Posts Tagged ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

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Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 1

November 1, 2013

9781841593548Nothing about vampires here: sorry to disappoint!

I like beautiful, well-made books, and I have been a fan of the Everyman’s Library since its renaissance in the early 1990s. As well as good, durable and (usually) well-produced copies of some of my favourite classics, I’ve also discovered other texts when they have appeared in the publication list and I’ve felt adventurous, as well as in need of another nice book. This explains my acquisition of the Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklos Banffy, published in the 1930s but set in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early years of the twentieth century, the lead-up to the Great War.

It’s easy reading, and also quite superficial in some places, but deceptive as it draws you in to the world of the aristocracy in this fatally-flawed and ultimately doomed empire, with a paralysed government, and various ethnic minority problems. I do feel attached to and interested in the main characters and how their futures are going to play out; I can see the empire falling to pieces around them, whilst they can’t, for they do not have my gift of hindsight. And I do have quite a detailed and clear picture of life at the time.

I struggled to find anything to compare it with, certainly in English literature. I suppose Antony Powell‘s A Dance to the Music of Time might do, but in the end the closest similarity is with Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy, in terms of the time-frame and the scope and the attention to detail: the reader is drawn into and becomes part of a completely other world, which s/he has probably only been previously aware of. The aristocracy is decadent, with a capital D, the peasants are oppressed, particularly by the bourgeoisie who are on the make in every direction, the army is as stiff-upper-lipped as it’s possible to be, and the details of the duelling code are fascinating….

However, I’m only at the end of volume one, so there’s a long way to go; the whole amounts to about 1400 pages.

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