Now that I have two Quests (one to read WCiT and another to clear the backlog of unread books on The Shelf) the whole exercise could last a lifetime. However, not one to give up easily, I shall slog on and blog on it in the absence of other subjects… or indeed in addition to other subjects… until such time as I run out of steam altogether (whether this is meant literally or metaphorically is yet to be seen).
Once having finished Crime and Punishment, my reading speed seemed to go into overdrive. I blasted my way through over 1000 pages of novels in just 7 days. There must be some study on motivation hiding in there somewhere if anyone’s interested in doing some research.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – translated from German by Michael Hofmann. Not on The Shelf of Unread Books but felt I needed to read it in preparation for a forthcoming lecture at the German Society. I read it in English because I thought that at over 500 pages I wouldn’t get through it in time available. It took Hans Fallada 24 days to write – and took me less than 24 hours to read. A gripping story of the inhabitants of a small block of flats in Berlin in the Nazi era. The stories of a judge, a Jewish lady, a Nazi family, a middle-aged working couple all intertwine but mainly the story is about an ordinary, non-descript working couple, whose grief at losing their son in the war spurs them on to resist the Nazi machine in their own little way. They start writing anti-Nazi slogans on postcards that they distribute around the city. This small act of high treason has great implications, not only for them eventually, but also for the team investigating the case. The story is based on actual events – and is tough reading in places for the sensitive.
I should be interested to read the original German because I really loved the translation. There were times when I doubted that the German had been translated closely because I found the language used in places to be a bit modern for the 1940s but if it captures the essence that is the main thing. While I’m muttering about translation (and as that is the main raison d’être of this blog, why shouldn’t I?) I shall mention the title. In German it is “Jeder stirbt für sich allein” – which is not easy to translate concisely. It literally means ‘you die only for yourself’.. . here, in the sense of ‘your own causes’, I think. I’m not so sure that ‘Alone in Berlin’ is a really suitable title… particularly as we discover that no man is an island and even the most private actions seem to manage to implicate others. But don’t let my cogitations about the title put you off. I recommend the novel. And Penguin classifies it as a Modern Classic. So a brownie point for me. 😉
Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell
has been sitting on The Shelf for so long that I had forgotten it was there. I almost bought a second copy recently (without realising I already had it) and only stopped myself because it would inevitably be added the The Shelf.
In my idealistic youth, I had a rule that I was not allowed to see a televised adaptation of a novel before I had read it. This rule has been broken many times now and many of my gentle readers will also have seen the fairly recent adaptation of Cranford with Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton et al. It was delightful and so is the original book. There are some very witty laugh-out-loud moments (I am not usually given to such emotions when reading) and the whole depiction of this small town is utterly charming. With its themes of failing banks, the need for employment and ladies of restricted means practising ‘elegant economy’, it feels quite contemporary.
My second-hand copy has a little story of its own. A hardback, published by Harrap in 1940 and reprinted in 1948, the publisher’s note says “The first impression of this edition of Cranford was published in 1940, and most of it was destroyed by enemy action.”
One particular chapter is full of typos and a previous owner/reader has marked them all in pencil (she – I assume it was a she – missed a couple 😉 Perhaps she wearied of her task or didn’t have her pencil to hand…as I didn’t). At the end, there is a final flourishing “Finis” after which Ms Pencil Proofreader has written 31 March 1967. I joined in and wrote 1 November 2010. The book has been sitting on my Shelf for a while, but not decades … but it made me wonder if this copy had not been read for 43 years…
A Winter Book – Tove Jansson. Sometime ago I read The Summer Book by the same author. I think I enjoyed the latter more than this collection of stories (which were loosely connected to winter). The one that fascinated me most was about a squirrel which apparently ‘sailed’ to Jansson’s island on a plank of wood. It reminded me of Beatrix Potter’s story of Squirrel Nutkin who, I seem to recall, sailed around one of the Lakes. I’d always thought this was a ‘humanising’ of animals… but it would appear that squirrels can/do undertake this activity. Amazing.
The book I noticed had been translated from the Swedish by three different people. I thought it was unusual that there would be a team of translators working on a novel but when I looked more closely the mystery was revealed. These short stories had been translated individually and then brought together to form this anthology.
So a Modern Classic removed from The Shelf. Do I get two points for that?
How I lived on year on just a pound a day – Kath Kelly
This was given to me by a fellow freelancer. Easy to read (it took just one journey from Oxford to the ARC – with hanging around for the rail replacement coach) and interesting. Kelly achieved her goal and lived within her very frugal means – but before you dash off to save yourself thousands… she didn’t include her rent in this figure… nor did she mention anything that I recall about paying her Council Tax or utility bills. But worth a gander for money-saving tips if you’re feeling the squeeze financially. You might want to see if you can find a second-hand copy. It costs £6.99 new…so a week’s budget in Kelly’s terms…
(Neither a WCiT or from The Shelf!)
Agnes Grey – by Anne Bronte.
This copy is one of a set of Victorian novels inherited from my grandmother so it must have been sitting on The Shelf for some 15 years or so. I’m glad to be able to tick it off my list but it does not really compare with the drama or passion that Anne’s sisters, Emily and Charlotte, convey in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. It’s a simple story of an impoverished vicar’s daughter who becomes a governess to support herself. Her charges are insufferable snobs and treat her without respect but eventually she meets a kind man and the rest is pretty predictable.
The spy who came in from the Cold – John le Carré
Neither WCiT nor from The Shelf; another loan. The story of a British spy whose final job is to betray his country in Communist East Germany but his double-crossing (or was it triple? I started to lose track who was working for whom) results in treachery that he failed to foresee. I kind of guessed a particular character was going to get more involved than originally bargained for but like Leamas (the protagonist), I didn’t see the end coming until it was inevitable – and of course, far too late (for him to do anything about it). Bleak, sparse and for me, hard work to keep up!
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. I made the ‘mistake’ of mentioning to a friend, S, how much I had enjoyed Cranford and North and South (and Wives and Daughters which I read a long time ago). S’s house could rival most libraries and she pressed Mary Barton upon me. (I didn’t tell her about The Quest or The Shelf and accepted her loan). MB is Gaskell’s first novel but not as accomplished in my humble opinion as say, W& D or N&S. She spends a long time (a couple of hundred pages?) setting the scene of poverty and factory work in Manchester in the mid-1840s. Grim, grim, grim and the plot takes a long time to kick in. Once it does, there is a certain amount of tension and momentum but the dénouement left much to be desired, unless of course, I completely missed the motive of one of the main characters … but the reasons for his actions seemed a bit thin to me… and the ending got a little bit schmaltzy with rapid forgiveness for great wrongs bestowed in unlikely circumstances… but perhaps I’m too hard hearted. In all, good to read if you’re doing a survey of Gaskell’s works (as I appear to be) but I won’t be aching to borrow it from S again, if the truth be told.
I doubt I shall finish anymore books before the New Year. So the summary of the year’s reading is thus:
World Classics in Translation: 4
Modern Classics in Translation: 5
From The Shelf: 8
Other: 10 (I’m easily distracted!)
Total: 27… so an average of 2 books per month… around 100 pages a week (I’m trying to make myself feel better…because 4 WCiT is somewhat low. Must try harder). I think I’d like to read more poetry next year as my knowledge of such is woeful… but I still want to make a bit more of a dent in the WCiT as well. Recommendations always welcomed!