Very Woman (Sixtine)

By Remy de Gourmont.

This novel was enjoyable, but for a slightly different reason than usual. I took pleasure in the actual prose, the richness of it. Remy de Gourmont was a symbolist and a combination of these sensibilities and perhaps the older translation made this novel a luxurious read. The verbal tussles of Sixtine and Entragues were interesting, but I can’t say that I enjoyed the story as much as ‘A Night in the Luxembourg’. I think this was because there wasn’t enough going on. Sixtine and Entragues seemed to meet, and spar with each other, again and again with imperceptible change. Several characters were brought into the action that could have been developed – but these were one-off experiences. So, this novel was good, and quite poetic – but it didn’t enthrall me. I may dip into it again; the prose captures and preserves a decadent, symbolist atmosphere so perfectly.

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Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus

By Laurence Kelly.

Lermontov was a romantic and enigmatic figure; some of this was brought about by revisionism after his death and the silence of many who knew him him best but mostly because of his poetic and somewhat heroic activities  – which again we are viewing through a historical filter. Kelly does a good job of canvassing different versions of Lermontov’s actions and possible motives. Often these come from second-hand sources which could be more credible than the first hand sources that may have had an agenda. The biography is very engaging and the fact that much of Lermontov’s poetry is included in the text made for a very welcome surprise. The poetry, apart from ‘the Demon’, is quite difficult to get in translation.

As always (similarly with Pushkin) you are left considering the ‘what if’ question. Could Lermontov have lived up to his promise – or would he have lost himself in dissolute living after being singled out by the Tsar for punishment as an example? These are questions that can never really  be answered. We know he was thinking of two novel projects before he died in the duel, but he had also been considering other projects earlier in the 1830s which never came to fruition. Out of the army life he may have knuckled down and left society, as Pushkin did from time to time, to get some writing done. Unfortunately he never had the chance having aroused the Tsars displeasure for firstly, his poem in support of Pushkin. Secondly, a duel. Thirdly, his novel ‘Hero of Our Time’ which the Tsar didn’t appreciate. Fourthly, that despite his prodigious talent Lermontov wasn’t using it in the service of Tsar and Russia in the way that the Tsar would have liked. As Lermontov used up his second chance by engaging in a rash duel the Tsar wasn’t prepared to forget a second time despite Lermontov’s heroics in the the Caucasus. He was sent back again, and while recuperating in Pyatigorsk managed to cause offence to an old colleague with his ascerbic wit. This colleague Martynov then challenged him to fight the duel in which he died. You can blame the intervention of the Tsar for the death of Lermontov – sending him back to the Caucasus with little hope of his situation improving, but you can also take the view that Lermontov would have found some way to get himself into trouble again. If it hadn’t been this duel – it could well have been one in Moscow having been forgiven by the Tsar. Lermontov was still only 26 but what we can say is that his novel and poetry does not seem as though it is written by a young man. Lermontov had a precocious talent and understanding of existence despite his years. This is an excellent biography.

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Prose Tales of Pushkin

By Alexander Pushkin.

There were some excellent prose tales in this collection that I downloaded for the Kindle. The tales I hadn’t read were: An Amateur Peasant Girl, The Shot, The Snowstorm, The Post Master, The Coffin-maker, Kirdjali and Peter the Great’s Negro. A few of these stories ended very abruptly and this did make laugh. Pushkin says ‘there’s your story, no need to carry on and bore you with any more writerly artifice, The End’. Not in those exact words… Though in finishing An Amateur Peasant Girl he says:

“The reader will relieve me of the superfluous task of describing the end of the story.”

The story The Shot is quite special and I thought I could see strains of what would become Lermontov’s domain in it. All of the pieces were interesting: from the dark surrealism of the Coffin-maker, to the historic Kirdjali, then the personal of Peter the Great’s Negro. I say ‘personal’ because the subject of this story was loosely based on Pushkin’s great-grandfather who was African and thought to be from Cameroon. The story was unfinished and when you read it there is definite potential for it to become a long work. It is as though an episode has been snatched out of the centre of a novel. The characters were well sketched and, as I said, the piece felt like it came from somewhere and had a destination that it hadn’t quite reached.

Great stories.

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Marble Snows & The Study

By Michael Heller.

Leaving the 19th Century (and the French and Russians) behind for a little while, here are two novellas by Michael Heller who is a contemporary writer, poet and critic. When I saw this book on an independent publisher website (ahadada), I was attracted to the fact that Paul Valery and Ryunosuke Akutagawa were referenced in relation to it. These two were fantastic writers and I thought it would be interesting to see how they were interpreted, or at least given a nod to, by a contemporary author. I wasn’t disappointed – usually there are simply not enough ideas in modern writing – the disciplines of plot and form are slavishly followed. In this case, I spent a very pleasant afternoon reading both novellas and there were plenty of ideas and Akutagawa and Valery were vaguely brought to mind at times.

You can tell Heller is a poet – there are a great many images and scenes in the work, all of which are invoked with ease and simplicity – there is nothing awkward anywhere. Each novella draws you in and entertains. Marble Snows, particularly, leaves you wanting more.

Both novellas are concerned with memories. In Marble Snows each episode is lightly connected and limited structure is imposed on them. In The Study – which is a study of the memories, and thoughts, of a patient ‘M’ – the doctor attempts to impose form on these experiences and is concerned with their objective nature. This book contained much food for thought. I may read it again over the weekend and post an update if anything more comes to mind.

Soundtrack: Damon & Naomi – Memories.

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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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The Slynx

slynxBy Tatyana Tolstaya.

What a fantastic novel. This is the best contemporary thing I have read for ages. I don’t usually go go in for dystopian fiction, though, I once tried to read a book by Marge Piercy and it was amateurish and awful. The Slynx was brilliant. The world is ridiculous but it is believable – if that makes  any sense. With other futuristic writers, phrases or ideas not being fully formed can give the game away and you lose that sense of being catapulted. Additionally, Tolstaya makes some very good points and analyses the authoritarian state, how it keeps control, the role of the workers, intelligentsia and literature. A review said it was ‘Pale Fire’ like but I am not convinced. There’s not as much of a metafiction element in the Slynx and the role of authority isn’t analysed as deeply in Pale Fire – at least to my reading.

Another point that I didn’t consider until finishing was that I don’t read many female writers. This is something I have thought about before but I try to just let the purchase and reading of books flow naturally with random elements determining the direction my reading goes. It seems a little prescriptive to say that I am now going to read female writers for the next six months and that is all; rather than reading that which I find randomly and which interests me. Over the last year out of fifty-two books I only read four by women writers. I know, it is not a good statistic (you can see other stats on the new ‘statistics’ tab). But I also read only one American writer. Does this mean I should read more American writers – should I attempt to be egalitarian with choice of books or should I let one novel point to another? An example of this is that Tolstaya quotes a lot from Pushkin – as a result I am now reading Eugene Onegin which I have owned for a while, but after reading the Slynx the time felt right and I started reading it naturally. Maybe I am placing too much store on randomness and letting the novels I read pose questions or a direction?

So, why don’t I read as much female literature? Well, firstly I don’t really think about literature as ‘male’ or ‘female’ they are just books and I read those that interest  me. Secondly, I don’t read much contemporary stuff. A lot of modern novels seem to try a little too hard and because of the increased commercialisation and control of the publishing by big companies much of modern fiction is just too bland, obvious and it is created simply to be sold. It just doesn’t interest me. There are still fantastic  new novels as The Slynx proves, but because of the mass of publishing out there it is difficult to find what is good. Because women really didn’t have the same opportunities as men there are not as many older female writers. I have read Murasaki, Shonagen, Woolf, Austin, Mansfield, Nin, McCullers and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head – Sagan, Sarraute, de Beauvoir too. But there are not as many women who wrote and were published in the time periods I read compared to men. And, I don’t like many modern writers generally – never mind the sex of the writer.

Coming back to The Slynx… it was very powerful and Tostaya’s voice strong, assured and believable. I will read her collection of short stories at some stage. Very pleased I read this – it gives me hope – there are still great and interesting works of fiction being created.


Actually, when I compare the contemporary writers I like, 50% of them are female.

Sountrack: Enio Morricone – Rivoluzione.

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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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Selected Poems

blokBy Aleksandr Blok.

Again, I’m not a big fan of poetry but some of these pieces are brilliant. There are shades of Mayakovsky but much more lyrical and decadent. Or rather there are shades of Blok in Mayakovsky. The poems are quite visceral but the edges are taken off and enriched by the symbolism and incredible turn of phrase that Blok had. You can see why Mayakovsky the younger poet wrote a companion work directly influenced by ‘The Twelve’ as there are some similarities between the two writers.

This will be very nice to dip into now and again. I have another translation of ‘The Twelve’ so I may compare the translations out of interest.

Well worth my time. Many nods and affirming noises.

Soundtrack: Nick Cave – Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow.

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Night Wraps the Sky

mayaBy Vladimir Mayakovsky

As I have said previously I am not big on poetry, generally. This could be changing slightly as I have found another poet that I like. The poems here are his best work; not the propaganda poems which made up mych of his output as the ‘poet of the revolution’. They are really strong, visceral with an excellent turn of phrase and are exciting even, which is not the way most poetry is. If you combine reading these poems with the fact that he would have performed them at workers meetings and indulged in banter, humour and dealt with heckles then they take on another dimension as well. These poems are meant to be performed and by all accounts Mayakovsky was a larger than life character that commanded the stage. In the book one of the contributors compares Eminem to Mayakovsky and it’s not too far from the mark. This isn’t intellectual language, it’s strong language and Mayakovsky’s rhythmic genius has been deemed impossible to translate into English. But, still the contributors here have tried and to my eye and ear they have done a good job because you can sense the personality of Mayakovsky behind the words.

Mayakovsky was full of contradictions. On one level as a futurist he wanted to destroy all that had been before but he couldn’t help but regard Pushkin as the greatest of poets. He was strong and anarchic yet seeming subservient to Bolshevism and his mistress Lili Brik (the Franz Ferdinand record cover with the loud-hailer is based on a Rodchenko poster that featured her). Mayakovsky wrote against suicide vehemently but then committed the act himself in 1930. Commentators have said that he may have seen the writing on the wall, several of his friends were being imprisoned under the beginnings of Stalin’s purges and it was only a matter of time especially since Stalin was not enamoured with him. Mayakovsky wouldn’t have survived the 30s it is fair to say. But as the revolution’s greatest poet he probably would have met the same mysterious end as Gorky who was arguably the revolution’s greatest writer. Nevertheless, his suicide was a turnaround from his previous position.

This is a very good edition. Along with the poetry you learn about Mayakovsky’s life through his own words in a biographical text called ‘I, myself’ and through extracts and reminiscences of those who knew him as well as contributors like John Berger. It’s a very good introduction and collection of his most known poetry; a ‘Greatest Hits’ if you like. I might have to track down the travel journal he wrote about his visit to America – that should be interesting as well. He also wrote and acted in movies, though only one full one survives, and worked with Rodchenko on posters and slogans. So, a renaissance man.

This is definitely well worth reading, highly recommended, Mayakovsky’s work is still relevant and powerful 80 years after his death.

One of the anecdotes I laughed out loud at while reading: Mayakovsky was at a meeting, on stage, engaging in banter with the audience. One of the audience a stern looking man with a bushy beard (in stark contrast to the shaven headed Mayakovsky) obviously took offence and began pointedly walking for the exit. Mayakovsky bellowed in his booming voice ‘Comrades! The learned gentleman is now leaving to have a shave!’

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