Posts Tagged ‘The Arbat Trilogy’

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

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?

On censorship and the freedom to write (concluded)

August 19, 2015

If we consider writers’ tactics faced with control and censorship – and Eastern Europe, the Soviet empire for half a century provides copious examples – then we can see them taking risks by writing, and having their books published in the West since they would not be published at home, or as samizdats (typed manuscripts circulated clandestinely), or writing allegorically and hoping perhaps to outwit the censors. Writers in totalitarian societies wrote, impelled by the same muses and motivations as writers in the ‘free’ world. Ismail Kadare produced a wonderful allegory about the Kafkaesque control within the social structures of Albania in a novel allegedly about ancient Egypt, The Pyramid.

What particularly interests me – and I’ll admit that this is personal opinion – is the way that writers without freedom seem to produce sharper and more interesting novels, more perceptive literature, which I find more powerful and more moving; somehow they are compelled, it appears, to address broader issues about their (imperfect) society and an imperfect world, to ask existential questions; for them the collective is still relevant, if not paramount. I come back to the example I cited earlier, Vassily Grossman‘s epic about the siege of Stalingrad and its consequences. I will admit that Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 is another astonishingly powerful novel about the Second World War, but Grossman’s works on an altogether different level, packing power that I cannot think of a parallel to in Western literature. Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat trilogy is my second example: he follows the fortunes of a group of classmates through the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s to the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It’s harrowing: the purges are insane and one finds it hard to believe that people could and did behave in such a warped way; Rybakov pulls no punches as far as this episode in Soviet history is concerned. And then, he sets the heroism and self-sacrifice of those young people who have endured the purges as they fight for the liberation of the Motherland: the tension between the cruel tyranny and the love of country is live, sharp, electric…

In freer, Western societies I feel writers have become more introspective, self-indulgent at times, self-interested and self-obsessed, part of an increasingly fragmented literary culture; there is too much navel-gazing. Yes, at one level that’s an almost farcical dismissal of half a century of writing during which voices have been given to, or been seized by many cultural and political subgroups. But this does also represent a fragmentation of any challenge to the dominant cultural and economic hegemony, which remains largely unseen but which dominates every aspect of the way we live.

I’m not advocating that novels and literature should always be political, but I do feel that good literature makes us think about the human condition, about our world and ourselves. I’ve read many good and challenging novels by Western writers who have the freedom to write and say what they like. And I have found that writers who have had to struggle to be heard have written more profound and moving stories. I don’t know where this leaves us, because I’m neither advocating repression of writers in order to stimulate better literature nor didactic literature. But it has made me think a lot…

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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