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Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

The Men and Women of Middlemarch: Part 1

middlemarch

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside.  AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”].  Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.

Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage.  The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined.  However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel.  In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.

Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics.  Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player.  Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch.  The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”

He thus concludes as follows:

In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”

It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel.  Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us.  The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.

The Editors

An Evening with Julian Barnes

Vintage_Arthur_&_George_250JUSTICE “Law and Literature” event – 28 October 2014, Inner Temple Hall, London

Last Wednesday the London-based human rights organisation, JUSTICE, held the first event in its “Law and Literature” series: ‘An Evening with Julian Barnes’.  It began with a presentation by Lord Justice Laws, followed by Julian Barnes reading from his novel, Arthur & George, and then a conversation between the author and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the novel was chosen because it revolves around an early twentieth century miscarriage of justice known as the Edalji case.  The case concerned the prosecution and conviction of an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, for numerous incidents of ‘horse-ripping’ (the apparently random mutilation of horses), known as the Great Wyrley Outrages, that occurred in Staffordshire in 1903.  The proceedings were drawn to national attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already a major celebrity writer, took it upon himself to campaign on Edalji’s behalf, having become convinced that no man as short-sighted as Mr Edalji could possibly have committed the crimes himself.  The campaign was ultimately successful in turning public opinion in favour of the convicted man, and a commission of inquiry into the case was ordered by the government, which granted Edalji a pardon in 1907.  The case was also an important driver for reform of the criminal justice system in England, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  Interestingly, the Edalji case was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Dreyfus affair, a sort of more celebrated older brother, which sharply divided public opinion in France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Barnes explained that he had first stumbled across the Edalji case completely by chance, and had investigated it with a writer’s “predatory” instinct, that is, in the hope of being able to turn the source material into some sort of fictionalised account of the episode.  He quickly became aware, upon researching the case, that his biggest challenge would be successfully balancing the lives of his two protagonists, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, so that the latter would not be totally eclipsed in the novel by the adventures, success and renown of the former.  This balancing involved drawing out the character of George so that it could become more interesting and nuanced than first impressions might indicate.  To this extent, Barnes actually read Edalji’s one book as a solicitor, Railway Law for the “Man in the train”, published in 1901, which he found surprisingly funny.

The use of real figures from the past as the basis for fictional characters was also discussed later on in the evening, with Mr Barnes declaring that he treated real people with as much seriousness in his work as he treated fictional individuals.  He did, however, concede that it was sometimes necessary to embellish a character in fiction, often for want of sufficient information on the original person – he remembered once being challenged at a book festival by a descendant of one of the characters in Arthur & George, who complained that the physical appearance of his relative as described in the novel did not match reality, before noting bitterly that “I suppose he’s your character now.”  To which Mr Barnes was tempted to reply: “yes, he is.”

This exchange, and in fact the evening as a whole, led me to reconsider two slightly hackneyed but nevertheless important and related issues in literature.  Firstly, the issue of artistic licence when it comes to exhuming and attempting to resuscitate incidents from history.  There is a well-founded concern, on the one hand, that figures from the past should not be posthumously slandered in any way.  On the other hand, there is a belief that significant episodes from our collective history should not be confined to non-fiction accounts and sterile textbooks.  In certain situations the two positions cannot be reconciled; opinions about what happened in the past frequently differ, and we therefore inevitably find ourselves entering a slippery debate about objectivity and the nature of ‘truth’.  However, the fact that writers of fiction cannot avoid causing some offence when adopting positions vis-à-vis history should never preclude them from embarking on artistic reinterpretations of the past.  I would argue that an author has some responsibility to be sensitive to what he believes to be true (perhaps an obligation to take characters “seriously” at all times), particularly when dealing with lesser known figures, but that is all.

This leads directly into the second issue referred to above, which is the responsibility of writers generally.  It is often claimed that literature and politics or social responsibility do not sit well together: the necessary ambiguity of the former clashing horribly with the black-and-white dogma of the latter.  This is true insofar as literature as art should endeavour to convey an experience of reality that is self-aware and not bound to rigid ideological structures, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera once remarked that “what Orwell tells us could have been said as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.”  Even accepting this, it is still nevertheless the case that writers wield significant influence outside their fictional output: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his celebrity clout at the dawn of the twentieth century to secure the pardon of an innocent man, whilst only last week Julian Barnes put his name to JUSTICE’s most recent fundraising campaign.

But returning to the fiction itself, there is also a responsibility inherent in the act of writing, albeit one that is not immediately obvious.  I think Mr Barnes put it best in the preface to his book of essays Through the Window:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it […] Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

As applied to the fiction of Julian Barnes, I can safely say that without Arthur & George it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have heard of the Edalji case, let alone have become interested in it.  More importantly, I would never have put myself in George Edalji’s shoes as he faced the injustice of a world intent on punishing him for being different.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part III: Zero to One

Peter Thiel - Zero to OneZero to One, Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

The word entrepreneur must be so tired as to nearly be dead by now. Does that apply to freelancers and sole traders? Does it apply to people who go to big corporates and do something ‘entrepreneurial’. Roles at Unilever or Tesco described in this way don’t quite ring true but without a meaningful definition against which to measure claims, the word is apt for hijacking by pretenders of every shape.

One entrepreneur who could not be described as a pretender, Peter Thiel, has recently published a new book in this hectic pop-lit genre: Zero to One.

Thankfully, Zero to One is not a rags to riches, this-is-why-I’m -a-billionaire disaster like many of the books in the same category. The title refers to what Thiel considers to be the nature of entrepreneurship: creating something that did not previously exist.

Whilst the book itself is not a work of literature, it is of broader cultural significance because it taps the shallow of veign of contemporary business thought which at once shapes the world we live in and glances disappointingly off the surface. Thiel and Masters book measures well against the benchmarks of quality for the genre, like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, or Dee Hock’s exceptional One From Many. It occasionally lapses into the generalisations that plague much of the genre but on the whole it is enjoyable for its structure, concision and insight if not into the business of high technology investment, then into one of the greatest technology investors of his generation.

Peter Thiel speaks with natural authority on the subject of successful technology companies and technology investing. He founded PayPal and led it as CEO until its public listing and acquisition by eBay in (2004?) and his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, was the first investor in Facebook. His latest company, Palantir, in which he is a co-founder and investor produces data analysis software that is being adopted by business and government across the world including the CIA and is rumoured to have been used in the CIA operation to track down Osama bin Laden. Whether it is true or not: such is the hype around Peter Thiel.

More interestingly, the book’s genesis is more nuanced than the usual business magnate’s PR excercise. The book’s co-author is a recent Stanford graduate called Blake Masters who came to Thiel’s attention after his detailed lecture notes on one of Thiel’s lecture courses at Stanford became an internet sensation. The book is in fact a collaborative write up and update of those notes, a sign perhaps of Thiel’s magpie-like eye for opportunity.

One key theme of the book is Thiel’s critique of competition. Better, he says, to operate a tiny monopoly than compete yourself to destruction in a giant market. ”Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”

He gives light to the kind of low-tech decisions that his Founders Fund uses, in combination with some more sophisticated analysis to reach their conclusion: “cleantech executives were running around in suits and ties. This was a huge red flag because real technologists wear t-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings” and on explaining why he has not invested in Uber, ”I prefer not to invest in business models that venture capital guys are too familiar with.”

His understated manner is refreshing in a world dominated by hyperbole; on the subject of his Facebook investment he said simply to a recent interviewer: “it’s a good sign when a company is only looking for money to buy more computers to keep up with demand.”

He sets out his investment principle that any investment ventured by a fund should be capable of returning the entire value of the fund to shareholders because the majority of investments will fail. He sights a potential return of 10 times the investment as the only return that should be entertained by investors not because he expects big returns from all of the companies he invests in, but because each company must be potentially capable of making up for the failures of all the others.

This approach may leave the impression of a cavalier or even scattergun strategy, the kind of institutional gambling that is so vilified by the modern media but the impression of Thiel from the book is of a calculating pragmatist.

Thiel’s success as a founder turned investor outside of the literary world imbue the book with a significance that it would not otherwise deserve. Whilst Zero to One does not pertain to any standards of art, as the public face of an economically significant cultural phenomonen, it is interesting and even insightful and in the end, like any good shop-talk, it is easily confined to an afternoon.

The Editors

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Your Fathers Where Are TheyYour Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers is one of a rare breed of American writers (perhaps their leader?) capable of capturing complex emotional states with sophisticated bluntness.

His first book, A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius is the part biographical story of a young man coming of age, discovering the world in the company of his younger brother, for whom he has become responsible.

Those states of responsibility and liminal adulthood are picked up again in Your Fathers. The protagonist, Thomas, seeks to orient himself in the world (”I really am a clean cut guy. I’m just stuck in a tight spot right now”) and establish his sense of self by kidnapping a sequence of characters from his childhood who each represent a cut of the many facets of American hero culture; an astronaut; a retired war veteran-senator with no legs; Thomas’s mother; a teacher; a policeman.

As the story unfolds so too do the personal links connecting each of the kidnapped characters to Thomas, the astronaut was a class mate (”You told me one day you were going to go up in the Shuttle. Remember that?”), the teacher his old maths teacher who held ‘sleepovers’ for his students which Thomas’s mother would send him to. By a coincidence the policeman Thomas kidnaps turns out to have been present at the shooting of a disturbed student, a friend of Thomas’s. The plot falls into place around him like so many shackles.

More importantly, Your Fathers is a song to a generation born into peacetime and expectation. A world explored and conquered, a life cheapened and tainted. A generation, perhaps like all other generations, which looks at its forebears and thinks, ‘you must be joking’ but does not know how to change what they see before them. Thomas approaches his fate with a quixotic mix of action and resignation: ”After I took the astronaut, I figured I only have a certain window before I’m caught or found or something else happens to me, so I thought I might as well get it all figured out in one fell swoop.”

Eggers carefully stretches the boundaries between flippancy and premeditation (”You were the guy who came to the house to rewire the phones?”) demonstrating Thomas’s enormous capacity for positive action and crushing it against what on occasion seems like mental illness, but too often presents itself as the manifestation of the selfish modern cult of consumerist self-discovery in which everything, including the lives of others, are fodder to fill a yawning need for validation: ”But just yesterday, with the astronaut, I felt like I was on the verge of something, I was breathing better. And I know you’ll help me even more.”

Your Fathers deals with a very modern strain of issues of the self. A generation of disaffected young people, alienated from their peers, from the structures of social validation, born into expectation and abundance to which they feel an entitlement even when they lack the personal skills to access it. Written entirely in dialogue, it is a book which embodies the dysfunctional intergenerational dialogue that our society of abundance has fostered and created – a fierce, clear window into a world still being created.

The Editors

The Sea Close By

The Sea Close By - Albert CamusThe Sea Close By – Albert Camus

“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.”

So begins one of the most lyrical and beautiful extended metaphors for the well lived life ever written. One long dream-like recollection of many journeys strung together, the passage captures an essential experience of travel: the disconnection from place and possessions caused by the inevitable surrender to elements greater than oneself.

“We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending. Sun and moon rise in turn, on the same thread of light and night. Days at sea, even and indistinguishable as happiness…”

Few stories show the aptitude of prose, in manipulating time and distance as much as conveying meaning, as Camus’s short descriptive essay. Camus’s capacity to travel a vast distance in a sentence – “Beyond, the Ocean lies everywhere, on one side we pass by the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, the meridians wed the lattitudes, the Pacific drinks the Atlantic … Suddenly, one morning the seagulls disappear. We are far from any land, and alone, with our sails and our engines” – that capacity is equalled only by his ability to stall his prose and capture a single moment of unbridled natural pleasure: “Day breaks over a surging sea, full of steel spangles.”

The seemless shifting from fast to slow and back again transmits the dreamlike state of the traveller as he submits to the spacelessness of travel, the lack of confines, the disregard for direction that comes with constant movement: “Today, on the contrary, I have all the air I need, all our sails slap in the blue air, I am going to cry out with speed, we throw our sextants in the sea.”

His passion for the sea lies in stark contrast to his feelings for the land (“Without space there is neither innocence nor liberty!”). On the land he describes only indifference. The magic of the sea is absent, his attitude to life limp and disaffected (“It is at funerals that I excel myself”).

“Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the one I love. What can I do if all I can remember is one image?”

But what is most striking, appealing, is the proximity of Camus’s most vivid passages – his most animate spirit expressing itself in words – when life is at its most proximate to death. The paradox of space and nature, transience and permanence lends Camus’s writing a special poignancy. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.”  His funereal treatment of life on land, in community, shrouds the story in death, but in the rigid social structures that death is lent a futility that is abundantly absent from Camus’s life at sea.

“What man who cherishes the sea and loneliness will ever stop himself from loving the obstinate madmen who, clinging to planks and tossed by the mane of immense oceans, chase after islands long adrift.”

It is in death that Camus paints the happiness of this life, in the refusal to submit to structure, to conformity and instead to follow the winds and the seas, to pass by great continents in a sentence, to marvel at the gifts of the sea and to wish always to return to the sea’s cool grasp and ultimately in his acceptance of death and the sea as the forces of spiritual liberation from man’s own inadequacy of spirit: “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cells, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.”

The Editors

Don Quixote 4: the mirror

“It was a great misadventure for me to run across a man who is seeking adventures.” – a young bachelor of the church injured by Don Quixote

I recently saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read “Smart has the brains, but stupid has the balls.” Which seemed applicable as a description for Don Quixote’s adventuring. In our latest episode, he has stopped a funeral procession of ‘timorous and unarmed’ young men hurrying to an inn far away as the day is getting late, “Halt, O knights, or whomsoever you might be, and give an account of yourselves.”

“We’re in a hurry” comes the reply. So the fearless knight errant of La Mancha, looking to take revenge on behalf of the dead knight he imagines to be carried in the litter behind the group, attacks them with his lance and breaks a man’s leg. “No doubt about it,” says Sancho, “this master of mine is as brave and courageous as he says.”

One of Cervantes’ most enjoyable literary games is the self-referential exchanges between narrator and character; he plays with Don Quixote’s self-perception and the narrative reality of the story: asking Sancho Panza why it was that he chose to describe him as The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, Don Quixote corrects Sancho’s assertion that it is because of “your grace having the sorriest-looking face I have seen,” and instead asserts: “rather the wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thought it a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past.” At once ridiculous and insightful, Don Quixote shows a literary self awareness which bears no relation to reality and yet lends to his credibility as a character who bridges the divide between fiction and reality both in personality and in a strange brand of meta-wisdom that can only exist because of the gap between reader, narrator and character, a gap which Cervantes exploits adroitly to turn a ludicrous character into a compelling and occasionally insightful one.

And perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the novel is the reflexive nature of Don Quixote’s delusional self-belief:

“I am, I repeat, he who is to revive the Knights of the Round Table, the Twelve Peers of France, the Nine Worthies, he who is to make the world forget the Platirs, Tablants, Olivants, and Tirants, the Phoebuses and Belianises, and the entire horde of famous knights errant of a bygone age”.

Shortly after this vaunting speech, and in order to prevent his master setting out on his “incomparable and most fearsome adventure” in the middle of the night, Sancho “very quietly and cunningly tied Rocinante’s forelegs together with his donkey’s halter” thus preventing Don Quixote’s departure until morning. Perhaps we all need a Sancho Panza in our lives, to lash our donkey’s legs together when our ambitions begin to overreach our reality.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

The Book Club spy has been woefully inactive of late, however their swansong was an evening dedicated to Wolf Hall. It is highly unlikely that Don’t Read Too Fast readers will not have encountered this Booker Prize winning novel by Mantel, if they have not yet had the chance (or if they hated it, apparently some history graduates do) then it portrays the fall of Cardinal Wolsely and Thomas More during the rise of Anne Boleyn, from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.

The novel opens on Cromwell as a boy in Putney being beaten by his drunken father in a rage. Despite being easily big enough to defend himself, he runs away to France.  The first indication of his steely control comes through his explanation for his egress: “I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason”. He does not waste words, and is spurred on by logic and calculation, rather than fear.

We next meet him 27 years later, working as Cardinal Wolsely’s right hand.  He is a lawyer, an accountant, and an enforcer with an opaque background as a mercenary and trader. Wolsely teaches him diplomacy (“You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook”) as he already knew money.  Read more

Pushkin 1: Lost in translation?

Queen of Spades - Alexander PushkinQueen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

The idea of something being ‘lost in translation’ is both strong and valid. Social constructs, vocally embodied in our mother tongues, language and vocabulary, provide a base for communication and understanding between people and peoples. The sheer quantity of meaning, nuance, suggestion, hint, tip and allusion that one can pack into a short written phrase – let alone a spoken one – is remarkable. It is also somewhat inaccessible for those without the necessary tools to perceive this bounty of information. To fully detect and understand these signals takes an upbringing, depth of study or talent, ideally all three.

If you can bear it, the first couple of chapters of the Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature provide a good and relatively deep insight as to the importance of language and delivery in our comprehension of what people are saying and why they are saying it. It is something that might sound intuitive, maybe even obvious, but I would recommend taking a little time to consider it. These, at times subconscious, constructs and the communication (and miscommunication) that they engender are a matter widely studied by International Relations scholars and their importance is ever-increasing along with our evolving and expanding methods of communicating with one another; worldwide.

The ‘translation’ argument is close to its strongest when one considers those authors who are credited with the creation of a language or a domestic literary tradition. English commentaries on Dante’s work frequently mention their inadequacy in interpretation. Those of us in Britain might well think the same if we consider what Shakespeare might be like to read in Italian. These authors’ works have come to embody more than the stories that they tell, they document a context, a history and have bequeathed a style of writing and comprehension that whole nations identify with. This is the case with Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin.

Pushkin seems a wonderful character – his life tells a tale that would not be out of place in fiction. He was descended from noble Slavs on one side and Ethiopians on the other. One can imagine that his slightly swarthy looks set him very much apart from his contemporaries in early Nineteenth Century Russia. The effects and affections that a peculiar lineage such as his may have entailed are reflected in his unfinished masterpiece The Moor of Peter the Great.

The Moor of Peter the Great - Alexander PushkinThe young Pushkin had an obvious talent for writing and an open mind he soon found himself falling foul of the Establishment by the age of twenty. He was ‘exiled’ to take governance posts in minor provinces and, luckily for us, devoted a good deal of time to reading and writing. As lives in earlier times often seem to have been lived in fast-forward, Pushkin’s was no exception. By his early thirties he had earned a reprieve to Moscow and married a young socialite called Natalya Goncharova. Only four years later he died, aged thirty-seven in 1837, of wounds suffered in a pistol-duel defending the honour of his bride who had been accused of infidelity.

Pushkin left behind him a legacy. From the age of fifteen he published critically acclaimed poetry, plays and prose. I do not speak Russian, but from what I can read and what people tell me, his writing bound together disparate dialects and literary traditions like no one before him. Furthermore the style and structure of his writing was distinct and immensely influential. His stories are written in direct, pithy tots and tend to centre on a few core personalities. These characters formed the mediums and conduits that would take the reader through lavish environmental detail but also, through their abundant subjectivity, give deep insights into their characters and their perceptions.

In this largesse we are frustrated but satisfied in equal measure. Without a native, or extremely educated, understanding of Russian it is hard (or impossible) to properly understand the effect that Pushkin had on his domestic literary tradition. But – the mist important but – we can bask in the gift of his stories and the stories that his life’s work inspired. When I read him, I cannot help to think that his work paved the way and helped to inspire some of the greatest stories that have ever been told: Raskolnikoff and Sonia toiling to a shared peace in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment through to Woland’s message for The Master in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita. On a slightly less romantic note, it seems to me that Pushkin and post-Pushkin Russian writing translates incredibly well into English. The characters often demonstrate an eccentricity – a humanity – with which the readers can identify which shines through even in translation. The short sentences and peculiar detail often make for awkwardly humorous moments that the British, in particular, tend to understand and appreciate.

The Queen of Spades is a superb introduction to Pushkin. It is possibly the most famous piece of his prose work. More a short story than a novella, the succinctness and precision with which this mildly-surrealist story does nothing but add to its brilliance. The story hinges on Hermann, an earnest, frugal, German soldier. “The game fascinates me, but I am not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries,” announces Hermann when questioned about his gambling abstinence.

An octogenarian Countess is Hermann’s foil as the story begins. She was once known as la Vénus Moscovite during her days spent racking up insurmountable debt as a twenty-something woman in Paris sixty years prior. In order to pay her debt, the young Countess turned to a society outcast, Count St-Germain, even rumoured to be the infamous Wandering Jew. From this shadowy character she learned a temporal clairvoyance – the next three cards drawn from a pack given a promise that after the trick is used she would retire from betting. Using this magic (and a little financial leverage) she pays her debtors, leads a life of luxury with one vice fewer and had since only revealed her valuable secret to one seemingly random acquaintance (who does not follow the ‘after sales guidelines’ and dies a pauper). And as for a Daily Telegraph Social Sterotype, Pushkin delivers with aplomb: “she was far from being wicked, but she had the capriciousness of a woman who had been spoiled by the world, and the miserliness and cold hearted egotism of all old people who have done with loving and whose thoughts lie in the past…she dragged herself to balls and sat in the corner like some misshapen but essential ornament of the ballroom.”

Hermann is driven wild with intrigue. This promise of guaranteed profit, the holy grail of reward with no risk, is too great a temptation for his financial reasoning and parsimonious leanings. He begins an aggressive and successful, yet silent, courtship with the Countess’ first-maid so as to get close enough to learn the secret of the cards. All this happens in about the space of one thousand words. The rest of the book is taken up with further gambling competitions, a lethal ultimatum, a happy marriage, a mental asylum, dreams and nightmares. It is beautifully wild and chaotic. In this short space alone I can see the blue print for my favourite stories. Motifs of religion and Para-normality alongside the themes of greed, literary tastes of the Establishment, misappropriation, the dangers of civilised and high-society, ordinary citizens as collateral damage are laid out for all to see here and they coarse through the veins of Russian literature since published. And yet for all the complexity, beautiful reflections of the normal, of human eccentricity are provided in the very same words for our more basic amusement and entertainment; the Countess cries: “PAUL!”Bring along a new novel with you some time, only not one of those modern ones, not the sort in which the hero strangles either of his parents or in which someone is drowned. I have a great horror of drowned people.”

Matt Bradley

The Magic Mountain 1: Endings

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann“You do not stop dreaming because you get old, you get old because you stop dreaming.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have never been proficient in endings. Unfinished travel diaries, unfinished life projects, the last raspberry in the punnet, the relationship over but not yet ended, the job waiting to be quit, the novel started and browning like an apple core on the side; I am guilty of all and more.

In fact, I do not relish the end but nor do I relish beginnings. I prefer instead to be trapped in the space between places, neither still at A nor yet at B is the state in my mind of the highest enjoyment: happy memories married to yet unspent potential and the thrill of a little uncertainty.

Perhaps then it is fitting that among the shelves of my favourite books is at least one that I have never finished. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann has presented itself to me as an enormous obstacle, the summit of which I have never reached. On three occasions I have set out from the base camp of my Vintage translation – the safe ground of a strong introduction – for the heights and ravines of the text itself.

“We say of time that it passes. Very good, let it pass. But to be able to measure it – wait a minute: to be susceptible of being measured, time must flow evenly, but who ever said it did that? … Our units of measurement are purely arbitrary, sheer conventions.”

My relationship with this book is like this quotation from it. By the conventional unit of measurement of any novel (itself), my reading has been a failure. I have not read the entire unit. But I have relished the many individual units of the book that I have read. I have now bought the book twice, started it three times, given it to charity once and never been less than one third from the end. I always start from the beginning (perhaps that is my mistake) and read until life gets in the way which it all too often does. So for me, this book represents a lifetime project, a secret tryst known only to me (and now you) and the book itself.

Regardless of whether I read to its end or not, The Magic Mountain is a book that I have picked up once and will never fully relinquish, a book that I will continue to read for as long as I have sight and strength enough to do so and even after that, a book whose spine will remain unbent and unchanged by the books that come in between, the books that I read tonight and tomorrow, the books that I eat up hungrily in a single sitting or luxuriate over for an entire weekend. The Magic Mountain and I have a lifetime to eek out – it concealing one third of its story from me, me always relishing the two thirds of pages turned, the one third still ahead, unrevealed – suspended as I wish always to be not at place A nor yet arrived at place B.

So I have begun reading The Magic Mountain once again. Perhaps I will come to feel about this book much as I do about other things (life, love, friendship – things like that), better always to leave one third in the future, unread. This series will track my reading of the book and though I cannot tell you yet where it will end, I can promise you, at least, there will be more.

The Editors