The 'Cold Sea' is the Baltic. This is a strikingly regional book compared with much translated contemporary lit I've read: Huelle's focus is the Gdans...moreThe 'Cold Sea' is the Baltic. This is a strikingly regional book compared with much translated contemporary lit I've read: Huelle's focus is the Gdansk area of northern Poland, his home. All of these short stories are set there or have expat protagonists originally from the area, except one set in seventeenth century coastal Sweden; they are variously realist or magic-realist. (Apparently influenced by Borges - whom I really should read as no other writer of whom I'm so ignorant is referenced this often re. books I read.)
Frequently, I think most fiction books could do with maps - not just fantasy - and this was a case in point. Several stories were enhanced by appreciating distances travelled or changing national borders. And if you've ever stared at poster maps of Europe you may have wondered about those funny strings and spits of land on the Polish coast: a couple of these stories give a little of their history. (So I realised after Google mapping some locations.) There are even train and bus routes on them. For yes, they are inhabited. Including by impoverished fisherman, the ghosts of fearsome wreck scavengers and piratical lore: like tales of the Cornish coast (without the glamour and sunshine - one of these areas is named Hel[l]) or Annie Proulx's rendering of old Newfoundlanders.
The stories themselves are pretty good but not spectacular - fans of literary short stories could do a lot worse - though I found some of them predictable. The translation was almost too smooth: it read so very much like English language literary fiction that the subtle and very welcome sense of difference from typical litfic style - one of the things I like best about reading translations - was almost absent. For me the attraction was hearing about places, history and cultures, and looking up numerous Wikpedia articles. (At the end of the book there is a dialogue between the author and translator which provides background but I loved getting much more detail online.)
The first two stories were the best, and have stuck in my mind most strongly in the week since I finished the book. 'Mimesis' is set in a village of Vistula Delta Mennonites; whilst it does combine a few tropes such as "young woman in religious cult" and others I shan't mention in case of spoilering, the combination of them was so unusual, and the context so surprising that it made a very memorable story, of a community I'd probably heard mentioned briefly in textbooks and then forgotten. 'The Bicycle Express' is quite transparently autobiographical and made textbook/newspaper history suddenly emotive and spine-tingling: the postgrad-student protagonist's efforts to help the then-new Solidarity movement, and his relationship with his cousin, a tragic dissident genius wrecked by a long stint in Siberia.
Several of the other stories are told from the viewpoints of men around the author's age and get away with bits of stereotyping an American author probably wouldn't (especially 'mystical wise men of the Orient') - though sometimes it's unclear whether Huelle is quietly sending himself up, for example in 'The Flight into Egypt', a tale of a painter who is unblocked after seeing news pictures of a beautiful Chechen refugee woman. 'First Summer' returns to the setting of 'Mimesis' in the company of people who weren't born at the time of the earlier story: this story of nostalgia gone sour pulls together many strings from elsewhere - and may be a comment on the east european phenomenon of nostalgia for the Communist era. It's ambiguous, again, whether its negativity about a party of loud, outrageous, frequently naked gay men trying to celebrate Poland's first gay wedding is the protagonist's or Huelle's. Their portrayal seems outdated, but then gay culture in eastern europe is still more underground (so my saying it's outdated could be similar to those US reviewers who criticise aesthete/ dandy types in fiction whilst I know from my own acquaintance that there are still real people quite like those).
It would be interesting to know how Huelle is viewed in Poland. (In the UK he's gained some recognition among readers of translated literature via four long- or short-listings for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but he's hardly well known.)I get a sense that if the history and geography in which his work is steeped weren't fascinatingly novel and exotic to me, he could perhaps be understood as another of those comfortably established (once-radical) writers who are overrated and always in the papers, like Ian McEwan in Britain.(less)
A short novel about the experience of a Polish Jewish woman during the Second World War, based on a true story. What makes this different from much "H...moreA short novel about the experience of a Polish Jewish woman during the Second World War, based on a true story. What makes this different from much "Holocaust literature" is how much of an adventure it turns into; it often reads like the trials and tribulations of a Resistance heroine, except that Izolda's cause is not her entire country, simply her friends and relatives, in particular her new husband - first to get them out of the Warsaw ghetto, and then trying to get him out of a concentration camp. As with the family in Art Spiegelman's Maus, jaw-dropping good luck, connections, and various skills both practical and social, enabled some of the people in Chasing the King of Hearts to survive the war whilst millions did not. (If I hadn't read Maus quite recently, I may have been incredulous about the sheer number of things people pull off.) Unlike the Spiegelmans, Izolda travels around long-distance, tries to make deals, uses disguises - though she too is eventually arrested. It's told in very short chapters and rather a detached style: often it is an account of what happened, minus fine detail, with occasional intrusion of strong feelings beautifully described. This reflects the experience of partial emotional shut-down in emergency situations whilst concentrating on methodically, obsessively getting things done and on survival. Some reviewers have commented that the style makes it difficult to connect with the protagonist, but if you have or recognise this shut-down tendency, then the narrative approach completely makes sense. Chasing the King of Hearts wasn't perhaps as amazing as the small-press publishers, Peirene, made it out to be - as the best of their books so far - but it will be of interest to those who want to hear stories of remarkable ordinary women during the Second World War or who get tired of the cumulative passivity of many characters in wartime litfic. (less)
- A four star book. It's not all that - not the best thing I've read this year (Mason & Dixon and Life A...moreNotes on War & Peace, halfway through
- A four star book. It's not all that - not the best thing I've read this year (Mason & Dixon and Life A Users Manual), nor the best major nineteenth century novel as far as I'm concerned (Middlemarch or Bleak House). But it's certainly not terrible. - Changed from the Edmonds translation to P&V after about 100pp. Whilst P&V do make word choices that annoy me and sometimes sound too modern, there is a liveliness to their version that makes it quicker to read and easier to concentrate on. Given that I just want to get through the thing, that was the priority. (I can understand why some people call this book boring.) - P&V's intro, notes and summaries of historical characters are great and mean it's almost possible to read the book without needing anything else. What they could really have done with adding, though, is a good selection of maps. - Quite a bit of W&P is, in the pejorative, lazy sense, Jane Austen-ish: narrowly concerned with aristocratic society and the marriage prospects of young nobles & gentry of the Napoleonic War era. Though with a little more high feeling and scandal than JA would include. - Emotions are frequently stronger than in British nineteenth century classics. (Oh, those Russians!) And there's an interesting dichotomy of greater insolence (saying or doing various things that would just be unthinkably bad form to the English, without consequence of being entirely shunned from all society) alongside greater worship of authority. - I don't find Tolstoy to have any more startling insight into human nature than many other well-regarded novelists. Again, he's in no way bad, simply not exceptional among them. He is also overly fond of generalisations about human behaviour and types, a pet hate of mine in fictional narratives, though admittedly a nineteenth century ubiquity. He wrote the book at the age I am now, and I would say that one of the most important things I've learned as an adult is the importance of variation between people and that generalisations, whilst they are incredibly easy to make based on cumulative experience, get in the way of understanding and relating to individuals. - Perhaps it's inevitable I'd say this being primarily a historian rather than [remind me what the term is for literature grads] but the political and military sections are a heck of a lot more interesting than most of the society stuff in town. (Though the country scenes and landscapes are what I love best. My favourite scene of all so far is Christmas at the Rostovs, which brought to mind the most joyful bits of Bergman's Fanny & Alexander.) - They simply couldn't help it, being permitted so little access to more interesting things to think about and do, but most of the female characters are relatively dull, with the exception of Marya, with her religion, charity and quiet battle against and not to be like her tyrannical father. - Religion and a religious message is more significant than in British novels of the time IIRC, though I can't say I'm bothered by it, it's just historically interesting. - As I remember thinking when I read the first 150pp or so at the start of Oct, (the rest I've read this week) this is a book of fairly normal characters who are included in their mainstream society; there are no Steppenwolves in War & Peace. - It's quite a relaxing book because - though there is the odd paragraph or scene - it rarely brings up sad memories or reminds me of people I've known. - Pierre and Andrei are engaged in various sorts of philosophical journey, where what they are doing with their time, their relationships, and all of their lives tends to be bound up in a set of feelings and ideas that is a complete world view which changes over time. (Marya is perhaps similar, it's just that her philosophy is so far entirely static, whilst P & A each change over a number of years in a way I personally understand.) - Tolstoy is rude about the appearances of so many characters in a way I can rarely recall from a serious writer. Some of these descriptions perhaps sound more pejorative nowadays, but there are people described as unattractive etc. At the start he also seemed fixated on describing characters' mouths but this has now worn off. - Given the size of the book I do miss inclusion of significant characters from the middle and working classes in a way that wouldn't really be fair comment on a 300 page novel, or about one which wasn't so frequently described as all-encompassing, “a complete picture of the Russia of its day” etc. Tolstoy, and some of the protagonists, are evidently sympathetic to improving the lives of peasants, but it's all much more distant and marginal than in his English counterparts. (And probably worse conditions: a minor character recounts that he gave three families of house serfs for a pedigree hunting dog. How did their living conditions – as serfs or freemen - compare with those of Industrial Revolution factory workers? Tolstoy is not the place to find out.) - Never would have occurred to me until I saw it frequently repeated in user reviews that W&P is not a typical novel. Perhaps because of the sort of thing I've been reading, it seems rather conventional in all but size. The other day I found that Will Self had written a rather good introduction to an edition of The Master & Margarita. Among other things he had phrased much better, and embellished, an idea I was also trying to get at in another post a few weeks ago. ...quite as wrongheaded as imagining Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote to be precursors of literary postmodernism. The truth is that all styles and modes of fictionalising were attempted before the crystallisation of the social-realist novel in the nineteenth century; that this one mode has become a deadening - near-Stalinist – orthodoxy says much about the extent to which literature is the complaisant poodle of post-Enlightenment progressivism, and very little about the rites that may be performed at the altar of high art. - It requires a sort of zen will to endurance that's something I associate with learning or re-learning certain physical skills more than with reading. Though I remember noticing it when I read The Luminaries (830 pages) a couple of months ago. (Also, I reckon Catton got her "infinite sky" - at the start - from W&P.) - Getting way ahead of myself! Was browsing editions of Proust. - I'd agree with whoever it was who told me a few years ago that War & Peace isn't difficult, it's just long. It's much like sitting through a classical symphony by a composer not quite to my taste; the structural co-ordination is the most impressive thing about it. (less)
All unquestionably interesting as historical artefacts, as drama some of Vaclav Havel's plays have aged better than others...moreStarted for this book group.
All unquestionably interesting as historical artefacts, as drama some of Vaclav Havel's plays have aged better than others. In general, Theatre of the Absurd appears very unfashionable at the moment and it's a rare sighting except at large festivals like Edinburgh.
Reading these plays outside academia, there are few resources: the odd article on Havel, occasional reviews of performances, but films or detailed commentary are absent. This edition has no introduction nor footnotes.
The Garden Party In a Kafkaesque environment conveyed by repetitive dialogue and a confused sense of time, Hugo successfully climbs the Czechoslovakian civil service ladder, at some cost to his personal identity. It still has the potential to chime with the modern corporate or public sector environment, though the sense of boredom and slow fear situates it historically.
The Memorandum For the modern reader, this could have made a better short story than a play, perhaps. Attempts to impose a new, synthetic language to control and improve civil service communication lead to interpersonal machinations and absurd contradictions. Sometimes augh-out-loud funny, but also marked by long polemic speeches. The length of this play creates greater emotional involvement with the characters; if the work were shorter they could have ended up simply being symbols.
The Increased Difficulty of Concentration Inventive farce about a philandering sociology professor and a team who try to interview him using a malfunctioning early computer. It's a transparent metaphor for the party machine, but manages to be entertaining of itself. I couldn't help wondering how much of Havel the womaniser makes up Prof. Huml.
Audience The best, most modern and most accessible of these plays. Evidently it's closely based on the period when the Communist Party sent Havel to work in a brewery: this is a two-man play featuring the Mary-Sue, Vanek, and a Foreman. Conversation is natural (though with a few instances of absurdist repetition): banter is traded, the foreman drunkenly tries to talk Vanek into introducing him to an attractive actress, class resentments are aired without ever seeming forced. It felt like real insight into people in 1970's Czechoslovakia.
Unveiling Vanek is invited to the newly decorated flat of a couple of friends whose pretentious concerns with fashion rival any 2000's hipsters. Havel is making the point that people should be concerned with important political issues, not cultural innovations, but he fails to understand the other perspective, the fear that may drive escapism, and the question of present quality of life. I have some sympathy with the hipster couple, though the later dialogue Havel gives them emphatically makes them look foolish.
Protest Again Havel rails against intelligent people who have a different approach to life under the Communist regime. Stanek is also a playwright, more successful and working for television; he sympathises privately with Vanek's views but publicly compromises in order to make a good living for himself and his family.
Mistake Finally, this is a different beast all together: an aggressive symbolic short scene set in a prison
There is a serious shortage of strong, active and sympathetic female characters here - Anna Balcar in Difficulty of Concentration is the only one who stands out. It's somewhat disappointing given the outsider nature of these pieces, and contributes to the dated feel of some of the plays. And inevitably one wonders to what extent this relates to Havel's own attitudes to women - though it is very plausible they changed in the decades after these plays were written.
Havel practically never shows loyal party members as evil, unlike many writers of Communist eastern europe. He was unusually belevolent in opposing recriminations when he was elected President, and he always supported the rights of unpopular minorities such as Roma in the face of a critical electorate. (less)
And I have been tired of books about the Second World War and the Eastern Bloc these last fifteen years, I nearly always...moreYes, it really is that good.
And I have been tired of books about the Second World War and the Eastern Bloc these last fifteen years, I nearly always avoid fiction where the plot appears to focus on women as victims, and I wasn't keen on the title, sounding as it does like a bulimia memoir from the "Painful Lives" section at WH Smith.
Not only did Purge, within its first few pages of bloody excellent writing, kick squarely through these barriers; by half-way through it even had me wanting to read more about women's experiences in Eastern Europe during the twentieth century - this time as an adult rather than a child and teenager bored beyond tears by family stories and endless documentaries and novels about the era.
Incidentally, Puhdistus, the original Finnish title, is a word that can not only be used of purges like Stalin's, or cleansing oneself after trauma; it also means housework or cleaning.
In the hands of a lesser writer (or translator) this plot would have seemed hackneyed - and a trivialisation of real people's experiences that were similar to those of the characters. But Purge is vivid, very involving and - aside from one or two of the most horrific scenes - incredibly readable, and difficult to put down. Which is quite a feat where there is also such intensity of expression and the characters are often in oppressive environments.
Oksanen is a master of mundane detail: little oddities occur which seem truer than fiction (such as narrowly missing being hit by a car resulting only in a broken fingernail). She can create suspense even when you know what the outcome will be. Her application of the psychology of trauma is impressive throughout the book, especially in matching this with such good writing as a protagonist dissociates during abusive interrogation scenes. Also in creating the character of Aliide, to many a shameful collaborator, but also a triumph of individual survival instinct and adaptation to environment.
The very end of the story surprised me somewhat and got me going over circumstances and motivation with a focus that I would rarely give to fictional characters. These people had become so real that I didn't just accept the words on the page as given.
I ignored several recommendations of this book for months but am now very glad I picked it up. Few 400 page novels leave me wishing for a sequel as I'm finishing them: these are characters I didn't want to part company with.(less)