Yuz Aleshkovsky: Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich)/Маскировка (Camouflage)

The latest addition to my website is Yuz Aleshkovsky‘s Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich) and Маскировка (Camouflage), published in the same volume in both Russian and English. Both are distinguished by vicious anti-Soviet satire and the extensive use of obscenities. Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich) is about the eponymous hero, a former prisoner, who finds work first as a laboratory assistant and then as the laboratory guinea pig, which requires him to masturbate every day, with his semen to be used to create a new race of humans to be sent into space. Unfortunately the laboratory gets caught up in the Lysenkoism issue and is closed down.

Маскировка (Camouflage) is about a fictitious town where nuclear arms are secretly made. The activity has to be disguised so camouflagers are used to pretend to be normal Soviet citizens, which is what the US spy satellites will see. Being a normal Soviet citizen means being permanently drunk and Fyodor Milashkin, our hero, does that very well, till he and the other members of his brigade are found by the police one morning having being anally raped. While mocking the Soviet drink culture, Aleshkovsky goes on to eavesdrop on a meeting of the Politburo Brezhnev, Kosygin and Co – and mercilessly mocks them. Both books are very funny, very obscene and very anti-Soviet,

Shi Tiesheng: 我的丁一之旅 (My Travels in Ding Yi)

The latest addition to my website is Shi Tiesheng‘s 我的丁一之旅 (My Travels in Ding Yi). This was Shi Tiesheng’s final book and he packed a lot into it. The story is told by a spirit who inhabits the bodies of humans. He first started with Adam in the Garden of Eden and still loves Eve, for whom he is always on the look-out. However, he now spends most of his time in a Chinese boy (later man), Ding Yi, though he also flits in and out of or author, Shi Tiesheng, with whom he does not always agree. Ding Yi, as an adult, is very much into sex, something the spirit does not comprehend, except as a means of reproduction, though he does understand love. Not having a body himself, he does not understand humans’ greed for food either. Indeed, considering how long he has been inhabiting humans, he seems remarkably ignorant of their behaviour and foibles. Much of the book concerns the issue of sex and love. Ding Yi and others are influenced by the film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Indeed, Ding Yi writes a play based on it. While this is certainly an interesting tale, I found it dragged a bit but you will certainly learn about how a non-human feels about sex and love.

Virginia Woolf – Monk’s House

While we had visited nearby Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury set a couple of times, we had never visited nearby (six miles distance) Monk’s House. till now Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought the simple cottage in 1919. They had been married seven years. Virginia wrote four of her best-known books there: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

Virginia found it a place of calm: how happy I am how calm, for the moment how sweet life is with L here, in its regularity and order, and the garden and the room at night and music and my walks and writing easily and interestedly.

A Room of Her Own

The house had many disadvantages. It was small, it was damp, it flooded, it had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. However, it had a wild but large garden and splendid views over the South Downs. Gradually, with the royalties from their books, they did the house up. Mrs. Dalloway, for example, paid for an indoors toilet. They built an extension. and a lodge – Virginia’s Room of Her Own (see photo above right. It is now behind glass, hence the not very good photo).

The house was reputedly very messy, with books everywhere. (The books have since been removed but replaced. by National Trust books, i.e. old-looking books bought in bulk. I was struck by the four volume set of the Intimate Memoirs of Colonel House – House was Woodrow Wilson’s adviser – presumably acquired because no-one in the National Trust had any idea of who Colonel House was). A few have been judiciously placed on the stairs but, as you cannot go upstairs (the building is permanently occupied by a National Trust person for security reasons) it is relatively safe.

The pictures at top left and immediately left show that there were some works of art there. (The house is very small so it is difficult to take photos). Some were by the Bloomsbury set from nearby Charleston, particularly, Virginia’s sister and Vanessa’s lover Duncan Grant.

Virginia committed suicide in the nearby River Ouse. After her death, Leonard lived there for twenty-eight years, till his death. Much of the time he was with his lover, the artist Trekkie Parsons. Like many women artists, she has faded into obscurity, except for her relationship with Leonard. Some of her paintings are in the house, while many others have disappeared. Work is now taking place to track them down.

Andrej Nikolaidis: The Olcinium Trilogy

The latest addition to my website is Andrej NikolaidisThe Olcinium Trilogy ((Sin (The Son), Dolazak (The Coming), Devet (Till Kingdom Come)). This is a superb trilogy of novels, related but separate, about life in contemporary Montenegro. We follow three separate stories each one fairly grim, exposing the underbelly of post-Yugoslavia Montenegro, with a host of issues, ranging from massive conspiracies, corruption, spatio-temporal lapses, climate change and a general collapse into drug and alcohol abuse.They are mainly set in and around Ulcinj, where Nikolaidis lives, and they often delve into Ulcinj’s somewhat murky history. Nikolaidis tells his stories very well holding nothing back and, while, to quote the Independent newspaper reviewer, they may not be as cheerful as Samuel Beckett, they are certainly first-class novels,

Eduardo Mendoza: El misterio de la cripta embrujada (Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt)

The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Mendoza‘s El misterio de la cripta embrujada (Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt). The novel, Mendoza’s second, is nominally a detective story. However, the detective is a homeless man who is on (temporary) release from a mental hospital. Under orders from the police, he is investigating the temporary disappearance and then reappearance of girls from a posh Catholic convent school in Barcelona. They are using him because of his connections to the underworld, though he soon finds out that it is more his cunning, lying, deception and ability to adopt multiple personalties that is of more use. Mendoza has great fun with the complicated and unpredictable plot and brings in a host of odd characters (our hero’s prostitute sister, a large Swedish sailor and a possible giant creature in the enchanted crypt of the title being just a few). Mendoza has said that this is his favourite of all his novels and you can see why, as it is great fun to read and must have been great fun to write.

Alison Rosse: Room for Books

Image copyright Alison, Countess of Rosse

During our recent travels in Ireland, we visited Birr Castle, a beautiful castle in wonderful grounds and well worth the visit. The castle is owned and still partially occupied by Lord and Lady Rosse. The Earl of Rosse is the brother of the Earl of Snowdon who was, for eighteen years married to Princess Margaret. In the bookshop, I found a copy of a book called Room for Books – Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse. Alison Rosse is the Countess of Rosse. It is, as it says, a selection of paintings of various Irish libraries, both private and public, beautifully done. The paintings reminded me of the painting of Coole Park Library done by Yeats. which I had just seen, shown in my post of yesterday (scroll down).

I am no art critic but I did find these paintings well done, somewhat but certainly not too much impressionistic and all giving the flavour of the library in question, all of which have their similarities – high shelves with books in them – but all of which have their own distinct appearance. Each painting is accompanied by a useful description/history written by William Laffan, an Irish art historian. My only regret is that I have not visited any of them and, as many of them are private, probably never will; however this is definitely an excellent way of seeing and appreciating fine libraries you will probably never see. The one shown above, by the way, is the library at Birr Castle.

The best way to get the book is to visit Birr Castle. If that is not possible, it is available online from the publishers, the Irish Georgian Society and from Offaly History for the very reasonable price of €10.00.

Patrick Modiano: Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads)

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads). This is the third novel in Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy. The narrator, probably called Serge, a young novelist, first met his father when he was seventeen. The pair tried various nefarious scams, finally hitting on forged dedications in novels to sell to collectors. However, it seems that the father tried to kill his son. Ten years later, during the German occupation, the son has tracked down the father in a village. He is now involved with a group who appear to be both dealing in the black market and publishing a magazine which uses blackmail as a way of earning money. The father does not seem to recognise his son and the son does not introduce himself, though he gets involved with the group. Inevitably, things do not work out well, though we are never sure if the narrator is telling us the truth and what really happened.

W V Tilsley: Other Ranks

A few years go I read W V Tilsley‘s Other Ranks. This is an account of a soldier in Word War I. It was originally published in 1931 and never republished. It was very hard (if not almost impossible) to find a copy. As a result of my review, I was contacted by a lady who was related to Tilsley by marriage. She was determined to get the book published and worked very hard to do so. I am happy to report that it has now been republished and you can get it direct from the publisher, Unicorn Publishing. Their website says of them Unicorn Publishing Group LLP is a leading independent publisher with three distinct imprints: Unicorn, specialising in the visual arts and cultural history; Uniform, specialising in military history; and Universe, specialising in historical fiction. I would highly recommend this book, particularly if you are interested in accounts of war, World War I or simply good writing. Hopefully the book will now become better known.

Things Irish

I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Ireland and while the trip was primarily scenic rather than literary, we did visit a couple of places with literary associations and, in particular, two places I have always wanted to visit.

The first was the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands consist of three islands. We visited only the largest Inís Mor (Inishmore). While the key feature on the island is the ancient fortress of Dun Aonghasa (see photo at left), with the site having been occupied since 1500 BC. However, from the literary point of view and what first got me interested in the islands is J M Synge. Synge stayed there for several summers, mainly on Inis Meáin, the second largest island but he also spent time on Inís Mor.

While there he wrote a a book on the islands. He also improved his knowledge of the Irish language. (The locals still speak Irish to one another.) His play Riders to the Sea was set there and his stay on the islands undoubtedly influenced his other plays.

Synge was not born on the Aran Islands but Liam O’Flaherty was. Four of his books are on my website.

The Aran Islands were also the setting for one of the great classic films: Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran. Flaherty was born of an Irish father though he himself was born in Michigan. I will mention two other less worthy films, shot on the islands: Leap Year, based on Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant I Know Where I’m Going!, and Matchmaker.

I have long been a fan of US film director John Ford, particularly his Westerns. His mother was born on the Aran Islands. We also visited Cong where his film The Quiet Man was made. This was, in my view, a not very good romantic comedy(John Wayne as the romantic lead!) but Cong loves it as you can see from the photo of the statue of Wayne carrying Maureen O’Hara. Much of the town is devoted to honouring this film, which always seem to be showing. My view is stick to his Westerns.

Coole Park when inhabited

W B Yeats has long been my favourite poet. As well as a noted poet, Yeats was one of the founders of the Irish Literary Theatre, which led to the Abbey Theatre. One of his co-founders was Lady Augusta Gregory. She and her family lived at Coole Park, near Galway.

Coole Park as it is now

The family welcomed many distinguished visitors, including Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Augustus John, Violet Martin, the Ross of Somerville and Ross and many others. Sir William Gregory, Lady Gregory’s husband, was thirty-five years her senior, and died after they had been married twelve years. They had one son, Robert, who was killed in action during World War I, leaving behind a wife and three children. He was immortalised by Yeats, particularly in his poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

Lady Gregory left Coole Park in 1927 but remained there till her death in 1932. Yeats forecast its demise in his poem Coole Park 1929. The house was abandoned, left to fall into ruin and demolished in 1941-42. It has since become a nature reserve and the Irish government has now built an excellent visitor centre about the house, its inhabitants, its history and visitors. There are rumours that they plan to do a lot more to develop the site.

The painting to the left is one of the items in the exhibition and it was painted by Yeats, W. B., not his brother or father both of whom were famous artists. You can also see the famous autograph tree, where many of the famous visitors, including those mentioned above, carved their initials. Though they are numbered, the bark has grown so that you can barely see any of the letters.

A couple of miles away, there is a Gregory Museum, which is, in fact, a schoolhouse, built in colonial style, for the local schoolchildren, funded by the Gregory family. When a new school was built, the building was kept on as a museum. It is run entirely by volunteers and a thanks to Tony and Yvonne for showing us around.

A couple of miles further on is the tower (right, above) that Yeats bought (called Thoor Ballylee) and where he lived in the summers. It inspired his poem The Tower. It was built by the de Burgos, a Norman family, probably in the fourteen century and is entirely surrounded by water, which means that it frequently floods. It also fell into rack and ruin but was restored and is now also run by volunteers. If the weather is nice, which it was for us, you get splendid views but I imagine it could be very cold (and wet) in winter.

Eugene Vodolazkin: Соловьёв и Ларионов (Solovyov and Larionov)

The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Соловьёв и Ларионов (Solovyov and Larionov). This is Vodolazkin’s first novel (though not the first to appear in English) and a superb one it is. General Larionov was a general in the Russian Civil war but on the White Russian side. He commanded a force in the Crimea and held off a superior army of Soviet soldiers for some time. The most surprising thing for those who study him, is that he survived to a ripe old age, living in Russia, and was not arrested or shot for his actions. Solovyov is a young historian. The fact that his first girlfriend was called Leeza Larionova may have helped him to have an interest in the general. Solovyov is a dogged and serious researcher and he is determined to track down the general’s missing memoirs and find the reason why he escaped being shot, as well as solving other mysteries regarding the general and, finally, trying to find Leeza, who seems to disappear. He has a series of adventures, attends a conference on the general, which enables Vodolazkin to mock academics, and pursues his searches and researches assiduously. It is a wonderful story and superbly told by Vodolazkin.