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
‘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.
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
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
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
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
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
Who? Got to be FK, original paranoid android.
What? A half-dozen short stories selected for the Pocket Penguin collection. Aeroplane material, digested happily on an EasyJet to Sofia.
When? In typical Kafka-esque chronology, the title story was written in 1917, published in 1932, translated into English in 1933, and compiled by Penguin in this edition recently enough.
How? How else but through the old familiar Czech clamped jaw? Poor lad.
Why? Kafka is a given, at least for the moment. It would not have been a tragedy if he had managed to destroy his manuscripts as intended; the idea that we would have been robbed of a literary treasure equates exactly to our lack of mourning for the literatures we have already (hypothetically) been robbed of. Regardless, here he is, canonised; his portrait is met with ‘awww’s, ‘poor lad’s and all the rest. His repression lends him sympathy, even if the stories are burnished with the same boredom found in the bureaucracy he felt himself lost in. His feeling is of something almost-rounded, almost-complete, like his unfinished Amerika, and almost touching on the same quiet, dull-burning oppression of self I feel now and most days. Everyone finds a kindred spirit in Kafka – that is the assumption. But he will always remain the victim, and we will not always identify as such.
The Great Wall of China is available as a Pocket Penguin paperback, number 64.
26 March 2017
Who? Aleksandr Blok, foremost Symbolist poet of Russia’s ‘Silver Age’.
What? A short collection of his mystical, gypsy, woeful, drunk poetry.
When? 1900-1918. After that his enthusiasm for Communism, poetry and life dwindled quickly; he died in pain in 1921.
How? Through a well-constructed anthologising of his work, sewing the narrative of his progressing ideas, mounting his most famous pieces (incl. ‘The Twelve’, one of the most ‘important’ Russian poems of the twentieth century) on the intricate, intoxicated glory that preceded them.
Why? Blok is widely-renowned as the most influential Russian poet of his day, but does that make him worth reading? His importance for writers like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam and Akhmatova is gargantuan; you could go out on punt and say he was the greatest poet since Pushkin. And that seems to be how a lot of Blok-criticism is approached; his figure, even in its drunk, romantic way, is unfeasibly large. Whether the poems justify this is irrelevant; better, I think, to read them at arm’s-length, taking in the ecstasy as a modern reader, open to enjoyment. In these terms, Blok is lofty, musical, metaphysical. His voice speaks a little of the ‘holy fool’ archetype, especially in its drunkenness. It is poetry that makes you want to drink alone, read and approach dark thoughts. Perhaps a more pertinent question is: why would anyone want to drink and think?
Selected Poems is available as a Carcanet paperback in translation by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France.
14 March 2017
Who? David Stubbs, Oxford-educated music journalist who sounds very much like he should present a sideline on BBC 6 Music. Perhaps with Stuart Maconie.
What? A short treatise on why people appreciate and pay exorbitant sums for modern art, but don’t like it when a ten-piece German psychedelic prog-jazz ensemble hit their guitars against anvils for twenty-five minutes, then await applause.
When? 2009, or Year One in the calendar of Our Lady Susan Boyle, grossly-overlooked by Stubbs.
How? Briskly, stomping through the history of experimental music in the past hundred years or so with a few swipes at the adjacent modern-art-gallery-industry along the way. Also with sweeping statements about art/music’s relationship to culture, which leave a few brief moments of collar-pulling.
Why? As an introduction to experimental music, highlighted by Stubbs’ exceptional knowledge of it and passion towards it, Fear of Music is an absolute success. His forming of the musical-historical narrative is fresh and clear, even if muddled by the odd fantastical speculation about race or class. His argument about the difference in reception between art and music is, I think, weak, except in his astute analysis of the industries’ relationship with money. However it may sound, the book is fun, genuinely fun. As fun as experimental music! Anybody? Guys? No?
Fear of Music is available as a lazily-formatted Zer0 Books paperback.
10 March 2017