TARP No. 39 – ‘The History of a Town’ by M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin

Who? M. E. Saltykov-Shchderin, pronounce it at your peril.

What? A Russian satire in the vein of Gogol, though much, much funnier.

When? 1870, era of the Tsars.

How? An historical account of a small fictional Russian town (Glupov) over one hundred years, examined in proxy via its tyrannical yet inept rulers.

Why? Saltykov-Shchedrin is definitely in competition for the funniest Russian novel of all time, and only falls short of Bulgakov’s efforts much later. As a satire, it must be seen as the base for many state-sceptical works: its boldness in the portrayal of government officials and civil servants is a highly inventive invective. Foote’s translation reads like a dream; it is, considering the epoch of the source material, extremely successful in flow and timbre. If only all novels on the sufferings of the Russian peoples were such a dandy delight.

The History of a Town is available as an Apollo paperback, translated by I. P. Foote and introduced with some gusto by Charlotte Hobson, recent author of The Vanishing Futurist.

16 October 2017

TARP No. 38 – ‘Selected Poems’ by Charles Baudelaire

Who? Baudelaire, Dionysian-hero-poet-extraordinaire.

What? A selection of verse and prose-poems, including a good chunk of Les Fleurs du Mal.

When? Mid nineteenth-century, with all the zest of Hugo’s grotty Paris.

How? Carol Clark translates Baudelaire’s bucolic verse into concise, rhymeless prose footnotes – an excellent way to imbibe (disregarding B.’s strict and inventive use of French meter).

Why? Reading Baudelaire in my twenties did little to curb my unrelenting pretentiousness; re-reading him now provides something of the same. His vigour is languid, the intensity of an opium-addict philosophising from a chaise longue. In that sense, parts of his verse are so out of touch with reality that it takes poetic pretence to approach them. But it is his common place imagery (so controversial in France at the time) that helps bring him closer to Earth; he is perfectly satisfied comparing a pair of breasts with a sets of cupboards. Reading him again at 40, when I am spending all my weekend assembling those cupboards, threatens to be fall.

Selected Poems is available as a Penguin Classics paperback, introduced and translated by Carol Clark.

13 October 2017

TARP No. 37 – ‘Unforgiving Years’ by Victor Serge

Who? A return to Victor Serge – full-time revolutionary, part-time ultra-pessimist.

What? His final novel, a hallucinatory swirl of twentieth century horrors.

When? 1947, shortly before his death in Mexico City.

How? Unforgiving Years is structured symphonically, with four disparate movements connected thematically and stylistically: ‘The Secret Agent’ [set in prewar Paris], ‘The Flame Beneath the Snow’ [Leningrad under siege], ‘Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs’ [the fall of Berlin] and ‘Journey’s End’ [postwar rural Mexico].

Why? Unforgiving Years represents the most intense reading experience I’ve had during the past year of TARP. It absorbed a month of my reading life, each page demanding complete attention and staying with me well after reading. It is one of the bleakest views of twentieth century Europe imaginable; it is in fact a nightmare. The few glimmers of hope that shine through the enduring pessimism provide only minor relief from Serge’s complete lack of levity and utter Franco-Russian philosophical bent. The Years he describes are heavy, black and unrelentingly cruel. His toll on the reader is equally unforgiving. Impossible to forget.

Unforgiving Years is available as an NYRB paperback, translated and introduced by Richard Greeman.

8 October 2017

TARP No. 36 – ‘On Booze’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Who? F. Scott Fitzgerald, key voice of the Roaring Twenties, lifelong alcoholic.

What? A short posthumous collection of booze-fueled writing, the necessity of which (though mostly a joy) is ambiguous.

When? Compiled in 2011 by Picador, with pieces from 1931-1945.

How? Vignettes, aphorisms, witticisms, prose poems, letters. His flair, though here particularly scatty and unfocused, remains his absolute strength.

Why? Nothing has spoken to me with more directness recently than the centre-piece of this collection, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. What alcohol meant to Fitzgerald, how it informed his life and philosophy, is of secondary importance. Booze, in fact, is only a minor character in this entire compilation. At the forefront is Fitzgerald the vulnerable, Fitzgerald the abstract, the same Fitzgerald that remained unsure of action and consequence, and that could never cover up his self-doubt. Why have I, for the past month, struggled to get through the shortest and simplest prose? The relationship between alcohol and self-doubt is as complex as Fitzgerald’s dazzling imagery. But why probe any deeper? Perhaps Hemingway’s aphorism ‘Write drunk, edit sober’ is as meaningless as it first appears.

On Booze is available as a Picador paperback.

11 September 2017

TARP No. 35 – ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ by Mikhail Sholokhov

Who? Mikhail Sholokhov, celebrated writer of Cossack stock, soldier and uber-realist of a socialist bent.

What? 566 pages of Don Cossack life, wending its epic way through the turbulence of World War I, the Russian Revolution and the following Russian Civil War.

When? 1929, and since ‘one of Russia’s most sacred works of literature’ [Independent].

How? Sholokhov leads us through peacetime and war-upon-war with equal detachment, truly epic, truly Russian.

Why? Comparisons to Tolstoy are natural, let’s not waste time with them. Sholokhov builds a picture of Russian life that surpasses most other socialist realist in its compassion for the Cossacks, and, like Gladkov’s Cement, maintains a level of critique uncompromised by the book’s political goals. It is however, incredibly long, and wait – where’s the protagonist gone? Where’s his wife and lover? And who on earth are all these people? Who cares? We will never know. That, perhaps, is the ultimate essence of the Russian epic.

And Quiet Flows the Don is available as a Penguin Modern Classics paperback, in translation by Stephen Garry.

19 August 2017

TARP No. 34 – ‘Words in Commotion’ by Tommaso Landolfi

Who? Italian modernist Tommaso Landolfi, whose blurb baffling compares to Kafka, Joyce, Borges and Poe, though must surely be considered the hugely-less talented heir of each. Actually he’s nearer Italo Calvino, though without the creative focus.

What? An anthology of fiction and non-fiction giving a broad view of the author’s surreal but fairly embittered imagination.

When? This anthology (compiled 1986) brings together work ranging from 1937 to 1978.

How? Landolfi’s work is presented thematically: Fantastic Stories, Obsessive Stories, Dialogues, Horrific Stories, Between Autobiography & Invention, Love & Nothingness, Little Treatises and Word & Writing. With each new genre, I felt hopeful Landolfi would find his stride. I was disappointed.

Why? The primary downfall of Landolfi’s work, other than the complete lack of flair in his prose, is his ambiguous gender politics. I have no problem digesting, even enjoying work that can be criticised as morally spurious, and I don’t exclude any work by any author on moral or political grounds. Still, the repeated digressions of a kind of emasculated chauvinism that Landolfi’s protagonists enter into quickly bore, and his ‘philosophy’ of gender, if one exists in his work, is at best a pseudo-philosophy. Here, I find basic misunderstandings about the nature of life and people masquerading as metaphysical quandaries, as well as a vapid intellectualism that would only suit certain breeds of 1970s tweed-laden academics. Though some of Landolfi’s ideas are interesting, the central tone of his work is one of embitterment at the complexity of the world, and thus lacks charisma. Comparing this with the perceptiveness of Kafka, the forward momentum of Joyce, the compassion of Borges and the lyricism of Poe, Landolfi cowers in a dark corner, holding his willy.

Words in Commotion is available as a King Penguin paperback, in translation by Kathrine Jason and introduced by Italo Calvino.

17 August 2017.

TARP No. 33 – ‘Nadja’ by Andre Breton

Who? Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, friend of the famous, all-round Frenchie.

What? A sort-of novel, a mix of fact and fiction, including 44 photographs illustrating the history, art and life surrounding Breton’s relationship with the enigma ‘Nadja’.

When? 1928, and screaming Parisian chic.

How? Breton structures his novel in several disparate, concrete sections, moving suddenly from ramblings about Paris life to anecdotes on his lover to musings on existence and psychiatry. Its scattyness however is one of Nadja‘s primary draws.

Why? Nadja is, using a sideways motion, a powerful story delicately told. Disregarding Breton’s experiments in form and style, the account of his changing attitude to his lover, as well as her psychological demise, is completely unsentimental even in its fantasy. The beauty of Nadja is, as he implies, ‘CONVULSIVE’, in as much as the emotions evoked by it are as erratic as the subject herself. Breton consistently dodges expectation by jumping from the banal to the existential, the everyday to the extraordinary, and does so in a way that brings out the power of chance in the real world. Breton is not bound by the Surrealist manifesto he once espoused; in fact, he is more tethered to reality than he might like to admit.

The wonderfully tragic Nadja is available as a Penguin Modern Classics paperback in translation by Richard Howard and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti.

7 August 2017

TARP No. 32 – ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Who? Priestly poeticizer Gerard Manley Hopkins.

What? A good two dozen of his wacky little verses, with a dollop of journal entries on the exit.

When? Published as part of Penguin’s mini black classics series in 2015, though Father Hopkins wrote privately in the late 1880s. Despite this he was not published until 1918, after his death, so he has no idea anyone’s actually reading him.

How? How to describe, decry or deny the dibbling, dabbling, scribbling scribe a well-dappled style, replete with conceit, linguistical tongue-twistical feats now obsolete, a hip priest, so to speak – the flair, the flair? Yes, he writes like that all the time.

Why? Hopkins’ verse must count amongst the most vibrant modern religious poetry. The energy created by the bounding, barmy internal rhyme can only be experienced when read aloud, preferably in a Richard Burton voice. Failing that Anthony Hopkins will suffice.

As kingfishers catch fire is available as a Penguin Classics paperback.

30 July 2017

TARP No. 31 – ‘The God That Failed’ ed. by Richard Crossman MP

Who? Richard Crossman MP (now dead) brings together confessionals from across the international socialist landscape: Arthur Koestler [Germany], Ignazio Silone [Italy], Louis Fischer [USA], Andre Gide [France], Sir Stephen Spender [UK] and Richard Wright [USA] – a merry bunch.

What? A compilation of testimonal essays from literary folk who once loved Communism, and then didn’t. A few of lads changed their minds after visiting the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which is probably fair.

When? Compiled in 1949. The copy in front of me is older than most grandparents.

How? The essays, lucid to the point of depression, are separated into two categories: ‘The Initiates’ and the ‘Worshippers From Afar’, that is (as far as I can remember), those who joined the Party proper and those who didn’t bother.

Why? As a study of Communism as a political concept, the title is misleading in its level of usefulness. Rather than confront any flaws in the core tenets of the idea, most of the contributors explain their falling away from the herd in terms of their alienation with the Party itself. Their disillusionment is sourced almost completely in the international Communist movement’s refusal to admit basic truths, including the truths about its own destructive capabilities. Only Stephen Spender lends a few paragraphs to the anti-individual nature of Communism itself, and even he fell out with the Party on social grounds. The essays then are more a reflection on how the international movement failed to assimilate with the USSR, and consequently failed to achieve normative, non-repressive consistency within itself. The failure of the Party however is far from singular. In that sense, the god of the planned cultural economy has, for better or worse, failed.

The God That Failed, though long out of print, can be hunted down as a Hamish Hamilton hardback.

25 July 2017