The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s До и во время (Before and During). This book was written immediately after his Репетиции (Rehearsals) and covers some of the same topics, namely the subverting of Russian history, particularly the Russian Revolution, and the idea of a Christian Utopia. Our hero is Alyosha who, as a result of a fall, has blackouts and is admitted to a mental institution, which has had a colourful history. He had, before admittance, had the idea of writing a Memorial Book, about people who would otherwise have been forgotten (based on an idea by Ivan the Terrible!) and now decides to do the same for the residents of the hospital. However, one of the residents tells him a highly imaginative version of the story of Germaine de Staël who, amongst others things, was the midwife of the Russian Revolution, the biological mother of Stalin and lover of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who was actually born fifty-five years after she died. It is all Sharov’s way of using Russian history in a highly creative way to show his ideal of a Christian Utopia but, at the same time, makes for a really fascinating read.
The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 黒白 (In Black and White). This is the sixteenth Tanizaki on my site. It was first published in 1928 in a newspaper but it has never been published separately before, either in Japanese or in any other language. It appeared in his collected works published in Japanese in 1957 and will appear in French ten days after appearing in English. It is a clever crime story about a dissolute crime writer who writes a story about the perfect murder, with the murdered being based on himself and the victim being based on a casual acquaintance. He then worries the model for the victim will really be murdered and he will blamed. He tries to make sure he has a continuous alibi in case the man is murdered but then forgets, as he is distracted by a German prostitute who occupies most of his attention. It is a clever story and it is surprising that it has never been published separately before.
The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s Репетиции (Rehearsals). This is a thoroughly original book which starts in seventeenth century Russia and ends some time after the Russian Revolution. We follow the religious upheavals in the time of Patriarch Nikon and his attempt to put on a mystery play of all the Gospels, to help bring about Palestine in Russia and the return of Christ who, this time, will come to Russia. A French actor manager, Jacques de Sertan, organises a group of amateur (and illiterate) actors but it all goes wrong when Nikon is condemned by the Synod and Sertan and the actors are sent to Siberia. Though Sertan dies en route, the actors manage to keep the idea alive, continually rehearsing, and passing on roles to their heirs, till after the Russian Revolution. It is about religion but it is about a lot more than that and it is wonderful that, twenty-five years after its publication in Russian, it is now available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River). This is a beautiful book, narrated by an unnamed narrator but clearly based on the author. She has temporarily moved to London – she has no clear reason why – specifically to the very unfashionable area of Hackney, through which flows the River Lea. Part of the book is about the appeal to her and effect on her and her memories of both the Lea and several other rivers, including the Rhine by whose banks she grew up as a child. However, she also portrays the local community, many of whose denizens are immigrants and foreigners like her and shows their individuality. She photographs the river, recalls other rivers she has seen and brings back memories. Above all, her writing is superb and we cannot fail to be entranced by her ability to make the ordinary less ordinary.
The latest addition to my website is Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès‘ Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home). This is a massive novel (over a thousand pages) set in Brazil and mixes several stories, including the probably not entirely accurate life of Athanasius Kircher (recently seen in Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]), a paleontological expedition to a remote part of Brazil, involving Paraguayan bandits and shamanistic natives, a corrupt governor, a handicapped man obsessed with the famous Brazilian bandit Lampião and our hero, a Franco-German journalist, who is an expert on Kircher and whose ex-wife is on the paleontological expedition and whose daughter is a bisexual hard drug user. All these various stories more or less intersect. However, while it is certainly an interesting novel, I found it dragged a bit in places
The latest addition to my website is Muharem Bazdulj‘s Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje (Transit, Comet, Eclipse). This consists of three related novellas essentially about the situation in East Europe. The first is set in the eighteenth journey and tells of the journey of the scientist Ruđer Bošković to Saint Petersburg (he does not make it but gets a long way, before falling down a well in Poland). Twice he tries to see the Transit of Venus, once before and once after his journey but fails both times. Bazdulj uses his journey to comment on various aspects of Eastern Europe, including the relationship with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the region, Christianity and how the region is seen from East Europe and vice versa. The other two are set in modern times, one about an innocent Moldovan woman whose innocence and lack of opportunities in Moldova is taken advantage of and the third telling how The Writer came to write this book. It is certainly an interesting approach but it is the first story that works best for me.
The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Like. This is Ali Smith’s first novel and a very accomplished novel it is. It tells two related stories. Amy was destined for an academic career at Cambridge University. She had had lesbian relationships and, in particular, she was having an on-again off-again affair with Aisling McCarthy, a Scottish woman. It all went drastically wrong. Amy has had a breakdown and now is living in Scotland with her seven-year old daughter, Kate, working on a caravan site and apparently unable to read. Aisling McCarthy went on to become a famous actress but seems to have dropped out. We follow her lesbian relationships at school, culminating in her meeting Amy, and later following Amy to Cambridge, where she causes the downfall not only of Amy but another woman with whom she had had an affair. The story is narrated from the present day, first by Amy and Kate and then by Aisling. Smith tells an excellent story and pulls us into the story of the two women and young girl.
The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]. It is based on the legend of the trickster Till Eulenspiegel though Kehlmann has moved him from his traditional 14th century date to the Thirty Years’ War. We follow Till’s childhood – his father is executed by the Jesuits for witchcraft – and his escape from his village with Nele, his girlfriend who is not his girlfriend. They become travelling players and their reputation spreads far and wide, so much so that Till becomes the official fool of Frederick V of the Palatinate. We follow political events through the eyes of Frederick’s wife, the Scottish Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, known to history as the Winter Queen. Frederick dies of an infection while seeking help in his war from Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Kehlmann is eager to point out the horrors of war, and this war is bloody, messy and very badly organised. It is not Kehlmann’s best – jumping from Till and his adventures to Elizabeth Stuart and her problems and the problems of her husband, but is still worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Széljegyzetek Casanovához (Marginalia on Casanova). This is the first in series of ten novels (incomplete at the time of the author’s death) written over a period of fifty-four years, albeit with a thirty year gap because of the political situation. It can best be described as a romp through European history. This novel, the only one so far translated into English, is, as the title tells us, about Casanova and is the author’s highly idiosyncratic commentary on Casanova’s Memoirs (the German version). While Szentkuthy does not shy away from Casanova’s amorous exploits (the book was banned when first published), he is equally interested in Casanova’s thoughts, Casanova’s Venice and Casanova’s era and draws in comparisons from pre-Casanova period and the modern period. He frequently gets carried away with his comments but manages to produce a highly learned work, full of erudite commentary, as well as a highly enjoyable, witty and colourful work.
The latest addition to my website is Luis Sagasti‘s Bellas artes (Fireflies). This is an amazing book from new publisher Charco Press in which Sagasti ruminates on creativity, suicide, how we look at works of art, imagination and story-telling. If it is has a unifying theme it might be Without the slightest doubt, art is the answer. What we can’t be sure about is the question.. Part of the book is looking for that question, while much of the book is stories told about the real and the fictitious (he arbitrarily mixes the two) with stories about real people being often just as fanciful and just and invented as those about the fictitious. From Wittgenstein to Yuri Gagarin, from The Beatles to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, we learn about stories we don’t know about people we do know, some of which are true and some of which are not. Sagasti is such a gifted story-teller – hablador as the Spanish call it – that you cannot help but both enjoy and learn from his work.