December: a time of merry abandon, or seasonal reflection? Our round up of eclectic reads to delight and inspire you takes in both . . . Happy Christmas! Georgia @bookblast
Black swans, white cygnets
Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: Stories from a Silver Age by Michael Meylac (Ed.) translated by Rosanna Kelly (I. B. Tauris) illustrated with over 70 B/W photographs
The Ballets Russes remains the most iconic ballet company of the twentieth century. Its dancers Nijinksy, Karsavina and Pavlova have become the stuff of legend. Inspired by the unique vision of the touring company’s founder, Sergei Diaghilev; the artistry of stage designer Alexandre Benois; and the spectacular costumes created by Bakst, the company gained a large international following. The list of Diaghilev’s artistic collaborators are a roll-call of some of the 20th-century’s greatest composers and artists: Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie, Poulenc, de Falla, Picasso, Matisse, Miró, de Chirico – to name but a few.
After Diaghilev died in 1929, its chief choreographers scattered, founding their own ballet companies in America and Europe. During the tumultuous years of World War II and the Cold War, the Ballets Russes companies kept the spirit and traditions of Russian ballet alive in the West – touring extensively in America, Europe and Australia – while in Soviet Russia ballet became a key tool in the propaganda war, and had to represent heroic workers, not fairytale princes.
Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes brings together new interviews with the leading dancers and choreographers who performed with the descendant companies and schools of Diaghilev’s famous ballet company, “carrying the consequences of the Ballets Russes in their bodies and hearts.” They provide unique insights into many of the great figures of theage – from the dancers Anna Pavlova and Alicia Markova, to the choreographers Leonide Massine, George Balanchine and Anton Dolin.
The narrative is as “dramatically human as it is historically valuable a world of personalities, dramas, comedies, tragedies and provocative artistic judgements. Some are interviews that could only have been conducted by a Russian questioner with Russian interviewees for Russian readers – between compatriots, lips could be unbuttoned, confidences shared, antagonisms aired and candid opinions given about rival dancers or impresarios. The Western seedlings such as Marjorie Tallchief, Jean Babilée, Frederic Franklin and Maina Gielgud, testify to the fertility of Ballets Russes multiculturalism . . . Thanks to the initiative and dedication of its English translator, Rosanna Kelly . . . Professor Meylac’s book does an exceptional favour to dance history, bringing all the participants in the Ballets Russes story together.”
Diving into this book is an immersive experience, as the last voices from a time of revolutionary upheaval and nomadic reinvention pirouette out of its pages into the air, conjuring a glittering, bygone age. The reader is captivated by the charms of the great ballerina Tamara Karsavina; the dazzling aura of Tamara Toumanova, one of Balanchine’s baby ballerinas, the splendour of Grande Dame Marika Besobrasova who staged and revived many ballets and was a great friend of Nureyev; the great granddaughter of writer Nikolai Leskov reminiscing about Lichine and Lifa; the flamboyant brilliance of exceptional dancer Jean Balilée, and others. Many were born in trains, tents or in exile as their parents fled revolution, their lives gloriously reinvented by ballet and dance in the face of myriad difficulties.
Michael Meylac criss-crosses Europe, America and Australia to hear and record the stories. In doing so, he reveals the extent to which the Ballets Russes not only revolutionised ballet and dance, but was a driving force behind leading twentieth-century artistic movements – primitivism, surrealism, cubism, constructivism, neoclassicism – creating a new aesthetic, influencing fashion, interior design and film-making. A remarkable collection of over thirty interviews, Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes is more than essential reading for balletomanes and students on Dance Studies BA Honours courses. A rare and remarkable volume – and an ideal companion volume to be read alongside Prince Peter Lieven’s, The Birth of the Ballets Russes – it touches on art, politics, history and identity and makes for an informative, colourful, riveting read.
Life without friends is like life on a desert island
Friendships by Mark Girouard (Bitter Lemon Press)
Mark Girouard, the architectural writer, and authority on the country house, gathers together thirty letters of note and other communications from friends, alongside his writing about them. A few are or were famous, some are grand, and others not at all. The point of the book is that friendship has nothing to do with fame or success, but all to do with that sudden click of reciprocity, and pleasure in companionship that helps make life worth living.
The reader can go on walks with John Betjeman through the ruins of blitzed London, or with Denys Lasdun through the concrete dramas of the National Theatre; be regaled with stories about the Gorbals by Ruby Milton, the champion child dancer from Glasgow; eat rook pie off Bourbon gold plate with the Duke of Wellington; scribble tipsy jokes in London pubs with lazy yet delightful Peter Ferriday; be touched by the surprising love life of Sir John Summerson, loftiest of architectural historians; grieve at the decline of Mariga Guinness, gifted, drunken and lovable queen of the Irish Georgians; and hear how a Chelsea landlady modelled for the figure of Peace, riding her skyline chariot on the arch at London’s Hyde Park Corner.
A perfect read for this time of year. As Marley’s ghost says to Scrooge, “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”
The Apartment in Bab El-Louk by Donia Mahir illus. Ganzeer, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (Darf Publishing)
Since the success of Alaa Al Aswany’s bestselling novel, The Yacoubian Building, apartment block fiction has become a genre in its own right. The Apartment in Bab El-Louk is a graphic novel combining art and literature. A man moves into a run-down building in a busy neighbourhood. “Outside your window, the crevices of the city are lonely and forsaken like a deserted crime scene. Distant lights reveal themselves to you furtively never coming too close . . . You feel like you’re always being watched, like you’re pressed for time.” From his window he can see everything: soldiers, protesters, shopkeepers, barking dogs, loiterers, coffee drinkers, a Nubian family living on the roof opposite . . . yet he is lonely in a crowd. In just 84 pages, downtown Cairo comes to life in all its messy glory: a succinct metaphor for post-revolutionary Egyptian society as a whole.
The First Christian Nation
The Book of Tbilisi: A City in Short Fiction (Ed.) Becca Parkinson & Gvantsa Jobava (Comma Press)
Featuring Ina Archuashvili, Gela Chkvanava, Erekle Deisadze, Shota Iatashvili, Dato Kardava, Lado Kilasonia, Zviad Kvaratskhelia, Bacho Kvirtia, Iva Pezuashvili & Rusudan Rukhadze
A rookie reporter, searching for his first big story, re-opens a murder case that once saw crowds of protestors surround Tbilisi’s central police station . . . A piece of romantic graffiti chalked outside a new apartment block sends its residents into a social media frenzy, trying to identify the two lovers implicated by it . . . A war-orphaned teenager looks after his dying sister in an abandoned railway carriage on the edge of town, hoping that someday soon the state will take care of them . . .
In the twenty six years since Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union, the country and its capital, Tbilisi, have endured unimaginable hardships: a coup d’état, two wars with Russia, the virus of organised crime, and prolonged periods of brutalising, economic depression. Now, as the city begins to flourish again – drawing hordes of tourists with its eclectic architecture and famous, welcoming spirit – the recent past is reconciled with a glamorous and exotic present.
My mother wrote a life of Prince Dimitri Djordjadze in the 1980s, and we would visit him in his small flat in an apartment block overlooking the bay in Monte Carlo. A born fighter who fled from the Bolsheviks, a penniless emigré who made and lost several fortunes, a Don Juan who idealised women, a superb equestrian and top bloodstock breeder who became a racing driver: Djordjadze was a striking man from a vanished world. So I pounced on The Book of Tbilisi since so little is published, or known, in Britain about Georgia – past or present. It is the perfect armchair read for frustrated travellers.
Big Brother is watching you . . .
Orwell on Truth by George Orwell (Gallic Books)
“The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.”
This selection of George Orwell’s writing, from both his novels and non-fiction, gathers together his thoughts on the subject of truth. It ranges from discussion of personal honesty and morality, to freedom of speech and political propaganda. Orwell’s unique clarity of thought and illuminating scepticism provide the perfect defence against our post-truth world of fake news and confusion.
Includes an introduction by Alan Johnson (whose memoir of slum childhood, This Boy, is a remarkable read) and passages from Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming Up for Air, The Lion and the Unicorn, Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s letters, war-time diary, criticism and essays including ‘Fascism and Democracy’, ‘Culture and Democracy’, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, ‘As I Please’, ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘The Prevention of Literature’, ‘Politics and the English Language’ and ‘Why I Write’.
Sugar and spice, all things nice . . . or are they?
Sugar, Sugar: Bittersweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers by Lainy Malkani (Hope Road)
A North London junk shop owner buys a gorgeous antique cane-and-teak chair with extendable armrests at an auction, only to discover that it triggers unpleasant memories of plantation life in her neighbour who is “no longer young, and not quite like the other Indians she was used to.” Mr Kumar, a merchant in 1885 Durban comes a cropper at the hands of the “Protector of Immigrants” who is a sadist beneath a saccharine exterior; the body of an Indian baby is found wrapped in clothes when the sugar cane is being cut; Sunita and her fiancé board a flight to London to escape from her father, for she, an Indian, had chosen an African; bureaucratic mistakes and misspellings on ID documents cause a crisis of identity; Aunty makes sugar cake for her nephew when he visits to tell her of the death of his father, her favourite brother . . .
Lainy Malkani skilfully ties in the domestic and the everyday with the history and legacy of Indian migration, using sugar as the connecting thread, to create a narrative tapestry of memory and loss and survival. Whereas the stories of the people who came over to Britain from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush in 1948 are well known and documented, those of the people who travelled from India to Guyana and the West Indies to work in the Britich Empire’s sugar cane fields, from 1838 onwards, deserve greater public recognition. Sugar, Sugar should be on the National Curriculum reading list for Primary and Secondary school-aged children.
Roads to Ruin
In Search of Ancient North Africa: A History in Six Lives by Barnaby Rogerson (Haus) illustrated with superb B/W photographs
“Over the last forty years, I have travelled with my family, then student friends, then my young daughters, as well as with journalists, artists, photographers, and hundreds of fee-paying clients. In the process, I have come to absorb an enormous amount of North African history, which has been recycled into guidebooks, histories and lectures. But as I come towards the end of my working life as a picnicker abroad, I realise that there are a handful of stories that simply will not go away . . . This is neither a history nor a travel book, but a journey into a landscape of ruins in order to tell the stories of half a dozen individuals whose lives are now clouded with far more opinion and myth than retrievable fact.”
Queen Dido, Hannibal, Masinissa, King Juba II, Septimus Severus, Saint Augustine, “still haunt the imagination of the West and speak to our time.” Rogerson wears his erudition lightly, and brings alive these larger-than-life characters with great wit and originality.
The Mountain by Luca d’Andrea translated by Howard Curtis (Maclehose Press)
“April 28, 1985 . . . The expression of surprise on Manny’s face turning to pure terror. The pulley cable lifting him like a puppet. Manny being jerked upwards. The rumble of the helicopter’s turbines becoming a strangled cry . . .”
Jeremiah Salinger is a rising star in the world documentary film-making. When he meets Annelise at a screening of his new film, he leaves the bright lights of New York behind him to start a new life. He settles with his wife and baby daughter in Siebenhoch, a tiny German-speaking province in the north of Italy, but it’s not long before his old film-making buddy, Mike McMellan, joins him, and they pick up where they left off – this time filming a new series about Dolomite Mountain rescue operations. When an avalanche kills the rescue team high up in the mountains, Jeremiah is the sole survivor from the accident, and is left crippled by guilt and PTSD.
He agrees to accompany his little daughter to go fossil-hunting in the vast local nature reserve marked by a gorge and a river; and overhears their guide and two elderly villagers talking about a gruesome murder which traumatised the community thirty years previously. The remains of three young people were found dead in Bletterbach Forest – their bodies literally crushed during a storm, and so mutilated that the police could not determine at the time if the massacre was the work of a human, or an animal. Jeremiah decides to go in search of the truth in the forest which is the home of terrible stories passed down from one generation to the next. A murderous force that was thought to have evaporated, returns.
Maclehose Press kick-started the Nordic Noir craze with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and consistently publishes the best crime novels from Europe in English translation. “In Europe very substantial sales of translated books are common and the pattern generally favours an author’s whole oeuvre and not simply one book, as is the English tendency. The Swedish author Henning Mankell was regularly selling copies of his crime novels in the high hundreds of thousands in Germany before he was published in Britain (and he still does). Fred Vargas, a French crime writer of real distinction, was selling more than half a million copies of her books in France before she was translated into English. Crime fiction translated into English is a category which at present grows, which most evidently opens windows into worlds abroad, and which also deserves the attention of very good translators,” Christopher MacLehose for Brunel University, London.
André Ostier, Paris by Thomas Michael Gunther (Pointed Leaf Press) buy here
The photographer André Ostier (1906–1994) is particularly well known for his portraits of artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, et al; writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Cocteau, Truman Capote, Jean Genet, Paul Valéry and Tennessee Williams; and couturiers Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.
His photo reportages of the spectacular mondain costume balls of the 1950s and 1960s – attended by the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Carlos de Beistegui, Jacqueline de Ribes, Barbara Hutton et al – capture the glamour and elegance of the beautiful people of the time.
Ostier began his career during World War Two, photographing Paris in all her mysterious and romantic beauty: the subject of the sixty B/W images in this superb book by Thomas Gunther. (My mother first was photographed by Ostier when she was modelling age seventeen in a bid to get some money and flee from occupied France with her Russian-Polish husband. Her escape story is told in her recently reissued memoir, The Mad Mosaic).
André Ostier, Paris, is perfect for fans of Doisneau, Brassaï and Kertész.
Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard translated by David Bellos (Pushkin Press)
Christmas eve. A man returns to his mother’s flat after he is released from jail; she had died four years previously. His old imitation camelhair coat is still hanging in the cupboard, smelling of mothballs; once it hung loose on his frame, now it is too tight. Overwhelmed he heads out into the festive street of the quartier populaire to the local restaurant, Chiclets, which “smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.” He picks up an attractive woman, Marthe, and her daughter. They head to the local fleapit cinema, and then her flat. Both have sinister emotional baggage: he had fallen in love seven years previously with the wife of his boss and killed her when she wanted to end their affair. Marthe is estranged from her husband who runs the printing business downstairs in the courtyard. When they return to her flat they find her husband sitting on the sofa, the top half of his head a bloody mess, blown off by a bullet: suicide, or murder?
Frédéric Dard was a prolific and popular post-war novelist. He was a close friend of Georges Simenon, whose novels have recently been reissued by Penguin in new translations. The publication of Bird in a Cage under the Pushkin Press Vertigo crime imprint is the first in a planned series of Dard’s psychological “novels of the night”.
The End of a Dream by Gael Elton Mayo (BookBlast ePublishing) buy here
Gael Elton Mayo’s travel memoir, The End of a Dream, was originally published by André Deutsch and edited by Diana Athill who celebrated her centenary just a few weeks ago.
A lyrical evocation of two very different regions of France – Provence and the Franche-Comté – it is an engrossing portrayal of life in rural France in the sixties and eighties. Patrick Leigh Fermor said of it, “Beautifully done. A marvellous subtle knack of catching atmosphere and landscape, an ear for the spoken word that evokes half Balzac, half Alain Fournier . . . I loved it.”
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