The latest addition to my website is Alain Mabanckou‘s Lumières de Pointe-Noire (The Lights of Pointe-Noire). This is a fictionalised autobiography following from his earlier Demain j’aurai vingt ans (Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty). It tells primarily of his return to the Congo twenty-six years after he left, his mourning for his mother, Pauline and, to a lesser extent, for his stepfather, Roger. Inevitably, much of the book is about his earlier life. His biological father left before he was born and Pauline moved in with Roger, who already had seven children with Martine. Roger, a hotel receptionist, divided his time between the two families and this seemed to work well – both women accepting the situation – till Roger acquired a third mistress. The narrator tells various stories about his mother and his family, involving witchcraft, superstitions, money, politics and the local culture. Though much of it is about his earlier life, we also follow what happens to him on his return, including the greed of his half-siblings, his problems with his mother’s property and and the fact he is naturally out of touch with life in the Congo. Indeed, he seems quite glad to leave and sneaks off back to France without telling anyone. It is certainly an enjoyable book and will appear in English next month (14 May) in both the UK and USA.
The latest addition to my website is Yuri Andrukhovych‘s Рекреації (Recreations). This is a thoroughly enjoyable anarchic take on the first day of Festival of the Resurrecting Spirit in Chortopil (it means devil’s town). We follow four poets, who seem to be more interested in alcohol and sex than poetry. Two come by train – the gay Khomsky and the hope of Ukrainian poetry, Rostyslav Martofliak, while the other two manage to hitch a lift from an expatriate Ukrainian doctor, now living in Switzerland. The festival is partially based on the recreations of eighteenth century Kiev students, which involved dramatic and poetical performances. Once they get to the festival, they are more interested in drinking – seriously drinking – as well as eating and endless what Marta, Martofliak’s wife, calls prattling, on poetry, politics and people. But we do learn about expatriate Ukrainians, about the mass deportation of Ukrainians to Kazakhstan after the war and a lot about contemporary Ukrainian literature. However, above all, this is a witty, lively and rambunctious romp through a somewhat dubious festival and through at least part of what contemporary (i.e. mid-1990s) Ukrainian culture and life looks like.
The latest addition to my website is Georgi Gospodinov‘s Физика на тъгата (The Physics of Sorrow). This is a postmodern novel narrated by the author or, at least, a man called Georgi Gospodinov, about his life and the life of his father and grandfather. The narrator initially identifies not only with himself but with his father and grandfather and we learn, in particular, about his grandfather’s exploits in World War II when he stayed with a Hungarian widow at the end of the war. Much of the novel is about the narrator’s life, his thoughts, his obsessions (minotaurs and labyrinths), his feelings about Bulgaria during the period when he was growing up (primarily the 1980s), a decidedly love-hate relationship. He tells stories, make lists, rails against the Bulgarian political system but feels nostalgia for his childhood and even goes back to the small town he grew up and stays there. As he says I can’t offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear and this one certainly jumps around. If I had to sum up in a few words what it is about, it is about that standard theme, a man trying to find himself, who he is and what he is and his place in the world. Inevitably, that is not a straightforward task.
The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Sweet and Sour Milk, another grim tale from Somalia. Soyaan is feeling decidedly unwell and, by the end of the chapter, is dead. Has he been poisoned and, if so, by whom? The family, not wishing to make a fuss and also because Muslims bury their dead quickly, do not have an autopsy. His twin brother, Loyaan, aware of Soyaan’s role in government, finds out that Soyaan had another side to his life, indeed, more than one side. Firstly, he had a long-standing relationship with Margaritta, a half-Somali, half-Italian woman, by whom he had a son, Marco. Secondly he seems to have been very much involved in the opposition to a man known as the President, but clearly based on General Mohamed Siad Barre. However, the regime seems to honour Soyaan as a hero of the revolution, naming a street after him and writing a tribute to him in the government newspaper, with the help of Keynaan, Soyaaan’s and Loyaan’s somewhat scurrilous father. The more Loyaan investigates, meeting not only Margaritta but various people who may or may not have been involved with Soyaan in the opposition, the more he is drawn into this opposition himself and the more he learns about the nasty side of the Somali regime, including arbitrary arrest, not documented, torture and vicious repression. Farah’s novels invariably paint a grim picture of his country and this one is no different but, as always, he tells his story well.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.). This is perhaps more literary criticism than a novel. It is narrated by a man called Marcelo who wrote a novel twenty-five years ago and has not written anything since. His new work is to be about writers he calls bartlebys (from Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, about a copyist in a legal office, who gradually stops working and, indeed, stops doing anything, including living.) Marcelo’s bartlebys are writers who have not published or even written any work or who have, like him, written only one or two works and then given up writing. We get descriptions of a whole host of writers, some fairly well-known (Rimbaud, Salinger), some less well-known, some completely unknown and some completely fictitious, all of whom are deemed to be bartlebys, often in different ways. It could be boring but Vila-Matas tells the stories of each individual in such a way that it adds up to a collection of fascinating stories with added bonus that it is all about literature and how it is written and, of course, how (and why) it is not written. I had not heard of many of the writers and, I imagine, few people, particularly those from the English-speaking world, will have heard of many of them. The book has been translated into English and I can thoroughly recommend it as a most interesting read.
The latest addition to my website is Alain Mabanckou‘s Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix [The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix]. I found this novel somewhat disappointing, as it is a bit disjointed and seems to be telling one story but never manages to get on with it. It is about the civil war and its effect in the Republic of the Congo, thinly disguised in this book as Vietongo. We follow two couples – Hortense (who has nominally written her story which this novel is) and her husband Kimbembé, and Christiane and Gaston. The problem is, is that Hortense and Gaston are from the north and their spouses from the South but both couples are living in the South. This causes all sorts of problems as the current Northern president, Edou, is from the North but has seized power and is very much resented by the people of the South, including the guerrilla group, Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix [The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix], led by the former prime minister, named after a Gaulish leader who opposed Julius Caesar. With Kimbembé very much involved with the Petits-fils, Hortense decides to flee with their daughter, Marimbé, but their story more or less peters out, as Mabanckou/Hortense focuses on the back stories of the key participants and the political background to the civil war. This is one of the few of Mabanckou’s novels that has not been translated into English and I can more or less see why.
The latest addition to my website is Sophie Cooke‘s The Glass House. She did not make the Granta Best Young British Novelists list but I think that she should have done, as this novel is definitely better than some of the ones I read by those who did make the list. This novel tells the story of the Gordon family. Mary, the mother, is living with her three daughters, Lucy, Vanessa and Bryony. Mary’s husband is an engineer, working in Saudi Arabia and his visits home are spasmodic. The novel is told from the point of view of Vanessa who, at the start of the novel, is fourteen. Vanessa has just been expelled from her boarding school (her two sisters remain there) and has now got to go to the local school. She does not like it, not least because she is teased for being too posh. However, she does get to know Alan better, whom she had had known for some time but lost touch with, and they start a relationship. At the same time, her mother starts an affair with a family friend, married with two sons. Mary has already shown signs of psychological instability. She loses her temper and severely beats Vanessa on several occasions. When Vanessa’s and Mary’s relationships both go wrong, both drift into a form of depression, as does Bryony. Only Lucy remains more or stable. We follow the three as things gradually – but only gradually – get worse. Vanessa makes a mess of her school-leaving exams and Mary attempts suicide. Cooke gives us an excellent portrait of a dysfunctional family which is slowly failing to deal with its psychological problems, even though, from the outside, they look relatively normal.
The latest addition to my website is Lucia Etxebarría‘s Un milagro en equilibrio [A Miracle in the Balance]. This tells the story of Eva Agulló, a Spanish woman who, early in the novel, has given birth to a baby, Amanda, and recounts her life to that date. When young she had done lots of sex, lots of drugs and lots of alcohol. She had wanted to be a writer but her three novels had not been published. She had written various articles and columns, before being asked to write a book on drug addiction in a series on issues facing modern women in Spain. The book was a considerable success, but things went wrong when she was photographed by a scandal magazine, with an old schoolfriend, now a successful soap opera star, with the magazine implying that the two were having an affair (he was married) and doing drugs. She spent some time in the US, before meeting Anton, a Romanian who became her partner and father of her child. Much of the book is in the form of a letter to Amanda, telling the baby about Eva’s life, how she is coping (and not coping) with motherhood, the issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood and, later on, the issues surrounding her own mother, who is now dying from pancreatitis. It is a bit long-winded at times but shows a Spanish woman who seems no better off at dealing with life than her mother and grandmother before her.
I have now read twenty Russians novels over the past couple of months, which should be able to give me some insight into the Russian novel but I am not sure that it does. Last year, I did the same with Icelandic novels but, of course, Iceland is a much smaller country and has a much shorter literary tradition, at least as far as the novel goes. The twenty novels I have just read were written between 1907, the earliest, and 2009, the latest. A lot changed in that time. However, here is a very crude summary of what I have learned.
1. The Russian novel or, rather, Russian novel writers, are a gloomy lot. I knew that, of course, well before reading these novels but this confirms it. Most of these novels had an element, often a strong element of gloom in them, though, to be fair, not all of them did.
2. Just as in any other large country, the main metropolitan areas are not the same as the rest of the country. Again, this is obvious but Vasily Golovanov makes the point and we should not forget it, even if we are well aware that New York is not the same as Idaho, London not the same as Yorkshire and Paris not the same as the Camargue.
3. The Russians can do humour, particularly satire. The humour may often be gallows humour but humour it is.
4. Politics has had and continues to have a greater influence on the Russian novel than on the Western novel. While there are many interesting political novels in the West, particularly post 9/11, there are many first-class Western novels where politics is entirely irrelevant and authors whose interest in politics is, at most, marginal. This is far less the case in Russia. Yes, there are Russian novels where politics plays a limited role but living in a society, be it under the Tsar, the Soviets or Putin, where the state is so oppressive and so intrusive into the lives of its citizens, it is difficult to keep politics out all together. Could a novel like Санькя (Sankya) be written in the United States or United Kingdom? I am not sure. (Though it could very much be the case in Latin America, e.g.Teoría de las catástrofes [Catastrophe Theory]. It might be argued that Soumission [Submission] is along the same lines but I think it is much more tongue-in-cheek and less serious.)
5. Russian novels are long. Well, yes, we all know that. Several here were over five hundred pages. I enjoy a good long novel but a poor long novel is, well, boring (see para below).
Of the twenty, I enjoyed seventeen. I was disappointed with Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Interpreter), Шатуны (The Sublimes) and Творимая легенда (The Created Legend), particularly as two of the authors had written other novels I had enjoyed
Seven I particularly enjoyed:
- Преподаватель симметрии (The Symmetry Teacher)
- Москва — Петушки (UK: Moscow Circles; US: Moscow to the End of the Line)
- Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Spectre of Alexander Wolf)
- Венерин Волос (Maidenhair)
- Прайс [Preis]
- Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel]
- Генерал и его армия [The General and His Army]
I would wholeheartedly recommend all seven though the last three, sadly, are not available in English. So overall not any great insights, except to say that there are a lot of interesting novel from Russia, both past and present, not all of which are available in Russian. Here is one I would love to be able to read, for example, but will probably never be able to do so. Still a browse in my library reveals a whole load of Russian novels I have yet to read so more to come.
The latest addition to my website is Leonid Girshovich‘s Прайс [Preis]. This novel is set in the fictitious town of Ijma, somewhere in Siberia, during the 1950s. It had originally been inhabited by a native population but Stalin had sent many Jews there, during the period when he considered all Jews automatically as dissidents. But this is no gulag novel à la Solzhenitsyn. The community has created a sort of miniature society, where everything seems to to function as if they were back where they came from. Yes, there is a military supervisory presence but its role is minimal. Girshovich gives us a rich portrait of the town and its inhabitants and how they function and interact, with gossip, sex, social hierarchies, interaction with the native population and so on. But this is also a Bildungsroman and we follow the story of Leonti Preis. He is at school and a budding artist but also something of a troublemaker, considered mad or, at least, the village idiot by some, though this is more likely what we would call an artistic temperament. His mother died when he was young and his father subsequently remarries – the headmistress but one of the native population, not a Jewess, not least because she blackmails him, apparently having some evidence that implicates him in the death of his first wife. But life goes on and Preis has his problems but adapts and becomes an artist, even going to Leningrad, the only one to escape from Ijma. It is an interesting and somewhat unusual tale but well told by Girshovich. Sadly, it is not available in English.