Posts Tagged ‘Jaroslav Hasek’

Do you really need another reading list? (part two)

April 13, 2020

Some thoughts on the rest of this particular list of novels by world writers:

Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk. Heaven knows how many times I’ve read this and parts of it still reduce me to utterly helpless laughter. The Great War as experienced by a congenital idiot who can get himself into more scrapes than anyone can imagine, with superb original illustrations as an added bonus.

Vassily Grossman: Life & Fate. A serious story of the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and rated a twentieth century equivalent to Tolstoy’s War and Peace by many, including me. Last year the equally powerful prequel, Stalingrad, was finally published in its entirety, some sixty years after it was first written. It’s very strong stuff, and a salutary reminder of just how much the Soviet Union suffered in that war, and its massive contribution to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

Josef Roth: The Radetzky March. So moving that it hurts, in places, this is another portrait of a completely vanished world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it drifts inevitably and disastrously towards the First World War. I recently re-read it so will just point you here if you’re interested.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life. Some days, this understated and little known German novel is the best I’ve ever read. A naval captain, appalled by his experience of the Great War, gives up on society and the world and retires to the forests of East Prussia with a loyal follower, to lead a simple life. He discovers a new existence, with meaning and significance, finds happiness and/or contentment, and of course, sadly, this cannot last. Escapist? Possibly. Hippy-ish? Again, perhaps. But the lessons the captain learns are real and there for all of us to contemplate.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand. This one feels like it’s on the list as a token gesture to literature from the Arab world, which I have explored much more since I originally put my list together. There’s the exoticism of the setting, the romance of a completely different culture, and the background is the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his poem, the Rubaiyat. But I think if you are only going to read one of Maalouf’s many novels, you should probably go for Leo the African, or Baldassare’s Travels. They are all magical, and at times remind me of Umberto Eco at his best. I’ve come relatively late to novels from this part of the world and there’s lots to explore.

Question: what is it about vanished worlds, and powerful evocations of them, that grips me so? For as I write this and reflect on what I’ve told you about a good number of the novels above, it’s clear to me that this is a common strand, and something that draws me and affects me greatly…

Another question: why are all my novels in this category – writers in languages other than English – all by male writers? I currently have no answer to this one, but it requires some thought on my part…

To be continued…

Jozef Wittlin: The Salt of the Earth

January 18, 2020

71dXN6lPj0L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Yet another novel about the First World War that I didn’t know about, by a Polish author who wrote it in the mid-1930s. It was the first part of a trilogy the other two books of which were lost during the Second World War; only a fragment of the second book survives and is printed at the end of this novel.

Wittlin is as effective as Joseph Roth at conveying the send of the end of an era; there is a similar feeling to that evoked by Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. Hindsight tells us the Austro-Hungarian empire and monarchy will not survive the coming years’ mayhem, and the overall atmosphere of the novel is dreamlike, trance-like, almost hypnotic as the immense wheels of war gradually grind into motion and begin to transform everyone’s world. It’s unnerving, because the overwhelming sense is of a world in mass movement, where individuals are completely swamped, overwhelmed by what is happening: it is completely beyond their comprehension.

There is a deliberate, calculated naivete in the narrative style, which reinforces the silliness, the stupidity of the war itself, and also the participants’ incomprehension of it all.

In and among the mass, individuals emerge: the hero is Piotr, an illiterate Hutsul peasant, not very bright. We grow to like this simpleton in just the same way as we grow to love Jaroslav Hašek’s idiot hero Švejk, and yet the two could not be more different in the presentation, with Švejk’s effectiveness coming through the comedy of the chaos which he sows everywhere he goes, and Piotr’s coming from his innocence and genuine love of life, his simplicity and earthiness. Other characters are the Jewish doctor with the inferiority complex at the draft board, and later on the regimental Sergeant Major who lives his life for drilling new recruits. Both of these might also have made very good comic characters in the hands of a Hašek; here instead Wittlin poignantly brings out their humanity, and we feel pity for them.

The unnaturalness of war in the way it uproots people from their lives comes across very effectively in the lengthy train journey from the end of nowhere, the very edge of the empire, to the training camp deep inside Hungary; a babel of different languages adds to the chaotic effect, and there is also the irony that the regiment Piotr is to join is in fact owned by the king of Serbia, who is now, of course, the enemy of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

Out of the mass emerge individuals, then, to help us identify with how war affect people; a good man is uprooted and dragged away from his people and home; another does a job – training men to die for the Emperor – that is consummate in its absurdity and yet everyone recognises how good he is at it. The first novel ends with the formal swearing of the loyalty oath as the new intake is put into uniform and readied for initial training. It is autumn 1914…

The short remnant that is all that survives of the rest of the trilogy is very powerful, focusing on the death of another recruit who emerges as an individual from the mass, as whose death is not caused by warfare, but by cruel regimental punishment…

I had no idea what to expect when I began this novel; it was very different from all the others I’ve read about that period, and in its own way just as powerful as any of them. It’s a great pity we do not have the rest of Wittlin’s work.

On holiday reading

April 13, 2019

What sort of things do you take away to read when you go on holiday? I’m thinking about this because I’ll be off on a walking holiday soon, and it seems that every year I find it harder to decide what to take with me to read…

Sometimes I’m attracted by the idea of easy reading, re-acquainting myself with something I’ve read before. Then I remember that in my student days, when I had to ration myself because I was backpacking and there was only room for one book, that I’d save a real doorstop of a book especially for the summer holidays. Some of the reading from those heady days: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which I remember buying in Amsterdam, because I’d run out of things to read; War and Peace; Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk; Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; the two volumes of Yevgenia Ginsburg’s gulag memoirs (there’s light holiday reading for you!); Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don; Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz… The other thing I remember about holidays is I used to treat myself to Le Monde every day, because they used to have special summer series, lengthy articles on a historical or cultural theme that ran for a week or two.

So I look at the shelves and there are plenty of thick tomes awaiting my attention: shall it be one of them? The problem is that, in my younger days, holiday reading was always fiction, so a long novel fitted the bill; nowadays there’s far less fiction I’m interested in, and the weighty volumes of history or about religion are not quite the stuff of holiday relaxation. Stymied again.

What usually happens is that I start a pile a couple of weeks before I go, as I’m gradually gathering together all my other kit. The pile of books gets bigger and bigger until the day before I go, when I have to finally plump for a couple of them to last me the ten days or fortnight that I’ll be away. So, they get packed, and then I’ll find myself buying something far more interesting in a local bookshop while I’m away: I can never pass up the chance to scour French bookshops for things that aren’t going to make it into English.

On my current pile (awaiting weeding) for the upcoming holiday: R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – novels set in the Great War – and the Selected Writings of Alexander von Humboldt. I’m also contemplating Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth, which I know has had mixed reviews, and Jan Potocki’s Travels.

I’d be interested to know if I’m the only one with such dilemmas, and how any of my readers make their choices.

Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

August favourites #11: Comic novels

August 11, 2018

51VdgF+uEDL._AC_US218_516u8jzrppL._AC_US218_There are two novels which I’ll name equally here; having re-read them a number of times, both still have me laughing out loud, uncontrollably at times – though those who know me will acknowledge that isn’t actually that hard to achieve – Jaroslav Hasek’s amazing comic novel The Good Soldier Svejk, set in the Great War on the Eastern Front, with a congenital idiot as its hero, and A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, again featuring a buffoon, who brings chaos in his wake wherever he goes and whatever he attempts. It’s also very sad that Toole took his own life, having failed to find a publisher for his manuscript, which then went on to become a cult classic.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

Laughter and literature

March 30, 2016

My friends would tell you I can laugh loudly and heartily, and that I laugh easily and at lots of things. Something provoked me to start thinking about those books which have made me laugh the most…

I have to go back to my childhood, and Norman Hunter‘s amazing Professor Branestawm books (a couple of stories have recently been televised by the BBC quite successfully, I think) – silly stories about a mad professor and his crazy adventures: I remember friends at sleepovers when I was a kid, trying to read the stories aloud to each other, and it being impossible to keep a straight face much of the time.

Jerome K Jerome‘s masterpiece Three Men in A Boat had a similar effect on me as a teenager when I discovered him, and then, a little later on, I first came across Jaroslav Hasek‘s wonderful Good Soldier Svejk! The brilliance of his idea – sending a congenital idiot off to be a soldier in the Great War, and in the incredibly bureaucratic Austro-Hungarian army, too – allowed him to write by the yard (he never finished the novel, but there are a good 800 pages to keep you smiling) and have his hero in a great number of scrapes. My favourite pages are probably those where he is batman, first to a chaplain, and then to the amorous Captain Lukas. And the stories are always enhanced by Josef Lada’s great in-line illustrations.

Later on in life I came across John Kennedy Toole. His was a tragic story, in that he committed suicide thinking himself a failure, before The Confederacy of Dunces was published and was acclaimed a masterpiece. It will soon be time to read this minor classic again, and each time I’ve read it in the past, it has reduced me to helpless laughter. There is a second book, not as good – The Neon Bible – which I remember as being rather darker.

I’m conscious of the fact that all these are boys’ books, ie written by men and enjoyed – most probably – by male readers (although I know of one former female student who has enjoyed Svejk) and there’s a conundrum here. Firstly, I’ve racked my brain for any novels or stories by women writers who have had a similar effect on me and can’t think of any; this may, of course, be my own limited acquaintance with female humour, and I will be grateful for any suggestions any of my readers have to offer. And secondly, there’s the question of what makes us laugh. I can vaguely recall exploration of the nature of humour whilst at university and the mention of the name of Henri Bergson; the idea that we are laughing at a fellow human either being ridiculous or being made ridiculous; the idea that we are laughing at the misfortune of someone else. And I haven’t ever found these explanations completely convincing. For me, there’s something about the pure absurdity of situations involved, rather than the people. I’ve always been attracted to the Theatre of the Absurd, ever since I was introduced to it. And, as far as people are concerned, for me it seems to be something about them being allowed to act, react and interact in absurd ways, and the incongruous consequences of such actions. Whatever it is, I have always enjoyed laughing heartily.

My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

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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