First Class

The Underground
Hamid Ismailov (translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova)
Restless Books: 272 pp.: £11.20

There is a growing consensus that Hamid Ismailov is going to be regarded in the pantheon of one of the greatest literary traditions that there has ever been – The Russians. There are not many languages that have had a  ‘golden age’ and a ‘silver age’, before the complex political issues that arose after the Revolution, and oppressive Stalinism with it. Even though the authorities tried to keep it so, the twentieth century was hardly a quiet one.

Ismailov has good pedigree for the Russian canon. Firstly, he has been exiled and secondly, like his predecessors, he seems to have this enrapturing with the train. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky both relied on the locomotive as a metaphor and prop in some of their most famous scenes. Dostoyevsky though had a particular fascination with it and what it represented in the ensuing modern times; migration, power and trade were all changed or multiplied by the use of locomotion.

The Underground throws a nod to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, but this also isn’t the first time Ismailov has had the train central to his narrative. There was The Railway (1997) and more recently, The Dead Lake (2014), where the narrator travelling on a train meets Yerzhan, a child-looking (deformed through contamination by a nearby atomic testing site) man who like the narrator here, was born at a train station. Again, like Yerzhan we have two characters who are physically, but not psychologically, stumped in growth, with their mind outliving their body. The narrator here is a dead orphan child telling his story from beyond the grave, who, if he was alive, would have been twenty six.

It’s 1986 and Mbobo (Kirill at birth) was born at Oktyrbrskaya station.  Mbobo is later nicknamed Little Pushkin by a stepfather, and those who haven’t got the reference yet must do now because Mbobo is a bastard of African heritage. He’s stuck in a late Soviet society just before its downfall, and this is his posthumous novel. Why serve in Heaven when you can rein in Hell asked Milton, and even though he doesn’t rule down there, the underground pretty much seems to be he limits of his world. It is the outside and above that is hell for him. A flaneur of the underground he is, but he almost is the Underground: “Sometimes the maggots get bored of digging into my decaying body, and they abandon me, burrowing tunnels to the surface to take a breather after it rains. Then within the cavities of my body I feel an emptiness, into which water sometimes gushes like metro trains…”

Throughout, the body is confused with the structure of the underground as Mbobo travels from station to station. ‘Skeletal’ and ‘intestinal’ which in other works might be rather unimaginative adjectives for depicting structure, take on an underlined meaning here. There is also constant imagery of the decaying body, regularly evoked by the image of maggots. Rather than this being a dying world, it is post-death: Sokol station for instance is ‘amid the maggoty darkness’. One can imagine that somebody speaking from the grave is familiar with maggots.

Another man who had this much fascination with death was Charles Baudelaire. This passage from ‘To the Reader’ could have been Mbobo’s address: “Close swarming, like a million worms/A demon nation riots in our brains/ And when we breathe, death flows into our lungs/ A secret stream of dull, lamenting cries”.
The millions of worms feasting on Mbobo’s body and the demon nation that could be Soviet Russia, and like Baudelaire, Ismailov’s vice is modern. Filtering in and out of Mbobo’s consciousness are the things he comprehends and the things he doesn’t. Skillfully, Ismailov in the way that the great moderns did, creates this idea of perceptions and thoughts filtering into the mind, digressing down paths and avenues both wilful and unwillingly. It creates this striking paradox of the train uniformly moving forward and routinely whilst Mbobo’s mind leaps forward, backward and sideways. And when he breaks a mirror, there is that reflection that the consciousness has been looking for, “each half reflecting a snapshot of my brief terror”. Like the broken mirror his thoughts refract and splinter like the distorted reflections of the world that imbue his conscious mind. Whilst the world might be crumbling and his body decaying, the mind is wilfully alive.

To be a great writer you have to be assured that you can be at one with the greatest. Dostoyevsky, as already mentioned, is an obvious influence. More than anything, there is that existentialist despair that Dostoyevsky was one of the first to capture in fiction.  In The Idiot Prince Myshkin, the naive, benign Prince arrives (on a train) into a St. Petersburg society where he cannot comprehend the corruptive influences of it.  Rather than a good man in a bad world, it’s an absurdly good man, just in the world. The idiot is one word for it, but what would another great existentialist say of this passage:
““My stepfather came around the table to me and whispered: “Your Grandpa died…” I didn’t know what to do. What do people do when their Grandpas die? Cry? Howl? Scream? I looked over at Mommy, at a loss, wondering what people do when their fathers die , but Mommy’s face was still stony.”
Stranger? Outsider not registering the shock of death? Mbobo is both the Dostoyevskian idiot and Camus’ outsider trying to make sense in a senseless world. He is not a naive child, but he is still, symbolically at least, a child. Like Yerzhan he is immediately physically and socially un-ready for this world.

Later on, whilst there is an obvious intuition and mention to Nabokov’s Lolita, there is a more subtle nod to the text. To Nabokov, reading was a big game, and although The Underground is much more nihilistic, is the child narrator playing games the way children do? Less spuriously, Nabokov played with the elements of light and dark in Lolita, and there is something similar to that used by Ismailov. Observe how the black and white, light and dark are never compatible and are always in battle. Chess was Humbert Humbert’s muse – game of blacks versus whites.

And of course Nabokov was the immigrant. This story ends in 1992, much the same time as Ismailov’s story in Russia ended before his exile. There are many ways too and not too read into this, but Nabokov’s afterword in Lolita  – “everybody should know I detest symbols and allegories” – due to his “old feud with Freudian voodooism”, shows a man conscious of the spectre of Freud that can hang over the work when we’re trying to infer meaning. It is a difficult theory to dispel; especially when you’re talking about trains and children.

Is Hamid Ismailov a great or on the way to being a great? Well, the greatest do have to tend with being banned for a while it seems. Luckily for Ismailov he will probably live to see the fulfilment of his reputation. It was 1949 by the time the ban on six poems of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs De Mal were lifted. One of his lesser, more restrained works however – ‘The Albatross’ – is unlikely to have received as much attention as the six infamous ones did at the time. Simply, it symbolises the bird with its ridiculous wings “comic and oncomely” being toyed with by the crew of ship after they capture it for fun to relieve their boredom.  Baudelaire reflects how  like an albatross, “the poet resembles the prince of the clouds” and how “his wings , those of a giant, hinder him from walking”. While Ismailov may have read some of Baudelaire’s more charged work in preparation for The Underground, he might have read or might have been inclined to read ‘The Albatross’ for a more personal solace.

Thank you to Restless Books for providing a review copy


The Living Anonymous

Advice for a young, unpublished writer is not to have a picture of your literary hero on your desk because, chances are, they committed suicide. It is almost cliché to link the creation of art and madness. A common parlance by writers and artists is to describe at some point in their artistic life, the process of creation as torturing. Art is infuriating; at some point you have to realise that whatever you create will never be a perfection. You may create your masterpiece that may define a movement at some point in time, but that Is what it is – a fixture in time only to be succeeded by the next defining monument of a period.

Perhaps this is slightly cynical but the link between mental illness and creativity, no matter what the cliché is, has a very sombre truth to it; that even the most successful artists are sometimes tortured minds who sometimes cannot bare the thought of living. Groucho Marx’s funny, yet horribly pertinent quip that “all geniuses die young” asks whether to be a genius you have to be of a certain tragic age. Let’s look at some famous examples in the writing world; Melville, Woolf, Plath, Foster-Wallace. All can arguably defined as movement definer’s, initiating movements, and retrospectively being heralded as such (i’m not wanting to discuss the contentions of this, you may argue they’re under/overrated but that’s not the point). Moby Dick, Mrs Dalloway, The Bell Jar, Infinite Jest; all key texts in key movements. I include the Bell Jar mainly for it’s head on tackling of the mental state Plath was in, not necessarily as a defining movement, but seems to have been adopted by the feminist cause, amongst many others. Melville didn’t commit suicide but is famous for dealing with depression.

Artistic creation is torturing though. You’re battling yourself, your own capacity to create, and the intense cerebral nature of it does question the existence of genius; if you can immerse yourself in your own world and other people’s created worlds for so long, and then want to create your own world whether it be on canvas or page, and can accept that what you create will still be nowhere near as good as the masters you emulate, that you can only strive and work hard, and look at more of the masters, just some day you may get there, stand remotely near, be for once considered in the same sentence as them. You have to accept this. “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” apparently said Michaelangelo, an undisputed genius.

Camus stated “I don’t want to be a genius – I have enough problems just trying to be a man” which arouses an interesting proposition. Zadie Smith in her essay on David Foster-Wallace remarked that in his deep, exhaustive, postmodern stories that he was “always trying to place relationships between persons as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels” and as Wallace once claimed “banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”; she then asks “what are those…stories but complex re-enactments of platitudes we would otherwise ignore.” Now Camus’ quote comes in to the frame, the way we interpret the world now, the western one, with tricksy postmodernists like Wallace only playing with language rather than giving us wholesome narratives with beginning, middles and endings points to this torture of art; it is a response to the world we live in, and Wallace’s stories are tortured response to this world where meaning has been distorted to the extent that any trace of depicting those banal platitudes will be rendered as sentimental. How do we get to the essence of life now? How is it possible? How do we try and be men, women…humans.

Camus’ absurdist theory uses suicide as a key example of how we live, or not live in this world. The absurd refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning, and the inability to find any. In this Nieztchean world, where god is dead, and now, when art is pushed to the fringes, where monetary value and positivistic science takes precedence, where is the meaning and human value of life? Where are we supposed to look for it if our artists, and potential artists are given little room in this commercial world

Suicide for Camus was the result of this meaningless dissonance – a rejection of freedom. Of course it is damagingly reductionist to attribute suicide to this, but there is some kind of truth in Camus’ quote about being a man, being a person, that our most humane investigators of human experience (artists) ultimately fail to find. There is no moral, universal code in this godless world; a Christian always something to aspire to, a perfect big other, where the artist has not, and perhaps has to live with the fact that he is that other, or desire to be the other.

Let’s also not be caught up in the idea that art fails us, or we fail art. Mental illness is a deeply complex issue, and we’re no nearer to comprehensively treating it than we are to understanding it. As a student of community and critical psychology, approaching the end of my masters, indeed I am nowhere nearer, favouring the political argument perhaps generated by Foucauldian thinking. Because if anything arts saves us, and it’s now time to look at how it does that.

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As a part time reviewer of books, i’ve received a number of publications, mostly from smaller, début artists. Some of these have gone on to big things (Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride for example), some haven’t. I always try and treat books with respect, and appreciate that whatever the book is, at the heart of it is a remarkable intelligence that wants to be some way dissected and understood. This kernel of intelligence/spark/throb/intention, whatever it was, has been so powerful, and overwhelming that the person has thought it appropriate to articulate this over a lot of pages in the form of a narrative, that not a lot of people have the comprehension, or stamina/will to even consider doing. I don’t think it’s a matter of intelligence; if you read enough, you can write enough. Obviously there are more factors than that, but if you have a vision, a belief, you’re getting there.

On my desk I received By The Light of The Silvery Moon: Inside the Schizophrenic Mind (Austin MacAuley publishers). A slim volume with only ‘Anonymous’ accredited as the author. The blurb describes what follows as an account of an ‘ordinary girl’ arriving in the London in the nineties, with ‘unclear aspirations’ but ‘with a determination to enjoy life’. After a bout of using recreational drugs the author developed paranoid schizophrenia.
What follows in the next sixty pages or so is entirely the authors words. The first page, ‘About the Author’ is clearly the wording of Anonymous.

Paranoid Schizophrenia could afflict anyone. Could be anyone. A disease that happened in her late 20’s, due to certain life choices. Recreational drugs. Relationship deaths and self-destruction.

There are many famous accounts of mental illness, ‘real-life’ struggles; William Styron is famous for accounting it. This thin book points to a more rounded idea though; the use of art when the person involved is not an artist. The struggle to grapple real life, to depict the real is on the problems with narrative; how real and truthful is this account? With By The Light…, you feel it as truthful as it’s ever going to get.
The choice to remain anonymous is justified by the fact that ‘growing up is hard enough these days without having a paranoid schizophrenic for a mum’. Indeed the stigma of mental health is still so prevalent. No matter how benevolent a title may be of having a mental illness is, it remains a stigma. The prevalent discourse seems to be that physical illnesses you cannot help, or at least anything that you are seen to be helpless with are given a fair ride. Everything in this society is predicated by a choice though; if you ‘choose’ to be obese, to lead that consumptive lifestyle you’re damned with what you get from it. And that, I still believe, is the case with mental health; if you choose to be unhappy, if you choose to take drugs, you deserve what happens. That is our society – the illusion of choice.

By The Light…instead brings into light those ‘other’ things that we should look at, in the environment. For a start there is a Anon’s abusive partners (which ironically she refers to one as ‘Crow’, evocative of Ted Hughes poetry collection after the death of Plath) which our mainstream media, so damning of the single mother, would again, suggest it is down to her choice of partners.

“Crow came to see his son for a week…One visit he brought drugs which I freely smoked and suddenly all the old fears came flooding back, leading to a frightful night when Babe was 9 months old, when I slipped into a psychosis. I was unaware of becoming aware.”

There is one of the true moments when Anon, clearly not a writer, writing this account with purpose of getting a truth out there, slips in those moments of poetry, that we are all capable of – ‘unaware of becoming aware’. It speaks on so many levels, and reaches out to a capability that we all have, to invoke poetry at desperate moments in life.

I’ve just finished reading George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Saunders critically acclaimed stories,of which Foster-Wallace is aSilver Moon p42rguably a precursor, are battling with this idea of coming out of the postmodern age. They have a distinctive style, and like Foster-Wallace was, they’re trying to get to grips, to a truth of an age that does not like dealing with truth. Saunder’s style, no matter how valiantly can only mimic; accounts like By The Light…in their imperfect style, regardless of the amount of clichés they use can be said to be closer to that truth. Cliché here speaks truth. In a novel, a piece of fiction, it speaks of a failing, that people like Martin Amis would not allow us to use. If on a graph, it could be depicted as truth on the x axis, and imitation on the y axis. The more imitation the lesser the truth. It comes down to what our artists are rendering and as Smith said of Wallace’s stories, they are accentuations of banal platitudes that are postmodern age will not allow us to observe, they will not permit us any sentimentalism.

Now it could be perceived that i’m piggy-backing Anon’s account on the back of these big names. Far from it. This is nowhere near them obviously, because it is not even an attempt at that. This isn’t a review of a novel, because it’s not a novel, and it’s something that does not render reviewing, because for the first time I find myself touching on a truth. Instead Anon’s account sheds light on mental illness over art, what can be brutal, horrific and demonising. As you go through it however with the interstitial pictures of art that Anon has produced, one comes near the end, amidst the other messy, complicated acrylics; a set of swirly blues and whites, simple and fresh. And it is here comes the realisation, or the epiphany if we’re talking in novelistic terms; instead of art torturing us, art ultimately saves us, and has saved Anonymous here, and as we hope will save many other Anonymous’ in the process. Art rescues us, and the artist just wants to rescue others.

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Inkwell Arts is perhaps the embodiment of this. Here at Inkwell, positive mental health is promoted through the use of artistic creativity. This is not art therapy. Instead Inkwell offers a place to explore your mental health (and let’s not get carried away with the idea that ‘mental health’ denotes a negative term, it’s an all encompassing one). Inkwell shows how through the arguably individual nature of art, that it allows people to connect through its community. It is a place to explore your mental health and those of others, in a place that devolves any barriers that society would normally have us upholding. Art allows you to connect with yourself and others.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” – Howards End – E.M Forster.

By The Light Of The Silvery Moon – Inside A Schizophrenic Mind (55pp.) is published by Austin MacAuley Publishers and is out now (£6.99)

Inkwell Arts is based in Chapel Allerton, Leeds, and is part of the Charity Leeds Mind. This post was also featured on Inkwell’s website and you can visit their website at http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk