Cendrars Quatrain

By David J. MacKinnon.

 Quite enjoyable. A larger-than-life novel in the vein of Celine / Cendrars. I don’t know how much of Fingon is MacKinnon. Entertaining.

I will be a man fulfilled if, when my time comes,
I can disappear anonymously and without regret,
At the originating point of our world, the Sargasso Sea,
Where life first burst from the depths of the ocean floor towards the sun.


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By Stefan Zweig.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. This ‘biography’ has, from Zweig’s pen, Balzac as a wild, wayward  picaresque character. Balzac, himself, wrote to the Duchesse Duchesse d’Abrantès:

“In my five-foot two-inches there is compressed every imaginable contrast and contradiction. If anyone likes to call me vain, extravagant, stubborn, frivolous, inconsistent in my thinking, dandified, careless, indolent, lacking in due reflection and not sufficiently painstaking, without perseverance, loquacious, tactless, ill-bred, rude, subject to odd changes of mood, he will be no less right than anyone else who says that I am thrifty, modest, and courageous, tenacious, energetic, carefree, industrious, steadfast, taciturn, full of refinement and courtesy, and always cheerful. It can be asserted with equal truth that I am a poltroon or a hero, a clever fellow or an ignoramus, extremely talented or stupid. Nothing will surprise me. I myself have finally resolved to believe that I am merely an instrument, the plaything of circumstance.”

The book was published after Zweig’s death and it had to be pieced together from the manuscripts he left behind. A great many years had been spent researching Balzac’s life and it had become an obsession. What we are left with in this biography is still, despite the fragmentation, up there in the rarefied air – it twist and turns and roars – like the genius of Balzac himself.

The following quote in the biography comes from Zweig’s mouth and it seems to encompass the paradigm that shaped both of their creative life.

“The artist possesses a remedy which no physician can prescribe for other patients. He alone can throw off his worries by giving them artistic expression. He can transmute the bitterness of experience into the moving portrayal of human character and fashion the constraint of outward circumstance into creative freedom.”

I imagine I will read this biography again: it is packed full of ideas, characters, vivacious plot lines and surreal anecdotes – just like a good novel by Balzac.






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The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuściński.

This is a collection of essays on Africa – or perhaps essay is the wrong word – these could be seen as disconnected acts in the larger drama of Africa in change. Kapuściński veers between the descriptive narrative and musing – trying to find a meaning in the upheaval he documents. He covers the length and breadth of Africa in these pieces. This is an exceptional read. Here are some extracts:

“I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward.This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else—wider, deeper—may be considerably more interesting and important.”


“Our contemporary suspicion of and antipathy for the Other, the Stranger, goes back to the fear our tribal ancestors felt toward the Outsider, seeing him as the carrier of evil, the source of misfortune. Pain, fire, disease, drought, and hunger did not come from nowhere. Someone must have brought them, inflicted them, disseminated them. But who? Not my people, not those closest to me—they are good. Life is possible only among good people, and I am alive, after all. The guilty are therefore the Others, the Strangers.”


“History does not exist beyond that which they are able to recount here and now. The kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records, and each generation, listening to the version being transmitted to it, changed it and continues to change it, transforms it, modifies and embellishes it. But as a result, history, free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here its purest, crystalline form—that of myth.”








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Speak, Memory

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Of course a Nabokov autobiography would have Memory in the title. Nabokov is all about memories and explores the richness of these. You could argue he didn’t need to write this as there is much of his life in his novels. But, this is a different autobiography. This is Nabokov capturing episodes and experiencing pleasure in the process. This book is by Nabokov for Nabokov and we are lucky enough to be invited to participate and listen. The framework is very loose; written over a period of years and some parts were never intended to be in a larger work. The passage when he describes burping his baby son Dmitri is great – it becomes a philosophical experience while amusing at the same time. There’s so much warmth contained within precise fantastic prose.

“I think bourgeois fathers – wing-collar workers in pencil-striped pants, dignified, office-tied fathers, so different from young American veterans of today or from a happy, jobless Russian-born expatriate of fifteen years ago – will not understand my attitude toward our child. Whenever you held him up, replete with his warm formula and grave as an idol, and waited for the postlactic all-clear signal before making a horizontal baby of the vertical one, I used to take part both in your wait and in the tightness of his surfeit, which I exaggerated, therefore rather resenting your cheerful faith in the speedy dissipation of what I felt to be a painful oppression; and when, at last, the blunt little bubble did rise and burst in his solemn mouth, I used to experience a lovely relief as you, with a congratulatory murmur, bent low to deposit him in the white-rimmed twilight of his crib.”



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Molotov’s Magic Lantern

By Rachel Polonsky.

An intriguing book filled with anecdotes, images and factual detail. The narration hit the perfect balance by providing a framework but not making the work ‘about’ the author. There were many images here that were incredibly rich – particularly the visits to Archangel and Murmansk. This was a really well written and conceived book – one subject leads to a place and another fact then a quick drop into an obscure historical detail. I may have to read this again on kindle – so I can highlight the parts that interested me and which could lead to further reading. I enjoyed this passage:

In ‘The Eye and the Sun’, Sergei Vavilov related a story told by Gorky that illustrates how human beings try to materialise light: ‘I saw Chekhov, sitting in his garden, trying to catch a ray of sunlight and put in on his head.’

What a great anecdote and image. I like the the fact that we may never have heard about this if Gorky or Vavilov had not decided to pass it on.




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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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The Duel [Von Kleist]

By Heinrich Von Kleist.
For some reason this seemed a little more dated than the Casanova. Probably because the story is a little more traditional in the telling. The 20th and 21st Centuries have their share of picaresque reminiscences – whereas this quite linear production, where plot is the focus, is more of its time. A number of issues are raised in the novella that are worth considering. The main idea that interested me was that of dueling as an arbiter of guilt or innocence. If you believe in an ordered controlled universe, where the will of God is easily seen in the world, then this is understandable. In this day and age, many Christians believe God to be bound by his own given rationality and unable to interfere in the chaos of existence. Hence, this idea that the outcome of a duel is the finger of God indicating guilt or innocence is surprising to most people. This is an extreme example, but the remains of this philosophy can still be seen today: if you are not successful in life then you have done something to offend God, again, he has pointed his finger at you.
The additional materials were also well worth reading in this edition. The biographies of famous duelists were very entertaining. I can’t say I enjoyed the work as much as Casanova, but it was good, and it generated some thought.

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The Duel [Casanova]

By Giacomo Casanova.

Once again, this book benefits from the added materials. As well as Casanova’s novella, we also have the excerpt from his memoirs which covers the events recounted in The Duel. The differences between the two are intriguing, but neither are eminently reliable; both seem to portray Casanova in a overly favourable light. Much of the background to the duel was also interesting particularly his relationship with the Polish king Poniatowski. Casanova seems to have liked Poniatowski vey much, despite being banished at the novella’s end, and he describes him as a wise man, but then wonders how a wise man could have made so many bad decisions as king. Poniatowski, and his ineffectual nobility, are mostly to blame for the initial carving up of Poland in 1772. To be fair, Poniatowski did introduce many reforms but they were too late, the nobility didn’t have the support of the people, they were a dissolute bunch. The democratic nature of the Polish kingship was also unique in Europe, it seems Poniatowski was an enlightened man, which is why Casanova liked him, but he made some bad decisions and then, in 1795, it was too late. You could argue that in the modern day Komorowski and Sikorski are now doing the same, carving up Poland to outside interests for the benefit of the ‘newly-moneyed’ nobility. The statement that history repeats itself is a cliche, but it is sometimes true, motifs and actions do seem to recur.

The only negative thought that crossed my mind when reading this book was the fact that Casanova’s memoir and the novella could be seen a bit like a modern non-entity celebrity tell-all tale. Except that, he actually wrote it, and it is in the literary vein of the larger than life expositions that we see from Celine and Cendrars. Casanova also did things too, he travelled about in a rakish fashion with little money but always managed to get by, he met powerful influential people and thinkers of the day (and he was a thinker himself), and argued, had duels and generally had a good swashbuckling time. So, really, it’s a bit different to Jordan. I have convinced myself.

There are some interesting biographies of other famous duelists in the materials as well. A very worthwhile and pleasurable read. Now on to Von Kleist.

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The Possessed

[Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them]

By Elif Batuman.

Excellent. Finally, a contemporary novel (of sorts) that is immensely entertaining and well written. Except that it is a modern book about old books – so this could be cheating. One of the things I liked was how writers and their works are incorporated into a modern exposition of parts of Batuman’s life. It is chock full of anecdotes and interesting bits and pieces. For example, Isaac Babel interrogates a captured American airman in July 1921 fighting with the Polish Kosciuszko squadron against the red army of which Babel was a part. This airman was Merian Cooper – creater of King Kong. On Cooper, Babel notes he finds the Piłsudski 4th of July proclamation (also mentioned in Babel’s Red Cavalry) and goes over aspects of his conversation with Cooper: Coffee, Conan Doyle and a Major named Fauntelroy are mentioned. Babel also notes in his diary the airman left a ‘sad heart-warming impression’. Cooper in a memoir makes mention of a Bolshevik who tried to have him join them as an aviation instructor nothing more. In this way a great deal of information is given and Batuman lays them out, sometimes finds links – other times she just leaves them as they are. As an aside, I decided I wouldn’t mind having a go at translating this proclamation by Piłsidski from the Polish, unfortunately I only finished a paragraph and it was all over the place. Firstly, my Polish isn’t good enough, and secondly, the language used was difficult. I then decided I would try and translate some Irzykowski – again difficult but for a different reason: the sentences went on and on and trying the get thread of what was being said was nigh impossible. Maybe attempting a modern writer may be a good interim measure while my Polish improves: shorter sentences and simpler words.

Batuman’s prose is entertaining and having seen her on a panel at an event prior to London Book Fair earlier this year, she writes the way she talks. She mentions a contemporary of Pushkin’s who I had never heard of before – Ivan Lazhechnikov. Batuman becomes interested in a novel of his, which doesn’t appear to have been translated ‘The House of Ice’. She then goes to St Petersburg to stay overnight in a modern model of the house of ice, which was originally built by the empress Anna for the wedding night of two of her diminutive court performers. Numerous happenings occur along the way and there are historical anecdotes galore. All good stuff.

This book is great for people who have read a bit of Russian literature. Those who haven’t may not find it interesting at all. Now I need to read more Babel and try and track down Lazhechnikov.

Soundtrack: Lloyd Cole – Writer’s Retreat.

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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne

By Sarah Bakewell.

This was an entertaining read which may encourage people to read Montaigne. It is, however, very different to other biographies I have read over the last few years. The most notable being Joseph Frank’s multiple volume biography of Dostoevsky which fuses his life with detailed literary criticism as Frank believes that they should not be separated. Compared with Frank, Mirsky’s Pushkin or Kelly’s Lermontov this seemed a little light. It was enjoyable but I didn’t really feel that I got to the substance of the Montaigne. Admittedly, part of the reason for this could be that the biographies I mentioned above were based on 19th century writers rather than a Montaigne of the 16th century with less biographical information available.

The stucture  was interesting, with each chapter’s theme being a question that could have been posed by Montaigne and the answer then given via biographical details with a nod to his writings. So, to sum up, worth reading and not too challenging. To get more flesh on the bones the reader will just have to read Montaigne.

Soundtrack: Calling Zero – ‘Lifetime for the Mavericks’.


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