Posts Tagged ‘Life and Fate’

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…

Advertisements

August favourites #12: Russian novels

August 12, 2018

41GnrrcFxKL._AC_US218_Russia is a huge country and it has gone in for more than its fair share of huge – as in door-stopper size – novels, a number of which are rightly classics. I could nominate War and Peace, although lately I’ve found myself preferring Anna Kerenina if I’m thinking about Tolstoy. I’ve a soft spot for Crime and Punishment, which was the first Russian ‘classic’ I read, and have frequently returned to. In the twentieth century, it’s the horrors of Stalinism which have preoccupied many writers, and in my younger days I really liked Solzhenitsyn’s work. Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy is not very well known, but is very powerful and convincing, but for me the epic choice has to be Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which I’ve often mentioned in these posts: he wrestles with Stalin and Stalinism, as well as the horrors of the Second World War and the Battle of Stalingrad. It truly is an astonishing novel.

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.

On historical novels

July 2, 2018

What, exactly, is a historical novel? I realise that I’ve probably been quite snooty about them at various times in the past, and dismissive of the genre, as not being ‘proper’ literature. But recently I’ve been thinking, particularly as I suspect I’ve been reading and enjoying them without realising…

What I mean is, does any novel set in the past count as a historical novel? Does it depend on how historical personalities and events are integrated imaginatively into the plot? And what, if anything, makes one of these novels count as ‘proper’ literature? I’m not interested in novels populated by kings and queens, aristocrats and royalty, for instance, and I didn’t choose to read Hilary Mantel’s recent novels set at the time of the English Reformation. But that is a historical period I’m interested in, and the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar I reviewed recently was set then, and certainly involved some real persons from those times, as was the case with Luther Blissett’s Q, which I also drew attention to in that same post.

I found myself questioning my attitude because of a novel I’m currently reading, set in the Middle East and Central Asia at the time of Tamburlane, but centring on a number of Arab scientists rediscovering the knowledge of the ancients, as well as pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. And Jean-Pierre Luminet’s Ulugh Beg isn’t that good: almost non-existent characterisation, and tenuous plot that seems to exist just to flesh out the history of Arab science. I was reminded of John Banville’s novels featuring scientists from history; I tried the one about Copernicus but was so annoyed I gave up. On the other hand, Gilbert Sinoué’s novel about Avicenna I found thoughtful, detailed, interesting and quite moving at times; I got a real picture of people, places and science of the times he was writing about.

Back to my question: is War and Peace a historical novel? Yes, obviously, and so much more. There are real people from history in that novel just as there are, for example, in Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; all three of those novels go into my – for want of a better word – ‘proper’ literature category.

So I find myself wondering about proportion. You can have a story set in a particular historical context, but with fictional characters; a great deal of care will ensure its plausibility. If you don’t try and weave in too many real characters and events, a reader will suspend disbelief sufficiently for the story to have the author’s desired impact; too many historical characters, as in Luminet’s novel, and I may as well be reading a history book. Thus, for example, Rybakov uses a few carefully crafted and plausible scenes involving Stalin and some of his henchmen, but most of his story involves imagined characters plausibly deployed in accurate background which accommodates them without challenging the reader’s response or credulity too much. With too many historical characters, we perhaps begins to feel more as if a writer is developing a fantasy involving real people and we start to think, would Tamburlane really have spoken/ acted like that? The sense of proportion is wrong and the reader is jolted into noticing that something here isn’t quite right… our credulity is over-stretched.

The imaginative effort also counts for something here, both on the part of reader and writer, I feel. I’m rarely reading a historical novel to escape into the past, I’m reading because I hope the writer’s imagination will be powerful enough in her/ his creation to develop my understanding of a particular time and place in history, to flesh out what I’d have got from a textbook, in the same way that, for instance, a poem by Wilfred Owen develops my understanding of the experience of the Great War.

I’d be very interested in any thoughts on this topic from you, dear readers: it’s quite a new area of reflection for yours truly…

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

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’)!

My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

On disappointment

October 3, 2016

51bp1419yjl-_ac_us160_Have you ever started a book which you were really looking forward to reading, expecting it to be really good, and gradually been let down, realising that actually you weren’t enjoying it very much? Optimistic, you continue, hoping it will pick up… sometimes it does, a bit, but it never actually matches your original expectations. And perhaps, like me, for various reasons you’re reluctant to just give up.

It’s happening to me a little more frequently nowadays, and has got me thinking. I’m always quite sceptical of reviews, especially those that rave about how brilliant a particular book is. Perversely, perhaps, the more fashionable, trendy or popular a book seems, the more suspicious I am of it.

Disappointment is often linked to the length of a novel. I’m not put off by the proverbial door-stopper, expecting to find depth and detail more satisfying, and some lengthy tomes are worth the effort – War and Peace, Life and Fate, the Arbat Trilogy – but others have deceived. When I came to re-read Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros, I wished I hadn’t bothered; the last Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, sustained me during a lengthy illness, but I can’t imagine myself reaching for it again, and Don De Lillo’s Underworld, which so many raved about, was a masterpiece of tedium to me: I really couldn’t see the point. I’ve been disappointed by some of my favourite authors: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was a great let-down after The Name of the Rose; The Island of the Day Before was a little better, but not a lot. But then he gave us Baudolino

When I consider what’s happened, I’m often struck by the thinness of the plot – too drawn-out and self-indulgent, even: a story that takes too long to get not very far, and after having really enjoyed a previous novel, I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll try this, it should be good’, and it’s not. Are writers doing a Dickens, and writing by the yard because they need the money?

My current disappointment – I’ll write a proper review when I get to the end – and what’s prompted this post is The Tower, by Uwe Tellkamp. It’s a novel about the complications and frustrations of life in the former DDR (German Democratic Republic), set in Dresden among a relatively privileged group of families. So far, in 400 of 1400 pages (!) there have been some interesting glimpses of daily life, a sense of menace from the ever-present Stasi, and a lot of tedium reading about a group of people for whom I do not really care. I shall persevere, though I currently feel victim of my enthusiasm for books that do not seem likely to get translated into English. This one will be no great loss, on current showing.

It strikes me that I’ve become harder to please as I’ve grown older, and perhaps a little more conservative in my tastes. I used to read a good deal of experimental literature, including some quite weird stuff, and really enjoyed it. But then, I have recently enjoyed Ben Marcus and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and they are hardly run-of-the-mill writers. Maybe one has less patience as one ages?

The staircase (continued): Plot

January 23, 2016

Plot is story. A series of events is introduced, developed and played out; there is often suspense and tension to keep the reader engaged and involved. There is a denouement – full or partial according to when the novel was written – Victorians liked to tidy everything up, modern writers are not so bothered, or are even deliberately bloody-minded, and go for open endings.

It’s useful to think about what drives our first reading, especially if you are one of those readers like me, who comes back again and again to his favourite books. First time round, plot draws us along: what happens next? How will it end? And such questions shape our initial response, at least. Was it a good story? Did we like the way it ended? Think about – as I suggested in the last post – the way we sometimes disagree with the way a writer ends her/his novel, based on our interpretation as we read, usually of characters. And if we feel the ending is wrong, surely the next thing we must ask ourselves is, OK, so why did the author choose to end it like that?

Re-readers will know what’s coming next. Usually we will retain at least an outline of the plot in our memories, and will be able to recall how the story ends. This means that we are not so plot-driven second, or nth time round, and can have a different focus to our reading, indeed we can deliberately choose a specific focus if we want to or need to (for study purposes perhaps). We will pay more attention to other details, perhaps notice many small things that we glossed over on that first, plot-driven reading.

The Sherlock Holmes stories come to mind here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read them over the past fifty years. Usually, I don’t recall the ending until I’m well into a story, so that the pleasure is not ruined by knowing who did it straight away.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, when we consider a vast novel like War and Peace, of Vassily Grossman‘s twentieth century masterpiece, Life and Fate. Real and fictitious events interwoven unfold against a huge canvas; many different plot strands are interconnected, and it’s often hard to keep track of all the threads; sometimes we are given lists of characters in an appendix so we can refer to them when we get confused. Then we are glad when a particular, or a favourite strand re-emerges after having disappeared for some time, and continuity is re-established.

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.

%d bloggers like this: