And I thought of myself too, of my foot, and of Oddball’s thin, wiry body; it seemed shot through with appalling sorrow, quite unbearable. As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.
In Kazan and Poltava provinces, the governors had nervous breakdowns. Others lost their head. “You risk your life, you wear out your nerves maintaining order so that people can live like human beings, and what do you encounter everywhere?” complained Governor Ivan Blok of Samara. “Hate-filled glances as if you were some kind of monster, a drinker of human blood.” Moments later Blok was decapitated by a bomb. Placed in a traditional open casket, his twisted body was stuffed into his dress uniform, a ball of batting substituted for his missing head.
– Stephen Kotkin’s 2014 publication Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878 – 1928, volume I of III.
In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material. For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce. The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies. It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.
However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints. I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.
Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north. This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries. This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism. This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).
This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me. Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!
The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest cycle of books, the Seasons Quartet, has recently seen its first release, Autumn, in English this month. (A quick note – the Seasons Quartet was originally published in Norwegian throughout 2015-16). Styled as a series of letters to his unborn daughter, the quartet takes everyday objects or landscape features as their starting point for Knausgaard’s short and varied digressions on what it means to be alive. I currently have Autumn by my bedside and it is a beautiful publication indeed, illustrated in style by Vanessa Baird and ably translated by Ingvild Burkey. I haven’t yet started reading it but I shall do tonight, as it seems fitting to do so as the clouds roll in and the temperature drops. Autumn truly is my favourite season and I look forward to the changing colour of the landscape as trees shed their leaves and the nights draw in.
The second volume in the series, Winter, is released on the 2nd November 2017 and I cannot wait to hold and to read it. I note on the publisher’s website that the volume has a different illustrator; I’m quite impressed that Knausgaard (or at least his publisher) is bringing together other artists into the fold of his new publications. It also introduces the English-speaking world to new Scandinavian writers and artists that they may otherwise have not come across. In the meantime Knausgaard’s much-anticipated sixth volume of his My Struggle cycle of novels isn’t released until late 2018, in the English translation, but the Seasons Quartet more than makes up for the long wait. Happy reading!
‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home. This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two. The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:
“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”
“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”
“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”
“Newspapers”, he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.
It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend. For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.
Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…
My room, I realize, is covered in books and CD’s. Stacks of both poke out from under my bed, bulge on shelves, take root on free patches on the floor. I have boxes of academic books and reference texts resting below where I sleep, buried alongside those are boxes of CD’s and cassette tapes, filled with yesterday’s music and recorded jam sessions made during the proclivities of my youth. They are, it appears, my media of choice for consuming the experiences and thoughts of being human.
To be human, as to recognize to being alive, is temporary but what a beauty that it is in itself:
‘But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limb and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend , or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.’
From My Struggle: Part 2. A Man In Love (2014) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
‘They had plenty of talent and some success, but this was England after all, where no one – least of all a good painter – was really rewarded or punished; in England, whatever your profession, you made your own life.’
Paul Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea (1983).
I’m currently reading one of Theroux’s travel books that I have not read before, a now rare occurrence. I’m a big fan of travel literature, especially of Theroux’s (why yes, I have read his latest on the American South). Partly I think because it means I can travel in my mind when my body cannot. Reading does this to a person though, regardless of circumstance. It lifts you above what you know and what you think you know, it forces you to don someone else’s view point to discover the world, and the people in it, anew.
I haven’t swam in the sea this year and I haven’t swam in fresh water either. This saddens me as long term readers of this site may remember that I love swimming; I love the feel of the body gliding through the blue, the grey, the swirling torrents of frothing waves. I miss the sun above my head, the all too often grey clouds amassing in the distance as my arms brush against seaweed, a mini chloroform power station floating in the middle of the brine. I miss the shouts and the giggles as the bracing waves slap against puckered skin in early autumn, of two brave and lost souls powering through content in a cold embrace.
The sea, the sea, my soul cries for its limitless horizons and its unknowable depths.
Whatever its future success as a historical movement, anarchism will remain a fundamental part of the human experience, for the drive for freedom is one of our deepest needs and the vision of a free society is one of our oldest dreams. Neither can be ever fully repressed ; both will outlive all rulers and their States.
– Peter Marshall, in Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism.
The above book is a fine companion to The Rebel by Camus, another book which I have nearly completed. Again both of the above are books that I am reading slowly, letting the words and ideas from history slowly tumble down and impregnate themselves as my mind wrestles with their concepts. In this day and age of mass state surveillance, corruption and rank greed, it is hard to think of what one should hold a loyalty to and to why. This is not just the state but also the social, the personal.
It was a job that did not pay, but it was a job that I loved. I was surrounded by books, music and lovely co-workers, kept in good humour by the good cause that we were donating our hours to. It seemed that every week I volunteered I ended up buying at least one or two books from the shop itself, having rifled through the stock during or after my shift.
It was in this busy little shop that I became fully aware of Márquez’s literary works for the first time. His name had haunted my literary periphery for some time by this point, but I simply hadn’t yet read a single short story or novel of his. This changed as I came across a copy of Love In The Time of Cholera on the shelves one day, during one of my weekly shifts. Perhaps somewhat sneakily, as I was still only half way through my shift and thus still on duty serving customers, I hid the only copy in the shop behind the till so that I could pay for it when I finished the shift. I subsequently took the book home and devoured it.
Love, in its many myriad of forms, washes over the pages of that novel in all of its wonderfully euphoric and gut wrenching explorations. Magical realism taints the characters lives and experiences, their town and the very type of the printed words on the pages of the book itself. In short it is beauty, it is love for the written word, and for the value of stories themselves, that is expressed so eloquently in so fine a book that I took Marquez the author to heart.
In particular it reminded me, at a time where I was reading many dense and dry academic texts, of the value of the story as a common human experience and denominator in, and between, various populations, cultures and nations. It was also something that I was lacking at that time in my solitary life, as I shuffled wearily between sleep, food, and the library for research and writing. Essentially Márquez, along with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, helped plug me back into realising the vitality and depth of human life.
My love for Márquez was further solidified coming across a copy of his short stories in another shift. Later still I came across a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in another book shop in a different city and I immediately clasped it close to my heart. Where romance makes the characters flush with life (and death) in Love In The Time of Cholera, it is family history (and political commentary) that bind the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book did help to open my eyes anew to Márquez’s work and words, in how social commentary and political narrative can be combined so artfully within a delightful and fluid narrative to make flesh the stories that need, and must, be told to generations new.
Although my bedside table currently bulges with books waiting to be read and although Márquez will now not write any further novels, short stories or journalism, I will keep a space open for any of his works as, when, and if I come across them. May he rest in peace.