Here’s a review of Bruce Chatwin’s Novels, republished by Vintage, written at Bookmunch
Such Small Hands
(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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The Nest of the Gentry
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.
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?”
“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.
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) went some way in launching or propelling the careers of the likes of Steve Carell and Seth Rogen (Jonah Hill would probably have to wait until Superbad), and confirmed Judd Apatow’s credence as a director. It shows, what we now know, as the usual Apatow comedy traits. Rather than sustained laughs and continual, quipping smart dialogue, it instead revolves around several set pieces of physical, body-centred hilarity, not necessarily gross-out, through sexual awkwardness or near death.
You can see the familiar patterns. The waxing scene in 40YOV (absolutely superb), Andy’s (Carell) awkward stripping when he takes Beth (Elizabeth Banks) home, and him then being catapulted through the advertising from his bike (‘Eruption’, a joke that Carell’s character, is all too aware of). Here’s Trainwreck (2015): Steven’s repressed homosexuality (played by John Cena – his hulking body the paradox of his crushing insecurity), Amy’s (Schumer) awkward sex with her co-worker that, like Carell’s character, she doesn’t actually want; and then her trying to impress Aaron (Bill Hader) at a basketball game in which she falls flat on her face. One can see the lineage, but comedy is about formula, funny formulas at least.
Carell plays something of a cliché; the nerd, the comic-book lover, the guy who won’t take his action figures out of their box in case they lose their value. Perhaps there is something else in that sense of value, because there seems to be an element of preservation in Apatow’s films. The question is never answered as to why Andy is a virgin. Surely it is not enough to assume it’s because he’s a nerd? Clearly there is a meta-commentary available, that this was Apatow’s directing virginity (yuck), but what is the reason Andy has been keeping it in the box for twenty-or-so years? The greatest shock does not come from the fact that he is a virgin but rather that he seems to have never been exposed to sex. He has never watched pornorgraphy and refuses to when David (Paul Rudd) hands him a box of the stuff. Think how Trish (Catherine Keener), his future wife, is not annoyed that he has spent half of a night with Beth (Elizabeth Banks), but that he owns the porn David gave him. Sure, he feels awkward when he’s being goaded by his colleagues, but who wouldn’t? He seems to want something else, something antiquarian almost and something that I think makes the film most appealing; this is an attempt at an ‘adult’ comedy in the sense that it is talking about something often treated with juvenility in the cinema, and that like Carell’s character, doesn’t at first present itself as that. It’s a film that Andy seems to have been waiting for but found himself the star of. An subject that is about something young adult and invigorating but wants to be treated with maturity.
The poster of the film shows Carell surrounded by a halo-like glow. There is no sign that his character is religious but there is a feeling of holy abstinence. Andy is trying to step away from it, to not be immersed in this world of excessive sexual messages and media. Think of the joke when he is about to consummate his marriage (also note that there is lapse in the film, so that we don’t see the lead-up to the marriage where presumably he hasn’t done it either). He carries his wife into the hotel room. Hold on; there is a cleaner in there. How you can parse this moment as the cleaner stands there not finished ‘buffering’. Is he cleaning up the previous mess? Is Andy so naïve that he thinks nobody has been there before? But Andy is going to have to wait for him to stop buffering, like the internet video with the poor connection.
There is a real sweetness to the film though, an actual naivety that you don’t often get in cinema these days. Modern cinema is about complete exposure, not hiding things away: how much can we get away with, instead of how much can we keep under wraps. There is no sense of entitlement, nor backing away with immaturity (but after all, sex is funny), and it does confront finally that it won’t be able to avoid the subject forever. A real coming of age, twenty years late. And as if to emphasise its appeal to more innocent times, it ends in a musical number, yet what is the musical but an elaborate gesture of courting and pursuit like the birds that show their feathers to the mating partner? I’m reminded of Honest Trailers skit of Frozen with their “We’re gonna pork…” song. A film then that is perhaps about the means to celebration, to find something to sing and dance about, whatever it is, or isn’t.
Plot details may be made explicit or alluded to
I wonder what the young actor (Pyotr Skvortsov) thought when he received the script for ‘The Student’, him being the named student. Indeed, it’s nearly scripture. But despite this loud, young demagogue, The Student is largely subtle in its composition, and even when the corresponding bible verse of the student’s proclamations usher onto the screen, it’s as if with a bashfulness, in comparison to the effrontery of the proselytising student.
For the good film that it is, it’s quite a conventional arc that we get as well; the fanatic believes he can save the world and humanity, believes he can cure the sick (he does convert one, but his disciple’s passion is of a unwelcoming, sexual kind), believes that he is the prodigal son incarnate. But like all fanaticisms, it is just that, only certain people can be saved by its exclusivity, and when he finds out that his teacher is Jewish, he plots to kill her.
But I’m not wanting to pursue this religious aspect too much here (and I’ve made it sound much more overwrought than it is), nor its rights, its wrongs, and what it might say about contemporary religion in a secular world, because I don’t think this purposefully bold and brash aspect is the subject of it. Like its neat cinematography using the limits of its natural environment, lies a subtle edge. Is is in a restricted environment? Perhaps but there are no special effects in the film or life either. The only flash is the verse references that come up on screen when the student espouses them, that seem more an act of banal empiricism than truth or evidence. And so I think this fanaticism is tied up in a conventional arc that is not the ‘real’ subject. It is there instead as an enveloping diversion, or a distraction and not necessarily a conscious one either. A fiction. We’ve all heard the term brain-washing and it certainly feels here, that it is an attempt to wash over a more serious, grounded issue.
Whether Serebrennikov intended this or not, I’m not sure, but I think there is a case to say that it is inadvertently convalescing when one considers the context the film was produced in. Reviews have expectedly said how this is a film about the oppressive state run by Putin, and although it inevitably it is, I don’t think it’s so simple as that. One doesn’t know what it’s like to live in Russia unless one has lived there. It’s historic relations with the West, and with a leader like Putin, make it a difficult place to surmise. It is a place that clearly embraces capitalism and cavorting with Western leaders to get what it wants, but Putin’s power has a dark, implicative reach across the world stemming from the Kremlin and its authoritarian communist past. And it’s become something of a cliché to say that anything that is produced in a state like Russia, as it’s watched, situated in the west, is a commentary on their society, as if the film/book is a liberating act for the maker and for the viewer. But the viewer is more than likely, already considered ‘liberated’ if watching here, and the maker is more than likely not. Critique requires something more nuanced than the predictable ‘this is a commentary on an oppressive regime’ (which is perhaps a level down from The Student’s obviousness as a commentary on religion) as if we, the viewers in the West are the permanently enlightened ones.
Instead, this is a film that purports that film is perhaps, not so deliverable of a liberated message. If everything is an image in society, what is to say a film image has any precedence over another image? We can depict sex and violence pretty much unrestrained, but does this necessarily mean we’re liberated? Does one of these constitute reality? The Student shows the complexities of this relationship. There is a shameful lack of an outlet for foreign cinema in the UK at least, and the only opportunity that you will get to see one at a reasonable time is an independent cinema, so one wonders who the liberation is serving. Dollars and pounds rather than enlightened thinking one feels. And this is no sneer at the 12 screen multiplex, where great fun is to be had, but there is room for variation.
If everything is image, then symbolism is as close as we’re going to get to reality Serebrennikov seems to be saying. It all depends though , on what symbols snd image you’re paying attention to. As the film goes on, as the student gets more and more deluded about his powers, he begins building a cross. When he takes this cross on his back, trailing on the floor behind him, you’d think that he’s going to his own crucifixion. Instead it becomes something of an understatement as he drags the cross, not high on the hill, but to his school, and begins to nail it up in the hall. Its drama looks a lot less imposing once nailed to a school wall.
The school is an important place though in The Student. Everything is internalised, transferred here. Perhaps this is because the demagoguery is more at home in a school? And perhaps it’s not the enlightening place we’re led, or we lead young people to believe? Who hasn’t been told that your school days are the best days of your life, or that you’re lucky to be able to learn whenever you or somebody protests its function? As great as it is, people forget that there is a lot of dictation, restriction and order in school. It is a place where we learn not to protest.
And so the teacher (Viktoriya Isakova) combats the student’s dogmatism with her good-natured own, delivered sympathetically, trying to rescue him. She tries to teach Evolution, Darwinism, as if this will iron out his Christianity. But they’re all nailing themselves to a cross in this school, searching for answers and enlightenment. The school’s board are unreasonable and archaic, displaying ambivalence to issues that could easily and initially, represent itself as fair-minded and equivocal, but as it develops becomes apparent as bureaucratic rigidness from top-down pressure and force. Is the force invisible like religion? It would seem to be but here is the first slip or sign who’s significance is delayed. Putin. It’s fleeting, hung from the wall, in portraits. The first time I saw it, I almost expected it to be there in the scene, but on the second, it clearly was meant to provoke and signify something in the viewer. And this comes back to the point about the subtlety of the film; the dogmatism of the student, brash and shouting looks nothing more like an attack in the form of the defence, a diversion away from a real enemy of freedom.
Or is it that simple? Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious and it depends what you try and pay your attention. A film, unlike any other artistic medium, dictates the pace you watch and where you look. Like the image of Putin, there were two other images that did this. When one thinks about the film and if I were to watch this again, these were the images that stuck in my mind, just that subtle dissonance that grates away to an effect of making something ‘not quite right’, gateways to perhaps greater answers. Think of when they’re using carrots as props with the condom over the top. Perhaps that is our ideology and image culture today; transparent, but still cloaking, we can still see its effects but are still impotent to defend against it. Easy to look out of, but looking at in return is not so simple when it is transparent.
And then the closing scene was again, a lingeringly powerful one. It is not the student who in the end, pins himself to the wood, but the teacher. She is not going. She nails her shoes to the floor which does the thing of unifying all these messy dogmas to that spot. Of course, we have the obvious symbolism of the crucifixion. But it also embodies her personal act of trying to remain ‘stable’ as her feet remain still, whilst the upper half of her body begins to look on the verge of breaking down, frantic, demonstrative. Her trainers though, their gairish, hipster coolness standing out in this otherwise plain film. They’re ‘New Balance’ brand. I highly doubt this is a case of product placement, but the teacher wears these shoes for comfort? Comfort from what? Is she after a ‘New Balance’, a new liberal balance? It’s up to you whether you think this is wishful thinking, or is it the answer you’re looking for? If you view the cinema like the school in The Student, you might see a lot of ideas but not any answers.
It’s been a 100 years since the Russian Revolution: does liberation still await Russia, or all of us? How will we ever begin to love our neighbours?
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.
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.