Eugene Onegin

feature_eugeneOneginBy Alexander Pushkin.

Wow. What an amazing novel, poem or however you categorise it. I have enjoyed Pushkin’s prose work previously but I have shied away from his poetry. This is so funny, so aware and such a good story. I love Tatyana’s dream, and the part where Pushkin remembers grasping a stirrup and thinking of his ex-lover’s foot is a laugh out loud moment.

Apparently this translation by Charles Johnstone is ‘good’ according to some commentary but others have said that Stanley Mitchell captures more of the humour and lyricism of the Russian original. So possibly I will need to purchase and read again at some stage.

Throughout you get a real sense of Pushkin’s personality. In the introduction it is mooted that Pushkin is playing a game with the story and with form and enjoying himself greatly. You can really sense this. I think that Pushkin would have been an amusing but tempestuous man to know.

Eugene Onegin completely confounded all my expectations. I didn’t expect a text that was so aware and amusing. This is definitely worth reading. It takes time to get into the language but after you do you keep reading and wanting to read as all is revealed. As to the ending – it was perfect and again I laughed out loud.

Soundtrack: anything by Bulat Okudzawa.

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cosmosBy Witold Gombrowicz.

I really like this cover which was found on the first Portugese edition of the Novel. This was a re-read and I probably will re-read it again in a different translation. This is a translation not from the Polish directly but from the German and French editions. Thankfully there is a 2005 translation by Danuta Borchardt direct from the Polish but it will take a few weeks for me to get this from the US. The reason I am rereading Cosmos (despite it being my favourite Gombrowicz novel… possibly) is that I am contemplating turning it into a play. Which, as I read it again with a view to representing it on stage, seemed to become more and more problematic. With the new translation it may not be as difficult. I will just have to wait and see… There might not be such a strong internal voice leading to a dilemma as to how you can represent it on stage.

As for the book… this is one of the finest works of the 20th century – I have never read anything like it before or since. Berg.

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The Little Prince

littlepBy Antoine De Saint-Exupery.

This is maybe the third time I have read The Little Prince and it gets better each sitting. A perfectly formed little book and quite a stunning work of genius. It can probably be seen simply as a strange children’s tale but it also works as a surreal book for adults too.

I think I enjoyed it more this read than previous because I knew the story and was thinking more about the allusions and the themes. There’s not much else I can say. Everyone should read it and enjoy it simply as a story or to think about the things being said. In a way I can’t help thinking of Swift because of the use of parables or tales and the critical attitude to the world of humans or adults. Though obviously it is much gentler and contains some hope for the future. With Swift hope for humanity is a moot point.

Anyway. The episode with the fox was good along with the concept of ‘taming’ and the last two pages are brilliant – particularly the second to last page. Somewhere out there is a very small planet inhabited by a prince who loves a rose but who keeps the rose in a dome because of a rogue rose-hungry sheep that should have been drawn with with a muzzle. Very interesting that De Saint-Exupery decided a muzzle was required even though the sheep is only doing what it would do naturally in a world of scarce resources.

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The Twelve Chairs

12By Ilf and Petrov.

Yet another great book. I seem to be on a roll recently or perhaps the critical process before I select a novel to read is paying dividends. This is every bit as good as The Golden Calf – I think it is maybe more standard as a novel but it still runs away with itself similar to ‘the Calf’ which is the sequel.

There are many laugh out loud moments but generally the book was read with a constant smile on the face. There is more than just the humour  – it is an indictment of the desire for money. The characters that strive for financial gain are sensitively treated however, particularly Ostap Bender. It also critiques the trappings of communism and the NEP reforms of the 20s along with the bureaucrats and it is precisely this political ambiguity which means the novel is still relevant.

This story is strange, amusing and imaginative with some underlying meaning. You never know what is going to happen at any juncture – who are the odd characters you will meet, will Bender and cohorts win or fail and does it really matter?

There is one more Ilf and Petrov book left to get – I will need to savour reading it.

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Diary Volume 3

Gom-rrBy Witold Gombrowicz.

I seem to have got to the end of everything Gombrowicz has written which is a little disappointing. I feel like I want there to be something more. The third volume of his Diary is very interesting as it covers the period before he leaves Argentina, his sea journey and finally his reintroduction to the Europe he has been writing about and scrutinising from afar. He is now a literary star in Europe rather than the wayward bohemian he was in Argentina. As always he stirs things up when  writing or speaking. This causes him some trouble in his homeland (Poland) but he doesn’t seem to care. All three diaries are excellent but perhaps this one is more of a story because there is a journey and Gombrowicz is the misunderstood central character waxing lyrical with nonsense and opinionated subterfuge. There are some fantastic passages when he speaks at a conference in Berlin. He tells us he speaks absolute nonsense and the students all nod their heads and listen turning the absurd into comprehension by their own creative sense of form. Which, is really the central obsession of Gombrowicz. I loved reading this Diary and now I probably only have disjointed articles written by Gombrowicz in various Journals still to read. Or perhaps a rereading of Cosmos or  the new translation of Pornographia is on the cards.

Soundtrack: Broken Bells – ‘Your Head is on Fire’.

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Pale Fire

paleBy Vladimir Nabokov

Absolutely amazing. This book must rank up there with one of the master-works of twentieth century fiction. It is so intricate, deft, humourous, and almost without parallel as far as I can see. Completely different from Lolita and I can’t wait to read more Nabokov to experience more of this overwhelming intellect. Admittedly, the structure is metafiction which I don’t have a great affinity with but this time I really don’t care (unlike Muriel Spark’s the Comforters which was far too full of writerly artifice). The trick here is that along with the metafiction is a great story and a story that interests the reader and reveals itself – it’s not about craft or structure OVER ideas. This is packed full of stuff and as a reader all of it interests you. For once the hype around a famous author is quite justified. Why doesn’t Sting write a litany for his lute to draw attention to this novel? Oh – that’s right – it’s not as sensational as Lolita and won’t help him sell records.

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Too Loud A Solitude

too loudBy Bohumil Hrabal

An amazing imaginative novel. This is exactly what I like. The story is so many different things all at once and there are constant surprises and quirks that make this novel sublime. Everything I have read by Hrabal has been fantastic – did he write anything bad? Freed from commercial constraints it seems he wrote whatever he wanted to write. The only negative is that perhaps I could see the end coming however I am not sure how else he could have ended the novel.

Such a singular, powerful voice throughout and again a different voice from his other books. I started this from London to Paris on the Eurostar very early in the morning so the dream-like tone of the novel was even more pronounced. I enjoyed this very much.

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The Golden Calf

calfBy Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov

Absolutely fantastic. This is exactly what I love: picaresque, amusing, ironic, intelligent and surreal. I am not sure how exactly they got this through the censor – possibly because the moral can be seen as being against the filthy lucre. The alternative ending given as an appendix is very interesting as well. As with most picaresque novels there is a search for something or a goal. I really don’t want to give too much away so all I can say is you should read it if you like this sort of thing. I do, so will soon be purchasing the Twelve Chairs and their American Road Trip.

As a summary, Ostap Bender is a con man operating in the relatively lax NEP environment of the 1920s. The Golden Calf is the sequel to the Twelve Chairs so I have read this the wrong way round – but no matter. I would really love a sequel to the Golden Calf. Maybe this is something worth pursuing – though it would need to be with an accomplice. Would anyone like to write a sequel with me?

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The Railway

railwayBy Hamid Ismailov

Both frustrating and brilliant. I don’t quite know what I feel about this book overall. It was worth reading as it exposed me to a new atmosphere and a different way of living. There were fantastic passages where you got caught up in the enthusiasm but then it seemed to dip and you didn’t really care about the next few pages. Maybe it was written over a long period of time – some parts – particularly the end felt like they had been tacked on. The end was quite strong though. This is experimental in that the plot and narrative are almost invisible but that being the case the form needs to hold it together and it didn’t quite.

I laughed out loud at several episodes or turns. Maybe a loose collection of associated short stories would have been better – or perhaps that is what it really is under the guise of a novel. All very confusing – which is a good thing. A book shouldn’t always leave you nodding in a self satisfied way, sometimes there has to be head-scratching and incomprehension.

The author definitely communicates the life of the town of Gilas and the surrounding area very well. There is a large dose of imaginative interaction and at the books end I did have the sensation of having experienced some new, along with the frustration. The assimilation of Communism and Islam was very interesting – and there didn’t seem to be the clash you would expect. Perhaps the novel shouldn’t be called ‘The Railway’ as the railway doesn’t play a great part – it is more of an aside. ‘The town of Gilas’ would have been better. The town, families, history and local characters are what this novel is about. The inhabitants travel and indulge in improbable picaresque escapades but it is always to Gilas and Uzbekstan they return.

I think it was worth my time reading this. Someone else may disagree.

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The Last Supper

huelleBy Pawel Huelle

I think writing this novel was very ambitious and for the most part it succeeds. Great central idea and there are many wayward threads which are tied together loosely. This isn’t a strand of predictability in any part of this novel which is refreshing. There is interesting comment on many spheres of human existence here. Some of the discussions of conceptual art are excellent along with religion, sexuality, politics and all of these are couched in an amusing way with scenes and dialogue from the main characters. So, why would I not give this novel full marks? Something about it is a little too forced – maybe the meta-fictional aspects. A couple of the characters are not quite rounded enough – they are more caricatures than characters. This may be intentional as the central premise of the novel is the Last Supper and a modern reproduction of the original so maybe all the characters in the novel can only be are caricatures. The other problem is that some of the dialogue is a little too modern. This may not be intentional and could actually be a translation issue. Though the review by the Guardian on the cover states that Huelle writes in an engaging ‘chatty’ style. This is a good thing apparently. Gosh, we wouldn’t want people to actually feel like they were reading a book instead of having a ‘chat’ with the author. So the combined weight of both these issues means that I won’t be using superlatives in the way that I did recently with Fado by Stasiuk. However the many good things about this book mean that I will read more by Huelle. Not in the next while however. I have read too much contemporary literature recently and really need something substantial to read. So, Tolstoy next.

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