Month: January 2018

On reading novels in an appropriate place

The picture on the left is Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, where I am at the moment. Purely by chance the book I am reading is Paolo Cognetti’s Otto Montagne, to be published in English in March as Eight Mountains. The novel won the Italian Strega Prize and, as the title tells us, is about mountains and mountain-climbing. I shall be reviewing it on return from my travels. It is set both in the Italian Alps and the Himalayas and Pietro, the hero/narrator, both of his parents and his best friend, Bruno, are lovers of mountains. It is a real joy to read it while looking at Mount Cook and the other peaks in the range.

Does reading a novel in an appropriate place enhance the reading experience? Should we read Wuthering Heights at Top Withens? War and Peace at Borodino? Voss in the Australian desert? 古都 (The Old Capital) in Kyoto?


I have occasionally made a conscious attempt to read a work in the place it was associated with: I read some of Ulysses in Dublin, Yeats poetry in Sligo, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts at Briggflatts and even some Hemingway at Key West. However, on the whole, like most people, I have read most books at my home, none of which have had any particular literary associations.

Does it make a difference? I think it does. Whenever I read about Pietro going up a mountain, I look out of the window and imagine him climbing here. Sitting next to me is my wife reading, as she always does when we come to New Zealand, Lord of the Rings, and, everywhere we go, she can associate with some part of Tolkien’s novel.

Most of us will continue to read at home or, perhaps, on the commute to and from work, but it is certainly occasionally enjoyable to read a novel or poetry with the place it is associated with.

The Year of Manuel Pedrolo?

Could this be the year of Manuel de Pedrolo, the great Catalan science fiction writer? His best-known novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Typescript of the Second Origin) is finally being published in English this April.

As this article shows (link in Spanish), it is going to be The Year of Manuel de Pedrolo in Spain.

De Pedrolo was very prolific, writing poetry, theatre, short stories, novels and articles in the press. He also translated novelists such as John le Carré and Georges Simenon. He was ahead of his time, anti-capitalist and in favour of Catalan independence when neither view was fashionable or, indeed, safe. He only wrote in Catalan, never in Spanish. Because of his themes – sex, violence, anti-capitalism – he was a victim of Franco’s censors.

Now his house is to become a museum, thanks to the efforts of his daughter, Adelais. There will various events to celebrate his work and his life. Much of his writing will be digitised and made available on line. And, as mentioned, English-speaking readers will be able to discover why he is revered in Catalonia.

Vladimir Sharov: До и во время (Before and During)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s До и во время (Before and During). This book was written immediately after his Репетиции (Rehearsals) and covers some of the same topics, namely the subverting of Russian history, particularly the Russian Revolution, and the idea of a Christian Utopia. Our hero is Alyosha who, as a result of a fall, has blackouts and is admitted to a mental institution, which has had a colourful history. He had, before admittance, had the idea of writing a Memorial Book, about people who would otherwise have been forgotten (based on an idea by Ivan the Terrible!) and now decides to do the same for the residents of the hospital. However, one of the residents tells him a highly imaginative version of the story of Germaine de Staël who, amongst others things, was the midwife of the Russian Revolution, the biological mother of Stalin and lover of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who was actually born fifty-five years after she died. It is all Sharov’s way of using Russian history in a highly creative way to show his ideal of a Christian Utopia but, at the same time, makes for a really fascinating read.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 黒白 (In Black and White)

The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 黒白 (In Black and White). This is the sixteenth Tanizaki on my site. It was first published in 1928 in a newspaper but it has never been published separately before, either in Japanese or in any other language. It appeared in his collected works published in Japanese in 1957 and will appear in French ten days after appearing in English. It is a clever crime story about a dissolute crime writer who writes a story about the perfect murder, with the murdered being based on himself and the victim being based on a casual acquaintance. He then worries the model for the victim will really be murdered and he will blamed. He tries to make sure he has a continuous alibi in case the man is murdered but then forgets, as he is distracted by a German prostitute who occupies most of his attention. It is a clever story and it is surprising that it has never been published separately before.

Vladimir Sharov: Репетиции (Rehearsals)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s Репетиции (Rehearsals). This is a thoroughly original book which starts in seventeenth century Russia and ends some time after the Russian Revolution. We follow the religious upheavals in the time of Patriarch Nikon and his attempt to put on a mystery play of all the Gospels, to help bring about Palestine in Russia and the return of Christ who, this time, will come to Russia. A French actor manager, Jacques de Sertan, organises a group of amateur (and illiterate) actors but it all goes wrong when Nikon is condemned by the Synod and Sertan and the actors are sent to Siberia. Though Sertan dies en route, the actors manage to keep the idea alive, continually rehearsing, and passing on roles to their heirs, till after the Russian Revolution. It is about religion but it is about a lot more than that and it is wonderful that, twenty-five years after its publication in Russian, it is now available in English.

Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss (River)

The latest addition to my website is Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River). This is a beautiful book, narrated by an unnamed narrator but clearly based on the author. She has temporarily moved to London – she has no clear reason why – specifically to the very unfashionable area of Hackney, through which flows the River Lea. Part of the book is about the appeal to her and effect on her and her memories of both the Lea and several other rivers, including the Rhine by whose banks she grew up as a child. However, she also portrays the local community, many of whose denizens are immigrants and foreigners like her and shows their individuality. She photographs the river, recalls other rivers she has seen and brings back memories. Above all, her writing is superb and we cannot fail to be entranced by her ability to make the ordinary less ordinary.

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès: Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home)

The latest addition to my website is Jean-Marie Blas de RoblèsLà où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home). This is a massive novel (over a thousand pages) set in Brazil and mixes several stories, including the probably not entirely accurate life of Athanasius Kircher (recently seen in Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]), a paleontological expedition to a remote part of Brazil, involving Paraguayan bandits and shamanistic natives, a corrupt governor, a handicapped man obsessed with the famous Brazilian bandit Lampião and our hero, a Franco-German journalist, who is an expert on Kircher and whose ex-wife is on the paleontological expedition and whose daughter is a bisexual hard drug user. All these various stories more or less intersect. However, while it is certainly an interesting novel, I found it dragged a bit in places

Muharem Bazdulj: Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje (Transit, Comet, Eclipse)

The latest addition to my website is Muharem Bazdulj‘s Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje (Transit, Comet, Eclipse). This consists of three related novellas essentially about the situation in East Europe. The first is set in the eighteenth journey and tells of the journey of the scientist Ruđer Bošković to Saint Petersburg (he does not make it but gets a long way, before falling down a well in Poland). Twice he tries to see the Transit of Venus, once before and once after his journey but fails both times. Bazdulj uses his journey to comment on various aspects of Eastern Europe, including the relationship with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the region, Christianity and how the region is seen from East Europe and vice versa. The other two are set in modern times, one about an innocent Moldovan woman whose innocence and lack of opportunities in Moldova is taken advantage of and the third telling how The Writer came to write this book. It is certainly an interesting approach but it is the first story that works best for me.

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