I have NYRBs scattered about my house. Piles of them. A lovely row on a shelf in my bedroom with their elegant spines pointing out and a stack sitting on top of those. I didn't realize this until I went back to create a tab (which you can click on above) listing my subscription books that this is my fourth year of receiving a new NYRB Classic in the mail every month. They add up and looking back of the wealth of literature, stories, short stories, nonfiction, written in English but a lot of other languages, too, I feel very lucky (and rich even) to have so many of them at my fingertips.
I admit, however, I had to go back and do some searching and pull books from the piles to try and figure out which books came out in which years and more difficult in which months, but I think I now have it all sorted. If I have read and written about the books I have linked to the post. Here's the sad part. I have not been as diligent in my monthly reading as I should have been. This is why I am now playing catch up on my 2016 books. 2015 was my worst year in terms of reading and 2013 my best, which was also my first year. I am hoping that this year beats them all, though. And I will continue to chip away at reading those unread subscription books.
I think too much time has passed to write properly about a few of my finishes, but I want to mention them here in some manner. The stories are always worth writing about and sharing and now all the books I have received are sorted by the month and year they arrived.
Patrick Modiano's In the Café of Lost Youth (translated from the French, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, by Chris Clarke) was my March 2016 book though it was originally published in 2007. Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature and I am keen to read much more of his work. This slender novel is a portrait of a woman as told through the eyes of four narrators including Louki herself. Louki is not her real name but a she has been 'dubbed' (now I can't recall if someone else named her that or she pulled it out of the air herself). This is a post-WWII story set primarily in a neighborhood café called le Condé where a disparate group of cast-offs, bohemians, writers, posers--your basic 'lost youth' come to sit and watch and be watched. There is an air about it of ennui, which I guess it is perfect for 1950s-ish Parisian café society.
The first narrator who kicks off the story keeps a notebook in which he writes about the people he sees in the café--a register of sorts. And the story builds on it from there.
"At the Condé we never questioned each other about our origins. We were too young and we didn't even have pasts to reveal, we lived in the present."
Louki's first appearance is in this notebook. "Louki. Monday, February 12th, 11p.m." "Louki with the brown-haired guy in the suede jacket."
". . . if she came to the Condé in October, it's because she had broken ties with some entire part of her life and she wanted to do what they refer to in novels as 'turn over a new leaf'. Moreover, a clue proves to me that I'm not mistaken. At the Condé, she was given a new name. Zacharias, that day, had even spoken of baptism. It was in a way a second birth."
This is an interesting story-one about memory and identity and how ephemeral they can both be and how very much open to interpretation and retelling. Not really a story in the way we know it, but still a story about a woman with a troubled past and a tragic ending. I'm not sure I ever felt I 'knew' her (or any of the narrators really), but perhaps too much time has passed and too much went on below the surface of the story that has now faded away. It's a moody atmospheric story and from what I understand vintage Patrick Modiano. After I read this I immediately bought another of Modiano's novels reissued by NYRB.
I shared a teaser of Jean Giono's Hill (translated from the French, Colline, by Paul Eprile) earlier in the year. It was originally published in 1929. It was my April 2016 book and the second Giono book I have read this year (after January's start to the new year with The Man Who Planted Trees). Jean Giono is an interesting man and writer. His harrowing experiences on the WWI battlefield turned him into a devoted pacifist who saw (had the great foresight) how modern man has and does abuse nature and the natural world. If The Man Who Planted Trees was filled with hope and light and a knowingness/mindfulness that we should all cultivate, Hill was darker and the natural world far more malevolent.
Giono's novel is set in Provence sometime before the age of automobiles. A small hamlet in the French Alps with a dozen or so families and residents live on the hillside. This hill, this massive geographic formation is a living, breathing 'being'--and calling it a being is not really so far off in this book--is a character in its own right. Perhaps both the star and villain of the story. The residents take their sustenance more or less from the hill--they mold it into submission. But what happens when the most important element--water--stops running? "Nature in its raw state" is what one reviewer notes in a blurb. It is a very primal story and one filled with conflict and passion, though not in the warm way we think of passion. Man's use and abuse of nature. Are we consumers or stewards is perhaps what he is trying to convey here.
"They [the villagers] arm themselves; they become watchful, on the lookout for . . . what? They do not know. Only that something in this broad terrain may be out to get them for the way they've been treating the land. Perhaps the hill itself."
One of the hamlet's men thinks:
"The old ways were so straightforward. There was humanity, and all around but underneath, animals and plants. And things were going along well that way."
"He can feel the hill--alive and terrible--moving under his feet."
Giono speaks sense and truth and you know in your heart he's right. I think it is impossible to walk away from any of Giono's writing and not feel something!
Ah, now we come to Teffi. She writes about her journey, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, from Moscow to Ukraine in 1918 following Russia's Revolution when her contemporaries were all scrambling to get away from the Bolsheviks. And quite a journey it was. The pieces that make up this book were published in installments and were translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg. I wrote about it a couple of times already this year. It was my May 2016 book, which she wrote as she was fleeing. A journey that took her years to accomplish and which was meant to be temporary but ended up with her exile in Paris.
Teffi's journey reminds me a little of Eleanor Perenyi's memoirs, another NYRB Classics book from earlier this year. What is now a faded world to us, a place that changed irrevocably thanks to war and caused a massive upheaval. What amazes me is how seemingly nonchalantly Teffi was able to navigate her journey. It was a journey filled with unknowns.
"My future was a matter of complete indifference to me. I felt neither anxiety nor fear. In any case there was nothing I could do. In my mind I retraced my strange journey from Moscow, always south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice. In the form of Gooskin [an impresario], the hand of fate had appeared. It had pushed me on my way."
Teffi was hugely popular in her day. She was much loved by people of all walks of life and could straddle the various groups of people irregardless of wealth (or lack thereof) and politics. She even had her own perfume and candies (or rather had both things named after her). She wrote one-act plays, poetry and other short works. She's known for her satirical and humorous view of life and it is with a good dose of irony that she approached her writing and her life and this journey. Still, it had to take its toll on her. Living out of a suitcase, in hotels and even on ships "began to pall". "A joke is not so funny when you are living inside it."
She literally lived from day to day, without much of a plan, relying on her friends and rumors and innuendo as to where she could get through to the next city. Often she was asked to perform her work and she was recognized and assured by others they would help her, though sometimes the words were empty. Her reputation would often precede her. The book ends with her still on the road so to speak and I would be curious to read more memoirs of 'what came after', but perhaps it is through her other work that glimpses of her life can be made. She seemed quite a colorful person and very much a 'character'. It all very much comes through in her writing and you can tell she is a very careful observer of the world around her (luckily for us).
"With my eyes now open so wide that the cold penetrates deep into them, I keep looking. And I shall not move away. I've broken my vow, I've looked back. And, like Lot's wife, I am frozen. I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me."