Bits and Pieces from July & August

Apart from the Clochemerle book & TV Series I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been reading, believe me. I had a couple of weeks off from work and decided to read the Pushkin Press Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. I’d been meaning to read some stories by Zweig for ages, Zweig-Collected-Storieshaving only previously read A Chess Story and his book on Casanova, and I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was surprised with the range of the story settings as I was expecting them to be mostly set in contemporary Austria; instead a couple are set during the Middle Ages, one is in suburban England, others in South America etc. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I was well aware that Zweig had travelled around the world, especially when he fled Nazi Germany. After reading each story I had intended to post a review but instead I felt compelled to read the next story until I’d finished and I realised that I hadn’t posted on any, and now as time slips away it’s increasingly unlikely I will; although I may have a re-read of one or two stories.

At times Zweig was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, Amok for example, started well but by the end of it I was a little bored; it felt too forced and a bit like a 1940s B-movie script. Did He Do It? was a bit too much like a whodunnit for me, but it was perfectly readable; the others were great. Some, like Mendel the Bibliophile were basically just character studies and others, such as In the Snow and Incident on Lake Geneva are short, compelling, tales of extreme incidents. Although the stories span four decades and the subject matter varies widely, Zweig’s style remained consistent across the stories; it’s clean, modern, no-nonsense and Zweig wastes no time before getting on with telling the story. There are so many brilliant stories in this collection that I shall now look forward to reading the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig and others.

I have continued my reading of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; I have just finished the eighth volume, The Soldier’s Art which is the second volume set during WWII. It’s difficult to blog on this series as the books follow the same set of main characters as we progress through the Powell_Dance-03twentieth century. Any comments on the characters would potentially spoil the book for anyone intending to read it and would require a lot of background explanation to comprehend. Apart from a slight dip here and there, I have found Powell’s stories of the characters compelling. There’s very little plot, as such, instead we get a lot of dinner parties, chats in the street or work, where we find out more about the characters. We discover the events in the characters’ lives as they are revealed to Nick Jenkins and as such we only get to find out bits and pieces of what’s happened since we last met them. I can’t wait for the next volume, The Military Philosophers.

One of my intentions this year was to read more non-fiction and with summer upon us I decided to read another book on the Black Death, called The Great Mortality by John Kelly—why should summer reading be light? Last year I read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and wondered whether this book would add much to my knowledge of this event. Kelly took a Kelly Great Mortalitymore European-wide view than Ziegler, who concentrated mostly on Britain, and Kelly went into more detail at the beginning on the ways that the plague bacillus, Y. pestis, is spread and the differences between bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic plague. What seems apparent from reading these books is that it is still unknown why the Black Death of the 1340s was as virulent as it was and how it spread so quickly. Mortality rates during the Black Death were between 30 and 60 per cent, whereas during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s there was only a mortality rate of 3 per cent. Some researchers believe that the Black Death was not due to Y.pestis but a different disease; Kelly tries to refute that claim in the last chapter.

The Russian Revolution is another topic I have been meaning to read up on for quite a while, having read nothing on the topic since my schooldays. I was looking for something a bit substantial, but readable, and came across Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. It’s a huge book and as the title suggests Figes goesFiges A People's Tragedy back to 1891 to begin the story. I am only part way through the second part (of four) so far but I’m finding it a fascinating read. Tsarist Russia was an astonishingly brutal place for the vast majority of the population. The peasants were at times brutalised by the gentry as well as by each other and other times their lives were romanticised by city dwellers. As Nicholas II’s reign progressed an increasing number of people moved to the cities as rural life became more unbearable; but there was still this sense of ‘Two Russias’ as explained by Figes:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

I’m currently reading about the period following the 1905 revolution and we really get the feeling that positions are hardening on both sides and that another revolution is inevitable. It does make one wonder how different the world may have been if Nicholas had made sensible reforms at the beginning of his reign. I’ll read on…

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20 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Figes, Orlando, Kelly, John, Non-fiction, Powell, Anthony, Zweig, Stefan

20 responses to “Bits and Pieces from July & August

  1. can’t go wrong with Figes….
    As for Nicholas and sensible reforms, I think things were too far gone by then. It would have been too little too late IMO.
    Two weeks off? Nice…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you ever read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year? Wildly entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have that Zweig collection so good to get your insight on what I could expect. It will be the first time I’ve read his work.
    Re the plague – I never heard before that there were these different types. Somehow it has all got melded into just that one descriptor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I think the Zweig short story collection is the best place to start. In some ways he reminds me of Maupassant in that he’s just interested in telling a story and to a large extent uninterested in style.

      The Black Death is a fascinating and horrific subject. It must have been horrible waiting for it to strike.

      Like

  4. I’d like to get back to reading some Zweig, maybe for German lit month later this year. It’s interesting to hear about the different settings in these stories – I hadn’t realised that. The melodrama can be a bit of an issue with some of his work. I felt that too when I read Beware of Pity last year – a great book, but a bit of a roller coaster at times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Most of the stories are close to perfection he just veers into melodrama every now and then. I was going to read it for past GLMs but kept being diverted. The stories are all 30-70 pages long which is a good length.

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  5. Good on you for keeping going on Powell. I got stuck on vol 5 – I must resume.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jonathan

      I’m really enjoying the Powell series so I’ll have no trouble finishing it. I’m reading along with a GoodReads group, one a month; I think it’s good to have a schedule with these big projects.

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  6. Zweig is surprisingly varied, isn’t he? I know what you mean about the melodrama – I felt that with the first stories of his he read. But the ones I’ve read since I’ve loved and I think perhaps he’s best read in small doses.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I read The Great Mortality by John Kelly a few years ago. It was one of several books that I read around that time about the Black Death.

    I the book as being so gripping that I did not want to put it down.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been meaning to read Stefan Zweig for forever…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Vishy

    Wonderful post, Jonathan! I have read a little bit of Zweig and loved what I read. I now want to read his collected stories that you have written about. That Orlando Figes book sounds wonderful. I have read parts if his book Natasha’s Dance and loved. I will add this book to my TBR list. Thanks! Happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      The Collected Stories by Zweig was excellent, so I’ve got the Collected Novellas to look forward to now.

      I’m really enjoying the Figes book (I’m about halfway through it) and I’d recommend it as an excellent single volume on the RussRev. I can only read it at weekends as it’s a huge book.

      Liked by 1 person

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