Month: December 2010

Andrey Platonov: The Foundation Pit

I’ve found myself reading more translated literature recently. (Four out of the last six books reviewed here.) This isn’t the result of a conscious policy, but I suppose there must be some underlying process at work in my choices. Perhaps it’s the notion that with foreign fiction, you’re getting the best of what’s on offer from other countries: the stuff has to pass through two selection processes rather than one. On the other hand, a fellow blogger has accused me of “over-celebrating marginal central European works.” Could this be true? Am I valuing foreignness as a quality in itself? These are questions which sprang to mind as I read Andrey Platonov’s recently re-translated novel.

The Foundation Pit has a complex publishing history. Written in 1929-30, it remained unpublished in Platonov’s Russian homeland until 1987 – 26 years after his death – but had previously been published (in Russian) in the USA in 1973. It was translated into English in 1996 by Robert Chandler for the redoubtable Harvill Press. However, the Russian publication on which that translation was based was heavily bowdlerised, and so when definitive texts became available, Chandler re-translated the book in collaboration with Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. This is the version which now appears in NYRB Classics (in the US) and Vintage Classics (in the UK).

Those two imprints of course are recommendations to me in themselves, so I approached The Foundation Pit with high expectations. Robert Chandler in his substantial appendices observes that this is a book and author that give us vital information on Stalin’s collectivisation policy, which led to the systematic liquidation (dekulakisation) of the wealthy peasant class in the Russian countryside. “Platonov and his friend Vasily Grossman were the only two members of their generation to write about Total Collectivization—and about the still more devastating Terror Famine—both truthfully and in depth.” The question therefore is how can a book be, at the same time, hugely important and virtually unreadable?

Such a bald comment is of course the result of a subjective reading experience. Did a succession of early rises leave me too tired to get the most out of The Foundation Pit? Has Twitter ruined my powers of concentration? Am I suffering from foreign-lit fatigue? Whatever the reason, this short book (150 pages plus appendices) evaded my comprehension at every page turn. The cover blurb told me more than I got out of the text itself: “A group of Soviet workers believe they are laying the foundations for a radiant future. As they work harder and dig deeper, their optimism turns to violence and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation pit but an immense grave.”

The Irish Times describes the book as comparable to Godot and Lewis Carroll, and the absurd comedy suggested thereby is present from the first paragraph, where we learn that one of the lead characters Voshchev has been made redundant from a machine factory “on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labour.” (“What if we all get lost in thought?” he is asked. “Who’ll be left to act?”) Without work, Voshchev feels himself not to be at a loose end, but to be a loose end, without purpose. “He did not know whether he was of use to the world or whether everything would get along fine without him.” Anyway, “happiness is a bourgeois business. Happiness will lead only to shame.” And so Voshchev joins the workers building the foundation pit.

The language is key to the strengths – and, for me, weaknesses – of the book. There are passages which get the feel just right:

Out in nature a devastated summer’s day was departing into evening: everything, near and far, was gradually ending; birds were hiding away; people were lying down to sleep, smoke was wafting up meekly from remote field huts, and there a tired and unknown man was sitting by his pot and waiting for supper, resolved to endure his life to the end.

Elsewhere, however, the tone is bizarre, either incomprehensible or ostentatiously clumsy. When one character calls another “You class superfluity!”, it may be faithful to the Russian, but it clangs in English, and it’s a worryingly common experience. “Oh, Olya, Olly, you darling dolly,” coos the character Pashkin to his wife, “your feel for the masses is simply gigantic! For that, let me organize myself close to you!” If the use of ‘organize’ is a joke, it’s one that works in only one register and deadens its own impact. These clumsy effects seem to be conscious, and indeed at times they communicated the desired effect to me – doublespeak, dictatorial cant – as when two characters die and are described not as being dead but “in eternal condition”. Such moments make me regret that the fault elsewhere was doubtless mine. Yet the Irish Times, this time in a review of the new translation, provides some helpful comparisons between the 1996 translation and this one:

“down cast eyes” becomes “down bent”; “an automobile that had been driven across open countryside was being repaired” becomes “an automobile was being repaired there from going without roads”; “our sense of conviction” becomes “our convinced feeling”; a brass band that had been “droning” is now “pining”; “a youthful march” is now “the music of a young march.”

The automobile quote is one of many phrases in the book which had me scratching my head: now at least I’ve had a translation of the translation and know what it really meant. I found myself rereading paragraphs just to get a sense of what was happening on the surface (not perhaps unreasonable, as Platonov deliberately “deforms language”, Chandler tells us – which should be joyous news to me – and brings in characters, such as a bear, without introducing them so that the reader is left wondering whether they missed the first appearance). What makes this particularly frustrating is the fact that even in crystal clear English, The Foundation Pit is a book which requires knowledge of the historical and political background to get the most from it (to get, I would say, anything significant from it at all). The afterword and copious notes are very helpful, but would be better as introduction, with the notes numbered through the text: as it is, there is no indication in the body of the book that there are any notes at all. Properly forewarned, I might have spotted any of the subtexts or references – to Dante, to the biblical Elisha, to Pushkin – and found the book more tantalising than frustrating. As it is I can only say that this is a book I found impossible to review, and so – with an irony worthy of etc. etc.! – I leave you with one thousand words explaining why I am unable to do so.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2010

This year’s blogger’s dozen comes from a shorter longlist than usual, since I read fewer books this year than in recent memory, owing to ongoing symptoms of parenthood. My main regret this time is that there are books which could have made it but for the fact that I haven’t reviewed them here (yet), such as Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which was for its first half at least, the best debut collection of stories I’ve read in years. Or Tim Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still, a boon and a hazard for the practising hypochondriac. Or Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a book of essays which was simultaneously enlightening and reassuring.

The list is in alphabetical order by author. As usual, I have exercised my right to include one more than is strictly proper, because frankly, who gives a damn?

Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death
I like to think this book would have impressed and delighted me just as much even if I hadn’t approached it with no expectations. I believe it probably would have, not least because it understands and articulates that in the world “it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial […] than to become imcomprehensible,” and is also aware of its own – of every piece of writing’s – fatal limitations. “A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.”

Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters
For years I had intended to read Thomas Bernhard, and had been fearful of doing so. All the frightening things – the paragraphless pages, the famous ‘rants’ – turned out to be both true and misleading. Old Masters may be entry-level Bernhard, but it could hardly have been a more addictive or joyful experience. I reiterate my recommendation of it here despite the protests of my own sense of ‘art selfishness’.

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts
Another one I’d heard great things about, without ever believing that a 75-year-old book could be so funny, relevant and modern as this one. It’s so nimble that it manages not to fall over its own feet despite the breakneck pace of the satire – satire of capitalist society that covers many bases in many forms, from newspaper journalese to academic discourse.

Daniel Clowes: Wilson
A perfect marriage of content and form, Wilson is as funny as its six-panel cartoon form might suggest, but with exceptional timing and emotional weight added in. Clowes both respects and disrupts the comic strip format, giving us a character who is misanthropic but pathetic, and a book which is like a stiletto hammered into the reader’s heart.

Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge
Mrs Bridge has the appearance of a gentle character study, but has ambition in its structure – one hundred brief scenes showing aspects of our heroine in a way that is as quietly devastating as anything Richard Yates wrote. Perhaps there is time, yet, for Connell to become belatedly famous without having to die in penury as Yates did, though someone had better put him back in print in the UK first. “They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?”

Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man
A rare re-read for me these days, and this book – widely and rightly regarded as Isherwood’s finest novel – has only improved in the decade or two since I first encountered it. It is a study of one day in the life of one man – and also of how the firings of our consciousness come together in the form of an identity. Who am I? It is also a painful account of 1960s homophobia. “Even when they are geniuses in spite of it, their masterpieces are invariably warped.” I’d rate it warp factor ten.

Tom McCarthy: C
A book which was surrounded by the sort of buzz and static which it contained and described, C was an unusual, teasing, beautifully written novel, difficult to sum up but impossible to get out of your head. Its themes of technology and communication, and their symbiotic relationship with humanity, make it a novel for our blogging, tweeting times, and its literary qualities make it one good reason to mark down the Booker Prize as not yet a complete dead loss.

Bernard Malamud: The Magic Barrel
The Magic Barrel is one of those little masterpieces which has been knocking around for fifty years or so just waiting to be read. It is a sympathetic, harrowing and comic portrayal of the Jewish immigrant experience in America in the 1950s; a world in 150 pages.

Joe Moran: On Roads
Whether or not he’s responsible for the irksome coinage ‘everydayology’, Moran is brilliant at extracting the juice from our daily grind with wit and aplomb. The roads which circle our lives but are unregarded in themselves are a perfect subject matter for him, seasoned with tasty cultural references from Patrick Hamilton to Black Box Recorder. This book untangles a spaghetti junction of social history into a funny and illuminating narrative, a page-by-page pleasure.

Andrew Rawnsley: The End of the Party
This is the only story of New Labour (well, its second and third terms anyway) that anyone could wish for – unless you’re a real glutton for punishment. It gives believable and depressing accounts of all the major crises (if there were any periods of calm between the crises, history has already forgotten them) and provides either a reminder of how difficult government is, or an affirmation of how power corrupts, etc. My review is so detailed that you may not need to read the book afterwards anyway.

Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling
A timely reminder of one of the most talented but least appreciated novelists now working in English, The Long Falling, Ridgway’s debut novel, is less ambitious than his later work, but just as fully achieved. It’s a straight story about a straight society struggling to accommodate challenges to its orthodoxy, and of one woman at a time of crisis. Also read his blog, where he writes about books like Alone in Berlin much better than I do.

Judith Schalansky: Atlas of Remote Islands
A perfect jewel, a work of art, and a work of literature all at once. Atlas of Remote Islands is a high concept, a simple idea, and a frightening challenge to our expectations of atlases as books which connect countries and make the world a smaller place. This atlas defamiliarises and isolates, in the most bracing and stimulating manner. When I wrote my blog post, Schalansky’s book had had no coverage in the mainstream press; now expert reviews like this one show my own effort as sadly surface-literalist. So read it instead, but more importantly, read the book.

Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles
My thirteenth choice tips the balance of this list in favour of old books rather than new ones. And this is the oldest of them all (just about) and the strangest (for sure). Schulz’s florid, flighty prose feels like a new way of looking at the world, and expands in imaginative fancy even as its subject matter closes in on streets and rooms and members of a family. Sorry to make this a theme, but once again the mainstream press proves much better than I am at explaining why Schulz is so good. So start here.

Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Regular readers need no introduction to my weakness for any imprint with ‘Classics’ in its name. Why is this? Something to do with my belief that there are more fine forgotten books out there than great new ones being published; and that someone somewhere must have had a strong belief in it to bother reissuing a title that’s going to forego the usual publicity opportunities. New in such series, and very interesting, is Serpent’s Tail Classics, which has issued eight titles so far, including books by Fernando Pessoa, George Pelecanos, Elfriede Jelinek and Walter Mosley. Some of the range are books I’d always been vaguely aware of, but never had any interest in: like Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go, and this one.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) hadn’t interested me before because I thought it was some sentimental nonsense about horses. I knew there was a film adaptation and – …reflecting on it, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I think I confused it with National Velvet. So, there are no horses in this book. Rather, it’s a skinny and brutal account of existence at the edge of Depression America.

My normal policy with reviews is to avoid all spoilers, but it’s hard to do that here because the outcome is revealed to us at the beginning. Yet the fact that the book treads a line between deceptively simple and just plain simple, and my nagging suspicion that there’s not much more to it than what we see on the surface (interesting though that is), raises doubts as to whether I should discuss the plot completely, or not at all. So caveat lector.

The book opens with words delivered in court as Robert Syverten, our narrator, is sentenced to death for the murder of Gloria Beatty. If this is a crime novel, its journey is not to show who did it, but how he got there. As it turns out, there’s no mystery here either: from the start, we know that Robert murdered Gloria as a favour to her. “She did not die in agony,” he tells us. “She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile.” But that doesn’t matter to the court.

They are going to kill me. I know exactly what that judge is going to say. I can tell by the look of him that he is going to be glad to say it and I can tell by the feel of the people behind me that they are going to be glad to hear him say it.

They might be glad to hear him say it so that they don’t have to think about people like Gloria any more. She is someone for whom life has no meaning. “It’s peculiar to me,” she says, “that people pay so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” And elsewhere: “More and more and more I wish I was dead.”

If the book gives us not much impetus to find out how Gloria ends up dead, nor does it give any journey for the reader to discover why she is the way she is. (The book is neither whodunit nor whywantit.) We have some background information on her troubled childhood, but otherwise nothing. She just is. Simone de Beauvoir described They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as “the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America.” Another handy label for Gloria might be ‘nihilistic’, but it would be unfair to suggest that the book leaves it at that. We get a microcosm of the society which may have helped create Gloria in the dance marathon event which she and Robert enter shortly after meeting. “Free food and a free bed as long as you last.” The dance marathon is as symbolic as you might expect: held in a dancehall on the end of a pier – at the end of the world – with nothing but the sea beneath. “Through the balls of my feet,” Robert tells us, “I could feel the ocean surging against the pilings below.”

The marathon goes on for weeks – well, it’s a marathon – and the relentless grind of it, pleasure turning to punishment, is a not too heavily disguised analogue for Gloria’s experience of life.

Past a certain point you kept moving automatically, without actually being conscious of moving. One minute you would be travelling at top speed and the next moment you started falling.

The organisers pass up no opportunity to promote the event, through public marriage ceremonies between the contestants, representing, I suppose, the cynicism of corporate America exploiting the little man who is already suffering. Subtlety is not much present here, and you can see in the book its origins as an unproduced screenplay. Nonetheless, the singleminded power of the book holds through to the end, and even if it’s one to read but not to reread, it’s certainly worth one walk through, which won’t take long anyway. This Serpent’s Tail Classics edition comes with an introduction by John Harvey, and a valuable essay on McCoy by William Marling. Among other things, we learn that McCoy sold a screenplay in 1951 for $100,000 (how much would that be now?), and died so penniless four years later that his widow had to sell his books and jazz records to pay for his funeral.

Jenny Erpenbeck: The Old Child / The Book of Words

I bought this book early in the year, thrilled to see something out of the ordinary in one of those titchy unpromising shopping-centre branches of Waterstone’s. (There’s someone with taste at their Ballymena branch – not normally a place associated with literary highs. I also bought E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hjalmar Söderberg there). I started reading it in February, only to be struck down – or at least, struck unable-to-concentrate-through-the-pain – with a shoulder injury. I went back to it after reading Michel Faber’s lavish praise for the author’s latest UK publication.

The Old Child
(1999, tr. 2005 by Susan Bernofsky) is such a tough little thing that I wonder whether I would have slipped away from it first time around even without an injury to excuse me. It describes a young girl found “standing in the street with an empty bucket in one hand,” who fails or refuses to give any information about who she is or where she came from. “She was so surrounded by nothingness that there seemed, from the beginning, to be something implausible about her very existence.” The girl, who says she is fourteen years old, is “bigger than she should be”, and “hunches as though she were obliged to do so, to hold back a great force that is raging inside her.” She has a “wide, blotchy face” and her body is shaped “like a block of wood.”

This “pale, huge creature” is, or wants to be, “a blank slate.” But Erpenbeck does not succumb to the obvious technique of leaving the girl as pure allegory, or of filling in her character by the space she leaves around her and the impressions others have of her. We do get the girl’s own thoughts: she is taken to a school for troubled children, where she wants to “occupy the lowermost place that no one will fight her for.” She wants “to be given up on.” But she is human, and so full of contradictions. She finds herself pleased to be of use to the other children, but the relationship she attains with them is akin only to “the intimacy between a conspirator and the guards posted before his door.”

Erpenbeck reflects the girl’s central contradictions in the book itself. We are given frequent insights into the girl’s motives, but she remains mysterious. The ending provides us with a clear solution, yet sends the reader back through the pages in search of answers. There are many references to the girl’s past, which obscure as much as they illuminate. Take, for example, the treatment of the girl’s refusal to take sides in classroom disputes:

The place she occupies in classroom hostilities is therefore not always an honorable one, it isn’t really a place for a human being at all, since it forces one to approach zero, all one’s insides must be emptied out like a fish before frying, and only then will there be sufficient space for storing the misdeeds of others, others’ happiness and others’ grief. But the girl already had such a space within her when she arrived at the Home.

Of course it is these very qualities – demanding, teasing – that make the book such a success, enticing while reading and sticky in the memory when finished.

If The Old Child is a long but nourishing 100 pages, the accompanying story in this volume, The Book of Words (2005, tr. 2007), is knottier yet. A first person narrative by a child, it avoids the problems of many child narratives – cutesiness, sentimentality – by being frankly hard work. That is not quite right: certainly there is obscurity here, and translator Susan Bernofsky’s afterword that “the transplantation from German to English obscures certain fundamental points about the story being told” might have been more reassuring as an introduction. However even when scratching my head, I found much to enjoy within each paragraph, despite struggling to locate a larger view of the story. There is lovely imagery: “Where have all the sirens gone wailing off to? They turned into birds, my wet-nurse says. It is sunny and quiet in the middle of our city where the police live.” Sometimes the content seems to shine a dim light on its own difficulty:

Do you know what monsters live at a depth of four thousand meters? We shake our heads. It isn’t possible to know them, the teacher says.

These extracts, it turns out, are key to the central slow revelation of the story: as, probably, is everything else that didn’t seem obvious to me first time around. It does become clear, and the central figures in the girl’s life take on a new quality as the reader’s understanding grows. To say more, as ever, would spoil. It might be sufficient to point out that Erpenbeck grew up in the 1970s in what was then East Germany, and that this clearly (or turbidly) informs her work.

The Old Child and The Book of Words are what might commonly be called ‘difficult’. But they are only difficult if the reader is anticipating from the book a monologue rather than a dialogue: and where’s the fun in that? The language is clear and unaffected, but both stories resist full understanding until they are completed, which means the reader reinterprets them backwards. This makes a pleasant change from many books where we know what they’re about immediately, and what’s going to happen not long after. In The Old Child, the girl receives medical treatment where she finds staff who

are able to relieve a living creature, at least briefly, of the great responsibility of having always to sustain this life that has been given one, always with oneself to rely on, and without even knowing to what end.

The reader of Erpenbeck comes to know this feeling of self-reliance (for the time being “without even knowing to what end”), but here it makes a nice change, and the mind feels invigorated afterwards from the unaccustomed exercise.

Antonio Tabucchi: Pereira Maintains (Declares Pereira)

I was saying earlier this year that publishers rarely reissue books in hardback; so, to prove me wrong, here’s another one. This book was previously published in English in 1995 by the redoubtable and much-missed Harvill Press (yes, they’ve been incorporated into Harvill Secker; but it’s not the same, is it?). Back then, it was titled Declares Pereira, a title which has been altered for this new Canongate edition. In the US, the title is Pereira Declares: a Testimony, so we have three titles all from the same translation. (Declares gives the title a pleasing internal rhyme which even the original – Sostiene Pereira – lacked.) The only book I’d previously read by Tabucchi was the novella Requiem, so I was glad of the chance to rediscover him.

Pereira Maintains (1994; tr. 1995 by Patrick Creagh) is a slim, subtle book, quiet but trembling with suppressed energy. The US subtitle (“a Testimony”), though unnecessary, helpfully reminds the reader that this is an account being rendered by the central character, being recorded by – whom? “Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day,” it begins, and it is a meeting which will change Pereira’s life, and will lead to the present telling of his story.

We are in Portugal in 1938; Pereira is a middle-aged widower who talks to a photograph of his wife, and is in the market for new, stimulating company. He is a journalist on the Lisboa, a Lisbon newspaper, who has recently been put in charge of the new culture page. Still mourning his wife (“perhaps his life was merely a remnant and a pretence”), he reads in a magazine an extract from a university thesis on death, and decides that its author, a young man named Monteiro Rossi, will be perfect for the role of writing obituaries for the culture page. “Imagine if Mauriac were to die tomorrow, how would I manage?” However, he finds that Rossi is a politically committed young man, who produces pieces which cannot be used in the Lisboa.

Two years ago, in obscure circumstances, we lost the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. He was assassinated, and suspicion rests on his political opponents. The whole world is still wondering how such an act of barbarism could have been perpetrated.

The Lisboa prefers to remain studiously silent on the actions of Portugal’s Salazarist regime, to whom “Lorca was a traitor”. Rossi’s girlfriend Marta, equally opposed to the government and its support of Franco in Spain, observes to Pereira: “You know, I bought the Lisboa today, it’s a pity it doesn’t mention the carter the police have murdered in Alentejo.” Pereira’s embarrassed half-apology – “the editor-in-chief is on holiday … I am only responsible for the culture page” – is the first birthing pain of his own political awareness.

Pereira tries to carry on as normal – “the problem is that the whole world is a problem and it won’t be solved by you or me”, he tells Rossi – but finds himself unable to break off contact with the young couple. Perhaps it’s because Rossi is “about the age of our son if we’d had a son,” Pereira tells his wife’s photograph. He doesn’t see “how [Rossi and Marta] can influence me … they’re just two benighted romantics without a future, if anything I ought to influence them.” He longs to speak to his priest, “because to him he’d have been able to confide that he wanted to repent but didn’t know what he had to repent of.” He tries to relax by translating stories for the culture page (stories about repentance), by going to a health spa or visiting an old friend, but the subject he is trying not to think about comes up again. “Public opinion counts for nothing,” his friend Silva tells him. It’s “a gimmick thought up by the English and Americans … we don’t have their traditions … we’re a southern people, Pereira, and we obey whoever shouts the loudest and gives the orders.”

The thin thread of Pereira’s story unwinds beautifully, the recurring people and events – exchanges with his caretaker, omelettes aux fines herbes at the Café Orquídea – lulling the reader into believing that nothing will really change. Just as the regime censors dissent, Pereira’s testimony limits our knowledge of his interior torments. We are, of course, reminded that this is a partial account by the refrain – he maintains (or he declares for readers of other editions. A find-and-replace fail in the Canongate edition has left one ‘declares’ in place).

Pereira fell asleep almost at once. And he dreamt a lovely dream, a dream of his youth. He was at the beach at Granja, swimming in an ocean for all the world like a swimming-pool, and on the edge of the pool was a pale-skinned girl, waiting for him and clasping a towel in her arms. Then he swam back, but the dream went on, it was really a beautiful dream. But Pereira prefers not to say how it went on because his dream has nothing to do with these events, he maintains.

‘These events’ are revealed by the end of the book, but to whom is Pereira giving his account? The repeated riff of ‘he maintains’ conveys an attempt to persuade us that his version is true, and as such creates uncertainty. Is the uncertainty suggestive of deception, or merely the uncertainty of memory? Pereira’s story is told in the present describing the past – but what is yet to come? The reader, shamelessly engaged with our hero, can only hope when we learn that “he felt this deep yearning, for what exactly he cannot presume to say, but it was a profound yearning for a life that was past and for one in the future, Pereira maintains.”