The latest addition to my website is Andrei Bitov‘s Преподаватель симметрии (The Symmetry Teacher). This is a wonderful novel, nominally starting with a Russian man trying to reconstruct a story he read some time ago in English (which he does not speak very well), though we do not get to the reconstructed novel till well into the book. Meanwhile we meet Urbino Vanoski (an obscure author from the 1930s, enjoyed a veritable boom at the end of the sixties) who may or may not be dead, who may or may not have been a churchwarden or a lift operator, who may have been a writer or a painter (even he himself is not sure). He seems to have written numerous books but they may all be the same one (or two different ones). They all have different titles but the different titles may refer to the same book. They may or may not all have different plots. No-one, least of all the author, is sure. They may or may not have been published. They may or may not have been finished. Bitov plays numerous language games, numerous post-modern games, gives us excerpts from various novels which may not be the same, or different or overlap. Vanoski himself meets the devil who shows him a photo of his future self with a woman whom he (Vanoski) likens to Helen of Troy and, despite the fact that he has a very nice girlfriend, he goes off looking for Helen. He may or may not find her. It is all great fun, wonderfully inventive and totally chaotic and anarchic.
The latest addition to my website is Gaito Gazdanov‘s Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire). This was Gazdanov’s first novel, written when he was only twenty-six and living in Paris, after escaping from revolutionary Russia, via Istanbul. The book, which has been called Proustian, is essentially autobiographical, telling the story of Kolya Sosedov, as he grows up in a well-off family, in the provinces. He is introspective, always carrying out pre-Freudian self-analysis on himself, and after his father and older sister die, something of a solitary boy. We follow his schooldays, his time in military school, and then his decision to join the Whites, not out of any firm political conviction but because they were there and he wanted to see war. He does see war and all its horrors but seems to take it in his stride. When he is thirteen, he meets Claire in Kislovodsk, where he is staying with his grandparents. They become tennis-playing friends but, when her mother is rude to him, they drift apart. The next time he meets her, she tells him that he is married. The novel starts some ten years later, when he is again with Claire (still married, though her husband is in Ceylon) and again the experience is frustrating for him. However, the book’s strength is his autobiographical account of his life and times and his introspection. It had something of an impact on the émigré Russian community at the time, because it was so evocative, but is still of considerable to us nearly a hundred years later.
The latest addition to my website is Vladislav Otroshenko‘s Приложение к фотоальбому (Addendum to a Photo Album). This a hilarious and somewhat fanciful account of a Cossack family of thirteen brothers, the children of Annushka and (with one exception) Malakh. The one exception is the somewhat blustering Semion, the eleventh son, who is conceived and born while his father is fighting in World War I. Annushka, believing Malakh to be dead (the informant had even brought his head) has an affair with a Greek circus-owner and Semion is the result. (The Greek will later come up with a complicated plan for Malakh to adopt Semion, after Malakh’s death is found to be exaggerated.) Malakh does return but then disappears into a cubby-hole in the massive house and is not seen for, allegedly, forty years. The photo of the title is a regular event that Annushka calls for, with the entire family, and much is made of this and the complexities surrounding it, including the choice of photographer. Uncle Pavel (the story is told by a nephew or niece who refers to all the brothers as Uncle but whose identity is never revealed) on an expedition to find the cause of strange noises in the huge house, stumbles across his father’s cubby-hole and Malakh is persuaded to come out and join in the photo event.The focus is on Semion and Malakh but we also learn a little bit about some of the brothers, including Porphyry, who is very rich and who, on seeing Izmail at birth, immediately takes him away to his house. Izmail’s birth causes Malakh to retreat to his cubby-hole. Izmail, who is simple-minded, lives with Porphyry, whose relatives rob him blind, leading him to perpetually plead poverty, despite his riches. It is highly entertaining, often told with tongue in cheek, with elements of what we might call magic realism and a distorted chronology. Interestingly enough, though much of it is set in Soviet period, the Soviet system is not mentioned at all. The book has been translated into English by the superb Lisa Hayden and will be published next month (March 2015).
The latest addition to my website is Vasily Golovanov‘s Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel]. This is a wonderful non-fiction novel, in which the author describes his fascination with and his visits to Kolguyev Island, a remote island off the coast of Northern Russia. Professionally he has worked as journalist, often reporting from some of the trouble spots in countries of the former Soviet Union but has always had a fascination with islands, particularly since he read Robinson Crusoe as a child and, in particular, he has decided he wants to go to Kolguyev, a place which very few people visit and is well off the beaten tourist track. The earlier part of the book, nominally about his first visit, focusses on his preparations for his second visit but also his background, his personal issues (including but not limited to marital), his preparations for and journey to the island as well as a few digressions
We only really get into what the island is, its inhabitants, its landscape, its legends and its history, in the second part, describing his second visit. Not only do we get a detailed description of the island, his combined fascination with parts of it and dislike of other parts, we get numerous interesting digressions, from early accounts of visitors, including a nineteenth century Englishman, to discussions of the culture of the island, such as the language and myths of the Nenets, the local people. He is happy to talk about faith and shamanism, about his visits to Paris and Crimea, about reindeer and sunsets and various other topics that come into his head. The whole makes for a most enjoyable read. Indeed, the two books that I have most enjoyed this year have both been non-fiction novels – this one and The Unwinding. This one, sadly, is available in French and German but not in English.
The latest addition to my website is Mikhail Shishkin‘s Взятие Измаила [The Taking of Izmail]. This is one of his earlier novels, not (yet?) translated into English but, in my view more enjoyable than his two novels that have been translated into English. The blurb on the back of the French edition (which I read) says that even the author seems to lose track of what is going on. This may well be true but is part of the fascination of this novel. Shishkin starts off with a lawyer who specialises in helping young women accused of killing their babies but then moves on to another story, and then another, and so on. Often we do not know who is the narrator or who s/he is narrating to. He uses variations of their names – initial, familiar first name, patronymic and surname – often in an arbitrary fashion, so that it is not always easy to tell whether they are the same or different people. As in his other two books, there is inevitably a male and female Sasha. Characters jump into stories, disappear and then reappear several stories later. Of course, for much of them, life is grim. We see the horrors of Russian prisons and Russian psychiatric treatment but also individual sufferings and problems. We learn about phrenology, Volapük and the Russian law making it a criminal offense not to assist someone in mortal danger. But what Shishkin does do – and, I think, better than in the other two novels – is tell stories about Russians, Russian life, Russian customs, Russian history and, for good measure, about Hyperides, the Greek orator. It is a pity that it has not been translated into English, though you can read it in French and Italian, and I would hope that it will eventually appear in English.
The latest addition to my website is Mikhail Shishkin‘s Письмовник (The Light and the Dark). It tells the story of two lovers, Volodya and Sasha, apparently writing letters to one another though, as we eventually learn, they appear to be living a hundred years apart. He is a soldier, appointed to be staff clerk, in a Russian troop involved in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion while she is living in the present day. Are they actually writing to one another? We do not know and it does not really matter. As the English title indicates (the Russian title actually means Letter Writing Manual) this book is about differences, including the bad (war, death, suffering) and the good (love, happy childhood). We get a detailed and grim picture of the Russian troop’s involvement in putting down the Boxer Rebellion, with graphic descriptions of death and destruction, at the same time as Volodya declares his undying love for Sasha. She, in the meantime, talks about her life – in both cases, their parents divorced – and her childhood. But she also learns of Sasha’s death and goes on to marry a divorced man, which does not work out. Despite this, she still continues to write to Volodya and express her love for him and how much she misses him. It is certainly not a straightforward novel but it is certainly a rewarding novel, which will leave you with much to think about and show that Shishkin is one of the foremost Russian novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Mikhail Shishkin‘s Венерин Волос (Maidenhair). This is a very complex novel that romps through Russian history, primarily of the past hundred years but also dips into earlier history, including Xenophon. An unnamed Russian-German interpreter is the link between the various stories. He works for the Swiss authority dealing with asylum seekers and his job is to interpret for Russian-speaking applicants, many of whom come up with very fanciful stories, which are all too often untrue. He also writes to his son – the interpreter and his wife are divorced – and also recounts his early life and his time in Italy, and how he met her. One job he almost got, in his early days, was writing a biography of a singer and actress, Bella Dmitrievna, but this fell through. Despite this, we get a very detailed biography of her, from her childhood in Rostov, the Russian Revolution and the period afterwards, to her success in Soviet Russia. However, plot is not the key to this novel. It is about giving a kaleidoscopic view of Russia, warts and all (and there are a lot of warts, including a lot of violence, both because of Russia’s various wars and internal issues), though also showing that, somewhere, deep down, it has not all been bad. This a novel that cannot be described in a short or even long review but one that needs to be read and experienced. We should be grateful that it is now available in English.
Last year, starting in March, I read nothing but Icelandic novels for a month or so. I found the experience very interesting, getting different perspectives of the same country in a short space of time, so I decided to repeat the exercise with another country. I did think about New Zealand, as I have recently returned from New Zealand, and part of my motivation for doing Iceland last year was a visit to Iceland. However, as you will see from the title, I have chosen to do Russia, not least because I have far too many Russian books I have not read. It is becoming quite apparent that the Russian novel is very much back in business and that there are some first-class novels being published. If you read Lisa Hayden’s blog, as you certainly should, you will realise how much there is and, sadly, how much is not being made available in English. A few of the books I shall read have been translated into other languages. For example, French publisher Verdier has published some interesting ones, some of which I shall be reading and reviewing. One thing I did notice that is different from last year is that the Icelandic novels were, on the whole relatively short, while, at least the ones I have selected, Russian novels seem generally to be quite long. Sadly, though I took two years of Russian in school, I have only read one novel in Russian (see photo, top left) and I do not feel that I could struggle through a modern one. And maybe the experience will make me go back to the great nineteenth century Russian novels, all of which I read but far too long ago.
The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Crossbones, the third book in his trilogy about Somalia at the beginning of this century and the the efforts of expatriate Somalis visiting the country to improve things. This one sees three visitors – Jeebleh, who visited ten years previously in the first novel in the trilogy, Malik, his son-in-law, who has never been to Somalia before but who is a journalist and plans to write about the current situation and Ahl, Malik’s elder brother, who is looking for his sixteen year old stepson, who has become a jihadist. The situation in Somalia has changed, with the Islamic Courts Union in power, aided by their aggresive youth wing, Shabaab. Women have to wear the veil and can be punished if they are inappropriately dressed. Ahl heads out to Puntland to try and track down his stepson, with the help of some decidedly unpleasant people, while Malik risks the wrath of Shabaab, who have made a habit of killing Western journalists, by writing about what is going on in Somalia. This book is particularly interesting, as it shows what is happening in Somalia outside Mogadishu, it gives a rationale or even a justification for their piracy and it shows some recent developments in Somalia, some positive but many not. Indeed, the background on Somalia is perhaps more interesting than the plot itself.
Sadly, two writers whom I have not read but should have done, died yesterday. Assia Djebar was an Algerian writer and wrote novels with a feminist viewpoint. She was also a member of the Académie française. Several of her works have been translated into English. André Brink was a noted South African novelist, best known for A Dry White Season.