Lost and Found in Russia

By Susan Richards.

This book just  ambles along and somehow keeps your interest all the way through. Some reviews seemed to dismiss it because of this – but for me the lack or traditional plot arc was part of the attraction. The importance lay in the gaze and not the object – as Gide said – or probably paraphrased from someone else. The characters, who are actually real people, are very engaging and the encounters always illuminating. I wouldn’t call them ‘ordinary’ Russians as for the most part they are part of the new intelligentsia. I enjoyed the process of reading this book and learnt a lot along the way.

Yeltsin seemed to really mess things up for a Russia hoping to have a meaningful democracy. I’m part way through ‘the Shock Doctrine’ as I write and this seems to be borne out by many commentators. After reading, I am interested to find out more about the nineties and what actually went on in not just Russia, but the rest of the ex-soviet bloc. I already know a fair bit of what has happened  in Poland with the rise of the neoliberals, but to see things in a broader context would be good. At any rate, this is the best modern book I have read for a while – I wouldn’t call it fiction but still there are bound to be embellishments along the way. In addition to the political, the adventures relating to Russian spiritualism were intriguing as well.

The characters and people that make up the book ground it and give it focus, though if there is one criticism it is that they are framed too often from the writer’s perspective in quite an obvious way. Perhaps it wasn’t needed, because as the reader, you will have formed an impression and opinion of the people involved rather than being told how the narrator views them and the changes between each meeting. But this is a minor distraction. Well worth reading.

Soundtrack: Elena Kamburova – Pesnya Klouna.

 

 

 

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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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Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes.

I always knew I would love Don Quixote because of the amusing and surreal bits and pieces that had been mentioned to me over the years. Because of the length and comittment to the cause required by the novel I knew I had to find the right time. So, a holiday in Spain seemed to be perfect, and it was, as I did want to be completely focused and consumed by the world of Quixote and Panza in the sun and heat of Spanish lands.

The novel is split into two parts each were published a decade apart. The second part is more controlled (if controlled is the right word) and the writing seems better and smoother. Again it is difficult to really assess this in translation. The first part jumps all over the place and has several stories within stories and is less about Panza and Quixote than part  two. In the first, anything can happen, and the two characters frequently overstep the line due to their madness and sanity which they possess in equal measure. Panza has a different type of madness which seems to grow as the novel progresses – maybe due to the association with Quixote. I can see why people have been entranced by the book since 1605 when part one was written. The humour transcends the centuries and cultures. The world of Cervantes is alien to us in the way that the world of the Knights Errant is ridiculous to the readers of Cervantes day. Then and now readers are drawn into Quixote’s world and marvel and his madness and intelligence, and Panza’s proverbs.

The second book I liked less because everyone knows about Quixote due to the first part being published and authored by Cede Hamete Benegeli – so meta-fiction very definitely meets knight errantry. Also, the extended period at the Duke and Duchesses residence is not very exciting – after this however it picks up and there is a return to form. The characters seem a little more typecast too:  Cervantes may have promoted the elements of the novel that his audience liked from part one and focused on these. There are far more Panzaian proverbs and there are no separate stories within the story of part two as he was criticised after the first volume for distracting the reader with these. In my opinion, the edges, and the fact you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next does give part one the sharpness and steel that part two lacks. Having said this, in totality there is nothing I have ever read quite like Don Quixote. All other modern picaresque fantasies are just shoots from the tree grown by Cervantes.

Part one is an absolute masterwork. There are some fantastic turns of phrase and nearly every sentence is loaded and perfectly formed. I must say I loved some of Panza’s proverbs. We should all pick our time when we begin our journey with Don Quixote, mine took five weeks and I can see that I will be returning for shorter skirmishes with rereads of certain episodes.

Following are some quotes from the novel that I thought were great (and there are a multitude more):

“I didn’t deserve to leave in this way; but man proposes and God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him, and time changes the rhyme, and nobody should say, ‘That’s water I won’t drink,’ because you’re in a place where you think there’s bacon, and you don’t even find a nail; God understands me, and that’s enough, and I’ll say no more, though I could.” [Panza]
 
“He’s doing the right thing,” said Sancho Panza, “because if you give the cat what you were going to give to the mouse, your troubles will be over.” [Panza]
 
“May God hear and sin be deaf,” said Sancho.
 
“There can be no doubt,” said Sancho, “that this demon is a decent man and a good Christian, because otherwise he wouldn’t swear by God and my conscience. Now I think there must be good people even down in hell.”
 

And finally:

“…the benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?”

 

Note: translation is important and Edith Grossman’s translation is excellent. The footnotes are thorough too.


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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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A Hero Of Our Time

By Mikhail Lermontov.

There is so much that is exceptional about this novel that I don’t know where to start. The structure is innovative in that you read Pechorin’s diaries later after you have been given stories about him from others either first or second hand. Because of this the original events have so many more colours than a flat narrative.

The subject matter is romantic – an officer’s adventures in the Caucasus, but this isn’t artificial – this was Lermonov’s world. One of the greatest losses for literature must surely be that he died in a duel at age 26. This means he would have been writing ‘A Hero of Our Time’ from at least 24 – something I can’t quite fathom. The voice in this novel is so mature and the disillusionment so profound in some areas that it’s impossible to imagine how Lermontov could have been capable of this at his age. Unless of course, he was a genius and was therefore more creative, sensitive and perceptive than we mere mortals can conceive.

Most writers have related ideas that they continue to examine or develop throughout their life. Unfortunately we only have this one novel from Lermontov. Through each standalone chapter the preoccupations of Lermontov are shown to be chance, fate and determinism mixed into a delicious cocktail and served with irony and sincerity in equal measure. The final story rounds these themes up perfectly – and you could say the reality of Lermontov’s life and its end completes the novel. I would rather it hadn’t. We know that Lermontov asked to be relieved of his military duties so he could devote himself to writing but this was refused by the authorities and the Tsar. The Tsar hated ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and on hearing of Lermontov’s death he is reputed to have exclaimed “A dog’s death for a dog.” Well, this ‘dog’ Lermontov is still read widely and his preoccupations and examinations of life and living are still relevant today.

As an aside, I was watching the Bergman film ‘The Silence’ last night when I noticed the young boy in the movie was reading the Swedish translation of  ‘A Hero of Our Time’. I’m not sure why Bergman put this in, particularly in the hands of a boy of 8 or so. Apparently it also features in his film ‘Persona’ as well. There’s an article that might explain this called ‘Images and Words in Ingmar Bergman’s Films‘ – however the domain seems to be down at the moment.

The best book I have read for a long time, and I might read it again in a week or so. Maybe reading ‘A Hero of Our Time’ should become an annual occurrence.

Soundtrack: just silence.

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The Vampyre

By John Polidori.

This was an engaging short tale. The  old rich language and sentences helped create an atmosphere of gothic horror. I have to say – comparing the novel to Gautier’s Clarimonde, it is nowhere near as dark or as decadent. It was a good start for the genre though, with the additional elements of poetry and travel. This was apparently the first vampire tale to be published in English (1819) and at the outset it was thought to be written by Byron – not Polidori. Polidori had been Byron’s physician on some European travels.

The reason I read this novella was a footnote in Lemontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’ which referenced Polidori’s story. I then searched in the Kindle store and there it was for free download, so I started reading immediately. Sometimes technology can be a great thing. Definitely worth reading.

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Voyage in Burgundy

burgundy

By Robert Desnos.

A very very pleasant book. There are a few writers where you are left with the impression that he or she would be an amusing person to have met and had a drink and a yarn with. Desnos – along with Svevo and Cendrars falls into this category, in my opinion. This book is beautifully made in every respect and you can buy your own limited edition from Air and Nothingness Press. I really enjoyed reading about the ‘Burgundian’ journey with all the asides and references which are picked up by the excellent footnotes. The text flows effortlessly and I wasn’t aware of any nuances of translation. Eminently enjoyable.

Soundtrack: Jacques Brel – La Chanson de Jacky.

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Confessions of an Economic Hitman

confessionsBy John Perkins.

This book really is terribly written but I kept on going because the content was interesting. When I say ‘content’ I don’t mean the author’s imagined contemplative and personally dramatic moments, but the statistics and the arguments that Perkins makes. The only justification for such a woefully written novel is that Perkins wants to get his message across and the way he does this is to sensationalise and make it cheesy as hell. Socialist Worker newspaper does something similar I guess – they use a tabloid format to try pick up new readers and get their views to a greater number of people. So, the end justifies the means, possibly.

This book made me cringe with almost every sentence but it was worth reading for some of the insights into the economic world and US foreign policy. It has inspired me carry on down the non-fiction (sic) trail and to read something similar. I only wish Perkins had decided to emulate Graham Greene in his prose, who he meets in the book. Greene later wrote Getting to Know the General about Omar Torrijos – so maybe this book should be next.

Soundtrack: Os Mutantes – Dom Quixote.

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The Bride From Odessa

odessaBy Edgardo Cozarinsky.

I really enjoyed this collection of stories. I actually thought this was a novel and admit that I was slightly disappointed when I started it and found out that it wasn’t. However, all these tales are linked by a similar tone and as a result it felt as though I was reading a novel but with a variety of scenes and characters. Also, the strength of the episodes meant that I didn’t really mind after a while that these were short stories.

There were some really strong and lyrical ideas here. Cozarinsky really knows how to evoke a setting and a time and how to squeeze the emotion from it. I enjoyed the last story the most, but that’s possibly because it is the longest. Cozarinsky’s main themes seem to be the displacement of people, and the very personal nature of history. None of these stories involve a genius – these are normal people – some are writers, artists, musicians and actor but none of them are great. They are placed in different situations and linked to a personal history and the important thing seems to be just the act of remembering. Never mind the great historical moments – it is personal history and the mysteries that are associated with these that are important to Cozarinsky.

As well as being a writer Cozarinsky is a film maker and I really need to see some of his films if they bear any similarity to his writing. This collection is very moving, without being sentimental, and well worth reading.

Soundtrack: anything by Vladimir Vysotski.

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The Little Prince

littlepBy Antoine De Saint-Exupery.

This is maybe the third time I have read The Little Prince and it gets better each sitting. A perfectly formed little book and quite a stunning work of genius. It can probably be seen simply as a strange children’s tale but it also works as a surreal book for adults too.

I think I enjoyed it more this read than previous because I knew the story and was thinking more about the allusions and the themes. There’s not much else I can say. Everyone should read it and enjoy it simply as a story or to think about the things being said. In a way I can’t help thinking of Swift because of the use of parables or tales and the critical attitude to the world of humans or adults. Though obviously it is much gentler and contains some hope for the future. With Swift hope for humanity is a moot point.

Anyway. The episode with the fox was good along with the concept of ‘taming’ and the last two pages are brilliant – particularly the second to last page. Somewhere out there is a very small planet inhabited by a prince who loves a rose but who keeps the rose in a dome because of a rogue rose-hungry sheep that should have been drawn with with a muzzle. Very interesting that De Saint-Exupery decided a muzzle was required even though the sheep is only doing what it would do naturally in a world of scarce resources.

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