I was penetrated by sunlight

Claudine Married
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

Claudine Married

Getting hold of this book was a little bit of a saga. I came across the first Claudine book in a secondhand bookshop and fell in love with both the charming story and the attractive old Penguin edition I had picked up. I resolved to collect the set of four in the same design and soon had three, but this one proved a bit of a challenge. Twice I ordered it from sellers on Abe Books only for the sale to fall through because they didn’t have it in stock after all. It was with some excitement I finally lined up my little collection.

It’s a shame then that this instalment didn’t quite live up to the first two, though I hasten to add that it’s still a beautifully written and insightful book. But one of the things that I liked about the character of Claudine was her mixture of naughty wilfulness and youthful innocence. Now she is innocent no more. Or isn’t she?

In this third book in the Claudine series she returns to Paris from a long, leisurely honeymoon with her husband Renaud. She is just 18 years old and her husband in his 40s, which gives us an early clue as to his sexual tastes. There is an uncomfortable section where the newlyweds visit Claudine’s old school and both flirt outrageously with the 15-year-old girls boarding there.

Sexual attraction had been a major topic of the series previously but here that’s what it’s all about. Claudine had dabbled with both sexes before her marriage and the pattern continues. As well as loving her husband, she falls hopelessly in lust with a new acquaintance, Rezi, the buxom wife of a jealous invalid. Renaud immediately sees this and encourages Claudine in what she sees as him being an understanding husband, but I read as straightforward lechery. I won’t say which of us was right, but Claudine certainly has some lessons to learn.

As always, Colette writes with great affection for the French countryside.

“At least I had been able to bathe my bare hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun. I was penetrated by sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden.”

This book is fairly sexually explicit but it’s not Henry Miller. The deed itself is usually skipped past. The narrative concentrates instead on Claudine’s reaction to events. It was with some relief I realised that her reluctance to give in to her desire for Rezi stems from wanting to be faithful to her husband, not the fact that Rezi is a woman. She has, after all, been there before.

I can see why it took almost 60 years for an English translation to appear in print but I do wonder how shocking (or not) these novels were in France.

First published as Claudine amoureuse 1902.
Published as Claudine en ménage after the above edition had been destroyed.
This translation published 1960 by Secker & Warburg.
My edition published 1972 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

A very Shakespeare holiday

Tim and I have just (well, yesterday) come back from a few days’ holiday in Stratford-upon-Avon. We just wanted to go somewhere pretty to relax and have a break, but you’d have to try pretty hard to go to Bard Country and not do any Shakespeare tourism at all. We pretty much gave in and absorbed all of the culture, and despite the freezing cold had a lovely time.

We saw not one but two RSC plays – The Winter’s Tale and The Orphan of Zhao, more of which later – and went to three of the properties run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. And though I may have mocked the tourist-trap stylings of it all, there is something humbling about standing in the house where a great genius lived half his life.

Shakespeare's birthplace

On a previous holiday we spent some time in Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris and I paid my respects at the graves of Oscar Wilde and Colette, among others. I have now added to this list of pilgrimages by visiting Shakespeare’s grave, in Holy Trinity Church.

A grave man

The town itself is pretty and though no doubt it’s prettier still in spring and summer, I was glad we had visited when we did after a taxi driver told us that the place was dead compared with how busy it gets from Easter onwards. It was far from empty.

Wintry river

Having had our fill of plays and history lessons, on our last day we went to the butterfly farm. It was pleasingly warm and full of little flying creatures, though disappointingly lacking in educational information (Bristol Zoo does spoil us). I took a lot of photos there.


As always, I’ll add more photos to Flickr (mostly of butterflies, no doubt) over the next few weeks. Feel free to have a gander.

Beseeching at the portals of the soft source

On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

On the Road

People have been telling me to read this book since I was…18? And I haven’t put it off deliberately. I even read a couple of other Kerouacs in the meantime. But I suppose the legend of this being written in one unbroken outpouring, in fact literally typed on one great long roll of paper, suggested to me something impenetrable and rambling, which this is not. Partly because that legend is not entirely true…

So much happens in this book (I hesitate to call it a novel, due to its autofiction nature) and the writing style is so open and honest it hardly matters that it’s not tightly plotted. How could it be? This is the story of a few years in the life of Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise as he criss-crosses North America searching for the experience, the moment of truth that will break his writer’s block. I don’t know which parts are “real” but that really isn’t the point. The result is a beautiful, sad, enlightening book.

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.”

The language is perfectly evocative and really shows Kerouac/Paradise’s love for his country, for the road, for people. At least to begin with. Because while the narrative starts off full of youthful excitement and wild enthusiasm, with Paradise throwing himself recklessly into every experience, the moments of awareness when a situation isn’t working out add up to produce a Paradise who is a little older and wiser, sadder and careworn, because he actually does care and recognises the value of caring.

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk – real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment precious.”

Ah, the girls. I can see how this book might have been shocking in the 1950s. Now, of course, sex and drugs (mostly cannabis) and booze aren’t at all shocking but there is still most definitely bad behaviour in the way the thrill-seekers treat their friends/hosts wherever they go. Most of which is the influence of Dean Moriarty. Dean is a restless trouble-maker who lives life to the full and Sal hero-worships him, even though most of his friends say straight out that they don’t trust Dean, and with good reason. Dean is the start and end of the book but we don’t actually meet him until over 100 pages in.

“I could hear Dean, blissful and blabbering and frantically rocking. Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss.”

Sal himself, though, I loved as a character. He feels everything so deeply, from the heights of passion to the depths of despair. He wants experience and he certainly gets it, travelling any way he can, sometimes working his way, sometimes living among bums penniless and scrounging or even stealing to get by. He falls in love multiple times but to some extent he just loves life.

There’s an interesting attitude to race in this book. Considering the date I can forgive some of the race language used but I can’t quite figure out how to feel about Sal’s love of coloured people. It sounds like a good thing, and he certainly mixes with them and loves their music (the jazz, of course) and their women; but he seems to see them as exotic underdogs, as if their colour defines them. When he declares a wish to be one of them it’s shockingly naïve, showing no awareness of racism, of struggle, of the fact that while he is choosing to slum it in their company knowing that he has a comfortable home near his beloved New York to return to, most poor people did not choose that life and have to struggle their whole lives, not just for a few days as a new experience.

But I can forgive all that for the sheer joy of the language. You can’t help but fall in love with travel and America when reading this book, even as Sal is falling out of love with both. I marked so many quotes while reading this. I will leave you with a few of them.

“All that old road of the past unreeling dizzily as if the cup of life had been overturned and everything gone mad. My eyes ached in nightmare day.”

“Yang, yang, the kids started to cry. Dense, mothlike eternity brooded in the crazy brown parlor with the sad wallpaper, the pink lamp, the excited faces.”

“That last day in Frisco…the great buzzing and vibrating hum of what is really America’s most excited city – and overhead the pure blue sky and the joy of the foggy sea that always rolls in at night to make everybody hungry for food and further excitement. I hated to leave…With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.”

“We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.”

First published 1957 by Viking Press.
Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.

Source: I think I bought this for myself several years ago.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long end of week three


The Crime and Punishment read-a-long is hosted by Wallace over at Unputdownables. In week three we read from part 2, chapter 1 to the end of part 2 chapter 4. The official discussion post for this section will be posted over at Unputdownables but here are my thoughts.

I have now read further than I managed on my previous attempt, which is an achievement. However, though the text is more readable in this translation, I find main character Raskolnikov just as frustrating. I’m going to plough straight into the plot so here be spoilers.

I suppose I expected more of an insight into Raskolnikov’s mind than we have had so far. Maybe that’s to come. Or perhaps we’re supposed to infer his thoughts from his actions. But I am finding him inscrutable. Why why why does he turn down a good job offer, throw away money from his friend and try to reject money from his mother? Is he just ill, as his friends think? Is this a hypochondriac or even psychosomatic response to his fear of being caught? Or is it guilt/remorse? Certainly it seems to be all fear and no remorse.

Also, Raskolnikov has friends! Who really seem to care about him. Is he/was he actually a nice guy? Or are Razumikhin and Zosimov just extraordinarily nice people?

So many questions raised by this week’s reading! Which I think is a good sign. And for the first time in this novel I marked a quote that struck me:

“A new and irresistible sensation of boundless, almost physical loathing for everything round him, an obstinate, hateful, malicious sensation, was growing stronger and stronger with every minute. He loathed everyone he met – their faces, their walk, their gestures. He thought that if anyone were to speak to him, he would spit and snarl at them like an animal.”

Can you see why I am yet to be convinced I will ever like this character?

UPDATE: The official discussion post is now up.

Split Worlds: the book launch

Between Two Thorns

Back in November 2011 I posted something a bit unusual on this blog: a short story called “The price of art”. It formed part of a project whereby author Emma Newman releases a story online every week set in a fantasy universe called Split Worlds. Very excitingly she was snapped up by Angry Robot Books to write three novels set in the same universe and the first of those is about to be released.

Here is the official announcement from Emma…


I’m delighted (and slightly terrified) to say that Between Two Thorns is released in the US on the 26th of February and the 7th of March in the UK.

There are two UK launches and an international one using the magic of telephone conferencing:

7th March 6–7pm Forbidden Planet, Bristol
8th March 6–7pm Forbidden Planet, London

One lucky attendee of these launches will win a copy of Any Other Name – the second novel in the Split Worlds series – as soon as it comes out. All the details are here.

Pre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns for a chance to win a great prize!

Pre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns and you’ll be entered into a prize draw. If you win, you’ll have a character named after you in All Is Fair – the third Split Worlds novel (released October 2013) – and a special mention at the end of the book.

How to enter

Pre-order a copy of the book from your favourite retailer (if you pre-order from Forbidden Planet you’ll get a signed copy).

If you order from Forbidden Planet or the Robot Trading Company (for ebooks) you don’t need to do anything else – Angry Robot will take care of your entry for you. If you pre-order from anywhere else you’ll need to e-mail a copy of your order confirmation to thorns@angryrobotbooks.com and they’ll assign a number to you.

Here are links to all the places you can pre-order.

Forbidden Planet (signed paperback)

Robot Trading Company (DRM-free ebook)

Amazon UK (paperback)

Amazon US

The Book Depository UK edition

The Book Depository US edition (bigger)


Once again, huge congratulations to Emma. If you’re interested in reading the Split Worlds short stories, here is a list of links to them all. I highly recommend a visit.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long end of week two


The Crime and Punishment read-a-long is hosted by Wallace over at Unputdownables. In week two we read from part 1, chapter 5 to the end of part 1. The official discussion post for this section is over here.

My main problem with the first week was that I was reading a terrible translation. Monday lunchtime I headed to the library and compared three translations and all of them were better than the one I had bought myself years ago. So be warned: avoid the old Penguin Popular Classics edition with no translator acknowledgement. I am now reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by Jessie Coulson in 1953 and updated by Coulson in 1981.

Translation makes such a difference. I mean, I knew that in theory to be true, but I don’t think I have read a bad translation before. Even on just readability and interest, the first week I struggled to read 42 pages in a week. This week I started at the beginning again and easily read 83 pages in three days. I had to stop myself from reading ahead!

But there are so many subtleties that I have noticed. Over at Unputdownables there has been a lot of discussion about whether Raskolnikov is suffering from a mental illness such as depression, whether he is just an odd person, or maybe that his state of mind is a sane response to the world he lives in (though I think this week’s reading blows that one out of the water). Well, I couldn’t see what the debate was about because on page 1 of the Penguin edition it reads:

“It was not that he had been terrified or crushed by misfortune, but that for some time past he had fallen into a state of nervous depression akin to hypochondria. He had withdrawn from society and shut himself up, till he was ready to shun, not merely his landlady, but every human face.”

But the same paragraph of the Oxford edition reads:

“It was not that he was a cowed or naturally timorous person, far from it; but he had been for some time in an almost morbid state of irritability and tension. He had cut himself off from everybody and withdrawn so completely into himself that he now shrank from every kind of contact.”

Which I would still read as signs of depression, but it’s certainly less clear. They’re really very different readings.

As for the content of this week’s reading, well here be spoilers.

This would be the crime part of the story. Unless there’s further crime to come, that’s looking like a lot of punishment discussion. Because the crime was over pretty quickly. Of course, there’s the precursor dream of the horse, which actually describes the horror and gruesomeness of a very similar death in far more detail. And it’s interesting that in his dream it’s Raskolnikov who expresses horror at the horse’s death and yet the very next day…

There’s an odd mixture of premeditation and chance here. Clearly, Raskolnikov has had this murder in mind for a month and even made preparations for it, but they’re not very well planned preparations. For instance, it really is chance that he is able to steal/borrow a hatchet when the one he had had his sights on is inaccessible on the day. And he takes no bag or other means of carrying away the old woman’s treasure, which is supposedly the whole point, if we are to believe his ramblings about this being his escape from poverty.

As for his failing to lock the door behind him once he’s inside the old woman’s flat, is that poor planning, an understandable omission from a non-criminal or a lapse caused by his distracted, starved and half-crazed state of mind? If he’d only spent that money from his mother on food instead of unfortunate women would this crime have ever happened?

Hmm. I am both excited to read on and a little nervous because it’s this next section that I gave up on last time I tried to read Crime and Punishment, back in December. Fingers crossed the different translation continues to work its magic.

Spectral shadows across the tamed gardens

Black Vodka

Black Vodka: Ten Stories
by Deborah Levy

I loved Levy’s novel Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and Levy was the National Book Awards Author of the Year 2012, so I was pretty excited when I found out this would be the first book in my subscription to And Other Stories.

These are very modern short stories, zipping around different European locations and ethnicities, and incorporating modern technology reasonably well (which is something I basically never say, so kudos to Levy on that). But they’re not about story or location, they’re about emotions and characters and relationships.

“I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age. Deformed. Different. Strange. Go Ho-me Ali, Go Ho-me. In fact I was born in Southend-on-Sea, and so were those boys, but I was exiled to the Arabian Desert and not allowed to smoke with them behind the cockle sheds.”

Most of the stories might be better described as sketches or scenes, which I think I’ve also said about Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I loved both, and I do see some similarities. Both are modern and city-centric, and sometimes the central character can be a little mysterious and cold. But more often, Levy’s characters are warm and racked with emotion.

“At night the satellite dishes on the roofs and walls throw spectral shadows across the tamed gardens. I have grown to love the bronze doorknobs in the shape of jungle beasts: a lion’s head, a tiger, a snake…It gives me a thrill because I know the world is very old.”

Both the characters and the events tend to be oblique, not straightforward. As with Swimming Home there are subtleties at work that mean a few different things could be happening. Sometimes details or even names of characters overlap between stories. I wanted to re-read some of them right away.

My favourite is one of the shortest in the collection, “Placing a call”. It uses the second person and repetition and it’s immediately apparent that the narrator is unreliable. I also loved “Pillow talk”, which is at once a sweet love story and brutally honest.

My only tiny gripe would be that none of these stories is new, they have all been previously published, which smacks a little of cashing in on last year’s award wins, but on the other hand it gives us Levy newcomers a chance to discover more of her great work, and it has definitely solidified my interest in her writing.

Published February 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I am a subscriber to And Other Stories.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long end of week one


The Crime and Punishment read-a-long is hosted by Wallace over at Unputdownables. In week one we read from the beginning to part 1, chapter 5. The official discussion post for this section is over here. However, I thought I’d expand on my own thoughts so far.

I’m finding it a slog. Already. I’m not sure if this is the grim subject matter (it’s super depressing) or the translation. I am reading a Penguin Popular Classics edition from 1997. The translator is not acknowledged at all, which is very poor. And a bit of searching on the Internet suggests it is not a respected edition. I may have to borrow a different translation from the library.

But back to the book itself. In this short section we meet Rodion Raskolnikov, who was a law student until he dropped out due to money troubles. We find him in a depressed state, not at all in his right mind, barely getting anything to eat and seriously contemplating committing some terrible crime that he thinks will solve all his troubles.

So far I am heavily reminded of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, inasmuch as the setting is bleak and impoverished but the main character has clearly known a better life and perhaps that’s even why he isn’t dealing very well with poverty. He gives away money in random acts of kindness but then immediately regrets it. And of course the longer he goes without eating a proper meal, the crazier his state of mind becomes.

But Hunger I found compelling and so far I am not compelled by this. I don’t find Raskolnikov sympathetic. Sure he’s upset by seeing women reduced to terrible circumstances by bad or useless men, but he doesn’t even say as much out loud, let alone do anything to help. He has resolved not to let his sister accept a marriage offer, on the grounds that not only is neither party in love, but they don’t even like each other and the suitor has a worrying idea that rescuing a woman from poverty will make her indebted to him for life. However, said husband would indeed be able to save Raskolnikov’s mother and sister from poverty, not to mention give Raskolnikov himself a good job. Either he hasn’t heard of the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” or he hasn’t figured out that he’s a beggar.

This is such a revered classic I am determined to keep going but I will have to see what the library has to offer in terms of different translations. It’s such a shame if that is my problem here.

Life wraps metaphors up in little bows

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

At the start of this year I made a vague promise to myself not to buy any new books or request any advance copies from publishers, and within two weeks I had failed on both counts. The first was a hopeless case anyway, but I really thought I’d manage the second. Until, that is, I read about this book in the Penguin Press Newsletter and absolutely had to read it.

Susannah Cahalan is a reporter for the New York Post, one of those annoyingly talented people who got her break as a journalist before she even left high school, but when she was 24 she suddenly descended into mental health hell. Her symptoms escalate quickly from lack of concentration and paranoia to mania and seizures, to the point where she has to be hospitalised, a time that she cannot actually remember so she has had to piece it together from doctors’ notes, interviews with family and friends, hospital video and her intermittent journal entries.

Cahalan’s journalism training serves her well. She tells her story with a fluid, gripping style, while doing a good job of explaining the medical facts. She comes across as intelligent and likeable, as well as remaining confused by her illness and how it has changed her life. To an extent, you can tell that she is a tabloid journalist, as she is both easy to read and prone to a few too many soap-opera/cliffhanger-style statements, but she doesn’t shy from the more complicated side of trying to understand her illness.

“Sometimes, just when we need them, life wraps metaphors up in little bows for us. When you think all is lost, the things you need the most return unexpectedly.”

It is a frightening story. Cahalan has no history of mental illness and yet is diagnosed in quick succession with bipolar disorder, alcoholic withdrawal, schizoaffective disorder and then psychosis but all attempts to find a medical explanation for her catatonic state initially fail. Her family is desperate to keep her out of the psychiatric ward and it is their tenacity, plus a little luck/good timing that finally gets the ball rolling toward diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

“It had cost $1 million to treat me, a number that boggles the mind. Luckily, at the time I was a full-time employee at the Post, and my insurance covered most of the exorbitant price tag…Unfortunately, there’s often not the same safety net in place for those with lifelong psychiatric conditions.”

I hesitate to compare my health problems with Cahalan’s, obviously our situations are totally different, but there were definitely moments I could empathise with. “I began keeping to-do lists…including insignificant things like ‘walk to town’ or ‘read the papers’ so I could experience the satisfaction of crossing them off.” I do that all the time. I hate to not do something useful every day, but fatigue and brain fog can make that tough. And Cahalan’s final diagnosis is an autoimmune disease, as mine is, so we have both had to figure out how to react to the idea that our own bodies are attacking us. Plus of course an autoimmune disease never really goes away. While Cahalan is currently in complete remission, she will always be waiting for the next flare up, always wondering if a sudden fit of jealousy or deja vu is genuine or a symptom.

It’s a very insightful, moving book. I was a little frustrated by the repetition of the question of whether she was the same person as before. I get that she felt she lost herself for a few months, that people who saw her during that time barely recognised her, and therefore getting her sense of self back was hugely important. But of course it will have changed her. Even if she is 100% medically recovered she has been through a huge experience. She was young, outgoing and driven and then she had breakdowns at work, lost interest in the world, accused her nearest and dearest of horrible things – of course that would change a person, at the very least as a huge knock to the confidence.

But minor quibbles aside this is a well written, brutally honest account of a life that falls apart and has to be painstakingly rebuilt. Plus it’s an important reminder that a person experiencing a manic or psychotic episode isn’t just crazy or even possessed, they’re a human being whose brain is sick, or as Cahalan’s doctor explains it, whose brain is on fire.

Published February 2013 by Penguin Books.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.