20 December 2014

The New Confessions by William Boyd [1987]

This is a fantastic novel which I re-read recently.  It's a bildungsroman covering the career of a Scots soldier turned film-maker in the first half of the twentieth century.  It's incredibly evocative and the span of the novel is awe-inspiring.  Very satisfying in the same way that Citizen Kane is satisfying.

There is a literary thread running through this novel in that the protagonist is obsessed by Rousseau's Confessions.  I admit I did not quite appreciate the significance of this and I suppose I need to read Rousseau next.

27 October 2014

The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen [2013]

I picked this up in India a couple of years ago (before publication in the UK) because I needed to get rid of some rupees at Delhi Airport, but I only just got around to reading it.  It's a completely chilling account of Putin's rise to power and of the kleptocracy of modern Russia.  Amongst other things, Gessen suggests that hundreds of innocent civilians were sacrificed in fake terrorist attacks in order to assist with Putin's rise to power.  There is also a recurring theme in which journalists, politicians or businessmen who cross Putin end up dead.  Although Gessen's tone is a little hysterical at times, this book made me want to learn a lot more about modern Russia.  But not necessarily to go there again.

The Hungry Years by William Leith [2005]

Excellent memoir of compulsive, self-destructive behaviour.  Leith rescues it from pure self-indulgence through his own self-awareness and his skill as an author (it's very well-written indeed).

22 September 2014

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith [1994]

I picked this up because I went through a period of being obsessed with the Ripley books that Patricia Highsmith wrote. Like those novels, this is a novel with a flimsy plot and cartoon characters that completely redeems itself through the style and sense of place conveyed by the writing. The book is set in Greece in what feels like the 1950s or 1960s, and revolves around the relationship between an American con artist and a younger American student, who is redolent of a young Tom Ripley. The plot details are unimportant - what matters is the cinematic detail and pervasive mood of amorality.

Fiesta or The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway [1927]

I picked this up because I spent a few weeks in Madrid over the summer and I had not read it for more than 20 years. What struck me again was the lyricism of the descriptions of food and drink, specifically drink. Following Jake, Lady Brett and the others on their binges made me feel refreshed, intoxicated and ultimately sick, as though I were there matching them drink for drink. When Jake pulls a bottle of icy white from the river after fishing, it feels cool and refreshing. I am not sure how Hemingway does this, but it explains why I fell for this book so heavily as a 16 year old - it was like being invited to an adult's party. At that age the hangover did not seem so bad. The other memorable thing which stays with me is the pathos of Cohn's longing for Brett, which also caused me to shudder at my own adolescent ineptitude...

The Circle by Dave Eggers [2013]

This is a fantastic dystopian novel I read over the summer about a near future in which life is dominated by The Circle, a sort of Facebook / Google hybrid. The funny thing is that the world of likes and zings that Eggers creates is almost indistinguishable from the way in which I understand that people use social media. In this world, experiences are invalid unless they are digitally shared.  A gripping story as well.

10 June 2014

Lady with Lapdog and other stories by Anton Chekhov [1899]

This is a collection of short stories by an author that many people consider to be the master of this form.  

I last read Chekhov's stories when I was at school but I think my experience 20 years later was very different. There is an overwhelming and pervasive mood of melancholy hanging over these stories. I read them in English - there is no way I could read a Russian story for pleasure - but my recollection is that this mood is intensified when you read them in Russian. 

The standout piece in this collection is Ward 6 [1892]. It's a very dark long short story about how a director of a mental asylum transforms from being nominally in charge of the asylum to being committed as a patient. This is not just melancholy, it is a bleak nightmare. The point is that no-one can be in charge of the asylum: the institution itself shapes and devours those who come into contact with it. Ward 6 reads strikingly like Kafka, but predates Kafka by about 30 years, which is noteworthy when you consider how original Kafka's vision seems to us today. 
I think that this is the fundamental point I never appreciated 20 years ago - namely, what a modern author Chekhov is. The questions raised by Ward 6 about authenticity, truth and guilt are existential questions of the post-Great War era. What is also interesting is that the environment in which these questions are posed feels pre-modern. 19th century Russia seems foreign and distant in a way that 19th century France does not in Zola's novels, for example. 
I have been trying to work out why this should be since I read the stories a few weeks ago, and I think the answer is that Russia is not and has never been a European country and Europeans fool themselves to think that this might or could be the case. Even though Chekhov's bourgeois women wear similar clothes to their counterparts in Paris, there seems something asiatic or even oriental about the way they behave which makes them sit uneasily in the context of 19th century European literature.

I am really grateful that reading these stories made me think about Russia and Russian-ness. There is a broader point to be made here about Russia's relationship with the rest of the world and in particular with modern institutions such as democracy or the EU, but I have certainly not read widely enough to elucidate it. 

One final point is that certain really clever people like to point out what a funny author Chekhov is. I still don't see this - at no point did I even smirk during these stories. If anything, there were pretty depressing, which means I will be rationing my future consumption.