TARP No. 9 – ‘The Complete Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino

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Who? Italo Calvino, later king of meta.


What? An anthology of his 30-odd odd science fiction shorts, following an omnipresent narrator (‘Qfwfq’) through the various manifestations of his eternal being: a sea-snail, a molecule, a dinosaur, etc.


When? Compiled in 2010, featuring stories from 1965 hence.


How? Moving slowly through unconnected histories, each indicative of Calvino’s far-reaching, pseudo-scientific Cosmicomic voice, blending in and out of focus.


Why? I picked up the Cosmicomics in a bookshop in Verona; I literally picked it up and was about to walk out of the door without paying, but bottled it. This was fortunate; I am not built for shoplifting. The stories within encapsulate this story, as well as all the other insignificant stories of the universe as it played out now and will play out in the future. Time here is non-linear and of little importance. Of more importance is the reflection of human experience Calvino lays over every neutron and proton; the Cosmicomics show us at once our complete insignificance, whilst placing us, invisibly, at the centre. The Cosmicomics are ambitious, falling just short of the truly funny, but much more readable than Calvino’s meta-work.


The Complete Cosmicomics is available as a Penguin Modern Classics paperback.

12 February 2017

TARP No. 8 – ‘The Futurist Cookbook’ by F.T. Marinetti

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Who? Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a twentieth century Italian art champ who loved aeroplanes and hated pasta.


What? A cookbook in the first; a violent, avant-garde, super-nationalist manifesto of total social overhaul in the second.


When? 1932, during the second wave of Italian Futurism.


How? In a collection of suggested menus, food dioramas and restaurant scenes, critical essays, diatribes, nationalist rants, neologisms, faux-history, photographs.


Why? Why indeed read Marinetti at all? His work, going back to the first Futurist manifesto of 1909, is scarred with an obsessive love of technology and speed, nationalist tendencies, misogyny, xenophobia and violent revolutionary motifs. At the same time, he is a master of the evocative and energetic, the ultra-progressive, the ecstasy of a sentence overflowing with passionate imagery. These are two sides of the same coin. Marinetti is evocative because he is overly-evangelical; energised by his Fascism; unabatingly forward-thinking (if misguided); a mind which has tied art and life so inextricably that there is no difference between the abolition of old artistic ideals and the physical destruction of a political enemy. His ideas are hyper-extensions of his palette; in his work is contained the moral, the amoral, the immoral and, in the Cookbook, dates stuffed with anchovies wrapped in ham and served with ice-cream. It should be read as nonsense, like most Fascist literature, but, regardless, with joy. Do not attempt to cook the food though. It sounds disgusting.


The Futurist Cookbook is available as a Penguin Modern Classics paperback, in translation by Suzanne Brill, with an afterword by Leslie Chamberlain.

TARP No. 7 – ‘Moscow Tales’ ed. by Helen Constantine

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Who? Anthologised therein, your favourite Muscovites and Muscophiles: Ivan Bunin, Yury Kazakov, Anton Chekhov (x2), Yury Koval, Tatyana Shchepkina-Kupernik, Nikolai Karamzin, Evgeny Grishkovets, Igor Sutyagin, Vladimir Gilyarovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, Marina Boroditskaya, Ivan Shmelyov, Larisa Miller and Maria Galina, translated by Sasha Dugdale, compiled and edited by Helen Constantine. *Phew*


What? A collection of short stories loosely revolving around Moscow life through the years.


When? Compiled 2013 with stories ranging from late 18th Century to present day.


How? In near-random order, jumping from age to age and voice to voice, with occasionally only the loosest of threads connecting the story to the history, culture or geography of the city. And severely lacking Krzizhanovsky, whose writings on Moscow need a bloody good airing.


Why? Reading Moscow Tales was, for a few weeks, a slow sojourn through some of Russia’s least evocative writers: especially in Ivan Bunin, who I would like to love, but don’t. Chekhov’s Kashtanka was a highlight, due its talking dog, and Karamzin’s famous Poor Liza still holds a certain sentimental charm, but otherwise, I was fairly dulled. Then, towards the end of the anthology: a chink of glorious light. The extract from Marina Tsvetaeva’s My Pushkin, a memoir of the author’s relationship with the Pushkin Memorial in Moscow, is vividly pictured, personable yet avant-garde, and full of emotional honesty. Her colourful polemic on the joy she drew from Pushkin’s blackness (the poet’s great grandfather was an Afro-Russian circa 17th Century) is especially inspiring. This piece, as well as Tsvetaeva’s poetry, is ecstatically worth reading, even if surrounded by the grey drapes of Bunin and others.


Moscow Tales is available as an Oxford University Press paperback.

24 January 2017

 

 

 

 

TARP No. 6 – ‘The Cyberiad’ by Stanisław Lem

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Who? Polish science fiction legend Stanisław Lem, the chap who wrote the story for the film Solaris.


What? A series of whimsical short stories following the escapades of two robot engineers (that is, robots who are also engineers – although they do make further robots), the annoyingly-named Klapaucius and Trurl.


When? 1965 in Polish, 1970-odd in our parlance.


How? Guiding the robots through a vaguely-connected series of anecdotal scrapes, usually facilitated by the pair’s struggle to satisfy the overstretched specs of their (typically royal) employers.


Why? Lem’s stories, flush with scientific, philosophical and political absurdities, fall somewhere between Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide: funnier than the first, meatier than the latter. Lem’s visions of failed utopian projects are particularly poignant when considered under the oppression faced by science fiction writers in the Soviet Bloc, and those stories which are not utterly ridiculous are actually full of insight. It is unfortunate in part that these insights are often buried under operatic space babble and endless, exhausting neologisms, but regardless the core does not suffer meltdown. The Cyberiad has an atomic quality and, like Calvino’s Cosmicomics, allows itself the scope of universal creators and destroyers. It is also, aptly, rather silly.


The Cyberiad is available as a Penguin Modern Classics paperback in an ambitious  translation by Michael Kandel with illustrations by Daniel Mroz.

23 January 2017

New Fiction: Shesh Besh

This is the biggie so far… Happy to announce a wee publication in Litro Magazine, a short 20 mins read on espionage, backgammon and fishing the Galilee. An extra-special thanks goes to Or Svirid for contributing a perfectly well-rendered and utterly-apt piece of her wonderful photography, she is indeed the Don of the Kinneret. Read and enjoy, especially those of my friends who will appreciate and recognise the landscape. Viva Ein Gev!

Click here to read.

TARP No. 5: ‘Stalin’s Daughter’ by Rosemary Sullivan

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Who? Rosemary Sullivan, a mild-mannered Canadian historian from the now-times.


What? A biography of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva who, as you can imagine, led a mad one.


When? It’s a newbie.


How? In one long straight line, though somehow lacking a sense of thoroughness.


Why? The question rather is, should I share my thoughts on this? For shame, I only read the parts useful for my research, and skipped the rest. It’s true. Is this a reflection of the book’s flat and often glib prose? Very possibly. Is it a reflection of my laziness? Quite probably. Do I have any right to share my incomplete, uninformed thoughts on what is, at its core, a well-researched if not tediously-presented historical biography? Almost certainly not. Though Sullivan’s clean, well-rendered style lacks personality, her intimacy with the subject and ability to juggle the varying personas that occupied Svetlana Alliluyeva are done just fine. They are done just fine, and only someone who has persevered with the text in all its long-ass glory can animate themselves on the subject any further.

15 January 2017

New Fiction: Oh, Horror Horror

‘The crowd is typically torn-shirted and jack-booted, ritualistically colliding with each other, conkering smaller Mohawks out of the clearing. All heads, all elbows – the entity revolves around itself, crashes into itself, destroys and rebuilds itself like an asteroid belt. Bored lumps of rock pumped full of energy and desperate for contact, impact of any kind.’

Published this week by the good folks at Disclaimer magazine.

Click here to read.

TARP No. 4 – ‘Leningrad’ by Brian Moynahan

Who? Brian Moynahan, English journalist, historian and, at a guess, Catholic.


What? A mammoth account of the first few years of the Siege of Leningrad, with a particular focus on the composition and performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7.


When? 2013, though examining the years immediately following the author’s birth. (A coincidence as his surname suggests).


How? Endless anecdotes following recurring characters through an increasingly-tortured city under siege.


Why? This is popular history ala Beevor and Figes, with the same compassionate eye and the same devil-is-in-the-details approach to delivering a vastly-complicated social narrative. While the military sections are thankfully oversimplified and in places glossed, Moynahan’s panoramic presentation of the city’s wartime musical life is fascinating. Shostakovich’s Seventh, which (barring its Invasion theme) is a fairly-forgettable piece of music, is recast in the light of its epic importance to the Allied forces and to the Soviet propaganda machine. It’s only a shame that both the symphony and the book are simply too, too long.

4 January 2017

TARP No. 3 – ‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel

Who? Isaac Babel, Russian journalist and super-Jew who was later tortured and murdered by Stalin’s goons.


What? Thirty-five short-short stories about the exploits of the Soviet First Cavalry Army in their failed 1920s fuckover of Poland.


When? 1926, after the Bolshevik Revolution and brutal Red Terror, before Stalin’s Purges.


How? Concise, direct vignettes with enough casual violence to make Irvine Welsh say: ‘Oo – that is gory. And true.’


Why? I first read Babel’s short story ‘Salt’ in The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories and thought ‘yawn‘. Compared with the daring of Bulgakov, the colloquial charm of Zoshchenko and (closest to my heart) the sheer linguistic ambition of Platonov, Babel’s journalistic, war’s-hell-laden plainspeak bored me to the tits. But in many ways, Babel surpasses his contemporaries. His sense of the realities of war is laid out in mostly terse, certainly distanced images which still resound with more humanity (however shellshocked) than Bulgakov’s. His characterisation is equally resonant; the various vaguely-recognisable archetypes that recur throughout the collection, and the conflicts that define them, are as authentic as any voice in Zoshchenko’s stories. Still, the major surprise in Babel’s prose comes from the bafflingly-poetic idiosyncrasies he chooses to include even in spite of his otherwise concrete style. These inflections of personality approach what Platonov envisaged when loading his imagery with multiple mirrors and perspectives. These are chinks of light in a chiaroscuro painting otherwise overloaded with shadow.

8 December 2016

TARP No. 2 – ‘Stormy Applause’ by Rostislav Dubinsky

Who? Rostislav Dubinsky, a world-renowned violinist whose group, the Borodin Quartet, played at Stalin’s funeral. Part-time Russian, full-time Jew.


What? An autobiography in which the author meets every famous Russian musician of the time, has a trip to America and tries to avoid being busted for not loving life in the Soviet Union.


When? 1980s, when the guy was old.


How? Anecdote-by-anecdote, with reconstructed dialogue that makes everyone sound like characters in a Tony award-winning one-man Broadway show.


Why? Although Dubinsky’s complaints about life in the Soviet Union rarely wander into political rhetoric, his portrayal of life as a musician employed by a culturally-invasive bureaucratic state is compelling, and his colouring of contemporaries like Shostakovich and Oistrakh adds charm. But, there’s a snag: the prose is cheap and predictable, and the anecdotal gloss makes every retelling seem somewhere short of authentic. If it is not ghostwritten, and if Dubinsky had not begrudged his KGB handlers, he might have made a rather successful hack for a state newspaper.

6 November 2016