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15th August 2023
As the sunshine began to fade last Wednesday, and Bath settled down to a quiet evening, the six of us at the book group sat round the table to discuss Family Roundabout: is Mrs Willoughby or Mrs Fowler a better mother or are they both wanting, one too controlling and one too vague; why do none of the children manage to escape; how odd is it that WW1 is never mentioned but the novel starts in 1920; and should a marriage be based on compatibility or simply sexual attraction, since there are arguments to be made on both sides? (Which is in fact is the theme of our October novel, Out of the Window by Madeline Linford.)
One of the other things we talked about was female friendship in fiction, since earlier that day someone had asked which Persephone books featured this theme and we found it hard to think of any apart from Miss Pettigrew and No Surrender. Next day we posed the same question on Instagram and it was marvellous that in fact there were several suggestions: The Crowded Street, Jane and Mrs Briggs in High Wages, Miss Buncle. Someone suggested that young women often came from such large families that close friendships were simply with their sisters and cousins. But it still doesn’t quite explain the dearth of novels about women’s friendships (of course there are some eg The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim and indeed nowadays there are plenty). It must simply be that the immovable convention was for fiction to be about love and marriage.
But it's still quite odd when you think about it. So, listening to the review of Siân James's novel One Afternoon on BBC Radio Wales Arts Show (after 19 minutes), we also realised that the heroine does not apparently have any women friends. Here is part of the discussion by Gary Raymond and Francesca Rhydderch (we have put a longer extract on Instagram): 'Her prose has such an energy to it – it has a very contemporary, modern feel… The way she writes about people is beautifully done, and reminds me greatly of Chekhov’s writing, very simple but clear and not afraid to go close up to people’s misery as well as their happiness…. While it's not a comedy, Anna is a very witty observer of the world around her…'
On another and mostly less cheerful note (though there is a lot of humour): we have been gripped by Daniel Finkelstein’s Hitler, Stalin, Mum & Dad. Of course we have been there before, endlessly, but the description of what happened to both his father’s and his mother’s family before, during and after the war is beautifully and memorably done. The book is faultless, well virtually faultless: the Amsterdam chapter doesn’t mention Etsy Hillesum, which is a pity as many of us now associate early 1940s Amsterdam, and, tragically, Westerbork, with her as well as with Anne Frank (who is of course mentioned). But the book is so well written (it's curiously un-ponderous and accessible, and yet not trivial), and so readable despite its often gruesome detail, that one small omission is perfectly forgivable. The great legacy of Daniel Finkelstein’s grandfather is the Wiener Library, which is important to visit and to support (we do).
One of the most shattering chapters in the book is about Russian cruelty. As Finkelstein says, this often gets overlooked, almost as though Nazi cruelty is all humanity can cope with. And our not wanting to confront it is presumably why Into the Whirlwind (about Eugenia Ginzburg’s years in the gulag) has not been a big seller, although we are extremely proud to have it on the list and it is in fact reprinting; we have been re-reading it because this autumn we publish another book about Russia in the 1930s, a novel called Sofia Petrovna, although it could not be more different from Eugenia’s memoir. (She is the first photo, our October author Lydia Chukovskaya is the second one.)
Talking of extraordinary women, there is a new book called The Visionaries by Wolfram Eilenberger, translated from German by Shaun Whiteside, which is about Hannah Arendt, de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil. Lyndsey Stonebridge reviewed it in the FT here. The FT also reviewed a new biography of Osip Mandelstam, who to some is the husband of the if not more famous, at least equally famous, Nadezhda Mandelstam who wrote Hope against Hope.
Several of the posters displayed at the shop in Edgar Buildings are for sale: they are originals and we charge £400 or £500 which, given that the poster is an heirloom and is framed, is, we think, rather good value. This is especially so in the light of the prices being fetched for Tirzah Garwood’s work. How very, very odd she would have found it that the original version of her marvellous railway carriage wood engraving (to be found, along with several others, in our £14 edition of Long Live Great Bardfield) last year fetched £11,000.
This is almost as astonishing as an original Keep Calm and Carry On poster (reproductions of which flew out of the shop a few years ago, until they became ubiquitous) being for sale here for £22,000. Six were apparently found in a house in Cambridge and this is the last one remaining.
Presumably prices have rocketed for paintings by Suzanne Valadon (whom we have had several times on the Persephone Post). There is an exhibition of her work at the Pompidou-Metz for another month, then it goes to Nantes. Here is a particularly memorable 1927 self-portrait.
And this summer visitors to Bath have been enjoying a superb exhibition at the Holburne, Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits.
It is now only on for another six weeks ie. until October 1st and we do suggest that any Persephone reader considering a day trip to Bath do so before then. In our view a perfect day would start off with a segment of the Bath Literary Walk (using our Literary Map).
Then lunch at Landrace (article here on the Modern House website) or Cote or the Beckford Bottleshop or Café Rouge, half an hour in Persephone Books (of course), and a visit to the Holburne exhibitions (there is also Lucy Rie until the end of the year) and then to its café. Also, between September 8th and 17th there is the Jane Austen Festival, programme here, which is eccentric and heart-warming in equal measure. A lot of the events are sold out but we like the sound of this one on September 14th: a retired tax judge 'covers some of the legal puzzles in Jane Austen’s novels, as well as those relating to her family, such as entails and wills'!
8 Edgar Buildings
15th August 2023
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