Nadja by Andre Breton (translated by Richard Howard)

[Below is a quick first impression of this book, I will come back to it and write about it in more detail but I’ve thought after just putting it down]

I have never really given much thought to surrealism other than the paintings. I know Breton was one of the founding fathers of the surrealism movement and it that it about a vision of life displayed from our own unconsciousness and dreams (I am aware that this is a simple definition). Which brings us on to Nadja.

Nadja by Andre Breton.

Nadja as you would expect is an interesting book which going on the introduction is somewhat semi-autobiographical. For the first fifty pages or so Andre Breton meditates on what he thinks and his life in general to a point. He starts with ‘Who am I?’ and continues to write about his contemporaries and discussing the theatre. As you would expect the narrative is not anything you would recognise as traditional but is in no way hard to follow. For example Breton writes:

‘Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain.’

I could be guilty of filling this post with excerpts of the book so I will keep it to a minimum. This is an easily quotable book although I will say I was not too sure where it was going for the first segment of the book as it was not what I expected. I thought it would be about a man’s obsession with someone like with Lolita but it’s nothing like that. This is more of a fascination of thought

As soon as Breton meets Nadja, he his fascinated by the way she presents herself at first meeting her, as well as her responses and thoughts that Breton presents to her to ponder upon. When he asks who she is she responds by saying she is ‘a soul in limbo’ among other thoughts. Once Breton learns more about her however, as with many things Breton’s fascination decreases a little bit. Breton eventually leans that Nadja is mentally ill which may have had an affect on what she thought, he also contemplates Nadja’s way of being with respect to the society she is in. He contemplates on the effect she has had on his life if only for a brief time.

This book has given me a lot to think about and as I write I am already aware that I am not giving the justice it deserves and I have missed going into detail about some points such as how the fascination for Nadja envelopes and if it is love he is feeling or not, but I do like how Breton almost spills out his thoughts and only writes what he deems relevant to the story. I also liked the fact that he put pictures and photographs in the book. It helps when describing Nadja’s drawings Breton is shown.

I think this is another one for me that will need another read as well as learn about the Surrealism movement and how it has influenced our current age.

[First published in the French by Librairie Gallimard 1928, this Englsih translation by Penguin Books 1999]

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, see a pic of the paperback below I will show you that much, I will however, write about some of the characters you will meet. I will say I loved this book and I could have written so much more about it, I don’t want to spoil anything for you…. Read the book.

In the beginning we are introduced to our narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood otherwise known as Merricat. She a little bit about herself like you would to a group of people you have met for the first time. We learn that she is an an unreliable narrator though we do get to learn so much more about her.

Merricat for her eighteen years of age appears somewhat childish at first but as we get to know her we realise she is actually quite intelligent and can read people quite well. Merricat knows the history of her respected family, is fully aware of what of the villagers and rival rich families in the local area along with her own family and the scandal that had tarnished them through the eyes of the locals.

As we learn about Merricat we also learn of her older sister Constance and of how at her core is a good person who is the only authority figure Merricat has. She looks after old Uncle Julian and is the defacto head of Blackwood family. The incident years prior has clearly affected her.

Uncle Julian when we are introduced to him tells of the murder of the rest of the family to some guests (one of which was uninvited to the annoyance of Merricat) and reminds them that Constance was acquitted and we later learn his mind is not as focused as it once was.

Paperback of my Penguin Edition with a picture of Shirley Jackson.

Mental health is an underlying issue in this story. Merricat creates her own little world (or rather moon) in her head and has her own unique way of thinking, her older sister Constance, appears to have agoraphobia (a New England Woman who won’t leave the house and liked gardening reminding me of Emily Dickinson) aft er the incident and Uncle Julian who despite being an intelligent man himself, gets easily confused and thinks people around him are who they are not as well as having an obsession with his memoirs and what happened ‘that day’.

We learn more of each character with respect to how they view Cousin Charles. He just suddenly shows up with suspected ulterior motives. Constance sees the good in people and likes Cousin Charles at first, Merricat is distrustful (quite rightly) and goes as far as damaging things in the room he stays in. Uncle Julian despite being confused is also suspicious.

The personality of each character is well displayed in this book especially when you consider that we are seeing this world through Merricat’s eyes only. For its 146 pages, you just get enough information to know what is going on and you want to know more about the story. For example, what was the motive for the murder of the family? Why did Constance not tell us of what she knew back then?

Despite Merricat’s formal introduction we at the end are assured of her love for her sister and her somewhat peculiar way of thinking and that Constance is the true heroine in this story (for me personally at the least).

I liked the way it ended with the conversation between Constance and Merricat which in conclusion defines who they are. Merricat with her dark way of thinking and Constance with her domestic housewife like response to her. Ultimately you are reassured of the love they have for each other.

[Penguin Classics first published 2009 / First Published by Viking Press in 1962 USA]

The Apple in the Dark by Clarice Lispector (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

The Apple in the Dark is a peculiar existential novel that as Benjamin Moser states in the introduction is influenced by Clarice’s Jewish heritage. There is a plot that keeps the story going but as you would expect with anything by Clarice Lispector there is more to it than that. In the beginning of the story Moser mentions (in his introduction) that it is no coincidence that the main character written by a Jewish writer has a shadowy character in it called simply ‘The German’.

I managed to get a second hand copy of the book. I don’t think there has not been any recent releases of this one.

In Apple in the Dark we get to see the inner thoughts and feelings of three characters in particular. Our main hero Martin, Vitoria and Emerlinda who Martin meets on a rundown farm and starts becoming a bit of a handyman. We are made aware that Martin is running away from something, from civilisation and from his past. We are introduced to a world where Martin finds himself walking through the darkness, he can only guess where he is going, he accidentally kills a bird and talks to the stones, almost like he has been reinvented as something new, despite this he still cannot forget his past. When the light returns Martin finds the farm mentioned above. This is where meet Vitoria who at first appears distant and unfriendly, but the more we learn about her, the more we get an understanding of her her view on life, loving and being loved. We also meet Emerlinda who appears to follow her emotions more so than Vitoria and we learn is yearning for love. Although there are some other minor characters the focus is on these three. We go into their minds and see the relationships between the three. To put it briefly, this book is about loyalty, love and betrayal along with an acceptance and refusal to accept reality.

The plot evolves around the relationship between these three. Without giving too much away, in the end, civilisation reclaims Martin and Vitoria and Emerlinda see him go possibly to never see him again, at the end Martin comes across as a somewhat tragic character especially when you find out what he had done and is somebody to be pitied. As we read through Apple in the Dark we learn how Martin tries to get to grips for his sins by creating his own form of god but in the end as stated, it is civilisation that gets to him.

The Apple of the Dark is interesting for the way it portrays the characters within it. We would be guilty of creating our own prejudices of the characters but with respect to Martin and Vitoria in particular, for me at least my perceptions of them had changed towards the end.

Photograph of Clarice as seen in the book itself.

I imagine this book to be easier to read in Portuguese. Although easy to understand what Clarice was trying to present to us, I found this particular translation to be somewhat stilted. I do not see this to be the fault of the translator, learning Portuguese myself I know Portuguese is not the easiest language to make direct translations into English but I thought this book did not flow as well as the other Clarice Lispector books I’ve read. In fairness to the translator and anyone who does it I understand that to make a translation easy to read whilst keeping the essence of what the writer intended can be a complicated.

This is a book about characters and how they interact, develop and change along with a splash of philosophy. This is a book that you will have to keep your whole focus on with no distractions. This is a book that would need your undivided attention.

[First published in 1961(Originally in Portuguese)
Haus Publishing Edition 2009 in English]

Genesis 1 a graphic novel by poppy

Apologies first this one will be a first draft burst of a post but I do want to share my love for Poppy so here we go.

OK so first of all we know, this isn’t really by Poppy (Moria Pereira) or by Titanic Sinclair (though they were the creators), this graphic novel is by Ryan Cady, Minomiyabi and Ian McGinty. Since the second Poppy graphic novel should be out August 2020 I thought I would have a look at the first one.

Genesis 1

As I’ve just said this isn’t by Poppy but due to her very nature of what she is and how she presented and portrayed I am more than happy to keep to abide to the kayfabe to borrow a wrestling term. If you have watched any of the old YouTube videos involving Poppy you will know that she is a curious if an albeit peculiar character with unknown origins who has a unique fascination of the world around her who is friendly and yet at the same time has a haunting aura about her (have a look at that Kids React To Poppy YouTube video as an example). She likes to sing pops songs that have a pop theme theme to them (Since her split with from working with Titanic Sinclair she has taken a different route concentrating more of a metal theme and has definitely distanced herself away from her old character).

In this graphic novel we learn of the origin story of Poppy and the people around her along with the people fascinated by her and who want to know more about her. As with such graphic novels that are not whole collected volumes, it is relatively short which is fine as the artwork itself compensates for that and I did finish reading it wanting more. If there’s anything I would pass comment on is that they put a gay character in the story just for the sake of putting them in there, it did feel a bit contrived but at the same time it did not take anything away from the overall plot. Poppy Seeds will love it, from the references to her songs, to the references to her Youtube videos and the story itself is actually quite gripping despite how short it is. The use of QR codes with additional content and a soundtrack for the graphic novel is a big plus for me, as I have mentioned in one of my previous post (The Modern Art of Reading, shameless plug for there sorry not sorry) I think we need to see more thing like this with reading in general.

I have a signed copy by Poppy because of course I do.

I don’t think it’s for everyone, I don’t know what people will think of a Manga style of portraying Poppy but again if you buy into the fantasy of Poppy, it works it does not downgrade anything. I also know people who like her songs over her videos and vice versa and I know some prefer certain ages of Poppy (pre I Disagree album etc). I will shamelessly admit that I consider myself a fan Poppy from the songs to how she presents herself.

Also I’m Poppy

Play by Samuel Beckett

Play is a one act play that I watched once in my teens and it has stuck in my head ever since.

In the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters we come across a number of monologues of people who after death have something to say, have some inner turmoil they want to confess an inner secret, to declare something or just to simply boast, if you ever get a chance to read it, it is like coming across a row of headstones and with each one, one at a time, we get to hear from the characters underneath that headstone. Play reminds me of some of the Spoon River monologues only that Beckett has looked at it and shook it and come out with something a little different. I say this of course with the thought that Beckett probably never read Spoon River. Also it’s not as long.

In Play we hear the story of an affair, the main characters being the male and two females. Going on what is said the male has been having an affair with one of the females the other female being the unfortuny wife. I like to give the male the name Hiccup Pardon because he hiccups and pardons himself in the Play.

We hear the story from each of the characters, they don’t talk to each other, they talk to us when it is their turn to speak which is signified by a light shining on them. What’s even more peculiar is that the characters are represented as urns. To me it felt like the voices of the urns tell their story when we open each one at a time and the story from each character comes out. We know little about the characters other than what they say and they all talk at speed in a rapid tempo although it suggested that the love triangle are probably middle class and English. The story is not entire linear, it is repeated but not in the character order as before like we are listening to their story but opening each urn lid in a different order.

Why the voices are in urns we don’t know. I like to think that the characters have become nothing but memories. I have always observed play as more of an experience than a performance.

(Assuming they’re still there, I’ll post video links to the play in my little comment section. See what you think. How would you interpret what they are?)

Archangel by Robert Harris

If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.

With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.

The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.

What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.

I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Kapek (translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair)

Before cyberpunk and Asimov, before Star Trek and the film Metroplis there was the play Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek. The play premiered in Prague in 1921 and introduced the world to the word ‘robot’ (other words had been used). The thoughts and questions raised in the play have been pondered and mediated on ever since almost a century later with respect to robots and artificial intelligence.

The SF Masterworks publication’s cover is little misleading in that the robots themselves are not mechanical.

The play looks at themes with what we have come expect with respect to the relationship of humans and robots. The ethical treatment of robots, what happens if the creation and advancement of robots goes too far, when robots rebel and become self conscious, when they start to glitch. What I was surprised by with respect to the play was that Capek looks at what would happen not just if the humans went too far, but if the robots did as well. Capek also looks at how far an organisation would go to satisfy shareholders for the sake of profit, so there is a little pop at capitalism to a certain point there. The main company in the play never question what the buyers of their robots do with them before it’s too late. We also get to see the worries of the robots when they realise they can’t create other robots. We read about the concerns of being treated like slaves (origin of the word ‘robot’ has its roots in the word ‘slave’ in the Czech language)

It is a relatively short play, there’s four acts and an epilogue with a form of introduction of what’s going on, the problems that arise and a conclusion which see the world change drastically. The Robots in Capeks play are mechanical robots but organic ones like the replicants in Blade Runner for example, as they are designed to be more human they become to behave in that way. I wanted to read this play because despite being a fan of science fiction myself, I never really knew much about it. I heard a mention of it on the TV show QI about where the word ‘robot’ came from and there is a reference to it in the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which is also set in Prague where of course the play originates but other than that. Capek had also written a novel War With the Newts which has some similar themes as RUR and other science fiction works which I want to have a look at in future.

Karel Capek from what I’ve read lived a fascinating life, coming from what was then Czechoslovakia and lived through the interwar period but sadly passed away in 1938 before the world took major a turn for the worse, the only solace if any that could be gained is that the Nazis did not get to him before he died.

RUR surprised me in that the themes and thoughts that Capek writes about are still written today, to compare it to anything it is like piece Bauhaus furniture from the 1920s. Despite the decades that have past, it still feels somewhat modern.

Hitman (2) Hitman: Enemy Within by William C. Dietz & Agent 47: Birth of the Hitman by Sebala, Law and Medel

There has been a number of books and graphic novels based on the Hitman universe (the less said about the films the better although I did like Oliphant and Friend as actors just not as 47). With Hitman: Enemy Within the story is based on 47’s employers the ICA and a rival organisation the Puissance Treize. The ICA have given 47 a mission to kill a North African crime lord who is actually quite despicable, you will notice this with nearly all of 47’s contracts in the video games. There’s never an apparent innocent person 47 must dispose of, it’s always someone who is quite sinister in some way although I did have some pity for the Swing King in Blood Money as he’s on his knees before 47 before Agent 47 does his thing.

In Enemy Within 47 has to target this crime lord and the Puissance Treize the rival agency have sent an agent to protect him. This is the unfortunate Cassandra Murphy who meets 47 at the beginning of the book when 47 goes after the head of a biker gang in the states. This first mission in the beginning gives you a taste of what 47 is capable of later on in the story. Along with the main contract there is also some espionage and power plays between the rival agencies hence the name Enemy Within. I would recommend this to anyone even if you aren’t a fan or have no idea of the Hitman games, there’s enough action suspense to impress anyone who has an interest in crime novels or thrillers.

Along with the main story we get to learn about 47’s past as a biologically engineered clone created by the dastardly Dr Ort-Meyer (who we meet in the first Hitman Game), we read about how badly treated he was as a child and as is found out in the games, how he got the name 47. 47 kills his first victim his fellow clone Number 6 who was his bully. His handlers are impressed by this and the rest is history (or so it seems)

Which leads me to want to talk about Birth of the Hitman. Where the story is somewhat different. Birth of the Hitman comes after the release of Hitman (2016) and there has been a revision in 47’s origins.

Turns out he didn’t kill 6 at all. 47 was given an experimental serum that affected his memory making him he killed 6. We learn in Birth of the Hitman that 47 and 6 were quite pally. We also learn about Diana Burnwood, 47’s handler and how she and 47 became part of the ICA. Part of the plot twist at the end of Hitman 2 (2018) was that 47 was one of the paid assassins with 6 of Diana’s family. We see how the stories of these two people would eventually intertwine. I like Birth of The Hitman because along with Enemy Within there is enough action to keep you reading however, unlike Enemy Within I do think Birth of the Hitman is more for the fans.

My only issue with the book and graphic novel is that the game naturally presents 47 much better than the novel and graphic novel can. In the game you get a sense of 47’s presence. How he speaks, how he steaks out his targets. The Hitman games (most of the levels) are not really about the action, they’re about stealth and figuring out how to get to the target or trying to make it look like an accident. This would not really work well with the books so we see the explosions and chases. I also think this is probably why the Hitman films did not quite work. Hitman is not really about the action, it’s about the pre meditation and suspense.

Hitman (1) The Hitman Universe by IO Interactive

Now as you are quite aware, this post isn’t about a book in particular but about a video game series. I thought it would be easier to have this post to set the scene for two books based on the universe in particular that will follow this post. Namely Hitman: Enemy Within by William C. Dietz and Agent 47: Birth of the Hitman a graphic novel by Sebala, Lau and Medel. I thought I would do this post first given the nature of video games and the revisions that have been given to the Hitman story and I like Hitman as a franchise (It’s my blog, I do what I want). As you might have guessed I’m not the best at writing about games I think it would be easier to do it as a video but here goes.

Hitman if you don’t know is a video game series by Danish developers IO Interactive. It follows a hitman with the name Agent 47, his story and the many contracts he has to do in his profession as a member of the International Contracts Agency. He is famous for his suits, his bold head, a barcode tattoo on the back of his head and figuring out different ways of killing his targets. What’s also good about 47 is that he’s cool calm and collected, nowhere near as corny as James Bond or as irritating as an action hero in a bad Hollywood film.

I wanted to look at Hitman from a story line perspective. With notable exceptions video game plots are not really truly groundbreaking, the story is there just to keep the game going. Hitman however has developed a well rounded story. Though not spectacular at first there was enough to peak your interest and the recent Hitman games have really developed the story quite well.

Hitman: Codename 47 (2000) the first game shows us how Hitman was created (essentially he is a genetically engineered clone) going after many targets that have a connection with him, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (2002) we learn about 47’s loyalties and get more of a sense of his personality, in Hitman Contracts (2004) we get to see some of the missions and contracts that 47 had taken in his life and in Hitman: Blood Money (2006) we follow 47 and his handler perform their standard contracts and take on a rival agency and a sinister organisation and in Hitman: Absolution (2012) follows 47 almost entirely in the USA where he turns against undesirable characters in ICA.

The later Hitman games form what is part of the ‘World of Assassination Trilogy’ (only two of them have been released so far) and though it looks at how 47 got into the ICA, we see 47 as the legendary hitman going against shadowy organisations who are using the 47 and ICA to take on each other. What’s more interesting with the later games is that we get more of an understanding of Diana, 47’s handler and her history as well as 47 himself and you get to go some nice locations.

From what I remember as far the the games were as games, Codename 47 was quite good, Silent Assassin was really hard but rewarding, Contracts was a lot like Silent Assassin, Blood Money was really good (although playing it recently, it does feel a little dated but I loved the levels) and Absolution was OK, but not my favourite because I thought it went too far away from what a Hitman game should be (being chased and hiding from the police, trying to kill of sexy assassins dressed as nuns for example).

The as of yet completed World of Assassination Trilogy games however I think are absolutely superb. Hitman (2016) and Hitman 2 (2018) you take on missions with huge levels which include scouting areas and figuring out which are the best ways to hunt your target. If you haven’t played it already, switch the ‘opportunity’ system off, it just makes the game too easy and almost ruins it a little bit. Do your own fact finding. The third of the trilogy as far as I am aware will come out in 2021. A

s we now live in the era of downloadable content there are more optional missions that can be taken and there is also a mission where you get to be a sniper. What I’ve also liked so far is there has been a shorter alternate story as well with Hitman 2 (The Game of The Year addition). The Patient Zero story is interesting in that it is about a killer virus that is contagious and can kill its carriers. That plot line does sound awfully familiar to something from our world, I don’t quite know from where but it does sound like I’ve heard it recently.

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Amanda H Podany (The Great Courses)

This is different to what I usually write about in that it is about solely an audio book. This is only a brief write up but I want to bring it to your attention none the less.

On my list of audio books on Audible one of my personal favourites is this one which is part of the The Great Courses series of lectures. It tells of the history of the peoples of Mesopotamia including how they lived, their culture and beliefs from the Sumerians to the Akkadians and Babylonians. We learn that they hold the achievement of being the first or at least the earliest known users of a written script and caused advancements in maths among other things. We also learn how this ancient script was deciphered in the more relative modern era along with discoveries and rediscoveries of the civilisations and cities that have been found by archaeologists. We get to learn of such notable people like Sir Leonard Woolley and his discoveries for example.

Unlike history books that can come across as a bit dry or encyclopedia entries that can be a bit matter of fact, Professor Podany puts her own personal touch in the lectures and talks about her own connection with the ancient peoples she discusses. Due to how ancients texts have been preserved (via clay inscriptions) she tells us of information about everyday people other than kings and warriors and such like and how she has felt linked with these people despite being thousands of years away from them. Her passion for her subject is evident in the way she presents.

We also get to hear a little bit about Podany herself and I’m not going to lie I fell in love with her a little bit. Talking about her love for her subject and how she became interested in it. What surprised me was that the student rock band she quit in college to concentrate on her studies became known as The Bangles… as in The Bangles.

This is a superb introduction to the topic and there are many more works from Padany and a number of writers out there so I recommend you give it a look. It’s interesting how although so faraway from us in distance and time and very much so culturally, there is a lot of the familiar about the Mesopotamian peoples.