Pushkin Press may be best known for reintroducing Stefan Zweig to the English speaking world. Zweig, the psychological melodramatist, is one of the most written-about authors on this blog, though I haven’t reviewed him for a few years. (I recently read his novella Journey into the Past, and found all was well in Zweigstrasse: passions realised and unrealised, emotions turned up to eleven, and the essential framing device. It’s comfort reading, in a way.) However, for all its good taste, Pushkin had a reputation for a somewhat chaotic approach, such as shifting publication dates, unreliable stock availability, and no ebooks. Last year it was bought by Adam Freudenheim and Stephanie Seegmuller, formerly of Penguin, who have brought some efficiency to the Pushkin table without losing sight of what made it so special to begin with. They have extended its interests beyond Europe, introduced a line of translated children’s fiction, and spruced up its cover designs with the help of David Pearson and Clare Skeats. You can read more about its designs here.
The Parrots (tr. Howard Curtis) is the second novel by Filippo Bologna after his eco satire How I Lost the War (also published in English by Pushkin). Here Bologna stays with uneasy comedy but directs it to the literary world, and the obvious comparison is Amis’s The Information. Eschewing the distraction of names – plus, these novelists are all the same, aren’t they? – Bologna gives us three men, The Master, The Writer and The Beginner, all vying for The Prize.
The tone is as disdainful as the characters deserve. The Beginner is a debut novelist, a celebrated prodigy – I read it thinking of one or two of the Granta 2013 list – whose novel “you don’t actually have to read to know that it’s one of those books that will last, one of those once-in-a-lifetime novels.” Its acknowledgements are “like the end credits of a Hollywood film.” Sounds awful, as does The Beginner himself: self-involved, he contemplates writing an essay on how the humming of his fridge must resemble “the sound of writing, an inner, metaphysical sound … the noise of an intelligence at work” and sending it to “one of those literary blogs where all the losers who can’t get their books onto bookshelves badmouth each other.” (Huh! Those bozos.) Yet his girlfriend is about to discover how bad he is in real life too, and will make him question what he really values.
The Writer is a widely-published, experienced and acclaimed novelist in his prime – at least, according to the critics. I thought, perhaps unfairly, of Ian McEwan – someone of that status anyway. But The Writer has a secret which must not be revealed for the sake of his reputation, and his mother is dying. For him, “it’s too late to go up. From now on, the only way is down.”
Finally there is The Master, the veteran, an “old dehorned bull” who, we learn in his opening scenes, is dying of prostate cancer. As such, he has no time for niceties, and immediately sets about canvassing The President of The Academy that awards The Prize. (Don’t worry, you soon stop noticing all the capitals. It’s like living under an airport’s flightpath.) The President is not to be intimidated: “You should be grateful you’re a finalist, considering what an awful book you wrote.” Elsewhere, we are told that this book is “a kind of slender literary Frankenstein […] assembled by emptying drawers, turning out pockets, combing through scattered sheets and notes…” Incidentally, I was unable to conjure a real-life comparison for The Master. That is perhaps no great loss, as Bologna takes less interest in him throughout the book than in The Beginner and The Writer. It is their battle really.
The Parrots – the title refers to various birds that pepper the narrative, including a black parrot that begins to offer advice to The Beginner – counts down the months and days to the announcement of The Prize. It’s not exactly a tense build-up, but the tone does vary nicely between empathy and irony (which are, I suppose, side by side on a writer’s keyboard), and in a world driven by vanity and ambition, everything seems curdled. The Master, for example, visits “one of those bars … where there is always a strange stench, as if the barman left his hand on a hotplate.” There is also a lovely portrait of a small press (“it held down its expenses by ‘borrowing’ the wi-fi from a Chinese hairdresser on the ground floor”) which is as good as those in The Information or Foucault’s Pendulum.
Many readers will have a limited appetite for writing about writers, but even they might enjoy the verve and brio on display here. As well as being modern enough to make plot points turn on Amazon reviews and Google Street View, The Parrots has some nicely varied stylistic tricks, from newspaper mock-ups to a long sequence where The Writer’s obsessive thoughts (“Boxed set … boxed set … boxed set“) alternate with the soundtrack of a guided tour through his headphones. At the end, events pile up, and both The Beginner and The Writer have difficult decisions to make. If there’s a lesson to learn, it’s that writers are never satisfied, though what I remember about the book is less the despair than the blackly humorous worldview. It starts with the epigraph, from Antonio Pigafetta’s Report on the First Voyage Around the World, where the translation twinkles just as brightly as elsewhere in the book: “He saw all kinds of birds, among them one that had no arse.”