Posts Tagged ‘1930s’


George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair and Eric Blair once lived on the streets. This is a true fact, and here is a true-ish book about it. You can have a look for free here. Down and Out in Paris and London is a clever mash-up of Orwell’s experiences and observations while slumming it in the restaurants of Paris and tramping the streets in London.

Since Orwell had family and friends who were well off in both cities, there’s nothing near the desperation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. What we get instead is an experimental, but pragmatic breakdown of the minutiae of poverty. And it’s not pretty; we’ve got bugs, sexual harassment, social ostracism and a neverending diet of bread and tea. But on the other hand, there is resourcefulness, mateship and Orwell designs a basic blueprint for a commune that would benefit the English poor, whose hardship Orwell concludes is essentially perpetuated by the state. A wonderful book that will make you think and squirm.

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‘Count Robert,’ Koroviev whispered to Margarita. ‘An equally interesting character. Rather amusing, your majesty…he was the queen’s lover and poisoned his own wife.’
‘We are delighted, Count,’ cried Behemoth.
One after another three coffins bounced out of the fireplace, splitting and breaking open as they fell.

When the Devil comes to town, he doesn’t hold back. Don’t let the patronymics put you off–the wicked games of The Master and Margarita can be enjoyed on as many levels as Moscow contains arms and legs. In what may rightly be called his masterpiece (don’t ask me, it’s the only one I’ve read), Bulgakov puts plenty under the microscope, from the entitlement-as-desperation of the Russian middle class to the insularity of the literary establishment.

To begin, a strange outsider, Woland, engages two Russian gentlemen in a seemingly harmless Socratic dialogue. Not much later, one is dead and the other is headed for the asylum. It seems obvious that this diabolical dude is not who he says he is. Meanwhile, the Master is in the same asylum, a deflated but likeable man who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate. Excoriated by the press at the height of Russia’s enthused embrace of atheism, he has retreated from life and his lover, Margarita. Many tricks that are much more than tricks ensue.

Bulgakov plays with traditional ideas of the good/evil dichotomy. Devil Woland, with his anarchic tricks and playful entourage, resembles no-one more than the trickster god Loki. If Bulgakov reconstitutes the Devil as a trickster, he posits Jesus as a philosophical human, albeit one with the power to enchant for millenia. The Master’s novel forges an anastomosis between the eras of New Testament Jerusalem and Stalinist Moscow, as well as an accord between the forces of good and evil that is balanced yet ineffable. It is in the nature of good and evil that true understanding of them should be elusive, and so the most enduring impression left by this novel is its reverence for integrity in literature: as much as the hijinks and high historical drama are the dream of a repressive political regime, they are also the triumphant and enduring product of a writer exorcising his demons.

Okay, so I’d never heard of Georgette Heyer before getting lots of phone calls at MWF from people buying tickets to the eventually sold out session about Heyer and regency romances, the genre she apparently coined. If I lean towards any type of genre fiction, it’s fantasy, and the historical histrionic romance had totally passed me by. But I had this sitting in my bookshelf at home, so I gave it a crack.

This charmingly soft-lit cover is pretty indicative of what this book (and I’m guessing the genre) is like–exotic girl with hyaline eye-whites involves herself in terribly exciting and dangerous things, like running away from home and murder mysteries. Young Eustacie de Vauban is to be married off to Sir Tristram Shield, who is as pragmatic and impatient as she is romantic and silly. A mystery to do with inheritance, wrongful conviction and stacks of privilege and wealth plays out between several cliched characters, though the action is light-hearted enough.

I’m not really one for dates and times, but I’m given to understand that The Talisman Ring is set some time between 1749-1830. That’s a good long time, but it’s hard to detect much similarity between this Sussex tale and stories told by Jane Austen about a similar period and milieu. Heyer’s book is in tone like a Shakespearian comedy without the sting, with its nescient heroines, fun complications and neat conclusions. Plenty of historical detail, dramatic acting, kissing and clever schemes make The Talisman Ring rather like one of the plays Austen’s heroines wouldn’t approve of — diverting and more than a little frivolous. There’s certainly none of the considered intimacy of Austen’s books, nor any of the eroticism. But it’s nevertheless a rollicking one-day read which would do to flick the swashbuckling switch in anyone.

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Achilles, Antigone, Mary Magdalene–these are all figures we are used to associating with strength, sacrifice and forgiveness. Marguerite Yourcenar rewrites their extraordinary stories and interpolates therein the experience of tragic romantic love. But for all Yourcenar’s skill and thoughtfulness, evident in her other works, the torment and deliciousness of love are but poorly served in Fires; I was disappointed, even a little disgusted. The great dramatic potential in the most well-known stories of pre-Biblical times is utterly adrift in the prose, which ultimately seems to be the end point of a cathartic process rather than a narrative which can convey the true pathos of catharsis itself.

Fires
comprises 11 stories, or rather portions of lyrical prose, in the voices of the respective title characters. Thus, ‘Clytemnestra, or Crime’ begins with an address by Clytemnestra to the jury assigned to her case, the murder of her husband Agamemnon. ‘Clytemnestra’ is among the easiest of the chapters to follow. Others, like the Antigone story, begin with stream of consciousness musings and gain little structure thereafter. There is a certain horror to witnessing such emblematic women made the mouthpieces of trivial, bitter laments. One can only assume from the repetitive yet strangely vague vocalisations that Yourcenar had a very specific emotional axe to grind but was satisfied merely with wearing it away. The historical details used to set the scene, though plentiful, are overwhelmed by violently devotional symbolism and such time-travelling therefore seems useless. The utterer of the line ‘I am rich and hairless’ might well have been Donald Trump as the fabled Xerxes.

It’s possible, though, that if the book contained only these portions, Fires would not have been so unpalatable. But inserted between the stories are poetic segues in a voice ex nihilo, and it is these that completely unbalance Fires. Fawning, aggrandising epistles dedicated to an unnamed love-object are rarely attractive to anyone other than the recipient, and we get 11 of them here. They only aggravate a reader already left in tatters from the counter-intuitive and unknowable shifts of emotional direction that arise from the schizophrenia of catharsis.

What I had hoped to find from this book was an exquisite representation of reworked characters of classic literature, a typology detailing what love can drive a person, fabled or not, to do. Fires instead reads like the unedited diary of an anguished girl, and the bridging parts apparently were reworked versions of extracts from Yourcenar’s diary. However, the preface is fascinating; it’s analytical and controlled yet seems more convincingly passionate than the book proper. Read the preface, if you like.