Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

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This has to be one of the best Persephones I’ve read in a very long time. In the 1930s, Eugenia Ginzburg was a prominent young member of the Communist intelligentsia, entirely committed to the party and its vision for Russia. She lived in the small city of Kazan, had risen to the position of head of the department of Leninist history at the city’s university, edited a communist newspaper and was married to the city’s mayor. She had an idyllic life, surrounded by friends and colleagues who shared her beliefs and utterly satisfied in her work and in her young family. However, in 1934, everything began to change. The assassination of Kirov, a prominent member of the party, led to Stalin instigating what would become known as the Great Purge, ridding the Party of any member who could potentially pose a threat, though the vast majority of those imprisoned or murdered were entirely innocent of any crime. Elvov, a colleague of Ginzburg’s at the university, was accused of leading a counter-revolutionary group and arrested. For three years life became difficult for Ginzburg as she came under suspicion and found herself regularly questioned and accused of being a part of Elvov’s fictitious counter-revolutionary group. The nonsensical nature of her crime, which was in failing to notice that Elvov was a counter-revolutionary, had Ginzburg convinced that the trouble was all a misunderstanding and would soon blow over. Her naive belief in the Communist Party and its leaders made it impossible for her to realise what was really going on behind the scenes, but when she was eventually expelled from the party, Ginzburg began to understand that her life was in danger. In 1937, she was arrested and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. She had not had a chance to say goodbye to her family before being arrested; she would never see her husband, parents or son again.

Ginzburg spent the first two years of her imprisonment in solitary confinement, though she was enormously lucky to have a cellmate through necessity, as Stalin’s obsessive purging of anyone who could potentially be a threat had led to major overcrowding in prisons. Conditions were primitive and Ginzburg and her cellmate were kept strictly separate from their fellow inmates, though this did not prevent them from communicating with one another. Through a tapping alphabet, the prisoners managed to pass news and gradually understand how serious the situation had become. Senior and well known officials were amongst those in the cells, and at night, the screaming of prisoners being tortured could clearly be heard. Practically starved, forced to live in airless, damp conditions, with only the occasional treat of a book and a daily solitary walk around the yard to look forward to, Ginzburg and her fellow inmates lived in hope that soon the madness would end and they would be released. They were treated with kindness by some wardens, but mostly with cruelty, and were regularly interrogated by officials who tried to make them incriminate themselves in all manner of absurd, trumped up crimes. Despite the horror of her situation, Ginzburg tried to remain positive and even began to appreciate the benefit of the smallness of cell life; the chance to think, to study novels closely, to appreciate the small moments of unexpected pleasures, made life somehow more immediate and treasured. Even so, the fear of further punishment and even death was always on the horizon, and when the two years of solitary confinement were up, Ginzburg had no idea what would be waiting for her as she embarked on the next stage of her imprisonment.

This is such a powerful and gripping account of the sheer horror and pain of losing your freedom and all control over your life, and of how strong people can be under the most awful of circumstances. Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners showed such bravery and tenacity in the face of their long sentences and uncertain futures, and took enormous risks to help one another survive their ordeal. Rather than falling apart, their imprisonment made them more resilient and determined, refusing to allow themselves to become broken by the treatment they received. Despite this, however, I was surprised that so many of the prisoners remained loyal to their party and to Stalin, unable or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge that he was directly responsible for their imprisonment, and naively believing that ‘if Stalin knew’ what was happening, he would put a stop to it. Ginzburg herself admits that at the time, she did not associate Stalin with her situation, and did not blame him for it. It was a challenge for me to understand this mindset, and also for me to understand how Stalin was allowed to get away with treating so many hundreds of thousands – even millions – of his own people like this. I was absolutely infuriated by the end, perplexed as to how, as with Nazi Germany, this horror was not stopped by other countries. How could thousands of people disappear and the world not have noticed? Why do so few people still not know about the atrocities that were committed by these 20th century dictators, and why do we still allow dictators who are decimating their citizens in nations all over the world today to get away with their crimes? Eugenia Ginzburg’s incredibly moving and unflinchingly honest memoir should be required reading by every schoolchild. Its revelation of the evil humans are capable of inflicting upon one another, as well as how lucky we are to have our freedom, are two lessons all of us should fully learn before we become adults. Ginzburg’s retelling of her experiences deeply affected me, and left me determined to find out more about this period of history. Don’t let this one pass you by; it’s truly compelling reading.

 

On Being Ill

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There is nothing more horrid than being ill. You lie in bed, the sun streaming in at the window, the muffled noises of life going on around you, while you must be still and quiet, set apart from the world. You feel cast adrift from normality; the busy routines of your normal day become mere memories. Instead, you must reduce your life to fit within the suffocating quietness of your bedroom’s four walls. Occasional visitors tiptoe in, their voices hushed, their faces full of sympathy but also relief that today they are not banished to the sick bed and  can leave, rejoining the ordinary world of wellness as soon as they shut your bedroom door. They deposit glasses of water, plates of hot buttered toast, well wishes; then retreat, leaving you adrift on the sea of your own boredom. You lie, slipping in and out of unsatisfactory sleep, hoping that next time you wake the pain will be gone, the symptoms abated, that you will soon be permitted access once again to the world of the well. For a while, at least, you must relinquish your control over the course of your own life. You must surrender to the greater power of illness, which will briefly remind you of how little you appreciate the health you take for granted. It is only here, as your head turns from the hot pillow over to the window, outside of which cars rush by, birds sing, flowers and trees sway in the wind and people walk past, that you stop to realise how much it matters to be well.

For the past few days, I have been stuck in bed.  Excitingly, I had my first experience of riding in an ambulance after I fainted and managed to hit my head so hard that I knocked myself out for several minutes. Everyone was very nice to me, despite sticking lots of needles into my arms, and after lying in a very comfortable private cubicle in A&E for a night, it was decided that there wasn’t any nasty underlying reason why I’d fainted – just the flu I’ve been fighting for a couple of weeks – and I was allowed to go home. Unfortunately, I look like I’ve been in a fight with someone about three times my size, with a very swollen jaw and an impressive black eye, not to mention a banging headache. I have no idea how I managed to hit my face in so many different places, but I’ve now learnt the lesson that if you feel dizzy, sit down quick! I’ve also learned, as the very kind but very stern A&E doctor told me, with wagging finger, that I am not invincible and going to work with full blown actual flu (not the man variety!) for several days and not expecting there to be consequences was Very Foolish Indeed.

So there you go. It shouldn’t have taken such drastic events to make me stop and rest, but every cloud has a silver lining and I have now been able to finally catch up on my huge pile of reading. The marvellous Harvest by John Crace was quickly finished, followed by the lovely Sissinghurst by Sarah Raven, which had me longing for sunny afternoons and summer holidays which are still so far away. I then picked up my very sweet and thoughtful Valentine’s Day present from my dad; a copy of the beautiful Persephone edition of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I haven’t read in years and is the most perfect sick bed companion (it doesn’t appear to be currently available, but will be again when the Spring books come out very soon). I have been giggling away at the Provincial Lady’s many problematic encounters with daily life; while I do not have a house, husband, servants and small children to care for, I do know what it is to be continually upstaged by irritatingly successful and completely insular friends, to fail at most attempts at appearing sophisticated, to never have anything to wear and to never be able to manage my finances. I too continually long to be in sunnier climes, often find myself with nothing to say to people I am put next to at parties and love nothing  better than  a good gossip over a cup of tea. I like to think that E M Delafield and I would have been great friends, and had enormous fun causing trouble in our sleepy backwater. Re-reading these delightful vignettes of what has remained perfectly recognisable middle class life really does reveal how little we change as people, despite the customs and routines of our existence moving with the times. I already can’t wait to get stuck into the other volumes of the Provincial Lady’s take on life that have been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, and I hope they will merrily speed me back to health!

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

Well what can be said? What can be said about a book that makes you want to reach in and scoop up the characters and cuddle them and tell them everything is going to be alright in a few pages, they just need to hold on a little bit longer? What can be said about a book that has you longing for a conclusion that you are afraid is never going to come? What can be said about a book that makes you emotional and maternal and weepy and a little bit shaky? What can be said?!

I am tearing up a little bit just remembering the conclusion of this marvellous, unputdownable read. I was sitting on the train and staring out of the window, blinking back my over emotional delicate lady tears and thinking why did it take me so long to discover this remarkable book? I’ve known about it for ages and ages and I have heard great things about it from many people whose opinions I trust. What prevented me from reading it was that I had read a bit of The Victorian Chaise Longue, thought it was alright but it didn’t grip me, and then decided that all her books were going to be like that so I wouldn’t bother with her others unless someone bought me a copy. What a bad judgement I made! I have learned my lesson well and truly, because Marghanita Laski just rocketed up my favourite authors list and The Village is going to be my next read after a couple of others that I am supposed to be reading first (yes, yes, one of them is The Children’s Book, I said I’d read it and I will…next week…).

So I have Jane over at FleurFisher Reads to thank for picking me as the winner of her Persephone Week Prize Draw and sending me Little Boy Lost as my prize (picture shows the lovely card she sent too), because if she hadn’t have done so, I probably wouldn’t have read it for years and what a world of emotional torment I would have been missing out on if I had have waited that long! I gasp at the thought!

I’m sure you all know the basic plot of this but I’ll rehash it anyway just in case. Hilary is an English intellectual, battered emotionally by the fallout of World War II; his beautiful and much beloved Polish wife, Lisa, was killed by the Gestapo in Paris and his son, whom he only saw briefly just after he was born, is missing, lost somewhere in France. Hilary is afraid of emotion and of love; he doesn’t want to give anything of himself to anyone, or dwell on the past, because he doesn’t want to risk being hurt again. This makes him come across as cold and unfeeling, but he’s not, not at all; he has just built barriers around his heart to protect himself from feeling the pain of losing someone he loves all over again. This would be enough to make most women’s hands go to their hearts and sigh but…there is yet more to come. On Christmas Day after the war has ended, a mysterious Frenchman by the name of Pierre comes to Hilary’s door and asks to speak to him privately. He has news of where his son might be, and is willing to help him find the little boy he only saw once, at a few days old, and who will now be five.

Hilary’s last letter from Lisa contained a promise from her that she would make sure their little boy John was safe; for her sake, she says, Hilary must do everything he can to find their son again and bring him home. As much as Hilary is afraid of loving, and of any intrusion into his now safely ordered life, he agrees to go with Pierre to track down the boy that could be his son, out of love for his wife.

The essential dilemma for Hilary is that he has no idea whether this boy is his son or not. He doesn’t have a photograph of him, only saw him when he was a newborn, red, crying little thing and has no idea of how his wife spoke to him or played with him. There are no points of reference he can use to identify the child unless he sees a clear resemblance either to himself or Lisa, and it is this anguish of not knowing, and not wanting to take the wrong child, but at the same time feeling himself falling in love with this gorgeous little imp of a boy who tugs at his coat and wants to see the trains (oh, I am getting teary again just thinking of the little thing!) and who shows him his broken and battered toys as if they were the finest jewels in the world, that makes this novel so heartrending.

Hilary stays in the little town where the boy lives in an orphanage for a week, and he visits him every day with a view to making a decision about whether he thinks he is his son or not by the end of that week. Hilary wavers, he struggles, he fights against the new feelings of love he desperately doesn’t want to feel again, or allow to influence his decision. He is frightened of having his life turned upside down, frightened of making the wrong decision, frightened of abandoning this little boy, but also frightened of abandoning his real son if he takes this child without being certain and stops the search for his own boy, who might still be out there somewhere. Hilary’s determination to be quite clinical and factual and make the ‘right’ decision without getting emotionally involved becomes more and more difficult as he finds the little Jean working his way into his heart. As his mind becomes more and more confused he allows himself to be infatuated by a local woman, but as his lustful desire for her that has nothing to do with love becomes more and more pronounced, Hilary starts to realise that, after all, his life is empty, and love might be just the thing he needs.

A vulnerable man, afraid of his emotions! A lonely and abandoned little boy, desperate to be loved! How much more can Marghanita Laski tug on a woman’s heartstrings?! I felt like I had well and truly been through the wringer after reading Little Boy Lost, but every tear was worth it; this is a stunningly beautiful portrait of post war Europe, of the damage loss can do to a heart, and of the redeeming power of love that we all have within us. The final sentence is one of, if not the most, powerful and beautiful and wonderful I have ever read, and if you haven’t read Little Boy Lost, you need to get hold of it NOW and read it instantly. It is perfect.

Charity Shop Loot

I went out on my lunch break today to Brompton Road, ostensibly to buy a dress for a wedding I am going to on Saturday, but somehow I returned back to my office with no dress and a bag full of books. Such is life.

I managed to find, for £2, a pristine copy of The Tortoise and the Hare, which I have been wanting to read since I read dovegreyreader’s marvellous review (and there is another good review from The Times here). The cover leaves a lot to be desired; I really am quite ambivalent about these chick lit covers Virago seems to be using for its re-released Modern Classics; I understand that they’re trying to reach a larger readership and encourage people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a Virago author to try something new, but I do wish they wouldn’t try and make every book they publish look like a light and frothy beach read. If I hadn’t have known the true content of The Tortoise and the Hare, I would have dismissed it straight away just by looking at the cover. This would have been the same of my next find; a completely unread looking copy of Jane and Prudence with a bubble gum bright cover depicting two fashionably dressed ladies that lunch, priced at £3 and which will be my first Barbara Pym. I’m rather excited by this one as the blurb is enticing indeed and Philip Larkin said ‘I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen’, and if Philip Larkin is a fan, I am sure I will be! I was prepared to leave with just these when a lovely hardback of The Spare Room, which I have heard many great things about, caught my eye – £4 only and it slipped into my arms along with the others. I took my first step on to the staircase that would lead me to the ground floor and the till when another book managed to jump off the shelf and into my already full hands; Black Diamonds, a book I sneaked a peek at over someone’s shoulder on the tube a few months ago and it looked marvellous – all about the fall of an eccentric British dynastic family who made their money from coal in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then I got back to my office and a colleague gave me a copy of The Journal of Dora Damage, which she is finished with and says I will love (it still surprises me that people are willing to just give away books to other people…maybe I need to get more selfless when it comes to sharing my books). It’s set in Victorian London and is all about a woman called Dora whose family run a bookbinder’s business and when the business gets in trouble she becomes involved in a web of deceit and crime in order to help her family. Sounds wonderful and will probably fit in nicely with the ‘Sensational September’ challenge you’ll read more about below.

So all in all a very good haul for someone not intending to buy any books today, but it now just increases my TBR pile even further, and so the pressure to reduce the pile by reading ever faster. I am going to put this in writing so I actually do it – this month I WILL READ AND FINISH THE CHILDREN’S BOOK. It needs to be read and I need to stop being such a wuss about having to plough through 600 odd pages of the intensity that only A S Byatt can produce and just get on with it. So I shall. I will clear my diary for a few evenings and just sit in and read and I will get it done in no time. There is nothing to be scared of! Nothing at all!

On top of this I have just found Simon at Savidge Reads’ blog and on it he has a Sensational September challenge; a month of reading late Victorian ‘sensation’ novels; the sort that Sarah Waters’ best sellers are based on. This is the perfect excuse to finally get my copies of East Lynne and No Name read, so they will also go on to the TBR pile.

And finally, I got home from work tonight to find two very welcome parcels on the doormat; my win from FleurFisher’s blog draw, Little Boy Lost, which is beautiful and also came with a lovely card depicting Penzance, which was so thoughful. So thank you very much Jane! I also received a book I ordered from Oxfam online the other day, The Peachgrower’s Almanac, which is known as A Proper Education for Girls in the US, and which I read about a while ago and desperately wanted to read, partly because the cover is so beautiful, and also because it sounds like such a fun read!

So clearly I am going to have a busy month, reading wise. I am currently ploughing my way through Daphne Du Maurier’s Hungry Hill and loving every minute of it; it will probably take me until the weekend to finish though, so a review won’t be coming until then.

A Fish Called Tony

Some sad news to report today, my book loving friends.

Last night my flatmate and I returned home to find a terrible sight awaiting us. Our fish, Tony, was floating upside down on top of his water, the life gone from him, never to delight us with his swimming again. After the initial screaming, flapping of hands, cries of distress, and searching for a suitable vessel to transfer Tony from his tank to his toilet shaped watery grave, we were left bereft as Tony, the only man in our lives to never have caused us a moment’s distress except for in his passing, disappeared down the drain.

Tony was a fine fish, a stoic survivor of house moves and accidentally polluted water; of occasional, wholly unintentional neglect; of too much sunshine. He swam on when his friends gave up and ate each other; he didn’t complain when his food came a few days late. He asked for little and gave much joy; he was a faithful fish to us. I hope that he enjoyed his time swimming gently in a tank with some plastic plants for company and a view of a suburban living room as his entertainment.

RIP, Tony. You will swim forever in my heart.

On the plus side, I found out I won the Persephone Week prize for my post last week. The prize is a copy of A London Child of the 1870s and I am just over the moon. It has cheered me up immensely and I am so grateful to both Claire and Verity for awarding it to me. Thank you ladies!