Russians in July: Yuri Olesha’s Envy

Yuri Olesha seems to have liked living and writing dangerously. This slim satirical novel Envy was published in 1927, just as the Stalinist purges were starting in earnest. Yet he was also born lucky: the satire was interpreted as being at the expense of the bourgeoisie or the parasitic influences in the ideal Soviet society, so he mostly escaped persecution, unlike many of his contemporaries (Zamyatin, Bulgakov, fellow Odessan Isaac Babel).

Andrei appears to be the model Soviet citizen: a party member and trade director of the Food Industry Trust, who seems to have dedicated his life to feeding the Soviet people (35 kopek sausages and communal dining halls, so no one needs to cook at home). He is rather rotund, naive, easy-going, essentially good-natured. He rescues the narrator (of the first part of the novel), Nikolai Kavalerov, who was lying drunk and homeless on the streets, and gives him shelter in exchange for some light editing chores. But Kavalerov is not grateful: instead, he spitefully observes and reports back to us the reader all of the gross personal habits of his benefactor, and mocks his idealism and ability to get excited over the silliest, most trivial of things.

He the ruler, the Communist, was building a new world. And in this new world, glory was sparked because a new kind of sausage had come from the sausage-maker’s hands. I didn’t understand this glory. What did it mean? Biographies, monumnets, history had never told me of glory like this… Did this mean the nature of glory had changed?

Kavalerov is filled with even more hatred for Andrei when he discovers that he is not the first ‘rescue project’. Before he came along, Andrei had for many years been harbouring Volodya Makarov, a young football player, in his home. And should Volodya ever return, then Andrei cheerfully admits that Kavalerov would have to free up the space for him. Suddenly, the younger man realises that he is the perpetual outsider. His thoughts could be interpreted as dripping in self-pity, but they show a man who cannot adapt (or perhaps doesn’t want to) to a society that feels alien to him. The author uses to great effect the ‘wooden language’ of Communist propaganda.

… it suddenly became very clear to me how much I didn’t belong with these people who had been called together on this great and important occasion, the utter irrelevance of my presence amongst them… I have neither hard labour nor a revolutionary past behind me…

Many of the angriest, most over-the-top scenes don’t actually occur in real life, they all take place in Kavalerov’s twisted imagination. He is the nihilist who cannot bear the optimism that is being forced on people in the Soviet system. Then he meets the counterpoint to Andrei: Ivan, the poet and dreamer, who lacks any sense of reality or pragmatism, and who happens to be Andrei’s brother, jealous of his success but not really wanting to adapt to the new world. Ivan too lives with one foot in the past, ‘the dwindling era’. And the author clearly notices and makes fun of the flaws of both the capitalist and communist system.

Author photo.

The story appears to be simple, but is embroidered with flights of fantasy, slapstick farce, unreliable narrators and characters who are prone to sudden rants. First person POV becomes a dubious sort of third person (albeit with long monologues which turn it into first person). The casual (and often hilarious) juxtaposition of sordid realism and flights of fancy, of real and imagined conversations, the tangential connections between episodes reminded me of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

It’s short, sharp, completely barmy. The best description of the effect the book had on me is in the book itself, when Kavalerov talks about the optical illusions created by street mirrors (are they really a thing?).

You don’t know which way is up, as the saying goes. So suddenly have the rules been broken, so incredibly have the proportions changed. But you rejoice in your dizziness…

I read the NYRB edition of this book, in a new translation by Marian Schwartz and introduced by Ken Kalfus.

#EU27Project: Robert Menasse – The Capital

This book by Austrian writer Robert Menasse (step-brother of Eva Menasse, whom I’ve mentioned previously on this blog), translated by Jamie Bulloch, is the quintessential novel for the #EU27Project – in fact, for the EU 28, because the capital city of the title is Brussels and the United Kingdom is still within the EU, albeit reluctantly.

I won’t say too much about the plot, such as it is: the European Commission is getting ready to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary and wants to boost its image in the public eye. Sadly, the preparations are in chaos, not only because of the usual infighting and stubbornness of competing egos, but because into the mix come runaway pigs, dead bodies and Auschwitz survivors who refuse to conform to the plan. Jamie Bulloch, as always, does an excellent job of making the vicious sound funny, yet injecting a tragic note into the proceedings as well.

The plot is essentially an excuse to send up the complicated hierarchical structures and nationalist impulses of the various countries and their officials within the European Commission. I particularly relished the description of the British delegate.

Like most of the British officials, George Morland wasn’t especially liked in the Commission. The British… only accepted one binding rule: that fundamentally they were an exception. In truth the British were always suspected of neglecting the interests of the Community for the benefit of London’s interests. In many instances the suspicion was justified.

Beneath the farcical situations and humour, there are sharp, swift arrows that pierce the pretentiousness of many bureaucratic ‘types’ as well as nations, not just the Brits.

Strozzi was just plump enough to demonstrate that he was no ascetic, a fact reinforced by the signal red of his waistcoat. Strozzi was an anomaly at this level of power, which was dominated by the ‘Enarques’, graduates of those elite schools such as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, slim men in discreet, not-too-expensive suits (ascetic in every respect) capable of negotiating for hours on end and all night long too. They appeared to need barely any food and as good as no sleep, they got by with few words few gestures, they avoided sugaring their souls with the sweetness of empthy, they didn’t need a public arena… they eschewed the outside gloss.

Yet, despite the conformity of these faceless bureaucrats, there is a similar cloning effect within the British contingent, with all of the advantages that senior official Grace Atkinson believes it brings:

If the foreign secretary’s private office in London had to reach a decision, the discussion lasted half an hour at most, including all the rituals and small talk at the beginning and end. People there had the same background, they were of comparable stock, which meant they had also been to the same schools, spoke the same language with the same accent by which they recognised each other, they all had spouses from the same social class, between 80 and 90 per cent of their biographical details were identical… But here in Brussels? Around the table there were alwas people with different languages and of different cultural backgrounds, many from working-class and artisan families too, especially from the eastern countries, with very different experiences, and everything that Grace Atkinson was used to resolving in twenty minutes here took hours, days, weeks.


Tongue-in-cheek endorsement of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decisiveness’ over consultation and compromise, clearly!

There are also some idealists, who are about to become disillusioned. There are some outbursts which sound heartfelt, almost as if the author has gone on his own political rant through the mouth of one of his characters. There are opportunities to pause and reflect on the future of the EU – although any luminous vision is punctured instantly by ridiculous suggestions.

All in all, this is a wicked little satire, very similar in vein although less compassionate than the depiction of the UN in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

Two Contrasting Satirical Works: Spike Milligan and Dan Lungu

One way of dealing with traumatic historical events is by using satire or black humour. The Romanians have an expression for it ‘faci haz de necaz’ – making fun of misery/trouble. Coincidentally, two of the books I read recently for two very different projects #EU27Project and #DavidBowieBookClub, both deal with painful subjects in recent history, but they have very different approaches.

Dan Lungu: Sint o baba comunista! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy)

The collapse of the Berlin wall and the so-called Second World (that uncomfortable compromise between developed First and undeveloped Third World) was accompanied by a near total erasure of Eastern Europe with all that it stood for. It was not just a political system that collapsed but a whole way of life, culture, set of values, and they were replaced virtually overnight by something that wasn’t necessarily always better. Furthermore, things that were flawed but nevertheless precious to this generation were now openly derided, everything they ever built or contributed was sometimes brutally torn apart. So many of them felt that their whole lives had been wasted – a painful realisation.

I have heard this complaint from many of my elderly relatives, and this is described very realistically by Dan Lungu in this book. Ten years after the fall of Communism in Romania, Emilia is an old-age pensioner, who now has to deal with the fact that the world she has known all her life and learnt to live in (with all its imperfections) has gone forever. Her daughter Alice is now settled in Canada, married to a Canadian, and phones to ask her how she is planning to vote. This simple telephone conversation (repeated many, many times over in all of Romania in the late 1990s, early 2000s) represents the perennial struggle between generations – the nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way we fondly remember it now vs. the more forward-looking, able to cope with uncertainty and complexity attitude of the younger generation. It triggers some soul-searching in Emilia, as she remembers fragments of her past. Her life had been relatively sheltered: she was working in metallurgy, producing special orders for export, so had access to money and goods, compared to others. For her the fall of Communism has spelled nothing but disillusion and disaster.

Scene from the film adaptation.

‘Don’t you remember the massive queues, going all the way round the corner?’

‘OK, there were queues, but now when you go into a shop, you admire the cutlets, swallow hard and head back out, ‘cos you can’t afford them…I see families starving on TV, with children sleeping on the streets… You wouldn’t see that kind of stuff under Communism.

‘That will change. It takes time – we’re in transition right now, but I’m optimistic.’

‘Of course you’re optimistic when you’re living in Canada or France or America… You just come and live here for a while. You’ll get optimism then with spots on!’

‘What about freedom, Mum? That’s got to be worth something. We were frightened of our own shadows back then. Now you can say whatever you please, write what you want, travel where you like, shout “Down with the government!”‘

‘Travel? Sure, it’s the newly rich who do that, stealing from the things we built. And shouting, of course we can shout till we’re hoarse, no one’s listening anyway.’

There are many funny moments and culture clashes in this story (receiving the Canadian son-in-law in their house is one such classic moment), but it is the kind of ‘sad-funny’ situation that has no resolution. The ending feels a bit rushed – Emilia is questioning her memories of happy life under Communism, or at least understanding that not everyone was equally happy, but there is no real growth or change or resolution. However, it’s a touching portrayal of the dilemma many people were facing at the time (and subsequent corrupt governments have not necessarily made things better.) I’m both happy and sad that it has been translated into English, as I think I would have been the ideal candidate to translate this – I would certainly have loved to do it!

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

As you might expect with Spike Milligan, this is more of a farce than a sad/funny type of satire. It has a very cinematic quality – the detailed descriptions of each character and situation would lend themselves to a madcap TV series, although perhaps some of the (often quite pointless but hilarious) back stories would get lost.

Puckoon is a village in Ireland north east of Sligo. At the time of the partition of Ireland it is accidentally cut in two by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This leads to ridiculous situations such as having a funeral procession pass through customs to cross the border which lies between the church and the graveyard.

‘What have you got in the coffin?’

‘You must be joking,’ said the priest, his face going purple with anger…

‘I’m not joking, sir, I am merely doing my duty.’

‘Very well. Inside the coffin is the body of 98-year-old Dan Doonan. Now let us pass!’

‘Not quite finished yet, sir. You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory?… I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?… Then he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually with a visa for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay,’ he concluded.

While the absurdity of government bureaucracy is really well presented in the excerpt quoted, in other instances the satire is less successful. My objection is perhaps influenced by the fact that the eccentric villagers are so ridiculous and larger than life, that it reinforces stereotypes about the Irish: permanently drunk, garrulous, easy to anger, doing things the wrong way round.

The other thing which made me uncomfortable was that, although the book was published in 1963, so before the Troubles proper started in Ireland, the farcical way in which it handles the rather traumatic subject of national identity and sense of belonging would have made it almost unbearable to read during the period that followed, when violence became so common-place both in Northern Ireland and in England. At heart I suppose I agree with Milligan that nationalism and religious fanaticism is ripe for satire, but I missed the undercurrent of sadness that would turn this into a moral lesson.

The book was adapted for a feature film in 2002, so after the Good Friday agreement, when people could laugh once more about the border. I wonder if it will become once more an unbearable topic in future…

Were My Expectations Too High?

There are some books that come highly recommended, are reasonably well-written, have an intriguing premise, are enjoyable to read… and yet they still fail to quite live up to my expectations. This could be because my expectations for them are simply unrealistic. Or it could be that dreaded statement (which annoys all authors) ‘it’s not quite how I would have written the story’. Anyway, here are some recent reads that were slightly off-the-mark for me, but which others may find much more to their taste.

lecercleBernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

I loved the claustrophobic wintry atmosphere of Minier’s first novel The Frozen Dead, although the serial killer locked in an asylum trope did seem a little unoriginal. So I was looking forward to this second novel – perhaps too much so. With a sinking heart, I discovered this book started with a prologue about a woman imprisoned in a cell and abused by her captor and was even more dismayed to discover that the spectre of the serial killer from book 1 (the sinister and far-too-clever Julian Hirtmann) makes a reappearance. It just stretched my suspension of disbelief a little bit too far, and there were many moments (such as the holiday of gendarme Irene in Santorini) that seemed to be mere filling, serving no purpose whatsoever. I suppose it was done to give more depth to the characters, but it just added bulk to the book. The characters of the investigators, I felt, were already fairly well-defined and rounded. Some of the secondary characters, however, were mere archetypes and there were simply too many investigations going on simultaneously.

To be fair, there were many things I did enjoy about the book. The season is early summer and it’s thunderstorms rather than avalanches which threaten the closed-in valleys of the Pyrenees. The setting is a quiet university town called Marsac, the so-called Cambridge of the south-west of France (there is a real Marsac not far from there, but this one appears to be imaginary). The character of the main investigator, Martin Servaz, and his relationship with his teenage daughter Margot; the no-nonsense Chinese-Franco-Moroccan sidekick Samira Cheung; the crime scene with the dolls floating face-up in the swimming pool; the brooding forest on the outskirts of town; the backdrop of the 2010 Football World Cup and France’s dismal performance in it… all of these were vividly described and memorable.

I read this in French, but Minotaur Books has the translation coming out on 27th of October, but I have been unable to find out the name of the translator. Maybe Alison Anderson, who also translated the first in the series.

AssassinsRichard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Try transposing Jesus’s death and the ulterior fate of his disciples into the present-day. Arm your protagonists with mobile phones, GPS tracking, airplanes and weapons, yet describe a world of gladiators, Roman Empire bureaucracy, simple folk clad in traditional garb. Give it a sceptical but increasingly confused ‘detective’ in the shape of Gallio to track down the remaining disciples and disprove the rumours about Christ’s resurrection. And there you have it: a strange mash-up of ideas and time periods, which raises interesting questions about how to contain a new religion or ideology, predestination and interpretation of events or people’s words.

I really liked the concept and the first half or so of the book felt fresh, different and very funny (whilst also being sad at the same time). However, I felt the ‘joke’ dragged on after a while. I did like the ending, but there was a bit of a sag in the middle, although the ambiguous character of Paul (whom I’ve never felt much traction with) somewhat redeemed matters.

For a more enthusiastic review of this book (which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction), see here and here. As for me, when it comes to a book blending religion, history and political satire, I prefer The Master and Margarita.

 

 

 

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.