Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book Three

By François Rabelais.

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.’

and this:

‘Next time you stick your nose up my bum,’ said Panurge, ‘remember to take off your glasses!’

and finally:

‘A famished belly hath no ears! By God, I’m roaring mad with hunger.’









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The Galley Slave

By Drago Jančar.

If this novel had been published first in Britain or had Jančar lived in the west this wouldn’t have been published – no publisher would have had a punt on it – as it probably wouldn’t have sold. This would be a tragedy for literature and this is symptomatic of the control marketing (and the shifting of units with the least possible effort) has on on the creative industries in the UK. What a great book. It is dark, challenging, imaginative, amusing, bleak and many other vicarious elements. Jančar is a special writer and this is exactly the kind of book I like – it defies definition. Stasiuk makes reference to Jančar in one of his novels, I realised after I read this – so good writers lead to good writers. This novel is still in gestation, and all the elements it includes – Ot is an intriguing character and symbol. Following is a quote regarding Slovenian literature – I believe it came from Dalkey Archive.

Literature means different things to different people. For past generations of Slovenians, many of the books in the list below provided flesh to their growing minds and bodies during a time of scarcity and censorship. These novels were as essential to them as food. To the current generation of savvy, traveling, computer-literate Slovenians, and of course to foreign readers as well, these same books are not lifeblood: now they must succeed as mere words, as mere art.

And here is the List:









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The Letter Killers Club

By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

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.




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Trips to the Moon

By Lucian of Samosata.

I loved this little book. Very Rabelaisian – or perhaps ‘Rabelaisian’ should be renamed ‘Samosatian’. What an imagination. There’s much that we lose here as many of the references that Lucian makes are to works that have not survived from his heyday – around AD125. Still, well worth reading. This made me chuckle:

The campaign thus happily finished, they made an entertainment to celebrate the victory, which, as is usual amongst them, was a bean- feast. Pythagoras alone absented himself on that day, and fasted, holding in abomination the wicked custom of eating beans.




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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book Two

By François Rabelais.

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.




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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book One

By François Rabelais.

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.



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Look at the Harlequins!

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another very strong novel by Nabokov. It is not his best work – though I can’t exactly say why: possibly the reader may not be as affected or overcome by his genius as in other novels. There’s still a fair few to read – in my case. Of course his prose, and the sense of voice or character that he engenders is absolutely impressive. Take this fantastic long sentence for example:

“She wore elaborate make-up  and spoke in  simpering accents, reducing nouns  and adjectives  to over-affectionate  forms  which even  the Russian language, a recognized giant of diminutives, would only condone  on  the wet lips of  an infant  or  tender  nurse  (“Here,” said Mrs.  Blagovo “is  your  chaishko s molochishkom   [teeny  tea  with   weeny  milk]”).

Autobiographical elements are obviously going to be present here – though you would need to be a Nabokovian scholar to really analyse this. In the same way that Nabokov himself was an authority on Pushkin. That is one of the things I am attracted to in Nabokov’s work: he is modern and aware but he is also linked to the past – he is a successor to Gogol and you can sense his character behind the words in the same way as Pushkin. Nabokov cannot be considered in isolation, it has to be in his Russian context. There was one joke that I got where Vadim (the main character and first-person narrator) chastises his wife for mixing up and creating a spoonerism out of third-rate journalists (Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky from the 1860s). I’m not sure why Nabokov would create such an obscure reference, in Western eyes, perhaps it was a little dig at the Russian Communist establishment who would remember those Russian Populist predecessors of the nineteenth century.

There is so much detail and humour in ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ and it is a novel to go back to, but it probably shouldn’t be the first Nabokov novel you should read. Immeasurably enjoyable.






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A Thousand Peaceful Cities

By Jerzy Pilch.

This novel engendered a very strange phenomenon: I hated it most of the way and reading was a real struggle, but then suddenly about three-quarters of the way through, I absolutely loved the book, the prose, and everything about it. This doesn’t normally happen as your relation to a novel is usually static – or, at least, there is not the degree of polarisation that happened here. As a result, I am going to have to re-read and enjoy the ruminations, rants and absurdity again. This was very different from Pilch’s other novels but in the end perhaps more satisfying. A surreal and interesting journey.






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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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By Vladimir Nabokov.

The character Timofey Pnin is right up there with the greatest characters in Russian literature: Chichikov, Raskolnikov, Oblomov, Anna Karenina etc…

I spent some time trying to work out what I liked so much about this eccentric Russian emigre that Nabokov had created. Pnin is eccentric, clumsy and is seen as an absurd figure by most of his colleagues and they regard him with some derision. What is so admirable about Pnin is his strength of being. He is Pnin and he lives and acts against the grain, he has a strength of character that his detractors do not.

The novel is written brilliantly as you would expect from Nabokov. The chapters are mostly separate vignettes that present a certain scene or period in Pnin’s life and all of these snapshots create a moving and whimsical picture of the man. Pale Fire was very complex and contained many ideas but Pnin, which is still part of the loose trilogy of Pale Fire, Pnin and Lolita, is focused primarily on Pnin. This is similar to Luzhin in ‘The Defence’ – maybe Nabokov was again attempting to build a character that had foibles but could still command our respect and admiration through their uncompromising behaviour.

I thought this was a fantastic book and it was, so far, the novel I enjoyed the most from Nabokov. Pale Fire was maybe more of a triumph in its ideas and complexity but Pnin really was pure enjoyment. The same pure enjoyment I got from reading Dead Souls or The Twelve Chairs.

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