Zsuzsa Selyem: Moszkvában esik (It’s Raining in Moscow)

The latest addition to my website is Zsuzsa Selyem‘s Moszkvában esik (It’s Raining in Moscow). This is a series of interrelated stories concerning the Beczásy family, who were driven out of Armenia and settled in what was then Hungary, but in the last century changed hands three times and is now in Romania. Aided by various animals, who comment on both events and human foibles, we follow in particular the story of István Beczásy from his sexual initiation as a young man to the age of ninety-seven when he dictates his memories to his granddaughter. In particular, he and his family are driven out as enemies of people and settled in remote Romania. He is arrested and tortured but survives. Selyem does not hold back her hatred of the communist regimes and clearly has a strong affection for István, despite his faults, a man who loves plants and the land.

Ruxandra Cesereanu: Angelus (Angelus)

The latest addition to my website is Ruxandra Cesereanu‘s Angelus (Angelus). Three angels arrive in Metropolis, the capital of Homeland. They seem harmless but they are also mute. What do they want? Even they do not know. The first part of the book is the reaction of all and sundry to them – politicians, religious leaders, business leaders, scientists and even the Devil and God. Cesereanu mocks them all but, at the same time shows how they try and use the angels for their own ends, be it politics, religion, money or to promote their world view. In the second part, they are released into the community and changes do take place but more because of how people react to them than because of anything they do. This is a thoroughly original novel, part mocking but part deadly serious, full of ideas and heading in directions you would never have guessed.

Mircea Cărtărescu: Travesti [Travesty]

The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Travesti [Travesty]. The novel is narrated by the thirty-four year old Victor, a successful writer but with a troubled mind, clearly traumatised by an event that happened when he was seventeen. He is now writing the book about the event which took place on a school week long trip to a remote forest encampment. He is a loner and does not join in the rowdiness of his schoolmates, preferring either to go off on his own or with a couple of the serious pupils. We learn about his success as a writer in later life, all the while building up to the key event that takes place at the fancy dress party during the closing evening. Lulu, a boy, dresses up as a girl at the party and then tries to seduce Victor. What happens next, which is not simply what you might expect, but involves Cărtărescu’s trademark intense visions, will leave him permanently traumatised. As always with Cărtărescu, it is these intense visions that make the novel, with Victor living in his own world but also in a world that most of us do not see, hidden away in the recesses of his mind. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, this book has been translated into ten languages but not English.

Mircea Cărtărescu: Solenoid

The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Solenoid. This is Cărtărescu’s masterpiece. Partially it is the story of a man who tries and fails to become a writer and ends up a teacher of Romanian in a quasi-Dickensian school in Bucharest. We follow his life – his failed marriage his struggle with is job, his literary interests, his colourful colleagues and his house shaped like a ship but, above all, we see Bucharest, the city designed to be a ruin according to the narrator, which hides great wonders beneath its surface which our narrator slowly and often accidentally discovers. These are palaces of marvels, surrealistic scenes, strange contraptions, biological oddities, all concealed except to a select few including the Pickets, the group he joins which demonstrates against death, despite the opposition of the Romanian state. It is wonderful novel, highly imaginative, highly creative , full of surprised. Sadly it is available in five other languages but not English.

Mircea Cărtărescu: Levantul [The Levant]

The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Levantul [The Levant]. This is a mock epic, which, in the original Romanian was written primarily in verse form, but, for the translations (French, Italian, Spanish and Swedish but not English) was primarily converted to prose, with some verse. It tells of the adventures of a band of Romanians and quasi-Romanians in the first half of the nineteenth century who wish to liberate Romania from the Ottoman Empire. As this is a mock epic, it is written in a deliberately flowery language, paying homage to various Romanian writers of the past and present, and involves the usual fantastical creatures and places, great heroes, battles and, of course, treachery. As it is post-modern, Cărtărescu, as author/narrator, makes numerous appearances, chatting both to his characters and to his imaginary (female) reader, before inviting all of his characters to coffee in his present-day Bucharest flat. It is great fun and very cleverly done but sadly not available in English.

Romania and Ukraine

I have just returned from a cruise down the Danube, into the Black Sea and up the Dnieper. Though this was not the purpose, there was a lot to see of literary interest.

Only a small part of the journey was in Romania but we did stop at Constanța. In Roman times, Constanța was known as Tomis and it is famous, as it is where Ovid was sent into exile. You can see his statue in the town square (to the left) in front of the Archaeological Museum.

Ovid’s exile is something of a mystery. It is not clear why he was exiled. He himself said it was because of carmen et error, i.e. a poem and a mistake. The poem was presumably his Ars Amatoria though this had been written seven years before and was certainly not the first obscene Roman poetry. Other reasons suggested included that Ovid discovered that the Emperor Augustus had committed incest with his daughter Julia or granddaughter, also called Julia, or that Ovid himself had had an affair with one or both.

There are further mysteries. It was customary for the family of an exile to be sent into exile with him. However, Ovid’s wife, Flavia, stayed in Rome. It was also customary for his fortune to be confiscated but Flavia kept her husband’s fortune. Finally, though we know that Ovid died in Tomis, no-one knows where he was buried.

You can read more about Augustus in John Williams‘ novel Augustus. Quite a few novelists have written about Ovid and his exile. You can see my list of them here. Of the three that I have read, I particularly liked Christoph Ransmayr‘s Letzte Welt (The Last World).

From Constanța, we moved into Ukraine where our first stop was Izmail. Izmail is a pleasant town and, as it its name implies, it used to be Turkish. It is so small that it does not rate a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide to Ukraine. Its main claim to fame happned in 1790. During the Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792), the Turks tried to reclaim land lost to Russia.

The Turks had a huge fortress at Izmail. The boundary was seven kilometres. It had massive bastions, a ditch eleven metres deep, filled with water to the height of a human, and part of it was protected by the sea. To make things more difficult, the Sultan informed the garrison that any man who surrendered would be beheaded. General Suvorov, victor of over sixty battles, planned a nine-point attack. On the right,above, you can see a diorama of the battle, from the local museum, where we got an excellent, detailed commentary on the battle. After hard fighting, the Russians won and there were relatively few Turks left for the Sultan to behead.

The fortress was destroyed after the Crimean War, when the victorious Allies made Russia dismantle such fotreses, so there there is nothing left to see, though the museum where the diorama is housed, is, in fact, in a former mosque which was there a the time (see photo above left).

The battle may not appear in Lonely Planet but it does get a mention on my website, as Mikhail Shishkin used it as a title for one of his novels, though the battle did not feature in the book. Rather it is used a metaphor for overcoming life’s problems.

Byron mentioned the real battle in Cantos 7 and8 of Don Juan:

So much for Nature: — by way of variety,
Now back to thy great joys, Civilisation!
And the sweet consequence of large society,
War, pestilence, the despot’s desolation,
The kingly scourge, the lust of notoriety,
The millions slain by soldiers for their ration,
The scenes like Catherine’s boudoir at threescore,
With Ismail’s storm to soften it the more.

You can read the entire cantos here and here.

Odessa has had many occupiers and many names in its history but was occupied by the Russians in 1789 and finally became Odessa. Catherine the Great was determined to have an all-year sea port so Odessa was key to her strategy. There is a statue of her in the town with four men beneath her. Three of these men contributed to the development of Odessa. The fourth, Platon Zubov, contributed nothing but, like the other three, he was her lover, aged twenty-two when she was sixty.

For Westerners, Odessa may be most famous for the Odessa Steps and the scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin (named after one of the men on the statue mentioned above) where a pram roles down the steps, knocked by its mother after she falls, when shot by a Cossack. You can see a scene from it to the right, above and the whole sequence here.

Several famous writers were born in Odessa. They include the poet Anna Akhmatova, Leone Ginzburg, father of Natalia Ginzburg, Ilf and Petrov, Yury Olesha (born in nearby Elizavetgrad), Valentin Kataev and, in particular, Isaac Babel. He is known for his sharp humour, something Odessans still value and which they say comes from the Jewish population. Babel was and still is very much loved by Odessans. In English he is perhaps best-known for his short story collections Red Cavalry, which I can highly recommend. You can see a statue of him to the left. He was arrested in 1940 for being anti-Soviet, and shot.

Despite their own fine writers, Odessans are particularly fond of Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin spent thirteen months in exile in Odessa, where he wrote a lot including the first part of Eugene Onegin. There are two statues to Pushkin in the town. The one on the right is front of the Pushkin Museum. The other one is front of the Town Hall, but facing away from it. According to our guide, Odessans collected money for a statue but the town council refused to contribute, so the statue was built facing away from them. This is undoubtedly an urban legend, of which the Odessans are fond.

Pushkin is the only writer to have two statues in the town and the only writer to have his own museum. Anyone who has visited a museum or similar places in the Soviet Union or any of its successor states will be familiar with the imposing ladies who guard these institutions. insisting that you follow a set route and watching over you like a hawk to see that you do not take a photo or harm the exhibits. This was the case at several of the museums we visited though, I must say, the ladies at the Pushkin Museum were friendlier, doubtless because they were Pushkin devotees, eager to promote their hero.

The Pushkin Museum was located in the building where Pushkin lived and consisted of the furnishings, some of the books he owned (in English, French, Polish, Russian and Latin) and various other items. The captions were in Russian and Ukrainian but each room had a long blurb on the wall in English about the contents of the room. When one of the ladies found that I could speak some Russian, we were taken to a back room where they were about to have a concert. They were several portraits of Pushkin, his wife and four children and his parents and their families. There were also many photos of Pushkin statues around the world, including Asmara, Australia and New Jersey, as well as most of the major European capitals but not, I am ashamed to say, in London or elsewhere in the UK (though there is a Pushkin House (a place of meeting for people of all nationalities who are interested in Russian culture).

Though Pushkin is the only one to have his own museum in Odessa, there is a an Odessan Museum of Literature, devoted to writers associated with Odessa. I had not heard of most of them, but it was still fascinating to see the books, newspapers and magazines, photos and portraits relating to so many fine writers. The museum had a separate sculpture garden. The statue to the left above is of Ilf and Petrov and you can see the chair, representing their book Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) and the golden head of the calf, representing their book Золотой телёнок (The Little Golden Calf; The Golden Calf).

Kiev (Kyiv) is a capital city that is growing rapidly, with rows and rows of very tall blocks of flats, both those in use and those under construction.

As you can see above, there are writers whom we know as Russian, who are in fact Ukrainian. There are two very famous Russian writers who are, in fact, Ukrainian. The first is Nikolai Gogol. The second is Mikhail Bulgakov. That is him to the right.


Bulgakov lived in a house on Andriyivskyy Descent, a winding street in Kiev. His former house is now the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, which is well worth a visit. It is set out not only as he and his family lived in it but as it was for the Turbins, the characters in his play The Days of the Turbins, which Stalin saw fifteen times and which is based on his novel Белая гвардия (The White Guard). The drawings on the tiles to the left, above are his.

At the bottom of the street is the One Street Museum. This is a museum devoted to the inhabitants of the street and while I had heard of none, except for Bulgakov, there were many academics, scientists and intellectuals who lived there. The museum is well laid out with a display for each notable family, including the Bulgakovs. The picture to the right is part of the Bulgakov display.

I visited the National Museum of Ukrainian Literature. There was only one other couple there while I was there. The museum was located in a former Collegium, presumably something like a high school for rich kids. As with other museums, the captions were in Russian and Ukrainian but each room, devoted to a specific period, had a description in English of the contents of the room. I am aware of two writers born in Kiev – there are undoubtedly many more – Ilya Ehrenburg and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

The museum covered a range of periods, from very early medieval to early twentieth century. Some better-known writers such as Ivan Franko and Taras Shevchenko (there was a huge statue of him) featured prominently.

And to conclude, here is a statue of my favourite non-writer Ukrainian, Yaroslav the Wise, by the Golden Gate Museum. He seemed to be fairly ubiquitous. And it is a building, not a wedding cake that he is holding.

Mircea Cărtărescu: Orbitor Vol 1, Aripa stângă (Blinding – The Left Wing)

The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Orbitor Vol 1, Aripa stângă (Blinding – The Left Wing), the first book in a trilogy (and the only one of the three translated into English). This is an intensely visionary book, far more intense than any other book you are likely to read, Dante included. The basic outline is a mixture of Cărtărescu telling his own story – the main character is a writer called Mircea – as well as the story of his family, including his ancestors, his attempts at writing and his view of Bucharest where he has always lived, both with his family and in his own as an adult. However, the main feature of the book is undoubtedly Mircea’s dreams, visions and images of his life, of the city and, in this book, of his hospital stay for facial palsy, which creates a work which has deservedly become a classic of modern European literature.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles

My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.

Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.

The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:

  • Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
  • Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
  • Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
  • Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
  • The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
  • Return to Order
  • Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
  • Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.

It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)

I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.

One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.

Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.

Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.

Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.

There are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.

Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.

Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.

There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.

Dumitru Tsepeneag: La belle Roumaine (La Belle Roumaine)

The latest addition to my website is Dumitru Tsepeneag‘s La belle Roumaine (La Belle Roumaine). This is another totally anarchic and gloriously funny novel from Tsepeneag. The eponymous beautiful Romanian woman is Ana or maybe she is Anne or Aneta or Anette or Hannah. She might be a doctor or a nurse or she might be a prostitute. She might be Jewish or she might not. Her father may have been killed at Auschwitz or he may have been a collaborator. We follow her round Europe, particularly in Berlin and Paris, where she has a succession of lovers, each one of whom is given a different story about her life and her background. Is she working for Ceaușescu’s secret service? Was she attacked on the metro? How does she earn her money? What languages does she really speak and is she really Romanian? The other characters never learn the truth and nor do we – if there is a truth. It is very funny, totally chaotic and another wonderful book from Tsepeneag which Dalkey Archive Press has brought us.

Dumitru Tsepeneag (Țepeneag): Hotel Europa (Hotel Europa)

The latest addition to my website is Dumitru Tsepeneag‘s Hotel Europa (Hotel Europa). This is a hilarious, anarchic novel about an unnamed Romanian narrator (clearly based on Tsepeneag himself) who is living in France, married to a French woman, and who is trying to write a novel but is not sure what he wants the novel to be about or where it is going when he does start. However, it soon becomes apparent that the novel we are reading is the novel he is writing. Much of it is about events in Romania following the overthrow of the Ceaușescus in December 1989. He himself had accompanied a Médecins sans Frontières convoy to Bucharest at that time and the journey and the people he met start to form the basis of his novel. In particular, we follow the story of Ion, a young Romanian, who was involved in the 1989 demonstrations but then decides to slowly make his way across Europe to Paris, to escape the chaos of Romania. He encounters thugs who steal his large gambling winnings, several hotels called Hotel Europa, UFOs, women who may or may not be his missing girlfriend and other strange phenomena. It is a wonderful read both funny and serious.