Posts Tagged ‘Eastern European literature’

On refugees and writers

January 30, 2017

Lots of talk about refugees and migrants everywhere at the moment has had me thinking about writers who have had to leave their countries. People flee their countries because their lives are endangered, or they move voluntarily because they hope for a better quality of life elsewhere. These reasons are very different and it would be helpful if people and politicians differentiated.

I cast my eyes over my bookshelves. I know my library is a personal collection, and therefore not representative, but the first thing that struck me was that all the writers I recognised as exiles were twentieth century ones. That says something about our times, I feel.

James Joyce didn’t need to leave Ireland, but he found his native land so restrictive and suffocating mentally and creatively that he left, for good. The closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show us Stephen Dedalus coming to this decision. Similarly Witold Gombrowicz’ life in inter-war Poland was not in danger, yet he also found it restricting and oppressive, and took himself off to Argentina – luckily for him, just before the start of the Second World War. Both Hitler and Stalin set out to eliminate Polish culture and intellectual life, and made considerable progress.

The Soviet Union had rather longer to attempt to regiment cultural and literary life than the Third Reich, and most of the writers I noted in my examination of my bookshelves came from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most important one to mention, at least in the sense that he became a cause celebre in the 1970s. A political thaw allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in the Soviet Union and it was a sell-out. But that was it; important novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward circulated internally as samizdat publications, and when smuggled out to the West and published openly, caused serious problems for the writer; after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history and chronicle of Stalin’s labour camps, he was branded an anti-Soviet writer and eventually forced into exile. He ended up in the US and gradually faded into obscurity, cut off from his homeland. And he was an anti-Soviet writer, which is why the US welcomed him. The Russians wouldn’t have killed him, but his life would have been endangered by a prison sentence.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia saw Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky eventually leave, the former for Paris, the latter for Canada. So strict was the repression under Gustav Husak that many artists ended up in menial jobs, and some in jail; again, no death sentences because the West was watching, but death sentences as writers. The same was true of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who served the communist regime for a number of years before fleeing to the West. Writers in Eastern Europe increasingly wrote ‘for the desk drawer’ – as in, wrote and put away what they wrote, knowing it would never be printed – or took the risk of reprisals by smuggling their work out to be published in the West.

What I draw from this is that the question of migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers is a very complex one: very often it’s a quest for freedom. Clearly, some people are in danger of death if they don’t leave; many are not. A lot are seeking a better life in Europe. One thing does seem blindingly obvious to me though: if we in the West weren’t so quick to attack/ bomb/ invade/ colonise other countries, then their inhabitants might well be rather happier staying at home. Which is what quite a lot of the hoo-hah is about, isn’t it?

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Writing from other worlds…

July 7, 2014

As English is the dominant world language, and it’s ours, I have always felt that literature from other countries barely gets a look-in in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why I read French Literature at university along with English, and have worked to sustain my working knowledge of one other language. And then, there’s the fact that, proud as I am to have the language of Shakespeare as my mother tongue, I’m in fact only half English. The other half of me is Polish, and this has always reminded me that there is another world, there are other worlds out there…

It’s not possible for anyone to keep up with all the literature in the world; I don’t know how long ago that might once have been possible. So I’m aware that, even though I read quite widely, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. When I read other people’s blogs about literature, I see how much else there is that I have no awareness of. So I choose, I follow certain tracks for certain reasons. This means that others are inevitably ignored. I have always been interested in Eastern European literature, particularly that written during the time of the various so-called communist regimes of the Cold War; it was fascinating to observe truths being told even under the eyes of the censors. Now, of course, that writers there have the same ‘freedoms’ as we have in the West, they are writing more of the same stuff that we produce. Having my origins in the outcome of the Second World War, I have also been fascinated with how Germans have come to terms (or not) with what was done by them and in their names during the Hitler years; I suppose Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll spring to mind at once.

Something fascinated me with Latin America and magic realism – I can’t remember what or when – and I like the perspective it offers on life and story-telling. And a chance discovery of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and its amazing bookshop opened my eyes to some of the literature of the Arab world: so very different, but, as importantly, just as valid a perspective on the world as our own. Amin Maalouf and Naguib Mahfouz spring immediately to mind.

I would find it almost impossible to justify what I’m about to say, which is that, in comparison with the literature I’ve just described above, I have found a great deal of the English and American literature I have encountered from the same time-period, ie since the Second World War, rather dull, introspective, navel-gazing even. I’ll counter this immediately by mentioning Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as instances of new and exciting anglophone writing, but also categorise them as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Reading through what I’ve just written, I’m realising that I can’t just leave things there; I’m going to have to explore some of the bold and sweeping statements I’ve made in more depth and detail, and attempt to be clearer and fairer…

to be continued…

Soviet Literature (1)

August 27, 2013

One thing I have read a great deal of is literature written in the Soviet Union or during its existence, in other countries that were known as the Soviet bloc. Literature written during a dictatorship is a very different beast from that produced in ‘free’ countries. As far as I’m aware, there was not much literature written or published in Nazi Germany: most writers fled the country and carried on in exile. But the Soviet Union lasted much longer, and not all writers went into exile.

I’m also aware that, in the nearly quarter century since the revolutions in Eastern Europe which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new generation has grown up, which know astonishingly little of those times generally, and the literature in particular. And this concerns me, because so much powerful literature was written during those times. Some of it was translated into English and published here, but a lot of it was not; is it all going to vanish into history?

There are several kinds of writer from those times: those who knew that what they were writing could not, or would not, be published, and so wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ (as it was called) or who took the enormous risk of smuggling their manuscripts abroad for publication. So, for example, Vassily Grossmann was told by the KGB that Life and Fate (his epic novel centring on the battle for Stalingrad, that has justly been called a War and Peace for the twentieth century) could not be published for two hundred years, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was eventually driven into exile because novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward were published in the West. And then there are those who wrote, and whose novels were allowed to be published, with or without alterations, but always after having gone through censorship. An enormous number of these were undoubtedly hackwork, but by no means all of them: in other words, some decent literature came out of a totalitarian state.

Another thing that isn’t widely known is the huge number of books published in the Soviet bloc countries – turgid political tracts by the million, certainly, but also quality literature (safe works like the classics of the past) at very cheap prices because culture generally was intended to be available to everyone. I’m reminded of this when I see the cheaply produced books sold for ridiculously high prices here in the ‘free world’.

So, what were the constraints on authors? Various topics were completely off-limits, particular recent history, politics and religion. Others had to be handled very carefully if there was to be a chance of publication. I haven’t really formed the impression that writers’ expression was thereby limited; writing was often more symbolic or allegorical in order to avoid censorship, but most of the themes, tropes and topics that have always been explored in good literature are there, if treated and explored in different ways.

It’s when I come on to making comparisons (inevitably subjective, I know) that I feel on rather shakier ground. Somehow, it has often seemed to me, because of the restrictions placed on them, writers from Eastern Europe managed to write better (?) deeper (?) more meaningful or provoking novels than their ‘free’ counterparts, who were often being incredibly narrow, self-indulgent and experimental for the sake of it; similarly, I often feel that novels addressing the key issues of life, its meaning and our future, are often not being written in Europe or the Unites States, and certainly not in English: the energy and dynamism of really good literature has long been elsewhere…

I realise that much of what I’ve written is subjective and provocative; no apologies for that, as it comes from a lifetime of reading, but I hope that I shall be able to provide some evidence and justification in future posts.

To be continued…

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