin’s sister learn English and so he comes across the Haladin sister and mother who expect great things of their brother and son

* The narrator discovers in an English paper the fact that Haladin has been executed for the politicians murder and shares it with the family, which in a way makes them more attractive to one section of the émigré Russian community

* Peter Ivanovitch, a celebrated revolutionary Russian feminist, tells Miss Haladin that Razumov is in Geneva and because he was a friend of her brother’s she sets out to meet him to find out more about the circumstances surrounding her brother’s arrest and execution

More tomorrow…

Online version of Under Western Eyes

if you want to see what Under Western Eyes is all about then Bibliomania has the full text online. If you do then you will stumble across memorable lines like this one found in Chapter III of Part One:

"I'll become an idiot if this goes on. The scoundrels and the fools are murdering my intelligence." pg 61

Reminds me of the day job...

Lunchtime read: The Accompanist - post I

Another tale set in Russia but because of the length of the story the sharpness of the characterisation is critical and the relationship between Sonechka and her mother and then with the soprano Maria Nikolaevna is where the story lies.

Bullet points from pages 1 – 23

* A short introduction describes a Russian buying junk in what you picture to be Paris and among the pictures and lamps there is a notebook that is written in Russian and contains the following story

* It starts by following the activities of a piano teacher Ekaterina Antonovskaya who has a daughter after a brief affair with a 19 year old student and as a result loses all her pupils except Mitenka

* She has to move away to Petersburg with her daughter to find work but things are hard and a little trio of Sonechka the daughter, the mother and Mitenka start to spend time with each other

* One night Mitenka tells Sonechka that a singer requires an accompanist and it is a salaried position that could include travelling the world and will involve leaving her mother behind

More tomorrow…

Monday, January 29, 2007

Under Western Eyes - post I

Against a backdrop of anti-Tsarist feeling the hero of the book wants to rise up the ranks and overcome his problems. The way Conrad approaches this is that, as he warns in the introduction, is to try and see how Russians are perceived under Western eyes and as a result he is prepared to sacrifice some death of characterisation in order to get over the general Russian philosophy. Time will tell if he succeeds.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 50

* The focus of attention is a student Razumov who is diligent and hopes that he can out his low birth behind him by doing well and appeasing his benefactor a Prince he has only ever met once briefly

* Meanwhile an assassination is carried out of a Tsarist minister who has been responsible for repressing, exiling and punishing those who fight against the system as two students throw bombs at him with the first failing to kill him but the second hitting its mark

* The second bomb has been thrown by Victor Haladin who is a fellow student and seeks refuge in Razumov’s rooms and explains that it is a war and that’s why he did it but also expresses some regret and shows mental and emotional exhaustion at having carried out the act

* Haladin asks Razumov to help him escape but instead he goes to his benefactor the Prince who takes him to a general who says they will capture Haladin and then sends Razumov back to his rooms

* The clock stops, the minutes seem to go slowly but finally Haladin, who realises that his fellow student does not agree with his act, leaves and disappears into the night without Razumov having the courage to do anything but stay inside his rooms

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

The plan had been to finish this yesterday, but best laid plans...Anyway, this collection of short stories ends with more tales focusing on the relationship between individuals and crowds.

A Fasting-Artist Four Stories
In the four stories the general theme is how people react to the environment and other people around them. It starts with a trapeze artist who lives at the top of the high wire and when the circus moves from town to town he sleeps in the luggage rack. It is not only about his loneliness and fear of the future but also about the role of the manager, which is dependent on such an odd character.

Then there is a story, Little Woman, about a woman who seems to disagree with he neighbour and the man starts to fear that eventually that will spill over into a public row and could gave repercussions for him.

The title story about a fasting-artist is again set against a backdrop of a circus and follows a man who makes fasting his act but in the end the crowds ignore him and he fasts for so long that he almost disappears and dies and is buried with his straw bed.

Finally, Josefine the Songstress of The Mouse People is about someone who believes they have a special talent, for music, and as a result are better than everyone else and have the ability and power to shape the collective destiny. She tries to get out of doing work and when that fails she threatens to stop singing, which she eventually does. But life goes on without her and as a result the people forget the music and her power wanes.

Review of the complete stories collection will follow tomorrow…

Choosing the book by the cover

This book, Under Western Eyes, leapt put at me in the library because of the cover illustration. It could not be closer to echoing the themes of Petersburg by Andrei Bely. Having read a fair few short books by Joseph Conrad the author as well as the subject was attractive. The first post on the contents, with a chance to see if they match up to the ideas the cover inspires, will come tonight.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

book of books - Street of Crocodiles

Bruno Schulz is capable along with Kafka of creating images that have the power to really disturb but also challenge your thinking. When perception warps the reader themselves is invited to make a judgement about what is normal. In the case of Schulz the figure of the father is at the centre of the strangeness in nearly all cases ranging from arguing that shop dummies should be treated as human beings, to rigging a relative up as a front door bell to becoming a cockroach.

Plot summary
Schulz wrote these stories by letter in instalments to a friend and once you understand that the sometimes disjointed way they exist chapter by chapter makes sense. It broadly follows the story of Schulz’s family with his mother and father owning a textile shop but the father steps back from the business and starts to get obsessed with various things including breeding birds, defending the rights of mannequins, imitating cockroaches and delving into electronics. But the unusual also happens to Bruno who ends up travelling across the City in a driverless cab and then apologising to the horse who is able to speak. If there is any type of plot it seems to be about the pains of growing up in a dysfunctional family and how people react when family members start to act in unnatural ways.

Is it well written?
It is slightly disjointed because of the way it was composed and sometimes the result is that passages that you expect to develop run their course quite quickly. But on the flip side it works as a collection of moments that have an ability to work as a story in that the central voice is always the same and the character of the father keeps provoking fresh things to discuss. There are clear influences from Kafka and there are moments when the City changes and becomes an alien place with streets changing that reminds you of moments in The Trial.

Should it be read?
Schulz is a Polish writer that has quite a fan base on the web and since his works were published and translated into English he is someone that deserves to be read. Not just because he comes to things with a different East European perspective but also because he shows that it is possible to write about what you know best, your family, and still use it to make a novel that is capable of standing the test of time and provoking a reader response.

Street of Crocodiles should be read by those enjoying Franz Kafka and those keen on books that put life through a warped mirror of imagination on the border of sanity and insanity.

Version read – Penguin twentieth century classics paperback

bookmark of the week

Wimpole Hall is near to Cambridge and it is a big grand old house, which for most people is the main attraction, but there is also a farm there that has a range of animals (some picured on the bookmark). Well worth going there with children if you get the chance.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

This is hardly a lunchtime post, and could only just claim to be for those on the West Coast, but I have been out all day and only just able to get to a keyboard now to tap this stuff in. Short story collections are great for variety and accessibility but the downside can be that you pick them up and put them down and leave them unfinished exactly because they do not have the start, middle and end structure of a novel. Therefore the plan with Kafka is to finish this collection.

In The Penal Colony
A visitor visits a penal colony and is invited to view an execution of a prisoner who is not only unaware of the sentence but of the fact he has been found guilty. As the officer in charge explains that the old commandant loved this form of execution, to use needles to inscribe a message of justice into the prisoner over the course of 12 hours until dead, he shows the guest how the machine works. The prisoner is put on the machine but as it is about to begin the officer asks if the visitor is in favour and after being told not, surely the end for the execution machine, he dismisses the prisoner and ties himself on but the machine malfunctions and he dies quickly and painfully.

A Country Doctor - Little Tales
Most of the stories were published in magazines and collections of stories alongside other authors and so there is not too much of a coherent theme other than the period they were written. Apart from the first of these stories it is neither about a doctor or the country but a series of stories that includes the tale of the man waiting to be admitted to the law that is told in The Trial, a rather humorous tale of a father describing his eleven sons and in A report to An Academy it is like Metamorphosis in reverse with a former ape explaining how he imitated humans after being captured.

But there are also darker stories. The first tale of the doctor is like a fairy tale in reverse where instead of evil being defeated it is good that ends up losing. The Dream, where Joseph K. discovers an artist inscribing his tom stone, reminds you of the hidden powers that sometimes drive some of Kafka’s characters to jump at death.

The last few bits and pieces awaits tomorrow…

book of books - Petersburg

The attraction of this story by Andrei Bely is that it is set against a backdrop of Russian history that is often not used in novels with the period of the 1917 revolution being favoured, presumably because it is more dramatic. But in 1905 Russia was at a crossroads with signs of dissent against the Tsar’s reign increasing, assassinations through the use of bombs thrown at carriages were popular and the reaction to these changes was split on class but also generational lines.

Bely manages to weave a tale of suspense around a bomb that also touches on several strands of love including parental, unrequited, sentimental and when it is non existent.

Plot summary
The focus is on a father and a son – Apollon and Nikolai – who have been abandoned by the mother, who two and a half years earlier ran off with an Italian singer. Apollon is 68 and a senator hoping for one final advance in his career. He is unloving towards his son and isolated from much of the world around him. Nikolai has made some sort of promise to a group planning to kill his father with a bomb and is handed a sardine tin containing the explosives. The promise seems to have been made after a failed bid the win the hand of Sofia who is married to his old school friend Sergei. Meanwhile the conspirators Dudkin and the head of the party, who uses various aliases, start to fall apart with the former going mad and killing the latter. Nikolai disgraces himself and his father by going round town in a mask and after his mother returns and his father shows some sort of love after his career collapses he no longer wants to use the bomb. But the bomb has gone missing, discovered by his father, and goes off in the study not killing anyone but exposing the hate at the core of the family and driving son and father apart for ever.

Is it well written?
There are moments where it is hard to tell what is a dream and what is reality that remind you of other books including Ulysses and that can be quite a struggle. Also you are left to try and piece together what drove Nikolai to make the promise because it is sketched out but not always clear. What makes Petersburg stand out is not so much the role of the City as a character, which is impressive in dictating the mood as well as the location, but the time the book is set against. There are some passages that describe the stirrings of unrest in a way that is sometimes not dealt with in as much depth in history books covering the period.

Should it be read?
If you have a love for Russian literature then yes. If you are interested in Russian history then again yes and finally if you like stories that operate both in the mind as well as in the flesh then this is a prime example. Bely refers to its as cerebral play but this is a style of writing that is attempting not only to show you the inner thoughts of the character but the inner workings of their brains with the hopes and fears described in detail. It is ambitious and does not always come off, but that is because what he is doing id ground breaking for his time. Psychoanalysis is something that was still a young field when Bely was writing and no doubt the same book penned now would be more clinical and scientific in its approach, but that might lose some of the charm.

For lovers of Russian literature this has to be read at some point and for those keen to see just how destructive guilt can be then this also serves as a great example with bombs of various types ticking in all of the main characters.

Version read – Penguin Twentieth Century Classics paperback

Friday, January 26, 2007

Street of Crocodiles - post III

The father, who must have been an amazing character in real life, ends the book with more strange behaviour and episodes that again if they were not being told through the eyes of a child would be a great deal more sinister.

Bullet points between 130 – 160

The family is swept up in a craze for electronics which becomes an obsession for the father who starts to carry out various experiments to get bells to ring and objects to change form

There is then a very disturbing segment when Uncle Edward comes to stay from the country and allows the father complete free reign and becomes a bell that in the end dies in circumstances that are disturbing

The City becomes fixated on a comet that they believe is going to come and wipe out the earth and it is during this period that Uncle Edward keeps sounding the alarm and to quote the book “bleeds himself white”

During the mass panic about the end of the world the father takes to putting his head up the chimney and sending his mind out to the stars and the moon, which he discovers is in the shape of a human brain

The book ends with the father smiling to himself after another look into the chimney where secrets and visions reside

Full review to come shortly…

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

When we are all alone we look for friendship wherever it comes and in this story the boy Karl finds it in the form of a stoker who is on board the boat. When he should be happy with the introduction of his long last father he is in fact upset because in a brief moment he has fallen under the spell of the friend from the engine room.

The Stoker A Fragment
Karl has been sent to America after being seduced by the housemaid and fathering a child. His parents have sent him away without any real idea of why will happen to him. As he pulls into New York he remembers he has left his umbrella below and heads down to pick it up but gets lost and stumbles across a stoker. The stoker is angry with the way he has been treated and after getting encouraged by Karl storms off to face the captain to complain. As he berates his superior to the captain an old man is visibly agitated and finally asks Karl who he is and then declares that he is his uncle. The man turns out to be an American senator who will be able to provide Karl with a fantastic life but as he leaves the boat Karl sobs for the stoker and wonders if his uncle will ever be able to match up to him.

There are just a few stories left in the collection and if time permits I will read these over the weekend…

Underlining fiends

One of the most annoying things that can happen is buying a book second hand and then finding out that it is full of underlining and highlighting. This happened with Petersburg, which I read earlier this week. However hard you try inevitably your eye is drawn to those parts of the book and you end up giving them more weight than they perhaps deserve. I was always told that writing in books was a heinous crime and one particular teacher at school said those who did should never be allowed to borrow books from a library. Not sure I would go that far but certainly if you have underlined a book to death you shouldn’t then sell it on.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Street of Crocodiles - post II

There are some passages that are clearly inspired by Kafka but there is also a warmth here that comes because the scenes are being described by someone retelling them from a child’s point of view. As a result certain moments that could be a great deal more sinister in an adult world like the moment the tramp is discovered in the undergrowth or when his father talks of rooms that are ignored disappearing into the fabric of the building are balanced here with tales of the family dog.

But at the same time, mainly via the father, Schulz is able to challenge you to think differently and wonder what happens to a human being once their relationships with each other and other physical objects starts to change. In a way it is a form of madness but does that change in behaviour always have to be frightening? Sometimes it is and on other occasions it is harmless and almost playful.

Bullet points between pages 62 – 130

* The father continues to lecture the young ladies but can be silenced by a flash of ankle or a touch and he seems to have become a prophet but one that is preaching to a limited audience and eventually he drifts back into solitude

* One of his more lucid talks is about rooms that have been left undiscovered and how he once went into one and inside was a forest of plants and trees that disappeared at the end of the night – reminds you of Kafka

* There is a chapter about a dog, Nimrod, that comes into the family and takes its first steps and discovers that it is possible to command an area, in this case the kitchen, and get used to what previously was unknown

* In the chapter about cinnamon shops the narrator (Bruno for ease) is sent home to get his father’s wallet but gets lost and wanders through his school rooms then gets a ride out to the edge of the town on a cables carriage

* Next the area of the Street of Crocodiles is described with the area being one full of illegal booksellers (it would be great to visit one of those), prostitutes and conmen all in all the ugly part of town but also a place where nothing ever comes to fruition and the way he describes the train station is again very Kafkaesque

“At the last moment, when the train is already in the station, negotiations are conducted in nervous haste with the corrupt railway officials. Before these are completed, the train starts, followed slowly by a crowd of disappointed passengers who accompany it a long way down the line before finally dispersing.”pg107

* You get the impression that the father has died although the chronology is off because he then reappears in the following chapter but he goes through a faze where he becomes obsessed with cockroaches and goes as far as starting to imitate them and become like them

The final 50 pages come tomorrow...

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

The stories at the beginning of this collection are obviously more innocent than those towards the end which display all of the most obvious traits of Kafka’s style but he is quite capable of hinting at something a lot more disturbing, which is on display in The Window on the Street, as well as providing humour in a story like The Rejection.

There are a series of snippets, some no more than a paragraph, that make up the Meditation collection


These stories cover thoughts on what it must be like to live alone, why it is important to have a window that looks out onto the street if you do, and reminisces about walks in the country and the mountains

The longest two pieces – Children on a Country Road and Unhappiness – seem to bookend periods in his life when he was innocent and carefree and then more worldly wise

The feeling you get reading them is that he is always looking for the unusual in a situation and feeling out the reason why people make certain choices to either live alone or choose to act in certain ways. The final story, Unhappiness, about a ghost coming into a room, could almost be about one of those people that has chosen to live alone coming face to face with their childhood state at a time when they could have made other choices.

Free Schulz

If you fancy dipping a toe into the world of Bruno Schulz without having to fork out for the pleasure of doing so, then the Bruno Schulz's Stories site has a full version of Cinnamon Shops (known also as Street of Crocodiles) and fragments of his other well known work The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Street of Crocodiles - post I

The introduction establishes that Schulz was a solitary man who once he had become well known for his writing eased off to try and recede into the background. He was also an artist and suffered a terribly random death at the hands of the SS as he left the ghetto to visit the other side of town and was shot by an officer who was envious that a fellow solider was protecting Schulz because he valued his artwork.

Bullet points from pages 9 – 62

* The story is based around a family, which you know from reading the introduction is Schulz’s own with his father suddenly stepping back from the family business to stay in bed and ponder the accounts

* As his father is left more to his own devices he is not only forgotten about and becomes smaller and thinner but in one sequence orders lots of birds eggs from all over the world and then starts a menagerie in the attic

* The father even starts imitating birds but things come to a head as the housekeeper drives them all out through a window and the father has to start again finding a reason for his existence

* The reason presents itself in the form of a sewing group between two of the shop workers that the father comes across and starts attending lecturing them on a second genesis and the problem with the current system wanting men to be nothing more than shop dummies

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Because of a lunch meeting there was only time for a very short story today one that sums up the cold outlook some merchants can have when a customer does not have the means to pay.

The coal-scuttle rider
A very topical story for today bearing in mind the snow that covered London this morning. A man finds himself without any coal and facing the prospect of freezing to death. In desperation he takes his coal scuttle to the coal merchant and pleads for some coal of the lowest quality and he will pay later. But as the merchant’s wife comes out to speak to him and he mentions that he cannot pay the husband asks after her what the customer wants. ‘Nothing: is her reply and despite the curses of the desperate man she wanders back inside and leaves him to fate and the cold.

The inspirational Schulz story

On the way into work I started reading Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and it both inspired and depressed. The tragic part was his death, at the hands of an SS officer during the war after Schulz had left the ghetto to visit another part of his Polish town.

The inspiration came from the way he started to write, which was ain a series of letters to a friend. It makes you wonder if the modern equivalent could be blogging with a story developing online over a series of weeks and months. No doubt the blogger writers are already out there making sure that sort of modern equivalent takes place.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Petersburg - post V

This book ends in a way you could not have predicted with the victims emerging just at the end without any real victors. The phrase that will linger is “cerebral play” referring to the thoughts and dreams inspired by a city where everything seems to have its own lifeforce from the statutes to the fog.

Bullet points between pages 232 – 293

* Following his son’s performance at the ball Apolllon the senator is ruined and seems to suffer some sort of break down which sees his glittering career literally disappear overnight

* He wanders through the house into his son’s rooms and discovers the sardine tin with the bomb and takes it back into his study and then heads out to see his estranged wife in her hotel

* Meanwhile Nikolai has been taken prisoner by Sergei who declares after a spell of hysterical rage that he has taken Nikolai to make sure he doesn’t use the bomb to kill his father but allows his captive free after the denials make him believe he is mistaken

* Dudkin fulfils his oath to the bronze horseman and kills the party contact who had started the whole ball rolling about the bomb and he has clearly gone mad because he is still crouched over the body and discovered the morning after

* Nikolai having escaped from Sergei’s clutches heads home to try to find the bomb and ransacks his room without discovering it and tries to calm himself believing that Sergei has taken it and then is called to meet his mother

* He cries when he sees his mother and for the first time in years his father shows tenderness towards him and then allows his son to take his mother back to her hotel and they all turn in for the night with the bomb still undiscovered but getting closer to going off

* The bomb explodes in the study but does not kill Apollon but he seems to understand that it was meant for him and his son was going to use it and does not see his son again instead running away from him

* Apollon moves to the country after paying for his son and wife to travel and Nikolai becomes an expert on Egyptian history ending his life living completely alone after his parent’s death – his reward for making the promise to kill his father one presumes

Full review will follow after my own cerebral play after reading this book has calmed down…

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

You go from an innocent enough story about aeroplanes to something a lot darker and with an ending that is incredibly disturbing. At least here we are back on familiar Kafka territory.

The Judgement, A Story
A business man corresponds with his friend who has moved to Russia three years before but he keeps things from him because he does not want to upset the friend who has gone away and had limited success. But he never realises that he has concentrated on his own career and neglected his friend and maybe that is the reason why he does not wish to share in his news. He finally decides to tell his friend of his engagement and goes into talk about it to his father. But his father starts to attack him verbally and reveals that he has been writing to his friend for the three years and also accuses his son of cutting him out of the family business. He roars at him that he condemns him to death by drowning and then the son stumbles from the room, drags himself to the river and falls into the water.

More tomorrow…

1905 - Russia at the crossroads

Andrei Bely’s Petersburg is not just about the growing pains of anti-establishment forces and a view into their use of terror to make political points but also provides an insight into just what the capital of Russia felt like in 1905, when the first signs of major unrest surfaced, only to be submerged, but never really eradicated, until they sprung up again in 1917.

For those interested in Russian history there is also a great passage on pg185 that describes the gap between those seeking change and those happy to ignore it and cling to the status quo:

“From observing the procession of bowlers, you would never say momentous events were rumbling in the town of Ak-Tyuk, in the theatre in Kutais. In Tiflis a local policeman had discovered that they were manufacturing bombs. The library in Odessa had been closed. The universities of Russia were one big mass meeting. The citizens of Perm had started acting ornery. The Revel iron works had already begun running up red flags.

From observing the bowlers, no one would have said that a strike had already begun on the Moscow – Kazan railway line. Here and there windows had been smashed in the stations, warehouses broken into, and work was being stopped on the Kursk, Windau, Nizhny-Novgorod and Murom railway lines. And railway cars stood idle. And no one would have said that momentous events were rumbling in Petersburg. Typesetters from all the printing shops had elected delegates and had held meetings. Factories were on strike: the shipyards, the Alexandrovsky Factory.

The circulation was not disrupted: the bowlers continued their deathlike flow.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

Petersburg - post IV

It is hard to work out what is a dream and what is reality as the sense of hallucination spreads from character to character all stemming from the bomb. It is a bit like the Macbeth hand washing guilt in reverse because although no one has used the bomb yet, and plan if anything to throw it in the river, there is the guilt of having been prepared to use it.

There are powerful reminders of the power of the mind to confront the soul with guilt that echoes through other Russian literature, most notably Crime and Punishment and to a certain extent at the end of Dead Souls. You think of Kafka as being a writer that can take your world view and turn it upside down but this is similar in that reading it feels like being in a spinning bubble that has no visible sign of which way is up or down. But that is not a barrier to enjoying the book because if anything it involves the reader more in the conspiracy.

Bullet points between pages 178 – 232

* Having thought about it and dreamt that he himself is the bomb Nikolai seeks out the stranger Dudkin who gave him the bundle to tell him that he will not carry out the bombing and is advised to throw it in the Neva

* After Nikolai leaves Dudkin, who leaves in an attic room and imagines faces coming out of the wallpaper when things are normal, starts to fall apart and dreams up strangers and becomes obsessed with the idea he is a form of doom

“If he didn’t immediately break this nonsense down with his conscious mind, his conscious mind would break down into nonsense.” P206

* Dudkin loses it when he starts to visualise the Bronze Horseman (a famous statute in St Petersburg of Peter the Great pictured above) dismounting his horse and climbing the stairs into the attic room to tell him what he must do with his life

* All of the characters see the bronze horseman and even Nikolai is troubled by it in his visions but he day dreams about putting the bomb underneath his father’s pillow and graphically pictures the scene after the body and the explosion are discovered but is stopped by a clean shaven Sergei (husband of Sofia) who wishes to confront him over his behaviour towards his wife

* Nikolai cannot think about the events of the last few days only being able to concentrate on the bomb and the fact it is ticking away in his drawer back in his rooms getting ever closer to going off

Will he be able to get to the bomb before it goes off? What will the form of doom that is Dudkin do? More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Although I had planned to take a break from Franz Kafka this book stood out on the shelf and shows that the author is capable of producing quite accessible stuff along with the well known Trial and Metamorphosis.

The Aeroplanes at Brescia
Kafka tells the story of a group of friends travelling to see some of the most important names in the world of aviation - Bleriot (who flew across the channel), Rougier and Curtiss - and shares in the excitement at seeing these great men take to the skies in what in 1905 was still a form of transportation in its infancy. On the way to the aerodrome the friends see fading posters advertising car races, in a gently swipe at one form of race overtaking another, and all of the trains are full.

At the end one friend wonders if the famous pilots will come to Prague (Kafka's home town) but they seem to have an exclusivity around them that means they can only stay in certain towns and in the sky above residing with the stars.

More tomorrow...

Weekend roundup

The weekend was a bit light on bookish stuff. There was the concluding part of Zadie Smith’s piece in The Guardian about reading and writing and a couple of things in The Times and Sunday Times about the future direction of the printed word.

Smith’s piece in The Guardian, which has been the comment of numerous bloggers, wrapped things up by calling for more writer critics. It seemed to validate the approach most lit blogs take when they review, think and argue about a book, which all displays a passion for reading. Having seen the popularity of books that potentially offer a guide to how to read better it comes as no surprise that Smith’s article has been seized on by so many people.

The Sunday Times covered the future of the library, with more digital content coming in the future, and The Times revealed that Google wants to follow the iPod and do something similar for books. Wasn’t that Sony’s plan last year with the eReader? Still it was all used to stir up some doom and gloom about the traditional book format.

One of the most frustrating things when I was studying was that you would pop up to the library and find that the one copy of the book had been taken and all you wanted was one chapter. Being able to view and download that (there will be some copyright issues no doubt) would have made life a lot easier.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Valued for content

A perfect Sunday afternoon spent mooching around the second hand books in the charity shops as well as popping into a bookshop that happened to be having a half price sale. Only had a few minutes but what stood out as a real find, not because of value but because it is bound to be a great read, was a 1906 version of Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol.

Some people buy books because of the value but that has never really motivated me. If it as old book then what is often more important is size of print because it tends to be in a ridiculously small point size that hurts the eyes after a while and the condition of the book because the last thing you want is it to fall apart on you. Luckily this is fine on both counts.

As I browsed the store I overheard the owner of the shop moaning to a friend on the phone that he had hardly any custom. You read plenty of articles about the financial straits of independent booksellers but there is also the loneliness dimension when they are sat in an empty shop worrying about rent and bills all on their own. Maybe the dream of owning and running a bookshop will have to wait…

bookmark of the week

This bookmark was made for me by my eldest son and almost destroyed for me by the younger one, who decided to rip off as many of the images as he could, before I managed to stop him from destroying it completely. It is simply a piece of gold card with pictures cut out of a magazine stuck on to it but he made it for me when he was about 3 years old so it has great sentimental value.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Had to laugh

I popped into a branch of Oxfam today in Barnet, North London, and picked up a book for 99p by Aleksandr Zinovev called The Madhouse. A rather stern elderly woman at the till picked it up looked at the cover, which shows some russian academics in a state of panic and told rather than asked: "You've chosen a book about my house have you?" Not quite the question I was expecting.

book of books - The Trial

This is one of those books that has a reputation that precedes it that can work against it because like nearly all of Franz Kafka’s works you open it expecting to be sucked into a maze like world of dead ends and strangeness. It does contain that but there is also an assault on your own thinking going on here that lets the book operate on a different level.

Plot summary
Joseph K. is woken by two men informing him that he is under arrest and then he is given a bizarre interrogation in a neighbours flat. But he is allowed to go back to work in a senior position in the bank and is called to an interrogation where he lambasts the legal system but is introduced to some of its characters including the legal clerk, the attic offices of the law courts and ultimately via his uncle his advocate who is meant to defend him. After little progress K. decides to dismiss the advocate and defend himself but he seems to be unable to change his view of his trial or the legal system and in the end pays the price for being unable to heed the advice of not just his advocate but also the prison chaplain who heralds him in the cathedral.

Is it well written?
The start is stronger than the end with the reader, along with K., trying to work out just what is going on. But when it becomes clear, and the scene with the court painter is crucial here, that his case could last almost indefinitely and the role of the advocate is to keep it ticking over then you feel there has to be a decision by K. to defend himself to bring it to a conclusion. There are a few real skin creeping moments where you feel the shock of the character, as he discovers for instance that the priest in the cathedral is calling out his name. The sense of frustration and yearning for movement in the case that K. demands is something that the reader would identify with so that sense of anger with what seems to be completely illogical bordering on the stupid is a difficult thing to convey but K. manages to embody those feelings and that experience.

Should it be read?
For anyone looking for something that will challenge their perception of normality, wondering why things are as they are, and what their own response would be to something that is completely unjustified then the trial is a great read. You are constantly asked the fundamental question: what would you do? Would you fight it or accept it? Would you live with the case for years or try to bring it to a head? All of these questions are posed and what makes The Trial so special is that they are timeless and in an era of Guantemo Bay just as relevant as ever.

Leads to – More Kafka in the form of his short stories but there are also his other two novels America and The Castle which although I haven’t read have at least got an appetite for after this. In terms of multimedia some people have already commented about the Orson Welles film and for me there are very strong echoes of The Trial and its feel in the film Brazil.

Version read - Penguin paperback

Friday, January 19, 2007

Petersburg - post III

There are moments when the difference between dreams and reality is hard to tell and the constant idea of the mid leaving the body makes it seem like a dress rehearsal for what will happen when the bomb goes off.

Bullet points between pages 122 – 178

* The story of what happens with Sofia and her husband Sergei is dealt with quite quickly with his failed attempt to commit suicide while she was at the ball exposed and they then forgive each other

* Meanwhile Nikolai has a showdown with his father that he manages to get away from a confession about the bomb by revealing that his mother has returned from Spain but he is tormented by the discussion he had with a secret agent

* The agent, who also warned his father of an imminent assassination, tells him that he is a double agent and has a choice of either going ahead with the assassination, committing suicide or facing arrest

* After discovering the bomb was in the bundle and is in his room Nikolai seeks out the stranger and tells him that he is no longer prepared to carry out the bombing and that he believes the influence of other party members is outrageous

* He is assured that the matter will be looked into and he will be given an answer about it all but the request was that he held the bomb not use it although Nikolai admits he does not love his father

Who is the double agent? What will become of the bomb? What will happen when father and son are reunited with the mother? More to come…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

Last day of the Russian Short Stories and it ends with a well known author capable of sowing seeds of thought in a very limited number of pages.

The Embroidered TowelMikhail Bulgakov
Before becoming a writer Bulgakov was a doctor and worked through the First World War and started as a novelist covering the experiences he know about. This is a tale of a doctor in a regional town that is green around the gills and fears having to do any major surgery. A farmer comes in with his daughter who has fallen into a threshing machine and the doctor has to carry out an amputation. He never expects her to live and so is more bold than he might have been. After she has recovered she hobbles into his office on her father’s arm and hands him a towel with a cockerel embroidered onto it, something he initially refuses but then keeps until it falls apart.

The thing to note here is that the red cockerel is a warning sign of danger in Russia and the story is set in 1917 but when it appeared in print the editor changed it to 1916 so not to appear to be some sort of warning about the revolution. Those little nuggets were gleamed from the introduction to the story.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Petersburg - post II

The focus shifts from the senator to his son and most of the assumptions you are encouraged to make in the first chapter are quickly proved wrong with the story being guided in a different direction.

The role that Petersburg plays is an interesting one with the city acting as a simply backdrop as well as a more complex stirrer of moods and catalyst for action. Bear in mind this tale is set in 1905 a period of widespread political unrest in Russia and you sense in the descriptions of the factories and the suburbs that the power in the capital is moving away from the palaces and large homes.

Bullet points between pages 37 – 122

* The reason for the nighttime prowls and the repeated trip to the bridge is because of Nikolai’s failed affair with a woman who outshines the solider she is married to and his thoughts at one stage of committing suicide by jumping off the bridge

* As the relationship between Nikolia and Sofia Likhutina broke down he called her a doll and she labeled him a red buffoon, a criticism he takes very much to heart and starts going out wearing a mask to hide his face and a red domino costume, which becomes notorious in the press

* The stranger with the bundle, which you assume is a bomb, turns up to see Nikolai who has made some sort of promise when he was heartbroken and is now tied in with people he would rather not deal with

* His father returns and sees the stranger who has boasted of being part of the party and worries about what his son is getting involved with and then suffers some disturbing dreams about people knocking loudly on the door at night

* Nikolai spots Sofia on a bridge and dons his red domino costume and runs up to her but then ends up falling over and being chased by the police and she again calls him a buffoon and storms back home and tells all to her husband

* The husband happens to have grown up as a playmate of Nikolai and the report of his friend’s designs on his wife angers him in a way his wife has never seen and he tell her not to go to a ball where he knows Nikolai is going to also be in attendance

* She laughs off his threats of banishing her from the house and goes to the ball and hands Nikolia a note in which he is told to use the bomb in his draw (the mysterious bundle) and although it doesn’t spell it out presumably he is being asked to murder his father

* Nikolai runs from the party with his mask up so everyone knows who he is and he has become a laughing stock, even in front of his father who also went to the ball, but when Sofia gets home she finds her self locked out

Will Nikolai use the bomb? As his mother reappears what will that mean? What will become of Sofia? Some answers will no doubt come tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

There are so many stories in the Penguin Classics Russian Short Stories that this book will have to be completed another time. But in the last couple of posts this week the flavour will come from the period where writers were just starting to live with the reality of the Soviet system and their stories reflect that.

QuadraturinSigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
One of the stipulations of life in a communist city was that communal living was introduced with kitchens and bathrooms shared and each individual was not entitled to more than nine square metres.

Sutulin opens the door one night to a salesman who offers him a free trial product – Quadraturin – that expands his room after being applied to the walls. Sutulin manages to spread it across the floor, walls but runs out before he gets to the ceiling and then tumbles into bed. When he wakes the room has grown and keeps growing making it awkward for him and eventually he comes in from the street and his light bulb has broken and he plans to leave the room but loses his way inside and screams out in the night the scream of a dying man.

There is one passage where having got what he wanted and then it goes beyond his expectations Sutulin wishes things had been how they were in the past. The wider message seems to be about the inability for people to think for themselves or become an exception to the system.

Lalla’s InterestsVera Inber
Another key feature of communism was the option it provided for people of all occupations to become organised and challenge their superiors through a process of organised Soviets and workers councils.

Lalla is a six year old who plays with the 11 year old lift boy in an apartment block. Her mother tries to keep her away from the bell hop because she looks down on him but one day a meeting of all children is announced under the stairs and the lift boy keeps Lalla’s mother trapped in the lift for an hour and a half so her daughter can attend the meting. When she gets back to the apartment she finds her daughter writing out a poster: Children, be careful when electing parents! The mother then receives a note from the bell hop apologising for keeping her trapped but assuring her he did it for the sake of her daughter’s interests.

It makes you wonder about the power that communism handed to people with children being able to elect parents and six year-olds voting for their own future. The message seems to be that by handing those without knowledge the chance to set the rules the system was fatally flawed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Petersburg - post I

This book by Andrei Bely should really have followed Ulysses because the city of St Petersburg is a character in itself and of course the book takes its name from Russia’s old capital. The sense of the Neva, the fog and the numerous bridges and the limitless facades of buildings provides a picture of a city that is grand but on the edge of a swamp that could consume it at any time.

Bullet points between pages 1 – 36

* The principle characters in the first chapter are a senator, his son and a stranger who you suspect plans to throw a bomb at the senators carriage to make a political point but all of this builds up in fragments

* The senator Apollon Apollonovich is 68-year-old man who is head of a department and therefore successful but his wife left him five years earlier running off with an Italian singer and Russia is in flux

* The year 1905 marks the loss against the Japanese, rising troubles for the Tsar and you sense this with a few comments and the presence of a stranger and whisperings of a terrible act being undertaken as a ‘provocation’

* But there appears to be a link between the stranger and the senator’s son Nikolai who does not get up until midday and seems to have been unlucky in love roaming the streets at night recalling how a lost love ended – you get the idea she might have jumped off a bridge

* But the chapter ends with the stranger again being placed centre stage of not just the senator’s mind but also of the readers

Just what will happen should start to unfold tomorrow and with any luck I won’t forget to take the book to work and will get through more pages…

Lunchtime read: Metamorphosis

It seems logical, having just finished a Kafka book to postpone the Russian Short Stories until tomorrow and do a quick report on his most famous work The Metamorphosis.

The MetamorphosisFranz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds himself changed into an insect and the relationships with the rest of his family and his own mind are the main focus of the story. He feels that he has let his family down because he is the main breadwinner and obviously cannot go to work but there is also a question of why this has happened and whether it is some sort of punishment. In terms of the reaction to him his family shun him and when he comes out of his room one day his father throws apples at him, one of which gets buried in his back and causes an infection. The end comes after Gregor slips out of his room to listen to his sister playing violin and is referred to as an ‘it’ and so goes back to his room and dies from starvation and the infection from the apple.

The idea that you could somehow change your shape into that of an insect and see your wings and numerous legs flapping around is enough to disturb but then coping with the permanence of that change and realising that it has been a death sentence is just as hard. While surfing on Wikipeda viewing the various critical approaches people take to Kafka the idea that it might be slightly existential makes sense in that Camus and Satre also have that ability to create disturbing situations and characters.

More Russian stories tomorrow…

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Trial - post III

The book ends without a reprieve for Joseph K. who fails right until the end to understand what the law is all about and that logic and common sense cannot be applied to its workings.

Bullet points between pages 184 - 251

* Joseph expresses dissatisfaction with progress of his case and sets off to see the advocate to dismiss him from the case and meets another arrested man Block a merchant who warns him against dropping the advocate

* The advocate tries to stop K. from dropping his services by humiliating Block and showing the power he has over the fate of those who are depending on him for salvation but that just makes K. more determined to abandon the advocate

* K. is being ground down by the case and is sent by his manager to accompany an Italian to the cathedral but the tourist fails to arrive and just as K. is about to leave the priest calls out his name from the pulpit

* The priest turns out to be the prison chaplain and warns K. that his case is going badly and bemoans the fact that Joseph is unable to adapt his mind to the workings of the court and keep holding on to his logic that is inappropriate to understand the workings of the court

* The final chapter is a sinister version of the first with two men coming to collect K. and they arm lock him and take him trough town to a quarry and on the way K., who seems to realise what is happening, resigns himself

* Leaning against a rock on the edge of the quarry the two men pull out a knife and then kill K. with his last words about the shame of it meant to sum up the futility and the anger of the shameful death

A review will follow once the story has sunk in a bit…

Struggling to find the right bedtime story

There is quite a responsibility being a parent around the issue of reading because you want to do what is best but it is not always easy. Coming home from work having fallen asleep reading your own book sometimes it is just too much to then smile through the repetitive stuff targeting five year olds. But it is important and I really want to try harder.

Part of the reason is a fear that you are letting them down. The National Literacy Trust started its Family Reading Campaign yesterday, there was some coverage in The Independent, trying to encourage parents to not just leave the reading to parents and read at bedtime and spread the joy of reading.

My problem is that I dream about getting a bedtime reading going but am not quite sure where to start. C.S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew seemed like a good idea but I am now thinking of starting The Hobbit but is that the right sort of thing for a five year old? Advice would be great because the will is there it’s just going down the right way that is now the issue.

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

Usually these lunchtime posts are made at my desk as I nibble a sandwich but today I am in another building at an all day meeting so this is being made a lot earlier than usual.

The Lion - Yevgeny Zamyatin
A ballet company is facing a crisis after the Lion, who has to climb onto a rock and then fall off after being speared, turns up drunk so stage hand Petya Zherebyakin offers to step in and after a quick rehearsal gets the part. He rushes off to tell a policewoman who he fancies that he is in a play. She had once mentioned that she would like to fall in love with a famous actor. But as the curtain goes up and he wanders out onto the stage he is struck by fear and as he is meant to fall from the rock he crosses himself before dropping down to the floor. This brings the house down and as the policewoman roars with laughter, along with the rest of the audience, the lion covers his eyes with his paws and cries his heart out.

More in the same vein to come tomorrow…

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Trial - post II

After the strange events of the first 100 pages the story settles into a sense of growing unease as the case gathers momentum with K. taking on legal advice but not seeing to be getting anywhere.

Bullet points between pages 102 – 183

* Joseph K.’s uncle turns up and demands that his nephew takes action and stops ignoring the case and takes him to an old friend who is an advocate and asks his friend to take on his nephew’s case

* While his Uncle and legal friend are talking Joseph wanders off and is seduced by the house main Leni and then comes out of the house to be confronted by an angry Uncle who despairs about his behaviour

* The advocate tries to help Joseph but the legal system keeps the defence in the dark and the case is carried out in secret making it difficult to know how things are progressing

* The advocate tells stories to illustrate the lowly status of those for the defence describing their attic room, with a hole in the floor big enough to get your leg trapped through, as evidence of how neglected they are as a community

* K. starts to suffer at work because he keeps dreaming about his case until a client comes in and tells him that the court painter could offer him some useful advice about his case and so he heads off to see the painter who like the court is based in an airless attic

* The painter advises him to try and go for a postponement in his case but because of the atmosphere in the garret K. is unable to concentrate and as he takes his leave is surprised to find law offices next door but the painter explains that nearly all attics contain law offices

More strangeness tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

Because there are still lots of stories left unread and it seems to accompany the Kafka very well I’m sticking with the Russian Short Stories this week.

God sees the truth, and waits - Leo Tolstoy
A good man, Alsyonov, tells his wife he is off to the market and she tells him she has had a dream that it will ruin him so she tells him not to go. He ignores her and meets up with a friend, stays the night with him in an inn, and then after leaving early the morning after is stopped by the police and charged with the murder of his merchant friend who has been found with his throat cut. Alsyonov is found with a bloodied knife in his bag and gets 26 years in Siberia. While there a man comes in who he knows really killed his friend and after he discovers him trying to escape but refuses to drop him in it with the governor. The prisoner begs for his forgiveness and confesses to the murder of the merchant but by the time the release papers come through Alsyonov has died.

That’s a cheery lunch time tale. More of the same probably tomorrow…

Weekend news roundup

There were a fair few articles about books and reading over the weekend worth mentioning here if you missed them.

The Times had an interesting article claiming that Gatsby was based on a prize fighting Welsh boxer and the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald was also full of his friends. The theory hinges on the friendship between the boxer and the author and crucial details of a car crash that is replayed in the novel.

The Review section in Saturday’s Guardian had an interesting piece about writing and reading novels by Zadie Smith which includes some interesting thoughts about the responsibility of the writer.

Picking up on the responsibility there is a very interesting reply to a question about research made by Martin Amis in his response to reader's questions in the Independent that you have to applaud for honesty but wonder about whether or not he should have visited the country he wrote about.

How did you research your new novel, The House of Meetings. You have not, I believe, ever been to Russia? OKSANA EVERTS, London

No. I did it by reading (and imagining). The Daily Mail school of criticism would have it that all writers, including Tolstoy and Shakespeare, are sneak thieves and bagsnatchers (see the recent non-scandal, indeed non-story, centred on Ian McEwan). But reading is the other half of writing, or the other third: you write, you read, and you live.

Then finally there are some stirrings on what will become a louder debate this year no doubt about using recycled paper in books. The Independent lists some big authors who are calling for a switch to recycled paper and there will be more calls for action on this because books are a bit of a sitting target for environmental criticism.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Steinbeck on the ingredients of a good story

When a writer undertakes a work that is based loosely on their own lives they seem to want to try and create a bit of space in the text to justify why they are writing in such a style and about such a subject. I posted the comments made by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past about writing and John Steinbeck also has something to say in East of Eden.

Chapter 34 at the start of part four is used by Steinbeck to talk about stories and what makes people write them.

“A child may ask, ‘What is the world’s story about?’ And a grown man or woman may wonder, ‘What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?’

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story.”

For anyone thinking of writing a novel there is some real food for thought – just the small matter of good and evil as subject matter and character bases.

bookmark of the week

My parents live in the 'burbs near Chicago and not too far away is Oak Park, which is an area which includes a home built and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and these bookmarks have been kindly sent from there. Lloyd Wright was a bit like Charles Mackintosh and William Morris in being able to create and design the entire package and these bookmarks show a design for a ceiling grille and a glass mural.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

book of books - East of Eden

This is the last book in my series of five that was part of the Winter Reading Challenge and although it was almost the longest it was a great book to finally read. John Steinbeck is known for his gritty portrayals of life in California during the depression but this is set in an earlier time and as a result the great theme is not poverty and struggle but love.

Plot summary
The mammoth book is best split into three parts for the ease of explaining the plot:

The book evolves around two families, the Hamilton’s and the Trask’s, with the first section of the book focusing on the Trask brothers Adam and Charles and their father and step mother. The brothers grow up with a strained relationship that improves after their father dies but then falls apart after Adam falls in love with a stranger who comes to the house and marries her making Cathy his wife and then moves away to California and settles in the Salinas valley.

California - The farm
What Adam doesn’t know is that Cathy does not feel love and is a killer and she only stays with him long enough to give birth to twins, shoot him in the arm and leave him. By this time Adam has purchased a farm in the Salinas valley and made friends with Samuel Hamilton, an aging Irish immigrant who is a wise friend and helps him name the twins after Cain and Abel – Caleb and Aaron. The other main character is the Chinese servant Lee who makes friends with Samuel and grows to become a steadfast companion to Adam. As the boys grow and Adam mourns for Cathy he is forced to come out of his daze confronted by the truth that Cathy has now become Kate and runs a brothel in Salinas. Samuel is weakened by the news that one of his daughters has died and he never really recovers and his children plan to get him to leave the ranch but each reacts differently to his character and his love with some following his way – Joe in particular – while others become successful being the opposite – notably Will.

The family move there and Adam becomes free of Cathy after realising that she is more afraid of him than she is of her. He develops an interest in the town and invests in a business that fails and as a result the boys are subjected to teasing which hurts Aron more than Cal, who is more like his mother. An uneasy relationship between the father and sons is going well until Cal surprises his father with money to cover his losses from the business venture and Adam rejects the money, although importantly not him. Cal takes his revenge by introducing Aron him to his mother leading his brother enlisting to fight in the First World War and ultimately to die in battle. The book ends with a very moving moment when Adam, who has suffered a stroke after the news of Aron’s death, is asked to forgive his son Cal. His father does it handing his son the chance to have a future free of the guilt of the past.

Is it well written?
Because of the size of the book, 728 pages, it is a bit of a slow burner and it sometimes feels strange to get introduced to the Hamilton’s and then not read about them again for several chapters. In the second half of the book the central theme of examining what happens when there is blind love, no love or unrequited love becomes clear and the book really starts to hit its stride when there are just about 250 pages left to go. The problem with the start is that some people will walk away from this book because it doesn’t grab them and because the dust jacket, which describes it as a case of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel does simplify things slightly. But Steinbeck has an ability to describe the power of a glance, thought or expression in a away that most writers can only aspire to. This is also a semi-autobiographical story because John Steinbeck is in the book as a child and if this is right Samuel Hamilton was his grandfather. That sensitivity to telling a family story also shows through with the style – it was a book that clearly mattered to him and he is quoted as saying it was the book that all the others had been preparing him for.

IS it worth reading?
Please stick with it and the answer is a resounding yes but it takes some patience and concentration, because some themes echo throughout the book. It is also about prejudice not just racial, which is demonstrated by Lee who after coming out as an equal is then treated badly by the nurse at the end providing a sharp reminder of his status, but about the fundamental questions of good and evil. On a personal level it made me think about how I treat my two sons and how my reactions to those moments when they try to impress me are crucial.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Kafka links

The great thing about the web is that you can read a book and turn to a huge online resource of interesting article, free translations and extra stuff like photography of Prague in the time when Franz kafka lived there. A few years ago - pre children when money was more available - I visited Prague and picked up a couple of Kafka's Prague type books and the great thing is that most of that material is now online for free. If you have never visited Prague then it is a great place, not just for Kafka lovers, and if you get the chance go.

A good starting point for Kafka links is the Franz Kafka on the web page that links through to sites in various languages (although be warned some were not working). Then there is of course the obligitary Wikipedia reference. But one that stood out was The Ledge, which provides summaries of the books and suggestions of further reading but has a flash interface that is really worth having a look at and has lots of interviews ana summaries of other books.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Trial - post I

There are moments when you read this book by Franz Kafka and you start to get concerned that some of the strange things could be possible. The sense of helplessness and weirdness that permeates through the novel is the most disturbing aspect to it so far.

Bullet points between pages 7 – 101

* The story starts with a banker named Joseph K. being told by two men, then confirmed by a third sitting in a neighbours flat behind a desk, that he is under arrest but no charges are specified and he is then released to go back to work

* Joseph tries to dig a bit deeper with his landlady about the events and manages to fall out with her and then gets carried away and kisses his neighbour after explaining to her what happened in her rooms

* He then gets summoned to a tenement block for an interrogation on a Sunday and walks into a packed room and takes the stage and pleads for some sort of sanity and gives a full account of the events of his arrest including a criticism of the men who first dealt with him

A week later he returns for a hearing but discovers there is no sitting but gets seduced by the legal secretary’s wife who is then grabbed and taken upstairs to for the interrogating magistrate’s pleasure leaving Joseph with the husband who offers to show him the legal offices

* But once in the attic Joseph becomes weak and almost faints and has to be helped outside to get his breath back and as the door opens those inside replicate his symptoms as they breath in the fresh air

* The strangest scene so far comes next as Joseph hears a sound as he goes past a store room in the bank and finds the two men who first arrested him being whipped because of the complaint he made about them at the first interrogation

* As Joseph walks past the room the next day he opens the door on impulse and finds the same two men and the whipper in the room – something that unnerves him and he demands that the bank clerks clear the room out

Why are these things happening to him and why does he get sudden impulses to do things that he presumably would never do, like kissing his neighbour and walking firmly into store rooms? More will follow…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

The beauty of reading short stories is you can read from anywhere in the book so I am working my way from the front and the back reading both a 19th century and a 20th century writer.

The GreatcoatNikolay Gogol
The story follows Akaky Akakiyevich a government clerk who has no ambition lives a solitary life and tries to get by without spending a great deal. His great coat starts to fall apart and the tailor upstairs refuses to patch up his old one so he buys a new one and it changes how he is perceived in the office and how he feels about himself. His colleagues throw a party to celebrate his new coat and on his way home he is robbed and loses his coat. Akaky ends up going to an influential general to seek help but instead gets shouted at. Soon after crushed by adversity Akaky dies and haunts the square where he lost his coat taking others until he finally comes across the general and strips him of his coat. The general comes home and never shouts at people in quite the same way.

Akaky would have done better to have relaxed but the coat became everything for him and the general would have done better to listen.

Excerpts from the Kolyma TalesVarlam Shalamov
Kolyma gained the reputation of being the worst camp in Stalin’s large gulag network and a book made up of stories about the camp was how Shalamov recorded his decade there. The stories Through the Snow and Berries, which start the cycle of stories give an indication very quickly of the cold, cruelty and misery of the life of the prisoners. In Berries a guard shoots a prisoner picking berries over the demarcation line and then expresses regret that Shalamov didn’t also cross the line because he would have liked to have killed him as well.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

East of Eden - post XI

A large number of people rate Steinbeck very highly and you think you know why after reading Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath but there is an attention to human emotions in East of Eden that surpasses those and reminds me a bit of the lump-in-throat inducing end of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is also a study in the relationships between children and fathers and friends.

Bullet points between 676 – 728

* Adam has a minor stroke after receiving Aron’s telegram telling him that he has enlisted and he is not to worry and for a while is very ill being nursed by Lee who becomes a minor expert on cerebral haemorrhages

* Cal blames himself for his brother’s decision but is tamed from becoming truly evil by Abra who reveals that her father is going to jail for corporate fraud and that she is far from perfect and is in love with Cal

* Then the inevitable happens and the telegram comes informing them of Aron’s death and it forces Adam to have a full-blown stroke and in his grief Cal admits he took Aron to meet Kate and that led to him joining the army

* In a very moving scene Lee gets Cal and Abra to come to Adam’s bedside and Lee begs for Adam to forgive his son and bless him and he does uttering the word “Timshel” Hebrew for thou mayest an echo throughout the second half of the book meaning that he forgives him not because he has to but because he can

I’m not ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes at the ending and put the book down and saw Steinbeck in a different light. Wrongly I thought he specialised in writing about people down on their luck but here was a story all about love, in all its forms, and the writing was weighted just right and the attention to the human condition in places amazing. Review in the next couple of days…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

What A Pity - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This is a short story that on the face of it seems like it is going to be the usual thing about someone running into trouble with the authorities but it is more complex than that. A woman walks down a street and sees a three day old newspaper on display that has a piece about her father and she gets caught stealing it and let off by a sympathetic policeman. In the article a journalist trying to ingratiate themselves with the party line praises the improvements made in a valley and criticizes the Tsarist regime for not implementing them wondering if the man who dreamt up the plans knows they have been realised. The man who dreamt up the plans is in exile and if the journalist knew and the magazine editor’s knew it would never have been published. Trying to attack one old system means they have fallen foul of the current one.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

East of Eden - post X

There are less than 100 pages left and the tension is building as this book reaches its climax and some characters decide its all too much and opt to go and meet their maker rather than hang around until the end.

Bullet points between pages 578 – 676

* Kate becomes obsessed by Ethel and pays Joe to go and find her in a bid to silence her but Joe guesses that there is something he can use here so lies to Kate about where Ethel has gone planning to get contol of the brothel eventually off her

* Meanwhile Aron has become devoted to the church but takes his exams early and goers to college and Cal forms a partnership with Will Hamilton to try and buy his father’s love by getting his money back that he lost on the frozen cabbage venture

* Aron puts Abra on a pedestal and she feels like falling off to make sure that what he has fallen in love with is more reality than a dream and talks to Lee about their relationship but still expects to become his wife

* Aron goes to college but is homesick and comes home for Thanksgiving braced to tell his father that he wants to drop out but instead finds the family and its expectations too much but Cal is hoping to win the day by handing out $15,000 to his father

* Adam refuses the money and tells Cal, who has made it selling beans for the soldiers in France, that he is exploiting the war and the farmers and upsets his son who in his anger takes Aron to meet Kate

* The next day a heartbroken Aron enlists and Kate who is surrounded by people she fears and mistrusts decides to take her own life leaving everything to Aron but before she goes she shops Joe to the police and when they come foe him the next day he dies after being shot while trying to escape

What will happen to Adam, Lee, Aron and Cal? The final chunk of the book will have the answers…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

Sinbad the Sailor - Yury Buida
A short but powerful story about an old poor woman who is dying and gives her doctor one last instruction to go into her house and burn the thousands of copies she has made of one poem by Pushkin. She has written the poem everyday of her life and noted down the date and any major events at the bottom. The doctor obviously feels he is almost burning her soul when he burns the papers but keeps the last one, which she had given him, which is also undated. It becomes a reflection on time and mortality.

The card's marked

When I was at school the library worked on a system of trust that meant you took the card out of the back filled in that you had taken it and then made sure you came back with the book before the deadline. Saw a posting about this library card generator on Stephen Lang's blog and he also mentions there is something about it on Brandon's blog The After-Dinner Payback. It's all bit of fun and really easy to do at the card-generator site.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

East of Eden - post IX

As the book starts to move towards its end it becomes clear that it is all about love – the powder of it, the consequences of the absence of it and the yearning for it – and Cathy becomes part of the story again because she signifies what happens when you are completely absent of love.

This is also a book written with a great deal of love, of the past and of family, and it comes across on every page and because of that you trust things will be okay even when Cathy is at her most deranged and desperate.

Bullet points between pages 503 – 578

* Having moved to Salinas the boys start school and it comes time for Lee to leave and open his bookstore in San Francisco but he returns suffering from loneliness and spends a lot of time and a fair amount of money doing up the house

* In the meantime Adam has become fixated on freezing vegetables and against the advice of business guru Will Hamilton buys the local refrigeration company and sends some cabbages to New York but because of transport problems the plan is a failure

* The boys feel that their father has failed, lost lots of money and become a laughing stock in the town and Aron, who is seriously involved with Abra his girlfriend plans to move away while Cal starts to hunt for his mother

* He discovers his mother is known as Kate and running a brothel and starts to follow her and lets Lee know that he has discovered the truth and then one night he is caught by the police at a gambling den and his father gets to sit down with him alone

* Adam shows Cal love and the boy reacts to it and blurts out about his mother and Adam asks him to never tell his brother about it and shortly afterwards Cal meets Kate and confronts her accusing her of being afraid

* Kate has become afraid – afraid that people might do to her what she has done to others – and she retreats into a grey world of complete mistrust and is rocked by the meeting with Cal who comes away strong and determined to help Aron through college and his father to revive his fortunes

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

It’s great reading short stories by various different authors because of the different voices and styles and for material that you want to read in a short space of time there is always that sense of achievement that you have finished the story before your time is up.

Highlights from a couple of Russian stories

The Fatalist Mikhail Lermontov
Again there is a gambling theme with one man taking bets whether predestination exists or not by raising a loaded gun to his head. The gun miss-fires leading the Vulich, to boast that he has won over fate but one of those assembled, Pechorin, says that he sees death on the gamblers face. Pechorin leaves and walks home convinced that he had recognised death on his face and is woken in the early hours having been told that Vulich has been carved almost in two by a mad Cossack later on his way home with his last words being “He was right”.

The Officer’s Belt - Sergei Dovlatov
This is a modernish story, being set in the late 1960s, and focuses on the author and his experience escorting a prisoner to the asylum after he had gone mad. On the way the other solider escorting them gets drunk and beats up Dovlatov hospitalising him. He comes to the hospital and begs repentance and together they write down all of the questions and answers he should answer in court but they forget the most obvious one “tell us what happened”. So in the court room the accused starts reeling off answers unrelated to anything (I was laughing out loud at this point) and winds the judge up and gets his deserved punishment.

book of books - The Plato Papers

I have read a few books by Peter AckroydLondon: A biography, Hawksmoor and The Clerkenwell Tales – and all share this sort of mystical knowledge of London that you find in just a small handful of writers including Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock. It makes reading the books a challenge because time is warped, locations are layered and sometimes the obvious can be inverted to make you think.

You know what type of book you are dealing with based on the cover image, which I am sure is upside down because it looks like tunnel lighting in a tube station

Plot summary
The location is London but the date is 1,000 years plus into the future and our era, known as the age of Mouldwarp, is the stuff of history lessons given by the town’s orator Plato. In a series of orations Plato starts to have doubts that his view of the past is actually right and after questioning his soul is given an opportunity to travel into a cave and find the remnants of the Mouldwarp people living under the city. His discovery lands him in trouble with the authorities and after clearing his name he decides to embrace self imposed exile after getting a glimpse of the truth that his forefathers created Mouldwarp.

Is it well written?
It is not always obvious what is going on and there is a certain level of knowledge of London’s geography and past that is needed to get a feel for the place but it is possible to follow the main story of Plato and his discovery of the truth. It is written by someone who knows they are supremely clever, know their subject inside out and can make jokes, that sometimes feel they are being made at the expense of the reader. Coming to the end of the book I felt, just as London has its different layers so did this book and I missed out on some of them completely.

Should it be read?
For those who love history there is a warning here about interpreting the past and most of Plato’s mistakes are made because he has a fragment on the past and then builds assumptions around it that seem logical but of course are far of the mark. It makes you think about how future generations will view our time and what assumptions they will make about us.

Version read: Vintage paperback

Monday, January 08, 2007

East of Eden - post VIII

Steinbeck has the ability to bring a lump to your throat and a smile to your face sometimes in unison but always at the right time. Powerful stuff as characters struggle with hate, love and loneliness.

Bullet points between pages 402 – 502

* After his visit Adam comes back and shows an interest in his boys, which is the first time they have been really discussed in the story so far, and history seems to be repeating itself with Cal the dark menacing one and Aron the Adam junior

* Adam decides to write to his brother Charles and Lee asks him if he can leave to open a bookstore in San Francisco and it seems that Adam will be given a chance to rediscover the things lost in his decade of mourning for Cathy

* A letter is returned to him with a note from the lawyers saying that Charles has died and left his money to be split between Adam and Cathy which forces a reunion of the husband and wife in which Adam exposes her inability to believe in love

* Following Samuel’s death the Hamilton family settle in to their respective lives with Tom left at the ranch being eaten up with loneliness but he perks up when his sister Dessie sells her house in town to Adam and moves back home

* But Dessie is ill and just as they plan to travel Europe and escape for a life of adventure she takes a turn for the worst and in response, because by giving her salts Tom believes he killed her, the lonely son decides to take his own life

If that final few chapters fails to leave you with a tear in the eye then you must be made of tin. More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

Of all the Russian short stories the Queen of Spades by Aleksandr Pushkin is probably the most famous and combines some of the favourite Russian past times – gambling, an interest in the supernatural and social position.

The condensed story
* The story starts with a bunch of friends all sharing gambling stories with one man telling of his aunts amazing story that involved her winning with three cards. One of the assembled audience, a Russo German named Hermann is transfixed by the story and starts to court the old Aunt’s ward in a bid to gain entry into the house.

* He manages to get in and confronts her but after she appears to be unwilling to help he pulls out a pistol and the old lady dies. He is visited by her as a ghost and she tells him the secret of the three cards but tells him he can only play once and must marry her ward.

* He goes and gambles and wins big with the first card, the next night does the same with the second and then on the final night he expects to draw the ace, the last card in the sequence and win but as the card is turned over it is the queen who looks like the old woman and she winks at him sending him mad into an asylum.

If there is a moral then maybe it’s quit when you are ahead or better still don’t gamble at all…