By 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.
By 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.
By 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’.
By 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.
By 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.
By Jerzy Pilch
Absolutely brilliant. There’s an intelligence here that rivals Gombrowicz. Pilch is pretty much unknown outside Poland with only one other novel translated (which I am sure I will be reading soon). What makes this so good are the twists and turns of the alcoholic’s mind and the penetrating insight that accompanies it. He reminds me of Erofeev or Bukowski but with more depth. There is a meta-fictional aspect of it that leaps out and surprises you: it isn’t laboured though and instead of meta-fiction it would be better to call it meta-alcoholism. I can’t recommend this book enough. The end was a little unexpected too, which is definitely a good thing. Highly entertaining, imaginative and thought provoking; there’s not much more to be said except that I felt sated at the end – the literary palate was delighted with this little book.
Soundtrack: ‘Burning Alcohol’ by The Stereo Bus.
By ETA Hoffman.
In a word – fantastic. It is difficult to believe that this book was written in 1820. The novel is quite mad and surreal in a Bulgakov way: in fact there are many similar elements – a cat with human qualities and ‘the master’ who seems to control everything. Once you get used to the language Murr is more laugh-out-loud than the Master and the Margarita.
There are no weak patches in the novel and it’s structure things are perfectly paced. I thought I might struggle to read it, particularly on a beach holiday, but once you adjust to reading the two narratives as fragments there is no problem. The musings of the cat are written on the back of a fictional biography of a musician named Kapelmeister. The cat has apparently ripped up the pages in a fit of piqué and so an episode breaks off and the other starts leaving much to the imagination. I have now realised that much of 20th century fiction was doing something begun 200 years before. This is possibly the best book I have read all year and I will now be reading everything I can find of Hoffman. One anecdote I heard was that Hoffman was an administrator for a time in Prussian Poland and was responsible for making sure all the population had surnames. Jewish and gypsy people would wait to be given names by him hoping that they would be receive something normal. If Hoffman had good fish for lunch then in the afternoon all the names would be fishy. Similarly, if dinner had been with a general then the names would be patriotic and martial. Apparently you wouldn’t want to get him with a hangover. This is as strange and absurd as the episodes in his stories. There will more Hoffman reviewed here very shortly.
By Stuart David.
My friend Alessandro sent me two of Stuart David’s books for my birthday the other week. I was interested to see what they would be like as Stuart David had once been in Belle and Sebastian and then went on to form the band Looper who are great. The first book I read was ‘Nalda Said’ which was ok. It was an easy read and it didn’t really draw me in. The same can’t be said for the Peacock Manifesto which I thought was very good. It was a picaresque journey across the States but very different to what James Kelman did a couple of years later with ‘You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free‘. The Peacock Manifesto was funny and the characters were brilliant. There was some reference to it being made into a movie and I can see why. There were a few moments where it could have become serious but it maintains its levity throughout. That’s not to say it isn’t substantial – it just doesn’t fall into the plot trap that many novels do: everything is amusing and then there is a crisis and the characters have to grow up and deal with a serious situation. Aspects of the plot are left unsaid – I like this as well. The only thing I would say is that you can see the final pivotal action coming a mile off and you know roughly what it will be. Something completely surreal would have been better – but that is probably just me. Definitely worth reading. The three main characters of Peacock, Bev and the Wee Man are really strong and memorable. I am tempted to write a new novel with these three in it just so I can have more happen to them.
Soundtrack: Belle and Sebastian ‘The State I am In’.