Review: Monsieur Proust’s Library – Anka Muhlstein

fullpage.doMonsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so.  I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.

It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page.  As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”.  What a job for a translator!

Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge.  But would reading it be enough?  Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.

I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.

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Revew: Balzac’s Omelette – Anka Muhlstein

balzacThis book ticks a number of boxes for me:

– It describes the literary world of Paris in the 19th century;
– It homes in on Honore de Balzac, a writer I have been reading for the last two or three years;
– It describes the history of French cooking and eating-out;
– It’s very interesting and held my attention right to the end.

Sometimes you come to a book like this that seems to be an amusement rather than a serious work and you discover a huge amount of knowledge behind it, so vast in scale in fact that you wonder how the author managed to find out so much about the subject.

Not only has Anka Muhlstein researched the history of restaurants and the food people ate in them during the 19th century, her knowledge of Balzac’s vast number of books is little short of encyclopaedic.  Balzac’s books are generally long, and contain so many characters, you wonder how she managed to hold them all in her head and keep quoting from them as she wrote (to give it’s full title Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture With Honoré de Balzac (Other Press, New York).

Perhaps I should expect nothing less from Anka Muhlstein.  After all, she has published eleven books of biographies and essays and has been awarded the Goncourt prize of Biography, twice receiving the French Academy’s History Prize.  Nevertheless the book is highly readable being full of anecdotes about Balzac and other writers of the time,  short extracts from his books, and magnificent descriptions of meals and vastly long sittings at restaurant tables.

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Review: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – Peter Boxall

boxall1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a controversial volume among book-lovers.  Let me say at the start that as a book lover, I really value this book – apart from its rich content with its high production values, it is a thing of beauty in itself and will not be a book to be placed on a shelf and forgotten about.

Some people hate it with a vengeance – one woman on Goodreads wrote a review full of expletives as she considered the thought that someone should tell her what she must read.  Others disagree with the selection of the 1001 books, while others accuse it of just being a collection of synopses of the sort you find on the back cover of a paper-back.  One reviewer on described it as “a cynical exercise in marketing to the culturally insecure”.

On the other hand, many reviews are glowing – for example, so many people think that the list of 1001 books is valuable that they have formed a group on GoodReads with over 11,000 members, many of whom have signed up to read all 1001 books – and why not? – its as good a list as any and at least has more rational thought behind it than just randomly picking books with attractive covers, or books you read reviews of in the newspapers.

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Review: Such Stuff as Dreams – Keith Oatley

The Stuff of DreamsKeith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto.  He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading.  His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.

Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book  down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”

Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read.  What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings.  Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other.  Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.

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Review: Is that a Fish in Your Ear? – David Bellos

I have read many books which have been translated from other languages and have often wondered about the translation process.  Its almost impossible for the average reader to judge the accuracy of the translation or whether it corresponds to the original style of the author.

Even the current Education Secretary (our Government Minister for Education) Michael Gove went public in The Times a few years ago with the statement that “subtlety of language and precision of thought would inevitably be lost in translation, making B-list Brit novelists a better bet than front-rank foreigners” (something he later recanted after a number of intelligently worded protests).

A translation can sometimes achieve transcendence and stand as a major work in its own right – the King James Bible, for example.  Or sometimes a new translation can reinvigorate a work: it is widely accepted that Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote has effectively relaunched the work and enabled new generations to see its importance as “the first modern novel”.  Many have said the same for Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary.

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Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

The e PossessedElif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here.  The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).

I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read.  As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.

I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!).  Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

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Review: Mrs Woolf and the Servants – Alison Light

My wife and I live in Bloomsbury-group country.  Just last weekend we walked from Southease to Rodmell and walked past Monk’s House where Virginia Woolf ended her days (she threw herself into the River Ouse just down at end of the lane).

Berwick Church is near us, where Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister) and Duncan Grant painted colourful murals on the  interior walls.  And Charleston, the country home of the Bloomsbury Group is just over the hill from us.

In Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light has presented us with a whole new perspective on Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, by focusing on the paid servants who supported her life, particularly Nellie Boxall.

Virginia and her sister Vanessa were conscious that the day of servants was passing, but they seemed to be unable to do dispense with their services.  When Virginia was starting out on married life, she made an attempt to shop for her family but wrote of it as “a degrading but rather amusing business. I dislike the sight of women shopping. They take it so seriously”.  This attempt to be more self-sufficient did not last long and there was no real prospect of her changing beds, cleaning rooms and cooking daily meals.

Alison Light goes into detail in describing the life of Nellie Boxall, who was with the Woolf’s for 18 years.  Nellie had privileges denied to most servants of the time such as a radio in her room and access to the Woolf’s gramophone, but on the down-side, the could be “lent” to Vanessa Bell’s household when needed and also had to spend time with the Woolfs at their primitive cottage at Asheham where there was no electricity or running water.

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