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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Review: Cruel Crossing – Edward Stourton

cruelBack in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny.  The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.

The  “Chemin” has become a “walking memorial” for the Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society (who have a fascinating calendar of events including various other lengthy walks and bike rides).

Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route.  He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s.  His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.

Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.

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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: Olivia Laing – To the River

To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf.  The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing.  Indeed, as she describes her walk down through Rodmell where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, we readers almost feel a concern that this walk may be too much for her to bear at this stage of her life (but of course, the fact that she wrote the book showed that our fears were ungrounded).

The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven.  I live in this area and walk bits of her route regularly and would say that it is on the whole a cosy landscape, containing a few pretty villages and the ancient market town of Lewes.  Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago.  I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print – although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing’s readers won’t be lacking information about it.

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Review: The Address Book – Tim Radford

Like many school children of my era, when writing my name and address in a book I would extend the address to include cosmic information such as,

. . .  Great Britain
Outer Space
The Universe

In his book,  The Address Book, Tim Radford has taken that concept and written a set of extended essays on the concept of place, resulting in a fascinating meditation on our place in the world around us.  Starting with a chapter headed The Number and The Street, he meanders through The Town, The Country, The Nation and so on right through to The Solar System, The Galaxy and The Universe.

This could seem an artificial concept which would soon run out of steam, but Tim Radford begins well and takes his readers with him as they explore their own place in the Universe and make his meditation their own.  I can’t say I agree with his views throughout but at least he provoked a dialogue in me which made me think about my own sense of place and reflect on my own feelings for town, county, nation and panet.

Most of us feel a sense of affection to the place we live, and Tim takes an obvious delight in the town he lived in for 23 years, the Sussex town of Hastings.  I was reminded of Louise Dean’s book, The Old Romantic which is set in this rather run-down coastal town.  In an interview on BBC Radio 4, Louise Dean said,

Hastings has been on its uppers for many, many years – there are rumours, very much exagerrated, about Hastings having a revival . . . but its still humble and humbling, and fascinating and unkempt and wayward, and in some ways its very much a character itself.

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Review: Story of a Secret State – Jan Karski

Note – since publishing this review, I have been sent some interesting personal reminiscences of Jan Karski which I have published in two parts here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

I have recently been engrossed in a first person account of the Polish resistance movement in World War II Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.
After the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, Jan Karski became a liaison officer with the Polish underground, travelling across closed borders to Paris and eventually infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto and taking eye-witness accounts to a sceptical Anthony Eden and Franklin Roosevelt.

You are probably going to hear quite a lot about this book in coming months – a recent article in The Observer reported that film-maker Ian Canning, the producer of The King’s Speech has acquired the rights to the memoir from Penguin with Ralph Fiennes being a likely contender for Karski.

It is difficult to understand why this book was never published in Britain when in America 400,000 copies were sold during the war.  This new edition contains additional information added by Karski before his death in 2000, material which he could not reveal during the war.

The bravery of Jan Karski was exceptional.  Reporting directly to General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister in London, Karski risked his life throughout the war, being captured by both the Russians and the Germans and suffering brutal torture at the hands of the SS.  Few people would volunteer to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Jewish Resistance, and later to infiltrate the Belzec death camp in the uniform of an Estonian guard.

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Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who’s work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris.  When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese netsuke carvings from his Uncle Ignace, he felt prompted to investigate their place in the family history.  The Hare With Amber Eyes is the result.

The book opens with De Waal studying in Tokyo in 1991 while on a two year scholarship, visiting his Uncle Iggie (Ignace) in his home in Tokyo, which he shares with Jiro, his partner of 41 years.  Ignace has a wonderful collection of netsuke which has been in the family since the late 19th century.  Three years later, Uncle Iggie dies, and Jiro writes and signs a document bequeathing the netsuke to Edmund once Jiro himself has gone.

When Edmund eventually owns the netsuke he finds himself greatly intrigued by the history of this remarkable collection, and realises that all he really knows are a few anecdotes, which become thinner in the telling.  The only answer is to carry out a proper investigation into their story –

How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me.  Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it.  Because it will complicate your life.  Because it will make someone else envious.  There is no easy story in legacy.  What is remembered and what is forgotten?  There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.  What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?

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