Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes.

I always knew I would love Don Quixote because of the amusing and surreal bits and pieces that had been mentioned to me over the years. Because of the length and comittment to the cause required by the novel I knew I had to find the right time. So, a holiday in Spain seemed to be perfect, and it was, as I did want to be completely focused and consumed by the world of Quixote and Panza in the sun and heat of Spanish lands.

The novel is split into two parts each were published a decade apart. The second part is more controlled (if controlled is the right word) and the writing seems better and smoother. Again it is difficult to really assess this in translation. The first part jumps all over the place and has several stories within stories and is less about Panza and Quixote than part  two. In the first, anything can happen, and the two characters frequently overstep the line due to their madness and sanity which they possess in equal measure. Panza has a different type of madness which seems to grow as the novel progresses – maybe due to the association with Quixote. I can see why people have been entranced by the book since 1605 when part one was written. The humour transcends the centuries and cultures. The world of Cervantes is alien to us in the way that the world of the Knights Errant is ridiculous to the readers of Cervantes day. Then and now readers are drawn into Quixote’s world and marvel and his madness and intelligence, and Panza’s proverbs.

The second book I liked less because everyone knows about Quixote due to the first part being published and authored by Cede Hamete Benegeli – so meta-fiction very definitely meets knight errantry. Also, the extended period at the Duke and Duchesses residence is not very exciting – after this however it picks up and there is a return to form. The characters seem a little more typecast too:  Cervantes may have promoted the elements of the novel that his audience liked from part one and focused on these. There are far more Panzaian proverbs and there are no separate stories within the story of part two as he was criticised after the first volume for distracting the reader with these. In my opinion, the edges, and the fact you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next does give part one the sharpness and steel that part two lacks. Having said this, in totality there is nothing I have ever read quite like Don Quixote. All other modern picaresque fantasies are just shoots from the tree grown by Cervantes.

Part one is an absolute masterwork. There are some fantastic turns of phrase and nearly every sentence is loaded and perfectly formed. I must say I loved some of Panza’s proverbs. We should all pick our time when we begin our journey with Don Quixote, mine took five weeks and I can see that I will be returning for shorter skirmishes with rereads of certain episodes.

Following are some quotes from the novel that I thought were great (and there are a multitude more):

“I didn’t deserve to leave in this way; but man proposes and God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him, and time changes the rhyme, and nobody should say, ‘That’s water I won’t drink,’ because you’re in a place where you think there’s bacon, and you don’t even find a nail; God understands me, and that’s enough, and I’ll say no more, though I could.” [Panza]
 
“He’s doing the right thing,” said Sancho Panza, “because if you give the cat what you were going to give to the mouse, your troubles will be over.” [Panza]
 
“May God hear and sin be deaf,” said Sancho.
 
“There can be no doubt,” said Sancho, “that this demon is a decent man and a good Christian, because otherwise he wouldn’t swear by God and my conscience. Now I think there must be good people even down in hell.”
 

And finally:

“…the benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?”

 

Note: translation is important and Edith Grossman’s translation is excellent. The footnotes are thorough too.


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Flatland

By Edwin Abbott.

Thoroughly enjoyable. This  was wise, engaging, amusing and tremendously imaginative. It is a shame that this is the only work of its type that Abbott wrote. To understand Flatland is a real paradigm shift and to look at the worlds within the worlds described is an excellent philosophical and literary mechanism. There’s so much in this book. The edition that I read on the kindle also had some great illustrations that further elucidated the analysis given by ‘the square’ who narrates. I was reminded slightly of Swift (due to the satire and imaginative content) but the attack on social structures didn’t quite seem as strong as Gullivers Travels or even A Modest Proposal.

 

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Oblomov

By Ivan Goncharov.

When searching for an image to go with this post I found the website of Anastasia Simes. There are some interesting pieces of work.

As for Oblomov – what a great novel. There are quite a few separate parts to it, which makes me think it was written over time and each part of Oblomov’s life was approached as quite distinct. Probably my favourite ‘Act’ is the beginning where Oblomov lounges around, waxes philosophical, takes visitors and is quite unable to move and motivate himself to do anything. This is masterful writing and while I really enjoyed the book it doesn’t quite live up to the promise shown at the start. Or, maybe it does – but it just becomes something different. So, another writer to read more of and he is Russian of course. The Precipice, another of his novels, looks interesting also.

I wasn’t sure about Goncharov as he was referred to as being quite conservative and middle-class by some commentators. Oblomov, however, is a fantastic character and maybe Goncharov’s greatest creation and this book deserves to be read and re-read as a result. Turgenev said: “As long as there is even just one Russian alive, Oblomov will be remembered!”

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Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida

Edited by Robert Chandler.

This collection was an absolute pleasure; I was really struck by the strength of ideas throughout. How could one country, Russia, have produced so many fantastic writers that are unique but seem to share similar preoccupations? Perhaps that is testament to Robert Chandler’s editing (as well as his translation of most of the stories). There are a few omissions (Victor Serge, Venedikt Erofeev, Vassily Grossman and the ‘Russian Decadents‘) but maybe those writers and stories wouldn’t have worked within the overall collection. I really am filled with awe at the achievement of these writers both individually and collectively.

Many of these stories I had read before but it was good to revisit them sometimes in a more modern, considered translation. However, there were several writers I had not been aware of previously, and this collection is excellent as a taster for future reading.

It is impossible to canvas all the stories as they deserve. However, writers who sparked my interest were Bunin (who I had never heard of), Buida, Dovlatov, Shuksin and Zinovyeva-Annibal (who was related to Pushkin). There were others too, but I will begin with Bunin as the two stories ‘In Paris’ and ‘The Gentleman From San Fransisco’ left a strong impression on me. Buida too – his ‘Prussian Bride’ novel was published by Dedalus a few years ago. What else should I say? This is a great starting point for Russian literature, and even if you have read a moderate amount there are still discoveries here.

(as this is a collection the soundtrack should be a collection as well)

Soundtrack: Flying Nun Records – In Love With These Times/Pink Flying Saucers Over The Southern Alps.

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Marble Snows & The Study

By Michael Heller.

Leaving the 19th Century (and the French and Russians) behind for a little while, here are two novellas by Michael Heller who is a contemporary writer, poet and critic. When I saw this book on an independent publisher website (ahadada), I was attracted to the fact that Paul Valery and Ryunosuke Akutagawa were referenced in relation to it. These two were fantastic writers and I thought it would be interesting to see how they were interpreted, or at least given a nod to, by a contemporary author. I wasn’t disappointed – usually there are simply not enough ideas in modern writing – the disciplines of plot and form are slavishly followed. In this case, I spent a very pleasant afternoon reading both novellas and there were plenty of ideas and Akutagawa and Valery were vaguely brought to mind at times.

You can tell Heller is a poet – there are a great many images and scenes in the work, all of which are invoked with ease and simplicity – there is nothing awkward anywhere. Each novella draws you in and entertains. Marble Snows, particularly, leaves you wanting more.

Both novellas are concerned with memories. In Marble Snows each episode is lightly connected and limited structure is imposed on them. In The Study – which is a study of the memories, and thoughts, of a patient ‘M’ – the doctor attempts to impose form on these experiences and is concerned with their objective nature. This book contained much food for thought. I may read it again over the weekend and post an update if anything more comes to mind.

Soundtrack: Damon & Naomi – Memories.

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Dead Souls

DeadSouls1By Nikolai Gogol.

What a lovely edition of the novel from Donald Rayfield. I read this years ago and thought it was good. But either my taste has matured or this translation is the best yet, because the novel with the scenes and characters struck me as so very vivid.

Chagall’s illustrations are amazing as well. Chagall is another Picasso-type genius – he had so many ideas and you can see that for him creating was a form of play. Quite different from chancers like Damien Hirst who will have a couple of mediocre ideas in their life and will repeat them over and over endlessly, unlike Picasso and and Chagal with their twenty or thirty thousand great ideas each.

Dead Souls is actually very funny. There is a definite slapstick element there and then the way the author or narrator pokes his nose into the action adds another dimension to the levity. The story itself is satire and so uses humour to help the pill (or message) go down. So what is the message? Gogol is concerned with morality and virtue and we see an examination of this within the range of characters that inhabit the story. But is virtue in Gogol’s modern world really present, or is it a superficial thing and is it traded to gain advantage? Gogol thinks the latter. This is a good quote from the novel – when the narrator makes one of his appearances:

I haven’t chosen a man of virtue for my hero, and I can explain why: the poor virtuous man must be given a well-earned rest , because the very phrase ‘virtuous man’ is beginning to sound shallow on people’s lips, because the virtuous  man has been turned into a sort of horse and there’s no author who hasn’t ridden him…”

The only positive character is Murazov the wealthy merchant who has prestige and influence but is humble and generous. Is Gogol promoting a liberal conservatism with this stance? I don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. I do, however have Belinsky’s open letter to Gogol. This letter is critical of Gogol and after reading it I may be able to give more of an informed contextual opinion.

After reading Dead Souls I can see elements of Gogol in Ilf and Petrov, Bulgakov, Erofeev and other modern Russian writers. The book doesn’t seem dated at all. Do yourself a favour and buy this and every evening read a chapter – your life will be better for it. A great novel to end the year on.

Soundtrack: The Church – The Feast.

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The Magic Ring and Other Russian Folktales

ringRetold by Robert Chandler.

A great little book. I really enjoyed all the stories as retold by Robert Chandler. The last story of Ivan the Old Soldier is excellent. It ends:

There was just one thing – if he began a story before supper no one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. He had to always ask for a bowl of soup first. It was better like that. After all, you can’t just live on stories without any food.

The folk-tales are amazingly surreal, creative and amusing. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen and really highlights that something has been lost in the modern popular stories on TV, in movies or pulp fiction.

Soundtrack: The Byrds – Eight Miles High.

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Skylark

skylarkBy Dezső Kosztolányi.

Just when you think you are used to the way fiction works or reveals itself, a novel like ‘Skylark’ comes along which feels fresh and new and it seems as though you have never read anything like it.

This is a great book and I can’t believe I had not been aware of Kosztolányi  before discovering Skylark in the charity shop in Watney Market for a pound. How many more incredible European novels are languishing untranslated or perhaps translated but never really recognised or promoted?

The novel has such a strange atmosphere it was at times comic but mostly full of melancholy. I found myself filled with unease because it seemed as though something terrible was about to happen. As to whether it did – I won’t give that away.

The highlight is the drinking party, attended by the men of the town, and the subsequent description of Akos’s drunkenness. But, there are many other exceptional moments.

If you have an affinity with European literature then you should read this book.

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Voyage in Burgundy

burgundy

By Robert Desnos.

A very very pleasant book. There are a few writers where you are left with the impression that he or she would be an amusing person to have met and had a drink and a yarn with. Desnos – along with Svevo and Cendrars falls into this category, in my opinion. This book is beautifully made in every respect and you can buy your own limited edition from Air and Nothingness Press. I really enjoyed reading about the ‘Burgundian’ journey with all the asides and references which are picked up by the excellent footnotes. The text flows effortlessly and I wasn’t aware of any nuances of translation. Eminently enjoyable.

Soundtrack: Jacques Brel – La Chanson de Jacky.

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