TARP No. 25 – ‘Diaries and Selected Letters’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Who? Mikhail Bulgakov, well-mannered satirist, playwright and author of everyone’s favourite The Master and Margarita.

What? An epistolary anthology: diary entries up until they were confiscated by the Soviet political police, then letters, letters, letters.

When? Material ranging from 1921 to 1940, slapped together by Alma in 2013.

How? In a mostly extremely-direct and disarmingly honest style, particularly when addressing the authorities. His courage in places is baffling.

Why? Loving Bulgakov’s work as I do, I expected his correspondence to be overflowing with humour and imagination. In fact, there is very little. Instead, the anthology demonstrates the exasperating administrative work of a creative individual struggling against the dual bureaucracies of the state and the theatre world. His drawn-out legal difficulties are reminiscent of Lenny Bruce’s final performances, in which the censored comedian took to reading aloud from the reams of court transcription that had begun to obsess him. The confiscation of Bulgakov’s diary (including his invaluable insights into current affairs of the day) was a blow to the writer and to the historiography of primary sources concerning Stalin’s Russia; after the theft, Bulgakov never wrote another entry. Amongst the correspondences that followed is the author’s letter to Stalin himself: an incredibly open, unashamed request to be allowed to leave the USSR. Despite the sincerity, courage and unflinching frankness of this letter, Bulgakov was never permitted to make his escape. We are lucky, in respect to our understanding of the twentieth century, that manuscripts don’t burn.

 

Diaries and Selected Letters is available as an Alma Classics hardback.

27 May 2017

TARP No. 24 – ‘The Spectre of Alexander Wolf’ by Gaito Gazdanov

Who? Gaito Gazdanov, Russian emigre who L’Express aptly analogised as: ‘If Proust had been a Russian taxi driver in Paris in the 1930s’. Good-looking chap.

What? A metaphysical exploration of death and doppelgangery through a tense, Paris-based noir francaise (a la russe).

When? 1947.

How? Through a rambling, unpredictably-paced, syncopated narrative structure, combining hard-boiled thrillerisms, metaphysical philosophy and tres French dialogue.

Why? Gazdanov’s musings on death and its existential effects on the fatalists that dwell upon it absolutely belong with the tradition of French language authors who brought morbid animation to postwar European literature – not just Camus, but Sartre, Kundera and others. The philosophy of Gazdanov, vague as it is, is hung loosely on a murder mystery/deadly double motif, and this combination gives the narrative a perfect basis for an adaptation amongst the Nouvelle Vague; as far as I know, that never was. Action begets consequence begets action begets consequence in an unfathomable and unbreakable chain, punctuated (as you would expect) by death and its surrounding aura, the catch being that in the end (like any realistic examination of life), almost all pointers led to a dead end. Gazza is purposefully obtuse, and seems happy to lead a largely-unlikeable protagonist around situations whose significance is explicitly obscured. At times indulgent, at others beautifully restrained, Alexander Wolf provides a disordered view of a disorderly subject, and deserves perhaps to be chain-smoked alongside, enjoyed, and then shelved.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is available as a Pushkin Press paperback.

21 May 2017

TARP No. 23 – ‘Great Russian Short Stories of the Twentieth Century’ ed. by Yelena P. Francis

Who? Yelena P. Francis compiles and translates a good few Golden/Silver/Modern age Russian(-ish) writers, including Gorky, Chekhov, Andreev, Skitalets, Bryusov, Mamin-Sibiryak, Zinovieva-Annibal, Kuprin, Gilyarovsky, Grin, Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Ilf, Gaidar and Grossman.

What? A dual-language compilation with Russian on the left, English on the right. Means you can lie on just one side while reading: Russians on the left, English on the right.

When? 2013, with stories spanning a surprisingly short time: 1899-1923 (with Grossman’s contribution following at a belated 1960).

How? Francis’ translation is plain and formulaic, perhaps due to the fact it’s meant to be read in conjunction with its Russian original by some kind of student. Reading no Russian, the plain and formulaic is all I have. Her introductions, though well-informed, are also fairly plain.

Why? The selection here, for those interested in Russian short fiction, is interesting. A few writers here I’ve been hunting down for some time (Grin and Ilf in particular); others are slowly opening drawers of joy (Zinovieva-Annibal, who also appears in Penguin’s Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida); others are regular legends still willing to surprise. Francis seems to have veered towards pre-revolutionary pieces, White and Red, with a lean towards the suffering of the Russian people and an appreciation of the classic Russian Realist style inherited from the Golden Age masters. This, as always, is a turn-off, though a few break rank. Zinovieva-Annibal’s ‘Electricity’ is a lyrical vignette that fizzles to pleasant nothingness, and Zamyatin’s ‘Dragon’ holds itself together just enough to maintain readability. Bulgakov remains the don, with Grin coming in shortly behind with surprising grittiness. As an introduction to the genre, the collection is comprehensive, but not overly-ambitious. A dash more of the old Russian magic (as in Gaidar’s ‘Hot Stone’) wouldn’t have gone amiss, but then the left-hand Cyrillic did lend a little je ne sais quoi to the experience, as they might have said in a nineteenth-century Russian nursery. Reading it sick, laying in bed for an entire day, will have to be romance enough.

Great Russian Short Stories of the Twentieth Centry is available as a Dover Publications paperback, in translation by Yelena P. Francis.

18 May 2017

TARP No. 22 – ‘The Return of Munchausen’ by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

 

Who? Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Soviet modernist and newly-discovered king of the Russian neologism, in translation by Joanne Turnbull, who is still prising his works from obscurity.

What? A jolly, jaunty novella in which the fabled Baron von Munchausen meets his match in ‘the country you can’t lie about’, the country where fantasy met fiction on the daily – the fourletterdom of the USSR.

When? Late 1920s, with a good peer into Lenin’s NEP chucked in, but only just translated into English.

How? Krzhizhanovsky guides us through Munchausen guiding us through quirky wee anecdotes guiding us through olden days Moscow via London and Berlin.

Why? My chance comingacrossing of Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘Quadraturin’ in Penguin’s Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (among the greatest) immediately set off an insatiable interest in this Kafkaesque, Borgesian Soviet obscurantist. The first stop was Memories of the Future, followed by the short stories in his collection Autobiography of a Corpse, then the longer work The Letter Killers Club, and now Munchausen. Munchausen represents Krzhizhanovsky unable to shake the power of flash, filling his novella with gentle pellets of fine prose, little witticisms, dainty treats. The power of his work is in the extension of metaphor, and the thorough Soviet reflection that electrifies it. I’m not sure what Turnbull is dragging up next; I cannot wait. It is a shame only that I am too ill today to praise Munchausen or Krzhizhanovsky or Turnbull or NYRB further.

 

The Return of Munchausen is available as an NYRB paperback, in translation by the tireless Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov, who are single-handedly dragging this crucial lost literature out of obscurity.

15 May 2017

New Fiction: Objects are the Substance of the World

‘In the all-alone lamplight of the apartment, he translated his world into systems; he buried the secrets of this world under mathematical formulae, diagrams plotting logic, tables and graphs. The systems he produced belonged with Wittgenstein and Russell, but lay in the burrows of his notes like unmarked graves.’


Pleased to say my short story Objects are the Substance of the World has been featured in Flock magazine, available to buy right here.

TARP No. 21 – ‘The Case of Comrade Tulayev’ by Victor Serge

 

tulayev

Who? Victor Serge, ultraprolific Belgo-Russian World Revolutionary and all-round moral compass.


What? The greatest novel (I’ve come across) on Stalin’s Purges, unrivalled. To the Terror what Platonov’s Foundation Pit is to collectivisation.


When? 1940s, in exile from everyone in Mexico. Even the Mexicans wanted rid.


How? In a telescopic, scene-hopping march through various characters introduced and examined sequentially, like a series of mugshots.


Why? Serge has only one clear stylistic parallel, one he might not have appreciated: Ayn Rand. Perhaps he would not have been all that surprised. Both escaped and reviled the bleak, violent bureaucracy of the Soviet Union; both confronted head-on the pitfalls of political machination; both used their characters as functionaries for the accusation of a state’s shortcomings. They share also the same tendency to lift detail out of superfluity, and to mix passages of great lyricism with a constant, burning drive towards the turning of pages. I ate Comrade Tulayev, walking with it in the street and bumping into stuff. It is a joy to know that Serge has half a dozen more.


The Case of Comrade Tulayev is available as a NYRB Classics paperback, in translation by Willard R. Trask, with a cracking introduction by Susan Sontag.

1 May 2017

TARP no. 20 – ‘Napoleon Symphony’ by Anthony Burgess

napoleon

Who? Anthony Burgess, author of Clockwork Orange: The Musical! (And famous novel, my droogs).


What? A barmy, super-postmodernistical jaunt through the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, with a cute little poem on the end about how and why he bothered to write it.


When? 1974. Written in Rome.


How? Following the architectonic structure of the great Beethoven’s Symphony #3 in E flat, op.55 Eroica (his homage-symphony to little N): Allegro con brio, Marcia funebre (Adagio assai), Scherzo (Allegro vivace), Finale (Allegro molto). This was not a little disheartening to discover, as my own work-in-progress follows in an almost indistinguishable manner Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major (K488): Allegro, Adagio, Allegro assai, with the addition of an expository Prelude. Still, nothing new under the sun.


Why? Since Burgess has a fair few (in fact, too many) novels in circulation, it’s hard to know where to go after A Clockwork Orange. Getting round to M/F and This Man and Music (his music theory book) has been languorous and as yet unfulfilled: still, Napoleon Symphony was a surprising incentive. It is no place to start with Burgess; the work’s density, ambiguity and vocal palette at times approaches the swirly-wirly polymathematic chaos of a Thomas Pynchon, but therein lies the charm. The Symphony is bold in its vocabulary and neologisms, and textured with an overwhelming sense of linguistic daring. The poems that pepper the book are mostly useless, that is, without use (but who’s to argue?); otherwise, the narrative shines through the postmodern babblings like sunlight through greased paper. The Symphony, alongside A Clockwork Orange, belongs to a canon of implied genius; it must contribute to the greatest works of postmodern British fiction, and should provide a thorough inoculation against the infuriating water-treading that is the modern British book market.


Napoleon Symphony is available as a Serpent’s Tail hardback.

23 April 2017

TARP No. 19 – ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’ by Nicolas Slonimsky

slonimsky

Who? I could have sworn, picking up the book in Jubilee Library, that Slonimsky was the critic best-bud of Shostakovich, but Wikipedia implies otherwise. Julian Barnes will have to remind me who that actually was. The real Slonimsky is pictured above (1933), since W.W. Norton’s book cover was so horrendously ugly.


What? A compilation of hack-jobs against renowned composers by various dusty journos, their spittle directed here towards Beethoven, Chopin, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and others. Preceded by an essay on why critics panic when they hear progressive music; followed by an ‘Invecticon’ of critical addages, including ‘polycacophonous’ [Wagner], ‘basstubaculosis’ [Strauss] and ‘masochistic aural flagellation’ [evoking well the experience of Mahler].


When? Compiled in the 1950s (I think), it does provide a decent scope on the 19th/early 20th century compositional celebalebs.


How? Not easily-digestably. Snippet follows snippet in an unending chain of largely interchangeable negative sentiments.


Why? I was provoked to a certain realisation when flicking through Slonimsky’s book: does seeking out and investing myself in a compilation of century-old music critiques confirm my utter boringness? It was a read-for-research (admittedly, I skipped everyone but Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky – the Ruskies), and a useful one; regardless, I have definitely slipped into the realms of the disinteresting. It’s a desert in here.


Lexicon of Musical Invective is available as a W.W. Norton paperback.

16 April 2017

TARP No. 18 – ‘Selected Poems’ by Anna Akhmatova

akhmatova

Who? Anna Akhmatova: Soviet-era poet of the absolute highest order.


What? Now That’s What I Call Russia’s Most Significant Female Writer in Any Genre’s Greatest Hits. Evidently, poetry is getting to me.


When? 1900s to 1960s.


How? The poems flow chronologically, with some of the dating purposefully thrown by Akhmatova herself in order to throw, in turn, the Soviet censors. Throughout, her verse remains lofty and cold, a view of Earth from the atmosphere.


Why? When will this poetry end? To Akhmatova I’ve brought my exhaustion: an unfair burden but one she did not support. The final poem in this collection, the 22-year triptych Poem Without a Hero, brings my short sojourn into Soviet era to an abrupt end, unless the temptation towards Pasternak becomes too great. This poem is, for some reason unknown to me, the only one I can say I truly enjoyed. The rest (why, isn’t she the one everyone else looked up to?) tired me, bored me, even riled me in places; though in others, teased me, placated me, showed me unfamiliar parts of the world. Would it be more fair to withhold my judgement, clouded as it is by my frustration with too much poetry? Let’s do that. I will return to her in ten years or so, or perhaps never, or maybe before the TARP is out. Such high hopes.


Selected Poems is available as a Vintage Classics paperback in translation by D.M. Thomas, with a foreword by everyone’s favourite GCSE Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

11 April 2017

TARP No. 17 – ‘The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam’

osip

Who? Osip Mandelstam, poet, Tsar of the extended metaphor.


What? A bunch of Mandelstam’s typically-nuanced, slightly surreal, shimmering poetry, plus a genuinely-fun and rather stylish essay about Dante, chucked in for nowt.


When? Pre-Revolution right up to 1937, height of the Terror, the same year the Soviet government finished him off. His story is one of the most depressing in the history of Soviet poets – a feat.


How? How, I’ve learnt, is by far the hardest qualifier of all. How what, exactly? How what? If it wasn’t for the fact that removing it would disrupt the roundedness of the review, it would already have been rolled away. And it begins with an H, rather than a uniform W. How irritating.


Why? It may because I am overdosing on Russian verse at the moment (why withdraw a row of five in sequence from the biblioteque?), but it is not in Mandelstam’s poetry that I find my greatest joy. For me, the prose (demonstrated by his babbling, colour-soaked Conversation about Dante) far outshines it; here, as in The Egyptian Stamp (one of the world’s great genius nonsenses) it is the extension and super-contraction of minute images and neologisms that furnish Mandelstam’s powerful intellect: the ‘lemon Neva’, the ‘wolfhound century’, etc. He is a playful, labial smithy ala Nabokov, but bolder and more fun. His poetry is bolstered by this juggler’s wit, and the prose made poetry. This feeling can be attributed to my bias towards prose and my desire for the surprising; regardless, alongside Marina Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam remains incomparable.


The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam is available as an NYRB Classics paperback in translation by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin.

10 April 2017