This was a reread and I liked it as much second time around almost twenty years after the first time.
I couldn’t remember the ending but I think it ended well – from a novelistic point of view (not necessarily for the characters). You find yourself drawn into the machinations and the characters, Turgenev is a master of the insular within a context.
There was much to consider. I like this paragraph:
‘Have you noticed,’ began Bersenyev, eking out his words with gesticulations, ‘what a strange feeling nature produces in us? Everything in nature is so complete, so defined, I mean to say, so content with itself, and we understand that and admire it, and at the same time, in me at least, it always excites a kind of restlessness, a kind of uneasiness, even melancholy. What is the meaning of it? Is it that in the face of nature we are more vividly conscious of all our incompleteness, our indefiniteness, or have we little of that content with which nature is satisfied, but something else–I mean to say, what we need, nature has not?’
This was worth reading. And, it was a good tale – Tolstoy can tell a story. It doesn’t draw you in the same way as a Dostoevsky or Turgenev – it all seems a little too planned. Each scene has been mapped out, considered and fulfills its purpose precisely. I don’t believe great (important) works of literature work in this way: the random disordered elements and the frenzied activity of the writer as he or she throws what they have out on the page makes something unique. This is a novel by numbers, and it is well done but nothing special.
The themes are well worth considering – the inhumanity of the prison system, the lot of the working people and the different universe that the privileged inhabit. Finally, of course, ‘where is meaning to be found?’ – which is the major tenet of the book.
A very early book by Tolstoy and it shows, parts are a little stilted and cliched. But, there’s enough here to make it worth reading – the study of Cossack life in the Steppes. I listened to this book as an audio-book while doing other things and it transported me into another world for a few minutes at a time. It is interesting to analyse Tolstoy’s superfluous man – Olenin, who he treats with sympathy, but the main element that you take away is the atmosphere of the Caucasus.
I seem to have enjoyed each succeeding book slightly less. Book III seems to me too wordy and philosophical and not enough about the actions of the characters. The re-invention of Panurge with a different persona is interesting but I would have liked to see Panurge put more into practice his dodgy precepts and justifications in a ribald rambunctious quest. Still, this is good stuff. I have dipped into Book IV and it seems more to my taste. Each of them though, has a distinct character. Some fantastic passages in Book III though:
‘It is true that I can just about make out one sign in me suggestive of old age – I mean a green old age. Don’t tell anyone. It’ll remain a secret between the two of us. I do find good wine more delightful to my taste than I used to: and more than I once did, I fear encounters with poor wine. Note that that does somehow suggest the westering sun and signify that noon-day is past.’
‘Next time you stick your nose up my bum,’ said Panurge, ‘remember to take off your glasses!’
‘A famished belly hath no ears! By God, I’m roaring mad with hunger.’
Again, another breathtaking book from Stasiuk. He has probably written a great amount more in Polish – but we have to wait for it to arrive in translation. The translation is really good – but this could be in part because Stasiuk doesn’t overdo things. He states it all very cleanly. This is the photo which haunted Stasiuk for years and which provided an impetus for travel – though by the sounds of it that was already there long before.
There is an episode where he talks about all the pieces he has collected over the years during his travels and that he takes them out sometimes to remember. This book, and much of his other work, is a remembering that combines with these objects. This is a private remembering and he creates something new out of these tokens. If he was a chancer like Warhol or Hirst he would no doubt have an exhibition of these objects rather than creating something new. It strikes me that much of modern creative endeavour involves collecting things. Curation masquerading as creativity. This is a fine book, which can be reread over and over and dipped into. The chapter about Moldova was excellent.
Another fantastic book by Stasiuk. I think he perhaps is the most interesting contemporary writer writing today. His voice is unique and even though it seems that he writes about straightforward things there is such an atmosphere attached to these along with an undercurrent of thought and ideas. This is a novel about light and the town of Dukla in South-Eastern Poland – except that it isn’t really a novel and it isn’t really about these things either. It seems to me he has gone further than Gombrowicz in that form is present but it is very definitely broken down and that different layers are present underneath each structure and these peep through and take precedence at different times. But the book isn’t slavishly in thrall to these forms, it all happens quite naturally. Stasiuk really is masterful.
“There’ll be no plot, with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of the day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.”
This was an intense and intelligent read. I can’t help but wonder if Gombrowicz, with his obsession with form, read Krhizhanovsky even though this is unlikely as Krzhizhanovsky was largely unpublished. There are I believe many more novels and stories that are waiting in the wings to be translated. So many unusual images and great ideas, and imaginative ways of illustrating ideas and concepts are contained here. I also wonder about Krzhizhanovsky’s name as he was born to Polish parents in Kiev – and both his first name and surname have been made into a Russian derivation. Did he change these to fit into a Moscow society where being of Polish origin rendered you suspect? There are some great passages in this book. I enjoyed it much more than the previous collection I read – due mostly to the fact I prefer an immersive novel. Or, there was a connection with his voice here for some reason or other.
Book Two is right up there with Book One however it is more linear. Part of what I liked about Book One was that it wasn’t dictated to by the story. The story was told, but chapters were sometimes ever increasing tangents. Book Two is far more straightforward as each chapter follows the other – the absurdity is within the episodes themselves. Frère Jean is a fantastic creation – a warrior ex-monk is search of the divine in a bottle:
But from good wine you can’t make bad Latin.
In Book Two you meet comic genius mixed with a sublime imagination and ideas. Rabelais is a revelation.
This novel had a real atmosphere to it and I was really reminded of Platonov. The characters just drift along and many details are given which don’t seem to add up to anything in the long run but you enjoy them because they are rich, and also interesting in what they mean and how they interact with all the other events and detail. Like a tapestry – though I could be over-egging things with the metaphor. This type of novel seems to mirror life much more so than the traditional narrative arc which we take for granted in our films, TV and books. This novel was still very satisfying but the goal wasn’t the end point, it was the narrative and your attention to it. The mood and the characters developed were quite something. Bunin was a master who you hardly hear about in the Russian literary canon (probably due to his exile in the west). So, canons should be ignored.
This first book is quite cohesive. I guess Rabelais didn’t know himself if he would write another and the impetus seems to be his own amusement and that of his friends. This was a very enjoyable experience and as a result I took my time reading Book One. I like the way the episodes aren’t really connected they just sort of flit about and are not as linear as most novels.
Pantagruel makes you laugh, consider things philosophically and stimulates the imagination: it doesn’t get much better than this. I can now see where many of the writers I love got a great deal of their inspiration. There were free translations I could have found for the kindle but I decided that if I was going to make the effort to read all five books then it should be with the best translation – by most accounts Professor Screech’s translation is the best. There are many footnotes – but they don’t get in the way as the book is the kind that stimulates you in bursts as it is all angles and the footnotes don’t interfere but add to the richness of the text. The rest are coming up shortly.