Tag Archives: Etty Hillesum

A Persephone Project Pit-Stop; One Year In…

Last November I set myself a little mini reading mission to read all one hundred, now one hundred and four, Persephone titles in order at the rate of one a month. I thought now was a good time to catch up with how I am doing or not as the case maybe as I seem to have gotten rather behind with it all…

Today, being the second Sunday of the month which I mentally designated for the Persephone Project, I should have been discussing Consequences by E.M. Delafield, the 13th Persephone title. However with things as they were with Gran I got a few books behind and so instead would have been discussing the 9th Persephone title Few Oranges and No Eggs: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson  1940 – 1945. Well alas I have gotten somewhat behind again. This is not because of lack of time (though things have been a bit manic with quite a few job interviews) but because every book needs to be read in its own individual way and for me Few Eggs and No Oranges is not a book that can be read in big gulps or devoured in a week or two. It is one you need to digest slowly and take it all in. To rush it would be to spoil it and that is not what I want the Persephone Project to be, it should celebrate the books not make me impatient with them or rush them. So I am holding off, a mini Persephone postponement, but not for long.

Persephone Pit Stop

You see I have decided that I do want to get back on track and be reading the fifteenth title in February. You may, quite understandably, be thinking ‘hang on, he is way behind but in a mere few months wants to be ahead’ that doesn’t make sense BUT I think it is manageable because of what the next few titles are. As I mentioned Few Eggs and No Oranges are diary entries so I want to dip in and out of them daily along with other reads. Good Things in England is a source book of traditional English cooking by Florence White from the 1920’s so The Beard and I are going to cook some delights (possibly Eel Pie, Hasty Haggis, Egg Curry Cheesecakes – oh the fun) over the festive season. Nicholas Mosley’s Julian Greenfield looks a biography perfect for curling up with over the Christmas period and It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst being a short collection of poetry. All of this seems realistically juggle-able.

Speaking of realistic, I have decided that as of this month the Persephone Project will no longer have an official date every month. Deadlines can work with some bookish projects but apart from book group and Hear Read This I really want to free my reading up in 2014 as now I have a new job starting in eight days (see the interviews paid off) there is going to be less time for reading and indeed less time for blogging – so I don’t want either to become a chore. I will simply have a big binge over Christmas and then go back to reading one a month amongst my other reads when I fancy them.

Before I go, I should say what an utter joy reading the eight titles has been so far. They have been occasionally challenging (Etty Hillesum) and though provoking (Cicely Hamilton) but overall every single one has been a joy in its own way in particular I have loved how each one from the outset starts as a cosy feeling work and yet as you read on the darker undertones start to show (Dorothy Canfield Fisher The Home-Maker and Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance in particular) and two have easily been some of the best books of my reading year (Mollie Panter-Downes’ short story collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven and Monica Dicken’s simply wonderful Marina) so I am very much looking forward to what lies ahead.

Do let me know if you have been reading along or if you belatedly want to join in with the Persephone Project, I would be delighted if any of you are or would like to. Also, whilst on the subject what has been your favourite Persephone so far and which ones should I really be looking forward to?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Books To Take On My Travels #1

I have a little routine with my reading habits whenever I go away be it a work trip or a holiday. I really like to try and learn about the places I am going through books be they nonfiction, travel guides or fiction itself (new, old, any genre). Well as I am off again in the next few weeks for a long weekend I thought I should ask in advance for some of your recommendations on what books I should be hunting out. It would help if I told you where I was going really wouldn’t it?

Yes I am off to Amsterdam for work, a travel feature, in a few weeks and so I could really do with some recommendations of books that I should take with me. I am already doing some of my ‘lead up reading’ as I grabbed as many guidebooks from the library as I could find the other day, however what I really want is some books that I can read once I am there.

Amsterdam Guides

I have already had a think and, of course, Amsterdam’s most famous book is ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and one of the things that is firmly written down in mine (and The Beard’s, as managed to get him a place on the trip) itinerary is to make sure we visit the Anne Frank house. I only read that infamous book last year so it might be a little early for a re-read, and also I read Etty Hillesums diaries and letters this year, so with going and the pre-reading I think I need something different to be reading whilst I am there. The only other book I could think of was Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ but that was only for the title and indeed I have read that one already too.

So, what books written about Amsterdam, set there or indeed by someone from Amsterdam should I be tracking down before I go away to pack in my luggage?

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Filed under Books To Take On My Travels, Random Savidgeness

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43

I have to admit that I was glad that I ended up putting The Persephone Project on hold for a month as I have to admit I struggled with the fifth title. One of the downsides of reading them in order and with a deadline is that you might not be in the right space for a book and also you feel the need to simply get it read. This was what I was experiencing with ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’ and I didn’t want to let that affect the book, so when I knew I was having trouble keeping up with blogging I popped this down for a while before I picked it up again, and I am glad I did because when I came back to it I suddenly found I was reading it in a much better frame of mind.

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**** Persephone Books, paperback, 1941-43 (1999 edition), non fiction, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, 430 pages, from my own personal TBR

I have to admit something that really worried me about the book when I started it was that I didn’t really like Etty very much. As we meet her she is clearly going through a rather traumatic time where she is having major self doubt and bouts of depression. She is seeking help from an older man, a psychoanalyst who she simply calls ‘S’, who she also seems to be having a rather erotic and worrying connection with – they spend a lot of the time wrestling and him telling her he can’t love her, yet clearly getting aroused and passionate with her. In the background we also have the start of people being moved into concentration camps and Etty’s observations, initially minor ones, on this.

As I was reading on I was finding myself getting more and more frustrated with Etty not getting/realizing/understanding the bigger picture and simply being rather self absorbed and unhappy. This of course, knowing that Etty ended up in Auschwitz where she died, made me feel really guilty that I didn’t really like this woman and her thoughts. I felt very conflicted about all of this and started to over think what it meant about me and so I put the book down to end the self analysis, in hindsight I can see that weirdly  this was just what Etty was prone to.

A few weeks ago I finally picked the book up again and strangely found that my attitude, as I read a long, had undergone a slight turnaround. As I read her thoughts I started to find her rather grimly fascinating. Born in 1914 Etty went on to study law, psychology and Russian at the University of Amsterdam. She was also very much a modern woman, she herself didn’t believe she was ‘meant for one man’ and as we see with ‘S’ and even her landlord she could be very free, she was also in some way full of issues, she seemed confident but lacked it. In fact Eva Hoffman, who wrote the preface for the book, describes Hillesum as “an intellectual young woman”, a private person, who was “impassioned, erotically volatile, restless”, while her journey was “idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern” and you couldn’t really put it better than that. She was no angel and whilst initially was something I struggled with (why should we assume all Holocasut victims were perfect people after all?) I became intrigued by her.

“I half wanted to read some philosophy, or perhaps that essay on War and Peace, then felt Alfred Adler suited my mood better, and ended up with a light novel. But all my efforts were just tilting against the natural lassitude to which I wisely yielded in the end. And this morning everything seemed fine again. But when I began cycling down Apollolaan, there it was back, all the questioning, the discontent, the feeling that everything was empty of meaning, the sense that life was unfilled, all the pointless brooding. And right now I am sunk in the mire. And even the certain knowledge that this too will pass brought me no peace this time.”

As the diaries continue, and then turn into letters, Etty’s story changes because of the fact she herself gets taken to Westerbork, a transit camp, with many other Dutch Jews. The writing here naturally changes, the horrors that Etty sees and the terror she feels come straight off the page. To have the contrast of her personality from earlier on is part of what makes this such a hard hitting, and indeed (cliched as it sounds) important book tfor people to read, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it gets. I must admit when I finished the book, and the last postcard Etty wrote which amazingly she threw from the train from Westerbork to Auschwitz and some farmers posted, I thought that just a collection of the letters would have been a better volume by itself. My opinion has changed as I think having both the diaries and letters creates a haunting picture with its depth and layers and so hits you harder.

With ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’ we have a distinct and very different voice from a part of history that we need not to forget and to learn from. I may have found her hard to work with at the start, yet strangely after finishing the book I felt that this is what makes the book so different and so powerful. Etty’s is a voice I will never forget.

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Filed under Etty Hillesum, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project