TARP No. 11 – ‘A Romance with Cocaine’ by M. Ageyev


Who? M. Ageyev, pseudonym for Russian émigré writer Mark Levi (once thought to be fellow émigré Vladimir Nabokov), a true international man of mystery.

What? A faux memoir of Vadim Maslennikov, a kind of Muscovite Holden Caulfield, with cocaine.

When? 1934, published in a French magazine.

How? Four unevenly-weighted narratives: School (huge, largely superfluous information), Sonya (a banal doomed relationship) , Cocaine (totally near the end) and Thoughts (a poorly-articulated philosophy of drug abuse).

Why? When I first read A Romance with Cocaine, I myself loved the drugs. Not to the extent of the writhing-in-self-loathing Maslennikov, or Burroughs’ Junky, or Hunter S. Thompson, but a beyond-casual interest. I remember Ageyev’s fiction as romantic, panelled with dark wood, chiaroscuro, smoky. Actually, it is dull, as most accounts of drug abuse are, and lacking poetry. The narrator is unlikeable, though consistently-voiced, and the characters that surround him are largely one-dimensional. It was an absurd scholarly error for A Romance ever to be linked with Nabokov, who even in his juvenilia surpasses the imagery of Ageyev. Since the book has remained the same since my last reading, I can only assume that I, for better or worse, have been altered.

A Romance with Cocaine is available as a Hesperus Modern Voices paperback, in translation by the legendary Hugh Alpin.

19 February 2017

TARP No. 10 – ‘Newton’s Swing’ by Chris Paling


Who? Chris Paling, contemporary author and resident Brightonian.

What? A cold crime thriller.

When? Around the millennium.

How? A loose, time-hopping meander through the central mystery: who killed Susan?

Why? Or rather, how to review a book where you might, quite feasibly, bump into the author and have to discuss at further length the critique you have provided? The simple answer is, for now, you do not. Until I work out the etiquette.

Newton’s Swing is available as a Vintage paperback. His latest, Reading Allowed (a collection of library-centred vignettes), has just been released as a Constable hardback.

13 February 2017

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


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


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


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



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


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