The latest addition to my website is Konstantin Paustovsky‘s Кара-Бугаз (The Black Gulf). Paustovsky is best-known in English and in Russian for his six-volume autobiography Повестью о жизни (Story of a Life) but he did write several novels, two of which have been translated into English. This one is sadly long since out of print but is well worth reading. The hero, for want of a better word, is the eponymous gulf, called Kara-Bugaz in this book (which is a transliteration of the Russian title) and Garabogazköl by Wikipedia. It is a lagoon off the Caspian Sea, in a very inhospitable part of the world. The novel describes the various people (Russian) who explored and exploited the area. All, of course, are somewhat eccentric and all have their own views on what is appropriate for the area. Some of the visitors were unwilling, such as the Communists deposited there without food and water by the White Russians during the Civil War, and left to die. Most do but not all. While these novelised stories of real people are fascinating, we also follow the lagoon itself, which is like a malicious spirit, threatening, dangerous and unpredictable. This novel was recommended in an excellent article by translator Will Firth.
The latest addition to my website is Sergio Chejfec‘s Los incompletos (The Incompletes). This is a decidedly strange novel. The unnamed narrator tells of his friend Felix, who has decided to leave Argentina and travel the world. Much of the book takes place in Moscow, where Felix stays in a hotel well away from the centre, with the building seemingly having a life of its own. The book is about his relationship with Masha, daughter of the owner and receptionist, though they essentially have no relationship, except watching one another. Felix does not leave the hotel till later in the book, when he discovers a huge, mysterious crater. Meanwhile the narrator (Chefjec himself?) muses on the whys and wherefores of Felix, Masha and their non-relationship, which may (or may not) help each of them make the other more complete.
The latest addition to my website is Irina Odoevtseva:‘s Изольда (Isolde). This book was first published in 1929 and was condemned by Odoevtseva’s fellow Russian émigré writers, including Nabokov, as it dealt with teenage sex and nihilism and was therefore clearly immoral. It tells the story of a Russian émigré family in Biarritz in the 1920s. They are irresponsible mother Natasha, more concerned with her love life than her children (her husband was killed in the Revolution) and her two teenage children, Liza and Nikolai. Liza meets a young Englishman, Cromwell, who christens her Isolde before he knows her name and falls in love with her. When they are joined by Liza’s nominal boyfriend, Andrei, and Natasha disappears in pursuit of her boyfriend, things get very much out of hand. It was published the same year as Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles (Children of the Game (UK); The Holy Terrors (US); Les enfants terribles), to which it bears some resemblance.
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,
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.
The latest addition to my website is Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad). This book was first published in the Soviet Union in Novy Mir magazine in 1952 and then in book form in 1954, soon after Stalin’s death, without which it may not have been published. Both versions were heavily censored. Only now, with the translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, using Grossman’s original manuscript, has the book finally been published as Grossman intended it. The plot follows the situation in Stalingrad leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad and the beginning of that battle and immediately precedes the events taking place in Grossman’s famous Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). It is superbly told, as we see the action from all sides, both the ordinary Soviet citizen and those directly involved in the fighting whether as ordinary soldiers or senior officers, as well from the German side, including a couple of appearances by Hitler. By the time the book ends, the Germans have entered Stalingrad and are confident of taking it, with the Soviets offering fierce resistance but being pushed ever further back. It is brilliantly told, full of action and gives us a view of the Battle from all perspectives. It is destined to join Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) as a major Russian classic.
The latest addition to my website is Sergei Lebedev‘s Гусь Фриц (The Goose Fritz). We follow Kirill, a Russian living in the contemporary period, who, under the influence of his grandmother, becomes interested in his ancestors, who were of German origin. He tracks down their stories, going back to the late eighteenth century, how they coped, seen as Germans, with German names, and how they were, despite their best efforts, never quite fully Russian. Lebedev give us a highly colourful account of how they were involved in many of the key events of Russian history, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Stalinist purges and how they just about survived (though many did not, dying premature deaths, often violently). Cannibalism, the various wars, rebellions and revolutions in Russia, epidemics, insanity, and love and (lots of) death are seen though the eyes of those who want to be insiders but never manage it. It is a brilliant book and confirms Lebedev as one of the foremost contemporary Russian novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Guzel Yakhina‘s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha). Zuleikha is a Tatar woman, married to an abusive husband, in the late 1920s. Her husband is determined that the Soviets will not have any of his food and he hides. When he is caught and objects, he is shot on the spot. Zuleikha and many other villagers are then sent off to Siberia as former kulaks. The journey is hard, not least because there is a huge backlog of kulaks and other undesirables being sent off to Siberia and they are delayed on their train journey. It is made harder when Zuleikha realises she is pregnant – her husband raped her the night before his death. She has already lost four daughters, all of whom died young, and she is determined to protect her first son. We follow the story of the prisoners, the commandant and, in particular, Zuleikha, from around 1930 to the end of World War II. As the Russian title (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes) tells us, a good part (but certainly not the only part) is about how Zuleikha develops from being a submissive Muslim woman and abused wife to being someone more independent. Yakhina tells an excellent tale of life in a Siberian camp and of a woman who finds herself there.
The latest addition to my website is Emmanuel Carrère‘s Un roman russe (My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir). Though the English calls it a memoir – and, to a great extent it is – it is written as a novel, called a novel by the author and the publisher and reads as a novel. There are three main themes, apart from the overarching theme of Carrère’s own somewhat chaotic life. The first is his journalistic investigation of András Toma, allegedly the last World War II soldier to be repatriated. Toma was held in a mental hospital in Russia for fifty-five years, as he did not speak Russian and no-one in the hospital spoke Hungarian. Carrère and a film crew twice travel to Russia and once to Hungary to investigate. We also learn about Carrère’s family, particularly his grandfather who was Georgian and who never fitted in when in France, and his grandmother who was descended from Russian aristocrats. Finally, we follow Carrère’s tempestuous love affair with Sophie. All three stories intertwine and Carrère tells his story very well, despite showing himself to be a very flawed character.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.