For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.
I’For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.
I’ve read Anton Chekhov’s letters, a form of writing which might distinguish itself from autobiography by being both more honest and of greater literary worth. Letters are, after all – or where when people used to write then, at any rate – small literary gifts. I had a friend who used to send me letters hand-written and tied with a ribbon in a bow. They insisted upon being read in a special place with some degree of devotion. The experience is the very opposite of receiving an email and scanning it while logging onto facebook.
So when I saw this book half-price at The London Review Bookshop, I had to buy it, fully expecting it to add to my reading of Anton’s letters.
The book does not pretend to be more than it is: various pieces published over a period and now cobbled together. If you are expecting the book itself as a whole to be some sort of technical triumph, a remastering of the very idea of The Book, it isn’t. It’s a cobbled together collection of bits and pieces. But what marvellous bits and pieces they are.
I guess like others here, my first thought was not as good as...that's the trouble with creating a perfect work of art, one is haunted by it forever.
MI guess like others here, my first thought was not as good as...that's the trouble with creating a perfect work of art, one is haunted by it forever.
May I say this is 'not as good' but still SO, SO very good, that we are talking about giving this nine stars out of five, where we might have given Sukhanov ten.
Maybe the very big difference, the thing that makes one intuitively side with Sukhanov is that this novel has no one great character, rather, a group share centre stage equally. If you ask me, this just goes to show Grushin can do both of these constructions equally well. I think I was greedy to sink myself into a big character, the way one is greedy in one's younger years to be immersed in the enormity of The Russian Novel. The longer the better. The bigger the better. But you grow up and the finesse with which Grushin manages the five or so main characters of this book is a treat to behold. She is such a skilled craftsman, both in use of language and structure without ever losing sight of the story and the characters: you CAN have all of this, the idea that technique is something we have now in modern literature instead of story and character is shown by this writer to be ludicrous.
It is odd to reflect that the essential qualities of Russian life, the ones that maintain a whole genre, The Russian Novel, are drabness, meanness, futility. Odd too that the genre requires they be invoked with both moving sensibility and the blackness of absurdism. As in her first novel, this is again achieved with consumate grace and skill. Again it is hard to put this down for even a moment. Remembering how I read this: on a 24 hour plane trip and then finishing it in a hotel bathroom at 3am, unable to sleep for the second night in a row, makes me even less certain of agreeing that it is – however slightly – less than her first novel. Despite the fact that I read it in invidious circumstances I hung on every word.
Fifty pages in, I feel like I've given this a good shake and I can move on. You have to care about something when you read a book: the story, a characFifty pages in, I feel like I've given this a good shake and I can move on. You have to care about something when you read a book: the story, a character, maybe even the technique. Something, at any rate. Nothing comes to mind for this one. While Nabokov stated in an interview that of all his novels he held the greatest affection for Lolita, it was Invitation to a Beheading that he held in the greatest esteem, he said at the same time:
My advice to a budding literary critic would be as follows. Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that mediocrity thrives on "ideas." Beware of the modish message. Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint. Ignore allegories. By all means place the "how" above the "what" but do not let it be confused with the "so what." Rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs. Do not drag in Freud at this point. All the rest depends on personal talent.
What a wanker.
I know I'm in the wild here, not kowtowing to the idea of Nabokov, but the time will come where he is reassessed and found wanting. As far as I can see, he is too clever by half. One needs more than intellect to make writing work, to make it other than banal. He's not only a wanker, but a darn smug one and one wonders why. It isn't enough to pepper everything you write with corny sexual metaphor. Speaking of which, I feel like, as a consequence of reading the first pages of this, my dorsal hairs couldn't get it up with a dose of viagra now.
Tim Winton, get me over this unhappy affair. Cloudstreet is my recovery play.
A quarter way through and I want to give this more stars (added later: than the four I began with) - yes, plural - and I want to say it's the best RusA quarter way through and I want to give this more stars (added later: than the four I began with) - yes, plural - and I want to say it's the best Russian novel I've ever read...I'm throwing in Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, the lot.
Even better, it's a Russian novel written in English. What more could one ask for?
I only want to say all this, I will say it for sure when I've finished.
By the way, I'm gobsmacked that only one of my friends has read this.
Now for the informed opinion. This book makes me want to reexamine everything I've given five stars too. Yet again one finds the very VERY best writing is simple, accessible; that the very best writing has plot and characters. And not for the first time, I wonder if it is so that non-native English writers can extract something from the language that those for whom it is always an old shoe cannot. Grushin’s use of language is exquisite: her need to be lush as she sees the world through the eyes of an artist never lacks precision, nothing, not even the dream sequences – something I might add, for which I normally have zero tolerance – turn into waffle.
Pick up this novel, begin to read it, and one is confronted by a Soviet pig of a man, a Party man who has risen to the top of one of those fields on which the Soviets placed some importance at that time. Truth told, you too may struggle with the first few pages, why would one want to read 350 pages about this pompous mediocre big noter. Stick with it and by the end of the first scene you will realise why. In Sukhanov Grushin has created a character of a tragic type I honestly can't think has been bettered in the entire history of writing. (Sorry, Shakespeare, I love you dearly, but I think Sukhanov is better than Lear.) ((I almost can’t believe I wrote that, but I think I think it.)) I defy you to read this and not weep for Sukhanov and, if you have a creative bone in your body, for yourself.
Having started off thinking this was the best Russian novel I've ever read, it just goes to show...however great the desire by some to tidy away writing into genres - and might not we say The Russian Novel is the first genre, is there one that precedes it? – this is a sublime novel with no qualification attached. I’m astonished that such a young person who deliver such work. Mostly I’m on goodreads because I like to record what I have read, and because I am a compulsive writer; friends and votes are neither here nor there. But right now I would love to have the goodreads influence to make people read this. Why has only one of my friends read this? Like the Russians for time immemorial I want to wring my hands and ask What is to be done? I have no better answer than they ever did. ...more
Over the last few weeks I’ve read The Luzhin Defense, followed by Bluebeard and then Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Originally I was going to wriOver the last few weeks I’ve read The Luzhin Defense, followed by Bluebeard and then Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Originally I was going to write some stuff here about the central characters and compare them with the original Outsider. I was going to say things like this:
Maybe it is a contradiction in terms, to put 3 books about outsiders in the same review, but I can’t stop myself.
We have here a chess player, a doctor who might or might not have murdered a wife and a chickenhead. They all share a trait lacking in the original Outsider: they are all able to induce a sympathetic response from the reader. I don’t believe we have any capacity to understand Camus’s Outsider and without that, how can we have sympathy? It is easy to empathise with the others, however apart they may be from our own lives. It is impossible for Camus to put us in the shoes of his Outsider. It IS possible to become the crazy chess player, the murderous doctor, the mentally deficient chickenhead. Indeed it is Dick’s great strength that his characters slip into you; no matter that they are hypothetical consequences of a hypothetical world.
I can’t help wondering how I would have felt about Nabokov if I’d read him last instead of first. I thought he was getting away with being clever and ornate at the time. But to read the spare prose of Frisch next made me question this. And sharing with Dick the suffering of his characters meant I started wondering if Nabokov really had a clue what he was writing about. He says things that hit the mark for sure and his general thesis that chess saves the hero’s life until his dogooder wife-to-be starts interfering is completely faithful to the real world. I would scarcely be the only chess player to associate with Luzhin’s discovery of the game, a discovery that means life is suddenly tolerable. But something makes me distrust Nabokov’s potrayal of the Outsider, and I’m tired of trying to figure out what it is.
That’s the sort of thing I was going to say.
But I’d rather read. Consider me a goodreads outsider. ...more
This is a translation from Short Philosophical Dictionary Moscow 1951. I think it first came out in the 1930s, butPolitical correctness Soviet-style.
This is a translation from Short Philosophical Dictionary Moscow 1951. I think it first came out in the 1930s, but if so, I don't know the status of the reprinting. The translation is by JEH Smith as published on his brilliant blog.
Existentialism (Lat. existentia- existence). A decadent, subjective-idealistic philosophical current of the epoch of imperialism, the fundamental purposes of which are the demoralization of social consciousness, the battle against revolutionary proletarian organizations, the moral and political disintegration of progressive social movements. Existentialism is particularly widespread at present in France. This reactionary philosophy was founded by the Danish obscurantist Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a most venomous enemy of socialism and democracy, who considered even Schelling's philosophy of revelation to be insufficiently reactionary. By 'existence' he understands 'individual spiritual life', and he juxtaposes 'existence' to 'being', that is, to the material world, to real physical and social life. Disgust with life, fear of death, despair: these are the basic themes of his works, which it would be largely justified to ascribe rather to psychopathology than to philosophy. This degenerate, misanthropic 'philosophy' was adopted as a weapon by the ideologues of German imperialism (Heidegger, Jaspers). With the new historical circumstances this perverted philosophy presents itself under the falsified guise of 'atheist philosophy', of 'the philosophy of freedom'. Its reactionary essence has remained unchanged; all that changed were its strategies in the battle against revolutionary theory, as well as its methods of disguise. The renegades of the 'Resistance movement' --Sartre, Camus, and their loyal supporters-- now strive to blacken the legacy of the battle against fascism, of the revolutionary workers' struggle for socialism, of the battle of all progressive humanity for peace and democracy, promoting instead an intellectual and moral nihilism, and disregard for science and morality. They call to mind the gang of fashionably reactionary authors of the time of the Stolypin Reaction in Russia, who 'wore their Marxism loosely', pouring scorn on the idea of revolution, boasting about their treachery, and celebrating sexual promiscuity in the name of the 'cult of personality'. Setting out from subjective-idealist premises, making 'pure self-consciousness' into their philosophy's point of departure, the existentialists fight zealously against dialectical and historical materialism, against the Marxist, scientific understanding of the world. Metaphysically separating 'existence' from 'essence', the existentialists set these up in opposition to one another, demonstrating the primacy of 'existence'. This theory is directed against the materialist doctrine of the primacy of matter, and, in application to social life, against the scientific understanding of the role of historical laws. The existentialists understand 'freedom' not as a real social relationship that prevails in the battle against the enslavement of classes and nations, and that is attained with the arrival of socialism, but rather as the idealistic 'freedom of the will' that gives the bourgeois individual the freedom to act according to his whim. In this way the sophistry of the existentialists serves as a defense of the baseness of imperialism, justifying treachery, and libelling all forward-thinking and progressive social movements. The imperialists make broad use of the existentialists for the formation of the cadres of traitors of class and national interests. Another branch of existentialism (Jaspers in Germany, Marcel in France, Lowrie in the USA) amounts to an explicit defence of Papism, and is one of the current manifestations of Catholic or Protestant propaganda.
Frayn is on record as regretting his fate - to be an all-rounder inspired in limitless ways. If he were only a translator or columnist, only a novelisFrayn is on record as regretting his fate - to be an all-rounder inspired in limitless ways. If he were only a translator or columnist, only a novelist or philosopher, only a playwright his talents in any of these would see him more highly regarded than he is today for being wonderful at all of them. He would make more money too. If only he lived in a period where a man was admired for talent that went in many directions, instead of in a period in which specialisation is worshipped and we view with suspicion those who are constitutionally unable to live the narrow life, or think the narrow thoughts, that result from specialisation.
This collection of writings about his theatre work, both his own plays and his translations, being a renowned Chekhov translator in particular, spans his career from the very beginning. And I do mean very beginning, with hilariously charming accounts of his productions as a small boy in which he took on all roles - writer, producer, set designer and maker, cast maker in the case of his puppets. The diversity is astonishing, from his discussions of the difficulties in developing his farces to a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the history that inspired one of my favorites, Copenhagen. Throughout, however, two things stood out for me.
How puerile can I get? Somebody was asking me the other day, and I think this tells the story. I read the first eight hundred thousand, three hundredHow puerile can I get? Somebody was asking me the other day, and I think this tells the story. I read the first eight hundred thousand, three hundred and sixty-three pages of War and Peace, stopping exactly twenty pages before the end. I wished to make the point, Count Lev Nikolayevich, I hope you are listening to this, that I could have finished it but chose not to.
So, hmmm. Pretty puerile indeed.
Good call, kiddo, I thought to myself a few weeks ago when I saw the movie, The Last Station. One can be puerile and oh-so-right....more