Posts Tagged ‘Jaroslav Hasek’

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.

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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.

On humour

July 25, 2015

I love anything that will make me smile or laugh; that means I’ve read a good deal of humorous writing in my time, and I have come to appreciate how hard it is to do well, and also how what people find funny has changed and developed over time. It’s hard to describe and classify humour, and it’s also clear that to be humorous can, at times, be dangerous for the humorist. Increasingly I’ve also noticed that there are considerable differences between what women and men find funny. This post is inevitably written from a male perspective.

I studied Francois Rabelais at university: in Gargantua and Pantagruel he satirised the religious and intellectual abuses of his time and was inevitably obscenely humorous while he was about it; you realise that scatology has always been part of humour as you read of the experiments to find what is the best thing to wipe your backside with, how the prostitutes of Paris defended their city, or the astonishing lists of books in various (imaginary) libraries. The far-fetched and the absurd are important aspects of the humorous. Whatever people laugh at today has been used before…

I’ve loved Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – the longest shaggy dog story in the world – ever since I had to read it, again as a student. It’s full of funny characters, humorous incidents, witty observations.

I’ve laughed loud and long at what must be the relatively mild Victorian humour of writers like Jerome K JeromeThree Men in a Boat – and George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.

Some of my former students will be aware of my love of Jaroslav Hasek, anarchist author of The Good Soldier Svejk (and his adventures in the Great War). Satire again, on the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian army through the adventures of a congenital idiot and the chaos he causes as he strives to do his duty: none of this can possibly be as insane or absurd as the war itself… and the illustrations are marvellous, too.

The Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich managed a similar kind of satire in rather more dangerous times with The Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin, with his eponymous hero’s adventures taking place during the Great Patriotic War, and causing just as much amusement and anarchy among the Soviets.

For sheer rolling around on the floor laughter, it’s hard to better John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, uproarious and obscene in equal measure. Much milder is Garrison Keillor’s laconic Lake Wobegon Days and other related titles (and the accompanying radio series The Prairie Home Companion). And then there’s the total bonkers-ness of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories, some of which have been wonderfully televised.

As a child I loved funny books, too, and probably my most treasured memories are of the Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter: at sleepovers we would drive each other into hysterics as we tried to read these stories aloud to each other…

I’m aware that I haven’t, despite racking my brains, mentioned a single female writer or character above, and would dearly like a nudge, prompt or hint if anyone can offer any. And when it comes to trying to explain what makes me laugh, or what exactly is funny about any of the books I’ve mentioned above, I’m hard-pressed. Absurdity makes me laugh, taking the normal and ordinary over the edge into the realms of the ridiculous, anything which brings chaos to what should be a tidy and boring and ordered world. I have also found myself wondering how much humour is a trait of our younger days, and whether, as I grow inevitably older, I laugh less and find less to laugh at or about….

Laughter and Literature

October 9, 2014

What makes us laugh, and why? I started thinking about this when I realised how long it was since a book I’d read had had me laughing out loud…

I decided that I laughed much more readily as a child. The Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle had me in stitches when I was at school, with their crazy spelling, eccentric teachers and mad antics. I have recollections of sleepovers (not that we used the term back in those days) at a friend’s where we reduced each other to tears reading aloud to each other from Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories – I don’t think anyone would get away with giving a character such a name nowadays. Again, it was the eccentricity of the character, and his actions that set us off. I still smile at the thought of anyone filling an envelope with mashed potato and sending it off to the gas or electricity board. Perhaps a tactic to be recommended in these times? Sellars and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That is still in print and still funny; here, I think it was the idea of twisting and warping the real events, and making up mock tests (do not write on both sides of the paper at once) that made me laugh.

I remember vaguely from my university days something of the theory of humour, the idea of human beings acting in non-human ways. As I reflected, I realised that there is falling about laughing – which I was very prone to as a child – and there is the more adult version where we snigger, chuckle, smile to ourselves in a more restrained way: we control and restrict ourselves, because falling about is non-human? We must not appear absurd. Very early in my teaching career, as we read aloud The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I realised that I could not restrain myself during the chapter where Huck, in a totally deadpan style, describes the house of the feuding Grangerford family: I had to get someone else to read…

Books like the Grossmiths’ Diary of  a Nobody, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat ranged from the mildly amusing to the occasionally hilarious, but were pretty restrained, really. A challenge came at university, where we had to read Tristram Shandy. Now this is a book which I found difficult, and yet I loved, and have come back to several times in my life. In some ways it’s stunningly modern in its premise; it’s certainly absurd in its structure and the games the author plays with his readers; the characters are eccentric, and the situations are often insane. It has been described as the longest shaggy dog story ever written, and I tend to agree.

Two books discovered and loved in my adult days have had the power to reduce me to helpless laughter, and I love them for it: Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The former, the only comic novel I know about the First World War, puts a congenital idiot into the Austro-Hungarian army and catalogues a series of utterly barking adventures; his innocence drives everyone to total distraction. And I don’t know what to say about Toole’s novel – time for a re-read, certainly – except that the blundering Aloysius’ adventures match Svejk’s in many ways.

Which brings me briefly on to black humour, the sort where you smile, or laugh, but guiltily, as if ashamed of laughing, feeling that the subject is too serious: an adult kind of humour, perhaps? For me, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the supreme example: the utter absurdity of so many of the situations and characters he imagines, which then are perhaps not quite as absurd as we first thought, inter-cut with scenes of graphic horror just to remind us that we shouldn’t be laughing…maybe.

I love laughing, falling about, and always have; I know it does me good: I’m also wondering why I seem to laugh less as I grow older…

Soviet Literature

July 8, 2014

Or maybe I actually mean anti-Soviet literature… literature written during Soviet times, anyway. I’m continuing some of the ideas I developed in an earlier post here.

If you read the history of Soviet times, you quickly realise that the first few years were, in many ways, a time of revolution and bold experimentation, especially in the world of the arts and literature; eventually, as the 1920s develop, the lid closes, the dead hand of Stalinism closes things down. There’s a further crackdown in the 1950s, a brief liberalisation at the end of the 60s/ in the early 70s and then it’s crackdown time again. Authority was clearly afraid; authority in the West is often afraid too, but has different and rather less obvious ways of crushing dissent and opposition.

So, what was there to be feared? Truth, in the end: there was much violence as the Soviet Union was built, collectivisation, repression of the kulaks, famine in Ukraine, political purges, show trials, people turned into unpersons, the gulag; religion was off-limits, as was any admiration of the West. If you take all these aspects of life, apparent to most people who had their eyes open, then there wasn’t much to write about, and it’s the writers who pushed the system to its limits and challenged it, often at great risk, that are still read and remembered, not the creators of the wooden socialist realism that was the official literature. What did Bulgakov mean, by having the devil rampage through Moscow in The Master and Margarita, with its sympathetic portrayal of both Christ and Pilate? And why did the KGB tell Vassily Grossman that his astonishing epic Life and Fate could not possibly be published for at least two centuries? Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy, which explored the darkest times of the Stalinist purges and show trials, only saw the light of day with perestroika. Solzhenitsyn explored dark times, and exposed some of the truths about the gulag, and ended up persecuted and then exiled; Varlam Shalamov‘s Kolyma Tales is even more shocking. Vladimir Voinovich got into trouble for humour and satire, and The Private Life of Ivan Chonkin is as funny (and biting) as Hasek‘s Svejk any day.

These are some of the best books of the last century in my opinion, created at the authors’ peril, mirrors of the sad failure of the experiment that came off the rails so quickly. The writers have real questions: how can one be free, how can one tell the truth, how can one resist oppression? Sometimes they wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ ie, put their manuscript away, knowing it could not be published, sometimes they took the risk – as did Solzhenitsyn – of samizdat (self) publication, typescript copies circulated in secret, sometimes smuggled to the West for publication.

And yet, culture in the Soviet Union was for all and readily accessible. Books (officially approved) were published in vast editions at giveaway prices, cinema and theatre cost next to nothing to attend; I wish that were the case over here, in the free West… not everything said, written or done in the Soviet Union was evil, yet I would not have wanted to live there.

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