Posts Tagged ‘War and Peace’

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

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On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…

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.

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?

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

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.

The myth of realism (3)

January 17, 2016

continued]

So, it’s pretty clear that realism is a bit of a myth. Our response is to suspend our disbelief for the duration of our reading; it’s a psychological adjustment, unconsciously undertaken, to allow us to enjoy a work of fiction as entertainment without getting too bogged down by nagging implausibilities; we just accept certain ‘unreal’ things for the sake of the story.

Writers’ control of us as readers therefore fades or disappears from our awareness; we have to make a conscious effort to notice what they are up to. A writer chooses, deliberately, certain characters, a particular setting, frames and shapes a plot and has a particular ending in view (usually) – remember those times when you either felt cheated by the way a story ended, or felt that the author had got it wrong? The writer excludes certain possibilities, omits boring and mundane things (usually), telescopes events (usually – though alert readers may have just had Joyce‘s Ulysses leap into their minds. We are nudged, our response is shaped, we are manipulated throughout, and don’t normally notice. For example – and I’m being deliberately outrageous here, perhaps – how long does the cringe factor in the denouement of Jane Austen‘s Emma take to hit us? The happy couple are finally united, Emma and Mr Knightley; then think about their respective ages, and the fact that Mr Knightley dandled the baby Emma on his knee as a young man…

There are writers who toy with their readers in different ways, conversing with them in their pages, to remind them that they are there, in controlled of the story, puppet-masters. Fielding does this openly in Tom Jones, Jane Austen (a couple of generations later) is much more subtle; hints and comments from her to her reader come through her oblique style, as we realise that certain observations cannot have come from that particular character. Some writers break off to preach to their readers – Tolstoy in War and Peace, Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Where does all this get me, in the end? I like a good story as much as anyone else. I suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be drawn in and manipulated just like the next person. But I find it interesting, eye-opening even, to step back and look at what is really going on every now and then, sometimes in the middle of a novel, sometimes after I’ve reached the end. Words are very powerful things.

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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