Saturday, 23 July 2016

Happiness Is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky

We only even remember ourselves
when something starts to hurt.
I woke in the middle of the night last night desperate to remember something I'd half-dreamed, but I lost it. It went something along these lines–that sometimes when you pick up a novel, from an author you've never read before, it's like meeting a new person for the first time: you're either constantly on guard so as not to miss or misinterpret something or, worse, read into everything something which is ostensibly not there; or else you end up seeing them straight, only the surface registering, and you risk missing out on all their subtle complexities. I find this a lot of the time. 

But then there are those authors who surprise you; authors whose words strike a chord, whose prose is comfortable, simpatico, inspiring immediate and lifelong friendship and devotion.

Of course now you're expecting me to lump Oleg Zaionchkovsky into one of the two camps and complain or wax lyrical about his relative merits or lack thereof. Oddly enough, he falls in the gap. 

I've read enough postmodern-ish Russian fiction to know what to expect–Zinovyev's Homo-Sovieticus, or else some modern fable pitting progress against nostalgia, the pastoral against the Metropolis–and I've come to accept that in translation, even in those by the deftly superb Andrew Bromfield, I'm going to miss a sizeable chunk of important cultural references and misunderestimate simple, but different, mannerisms of the author. 

But–ha! here we go–the first thing I notice about Happiness is Possible is that it feels natural, that it could have been written as if by an English speaker living and (not) working in Moscow. Sure, there are moments where I felt cool about what was written, or thought What the hell was that? but in context these could be explained–in hindsight with the aid of A. D. Miller's introduction*–and in context they made sense: the barbed (and amusing) slurs on various ethnic populations, sectors of society, classes, individuals etc., the odd Muscovite tendencies towards city-worship, of which the narrator is also guilty, the clashes of Capitalism and Communism, and so forth. More often than not I suspect I was just missing the joke. Regardless, the rest reads beautifully, simply, but also not quite hiding a bittersweet humour and fatalism. It's also very much a grower, a book to come back to and discover a deeper understanding, a fuller appreciation. Whether this is to the glory of the author or translator (or both) is unclear, but glorious it is. 

The bulk of the connected vignettes, some longer than others, comprise imagined situations with the Muscovites and interlopers who populate the narrator's corner of Moscow, or else real life encounters, and it's not clear which are which. And it doesn't matter. Each is complete in and of itself, with only his estranged wife and dog Phil being integral to them all, the central thread around which the fictions are woven. They display in turn slapstick comedy, moral seriousness, callousness, whimsy, philosophy and a bleak humanist humour that has come to characterise Russian fiction, for me at least.

Of course, you're looking at the title and wondering, what, is he being ironic? can anyone be happy in post-Soviet Russia?, but yes, it appears happiness is possible. Zaionchkovsky's narrator is content to live in a high rise–his high rise–with his dog (the passage where he first inherits Phil is throat-tighteningly evocative), as the ex-husband and occasional lover of his ex-wife, tolerated by her new husband, rising at noon to write, if the words come, or not write if they don't, his novels and commissions, raising a glass with a selection of friends, acquaintances or fictional characters as the need arises. 

Finally, then, I can only conclude that this is some damned fine writing and translating, more excellent work from what is fast becoming my favourite fiction-in-translation house, And Other Stories. If I had £40 to spare just now I would be on their subscription list like a shot (yes, they have a subscription list! Exciting crowd-funded publishing seems to be literary sugar to my bookish sweet-tooth), and I advise you to check them out. I'm now two books into their backlist and I intend to keep going till they're all done.



*I never read the introduction first–in my opinion they should always be at the end of the book, masking the intellectual prism of another reader whose projected interpretations can prejudice a novel.**

**Of course, at the end it would all feel unbearably smug, with the nudges and winks and candid camera, eh, photography, eh, a nod's as good as a wink etc.***

***Sorry. I'd not obliquely referenced Monty Python in so long it just slipped out.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

Well, if I am not drunk, I am mad,
replied Syme with perfect calm;
but I trust I can behave like
a gentleman in either condition.
There has been plenty written over the 108 years since publication of G. K. Chesterton’s most famous novel, a novel that has never once been out of print in all those years, so to attempt to add to the weight of critical acclaim is futile. In fact, rather than read the rest of this post why not go and download it for free, read it yourself, and then check out The American Chesterton Society. Go on!


However, for my own personal reasons I want to record my reaction. The quick plot summary, if that’s even possible, sees rebel-against-rebelliousness and poet Gabriel Syme inveigle his way into the supreme council of anarchists ostensibly to uncover a murderous plot. He soon discovers that all is not as it seems and there’s even a big surprise at the end (sign-posted clearly throughout). It’s a spy novel, a detective novel, a novel filled with caricatures and symbolism, but also a novel that I found to be supernal, in both senses of the word (ironically but also coincidentally flaunting one of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing - regularly talking about the weather). 

The sky features heavily throughout, and as skies do, mirrors the characters’ sombreness, gravity and alarm, but also auguring doom and mocking their quotidian, mundane and humdrum anxieties in places. As the backdrop to what has been described as a metaphysical thriller, it has as large a part to play as the bomb-throwing anarchists and undercover policemen. But in the other sense of the word, it is an amazing, intelligent, sublime farce, encompassing philosophical debates and barbed social commentary, Christian allegory, and filled with symbolic revelations. And in the end, it was all just one long nightmare. Or was it?

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Baen Free Library

Free I tells ya, FREE!
It's not often you come across something for nothing these days, and as such, when I do, I spend so much time squinting my eyes and pursing my lips and looking for the catch, the catch, that I often lose sight of the wonderful generosity of the act, or indeed run out of time to take advantage of the opportunity. Much like MIT's OpenCourseWare through which you can access ALL the course material they produce, for every single subject taught - cynical bastards I thought, and now I'm entirely and unjustifiably prejudiced against them.

BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT etc., I was looking for something dumb and fun to throw about on the bed in my mind after exhausting myself with the effort of satisfying the metafiction of John Barth, when I came across a set of short stories from 2011, published, for free, gratuitously, by publishers Baen, and accessible, without cost, charge or remuneration, indeed for free through their website; that's right, you can download straight from their websiteFREE BOOKS, as Mobi or Nook files, or simple pdfs, to email to your ereader of choice. 

FOR NOTHING.

And yes, they're not all gems, some of them are stinkers, but if you want to indulge in a spot of guilty pleasure, then what's not to love?