Look at the Harlequins!

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another very strong novel by Nabokov. It is not his best work – though I can’t exactly say why: possibly the reader may not be as affected or overcome by his genius as in other novels. There’s still a fair few to read – in my case. Of course his prose, and the sense of voice or character that he engenders is absolutely impressive. Take this fantastic long sentence for example:

“She wore elaborate make-up  and spoke in  simpering accents, reducing nouns  and adjectives  to over-affectionate  forms  which even  the Russian language, a recognized giant of diminutives, would only condone  on  the wet lips of  an infant  or  tender  nurse  (“Here,” said Mrs.  Blagovo “is  your  chaishko s molochishkom   [teeny  tea  with   weeny  milk]”).

Autobiographical elements are obviously going to be present here – though you would need to be a Nabokovian scholar to really analyse this. In the same way that Nabokov himself was an authority on Pushkin. That is one of the things I am attracted to in Nabokov’s work: he is modern and aware but he is also linked to the past – he is a successor to Gogol and you can sense his character behind the words in the same way as Pushkin. Nabokov cannot be considered in isolation, it has to be in his Russian context. There was one joke that I got where Vadim (the main character and first-person narrator) chastises his wife for mixing up and creating a spoonerism out of third-rate journalists (Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky from the 1860s). I’m not sure why Nabokov would create such an obscure reference, in Western eyes, perhaps it was a little dig at the Russian Communist establishment who would remember those Russian Populist predecessors of the nineteenth century.

There is so much detail and humour in ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ and it is a novel to go back to, but it probably shouldn’t be the first Nabokov novel you should read. Immeasurably enjoyable.






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A Second Home


By Honoré de Balzac.

Another intense study by Balzac into the nature of human relations. It’s very melancholy and keeps you guessing right the way through – though the plot isn’t wholly the point. Things are left unsaid and the characters are ambiguous. Is Granville all he seems – and how about the other characters? The two central women in the novel (Angelique and Caroline) seem to occupy the moral extremes while Granville’s life itself is a balance between the rigour of being a lawyer, while also possessing a poetic soul. If he was completely one or the other then the events in the novel wouldn’t overpower him.  There’s lots to think about here. Balzac is a master.




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A Thousand Peaceful Cities

By Jerzy Pilch.

This novel engendered a very strange phenomenon: I hated it most of the way and reading was a real struggle, but then suddenly about three-quarters of the way through, I absolutely loved the book, the prose, and everything about it. This doesn’t normally happen as your relation to a novel is usually static – or, at least, there is not the degree of polarisation that happened here. As a result, I am going to have to re-read and enjoy the ruminations, rants and absurdity again. This was very different from Pilch’s other novels but in the end perhaps more satisfying. A surreal and interesting journey.






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Strike For Freedom!

By Rafal Brzeski and Robert Eringer.

This book is quite unique as it was written at the time that events (the strikes  which created the Polish Solidarity union in 1980) were happening and from an outside perspective. Most importantly it was created without the benefit of grand hindsight with which history is framed. Well, a very slight hindsight of months rather than years.

Wałęsa is not admired by many in Poland nowadays: his lack of formal education, the gaffes and that it has been widely reported by the largely hostile media that he was in league with the communists. An ongoing investigation by the National Remembrance Institute  reported late last year that documents were fabricated by the communist government in the 80s. Of course this is the kind of stuff that can stick regardless of the truth.

It seems the qualities that made Wałęsa an effective mouthpiece are now those which are held against him. He was a working man and had not been taught the niceties of politics as all our politicians seem to know now. He was a maverick and had no fear, could think outside the box and was a talented improvisor. The communist authorities simply didn’t know what to do  – they couldn’t control him, he didn’t fit into their framework. While, in the short term, the Polish people didn’t change the system immediately, through the auspices of solidarity, these first steps gave confidence.

Back to the book: this is well written and it gave me a more complete picture of Wałęsa. Perhaps I will look for a full biography. There are many great quotes ascribed to him. Two of the best are:

I must tell you that the supply of words on the world market is plentiful, but the demand is falling. 

 I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things. 


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Lost and Found in Russia

By Susan Richards.

This book just  ambles along and somehow keeps your interest all the way through. Some reviews seemed to dismiss it because of this – but for me the lack or traditional plot arc was part of the attraction. The importance lay in the gaze and not the object – as Gide said – or probably paraphrased from someone else. The characters, who are actually real people, are very engaging and the encounters always illuminating. I wouldn’t call them ‘ordinary’ Russians as for the most part they are part of the new intelligentsia. I enjoyed the process of reading this book and learnt a lot along the way.

Yeltsin seemed to really mess things up for a Russia hoping to have a meaningful democracy. I’m part way through ‘the Shock Doctrine’ as I write and this seems to be borne out by many commentators. After reading, I am interested to find out more about the nineties and what actually went on in not just Russia, but the rest of the ex-soviet bloc. I already know a fair bit of what has happened  in Poland with the rise of the neoliberals, but to see things in a broader context would be good. At any rate, this is the best modern book I have read for a while – I wouldn’t call it fiction but still there are bound to be embellishments along the way. In addition to the political, the adventures relating to Russian spiritualism were intriguing as well.

The characters and people that make up the book ground it and give it focus, though if there is one criticism it is that they are framed too often from the writer’s perspective in quite an obvious way. Perhaps it wasn’t needed, because as the reader, you will have formed an impression and opinion of the people involved rather than being told how the narrator views them and the changes between each meeting. But this is a minor distraction. Well worth reading.

Soundtrack: Elena Kamburova – Pesnya Klouna.




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