I know it is coming, and I think about it almost every day. The door closing, the life ending. The peace to know that I cannot change a thing and the acceptance to say that I have had a good life: I have lived and I have loved, and in turn I have been loved and lived my life as best I could with others, with my family and friends. A door is closing, but I am thankful it was ever open at all.
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!
‘They say war is coming, that they want it so it’ll happen . . . Just like that! It doesn’t matter if you are the son of the mayor or of the dustbin man, it doesn’t matter what you think or what you feel. As soon as you join up, they’ll ship you out. Give you a rifle, a round, help you point it and let you start shooting. It doesn’t matter that you are scared or do not want to kill, it doesn’t matter if you miss the birthdays of your nearest and dearest. This is war! War does not stop for the dead, and it doesn’t stop for the living! It will continue regardless of what you think, so they say. Join up and get in the fight, prove yourself, prove that you are a man!’
Here, at this junction, he takes a rest and leans against the pillow before starting again.
‘I’ve heard it before and I’ll hear it again. Our lives are not so short that we won’t live through war, a war, any war. Just think about it boy, there must be a hundred wars going on right now – all across the globe people are fighting for this or that, spilling blood for the power of belief. Killing is justified, they say, it is justified because it helps to prove that what you say, what you believe, is right, is the only way. We must fight to take back our land! We must fight to stop them! We must fight to prove ourselves! We must fight because this fat bastard insulted me!’
Another rest before he carries on more lucidly.
‘Wars are funny things my son, they are odd things . . . They are both natural and unnatural. Nature telling us that we are too numerous and too many, that we need to thin the population somewhat, create a bottleneck so we can survive. Wars are the outcome of the idle rich, of those that seek power and revenge. War ain’t nothing good, but we’re used to it. Society accepts the causes and the outcomes, realizes that there is always a price to pay.’
War is war, the living are the living, and the dead are the dead, I wanted to add.
‘There is nothing to see here son but history, the ashes of a thousand dreams . . .’
‘Dad? Can you hear me dad, I’m right here . . . Just give me your hand dad, you’ll be okay. I love you. I’ll be back soon, okay?’
I shepherd the son out, who is caught briefly off-guard by the single tear running down the older man’s left cheek.
This speech wasn’t anything knew, but I knew that the son had to try and talk to his father, to try and establish reality once more.
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!
She never regretted moving to this flat. It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were. In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city. She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at her parent’s house. If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples. No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.
The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty. Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape. It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace. But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime. She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.
Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man. Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father. She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page. The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body. Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends. It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, that kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness. In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.
The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still. Her foundation of independence had just become solidified, yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world instead turned and had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.
In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life. To put death at a distance and to keep love close. That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it; it was how she lived her life in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise. Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner. The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.
In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass. He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.
It would not be long now.
The city of dreams,
This is the city of my nightmares.
The city of my last love,
This is the city of a thousand cold hard stares.
I can’t breathe, but
I can see what
(I think) is all around me.
The city has me in a
Choke hold and it ain’t
Letting me breath.
Let me go, just let
I scream to mangled foes,
Whilst all I get is broken bones,
Blow after blow.
In this city of spite,
There is no respite.
I don’t need to be free,
I just need to be.
She had heard him coughing over his poem in the far off room, could no doubt imagine the fine spray of blood that was probably even now covering his crisp writing paper. It would not be long now before he was too ill to write. This was a period that she had been dreading, even as he sought to convey the full confection of his feelings for her in his short, often romantic, poems detailing their shared life together.
Today, however, was a different story. She had already heard him earlier, muttering under his breath about the lines that had formed on his paper in the distinct rays of the morning sun. Once or twice she thought she had even heard him growl in resigned and quiet anger. Why didn’t he stop, rest and enjoy the short time that they had left? Why hadn’t they eaten breakfast together the past few days, as they normally would have either in the light yellow breakfast room or in one of the cafes that proliferated the nearby shopping arcade?
She knew, of course, why he had been focusing on his writing, even more so in the autumn of his life, ever since that damn diagnosis. It was to be a slow decline for the writer of such fiery youthful polemics, which had made him his name as an author in the country of his birth. There was to be a steady lessening of his commands, a slow fire that would rise up from his belly and engulf his lungs so that in his last days he would feel as if he was drowning in flames.
They both faced this poetic decree by his doctor with solid stoicism, unmoved by his descriptions and livid features, the jowls that so willingly proclaimed the closing chapter of a life well lived. She had swallowed hard that day, had pushed down that knot of fear, pushed it down so deep she had barely registered its original presence. Yet it lingered, as the ghost of an early morning dream does to those that live the day believing that they are forgetting something fundamental in their routine. Guilt mingled with the fear, the fear that, even if he were to pass as she was still undecided on this matter, she would remain in this house built for two alone. Her coming winter was to be spent in silent reflection.
She had somehow forgotten of his ills, perhaps buried them once more, as she busied herself with the tasks of daily life. Filtering the mail, answering calls, fielding journalists. In truth this was a remote interaction with the world at large, her life with him had been steady, filled with the romance of every day love. Gestures that Romero would never have a chance to show to his youthful Juliet that filled theirs instead. avec amour chaque devoir quotidien.
This day she had let him write alone and she thought he was progressing, writing further poems of truly requited love, the kind that beats across the decades and the kind that fills the marital bed with the warm glow of satisfaction. Towards the drawing of the late summer sun she had heard that cough percolate throughout the house time and time again, shaking her core foundation and filling it with a silent dread. She abandoned her tasks and rushed towards the sounds of his frail body, wracked as it was by coughing convulsions. They embraced as one, his eyes holding hers. A quick glance at his desk showed a poem, scribbled all over and dotted with the fine droplets of blood that he had indeed sprayed forth.
It would not be long now.
Jaded I can’t even get wasted, the brown bottle bin empty.
It’s the gas, the final plunge that I think about each and every night. That infinite high that accompanies gross body trauma.
The welcoming words of the paramedic; the soft hue of the ambulance lights.
That Cheshire cat grin as I think I overdose on the self administered pain killer.
It is the all encompassing hug of the soft welcoming paws of hospital. The knowledge that I have survived again, that the bone can break and the flesh part, but I remain. I remain.
Friday 20th August
Your latest letter breathes joy into my very frame. Yes, yes, I am always too formal in my correspondence! Still I am here, I have managed to escape the landlocked country of the Switz and I now face the great open Atlantic, I am coming Simone, I am coming! I can almost hear the gentle lapping of the waves against the great southern continent that holds you, my dear friend, in its gentle and comfortable embrace. I am safe here on the southern tip of the European continent, no one knows I am here and the country is morose and still, but it is safe and stable. The language is the same as your host country so I will be well prepared to converse and drop into the background on the journey over.
My very bones feel rejuvenated here in Porto, as the morning sun cascades down the terracotta tiles of a thousand roofs. We are safe, we are safe! My European plain sensibilities are becoming swamped by the Hispanic love of life and of relaxation. I feel that although we will always carry the guilt of the free, of the survivors, we may try yet again to live in this beautiful world. In all honesty Simone I am surprised I feel this way but it is because of our escape and of the dangers that we have survived that I feel this way. We must answer the boot of our oppressor with the scream of our freedom.
Yes, you know I am always reading! I have managed to find a few different novels but nothing of serious importance, just some light novels and novellas that keep me going. I am finding deep inspiration in the architecture and geography of this city, in watching the swaying hips of the beautiful women and the light steps of the children inevitably trailing in their wake. Although the great spirit of this country is asleep at the moment, under this monotonous leader, I have no doubt it will wake up and bring great vitality to a united and friendly Europe.
But of course that may be some time off yet.
Ah yes my love life, you know Simone that I rarely talk of such passions openly. But what can I say, this country is infecting the very marrow of my bones and I have indeed been meeting up with a few of the local ladies for dates. Do not misread that though! I keep my distance and act with discretion, but with my local cafes often being graced with my presence I have come to meet several women for short dates, nothing more than fanciful dalliances really. My heart does flutter however whenever I have the opportunity to meet Roberta though. I’ll haven’t the time or space to write about here though as this is just a short letter before I sail to Recife, my next letter will be full of details though!
As I said there have been no more poisonous letters and I am positive that we are now safe to continue on with our lives, to make them worthwhile once more. I’m sending a small package with this letter, including a book of poetry which I will think you will love. The Atlantic crossing will take some time but each morning I will wake and think of you.
Yours faithfully and with all of my love,
I was on the second ship leading the north Atlantic convoy, which was one of six in total. My head was screaming with the cold, my fingers numb and becoming number as the minutes passed. We had to transfer mid ocean from our small liners to the bigger ones, the ones that could break the ice of the north, the ones that could pass by and crunch the icebergs that would otherwise soon sink these tropical ships that we had come this far on.
Morning medicine, my mourning drink. I was sick of the air, sick of my mouth tasting of salt, my cracked lips and shaggy dog appearance. I was becoming a wreck, like the Titanic in her grave slowly rusting, slowly breaking down to her elemental beginnings.
I was home, verdant fields of tall grass framed by never-ending blue skies and cradled by deep pleasant dreams. The wooden door creaked as I opened it, I announced I was home and I heard the movement of my lover in our shared bed. I imagined the sheets cascading off her body, the soft smooth silk of her skin and the comely shape of her buttocks, the two small welcoming dimples at the base of her spine. The curls of her hair resting on her shoulders, her sumptuous breasts that were full of milk, nipples pert and erect.
Home smelt like home. This was salt, this was corrosion. The transfer was awful, I saw their pale and emaciated bodies silent in the bunks, numerous across the whole range of decks. We could not go on like this, we must not go on like this. Moving the bodies was horrendous, a horrible job. I had thrown my younger brother around as a child and had remembered how heavy he was even when young, how I could feel the weight of his happy soul. This was something else, the bodies far lighter than they had any right to be. Glassy deep blue eyes set silent in paper thin crevices for faces.
I loved her then and I loved her still. There was something wonderful about the moment between coming home from work and announcing my entry to the wooden house. This was the liminal zone, I was neither away nor settled on the prairie. When I remembered this moment consciously I tried to slow it down, to breathe in deeply, to try and enjoy the moment when I’d open the door and see her gorgeous brown eyes, the flicker of the smile that would start to spread across her face as she spied me coming in.
I could almost taste that moment, but the foghorn soon reminded me that I was a thousand miles away, surely more, from my beloved.
The bodies had been swiftly moved from the ice breakers to the tropic liners without any difficultly. I was convinced that our skeletal crew would break down at this task but we kept quiet and professional, we carried out our task with ease and left the liners floating in peace in warmer climes, buffeted by only the smallest of oceanic waves.
Silently our breakers made the way north, the ocean becoming day by day peppered with more chunks of frozen sea than I could count. Chunks that could rip and tear steel, that could doom whole convoys and destroy even the hardest of souls.
I craved her touch more than ever at this point. My cracked lips had become something beyond sore, something that I knew hurt but was pushed deeper into my sub-consciousness.
I missed her hips the most, how my hand would follow the contour of her outer hip bone and glide slowly into the girdle where the delicate touch of my lips would meet her soft warm skin. Where I knew that when she arched her back she was that much more relaxed, ready to give in to the carnal sin of our shared passion.
The bow of the ship cuts the ice, the sea underneath, and our dreams as clean as any knife I have ever known. Our hopes are cleaved into two. The ocean is our life, the seabed our grave.