Archive for October, 2019

The Memoir of an Anti-Hero

October 26, 2019

Kornel Filipowicz is a Polish writer, born in 1913, who lived through both world wars and the Soviet occupation of Poland (he died in 1990). He seems to have been completely ignored by the English language until now, despite a writing career which began in the thirties, and encompassed poetry and screen-writing as well as novels and short stories, and a record of resistance to the censorship of both National Socialism (he was imprisoned in Groß-Rosen and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in 1944) and Communism (signing the protest letter Memorial 59 in 1975). He was, and is, widely respected in Poland; Janusz Kowalcyzk, who calls him “one of Poland’s most important post-war prosaists,” tells us:

“In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘going to Kornel’s place’ was proof of belonging to the literary circle. Young writers flocked to him and wore him out with their works.”

Finally, thanks to Penguin Classics and translator Anna Zaranko, we can now read him in English with the publication of his 1961 novella, The Memoir of an Anti-Hero. The memoir opens as the Second World War begins, with our narrator, the ‘anti-hero’ of the title, on holiday, and deciding, unlike other holiday-makers, to resist the temptation to return home immediately:

“I told myself that what the majority did was not necessarily what one ought to do – and I stayed.”

The narrator’s ability to make decisions for himself, though not necessarily always admirable, will be one reason he is able to survive the dangers ahead. It also demonstrates his disengagement from others. When he sees Jews wearing six-pointed stars on armbands he comments:

“I had many Jewish acquaintances, I was even on quite intimate terms with some of them – but ultimately their fate was a source of indifference to me.”

Conversely, he expects no sympathy from others. When he is slapped by a member of the SS and falls, he has no time for those who come to his aid:

“I felt disgust and hatred for these people and their sympathy. I would have been happy to see them meet the same fate on the next street corner.”

The narrator sees his attitude as a rational response to reality:

“The country had been occupied by the victors. I belong to the side of the losers and I have to succumb to those who now run the country.”

He has little patience with those who offer either passive or active resistance – when he finds the behaviour of other Poles in a café ‘provocative’ towards the Germans he simply stops going there. By the same token, he understands “the wisdom of not permitting myself to be drawn too far into intimacy with [the Germans].” His ability to accomplish this balancing act is greatly aided by the fact he can speak German. More than once he pretends to be German to remove himself from a difficult situation. It also aids his attempts to remain uninvolved:

“The Germans simply took me for a Pole, the Poles for a German, whereas I was neither.”

In his desire to remain neutral, he rejects the idea of nationality. He does, however, act when his neutrality is threatened. When the caretaker’s children throw snowballs at him shouting, “Volksdeutsch,” he bribes a German policeman to have the caretaker arrested for a couple of days and then insinuates to his wife that he has worked to have him released.

Filipowicz, however does not present the ‘anti-hero’s’ life as one of constant worry and tension; on the contrary he often refers to feelings of happiness. At the beginning, when he decides he is “not qualified for heroism,” he says, “I became quite cheerful,” and later, following a lucky escape after being arrested for not having his identity papers on him, he comments:

“I felt happy. It was a warm, fragrant evening. The sun had set already, dusk was falling, but the sky was still bright.”

This is not to suggest Filipowicz approves of his character – his own life indicates a different viewpoint – but he convincingly represents a self-preserving cynicism which was likely to have been prevalent at the time, and, of course, still is. Only at the very end does the narrator show any sign of regret (in what he calls a “moment of weakness”), though even here he wishes heroism had been forced upon him.

The Memoir of an Anti-Hero (I assume on some level a response to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time) brings a new viewpoint to a genre which is not under-represented in translated literature. Filipowicz, however, certainly is, and it is to be hoped that more of his work will soon become available in English.

Will and Testament

October 21, 2019

Verso are no strangers to translated fiction, having published writers like Jose Saramago and Wu Ming in the past, but in August they announced the launch of a translated fiction imprint with two titles published this autumn, the first of which was Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament translated by Charlotte Barslund. Hjorth is a Norwegian writer with a career beginning in the 1980s, but Will and Testament is a recent novel, originally published in 2016. Its topic is, as the title suggests, is a disputed will, but the dispute is only the final fracture in a family which is no longer a family.

The novel is narrated by estranged daughter Bergjlot, who at first characterises the dispute as one between her brother, Bard, and her two sisters, Asa and Astrid, beginning when their parents’ will is changed before the unexpected death of their father:

“In the weeks leading up to his death, my siblings had become embroiled in a heated argument about how to share the family estate, the holiday cabins on Hvaler.”

The new will leaves the two holiday cabins to Astrid and Asa despite a long-stated intention that all four children will be treated equally. Bard and Bergjlot will be compensated financially, though the amount they are offered under-values the cabins according to Bard, who views the will as “the final straw in a long line of financial favouritism.” It soon becomes clear, however, that the real story is Bergjlot’s estrangement. For a long time her only contact with her family has been through Astrid, but even here there is tension, particularly when Astrid passes on news regarding their mother:

“Sometimes I had sent furious replies to such messages because Astrid treated me as though it were a matter of will, as though I could simply decide to turn up, to be nice, to make conversation. Astrid had deleted my furious emails without reading them, she wrote, and that was her right…”

This is also the first indication that Bergjlot is not listened to by her family: while deciding not to read a message sent in anger may initially be seen as emotionally mature, it is also a form of selective blindness, refusing to acknowledge that the anger exists, and may even be justified. (Ironically, Astrid is a human rights lawyer: “Everybody makes mistakes, you write… When you meet victims of human rights abuses, is that what you tell them?”). Bergjlot comments frequently ion not being heard: I has learned that speaking the truth was against the rules,” she says, and, “it was as if I didn’t exist, as if my story didn’t exist.”

Clearly something has happened in Bergjlot’s past which the family will not acknowledge, something which, though it is only revealed later in ten narrative, is unlikely to surprise many readers. The novel, however, is not really about what happened, but about the family’s reaction to it, both initially, when it is suppressed by Berjlot as well as her parents, and later, when Bergjlot, through counselling, faces up to her past:

“To finally admit the truth about the very thing they had devoted so much energy to repress and deny.”

She reaches this point after years of unhappiness: “I existed in a state of pain and shame, which couldn’t be undone, but which I couldn’t live with unprocessed either.” Her family’s refusal to engage with her, however, eventually leads her to cut off almost all ties: “the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief.”

Hjorth is not writing a novel where the character’s past is dangled in front of the reader like a carrot; she is instead interested in the ways in which we choose to ignore or side-step what is inconvenient or disruptive. Bergjlot’s mother refuses to acknowledge what happened to Bergjlot not so much by openly denying it as by not hearing it; her sisters, similarly, allow the accusations to exist in a grey area they choose never to visit, instead carrying on as normal. Behaving otherwise poses too much of a challenge to the comfortable status quo:

“If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable.”

As Bergjlot says of Astrid, “she sought reconciliation and cooperation, but there are opposites which can’t be cancelled out, there are times when you must choose.”

Will and Testament is a novel which probes large questions about guilt, acknowledgment and reconciliation in the small space of a family feud; it is a domestic drama with philosophical inquiry at its heart. It marks the discovery of another wonderful Scandinavian writer.

An Evening with Claire

October 15, 2019

An Evening with Claire, Gaito Gazdanov’s first novel, was published in 1930 in France where Gazdanov had arrived in 1923, a Russian émigré. The novel certainly has autobiographical elements, telling, as it does, of a young Russian in Paris who left his homeland after fighting with the White Army when little more than a child. The story is framed around Claire, whom he first meets when he is thirteen. She is slightly older (“At that time I was between the fifth and sixth grades; Claire was finishing her tenth and last.”) – and one of her friends quickly dismisses the narrator as “extraordinarily immature”, something illustrated by the fact he senses rather than understands her “budding sexuality”:

“It always seemed to me I was sinking into a fiery and sweet liquid and seeing Claire’s body and her bright eyes with their long lashes near me.”

He stops visiting her after he is insulted by her mother (in French, as she assumes he will not understand) but now, in Paris he has renewed his acquaintance with her despite her marriage. Though he is now in his twenties, there is still a strong sense that he is the junior partner:

“She smiled and her smile clearly said, ‘My god, is he naïve.’”

It is finally sleeping with Claire, however, which seems to prompt the recollections which form the bulk of the narrative, originating from the feeling that there is sadness as well as joy in achieving his dream:

“…never again could I dream about Claire as I had always dreamed about her, and that much time would come to pass before I would come to form another image of her and before this image would become in its own way just as unattainable for me as had been this moment…”

The narrator’s memories from this point are presented impressionistically, a style which Gazdanov describes as follows:

“It was as if I no longer saw or knew anything that happened to me beyond the moment I chose to recollect… I grew accustomed to living within a past reality which my imagination had brought back to life.”

The narrator’s childhood is one of loss: his father dies when he is eight, and he loses his sisters as well. This makes him rather self-contained – he says, “I never loved anyone and would leave those from whom circumstances would separate me with no regrets.” It is this quality which perhaps encourages him to enlist during the civil war, an action which is not based on ideology:

“I joined the White Army because I was on its territory, because it was expected of me; and if in those days the Reds had occupied Kislovodsk, I probably would have joined the Red Army.”

His time in the army is recounted largely in the characters of his comrades rather than the horrors of war or the incompetence of generals. Even as he demonstrates his affection for his fellow soldiers, however, he continues to remain at one remove from them:

“I passed the time with the soldiers but around me they behaved with a certain guardedness, because I didn’t understand many things which, in their opinion, were extraordinarily simple; at the same time they though I knew things which, in turn, where inaccessible to them.”

The narrator’s ability to observe in detail while maintaining some distance, as well as his desire to embrace experience, suggests the writer in waiting. It also reflects what translator Jodi Daynard calls Gazdanov’s attempt “to reconcile his own joyous sense of wonderment with the depressing material and moral conditions of his times.”

An Evening with Claire can seem slight compared to some other émigré novels: Nina Berberova, for example, deals with childhood during the revolution in much greater depth in The Book of Happiness, and the civil war has been written about extensively in fiction. It also lacks the thriller structure which makes later novels such as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and The Buddha’s Return such a delight. Having said that, it is still a beguiling read, suffused with Gazdanov’s trademark weary joy, encompassing everything from love to war.