Month: November 2008

Patrik Ouředník: Europeana

If this review is shorter than usual, it’s because I’ve spent half an hour and most of my reserve energy trying to work out how to type a hacheck (the Czech accent symbol above the r in the author’s name) on a Mac. Now that I’ve worked it out, fořgive me if I oveřuse it foř a břief peřiod. Now: I first became aware of Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana when a reader mentioned it on my blog (thank you Michael Theune) after I wrote about Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal. Europeana is from the same Dalkey Archive stable, and reaffirms them as one of the most exciting publishers around. (Now give me another half hour while I try to find a decent cover image online.)

Europeana (2001, published in English 2005) is subtitled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. It is categorised as fiction, its author considers it a novel, yet it has no characters, is rooted in fact, and frequently reads like a mad poem. Where to begin? How about with Vonnegut’s opening to Slaughterhouse Five? “All this happened, more or less.”

Ouředník begins with the Second World War, more or less. “The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimetres on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers.” The two world wars dominate the narrative, which winds back on itself in a spiral, and it soon becomes clear that it is the horrors of the 20th century which is Ouředník’s particular topic, even if the angle he approaches from is not the expected one. “The twentieth century was said to be the most lethal in human history, and those who looked forward to the twenty-first century said that in all events it could not be worse, but others said that it could always be worse or at least just as bad.”

The shtick here is to present man’s inhumanity to man in a bathetic context, by placing it alongside trivia (the launch of Barbie) or loading it with heavily accented irony. “People who did not like Jews were not racists but anti-Semites, because the Jews were not strictly regarded as inferior, like Negroes, Indians, Gypsies, etc., but more of a natural aberration.” Nazi and Stalinist atrocities are juxtaposed with reports of the popularity of eugenics in the early part of the century.

The first law on the sterilization of defective and asocial elements was enacted in 1907 in the United States. The law permitted the sterilization of hardened criminals and the mentally ill and in 1914, at the urging of psychiatrists, it was extended to recidivist robbers and alcoholics and in 1923, in Missouri, it was extended to chicken thieves of Negro and Indian origin, because in the case of chicken thieves of white origin, the opinion was that they could still find a way back and reintegrate themselves into the life of society through hard and conscientious work.

The tone is deliberately banal, dealing disaster so straight-faced that one again expects Ouředník to adopt a Vonnegutism and end each report of death with “so it goes”. There is a metafictional aspect to Europeana, and Ouředník has points to make also about the very notion of the historical record which his book slyly undermines.

Historians concluded that in the twentieth century about sixty genocides had occurred in the world, but not all of them entered historical memory. Historians said that historical memory was not part of history and memory was shifted from the historical to the psychological sphere, and this instituted a new mode of memory whereby it was no longer a question of memory of events but memory of memory.

(He might be speaking of Geoff Dyer’s meditation on national memory, The Missing of the Somme.)

In an interview on the Dalkey Archive website, Ouředník observes that “when you sell more than a few thousand copies [of a book]—no matter how big the market is—it is probably due to a misunderstanding”. A book such as Europeana stands little chance of such misunderstanding, and we are the poorer for it, as this is a book which should appeal to – and surprise – almost anyone who goes near it.

The overall effect is hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing. The playful, soothing but sinisterly impersonal tone which Ouředník adopts has been rendered beautifully into English by Gerald Turner (who won the PEN Translation Award for it). The cool distance which the book offers, amid so much seductively expressed barbarity, means that after a while, the reader is moved to wonder by all this absurdity: Who are these crazy people? Oh. It’s us.

The Paris Review Interviews

This is less a review than a simple sigh of appreciation. For those unfamiliar, as I was myself a year or so ago, The Paris Review is an (American) quarterly literary magazine, published since 1953, and edited by George Plimpton for its first 50 years. Its most enduring contribution – in the words of one critic, “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world” – is the Writers at Work interview. Here, in relentless detail, many of the most famous writers of the 20th century present ‘the Art of Fiction’ – or poetry, or drama. They got off to a good start in the first issue when Plimpton called on an old friend, E.M. Forster, who at that time had published no fiction for almost 30 years. The prestige of the names interviewed has rarely dipped since.

Canongate in the UK, and Picador in the US, have recently published the third collected volume of Paris Review Interviews. It is as rich in literary big hitters as the previous volumes: sixteen authors including John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Pinter, Georges Simenon and others. The interest comes not only in the answers but in the questions. How better to open an interview with Joyce Carol Oates than to say: “We may as well get this one over with first: you’re frequently charged with producing too much.” Oates responds:

I really don’t know what to say. I note and to some extent can sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics, who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one.

Oates doesn’t get it: the main complaint as I understand it is that nobody so productive can be good all the time – and a corollary of that is that we never know which ones of hers to try to find her at her best. One critic said that Oates “slops words across a page like a washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones.” Incidentally, that interview was conducted in 1978, and in the thirty years since, Oates has produced 41 novels, 21 collections of stories, 7 novellas, 7 collections of plays, 9 books of criticism and essays, 3 volumes of poetry, and 7 children’s books.

Some authors reveal more of themselves than they might intend. Evelyn Waugh is as prickly and reactionary as we might expect, denying the value of experimentation:

Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.

Others are more forthcoming, and both interviewee and reader benefit from the technique of these interviews, which is to go into the nuts and bolts of writing, so that John Cheever can discuss both experimentation (more generously than Waugh) –

Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

– and his family’s response to his work.

The [Wapshot] Chronicle was not published – and this was a consideration – until after my mother’s death. An aunt who does not appear in the book said, I would never speak to him again if I didn’t know him to be a split personality.

The starting point of some of the questions may seem trivial – how many hours a day do you write? – but there can’t be many readers who don’t on some level thirst for this kind of thing, the minutiae of a writer’s life. As a result the interviews have the combined thrilling effect of an intellectual transfusion and a guilty pleasure.

I have only two criticisms of the newly published volume 3. The first is that in the UK edition, it has been printed on cheaper, thicker paper than the earlier volumes, making the book blockier and harder to read without the spine breaking. Also, its concentration on famous names robs the reader of the greatest delight of volumes 1 and 2, which was the discovery of fascinating names less well known to us now. In volume one, despite the presence of Hemingway, Bellow, Capote, Eliot, Borges and Vonnegut, the juiciest and most opinionated interviews are with Rebecca West (at almost 50 pages, one of the longest in the book) and Robert Gottlieb, fiction editor: his interview combines his own responses with those of the people whose books he shepherded into print, from Cynthia Ozick to Michael Crichton. Crichton recalls:

Once I called Bob because I had read a book he had edited and had found it redundant. I called him and said, Boy, that book wasn’t very well edited. There was a very snarky silence because he did not take criticism well at all. There was this long silence. Then he said, Dear boy! I think you should consider, when you read a book that seems to you to be not well-enough edited, that perhaps it has already been incredibly edited.

We also learn surprising things, such as Borges’ admiration for West Side Story. In volume 2, notable moments include Graham Greene’s first answer (“What will you have to drink?”) and Philip Larkin’s interview, which he insisted on conducting by letter. “You will get much better answers that way.” He was right, and he is funny and anecdotal when not dealing in the business of literature. When asked if he ever shows unfinished work to anyone, he responds:

What would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson. Tennyson replied, if it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.

And he is happy to play up to his reputation as a reactionary:

A writer once said to me, If you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast; the rest is a desert full of bigots. That’s what I think I’d like: where if you help a girl trim the Christmas tree you’re regarded as engaged; and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don’t call on the minister. A version of pastoral.

Larkin was interviewed in 1982, and sadly – and accurately – refers to his work as a poet in the past tense throughout; he would publish nothing else, and died three years later. Shy of publicity and interviews, he nonetheless agreed to the Paris Review’s request: “I can see I should be in good company.” Indeed, and the only regret about this series – a fourth volume is planned – is all the writers they can’t include. Fortunately, the Paris Review’s website includes a list of all the authors interviewed since its inception, and some interviews are available to download in their entirety. It’s a treasure trove.

Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme

It was the 90th anniversary of Armistice recently which led me to revisit Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme. But he was already on my mind as I had discovered that he will soon publish his first novel in a decade. His novels are perhaps the least of him, or their punning titles are anyway: his last was Paris Trance [1998] and his next is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009). It’s in non-fiction where he excels: the compendium of essays Anglo-English Attitudes; the study of photography The Ongoing Moment; his brilliant account of almost failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. A disciple of Berger and admirer of Bernhard, Dyer is nonetheless capable of shameless silliness in a way which still manages to be charming, as in his award-winning (well, a WHSmith award. But they all count) travelogue-cum-‘memoir’, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. In that book he tells us, and it might apply to any of them: “Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.”

The Missing of the Somme (1994) came about because

like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation’. Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…

This is typical Dyer self-deprecation. This is a substantial book despite its page count. Everything has been thoroughly considered, down to his reasons for sticking to ‘the Great War’ rather than the coldly associative ‘First World War’ or (even worse) ‘World War I’. “Was there not, amidst all this grief, a faint shudder or shiver of excitement at the unimaginable vastness of it all? … Was there not a faint glow of pride, an unavoidable undertow of semantic approval, in terming the war ‘Great’?”

That ‘vastness’ is backed up by the figures. “In total 918 cemeteries were built on the Western Front with 580,000 named and 180,000 unidentified graves.” “By the time of the great battles of attrition in 1916-17, mass graves were dug in advance of major offensives.” “France and Germany each lost more than a million and a half men; Russia, two million. Three-quarters of a million of the dead were British.” “If the Empire’s dead marched four abreast down Whitehall, it would take them three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph.” We could read these numbers all day and never get closer, even almost a century on, to comprehending the scale of the deaths. Dyer’s method then is to deal primarily with the act of remembrance of the war rather than the war itself.

The war paralysed not only a generation and a decade, but bled back to infect the past.

Life in the decade and a half preceding 1914 has come to be viewed inevitably and unavoidably through the optic of the war that followed it. The past as past was preserved by the war that shattered it. By ushering in a future characterized by instability and uncertainty, it embalmed forever a past characterized by stability and certainty.

Aspects of memories of the war are preserved in statues, cemeteries and photographs. “Every family has an album like this. Even as we prepare to open it, the act of looking at the album is overlaid by the emotions it will engender. We look at the pictures as if reading a poem about the experience of seeing them.” Dyer’s liberal use of photographs through the text brings to mind W.G. Sebald, and it’s in his discursive manner too, the ‘narrative’ which looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.

Dyer records the use of statues of unknown soldiers (“they are all over the country, these Tommies”) and how, “rotted by pollution, powerless to protect themselves, their only defence, like that of the blind, is our respect.”

The most common form of sculpture – a soldier, head bowed, leaning on his downward-pointed rifle – actually represents the self-contained ideal of remembrance: the soldier being remembered and the soldier remembering. Sculptures like this appeal to – and are about – the act of remembrance itself: a depiction of the ideal form of the emotion which looking at them elicits.

Similarly, “at the Cenotaph it is the act of remembering together that is being remembered.”

My usual method when reading a book is to mark the page margins with a pencil at a notable passage. Here there were so many – barely a page unmarked – that the best way of reviewing the book would be simply to type it all out again. In a sense this is what Dyer has done. The Missing of the Somme is peppered with material from other texts – the notes cite some 300 quotations and sources in a 130-page book – but it is Dyer’s triumph to bring all the elements together in an elegiac whole. This also provides a handy source of other books I now need to read, such as Henri Barbusse’s 1916 novel Under Fire, which exemplifies one of Dyer’s central ideas. Here, French troops discuss the bombardments they are enduring in the trenches.

‘It’ll be no good telling about it, eh? They wouldn’t believe you; not out of malice or through liking to pull your leg, but because they couldn’t … No one can know. Only us.’

‘No, not even us, not even us!’ someone cried.

‘That’s what I say too. We shall forget – we’re forgetting already, my boy!’

‘We’ve seen too much to remember.’

‘And everything we’ve seen was too much. We’re not made to hold it all. It takes its bloody hook in all directions. We’re too little to hold it.’

The key here is that the war was, in certain respects, being remembered even before it was fought. When Siegfried Sassoon suggested that Wilfred Owen change ‘Dead’ in the title of his poem from ‘Anthem for Dead Youth’ to ‘Doomed’, it became a memorial “to those who are going to have died.” Similarly, I was surprised to learn that Laurence Binyon’s famous ‘For the Fallen’ –

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

– was written in September 1914: “before the fallen actually fell.”

‘For the Fallen’, in other words, is not a work of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining. … We will remember them.

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

How nice it was to know that, whichever candidate won the US presidential election this month, we would have a ready-made back catalogue of their books to read. OK, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to John McCain’s Hard Call: Courageous Decisions by Inspiring People: Heroes Who Made Tough Decisions (I mean, who does he think he is: Gordon Brown?), but I needn’t have worried. Barack Obama’s Historic Victory™ meant that I had the choice of a personal memoir of his upbringing and his father, or this 360-page job application.

His memoir, Dreams from My Father, might have given a better insight into the man – it was published in 1995, presumably before dreams of public office entered his mind. The Audacity of Hope, by contrast, came out in 2006, when Obama had been in the US Senate for two years, and less than a year before he announced his intention to run for President. So it’s no surprise that there was nothing between the covers that I could imagine anyone disagreeing with. (Then again, I thought the same about The God Delusion. Still, it’s a relief when the next president of the most powerful nation on earth says, “I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming.”)

Indeed, so keen is Obama to avoid causing offence that he even mostly avoids having a go at George W. Bush, who, as the least popular US president since records began, would be a pretty safe target. Bush’s only personal appearance in the pages – a sly dig in itself – comes when he meets Obama at a breakfast meeting for new Senators, and offers him a squirt of antibacterial gel for his hands (“Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds”). Although he does condemn the administration in some terms, Obama’s main beef seems to be with, well, everyone on Capitol Hill and the resulting “industry of insult” which arises when “campaign culture metastasize[s] throughout the body politic”.

What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.

This ties in well enough with his acceptance speech in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, suggestive of an inclusive, big tent politics – but they all say that in the heady aftermath of victory. Nonetheless, in the book Obama is keen to emphasize what unites over what divides.

Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40 per cent Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels or liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.

Fortunately Obama does eventually stop telling us what we already know, in a style which he himself describes as “rambling, hesitant and overly verbose,” and which betrays a weakness for ending chapters with one-sentence paragraphs in a portentous, sentimental style (“America is big enough to accommodate all their dreams.”  “I know that tucking in my daughters that night, I grasped a little bit of heaven.”   “My heart is filled with love for this country”).  In successive chapters, he displays a respectable and reassuring depth of knowledge on the Constitution, history and political system of the United States of America (and other countries too: I never expected to know so much about Indonesia), and finally begins to come up with some policy initiatives which we might recognise as left(ish) of centre.

What we can do is create renewable, cleaner energy sources for the twenty-first century. Instead of subsidizing the oil industry, we should end every single tax break the industry currently receives and demand that 1 per cent of the revenues from oil companies with over $1 billion in quarterly profits go toward financing alternative energy research and the necessary infrastructure.

Obama continues to try to reach across the divide, however, by reiterating his stance as a free marketeer (though he may now be kicking himself for not placing a little more emphasis on regulation), and drawing in mega-investor and world’s richest man Warren Buffett to query Bush’s tax cuts for the super-wealthy like himself. (Buffett would go on to endorse Obama’s campaign for President.)

The Audacity of Hope (Obama may now regret the title, not for its cringeworthiness, but because it comes from his erstwhile pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright) is at its best when giving a personal insight into this ultra-professional and seemingly unknowable politician. I came away with admiration for his mother and the way in which she, as an atheist, introduced Obama to religion:

On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese new year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that these religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part … Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways – and not necessarily the best way – that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.

He also addresses, in a way he has studiously avoided doing in the last year or so, the issue of race, and his experience as a mixed-race child “with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac.”  He is interesting on the difficulties of, and friction caused by, balancing high office with family life.  When he hears his wife talk about her father and “the love he earned by being there … I ask myself whether my daughters will be able to speak of me in that same way.”

Like most of the people who have kept The Audacity of Hope on top of Amazon’s bestseller list since the election, I read the book because of its sudden connection with current affairs.  Yet it is this very timeliness which is likely to render the book inessential very quickly: in a few months’ time, we won’t need to read a book to work out what Obama thinks about the issues of the day, or what he intends to do in power.  It is his earlier family memoir which may then become the more revealing, and enduring, text.

In discussing the consequences of “chaotic and unforgiving capitalism,” now a more urgent topic than he anticipated when he penned the words, Obama wonders aloud what “a new economic consensus” might look like.  And later, reflecting on his first day as a Senator, he recalls the laughter when one reporter asked him in his first press conference, before he had made a single speech or policy initiative: “Senator Obama, what is your place in history?”  We are about to find out.

Warwick Collins: The Sonnets

Only the longest-standing readers of this blog will remember my previous encounters with Warwick Collins, early last year. I read his recently reissued novella Gents and his 1993 novel The Rationalist. You can catch up using those links, and then catch up further by reading the books, both of which I recommend unreservedly. Since his last novel, The Marriage of Souls (2000; a sequel to The Rationalist), Collins has been quiet, so I was keen to see his return to fiction, which I pre-ordered for its publication this month.

As the headless-woman-in-period-dress cover design suggests, with The Sonnets, Collins has returned to historical fiction. And as the title indicates, we’re in Shakespeare’s time; not only that, but Collins has taken a huge gamble and made William Shakespeare the central character and narrator of his novel. Talk about aiming high. (Talk about barking mad.) But do you know? He pulls it off.

This is Shakespeare as a young man, in his late 20s, from 1592-94. The threat of plague had closed the London theatres, and so the playwright was forced to rely on his poetry, and his patron, Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton and several years Shakespeare’s junior. The historical record shows that Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to Southampton, in sometimes fulsome terms (“The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end … What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours”). Obvious speculation has flowed from this over the centuries, augmented by Shakespeare’s series of sonnets about love for a “fair youth”, dedicated to “Mr W.H.”, which some have suggested was a coded version of H(enry) W(riothesley). It is these fluid notions, and the fluidity of known facts about Shakespeare’s person too, which Collins uses as his springboard.

He manages to convey a good deal of this future speculation within Shakespeare’s contemporaneous narrative without forcing it, but is not averse to more explicit explanations:

The sonnet itself had a complex history. According to a prevailing fashion, it was addressed by a poet to a mistress, often one who was out of reach, after whom he yearned, or at least affected to do so for the sake of the fulsome compliments he would bestow upon her. … I had one obvious difficulty in my own circumstances: my patron was a master, not a mistress. Yet precisely because of this, the convention imposed its own interesting construction. It reminded me of the convention in a theatre, where a man would play a woman’s role. By the same process, perhaps, it stimulated rather than repressed the imagination.

This stimulation is exemplified in the book itself, where Collins has given himself freedom to imagine, but within firm constraints: the most important of which are the sonnets themselves. There are 32 of them reprinted in full within the text, and Collins has set himself the task of undoing them, and slotting them into Shakespeare’s story. In seeking to create Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote the sonnets, he imitates the role of the playwright himself. Says Southampton:

‘You are too generous. You take every other’s part. I believe you’ – he struggled for words – ‘complicate matters.’

‘My lord, it is in my nature to seek for wider motive.’

My own foreknowledge of the sonnets was almost non-existent, save for the most famous few, so I was probably as open to fresh interpretation as it is possible to be. All I can say is that Collins spins a supportive web for the verses with consistency and delicacy, so that not only do they seem to fit into Shakespeare’s mindset at the time (though they are not presented in chronological order), but the invented story surrounding them actually enhances their effect. “Your hiding place should be language itself,” Southampton tells Shakespeare, urging ambiguity in his verses. But there’s no uncertainty when after a night of passion with a ‘dark lady’ (the other subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets), he produces one which speaks of lust “enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight.” It was with a frisson, and surprising keenness, that I found myself enjoying the sonnets themselves.

This is not, however, a book of lightly framed verse. It is a novel with a full cast of characters, the most intriguing of which is cleverly held offstage by Collins. Southampton’s legal guardian is Lord Burghley, a puritan type close to the Queen – “whatever he touches, becomes ice. If he walks through summer, winter follows” – and who has an interest in keeping closed the theatres he sees as breeding grounds of immorality.

The battle for Southampton’s soul drives the plot, along with Shakespeare’s romantic travails, and the story proceeds largely through dialogue, which, as those who have read Gents or The Rationalist will know, is a particular strength of Collins’. The language is kept in check, historical details are withheld, and the character of the young William Shakespeare is given appropriate attention. He is in his own words “both actor and observer,” or in Southampton’s, “detached from this world, yet always observing.” As he attempts “to pin the thought like a live thing to the page,” I could only admire how expertly Collins had pinned me to the book.

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin

Many writers have one book which is much better known than anything else they have written, and which overshadows all their other work. Often, to me – say, with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller or Evelyn Waugh – it’s the wrong book which is best known. Not so, though, with Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita outshines anything else I’ve read by him, until finally I decided (via the likes of Despair, Laughter in the Dark, and King, Queen, Knave) that anything pre-Lolita was an apprentice work unworthy of consideration. That’s going too far, but it led me to concentrate on his few post-Lolita novels when exploring him further.

Pnin was published two years after Lolita, in 1957. (Next, in 1962, would come Pale Fire, the only Nabokov I’ve read which comes close to Lolita.) The first question to consider is whether it’s a novel at all. Four chapters of the book – more than half its length – were published as individual stories in The New Yorker, and Nabokov – astonishing to think of it – had trouble placing it with publishers, who considered a mere “collection of sketches”. Nabokov denied this, though was unsure whether he could assert it to be a novel (“I do not know whether it is or not”), settling only on its being “a complete work, whatever label be attached to it.”

That we can agree on. Pnin is a complete work, with unity of character provided by its sympathetic comic protagonist, Professor Timofey Pnin.

He taught Russian at Waindell College, a somewhat provincial institution characterized by an artificial lake in the middle of a landscaped campus, by ivied galleries connecting the various halls [and] by murals displaying the recognisable members of the faculty in the act of passing on the torch of knowledge from Aristotle, Shakespeare and Pasteur to a lot of monstrously built farm boys and girls.

Like Nabokov, he has come to America via Russia (“his father, Dr Pavel Pnin, an eye specialist of considerable repute, had once had the honour of treating Leo Tolstoy for a case of conjunctivitis”) and Germany; unlike Nabokov, his English is poor (“if his Russian was music, his English was murder”), and he has a habit of getting into humorous scrapes. Like many Nabokov characters, he is a martyr to insomnia. “He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying to the two he has.”

We are treated to episodes in the life of Pnin and those around him, in which Pnin appears well-meaning but misled, intuitive but confused, trying to fit in to the American way of life.

In the beginning Pnin was greatly embarrassed by the ease with which first names were bandied about in America: after a single party, with an iceberg in a drop of whisky to start and with a lot of whisky in a little tap water to finish, you were supposed to call a grey-templed stranger ‘Jim’, while he called you ‘Tim’ for ever and ever. If you forgot and called him the next morning Professor Everett (his real name to you) it was (for him) a terrible insult.

In the course of these vignettes, Pnin takes the wrong train and rents a room in a colleague’s home, and encounters his ex-wife (whose son’s story provides one of the most satisfying chapters). It is clever, funny, elegantly Nabokovian and beautifully written (with plenty of Nabokov’s speciality of what we might call portmanteau sentences, packing more in than should really be possible). At the same time I wondered if that was all there was to it. I needn’t have worried. Like Lolita and Pale Fire, Pnin turns out to be as much about its narrator as about its subject. An early clue comes when one of the beautifully written sentences is so ‘beautifully written’ that it’s downright ugly:

An elliptical flock of pigeons, in circular volitation, soaring grey, flapping white, then grey again, wheeled across the limpid, pale sky, above the College Library.

Surely Nabokov would never stoop to such lazy ornamentation? Then we notice times when the ostensibly omniscient narrative pauses to offer opinions on characters (“…Dr Eric Wind, a completely humourless pedant…”) and that the word I crops up more and more often.

This turns the narrative on its head. The book is still about the same things – belonging, fitting in – but now from a different viewpoint, with more hostility than hospitality. The narrator – who comes into full view in the last chapter – bears certain similarities to our author. The reader is left to determine what reliance can be placed on his portrait of Pnin, and to tussle with the usual problems of a narrator with a vested interest. We must accept some of what he says, otherwise we are playing tennis without a net. But is it brilliance or convenience when Nabokov – known for his coolness of style, of lording it over his people (“My characters are galley slaves”) – creates a narrator who coolly lords it over his people? Or when we trust that the overwrought prose was consciously so, and not attributed thus after the event? In the end it is a question of trust, and we give the benefit of the doubt to those writers in whom we have faith. Nabokov for me is still one of those. The author remains reliable, even when the narrator is not.

Emanuel Litvinoff: Journey Through a Small Planet

The more I write about books on this blog, the greater grows my awareness of the huge gaps in my reading. I had never heard of Emanuel Litvinoff until I saw that this book was to be reissued by Penguin Modern Classics. (He is still alive, born in 1915 and retired from writing in the 1980s. How we wish other writers would show the same restraint.) Even then it didn’t much interest me: a memoir of Jewish childhood in London’s east end? I stood in the shop and tried the McLuhan test. As I finished page 69, I found myself unthinkingly turning to page 70. Sold.

Journey Through a Small Planet isn’t quite the book I was expecting. The cover shows Litvinoff in 1972, the year of its publication, revisiting the East End of his youth, and for some reason (probably that, as usual, I skimmed the blurb) I thought the book would be an account of this journey. In fact this is dealt with briskly in the brief Author’s Note.

As we proceeded on foot through the once familiar streets the change was startling. Clumps of Muslim men stood aimlessly on corners and there was a curious absence of women. Shrill, eerie music wailed in the heat of the afternoon. The odour of spices mingled with the stench of drains. Skinny little girls with enormous, solemn black eyes sat on doorsteps nursing babies.

This Islamification of the area shocks Litvinoff – in his youth it was the Jewish quarter – and in the 35 years since the book was written, the areas (Spitalfields, Hoxton, Brick Lane) have undergone further development, into boho gentrification. The book takes us into recollection of its, and his, past.

Litvinoff’s parents were Jews who fled Russia in 1914 to settle in America –

The tailors thought of it as a place where people had, maybe, three, four different suits to wear. Glaziers grew dizzy with excitement reckoning up the number of windows in even one little skyscraper. Cobblers counted twelve million feet, a shoe on each. There was gold in the streets for all trades; a meat dinner every single day. And Freedom.

– but they never got there (“a laconic ship’s officer said that anybody but a miserly lot of Jew-spawn would know the money they’d paid wouldn’t cover the fare on a decent river-ferry, never mind passage to New York”), and so they stalled in England, in London, and become part of a community where “people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs.”

But his father returned to Russia, and Litvinoff found himself an orphan. “Fathers – what I’d seen of them – were not much of a bargain.” In return, in the book he imagines his father’s past in London, as a member of a passionate but incompetent revolutionary group, and working for a tailor when Germany invades Belgium in 1914:

Mark [Golombek]’s blood boiled at the outrage to peace, but it wasn’t a worker’s war and he didn’t intend to stand for it even if it meant plenty of overtime making khaki. In the pocket of every soldier’s tunic that passed under his hissing iron was inserted a handwritten leaflet. Sometimes it read: ‘Refuse to fire on your German brothers! Unite for Peace!’ Sometimes, under pressure, the message was even more inflammatory: ‘Turn your guns on your real enemies! Down with bloodthirsty capitalism! (Signed) Workers’ Committee for International Unity’. In addition to Mark, the Workers’ Committee consisted of Gurevich, the glazier, and Cohen, the upholsterer.

“Cohen’s principal value to Gurevich,” we learn, “was that he provided a majority when it was necessary to outvote Golombek.”

This opening chapter is a tour de force: imaginative, surprising, real. The book thereafter brings Litvinoff’s own life into close-up, and the detail of real life inevitably brings it down to earth somewhat. But this is a book which lives and succeeds both by its subject matter and its writing – unlike, say, The Grass Arena – and Litvinoff makes his memories live.

In the Jewish quarter where he is raised, “religion was a kind of family affair, to be treated with irony and ambiguity.” His neighbours define themselves by their religion but do not submit to it unquestioningly. Ambiguity is all over their lives: Litvinoff’s people feel at once secure in their ghetto, but also trapped by it. His ‘uncle’ Solly cries, “It’s like living in a bloody madhouse!” His mother responds, “So, the door is open. Go live in a palace.” A comic play succeeds among the neighbours “because it made people laugh and cry and remember the past, all at the same time. And even though one always heard how bitter everything was in the past, the old people were still crazy to relive it.”

Anti-semitism is dealt with, like much in the book, anecdotally, along with apprenticeships (“I’d be dressed up like a man of forty cut off at the knees”), school conflicts (“there was a hole in my stomach like a hundred-foot drop”), flirtation with Communism, and the ever-present ephemera of youth. This lightness of touch is balanced by the substantial material surrounding the text, which makes this edition a triumph of publishing for Penguin and an object lesson in how to reissue a book, how to give it the modern classic treatment, with loving care. Journey Through a Small Planet itself takes up only 150 pages of a 250-page book – the other 100 include other material from Litvinoff, such as ‘A Jew in England’ which does deal with anti-semitism more directly, a short story ‘The Day the World Came to an End’, uncollected poetry, and best of all, a 40-page introduction by Patrick Wright which does fulfil my early expectations by taking Litvinoff back to his beloved East End in the 1990s.

The book received some press attention with an interview in the Guardian, but otherwise it seems a shame that a wonderful reissue like this, the very essence of what publishers of ‘modern classics’ should be doing, has gone otherwise unremarked. This is one example that gives me hope for mainstream publishing, against the odds. In this, and in the enrichment offered for such a low price, I was reminded of another passage.  Litvinoff recalls his neighbours’ love of the Irish Sweepstake, its vast winnings and impossible prospects. “Women misappropriated shillings from their housekeeping to buy tickets.”

All without exception expected enrichment. The one thing you had to say about our people, we never lost hope. Not entirely.