Days of Reading

Two weeks ago, talking about an essay by Marcel Proust, I wrote about the place that the word “reading” evokes for me. Finding myself in this very spot, I wanted to share it with you. It’s located near Poltava, one of the oldest towns in Ukraine, although our garden is far enough from the bustle of the town. The apricot tree I mentioned has long been gone, as have the people who planted the garden, my great-grandparents, but the cherry orchard, the hammock, the thicket of jasmine are still there. And so I am with my book.

I spread the blanket under the bush we call “the nightingale’s tree.” It grows tall fronds covered with fuzzy, honey-smelling white blossoms. The cherries are still green, but it’s still early, it’s still spring, and I don’t rush headlong into summer.

My book today is Vivre Dans Le Feu: Confessions (Living in the Fire: Confessions) by Marina Tsvetaeva. It’s a compilation of the poet’s letters and diaries made and commented by the late Tsvetan Todorov. In English, I recommend a similar compilation, but spanning only the years between 1917 and 1922, Earthly Signs, recently translated and edited by the New York Review of Books. On the other hand, if you’re new to Tsvetaeva’s poetry, I would suggest starting with her magnificent The Poem of the EndThe Poem of the Mountain, and The Ratcatcher.

Perhaps, I’ve asked you this already, but if not, where do you like reading?



  • Sandra: I just finished the Gerard Russell book last night..
    My next read is either The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or the Aleppo book if it comes into the library.
    My neighbor is also a avid reader so we share books a lot…

    Also reading a lot of travel books as we are preparing a trip to Quebec this summer.

    My favorite place to read is on my recliner when the kids are asleep and a cup of tea near by. Or as it gets warmer out on my balcony amongst potted herbs and looking out over the east river. May 16, 2018 at 8:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Where are you planning to go? And what books are you reading? Travel guides or actual travel accounts? May 17, 2018 at 6:44am Reply

      • Sandra: Travel books, from Lonely planet amongst others. Last year we did Toronto, Ottawa and Niagara Falls. This year Toronto, Quebec City and Montreal
        Have you ever been?

        I just got a call from the public library yesterday that my books are in so I guess the rise and fall of Aleppo will be my next read… May 17, 2018 at 7:34am Reply

  • Figuier: What a beautiful spot! And thanks for the reading recs – I read some of Tsevtaeva’s poetry years ago, in a Carcanet selected edition, but felt dissatisfied with the translations. Are the poems you’ve mentioned translated by NYRB as well?

    In my leisure time I’ve been reading poetry – Vanhi Capildeo’s ‘Venus as a Bear’, which is ridiculously varied, brilliantly sensuous and intellectually complex – as well as new-ish collections by Irish poets Sinead Morrissey & David Wheatley. I’ve also been reading some stories by Kafka, but find I spend a long time digesting each one – so much to take in! For work I’ve been reading 18th-c (ex-)slave writings, sometimes gruelling material but often literarily dazzling and in any case entirely necessary.

    This reading mostly takes place on the sofa in our sitting room, occasionally on trains, in libraries or cafes. The sofa has close-up views of a beautiful chestnut tree that gets flung about in the wind. May 16, 2018 at 9:14am Reply

    • Sandra: Your chestnut tree sounds beautiful..enjoy your poetry. May 16, 2018 at 10:38am Reply

    • Mel: I’ve read a collection of slave narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that includes The Life of Olaudah Equiano, The History of Mary Prince, the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. You’re right; they’re absolutely brutal; in fact, virtually unbearable. But 100% essential to a humanitarian education. Can you recommend some others? May 16, 2018 at 2:57pm Reply

      • Figuier: I can recommend Ottobah Cugoano’s ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery…’; also, the poems of the near-contemporary Phillis Wheatley, a slave from Boston who became famed as a poet after publishing in London, are quite elevated in tone & avoid graphic description of physical of suffering, but are full of metaphors of bondage/liberty. May 17, 2018 at 3:02am Reply

    • Victoria: There is a translation of Poem of the End by Elaine Feinstein that was cited in the Guardian a couple of years ago. I find it hard to recommend the English translations of Tsvetaeva, because I don’t read them, and the few that I saw didn’t capture the aspects I admire about her poetry. Simply because English has a very different rhythm from Russian, and the type of meter that Tsvetaeva uses and that sounds sharp, staccato and crisp in Russian becomes bland and nursery rhyme like in English. So Feinstein selects the blank verse. I haven’t read the whole poem, so I can’t judge it, but do take a look. May 17, 2018 at 6:48am Reply

      • Debi: I look forward to discovering her but I haven’t replaced my last favorite place to read yet. It was an old sofa on a screened porch five steps from the Chesapeake Bay. I lost it after my friend whose old pine cabin it was died. I could write another story about the fragrances year round there. . May 17, 2018 at 5:55pm Reply

      • Figuier: Many thanks for this, Victoria, I’ll check that one out. Feinstein’s a fine poet, which I guess is a good start. May 17, 2018 at 6:25pm Reply

        • Figuier: Ah, following up quickly: I think Feinstein’s is from the ‘selected’ translations I did read previously, and it didn’t wow me at the time. I will retrieve & reread, though, and focus on Poem of the End. May 17, 2018 at 6:27pm Reply

  • therabbitsflower: I like reading in my cozy green armchair. Or lounging on the couch, but especially the armchair. It’s positioned for great natural light. At work there are a couple picnic tables behind our building that are in the shade most of the day. As long as I go before 2:50 in the summer months, I can get in a good half hour of reading (for a lunch break) before the sun overtakes the spot. May 16, 2018 at 10:39am Reply

    • Victoria: I love reading outside, although it’s true I have to time my reading well in order to avoid the direct sun over that spot. May 17, 2018 at 6:49am Reply

  • AndreaR: Growing up in Los Angeles, I spent many hot summer days perched in the avocado tree reading books hand-picked for me by our amazing local librarian. Trips to my grandparent’s house on the Canadian prairies took me to the basement to search for anthologies that belong to my mother and my aunts. I read them various nooks and crannies throughout their house. My cousins and I would head to the corner drugstore to read comic books forbidden by my mother, Archie and Veronica was my favorite. I read on airplanes, but rarely in the car, train or on a bus, although I was glued to Jules Vern’s Michael Stroganoff on one lengthy car trip. Nowadays I take my stash of books to bed with me and read a few chapters before its time for lights out. May 16, 2018 at 12:11pm Reply

    • Brenda: I am from, and still live, on the Canadian prairie. Yes, those comic books were favourites of me and my sisters, too. They went hand in hand with hot, never ending July days…one each, cinnamon buns & a knife. We settled by the lilac bush on an old blanket. So great! These days I read in my library – on an ancient rocker I’ve had recovered or just in the quiet living
      room. I am not very accomplished at reading in public. Try as I might, I seem to enjoy ‘people watching’ too much…& I can’t keep my mind on my book! Presently, I am reading Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. May 16, 2018 at 2:39pm Reply

      • Victoria: I can’t read in a cafe (unless the book is very engaging), but I can read anything on a bus or metro easily, even standing up! May 17, 2018 at 6:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I also remember reading that novel by Jules Verne. One of my favorites! May 17, 2018 at 6:49am Reply

  • Mel: I love to read at my desk at home at the end of the work day – with a martini. Or two. Before dinner. I also enjoy walking a mile or so to a favorite cafe by the beach early in the morning w/ a book or a New Yorker – to jumpstart my body and my brain. May 16, 2018 at 2:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: A book and a martini! A good combo. 🙂 May 17, 2018 at 6:52am Reply

  • kekasmais: There isn’t much Tsvetaeva in circulation in any nearby libraries but I recall reading Letters with her correspondence between Pasternak and Rilke and feeling overwhelmed by her depth.

    Last week, I was in a bit of a romantic mood and took a horse blanket out to sit and read under the cherry tree in my backyard. It was in full bloom still and it made me smile every time a petal fell into the spine of my book. Then other things started showing up on the pages and I realized to my horror that I had spread my blanket on top of a sizable ant mound. Whoops. May 16, 2018 at 4:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: She’s the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century. In terms of breadth of her work and diversity of her poetry, prose, literary explorations and her philosophy, I would place her apart from all others. For political reasons she was ignored in the Soviet Union and outside. Some say that her poetry is hard to translate, but I really don’t believe that it’s an issue. And her daughter closed the archive until 2000! The problem is that she simply hasn’t received her due outside of Russia. Now that the archive has been opened, we will see many more publications. The correspondence with Rilke and Pasternak is just a tip of the iceberg. May 17, 2018 at 6:56am Reply

      • Victoria: The Earth Fragments published by the New York Review of Books is also excellent. May 17, 2018 at 6:58am Reply

      • Kate: She is a truly great poet who was sorely neglected during her lifetime and has been since. Various and complex reasons for this, among which — sad though it is to have to say it — is the fact that she wasn’t as beautiful as Akhmatova. This sounds like a trivial difference but the power of glamour cannot be underestimated!

        I think also that Tsvetaeva’s poetry probably doesn’t lend itself easily to English translation: that exclamatory, headlong, breathless quality, and the musicality of her verse which is, of course, specific to Russian, mean that a lot of her poetry’s special qualities are lost in translation. I’ve read the Feinstein translations and thought they did a good job, but was aware that I was missing so much (not being a fluent Russian speaker). I can work my way through the cyrillic and hear the sounds of the words, but then I miss the meaning! May 19, 2018 at 2:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: Comparing the looks of the two poets rather puts me off, I admit. In Russia Tsvetaeva has been anything but ignored, and publications on her and of her work outnumber those of Akhmatova.

          For the Western reader, however, she’s less known, but it’s changing with the opening of her archives in 2000 and all the new publications and upcoming translations. Yes, all poetry is hard to translate, but Tsvetaeva’s is no harder to render into English than Pasternak’s or Mandelstam’s. I’ve read Feinstein’s translation since I last commented, and I have to say that I liked it. Some qualms about the word choice here and there, but as someone who has tried translating Tsvetaeva, I can be a demanding reader. May 19, 2018 at 3:31pm Reply

          • Kate: Oh, I abhor such comparisons too. Horrible that it can influence a poet’s public image, but sometimes I think it can. I find Tsvetaeva a fascinating literary personality as well as a remarkable poet. Few poets can have been as passionately dedicated to their art as she was. May 19, 2018 at 6:39pm Reply

            • Victoria: In this case, however, it’s irrelevant, because there were so many other much more significant factors why Tsvetaeva’s work was ignored. May 20, 2018 at 1:18am Reply

  • Emilie: I like to read outside too and there is a creek on our property which has a patch of soft grass and daffodils nearby so that’s a particularly good spot – the creek is dry in summer but in autumn and winter the sound can be very lulling.

    Otherwise I like reading in bed at night (I always hope I’ll dream about what I’ve been reading but it never happens) and if I’ve had a hard day a book in a bubble bath is just perfect! May 16, 2018 at 7:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Being here in Ukraine makes me realize how much I miss nature, walking among trees and hearing the leaves rustle in the wind. So yes, I can’t agree more–having a reading spot like yours is a great pleasure. May 17, 2018 at 6:57am Reply

  • Carla: In bed at the end of the day. Looking forward to that keeps me going on many days! May 17, 2018 at 1:04pm Reply

  • Andy: So much of my reading these days is compulsory, and comes by way of hours in front of a computer screen, certainly not the most pleasurable. So, when I have a chance to read for pleasure, in natural light, it’s a treat. When I can, reading on a quiet beach by the Delaware Bay (umbrella, hat, and sunscreen, please!) is hard to beat. If I’m located just right, I can see the day’s sunrise and sunset over the water from the same spot. May 17, 2018 at 3:31pm Reply

  • Severine: Quiet places. Libraries, parks, buses, airplanes, empty lecture halls, empty church, cafes. My study room. Doctor’s waiting room. School yard. And also under the bed, with a flashlight, aged seven.
    I never read to bed. Would keep me up all night if I did. May 17, 2018 at 7:48pm Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    As a child, my favourite reading spot was under the large cherry tree in our garden in Budapest.
    However I was lucky enough to spend my summer holidays near a lake. In our garden, we have sour cherry trees and I read so many books under those in our swing bed! My granny used to cook and listen to the radio while I was being lost in a great story. Nowadays during cold months I read on my blue sofa, usually my 2 cats purring gently on my lap or beside me. I can see the trees through the window and sometimes I stop to daydream.
    My current read requires a calm spot, Elizabeth von Arnim :Elizabeth and her German garden. It is a slow-paced little gem about ab Englishwoman who seeks refuge from social life in the garden on her husband’s estate. I cannot recommend it enough along with ger novel, the lovely Enchanted April. May 18, 2018 at 7:29am Reply

  • Neva: For the past 10 years I live in an apartment without a balcony and the garden is used as a parking lot for cars. I miss the garden terrace in my parents’ house. It used to be my favourite reading spot. Nowadays I take my book to a nearby park and read on a bench, or in a quiet street cafe over a coffee or tea. At home I have a cuddly sofa with good natural and artificial light and I read there mostly during the cold months. May 23, 2018 at 4:10pm Reply

  • bregje: That spot you describe in your Ukraine garden sounds perfect for reading!
    There are many places i like to read depending on the season.In winter i love to read in bed with a cup of tea.
    But i guess i prefer outside in nature at the end of a sunny day and somewhere quiet. I live in the city and have a roof terrace where it’s pretty nice but often my neighbours(7 college girls) are talking loudly and barbecuing on their balcony and then i get distracted.

    On a holiday near a private pool with lavender bushes surrounding it, i can read until it gets dark ;)(think Provence,Tuscany,Cyprus,Sicily).
    I’m so grateful to have been able to visit these places.
    Also the garden(with windshields) of our Terschelling house is great to read in.Listening to seagulls, the waves of the ocean and sometimes being honoured with a visit from the pheasants,rabbits or crows. May 23, 2018 at 7:55pm Reply

  • Steve L.: The building I live in has a furnished roof deck. Sometimes it gets awfully breezy up there but I like reading in the sunshine and fresh air. (Well, relatively fresh.) There’s a view, and from time to time interesting birds — including San Francisco’s semi-famous parakeets — fly by. I bring my dog up there with me as she seems to be a champion sunbather. May 26, 2018 at 9:28pm Reply

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