Archive for October, 2013

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

October 27, 2013

wolf 2

Gaito Gazdaonv’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf may not be a neglected classic but it is certainly a neglected delight. Gazdanov is a Russian writer who fled his homeland in 1920 and eventually settled in Paris. Originally published in 1947-48, it appeared in English shortly after but has now been released in a new translation by Bryan Karetnyk thanks to Pushkin Press.

The novel has not one but two bewitching openings. The first takes place during the Russian Civil War. The narrator finds himself separated from his comrades and threatened by an enemy soldier charging at him on a white horse. Though apparently at his attacker’s mercy he manages to fire a single shot which hits and, so he believes, kills his opponent. I say the novel has two openings because this one, though dramatic, is only a precursor to the narrator’s discovery, some years later, a story, ‘The Adventure in the Steppe’, in which this event is recounted exactly:

“There remained little doubt for me that the author of the story really was that same pale stranger whom I’d shot.”

So begins the narrator’s determination to track down Alexander Wolf (for he is the story’s author), even when his publisher claims he has no address for him and has not seen him in a year (and tells him that the man is, in fact, English). As is the way with such novels, it is a chance encounter with a compatriot, Vozenesensky, in a pub that leads the narrator to discover more about Wolf. Vozenesensky fought with Wolf and we hear from him the aftermath of Wolf’s encounter with the narrator: “the doctor announced that Sasha had only a few hours to live.” The repeated suggestion that Wolf should not have survived creates the eerie feeling he may be a spectre after all.

From there the novel seems to drift away from Wolf. The narrator becomes a sports journalist and, at a boxing match (which is excellently though rather unnecessarily described at length) he meets a young woman, Yelena, and they strike up a relationship. This is described by Gazdanov with great realism and tenderness:

“The stone walls, the bare trees, the shutters on the building and the steps on the staircase – everything I had known so well and for so long – now acquired a new meaning which hadn’t existed before.”

The middle section is taken up the progress of their relationship and, for a while, it might seem as if Gazdanov is now writing a different novel. However, do not fear, all returns to Wolf and this detour is more significant than it first appears. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf has the feel of a thriller, although on reflection very little happens and much of it is made up of long conversations. Perhaps it’s simply that the tension created in those opening pages never dissipates. Whatever the reason, I found it an entrancing read and can now look forward to two further Gazdanov novels from Pushkin next year.

Brief Loves That Live Forever

October 18, 2013

brief loves that live forever

Andrei Makine, a Russian émigré who famously had to pretend his first novel had been translated into French from the Russian in order for it to be published, has been producing beautifully crafted novel after novel at the rate of almost one a year since. Now, after a slightly longer gap that has seen him change publisher (from Sceptre to MacLehose) but not translator (Geoffrey Strachan), comes his twelfth: Brief Loves That Live Forever. Makine emphasises the brevity of the loves by creating the novel from a series of stand-alone stories tracing the loves of its narrator, and also the history of the Soviet Union from Brezhnev to the fall of the Berlin Wall (but with references further back to the Civil War and Lenin).

Makine’s central thesis is that love provides a counter to politics. As he explained in a recent interview:

“Love is a state of mind. As for my characters I wouldn’t say that they use it as an escape but rather as a way to go beyond the material issues and the political influences. Love shows up as a shock, it’s an intimate truth, so in a way we could define it as anti-ideological.”

This is immediately evident from the second chapter (which is chronologically the first as the novel is bookended by the story of an acquaintance of the narrator). In it the narrator becomes trapped within the dismantled scaffolding of the giant stands that are used for the Soviet parades. His revelation is encouraged by this glimpse of (literally) behind the scenes of Soviet power and the feeling of being unable to escape the system (which, as an orphan, he is very much part of) but it comes with the sight of a beautiful young woman:

“I sensed that the truth was to be found neither among them nor in the opposing camp, with the dissidents…The humble beauty of the woman’s face with the lowered eyelids showed up those platforms and their occupants and the pretentiousness of men prophesying in History’s name as ridiculous.”

Makine is adept at using small moments to give us insight into the soviet regime. A class trip to meet a woman who knew Lenin ends with the narrator falling for her granddaughter who later reveals to him why her grandmother is reluctant to talk about her past:

“A town was resisting the authority of the Soviets. Lenin said he should kill 100 – 1,000 people as an example. The number was indicated just like that, with a dash….Alexandra was furious – a pencil stroke wiping out hundreds of living beings.”

We also learn of a vast orchard – “a triumph of collectivist agriculture” – where no bees can reach the centre and so the trees bear no fruit: a wonderful metaphor for the Soviet state.

Yet the narrator does not reject Communism and embrace the new Russia:

“So tomorrow communism’s rotten shanty will be raised to the ground. That’s clear. But what, in fact, do you and your friends propose to replace it? What kind of society? What way of life?”

The loves of the novel are as brief as the title suggests – Makine is not interested in long term relationships. The emphasis is on how we are affected by these sudden deep emotional attachments. Even the story revealed in the first and final chapters of “a friend of a friend of a friend”, Dmitri Ress, whose love does last forever, is not the story of a relationship, but similarly of how love, even from fleeting contact, can influence your life. While ultimately there’s something a little sexist in all of this, that doesn’t prevent it being true to experience. If you’ve not read Makine before, this is the perfect place to start; I forecast a delving into his back catalogue will follow

Red or Dead

October 14, 2013

red or dead

Great stylists are easily parodied, and therefore easily ridiculed. The textual tics of a Samuel Beckett or an Ernest Hemmingway can be quickly mocked and, some would argue, are always in danger of falling into self-mockery. (Perhaps that is why such fierce stylists are rare.) What, then, to make of David Peace, a writer so immensely formulaic in the cadences of his fiction it all but overwhelms the content? Peace’s latest novel, based on the life of Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, is over 700 pages long, and so it is difficult in even an extended extract to give a true sense of the style which remains rigidly in place throughout the book. Here is a brief example:

“On a frozen pitch, in inches of sand. In the twenty-first minute, Peter Thompson was tackled. Hard. Thompson fell, Thompson hurt. And on the frozen pitch, in the inches of sand. Thompson did not get back up. And Evans came on for Thompson. And on the frozen pitch, in the inches of sand. Liverpool football club were all fingers and thumbs. Error after error, mistake after mistake. On the frozen pitch, in the inches of sand.”

Short sentences and repetition are the key factors. Repetition that involves never referring to the main character as ‘he’ but always as ‘Bill Shankly’; repetition that means whenever ‘at home’ appears ‘at Anfield immediately follows. The text is also filled with more information (crowd attendances, teams, scores) than a football almanac. Match after match is detailed, in a style similar to the above, often with little or nothing in between. And yet I found it riveting.

Bill Shankly was the manager who changed Liverpool from Second Division mediocrities into First Division champions, won them their first F.A. Cup, and also their first European trophy. Peace’s achievement is to turn this into a piece of fiction that brilliantly conveys the relentless nature of the game in a way that I’m sure today’s manager would immediately recognise. And it’s the novel’s style which does this. Including every detail of every match demonstrates how difficult it is to win. Even though we are aware that there is a Hollywood story arc from failure to success, it does not feel the same when we are immersed in the minutiae of the matches. Even after winning the League, Shankly must immediately prepare for winning it again.

Red or Dead will be compared to Peace’s other football novel, The Damned Utd. That however was a quite different book with its focus on a much shorter time period and a more complex and conflicted character in Brain Clough. Shankly is quieter, unassuming, repeating again and again that everything he does is for Liverpool Football Club and its fans. There are numerous stories of his kindness to fans, and time and again he uses the supporters to motivate the players. The length of Red or Dead, which some might see as indulgent, is also important. Without it, it would be difficult to understand Shankly’s decision to retire when at the pinnacle of his success. It also demonstrates why he finds it impossible to leave the game behind.

The relentless flow of football is only broken by a lengthy (verbatim, I think) conversation between Shankly and Harold Wilson after Shankly retired and hosted a radio show. This is clearly important to Peace’s aims with the novel as he features both characters again in a railway carriage in the final scene. Unfortunately I found its comparisons between football and politics banal and, though both men talk as socialists, neither has anything profound to say on the topic.(And while it’s always nice for Robert Burns to get a mention, this too seemed as little glib). Perhaps Peace’s intention is simply to hark back to a different Britain, as the novel’s final line (“All change here! All change, please!”) seems to suggest.

What is certainly the case is that Peace, author of the greatest English novel about football, has provided himself with some competition.

Chasing the King of Hearts

October 12, 2013


Luckily I tend to buy Pereine’s tri-annual volumes without considering the author (who I am unlikely to have heard of) or the subject matter: no other publisher seems to have such an uncanny knack of unearthing previously untranslated literary gems. I say ‘luckily’ because such ignorance prevented me coming to Hanna Krall’s story of the Holocaust with any expectations. So many books, fiction and non-fiction, have been published on the subject of the Holocaust that, each time a new one appears, there is an increasing danger that we will assume that there is nothing new to be said, no revelatory way left of looking – and without that ability to make us see the known in a way that makes it unknown again, literature is not fulfilling its function.

Luckily (again) Hanna Krall’s novel, Chasing the King of Hearts, does just that. It is a story of survival (not without its own luck) and love in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Izolda escapes from the Warsaw Ghettoby bribing a soldier; later she manages to get her husband, Shayek, out through the sewers. Life outside depends entirely on not being recognised as Jewish: she worries that a gesture of her father’s might be identified as “Jewish gesticulation”; when she first gets out she stares at her bag on the floor:

“Does the bag look Jewish there? She tries the sofa, the stool, the chair. Because if it does, what exactly about the bag is Jewish?”

To survive you must focus only on survival. When Izolda is arrested (but not recognised as Jewish) she sees her husband’s mother in the prison:

“His mother will give her way with a look, a gesture…
“…her own mother-in-law is walking to her death and Izolda is asking the Mother of God to make her step more quickly.”

When Izolda is arrested again later she is relieved that it is because she has been mistaken for a prostitute rather than as a Jew.

Izolda’s survival is, to her, a facet of her husband’s survival. When he is captured she lives only for his letters, undertaking desperate tasks to earn the money she thinks can help him. Her own continued life becomes purposeful only so he can live. When she is eventually sent to Auschwitz she hopes he kindness to others will be to her husband‘s credit with God:

“Do you see? I’m helping her. Don’t forget: We have a deal.”

Izolda’s survival is never in doubt as Krall includes post-war scenes in Israel throughout the narrative where her out-of-placeness (she doesn’t speak Hebrew) seems another indictment of the war’s injustice. The novel is split into many short (one to two page) chapters echoing the moment to moment nature of survival. It works in two ways: Izaldo’s love offering some form of redemption for the surrounding horror (whether her husband is ‘worth it’ or not is irrelevant) while at the same time highlighting it. Her striving for life is a tiny light in a landscape of death.