Review: Peter Benson – The South In Winter

The South in Winter
by
Peter Benson
Alma: 250pp.: £8.99rrp.

In an interview with the Independent, Peter Benson wondered why the majority of writers are urban. There are probably some interesting literary, not to mention sociological, answers to this, but Benson chooses to situate his fiction in the sparser populated dwellings of Somerset, like in his debut, The Levels (which won the Guardian First Book Prize). The associations with the country might be vintage and quaint, yet an early reader of Benson’s, John Fowles, might have offset something a bit more unexpected in his work, where not just the sense of place, but the absence of place is as important as well. 

It is the latter of those which is of concern here. Benson’s protagonist, Matthew Baxter, is a travel writer for the Tread Lightly Travel Guides. He’s been sent on an assignment to the South of Italy in February to bring an “out of season slant”. When he gets out there, he realises that most of the work could have been done from his office with some careful editing and a touch of the imagination, but the finished guide needed “the authenticity of a winter visit”. You could argue that the emptiness of the West Country has carried out to the south of Italy where it’s vacant for the miserable winter months. It’s clear though, that the emptiness here is allowing his loneliness to ferment, and as a result, his feelings for his boss, Cora, percolate as well. When the person is out there and stranded though, sometimes the desperation can lead to the result that was originally feared in the first place, which is what appears to happening with Cora. 

This is perhaps to overstate it and make Matthew sound desperate, but there is an anxiety that underpins the novel, that might not at first be accounted for. On the surface, Matthew is laconic, yet an existential worry is subtle yet tangible. And perhaps the fact that it appears as the middle-aged male identity crisis conceals it that bit further, because this isn’t all the mid-life crisis escape that you’d be led to believe. There is certainly a male with male problems, a crisis of authenticity and sexuality (does not the ‘South in Winter’ sound like a euphemism for downstairs potency), but that would be a disservice if it was to turn readers away which, the book’s marketing unfortunately is in danger of.

Matthew tours the Italian cities, from Palermo to Naples among others, and then a brief visit to Rome to meet his colleague covering the North. Here, they speculate on the restructuring of the company happening whilst they’re out of the country. Clearly, there is a distance for Matthew engendered in his life (is he adding authenticity to the guides? or his loneliness?), and as if to emphasise that, the early parts seem replete with chiasmus like, interrogative constructions:  “I see myself in the order I create, and my creation is a type of order” reads one. But he’s setting up the distance (there’s a reason chiasmus sounds like chasm), the words don’t change, they’re only restructured in the chiasmus, and this almost what it feels physically, and linguistically, is happening to Matthew’s existence.

Reading the novel, inside Matthew’s mind, I continually found myself asking whether I liked Matthew, as we often do of the characters we read, even though the dependability of it is overstated. I had though, never found this such a difficult experience with Matthew and it felt like the distance was potentially extending  to the reader; sometimes he wants you close, sometimes he’s guarded and wants you afar. That sense of existential crisis though is perhaps emphasised by Benson’s use of those emotionless sentences that accumulate, almost imparting a noirish quality to the work like Camus and Fowles often did:

 “Some people say ‘Never Go Back’, but some people don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Because Matthew, whether he likes it or not, is on a journey, even if he tries to plod along and guide us through it with simple deducing sentences as verbs and prepositions take on a double-edge quality. And here, in the South of Italy, there’s also the sense that the world’s turn is trying be kept out of his consciousness. Matthew’s job is to make the place appeal, in a time when it effectively isn’t appealing, which means he can’t rely on the old clichés, but he does need some element of the cliché. This is where I think part of Matthew’s fear resides and where a drive for the novel comes from – a fear of the cliché he has become:

 “Sometimes I like to trot out a personal cliché, but I’ve always told myself I’m not the jealous type.”

 To engage and connect with the world has become troublesome and difficult. Is it a thing we do any more? How do we engage and relate ourselves to a place? Matthew’s crisis of authenticity (which Benson, I think is aware, is overdone) is authentic, but the existential element of it, comes from the anxiety of engagement with the world, nature, people, truth:

 “The train was late arriving in Salerno. I stood in the twilight and cold outside the station, and waited for a bus. I waited three quarters of an hour. I saw drunks, whores, three frightened children and a pair of broed policemen. Orange clouds bled into the west; the sky darkened and, as I watched, a cloud of starlings appeared….Clouds of smoke, pillars of dust, tumbles of water. People took out their phones to film the birds and screamed as they came close and headed back the way they’d come.”

It’s a panoply of ways in which people are trying engage and connect with the phenomena, and how they mediate their experience. The drunks, the whores, the frightened children, the bored policemen; the range of emotions and experiences, followed by the natural phenomena of the bird flying. Is it overdone? Have we tread too much (doesn’t the name of the travel guides – Tread Lightly – sound slightly Kunderan)? Instead, the only way that Matthew stays engaged is through Cora. Comedy and pathos are provided as he debates whether to text her, buy her gifts, choose not to text and then do it anyway when he is drunk, and then write her a poem. “I had to text Cora,” he says, but the operative word here is ‘text’. And we could call her the muse, but I think Cora would be enough – the Greek Goddess Persephone was also called Cora. The pun on ‘phone’ is striking, but as the goddess of fertility, perhaps Matthew is seeing something deeper in the ‘texting’ of Cora.

 “I was a detective, or a priest, or a doctor, looking for a case”

Or a writer looking for his text, his impetus, his fertile bed of inspiration.

 The text itself though does sometimes appear to need another round of editing. The additions of some pronouns in some exchanges of dialogue would have made it a smoother read and we’ve mentioned the odd marketing. In the past, Benson has been praised for his imagery, but sometimes here, the metaphors are just confusing, and you sometimes wonder if they’re serious (“I poured my troubles into a sack and tossed them into a lake”).

But as Matthew says, as he travels Italy, clearly avoiding something, that he “doesn’t like nature: but that’s another story.” Perhaps it is; one that we’re all avoiding.

A shot from a summer visit to Capri. Rest assured, there were plenty of tourists

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Talk and Touch

Such Small Hands
by
Andrés Barba
(translated by Lisa Dillman; with an afterword by Edmund White)
Portobello Books: 101pp.: £9.99

Childhood has been used historically in fiction, but recently there seems to be new sense of realism along with it, exploring the desires that people experience but hardly ever talk about, as if a new testing ground. Writers like Elena Ferrante and Zadie Smith, have laid a path, that has not just exposed a new way of talking about our concealed, inner world, that is even concealed from ourselves, but literature as well. Why are we leaving it to the children to talk?

Strangely, to me, it seems to be specifically the female childhood. It’s interesting then that a male chooses to tackle it, or use the experience of the female child, in the work discussed here. I’m not sure what happened, but speaking as a male, I feel like the male is still struggling to let the guard down, is seriously struggling to simply come to terms with talking. It seems that women can more honestly and openly discuss the things that are not so openly and honestly talked about, both in fiction and in life. What this is down to i’m not sure, but this could just be me looking from the outside-in. The archaic male archetype of ‘manliness’ is still a powerful marker of the man, and comes with it, clossetedness and the inability to talk about it. There have been campaigns like ‘It’s Okay to Talk’ on the back of the shocking statistics of male suicides, and sounds like a wilful attempt to open up this treacherously difficult ideal we’re still used to reinforcing, which is in part simply, down to the resounding construct of a person that doesn’t or can’t speak; it needs a wholesale, societal examination.

Barba then begins with dolls and somebody not talking. Both males and females use toys and dolls to say the things we can’t as children. But Ferrante’s epic tetralogy begins with Lenu and Lila playing with dolls in My Brilliant Friend. Andrés Barba’s novel is centred around dolls. Dolls and toys of course are a way to enact things we can’t be or say. Lila, often the object and subject of Lenu’s projections in this recollection of her childhood that Lenu writes, does the inexplicable act of pushing Lenu’s doll down a grate. These are the dolls in which “the terrors that we tasted every day were theirs”, the doll that at first, talks about Lenu’s fears out loud for her.

Ferrante’s work, both My Brilliant Friend and the ensuing saga of course, has a much longer trajectory, but this provides a neat way of framing Barba’s work. Because both novels do start with the protagonists owning dolls, but as Lenu loses hers and finds its childhood power waning, the dolls begin to hold an infinite power for Barba’s protagonist Marina, or at least, the power of being a doll. Ferrante’s work develops into a multi-volume saga of ‘realism’ where Barba’s short novella stays within the confines of childhood, and fantasy, not something magical, but a childhood fantasy  (or more comfortably associated with childhood). And both novels start with a loss, although Barba’s would appear of a deeper trauma.

The loss is central though, as the novels in part, become a way in which to describe or depict this loss, or new space that has formed as result. Lenu hears of a her friend, Lila’s, disappearance (before losing the doll), decades after last speaking to her, and so what begins is an exploration, a rewriting of her childhood, in a pursuit of not ‘letting her win again’ (there is a game in Barba’s work). And Marina, in Such Small Hands, must now try and deal with the hideously vacant space left by her parents death from a car crash. This is the description of the crash:

“The car falling, and where it fell, transforming. The car, making space for itself. That, more than ever, was when she had to fall back on the words. As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.” [author’s emphasis]

Marina sees a psychologist whom brings her a doll presumably to help her understand her grief. She calls the doll Marina, rather bafflingly to the psychologist, before she is unwittingly sent to an orphanage. She does know that she is leaving the care of the professionals, but she does not know where to. It is the prospect of space, the big open space of the future that has suddenly been opened up to her, but she knows that it’s not so simple as that: “It wasn’t so much the fear of leaving that terrified Marina but the idea of that space, that intricate, bountiful, preconceived place, full of beforehands.” ‘Beforehands’, an obvious reference to the title, but such an acute way of describing the world we’re not supposed to believe we’re stepping into; daubed and touched by many others before us.

The Bobo Doll experiment first conducted by Albert Bandura

As much as a novel is a work of imagination, it’s about the imagination as well, and the question here is how far can that imagination go. Marina has been thrust into the world, the unrestrained adult world, prematurely. She seems to anticipate that it’s not original and uncharted. Or perhaps it’s because it’s a world where she realises you don’t need imagination but a sense of reality. As she arrives at the orphanage she is treated as an outsider. Yet the girls there are fascinated by her as much as Marina is fascinated by them, as the novel jumps between third person direct observer of Marina, to first person plural of the girls. Edmund White in the afterword, notes an important and rendered scene of watching the other girls eat (eating is important here and as White also notes, Marina appears to have come from a comfortable middle class background). And so being coerced into the girls world, she manages to coerce them into hers, in which she invents a game where a girl is selected as a doll, to be used, whilst they are asleep and motionless.

White says in the afterword though, Barba chooses not to make this a ‘psychological study’ of a young girl’s grief. This is why the darkness imbued in the novel feels all too real. White believes that the introduction of the girls in the orphanage helps to propel it away from that, and perhaps it’s also implicated in the opening pages when the doctors and psychologists are given short shrift by Barba, ushered on and off the scene in all their professional swiftness. As White says of Barba , he “is not a scientist and his book is not the demonstration of a theory but….we are convinced that we are plunged into an archaic system we’ve forgotten but that is oddly remiscient”. A psychologist would have done their best to disband the fantasy, impart some reality into the doll, but instead it’s like a relic with a mysterious capacity out of his hands. In a way it becomes more spiritual or totemic – a family heirloom that is believed to have enigmatic capacities.

What is theory but an attempt to describe something that is there but isn’t? The attempt (and ultimately failure) to render a space with words? Barba’s novel abounds in this sense of space, debating whether it’s positive or negative. I am the outskirts of a non-existent town” wrote Fernando Pessoa in one of his elusive passages, and that takes on a prominence here , indeed formalises in the section where the girls describe the orphanage, “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.” The girls are at the whim of their desires, transported around their city of themselves without them knowing how or why they got there. You notice how often though, invisible forces are alluded to, ‘tremors’, ‘vibrations’, ‘spasms’ but are definitely felt. The girls themselves almost seem invisible, like ghostly voices haunting the lonely Marina. At one point they question their pursuit of Marina:

“How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tight-rope walkers.”

You can see them balancing in the air, that precarious line, and one of those ‘tremors’ enough to tilt them over the edge. The question is, what would falling over the edge constitute? That’s a question I would love to discuss and write more about, and I could talk a lot more about this book, only 94 pages long; it is so precise and accumulates in a way that isn’t a contrivance to genre, but a steady development of its ideas, but I need to leave it there for the reader.

I’ll finish on this though; White suggests that the scar from Marina’s crash could be the wing of an angel removed; as Rilke said, “all angels are terrible”. Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ (who notably was dressed up as a girl by his mother, so desperate was she to have one) seems like it may have been consulted by Barba either before or during writing the novel. Rilke writes:

“to be no longer all that one used to be/in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside/even one’s proper name like a broken toy.”

Such small hands, such little power. “Strange, not to go on wishing one’s wishes,” Rilke then writes in the next line. It wouldn’t be perverse to say there is something desired and concealed within Barba’s work but as Barba’s suggests all along, we need to find a way to talk about it. A novel, that at it’s heart for me, is not necessarily about finding a way to talk, but allowing the space for things to be talked about – even if it could be exploring the heart of a trauma.

Choices, Choices

Multiple Choice
by
Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell)
Granta: 101 pp.: £8.99 (paperback)

Pablo Larrains’ s film No (2012) is set during the time of the plebiscite referendum in 1988, when it was put to a public vote as to whether there would be a democratic election for the new leader of Chile (vote No), or Pinochet should continue his autocratic regime (vote Yes). In reality, the campaign took place across 27 nights of television advertisements, where each side had fifteen minutes to present their arguments. René (Gael García Bernal), an ad-man who is hired to lead the ‘No’ campaign, takes a maverick approach, and instead of focusing on the dismal injustices of Pinochet, imparts a positive, carnival-esque theme into the No broadcasts like in the Coca-Cola adverts he’s seen in the United States. Whereas the Yes team, choose to overwhelm the viewer with statistics, evidence (positivist rather than positive you might say) and parody. As history tells us, 56% of the nation voted No, against the odds.

The beautiful paradox of the film is that rebuttal of the desire becomes the way to access the desire. Or put simply, no means yes here. You can ask what they are offering those who do say No, but in fact they probably don’t even know themselves (there are parallels I think with the campaign conducted Jeremy Corbyn led in the 2017 General Election,and specifically the campaign, not the politics). Because the point of it is that they, whether this is the eventuality or not, are opening up a pathway that is not currently there. The only way to get there they believe is to say No to what you know, which, even if you deride what you already have, is still a difficult thing to do.

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra also frames life in the Pinochet regime as a choice. This time it’s not between Yes and No, but multiple choices, like you’d get in an examination (the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test more specifically, Zambra explains at the end). This book/exam has five sections; Excluded Term, Sentence Order, Sentence Completion, Sentence Elimination and Reading Comprehension. Each section then comes with a brief set of instructions, after which you’re tasked with making your way through the book and each part, so make no mistake; this whole book is the structure of an exam. Quite hilariously, you are asking yourself, like the student who hasn’t done his revision, how am I going to tackle this? How am I going to get through this?

Image result for pablo larrain no

Gael García Bernal as René in No (2012)

Other reviewers and readers have described how the book likens itself to the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories you might have read as a child. Intentionally or not, there is a much more devilish irony within that if you consider that you would probably be taking the exam Zambra bases his novel on, to get admitted into University. ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ even sounds like a strapline, a prophetic marketing myth that seems to be a given aspect of the modern University’s image. But there’s a feeling that the more choices you’re represented with here, the less you’ve potentially to actually choose from.

I’m not sure if it’s a universal trait of exams, but even here you’re presented with the easier questions first, or the shorter ones at least (here it is probably harder if we’re thinking in terms of trying to read this as a novel). In ‘Excluded Term’s you must remove the word that does not fit with the title word.

15. Childhood.
a. childlike
b. childproof
c. childcare
d. childless
e. childfree.

For some readers this might be a breaking point, because the book will invite you to scrawl and dirty it with your scribing. Deconstructionists would have a field day debating who ‘owns’ the text, but you’ll find yourself re-reading questions, frustrated, wanting to know more, wanting to, ultimately, know the answers. There might be some debate around the ingenuity of Multiple Choices, but whatever the purpose of the structure is, here, it is the material of the text as much as the text is alone. Text here feels ephemeral, subsumed by its structural necessities. Question 27 from ‘Sentence Order’ seemed to emphasise that:

27. A Child
1. You dream that you lose a child
2. You wake up.
3. You cry.
4. You lose a child.
5. You cry.

What follows here then is a list of options in which you could put the order of the sentences in (eg.5-3-1-2-4). On other questions you may wonder if this has an implicative effect on the result, but because of the structure, and perhaps where No finishes off wondering about ‘choice’, the structure looks ready to almost undermine the text at every instant, to undermine specifically, the sense of choice. And as you skit through the options, re-framing the phrases in each of the orders, the action itself of doing that, instead, seems to really represent what Multiple Choices has to say or asks. Where does the choice lie?

In the ‘Sentence Completion’ section you’re given a series of sentences to finish:

53. You were a bad son, but ___
You were a bad father, but _____
You are alone, but _____

The 5 options are then:

A) people vote for you
people vote for you
people vote for you
B) I love you
I love you
I love you
C) I’m not your father
I’m not your son
that’s not my problem
D) you know it
you know it

you know it

E) no one knows
no one knows
no one knows

There is perhaps a hint here of the heavy religious influence that permeates Chilean society, but all the choices in this instance seem inextricably linked with the other options, irony abounding, as if the question recognises the redundancy of the options, and why they all go back to the variance C offers. But the ambiguity in what the process aligns itself with, and what wrests it from Zambra making some kind of overwhelming moralistic statement (and would eventually be supremely cynical if that was the case), is that it is very difficult to claim what the process aligns itself with. Is it ideological? Or is it the tyranny of syntax? The banal prospect of individual fulfilment in capitalism? Or something like a Marxist superstructure? Or is this the embodiment of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar? Or just a simple choose your adventure story?

Finally, you come to some longer passages in ‘Reading Comprehension’ in which you answer a series of questions based upon what you’ve just read. Here is a paragraph about twins from the ‘Covarrubia family’:

“Covarrubias family tradition dictated that the firstborn son should be named Luis Antonio, but when Covarrubias senior found out that twins were on the way he decided to divide his name between them. During their first years of life, Luis and Antonio Covarrubias enjoyed – or suffered through – the excessively equal treatment that parents tend to give to twins: the same haircut, the same clothes, the same class in the same school.”

It’s there in the ‘excessively equal treatment’, a euphemism if there ever was one. But the excessive ‘equalness’ and rigidness in the twins life, two people who, on appearance, will look like the same person, probably constitutes every person that has ever sat this exam. It reminded me of that final moment in Kafka’s short story ‘Before the Law’ where the man from the country walks up to the doorkeeper and asks to be admitted to the law. On his refusal at being allowed in by the doorkeeper, the man chooses to sit and wait, which transpires to be his whole life. As he nears the end of his life, the man asks why he was never allowed in and the doorkeeper bellows “No one else could gain admission here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now am I going to shut it.”
Not to spin too much of an allegory on Kafka’s story but there does seem a question here at the potency of choice and the potency of the person to enter, indeed, through that door. The doors, or the structure, even when the option may be presented to you, and indeed, presented to be made for you, could still be the thing that doesn’t allow you to access it. Or perhaps that is the moralising statement that Zambra wanted me to make? Or maybe the choice isn’t for you to make? Who knows? Maybe it’s just a question of choosing.

In Need of a Hero: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time
by
Mikhail Lermontov (translated by Martin Parker and Neil Cornwell)
Alma: 217pp.: £4.99 rrp.

We’re accustomed to seeing book jackets and the opening pages adorned with quips and praise by other authors, newspapers and journals, and if you look through any bookshop, you’ll be guaranteed that 70% of those books will be described as the best thing you’ll read all year. Here, opening the pages of A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s work from 1839, you’re first greeted by a vanguard of  four of the most lauded writers of all time; Gogol, Chekhov, Lessing and Nabokov (the latter of which even doing his own translation), all of them testifying to a A Hero’s… brilliance. And what is most startling about this is their range: you wouldn’t imagine Nabokov enjoying Lessing or them snugly next to each other in an anthology.

With all classic, esteemed objects or works, things that sustain the centuries, we’re asking is it justified? Is it still relevant? We’re all familiar with the feeling of bemusement and boredom at school, which probably does its best to avert you to any classic literature later in life, only disposing you to wonder what the hell sustains these archaic pursuits of love in archaic language. You’re not given time to answer, what is this going to give me now? What is Lermontov’s work going to give me, like it gave something to Gogol and Chekhov? Schooling and dictation does not allow you to consider that. Nabokov and Lessing were not in the same classroom and were allowed to take something different away.

Indeed, you’d be forbidden for feeling timid, like you probably are when you confront any classic work of literature, and the vanguard probably adds to that. But then this is a novel about timidity; a Byronic anti-hero, a swaggering exile who’s looking for a duel, and written by a man who seems to share similar traits to his character. In  fact, it’s bordering on the bullish.

For a work of realism, taking from the likes of Walter Scott’s marauding heroes, Lermontov’s work is a fragmented, layered composition, with hazy lines between fact and fiction that we’d perhaps not expect of that time. The introduction provided with this edition (worth defining as the introduction provided by Neil Cornwell, and not the author’s preface, but more about that shortly), states that “one of the most striking formal features of A Hero of Our Time is its generic mix. It is made up, prefaces apart of five short stories…”Regardless of its structure, in each section the identity of the writer and narrator is not always tangible.

James Wood in his essay on Lermontov (‘Unfathomable!’) draws analogues with Samuel Johnson’s description of the Highlands in his expedition with James Boswell: “Apparently unable to banish his dead fascination, Johnson can only fixate on the terrible depth of the loch…the real interest of the passage is Dr Johnson’s obscure knowledge of himself.” You’re on board with Wood’s hypothesis and that is certainly what pervades the reading of Pechorin and Lermontov, but it’s also what you’re feeling yourself; that here you’ve come upon a piece of work, great and mysterious, deep from the annals of literary history, something that you were not quite expecting, and ironic to its title, not of its time, beyond time.

Wood’s essay then is an attempt to reconcile the writer Lermontov and the character, Pechorin, whom is initially recounted to us by a soldier, Maxim Maximych. The first time we meet Pechorin, we already know him as dead. The last three sections we are reading Pechorin’s words but only because we’re reading his diary (there is also the attempt at another story/novel in Princess Ligovskaya which features Pechorin but is distinct from A Hero of Our Time). It’s mysterious, not in its inconclusiveness or at the expense of its narrative, but in its elusiveness. Unlike the great romanticist escapades that were so popular and fashionable at the time (and perhaps, in a different way, still are now), the mystery is at the behest of the man, not the mystery itself. The real interest, like Wood says of Johnson’s account, is the ‘obscure knowledge of himself’. This is what I think, makes it the powerful ‘literary’ novel that it is and why it has sustained such power over so many writers and readers over the centuries. Wood notes how it enamoured writers like Dostoevsky who would at first seem a very different writer to Lermontov. But like Chekhov, Gogol, Lessing, and Nabokov, what is uniting them, making them equal, is that they have all become, in the wake of the novel, writers reduced to mere readers: they submit, like we all do, to the wonder and possibility of Lermontov’s work.

Image result for sidney richard percy isle of skye

Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye by Sidney Richard Percy (1874)

 

As it opens, the nameless traveller and the Captain are forced to stop in the mountains whereupon they will hear about the hero, Pechorin. Lermontov was himself exiled into the Caucassian mountains which is what you’d assume provides the material for the scenery. This isn’t all though. Perhaps it’s more like ‘screenery’ similar to what Wood described in Johnson’s fixation with the Loch, where there is a “nameless stream that noisily bursts from a black, gloom-filled gorge” and “a thick mist rolled in waves from the gorges, blanketed it completely, and not a sound reached us from the depths”. And even the people who live there might be aware of it as well:

The captain then says
“We’ll have to stay here overnight,” he said, annoyed. “You can’t get through the hills in a blizzard like this. Seen any avalanches on Krestoyava?” he asked a coachman.
“No sir,” the Ossetian replied, “But there’s a lot just waiting to come down.”

They might as well be sat at the tip of an iceberg. It is not just scenery, but as Wood talks about, that unfathomable rejection of categorisation. Lermontov here though, realises that the mystery of  humanity doesn’t mean determining who the person is, and their identity, it’s a mystery of the composition and the contradictions. You’ll see then how duality is so important in A Hero…, as it represents the dual way in which we can never truly know ourselves fully and consciously, as gaps in the narration and Pechorin’s character begin to explain one another. “I have an inborn urge to contradict,” Pechorin says in his diaries.

This sense of duality pervades not just the novel but the life of Lermontov as well, both literally and ironically, as both our characters and author died in duels. And they are duelling with one another here as to who takes precedence. The author’s preface for example could be ‘written’ by Lermontov, Pechorin, Maxim Maximych, a nameless traveller, but the word itself represents what it actually is here. The Pre-Face and the Fore-Word: the author applying the mask, the writer ready to project themselves, the jutting confrontation to the reader:

“A Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs is indeed a portrait, but not of one man; it is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I shall reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villians of tragedy ad romance, why should you not believe that this is not Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why are you not more merciful to this character even if it is fictitious?


Go on then, come and have a go, but be prepared for the duel. Our heroes are often projections of our unreal fantasies, and whilst Lermontov on some level is parodising the ‘hero’ fashionable at the time (and parody as Wood remarks, is often loaded with admiration), our ‘hero’ is actually, lost, exiled, probably scared and ready for battle. The romanticist’s dreams were often caught up in nationalism, but this hero isn’t even wanted by his native land. And we’re hard on him as well because he’s hard on the reader, and perhaps he’s giving us a warning: identify with this hero at your peril, but it might be a peril you’ll need to make at some point. You discover things about yourself that you did not want to discover. You will want to defeat the part of yourself that wants to defeat you.

It carries into ‘Princess Ligovskaya’, an unfinished piece included as an appendix in this edition. It is equally as sublime so don’t let the fact it’s an appendix make it seem any less superior. There is more duelling; weaponry leaks into descriptions of the tears of women, described as both“offensive and defensive” weapons and it seems that to fall in love, to be at the abeyance of your own emotions, is either to be conquered or conquer them:

“Pechorin, throughout the campaign, distinguished himself, just as every Russian officer distinguished himself, and fought boldy as did every Russian soldier. He paid his compliments to many Polish misses, but the instant of his last farewell and the image of Verochka invariably alarmed his imagination. How strange this was! He had gone away with the set intention of forgetting her, and the contrary happened (which is almost always the way it works in such matters). What is more, Pechorin was possessed of a most unfortunate disposition: impressions which at first might seem insignificant would little by little push themselves ever deeper and deeper into his mind. Thus as time unfolded, this love assumed the right of longest-standing over his heart – the most sacrosanct of the rights of humanity.”

It’s interesting that the paragraph following this is relaying Pechorin’s role in the “taking of Warsaw”. But there is even a duel there in how her love “assumed the longest-standing over his heart”. And also, does not the way he pushes those impressions deeper and deeper into the mind sound like the deep and dark gorges we were greeted with at the start of A Hero…? There is so much intent to do something and then realising that the mastery is not always possible, realisations that culminate in the awareness that humanity is not even capable at being at one with its own failings and contradictions, that Pechorin, in his inborn urge to contradict is upon the only way of understanding oneself. Through the duel, where one aspect will fail, at the hope the prevailing truth or nature will show itself.

Lermontov does make this about the obscure knowledge of himself, but there is an extra dimension to it. The character of Pechorin is so elusive that we’re always searching for him, and often like the dual, where the battle may seem to be between two very opposing sides, it is, in itself, over a very similar rejection: what is seen in the other that is seen in the self. Lermontov, like his hero, died in a duel. To stare into the abyss was what Lermontov did, and he may not have won the duel over himself, but he did win one over his readers. That is a battle you’ll be more than happy to lose. Great literature wins every time.

James Wood’s essay ‘Unfathomable’ was originally printed as ‘In a Spa Town’ (February, 2010) in the London Review of Books and reprinted in his essay collection, The Fun Stuff, published by Vintage.

The Nest of Ivan Turgenev

The Nest of the Gentry
by
Ivan Turgenev (translated by Michael Pursglove)
Alma: 224pp.: £7.99 rrp.

The home, the nest: are the lessons we learn there healthy? We leave and we retreat to it, sometimes wisely sometimes not. There’s a time in life when we’re confronted with the fact that we’re going to leave the nest, and we can choose either to really leave and create our new nest and trust our own nature, or not. This, at least for me, has been a difficult quandary. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, we can go on recreating the nest we’ve left, and enter into the same, sometimes, debilitating patterns. It is the latter of these that can tell us the best stories.

Admittedly, this could be a narcissistic statement from a man who has read too many books about self-defeating narcissistic males. I immediately think of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from Updike’s Rabbit novels, or even though Saul Bellow had different protagonists each time, there’s not much separating Joseph from Dangling Man and the later, exemplary Moses Herzog, of which the novel gave its name (one suspects that there is not much to separate them from Bellow either). Although a slightly different texture here – early nineteenth century Russia – and where the omniscient narrator reigns supreme, The Nest of the Gentry suggests a place where the Rabbit might return: but are the lessons learnt there positive ones?

It is amiable Lavretsky who has returned home. Turning his back, according to the book’s jacket, on his European lifestyle and unfaithful wife, he is going back to the town he was born in, O-. The notes suggest that this is Orlyo, Turgenev’s own birthplace, and like Lavretsky, one wonders if Turgenev was returning to his own nest and indeed, why? Some expected home-spun wisdom and recuperation? A re-setting of the morals and reminder of what matters in life? The nest is a powerful metaphor for Turgenev clearly, who according to the introduction (my first reading of Turgenev, so we’ll have to trust it), frequently used imagery from the natural world. Familial, security, simple naturalness in nature certainly broods in the idea of the nest, but the first few pages suggest that this isn’t such a simple matter.

Whilst Lavretsky might have spent some time in the socialite (and infidel) Europa, the different ways that might have been learnt there, don’t seem to count for much in Turgenev’s novel, yet there’s not a plenitude of honesty in the naturalistic settings of the country either it seems. What is acute then is that sense of rigidity and almost a fear. With Lavretsky coming back, we’re poised with a person who is on the outside-looking in but at the same time, not.

Feelings for his cousin, Lizaveta, percolate. She already has two suitors in in the dandyish Panshin, and the brooding Lemm. This is a short novel though, and with a cast befitting of a Russian epic (no character list supplied in this edition from Alma: I think character lists should be compulsory in every Russian novel), there is a sense that the nest is purposefully crowded. You think of the chicks fighting for the mother’s rations on the return to the nest and slowly secreting is the idea that within the nest, as homely as it is, it can be quite a vicious place, as people battle for love and affection. The ones that are battling though, are the men for the affection and approval of the Mrs Bennett figure of Marya Dmitriyevna; the sage, yet wry, Marya Timofeyevna; and the aforementioned Lizaveta, Bathsheba Everdene-like with her triumvirate of suitors. But unlike Hardy’s novel also set in the country, and what perhaps makes Turgenev’s more accomplished than it, is that she will not get as much agency as Bathsheba.

Related image

Film poster from the 1969 adaptation of the film by Andrei Konchalovsky

As Lizaveta and Lavretsky’s feelings develop for one another, the stricture of which they’re in becomes apparent. It’s intense and muddled, reaching its epitome when Panshin proposes to Lizaveta, and attains subsequent approval of the elders in the nest. It’s around the same time Lavretsky has heard about the fate of his wife. Love isn’t possible, yet they feel it.

Turgenev constructs a masterful scene at this point. The six page chapter is almost entirely dialogue and it comes down to the steady accumulation of affects by Turgenev, the repression of the powers that lie beneath the two characters and their inability to confront it.

Laveretsky “does not know what he is feeling at the news” and would have felt more upset if’ he’d found out two weeks earlier. A tear holds in his eye as he speaks about it, a recurring image, that suggests what? Restraint? The need or necessity for them to withhold their emotions to the rest of their families and themselves?

“I learnt what a pure womanly soul means, and my past fell away from me even more”. At the news Lizaveta retreats, but Lavretsky follows her and feels he owed something as honest from her. Frankness, decides Lizaveta then, is the only way.
“Did you know I got a letter today?”
“From Panshin?”
“Yes, from him…how did you know?”
“He asked for your hand?”
“Yes,” said Liza, looking directly and seriously into Lavretsky’s eyes.
Lavretsky, in his turn, looked seriously at Liza.
“Well, and what reply did you give him?” he said finally.
“I don’t know how to reply,” returned Liza, unfolding and lowering her arms.
“What? You love him, don’t you?”
“Yes, I like him. He seems to be a nice man.”
“You said the same thing in the same terms three days ago. I want to know whether you love him with that powerful, passionate feeling which we’re accustomed to call love?”
“As you understand it – no.”
“You’re not in love with him?”
“No. Is that really necessary?” [Author’s emphasis].

It’s going to be tough for Lavretsky, especially when Lizaveta’s mother approves of Panshin as well. This mattered back then, but we’d foolish to say that it didn’t matter now; it just works in different ways. Or is it just a case of Lavretsky’s European ways imdebting him with ridiculous conceptions of love? If that’s the case, he’s not quitting on those ways now: “Obey your heart: it will alone tell you the truth,” Lavretsky interposed. “Experience, reason – that’s all dust and ashes! Don’t deprive yourself of the best, the only happiness on earth.”

Hopeless romantic or an unashamed truth? Much too fancifully French for these rural Russians? But there is that pertinent feeling within that pervades the novel and is leaked out in that admonishment of experience and reason, as ‘dust and ashes’. Death and dust, something that we’re all fated for, whether we’re religious or not. One can see why somebody like Hemingway admired the novel so much; the way Turgenev keeps the surface bubbling, direct and honest, yet that thing that cannot be named (that even the most manly of Hemingway’s characters cannot confront) unavoidably influences that. It’s almost so restrained, yet so desperate, that they appear to be speaking to themselves through one another – “you said the same thing, in the same terms, three days ago.”

Lizaveta cannot comprehend the fact that Lavretsky has ‘loved’ before and indeed this is the question she appears to be battling with. There’s a reason that they want to keep Lizaveta at the nest and there’s a reason that she is sceptical of Lavretsky’s proclamations of love. Perhaps this is Turgenev’s scepticism and he has returned to the nest to write this story.

“Bitterness filled her soul: she had not deserved such humiliation. Love had not made itself felt as happiness: for the second time since the previous evening she wept. This new and unexpected feeling had only just been engendered in her heart, but already how heavy the price she had paid for it, how crude the touch of the alien hands on her cherished secret!…As long as she had lacked understanding of herself she had hesitated, but after that meeting, after that kiss, she could no longer hesitate: she knew she was in love, that she had fallen in love honourably and seriously, had committed herself firmly and for life, and was not afraid of threats – she felt that this union could be broken by force.”

This would seem a tone of valedictory from Lizaveta, but in the passage quoted prior to that, Lizaveta also embodies a feeling “akin to terror [that] had taken her breath away.” There’s not many moments of seclusion in the novel, but this is one of them, and it feels like something is falling through, giving away, in this acute moment of privacy.

Who knows what made Lavretsky and indeed, Turgenev, go back to the nest. But although the force may feel like a return to safety, it could in fact be the force that bred there in the first place. As Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is drying his wife’s hair for her, he notices “Nature is full of nests”. There’s a reason he’s called Rabbit.

Rote Behaviour: Oleg Pavlov’s Trilogy

Captain of the Steppe (with introduction by Marcel Theroux)
translated by Ian Appleby
£12.00 rrp.: 231pp.

The Matiushin Case
translated by Andrew Bromfield
£10.00 rrp.: 249pp.

 Reqiuem for a Soldier
translated by Anna Gunin
£10.00 rrp.: 185pp.

by Oleg Pavlov
published by And Other Stories

Chekhov wrote subtly but powerfully, as he often did, about the’need’, a desire to move from one state or another through the acquisition of something external and satiation of something internal. This feeling may hark back to times past, creating more illusions now, but a reality once, and might guide us to something that will not necessarily aid us. It is as Maria and Olga reflect in the story ‘Peasants’ “the terrible incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere”. So is the need hiding from us, or we hiding from the real need? This is the question that has shaped modern humanity, and never have our needs and desires and how we acquire them been so permissibly accessed, and only now, perhaps, are those needs so questionable. It’s ironic now then that we go to a writer who shares his surname with a man who pioneered psychology – Oleg Pavlov.

But my needs are tied up to impose a narrative, contextualise. I return to Vladimir Sharov’s quip that “Russian history is, in fact, a commentary on the bible.” After reading Oleg Pavlov’s loose trilogy; Captain of the Steppe, The Matiushin Case and Requiem for a Soldier, the question of who shall lead these men and give them what they need throws Sharov’s sound-bite into a not-so non-divine light.

Pavlov is well garlanded in Russia winning the Russian Booker Prize and the Solzhenitsyn Prize. Marcel Theroux writes in the introduction to Captain of the Steppe, quoting Kurt Vonnegut,that the principle of good storytelling is that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Vonnegut is right, and there are few good novels that focus on characters who are purely indifferent, but that need only has to be a simple one for the reader to be engaged in the character’s endeavour to get it. In Pavlov’s work, that need is nearly as simple as a glass of water. “A decent and conscientious officer” says Theroux of Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov, on the verge of retirement and for Theroux a“more pragmatic man would see out his final days at the camp and leave. Not so Khabarov.”

Writing is an avoidance of cliché, but maybe because it is trying to describe a cliché. In this case: an army marches on its stomach.

“Khabarov began making assumptions about a lot of things in advance. We’ll live the way we always have, he said repeatedly, in a tired voice when the regimental supply truck turned up, complaining only that once again, they’d been a bit stingy over how many potatoes they’d sent.”

The potatoes they are sent are mostly rotten and unfit for consumption, outdated much like the year-late newspapers they receive. Khabarov realises though that “The events that were transforming everything in the world did not make it as far as the steppe – they got lost on the way.” And so Khabarov then realises what others need and sets off on the course to satisfy that by growing a vegetable patch. And this is how it often starts in Pavlov’s work; that simple need to satisfy a need, plunges into farce, bureaucracy and the potential for tragedy.

It is told in such an unemphatic manner, a characteristic Pavlov maybe shares with Chekhov (and that passage from ‘Peasants’ is probably one of Chekhov’s more emphatic moments), when it is a simple and unemphatic thing to do, yet its effects are far reaching and such is its escalation. It is good-willed but not saintly, and for its sake, it is disruptive but hardly revolutionary. It might be as simple as a glass of water and as essential as one.

When asking for simple things though, it usually means that there are complicated reasons that it hasn’t been accessed in the first place. In Khabarov’s case this is food, or potatoes, but this greater notion of ‘fuel’ is perhaps where Pavlov’s greater comments are being suggested.  It is easy to apply it to a commentary on the Soviet Union, and certainly it does appear to be part of it, but some of the joy is in this ambiguity of its wider significance. A humble potato is yes, a solid, starchy food, a great source of sustenance, they’re a key ingredient in the production of vodka, but as a form of ‘fuel’ ,it has that greater impotence within the idea of what ‘fuels’ a country and people. Russian oligarch’s make their money in oil and fuel, but fuel burns and wastes away, yet is essential to continuation. Here the characters are already “wasting away” as Pavlov tells us on the first page, so where are they to get the fuel?

Here is Khabarov tending to the potatoes:

“When the sun blazed, he was happy, thinking that the potatoes were absorbing its warmth. And when the rains poured, he was happy, thinking that their potatoes were drinking their fill. However the captain did not know when to dig up the potatoes, as if this had to happen on a single day, like death or birth.”

The potatoes are reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s blackberries, that as soon as he has picked the fresh ones, they begin rotting, but “Each year I hoped they would keep, knew they would not” (from ‘Blackberry Picking’ in Death of a Naturalist). Even in knowledge of their early demise, he continues to pick them. If that is knowledge then what is that makes him pick them? Is it the same thing that makes Khabarov plant those potatoes? If it is the knowledge of death, is it the same belief that also makes us ignore it or make us believe in things like religion? Or rather is it the search for something grander, an eternal fuel that doesn’t expire? These are of course hardly answerable questions, at least succinctly, and it is up to the reader what they ask and what they think is answered, but there is something in Pavlov’s novels which keep the characters going even when they know death is likely awaiting them. And at the same time, it’s like the characters are looking for a guide or leader, not noticing that it has been bestowed on themselves, or  not noticing that the act they’re undertaking is such an indebted one. Pavlov’s narrative voice, his omniscience, then feels burdensome and intrusive like the ultimate bearer of that knowledge. Even when they’re not sure what keeps them going, he is the one that punishingly is.

II

In The Matiushin Case we’re made aware of something fueling and being present early in the character’s life. This time, it’s a much more localised affair, and the element of farce is removed, the caricature stripped to something rooted and inflicting. Here it focuses on two brothers, one of which dies, and the other is set to live out his legacy. You might call it a condemnation to live his brother’s legacy, and Matiushin is a very Dostoevskian character but without the internal, erratic madness.
Early on (and early on is very important here: or is it?) it’s clear to Matiushin that his more valiant brother was their parent’s pride. But baring in mind what’s been identified in Pavlov’s ‘authorial presence’, we’re given this in the first few pages:

“Matiushin had eaten up since he was a child – choking as he did it, but eating up. There was a fear in it, but a thrilling fear, contaminated with love, exactly like his jealousy of his older brother’s closeness with their father – and the love, not the dread, made them subject to their father’s will. This love could not be eradicated from their hearts. Just as their father failed to grasp that he was driving his children away and taking revenge on this alien life through his antipathy for them, so his children failed to grasp that the stronger it became – this antipathy of their father’s, their sacred, bloody revenge that he was wreaking on life through sacrificing them – the more selfless and insuperable the impulse of their love for him would become, as if it were the very impulse to live, and they couldn’t manage without each other.”

There is a lot going on here, but I think it’s necessary to quote at length. Considering how soon this is, it feels like it’s presented by Pavlov as a sort of admission, so that again, that question of what is needed and how it is attained is not so simple. We’re not sure whether it’s the consciously desired path or a more complicated inevitability, and also that sense of somebody knowing more than the character, the all-seeing and expectant viewer is very present. When Matiushin goes into the army then to fulfill, a prophecy, a journey, it’s easy to see the allusions to Dostoevsky, but with that, come those questions of faith and Christianity. Back out in the steppe, the narrator follows Matiushin with a cloistering closeness as if that strict observance from the father never left him. Is this the punishment before the crime? Perhaps it poses the question of religiosity being explored more intensely than Dostoevsky because the crime hasn’t happened yet, or at least Matiushin’s crime.

It’s an intense experience. Pavlov is comfortable with repetition, barrenness, depressiveness, and the fact is that we’re out on the steppe, in the largest country in the world, in a place of sheer expanse. This is central to what Pavlov is trying to manipulate. They say you never feel lonelier when you’re stood in a crowd of people, and perhaps you never feel more confined when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.

“Life was shit because it was a long march to the vodka tower, there wasn’t enough space to live in…While you were content with just one square foot of land in the world, you stood on just that one square foot. But the moment you looked up at the sky, you scraped your dirty face against its vastness.”

The irony in the metaphor of that final sentence emphasises the desperation in the act, to ‘feel’ the physicality of its distance. It’s not a discovery to find that there are forces working against what we think we need, the knowledge as Heaney suggested, is already there. To return then to that idea of fuel that was prominent in Captain of the Steppe, it is burning and expiring as soon as we engage in it. Take for instance the moment when Matiushin wants a drink – “ He absolutely musn’t, although he couldn’t understand what point there was in forbidding himself a drink,” –  and it does sound like a religious abstinence or an abstinence imposed by something as powerful as religion. But here is Pavlov’s power. And this is perhaps a scarier question, because we must wonder then what it is that stops us or doesn’t stop us, like Matiushin, like ourselves, in doing the things that we do? We can even use Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries as a similar example (and also why Pavlov has gained comparisons with Solzhenitsyn, not forgetting that he was also a prison guard) of where the question of choice and need doesn’t just become one of physicality. And the ingenuity of it is that, Pavlov leaves this choice open to the reader. The space that he eventually creates opens for these questions is a scary and vast one and one that we might rather foreclose again.

That image which may appear certain, or closed, yet is paradoxically a vast one is something that sustains Pavlov’s writing. His themes, motifs and images rarely change (a steppe; the military; a simple completion of a task).That great, big open space, yet the dogma and the regimental living within it, and this was the same  Requiem for a Soldier. It has those similar themes to that which we’ve seen in the previous two novels, but the farcical nature from Captain of the Steppe is re-injected here to deliver what was the best work of the three. This is combined with translation from Anna Gunin which I think captures Pavlov’s syntax and language the best out of the three.

Set within the final days of the Soviet Empire, Alyosha, having just completed his army service has been promised a gift of an ‘eternal steel tooth’ by his commander (who, perhaps in a throwback to The Matiushin Case, is also deaf). Alyosha has a tooth removed to make way for it, but it never seems to arrive. In the mean time Institutov, who runs the medical infirmary and removes Aloysha’s tooth, conscripts Alyosha into completing tasks around the chaotically organised surgery. But as the tasks accumulate, one of them involves collecting the corpse of soldier from a lab and having it transported to Moscow, leading into an absurd, picaresque journey.

Again, it is incredibly bleak but it’s accompanied with equally as bleak and black humour. The ambulance for instance, that Institutov and Alyosha carry the dead soldier’s body in, isn’t saving lives – it’s already carrying the dead. The grand metaphor that immediately stands out is this idea of the corpse of history, the dead Soviet state (and that idea of avoiding a cliché to talk about it again, when the hole in the head of the soldier is revealed: “an ordinary first-aid plaster. Institutov peeled off the white backing tape and with an unfeigned look of anguish, he stuck it over the dark hole in he corpse’s forehead”). And what is to be done with that body, when it refuses to disappear and refuses to lay to rest? Freud said that unexpressed emotions never die, are only buried alive and come forth in uglier ways, and so with Pavlov writing this in 2002, but it only being translated into English in 2015, it follows a convenient parallel with modern history. Putin, Trump: there is evidence of uglier ways coming forth.

It’s a question that has concerned the history of humanity, how we come to terms with history or events and what we do with the corpse of the past. Antigone had to defy the law to give what her brother the rightful burial that she thought he deserved, and in the accordance of a different kind of law to the one imposed on her. “Leave me to my own absurdity, leave me to suffer this dreadful thing” Antigone cries, so one wonders then who’s absurdity Alyosha has inherited? Further, one wonders what absurdity we have have already inherited it in what we’re faced with now in form of a new global order? Maybe liberalism really didn’t allow us to confront anything, only contradict ourselves, make us conscious cynics of our age.

But there are two burials that Antigone and Creon battle over. She wishes to see it observed by divine, familial law and Creon thinks that it deserves to be left to rot with the parasites and the carrion. So again, we’re confronted with that question of conversion and space. What becomes of the fuel? On one of Alyosha’s earlier tasks he is charged with retrieving the bread and the water (yes, that simple thing). He takes a sledge with him and trudges in the deep winter to the village.

“Harnessing himself to the sledge, Alyosha cursed at his heavy load, perhaps the way a horse might gently curse a laden cart. If only the horse could know that the cargo was hay, and the hay was to feed his very own self, then wrath would give way to joy. As for Alyosha, he could not rein in his fiery human resentment. It was as if his whole scheme had been specially dreamt up: we’ll make him drag his burden for a good fifteen miles, only to dispose of the whole heavy load into his stomach, turning the lot into nothing.
It was here on this winter road to nowhere, loaded with something destined to turn into nothing, that Alyosha discovered life’s simple command.”


Alyosha couldn’t convert enough snow into water by melting it and that simple combination of elements was not enough to satisfy a more widespread need. In Pavlov’s narrative world it is that fear of something destined to turn into nothing, and the vacancy of it’s departure. Pavlov shows that that ‘space’ isn’t necessarily empty, it’s negated, and it is the space that confronts us all and when it is departed there are more difficult things to be comprehended. Pavlov will not give you any answers though. If Russian history is a commentary on the bible, in Pavlov’s world the passage and the ending is not so comforting, and the knowledge that we choose to either ignore or use, might not even help us anyway.

Ivan Chistyakov – The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard

Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard
by
Ivan Chistyakov (translated by Arch Tait)
Granta: 249pp; £14.99 rrp.

In Martin Amis’ novel Times Arrow, the narrator rather than he moving through time, is being moved through time, and is so unwitting that he does not realise that he is going backwards, from his death to his birth. At one point, the narrator despairing at not being able to make any sense of the regressing world he is in remarks “There’s probably a straightfoward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness.”

I weirdly found Amis’ novel asking similar questions to the book in question here; a non-fiction diary of a prison guard during the time of the Gulag. Amis’ work is partly set during the Holocaust and the ‘straightforward explanation’ that Tod T. Friendly seeks above is of course a pun, reflective of Amis’ narrative device, but paired with Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries, show that even the straightforward, sequential explanation is not necessarily any more enlightening. Time in both book’s cases is something of a master. The introduction to Chistyakov’s work by Irina Scherbakova called the labor camp at the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) “an enormous machine of repression” – in the diaries we see that time is one of its tools.

The publication of the diaries have been partly assisted by funding from English PEN. Scherbakova, in her interesting introduction, calls on other notable Gulag occupants such as Grossman, Shalamov, and of course Solzhenitsyn to provide context to the diaries. Chistyakov doesn’t necessarily share company with these artists as an artist, but of the little we know about his time before BAM, we’re told that he is was a ‘cultured Muscovite’; a picture on the inside jacket of the book shows him painting, and indeed, his prose is not that of somebody who has neglected the literary arts. So within this machine of repression, along with everything elae you’d expect, there certainly seems to be something artistic repressed within Chistyakov.

Sometimes he strays into the poetic (“Telegraph wires iced up and looking like threads of fire in the sun”). But it seems that any poetic descriptions are incidental or unconscious, leaked out, which Chistyakov even admits sometimes. What do words matter or represent in times like this? Amis often summoned inspiration from the works of Primo Levi for his two novels centred around the holocaust (the already mentioned Times Arrow and the more recent The Zone of Interest) which Amis concedes, are contrary to his zipping, imagistic prose and it is that kind of dialectic that persists here. Amis’ second set of memoirs Koba the Dread centred around his contention with the ‘indulgence of communism’ by intellectuals during the Soviet era, particularly his own father’s, Kingsley. In the opening he quotes Robert Conquest, the Soviet Historian, who writes: “’We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty lives were lost for, not ever word, but every letter in this book’ That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The books is 411 pages long.” Chistyakov was never to know the final statistics of the regime, but it is as if he’s knowledgable of Conquest’s equation: “Went to Phalanx 11 and my head is in such a muddle I don’t feel like writing anything. Sky overcast” Chistyakov writes. There is something painful locked within that simple description of the sky.

What we have here is the loss of the life before the life. Amis records in Koba the Dread, the sheer brutality of the regime, and which we’re already acquainted with in works by Grossman et al. Chistyakov though, perhaps because he is enlisted as a prison guard, articulates a different kind of brutality. Scherbakova in the introduction says that:

“he almost comes to a Kafkaesque understanding of his powerlessness in the face of an inhumane state machine which erases the boundary between freedom and unfreedom. He rises to tragic irony when he writes about the ‘historical inevitability’ of the camps”. 

 I certainly wouldn’t want to stray down the path of gerrymandering over whether it’s Kafkaesque ( or Orwellian for that matter) but there is a kind of perverse bureaucratic element to Chistyakov’s accounts.
Image result for stalin writing

Chistyakov must oversee the construction of BAM. I’ve written before about how the train recurs through Russian fiction, from Dostoevsky, to the more recent Hamid Ismailov, but we’re back again on the railway, except this isn’t a piece of fiction and the irony is all the more tragic. Maybe Scherbakova was further inclined to allie Chistyakov with Kafka because of that sometimes, intentional or not, irony. Here is an entry from January 22nd 1936:

” January is passing, but then there will be February, then March. Spring and Summer will fly by. Why are we always in such a hurry? Where do we think we are going?”

 Building a railway wondering where they are going; it’s interesting that Chistyakov uses the pronoun of ‘we’ at this point. But the dates almost become arbitrary, and the verb of ‘think’ within his question even loses its possibility. Physically and mentally, the future becomes foreclosed, despite reading entry after entry, noted day after day.

And so at times the diaries are as if born out of modernism. Unlike Alfred J Prufrock’s mysticism with time, the second holds no time for decisions and revisions. A second at BAM is a second flat. The imaginative and literary capacity, again, is completely repressed, the sky is simply overcast. Chistyakov asks “what good things can I write about? Perhaps the white bread roll the political instructor brought? I write a monthly report for BAM that isn’t without an element of fiction?” It is, as Scherbakova writes a ‘historical inevitability’, one thing after the next without any other implication, absurbly and deadeningly utalitarian. Whilst many of what we sometimes crassly call ‘freedoms’ is taken from him, what makes this as imprisoning experience for Chistyakov as it is for the prisoners, is that he is ‘doing time’ as well. He knows that there is no difference; overseeing the running of the prison is the same as being in the prison, and whilst this is no great revelation, the worrying thing for Chistyakov is that it’s even harder to escape it as a guard. The prisoner’s desire is to escape (he even writes that he may have to become a prisoner to get out) , but what is Chistaykov’s desire, or thing to fantasise about? There is no opportunity or energy to use his impulse to play with time that being creative would. He is eternally moving forward, but going nowhere; he may fantasise about the past, but if he does, he rarely writes it.

His sentence is unending. One of the ways you can chart both the physical and psychological affliction is how Chistyakov details his physical movements, trudging in mud through the phalanx or making his away along the construction of the track: “You lurch along the track with thoughts you can’t dispel”. Simple statements like “life passes” have a melancholic despair to them, and you’re on Chistyakov’s anti-journey as well. There is no enlightenment at the end of the tunnel. And I return again to Scherbakova’ s moniker, the “enormous machine of repression” which doesn’t look like the palest of overstatements, both psychoanalytically and more generally.

One can only wonder then, if like Prufrock, Chistyakov saw his own ‘moment of greatness flicker’, and pass him by. Prufrock’s was a love song: there is no love here and there is only time. Whatever desire there is diminishes, and we’re left with the solitary, individual at the behest of a great, enormous system. Amis in Koba the Dread quotes Stalin when he said “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem”. We don’t know the fate of Chistyakov, and depressingly, perhaps he was aware of this, sometime after the completion of these diaries. It is at the very least a reminder that rarely is the straightforward entailed with a straightforward explanation.