Archive for the 'Russian literature' Category

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

Svetlana Alexievitch: La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme

May 27, 2017

I wrote about her most recent book here, and recall how I was stunned by it; this one is no different. And I find myself thinking hard about what exactly it is that she does so well. She doesn’t write fiction, and she doesn’t write history – at least not in the sense we usually expect history: with names, dates, places, facts, figures and accuracy. She listens, and records; she questions; she selects. And some question what her ‘selecting’ what to include does to what she writes about…

How is this ‘literature’, worthy of the Nobel Prize? How is it different from what we usually think of as literature?

Alexievitch captures the power of witness: these women lived the war, experienced it, suffered it; Alexievitch is collecting voices to preserve forever. And although even to read some of the things they describe is so horrifying I find myself thinking nobody should read this, yet none of this must ever be forgotten.

And here is where Western notions of literature and criticism part company with the Eastern. I read – very angrily – an American critic complaining, taking Alexievitch to task because she was editing, not reporting words verbatim, was re-arranging accounts, as if in some way this was ‘fake’ reportage, and therefore of dubious validity…

A woman focuses on women’s experience of war, during the Great Patriotic War. Women flock voluntarily to the war effort, girls lie about their age, resort to all kinds of subterfuge to take part in combat; they are partisans, resistance fighters, sharpshooters, snipers, aviators, as well as the more ‘traditional’ nurses and stretcher-bearers. Their bravery and selflessness is astonishing – no less than that of their menfolk, it is true – but in the West we do not understand this, we have no comprehension of what the war was like in those places. Here is real feeling, along with names, dates, places, some facts and some figures which somehow are not that important in what her interlocutors really have to say…

Many of the women recount the war in Belarus, and it beggars description. They return home to villages, towns where there are no males… I have not forgotten the experience, more than thirty years ago, of seeing the premiere of Elem Klimov‘s film Go and See at the London Film Festival. At the end, the entire audience – 1500 people or so – left in stunned silence. Not a word was said. The final caption on screen told us that 97% of Belarusian males between 18 and 45 did not survive the war.

Alexievitch is a different kind of writer, a listener and a recorder who lets her subjects talk; she presents testimony of times and places. There is no commentary, although occasionally she reflects on what she is doing or someone she has met, in a few paragraphs. And then the listening recommences. It’s incredibly powerful and important stuff. And be warned: you need a strong stomach.

Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?

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I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?

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I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

My travels: G for Gdansk

January 19, 2017

Gdansk is probably one of my most favourite cities anywhere. I first went there on my very first visit to Poland at the age of fifteen, so way back in the days of the communist People’s Republic; this was also round about the time when I first came across it as the setting for Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, in its pre-war incarnation as the Free City of Danzig.

It’s a coastal city and major port, on the mouth of the Vistula river, with a beautiful historic centre, featuring many gates, towers, streets of merchants’ houses, mills and of course, churches, including St Mary’s, which counts as one of the largest – if not the largest – brick Gothic churches in the world: it really is colossal, both from the outside and within. One of the things of which I’ve learnt in my travels around northern Poland is the brick Gothic church trail, which stretches all the way from Belgium to Russia: in England there were copious supplies of stone to be quarried for church-building in mediaeval times, but in northern Europe there weren’t, and so bricks had to be used; coming from England one perhaps has the impression that basic brick is a fairly ugly, utilitarian or pedestrian material from which to build a place to the glory of God, but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and there is actually an incredible wealth of really beautiful churches to be seen…

Gdansk is now also home to its very own Shakespeare Theatre and annual festival: apparently, in Shakespeare’s time, when the London theatres were closed by the plague, as they often were, Shakespeare’s company visited Gdansk and performed there a number of times, although there is no record that the dramatist himself ever went with them. And following in the footsteps of London’s Globe Theatre, the Poles recently succeeded in completing their own tribute to those times.

Why do I like it so much? It’s a walker’s city, with beautiful views along and across its many waterways which give that part of it a very spacious feel; strolling down the streets of merchants’ houses there is so much to see in the architecture and decoration – all the buildings are painted; it’s a city full of history and monuments. There is the famous Polish Post Office, which held out at the start of the Second World War and is immortalised in Grass’ novel, the site at Westerplatte where the Polish garrison withstood German fire for days that September, and of course the famous shipyards that were the site of the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s. There are also a couple of excellent micro-breweries.

It was Grass’ novel which fed my interest in the city over the years. The Tin Drum, and its sequels Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, are rooted in the past incarnation of the city as much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Edwardian Dublin. The Free City of Danzig, created by the treaties at the end of the Great War, lay at the mouth of the mighty Vistula river and on the edge of the infamous Polish Corridor, which granted the new nation access to the sea. You can follow the adventures of Oscar Matzerath and his family and acquaintances on a pre-war map; although the city had to be rebuilt post-1945 and all its streets, places and monuments acquired Polish names, these are for the most part the exact counterparts of their pre-war names; the city was both German and Polish, and in some ways Grass’ novels are as much of an elegy to a lost world as are novels like Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Roth’s The Radetzky March. Today’s citizens of Gdansk realise that Grass is an asset for the tourist trail; there is a Tin Drum restaurant, and various places associated with Grass’ childhood are marked out for the visitor.

It is a wonderful place, one to which I hope to return again and to spend more time exploring.

Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

On freedom

December 29, 2016

Freedom is one of those words most often taken for granted, not really thought about or understood properly, a totem which can be crassly used to belabour those with whom one does not agree. I found myself scanning my bookshelves, as I often do when I’m reflecting on how to frame and develop a blog post, looking for novels that tackled the subject, and was struck by the fact that there weren’t/ I haven’t any from before the twentieth century… did this really mean that freedom wasn’t an issue in earlier times in the way it has become more recently?

I’m sure for thinkers, philosophers and theologians freedom was theoretically an issue, in the sense of free will, or how much scope we have for choosing and acting as we would like to, and this aspect of freedom continued into the twentieth century with the existentialists. Those of my generation will surely remember reading Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, or even seeing the excellent BBC adaptation of it in the 1970s: we were each free to deliberately make the choices we wanted to, in order to validate our existence… or not, as the case might be. Certainly the question of freedom has become a theme in literature in the last few decades.

When I wonder why this might be, I think we need to look at its opposite, oppression and slavery. The United States technically got its house in order with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War; the question of freedom for slaves is explored in such novels as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck’s mental gymnastics as he considers the issues while travelling with Jim the escaping slave on the raft down the Mississippi are as clear an exposition of the issues as any I’ve come across.

Russia, and then the Soviet Union, was rather different, and has perhaps determined how the issues were framed in the twentieth century. Serfdom was finally abolished in the 1860s; it hadn’t been quite the same as slavery in the US, but wasn’t terribly different it its effects. But then the authorities continued to deprive political dissidents of their freedom and march them in chains into exile in Siberia: Chekhov wrote about this in his travelogue The Island; Dostoevsky experienced it first-hand. And the Soviets took this much further; the West was easily able to frame the picture of the Soviet Union as a land where nobody was free.

As is so often the case, this is rather an oversimplification. We need to consider two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to. In the West we have foregrounded the latter, and ignored the former: we are free to move where we like, to travel where we wish, to work at whatever profession we choose, to live where we like, to believe what we like and worship how we choose, and everyone should similarly be free. Fine, all well and good, as long as we have the necessities of life – actually the money, if we are honest – to allow us to exercise these freedoms.

George Orwell is often regarded as the author who explored these issues most clearly in – allegedly – his devastating critiques of communism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. The animals win their freedom and are then oppressed even worse than previously. In Nineteen Eighty-four everyone is under Big Brother’s constant gaze and has no freedom of action or speech. Except that we oversimplify. The animals abdicate their responsibilities: freedom once won has to be watched over and preserved by everyone; Big Brother’s gaze is the watch of the totalitarian state, of whatever political colour or direction; it’s convenient but untrue merely to say Orwell is criticising communism.

Margaret Atwood, in her dystopian vision The Handmaid’s Tale, is a writer who invites us to look much more carefully at freedom from and freedom to. At some level the latter is a bourgeois luxury that most of the world cannot even dream of enjoying. Before you can be free to do loads of things, you need freedom from hunger, thirst, homelessness, violence, unemployment, and a few other things besides; most of the world would settle for this kind of freedom. And, like it or not, the Soviet Union and its allies did assure these freedoms as a minimum: there was shelter for everyone (yes, quite grotty flats sometimes, but better than railway arches), food was cheap, very cheap (not a lot of choice and frequent shortages), everyone had a job (and yes, some were pointless, make-work schemes and often you had to work where you were sent) and so could earn money. The basic essentials of life were available cheap.

I’m not saying the Soviet Union was better, or that I’d like to have lived there. What I am saying is that the attitudes we have, the slogans we parrot and the freedoms we allegedly need, are worthy of deeper consideration than they are given, and that we need to be aware of the very privileged positions from which we pontificate.

My A-Z of reading: E is for Ending

October 24, 2016

I wrote about beginnings under B and I imagine you would expect me to write about endings… and it’s a lot harder and more complex, I feel. For, as we read, we develop our own expectations of the way a story will go and how we think it should end, and those expectations do not always match those of the writer who produces the text and therefore gets her or his way. How many times did I hear someone in a class object to the ending of a novel?

My impression has always been that until relatively recently, readers expected both a tidy resolution of the story (loose ends tidied up) and a happy ending too, and for many years, that was what they got. More recently, though, writers have experimented with offering their readers open endings rather than closed and final ones: why should they have to tie up all the loose ends, and what right do their readers have to a feeling of happiness and satisfaction at the end of a novel? And if we do not like the way a novel ends, then surely the question to ask is, so why did the writer choose to have that ending rather than the one I wanted? I found it useful to point my students in that direction, as it reminded them once again that a novel is a work of fiction (that is, something made) where the writer is in control of everything, making choices all the way along the line, and thereby excluding other choices…

In some ways for me the ending of Persuasion is the perfect happy ending: Anne and Wentworth finally get each other after many years, in spite of so many obstacles; his letter is a masterpiece of genuine feeling, and what reader can grudge them their happiness as they walk together – united at last – through the streets of Bath? Jane Austen manages it perfectly, I think.

Contrast this with the ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, some forty years later. The power of it blew me away when I first read it: Lucy’s passion for Paul and the way the ending is deliberately left open – does he return for them to live happily ever after or is he lost forever in that dreadful Atlantic storm? – is heart-wrenching in the way it leaves the lovers parted, or in suspended animation for a century and a half now. Amazingly daring then, I’m sure, such openness is often imitated now, to rather less effect. There’s a similar power for me in the ending of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: after we and Raskolnikov have been churned by the psychological torment of the plot, we are surely happy that Sonya will be waiting for him to return after he has purged his crime and they will be happy together…

It’s hard not to fall in love with Huck Finn’s innocence and genuineness as his adventures unfold; the silly escapades after his reunion with Tom Sawyer are a blot on the book and his character, but his decision to abandon civilisation and light out for the territory at the end of the novel I find immensely moving and powerful. Nor can I get to the end of the n-th re-read of The Name of the Rose without a lump in my throat: the suddenly aged Adso at the end of his life, in some way shaped by his one experience of passion and sexual fulfilment, and noting at the end of his adventure with William ‘I never saw him again’. If a book is well-written, a good story that makes me care about the characters, then little details like that are extraordinarily powerful.

Other endings I have loved: the tour-de-force that is the final section of Ulysses, the return full-circle at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the kick in the guts that is the end of Nineteen Eighty-four – that has to be the ending, no matter how much we loathe it. And most recently, in a trilogy that has become (and I think will remain) a classic, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights: the relationship that develops and blossoms between Lyra and Will, that I cannot put a name to, and then their separation forever into their own respective universes, parallel but never again to meet…

Andrei Bitov: Pushkin House

December 15, 2015

51LvwcASCmL._AA160_This is apparently a Soviet post-modern novel. It’s extremely hard work, and I can see why the Soviets wouldn’t publish it. It’s chaotic, in a Joycean or Shandian sense, and parts of it recall the weirder bits of Ulysses; because it’s about literature and responses to it, it’s presented almost as an academic work, with sections and subsections and appendices and notes and footnotes…

The author is forever interfering, or deliberately intervening in his own narrative, sometimes interacting with his hero, offering variants of particular episodes, alternate endings and the like, so attempting to track a linear narrative is not really allowed or possible. The power of the author is obvious – he can do as he likes, and we are allowed at times to assume there is a direct identification between author and hero, and at other times not. He can also write himself into a corner with his hero’s mad antics, and then magic him out of it again.

Ultimately the plot isn’t sufficiently interesting to sustain this reader’s interest; it’s no doubt clever in its convolutedness and self-reference, but it doesn’t draw one along like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses do. Partly, I think, this is because so much of the detail and reference is Russian-specific; even my reasonable acquaintance with nineteenth century Russian literature didn’t help me wade through the mire of mentions of authors and quotations from their works, plus details of their biographies… and a novel that requires complex notes and glosses ceases to be a novel – though perhaps this is part of Bitov’s intention.

The one thing which did stand out as a consummate achievement was an astonishing drinking binge involving eight bottles of vodka being consumed by five people over a night or so; the weird states, hallucinations and outlandish behaviour are every bit as insane as the drug-fuelled ramblings of the late Hunter S Thompson, or the craziest section of Joyce’s Ulysses. Only Russians are capable of drinking like this, and if you do want to read a novel about epic drinking, then you should probably go for Benedikt Erofeev‘s Moscow Circles rather than this one, I suggest.

In the end, I’m afraid it wasn’t quite worth the eyeball time.

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

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