The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 3, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius


, , , , , ,

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 121-180), known as the last of the Five Good Emperors, was a rare ray of light in the den of depravity, the sink of iniquity that was the Roman Empire. I have a rather strong aversion to the Roman Empire. Fantastic engineers though they were, nothing will make me warm to a country whose chief architectural relic is a glorified abattoir. For this and other reasons, the latest entry in my Harvard series will be somewhat more disapproving than usual.

marcus aurelius bustMarcus Aurelius was not born an emperor. His father died when he was three and he was raised by his paternal grandfather amongst the posh villas on Caelian Hill. He was tutored at home. This time period was noted for the new Imperial practice of adoptive successions and he became the last of the adopted line stemming from Nerva in 96 AD. As of 138, the current ruler Hadrian was ailing and selected Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt, for successor. Marcus was adopted into the fold and lived with Antoninus and Hadrian until the latter perished. He received a bundle of titles and promotions, was taught administration and oratory and succeeded Antoninus in 161. Remarkably, this sudden elevation did not result in a ruined character. As he later wrote: …where a man can live, there he can also live well. But he must live in a palace–well then, he can also live well in a palace.

Aurelius’ reign was marked by the Marcomannic Wars (166-180), a series of invasions and rebellions fought along the Danube on the part of Rome’s Germanic and Sarmatian (Iranian) neighbours. Equestrian AureliusAurelius spent time on the campaigns and it was “among the Quadi at the Granua” that he began his Meditations. He never saw the conflict properly resolved in his lifetime – and of course these were merely the burning bushfires that would go on to one day subsume the Empire.

As Caesars go, he was really the best you could hope for. His Meditations are not a record of this life, however, nor were they written with an audience in mind – they are an account of good conduct, a way for Marcus Aurelius to focus, channel his inner Stoic and keep the “form” of Emperor from destroying the “substance” of himself as a humble man.

The problem inherent with this noble undertaking was that the result is not remotely user-friendly and has no great originality. Epictetus was a Stoic instructor and his sayings, recorded by an earnest pupil, are as perfect an introduction to the philosophy as a patient reader could wish for. Marcus Aurelius was a student, not a teacher, and his Meditations are an exercise book: rigorous and thoughtful but also plodding and repetitive. There’s none of the personal touch that brought a level of intrigue to Plato’s Socrates and none of the well-exercised brevity that Arrian’s Epictetus put to such wonderful use. Take away his Imperial status and what is left? A philosophy student’s notebook.

I have no doubt some of my problem with this book stems from the antiquated translation by George Long, M.A. and would recommend readers to aim for a more streamlined version. There are of course various excellent passages scattered throughout the book and I shall quote one in full from chapter two, which works as an accurate summary of the themes Aurelius gave his focus and also gives good indication of his style in the Long translation:

17. Of the human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul of a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And, to man-in-life-man-on-deathbed1say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion. What, then, is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing, and only one–philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.

Sober reflections, stern moralizing, rinse and repeat for the next hundred pages. This is why I would not recommend the Meditations to anyone who isn’t in a scholarly capacity. I understand that Marcus couldn’t just write a quick essay on the subject and hang it on the wall above his bed. To preserve and practice Stoicism in his position he had to remain focused, rewriting his personal mandates and shaping them anew on his travels. Doubtless it provided a calming task while on campaign. So I can see how this would have been a compelling necessity and I respect him for carrying it out but nothing will compel me to call the leftover husk of his endeavor an interesting read.

These pages truly were meditations and unless you are willing to read them as such, they will be a source of some frustration. There are dynamic texts to engage with and static texts to absorb. The Meditations is an example of the latter and unlike the similar Journal of John Woolman it lacks those light touches of the personal, the mystical and the anecdotal that I found so rewarding on a second read. The Meditations keeps up a continuous mantra that human life is not worth experiencing. Everything transient is scorned, all enjoyments derided as animalistic and emotions are censured as “womanish” and worthless. All that is left of value in his eyes are the rigours of asceticism, which I cannot agree with as the very transience of human experience is precisely what makes it so valuable to me. And probably to the majority of sensitive people.

Oleg Oprisco

Not, however, to Marcus Aurelius who takes a hard line on the matter:

To receive the impressions of forms by means of appearances belongs even to animals; to be pulled by the strings of desire belongs both to wild beasts and to men who have made themselves into women, and to a Phalaris and a Nero: and to have the intelligence that guides to the things which appear suitable belongs also to those who do not believe in the gods, and who betray their country, and do their impure deeds when they have shut the doors.

In this Aurelius can be seen as trying to answer the question of what makes some men good if all aspects of their being are shared alike with animals, criminals, the weak and the foolish. The answer he found was uncomplaining trust in the gods and the nature of things – to be a man without any compulsion perfectly reconciled to his lot. This piety helped to establish him as part of the Western Canon and when you consider the examples of such Emperors as Caligula, Caracalla, and Nero he does look miraculous. His book is a testament to that but it also raises a question about Stoicism and how far it can reasonably be taken.

Stoicism can be seen as an attempt to diminish pain in what was surely a deeply traumatic and brutish era to be born into with its “games,” crucifixions, rudimentary medicine and other difficulties. A measure of Stoic training would be a natural aid in such a time period but for Aurelius it was likely a state of living as much as being, and perhaps that had a hand in the disastrous rulership of his son Commodus. After all, if you grew up in an atmosphere of deliberate austerity and at eighteen found yourself released from it and declared sole Emperor, what is the likelihood you would be able to moderate yourself in that environment? Commodus (161-192), Aurelius’ son and successor is quite possibly an example of how such matchless dedication to the higher things can go awry (or maybe he was just a bad egg regardless).

Note the difference.

Commodus took the throne at eighteen and put a spectacular end to the legacy of the five rational emperors. He reigned for twelve years before finally getting whacked and although his career started quietly enough, before long conspiracies were in the air and he became increasingly unhinged. He sought to fashion himself as the new Romulus, stuck statues of himself as Hercules up all over the place and named everything that wasn’t nailed down after himself (including the months of the year, for which he had to first give himself twelve names). All of this would make him just a figure of fun but on a darker note he showed off his manliness in the arena, where he would slaughter exotic animals and the wounded and the maimed (I guess he figured nobody would miss them). He didn’t perform for free either – yes, as the ruler of Rome nobody could stop him from entering the arena but he charged them for each appearance anyway. In short, the man descended into complete megalomania. He was finally strangled by his wrestling trainer whose name (I am not making this up) was Narcissus. Oh, the irony.

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877 Frederic, Lord Leighton 1830-1896 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1877

Who better to kill a megalomaniac?

Historical humour aside, what a disastrous legacy for Marcus Aurelius. In leaving Rome to his son (not that he had much choice, as naming anyone else would likely have led to civil war), he undid the measured rule and result of the adoptive system, heading straight back to dynasties of the unfit and the assassinations and suicides that go along with it. Have a look at Wikipedia’s list of Roman Emperors and study the “cause of death” column – it’s extraordinarily illuminating.

And this is where I pull the plug. I read the Meditations a few years back and a reread of the first four chapters has sparked well over a thousand words (as you see here) while confirming my earlier impression of the book being dull and unwieldy. I am now consumed with a nagging sense that there are other books waiting for my attention and that a complete reread of the Long translation is not required of me. I have filled my quota and while I staunchly defend the Western Canon under normal circumstances I have to admit that this one stumps me.

Up next: Essays, Civil and Moral by Francis Bacon. Goodbye to the Greco-Roman, hello to the Elizabethan!

Ilona: My Life with the Bard – Jana Juráňová


, , , , , ,

Ilona. My Life with the Bard (Calypso Editions)A recent title from Calypso Editions, Ilona: My Life with the Bard was published at the tail end of 2014 to vanishingly little press. Jana Juráňová, while entirely unknown in the United States, is renowned in her native Slovakia as a writer and publisher, having co-founded the feminist journal ASPEKT in 1993 (during that period of cultural exploration following the end of Communist rule and the separation of former Czechoslovakia). ASPEKT did well and eventually morphed from anthology to publishing house, bringing out the first edition of Ilona back in 2008.

This slim novel positions itself as the life story of Ilona Nováková (1856-1932), “known” to history only as the wife of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849-1921), one of Slovakia’s most revered poets, though now little read outside of classrooms and rumored to be all but impossible to translate. He never mentioned his wife in his work, they had no children, and so she has vanished from history. But Ilona was an educated woman from a well-off family, married to a great poet. What was it she wanted? To what did she aspire? Was she content with the only role available to her or were her thoughts filled with the heady mix of ideas that spread through and defined Europe during the fin de siècle and which so animated her nationally-conscious husband?

Ilona is therefore a feminist work but this is an undogmatic feminism capable of a nuanced look at women in recent European history. Rather than portraying Ilona as a free spirit shackled to a misogynist pig, Juránová chose to tell of a truly ordinary life. Ilona is bright, modest and accepting of the limits of her time, finding a measure of happiness in what she’s offered. She possesses so little daring that the book is more unsettling than any number of novels with ahead-of-their-time, freedom-seeking heroines, reassuring modern readers with their similarity of outlook. This story is told in a narrative looking backward as a gray-haired woman recalls the past. We know at the beginning what the end will be:

She stretches out to reach the leaves of the houseplants. She is here, she is still here. All alone, without him. He has slipped away from her. Just like he had always done. To his study, for a walk, to the health resort. And, eventually, to the cemetery.

Just as Ilona is depicted as a woman of her time, the same measured treatment is allotted to Hviezdoslav. A flawed gentleman, grateful to his wife, respectful of her in a limited way and clumsily kind but also fussy, needy and of low self-esteem in the very thing that defines him as a poet and a person. He shores up his confidence by receiving admirers, fretting lest he fall out of fashion or be forgotten and Juránová treats his suffocating stature with gentle irony: The visits usually consist of conversations relating to the Bard’s work. This is the Great Poet’s favorite topic, although he feigns reticence. As a matter of fact, he is finding every other topic increasingly tiresome. Of course, it does happen that a visitor also has other matters to discuss but fortunately, one way or another, these usually also relate to the one and only topic that is of interest to him, such as the publications of his writings, his participation in some festival or other, or the translation of his works into other languages. Her husband is not vain. He is very modest. This is a well-known fact; it’s what everyone says about him. 

More sobering is the reveal that his feelings will not permit him to let his wife take any part in the creative process: Early in their relationship, once or twice she pointed out to him that a particular passage was too wordy or that another passage was too lengthy. He didn’t take it well and stopped speaking to her for a day or two, or just mumbled something. And although subsequently he was embarrassed to have reacted like this, he just couldn’t get over it. So she stopped offering her criticism. Most likely these matters were beyond her anyway. That last sentence shows her own failing. Ilona has no fight in her and lets Pavol’s frail ego and poetic requirements rule her life. One chapter outlines all the things she learned in finishing school (drawing, singing, geography, gymnastics, etc) and how she let all of it slide as soon as she married. Even though a man doesn’t leave a perfectly good wife because she does exercises in the morning.

In a way, Ilona is very similar to her husband – where his ego revolves around his status as an eminent poet, hers is every bit as tied up with the thought of being a perfect wife. So she tiptoes around her life-partner, making more concessions than he even asks her to. She tends him, tends her flowers and cleans the house obsessively. Her entire identity is bound to her role and it’s clear she takes pride in it. While it’s true she was hemmed in by her time period, women throughout history have bucked tradition. She had leisure time, she could have written or sketched or pursued something of private importance but she didn’t. The one thing she wanted very much was to have children, which unfortunately did not come about, though they ended up adopting her brother-in-law’s children, Jarko and Sidka, when his drunken widow proved incapable – a consolation of sorts. Throughout she tirelessly plays a role, allowing herself paltry self-expression, to what end?

This is not to wholesale “blame the victim” as Juránová depicts very well how tradition was stacked against Ilona finding any means of fulfillment outside of her marriage and she often primes the perfect targets of chauvinism to skewer. Hviezdoslav is a conservative man and his wife is not his equal. Juránová portrays this casual imbalance simply but unsparingly and it was the following scene, excerpted on B O D Y, that convinced me Ilona would be worth it:

When her husband decided to go to the seaside she hoped she might accompany him. She wanted to see foreign countries with him, she wanted to see famous paintings in famous galleries with her own eyes. But he chose to travel without her, taking her brother instead. When the protestant church in Dolný Kubín burnt down in 1893, Ilona’s brother went to Germany to collect money for a new one. He invited his brother-in-law to come along. She wanted to join them. But they would not let her.

During the preparations for the trip she kept raising the subject with her husband, trying to persuade him, hoping he might yet change his mind. But he was adamant. Sometimes he did not even respond to her. She went so far as to bring up the subject in the company of strangers but it was no use.

Once, when they had visitors, he asked her suddenly: “Tell me, my dear wife, what should a good husband and wife be like?”

“One body and soul,” she was quick to respond.

“You see. And when I go to the seaside it’s as if you were there with me.”

The company laughed appreciatively at his wit. She couldn’t contradict him. Had they been alone she would certainly have come up with a sharp retort. She wanted to say something after the visitors left. But he locked himself in his study because he needed his peace and quiet. And then he glossed over the whole thing. It was all very civil, well-mannered, as befits a good couple.

The novel ends up telling a very sad story about the common run of things. A life with its sorrows, growing older, losing family – only in this case sharpened by Ilona’s stunted sense of self. She ages gracefully but seeing the colors have vanished somewhere wonders which of her faces is the real one. Comparing her own safe existence with the unhappy lives of the rebellious women she’s known, she feels a chill – as if she had walked into a dead forest. Juránová gives regular glimpses into the lives of Ilona’s peers, women who divorced or betrayed their husbands, whose motivations she cannot begin to fathom and to drive the point home Timrava has a cameo.

Timrava (1867-1951) was the most notable woman writer of the time and like Ilona she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She lived with relatives most of her life and never married. She held a few jobs, didn’t make much money from her writing and traveled even less than Ilona did. That was her decision. It was Ilona’s decision to be conventional. Women make that choice all the time – some find it miserable and others make the best of it. There are Ilonas everywhere. They go to college because it’s expected of them, then they marry and forget it all. Some raise families and are fulfilled, some get divorced and try again.

So was Ilona’s choice “wrong?” Does being a good wife and loving foster parent count for less than leading an extraordinary life? After all, it’s only those who leave footprints that are remembered and Hviezdoslav wrote no love poems. A happy marriage–isn’t that more than a complete poetic oeuvre from which nothing is missing? Their love wasn’t for sale after all. … She’s been the lifetime companion to a Great Poet, a part of his life. Part of his life, for sure, but not part of his writing. But what is more? Literature or life? And is this the right question to ask?

Juránová asks these questions and more as she charts an ordinary life lived in the shadows of the intelligentsia. Aside from the cover art, I have no technical complaints to make. The translation by Julia and Peter Sherwood is quite good – I had previously been confused by the text’s tendency to see-saw between past and present tense but have since heard from the translators that this was based on the complex time shifts of the original work, which it could not have been easy to convey from one language to another.

In short, Ilona is a fine book. Subtle, moving and thought-provoking, the sort of novel that should be featured in feminist literature studies. I am left curious and hopeful that more of Juránová’s work will be brought stateside.

Jana Juranova

Honeymoon – Patrick Modiano


, , , ,

Honeymoon (Verba Mundi)All the bookshops are stocking Patrick Modiano since he won the 2014 Nobel Prize, leading new translations to be rushed to print (Suspended Sentences) and to reissues from David R. Godine’s imprint Verba Mundi, taking advantage of the new sales pitch to make a fresh attempt at selling the unknown French writer to American audiences. I stood in the store with Honeymoon or Missing Person to pick from and chose Honeymoon because of its enticing first page.

Honeymoon (1990; translated by Barbara Wright, 1992) follows Jean B. as he disappears, booking a flight to Rio de Janeiro which he neglects to take; opting instead to remain in Paris, abandoning wife and work in pursuit of a couple he met twenty years before, Ingrid and Rigaud. Impressed by their hospitality as a young hitch-hiker, later learning that Ingrid had killed herself in Milan, his obsession only begins as he grows discontented with life and embarks on his rather bizarre excursion: to disappear without going anywhere.

Jean’s dream was to become an explorer but, finding there was no more virgin territory to explore turned instead to documentary films on the subject. Dissatisfied with this proxy, his escape seems at first a vicarious way to live out his Colonel Fawcett dream. Disappeared, yes, I’d disappeared. Like Colonel Fawcett. But with this difference: I had vanished at the very start of the expedition… Returning to his old haunts in Paris would seem counter-intuitive but the next reveal is that Jean has no intention of living without his wife Annette’s support – at which point the reader realises that none of this is genuine. This is an escapade, a boyish fantasy being played out. Thus Honeymoon has two entwined narratives: the story of Ingrid and Rigaud, Parisian refugees during the occupation, and the story of a spoiled man’s mid-life crisis causing him to romanticize the lives of desperate, disengaged people.

It is clear that Jean feels some ambiguous sense of kinship toward the couple, but what that is based on is never made clear. He seeks to emulate their life, living in the places they lived, walking the same roads, indulging in the same anonymity that kept them safely under the radar but in the end the differences between their lives couldn’t be more clear. Here are Ingrid and Rigaud trying to stay safe:

The days, the months, the seasons, the years, went monotonously by, in a kind of eternity. Ingrid and Rigaud barely remembered that they were waiting for something, which must be the end of the war.

Sometimes it forced itself on their attention, and disturbed what Rigaud called their honeymoon. One November evening, some Bersaglieri advanced at the double and took over Juan-les-Pins. A few months later it was the Germans. They built fortifications along the coast and came prowling round the villa. Ingrid and Rigaud had to put out the lights and pretend to be dead.

And here is Jean B. using the same tactics he learned from his brief encounter with the couple:

For twenty years [Annette] had found me a good teacher in the art of concealing oneself, of avoiding bores, or of giving people the slip: cupboards you hide in as a last resort, windows you climb out of, back stairs or emergency exits you take at the double, escalators you race down in the wrong direction… And all those far-off journeys I had gone on, not to satisfy the curiosity or vocation of an explorer, but to escape. My life had been nothing but evasion. 

Jean’s sense of a shared affinity begins to look increasingly unlikely and rather distasteful (they fled Germans, police and curfews; he flees from bores, tedium and his wife), and the more of their tale he recounts the more you’re left to wonder just how much he’s embellishing the facts at his disposal. And no matter the details Jean includes, the tale he tells remains puzzlingly vague, almost illusory – an effect that’s only heightened by Modiano’s pure and uncluttered writing style, time-oriented and imagistic. The interior, emotional plane is scrupulously avoided. Jean betrays not a hint of turmoil, serene in description of everything from his wife’s adultery to Ingrid’s suicide, focusing all attention on sensory perceptions (roads, furnished rooms, the heat of summer) and the dissolving passage of time. Consequently, the story of Ingrid and Rigaud is related by where they are and what they do, more attention given to the lavish villas they hide in than to whatever’s going on inside their heads.

This total emotional silence turns Honeymoon into a hermetic reading experience. Rather like an inverse companion to Marguerite Duras, using that same French minimalism – the writing style simplicity itself, the same compression of time, the same oblique strategy of telling the story without letting the reader meet it head-on – to remarkably contrasting results. The Lover was blistering, thick with emotions Duras pointedly gave no outlet. Honeymoon holds itself perfectly still, delivering every line in a peaceful monotone, giving no indication of what it is that’s below the surface. However, there is some patient artistry at work here that you have to wait for the final paragraph to truly see. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose it but I will say it gave me a chill wholly separate to the novel itself as I finished, sweeping aside everything that had been Jean’s focus and getting to the root of his fixation. And out of nowhere, Honeymoon becomes haunting. A truly remarkable paragraph.

I can’t say it transformed the rest of the book, though, which is one of those occasional reads where experiencing it is less interesting than attempting to review it afterward. Possibly this is just not a book for someone in their twenties and I should try again at fifty. Or possibly it is badly timed, eclipsed in impact by my recent read of Harry Mulisch’s The Assault, another novel dealing with WWII occupation which had a wholly different form, style and aim. Though again, what the aim of Honeymoon is I do not know. A strange sealed bubble of a book. Perhaps reading more Modiano would enlighten me?

Patrick Modiano


The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolaño


, , , , ,

The Skating Rink (Picador)The large sheet metal doors were open. I went in. Inside, someone animated by a fierce childish willfulness had used an enormous number of packing cases to build a series of awkward passages, with walls about nine feet high for a start, but dropping to just over a foot and a half as you went further in. The passages formed concentric circles around the skating rink. In the center of the rink was a dark huddled mass, black like some of the beams running clear across the ceiling. Blood, from various parts of the fallen body, had flowed in all directions, forming patterns and geometrical figures that I mistook at first for shadows. In some places it had almost reached the edge of the rink. Kneeling down, feeling dizzy and nauseated, I observed how the ice had begun to absorb and harden around all that butchery. In a corner of the rink I spotted the knife.

Originally published in 1993, The Skating Rink was Roberto Bolaño’s (1953-2003) first novel and as a gift this Christmas it became my first Bolaño as well, hopping over The Savage Detectives on my TBR pile. Translated by Chris Andrews in 2009, The Skating Rink is not considered one of Bolaño’s best works and I can perhaps see why that would be, but it does have an incredibly tasty plot: passion, corruption, embezzlement, murder and obsession centered around a derelict mansion on the seashore of the Costa Brava. Set in the city of Z (nearest neighbours X and Y of course), it is narrated in turn by three men: failed writer and successful entrepreneur Remo Morán, struggling poet Gaspar Heredia and Enric Rosquelles, the mayor of Z’s right hand man, whose infatuation with the figure skater Nuria Martí leads him to build her a private skating rink with embezzled funds. And once others find out about the rink, ruin threatens…

The three narrators are only tangentially related to one another and one of the elements of the book I most enjoyed was watching Bolaño assemble their disparate lives and slowly bring them into parallel. The murder does not occur until about the halfway point in this 182 page novel; every moment until then is spent getting the protagonists to the skating rink on time. Trust is required and seeing the connections finally click into place is one of those satisfying readerly moments in action. Telling the story in separate channels also heightens the mystery, leaving the reader uncertain just where it’s headed and what the varied cast has to do with any of it.

To be sure, this isn’t a murder mystery per say, more of a variation on noir themes (and would make a fine film, by the way). All three men have a seedy or unsavoury element about them and there exists a delicate tension to their rare interactions – Morán and Heredia are old friends from Mexico City (back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence) and Morán gets Heredia a job as night watchman at a campground he owns, yet they are uneasy and avoid each other afterward. Rosquelles meanwhile has no knowledge of Heredia but has long sought to put Morán out of business and their enmity only increases as they come into rivalry for the same woman. It could have been an amusing variation on the love triangle, if death hadn’t butted in.

In addition to these men are equally vivid and ambiguous secondary characters. Bolaño never gets too close to anyone here and each person is left to the shadows, their past and future indistinct and their behaviour a question mark. Nuria is at the heart of the plot and it’s never clear if she’s a scared innocent or a manipulator, only that what happens at the skating rink summons her demons out of the woodwork. Carmen, elderly and sly, scheming for retirement, sings opera in the streets for money, defined by her regal past even while subsisting as a beggar. Then there is Caridad, a half-mad, knife-wielding wanderer who exerts a magnetic pull on Heredia. Once when he’s trying to break up a fight between a pair of German drunks, she unexpectedly intervenes:

Caridad was behind me, holding a broad kitchen knife, whose blade seemed to be concentrating the sepia glow of the clouds, filtered through the branches above her. Luckily she gave me a wink; otherwise I would have thought she was intending to plant that knife in me. She looked for all the world like a ghost. With a chilling delicacy, she displayed the knife as if displaying one of her breasts. And the Germans must have seen, because now their gazes seemed to be saying, We don’t want to die, we don’t want to be wounded, we were joking, we don’t want anything to do with this.

What Bolaño excels at in this novel is pure atmosphere. Z is a landscape just begging for crimes to be committed and its narrators seem equally drawn to that walk of life. Heredia obsessively pursues Caridad without any concern for the consequences while Rosquelles cannot disguise his pride in engineering his own ruin, in feeling for a moment as if he had no limits: How could they have swallowed everything I told them? It’s a testament to human gullibility… they were swayed by my confidence; my willpower was irresistible… I had never felt better in my life, that’s the truth.

As for Morán, he prefers to observe: Sometimes in the mornings, when I’m having breakfast on my own, I think I would have loved to be a detective. I’m pretty observant and I can reason deductively, and I’m a keen reader of crime fiction. If that’s any use… which it isn’t… Anyway, as Hans Henny Jahn, I think, once wrote: if you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon be coming thick and fast…

With its impeccable noir atmosphere, intriguing cast, exotic location and pageturning plot, is there anything to complain of? For me, there was only one slight drawback. The paragraph was invented for a reason. Perhaps discarding it is meant to “propel” the reader forward; if so, I disagree with its use here. If the narrators were recounting in a frenzied, feverish state, it would stylistically gel but only Rosquelles approaches such a mentality – both Morán and Heredia are careful, collected tellers. The chapters are quite short on average, so it wasn’t overwhelming but it did seem wholly unnecessary on Bolaño’s part.

Looking back, I see that most of my chosen quotes are from the Remo Morán segments, a clear indication that I found him the most compelling character, or perhaps the hardest to figure out. The Skating Rink is a novel of ambiance. I am strongly reminded of the John Hawkes approach to crime fiction – the bigger picture is still there but the focus is so narrowed as to ignore explanation in favour of mood and imagery. There is no unveiling, no moment of truth, only intangible motivations, strange synchronicities and eventual disappearances. This is a book that deserves multiple readings.

Roberto Bolano

Building the Barricade and Other Poems – Anna Swir


, , , , ,

Building-the-Barricade-coverAnna Swir (1909-1984) was a Polish poet whose verse, arid and ominous yet full of life, is too little known today. Thankfully, in 2011 Calypso Editions made a selection of her war poems available in a new translation by Piotr Florczyk with a foreward by Jericho Brown. This decision can only be applauded (though I still hope to see the Complete Poems one day).

Swir worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and her first-hand experience led to the sequence of poems Building the Barricade, first published in Poland in 1974. While her later love poems are psychological labyrinths with a strongly feminist outlook, Building the Barricade recounts incidents, reviving the small and forgotten characters of war: civilians, volunteers, looters, infants, nurses; all the people that history remembers on the sidelines even while being in the middle of it all. The sole poem to make mention of the higher military is not actually about them at all but the girls who deliver their orders:

‘Said the Major’

“This order must be delivered within an hour,”
said the Major.
“That’s not possible, it’s an inferno out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five messenger girls went out,
one made it.

The order was delivered within an hour.

The poems are arranged as an evolving narrative; this if anything heightens the intensity of Building the Barricade – from the immediacy of ‘Beauty Dies’ and ‘Conversation Through a Door’ it leads us to the uprising’s end and then come Madrigals, ‘Waiting Thirty Years’ and ‘Poetry Reading’ as the war becomes internalized and life somehow continues. More than that, when you read the Madrigals (That first night of love…” the first after the War?) they perfectly match the tone of her love poems (collected in Happy as a Dog’s Tail and Talking to My Body). Pyotr Florczyk preserves the voice from the earlier Czesław Miłosz/Leonard Nathan translations, which is the highest praise I can give any translator.

It was only a moment of life,
though it wanted to be a conclusion.
By dying
it wanted to understand the mystery of the world.

That night of love
had ambitions.

Above all else, Building the Barricade is a survivor’s narrative, exhausting and stark. The more I read it, the more it drained me. The titular poem shows Swir surviving as others die at random, a motley assortment, smuggler girl, dressmaker, tram driver / all of us cowards. The chaos and unpredictability of the uprising is a common theme. ‘He Got Lucky’ refers to a professor who escaped with only a beating while ‘The Child Lives One More Hour’ deals with infant starvation with brutal calmness. Looters perish by the very chaos that enables them to steal and museums burn.

What a sin to spy
on naked flames,
what a sin to eavesdrop
on breathing fire.

I flee this speech
which sounded
on earth before the speech of man.

‘Talking with Corpses’ eventually finds her apologizing for being alive but the dead have no envy of the living and forgive her: Life / after all was so dangerous back then. I would not hesitate to call this necessary poetry. Truthful, vivid memories of the rubble of World War Two.

Anna Swir

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 – Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee


, , , ,

 Here and Now (Viking)On the one hand, fans of the authors should be considered the only audience for this book of correspondence between South African J.M. Coetzee (twice winner of the Man Booker Prize and Nobel recipient) and American Paul Auster (author of the much-loved New York Trilogy). And yet it seems to be the “fans” who are the most disappointed with this easy-going epistolary document – disappointed in the very thing that I most enjoyed about it, namely the lack of insight it gives into the writing process. Auster and Coetzee are not interviewing one another; they are engaging in chit-chat. If at the end of four years and 247 pages they had mostly discussed their creations I would be denouncing them both as insane egotists. Happily, that is not the case.

I am not actually a “fan” of either author, having had some prior enjoyment of Auster (through Leviathan, The New York Trilogy and the films Smoke and Blue in the Face) but never yet of Coetzee. While this meant I latched onto Auster as the recognizable voice, before I was halfway through I found myself more and more invested in what the stranger Coetzee was saying. Discovering an author through their letters turns out to be an immensely enjoyable experience.

Meaningful, broad-ranging yet quite casual, Here and Now flows almost giddily from one subject to the next, topics ranging from sports to the treatment of incest in literature to the notion of a “mother tongue.” Their two styles form a complement to one another. Auster is more inclined to ramble; a gifted spinner-of-yarns, his anecdotes take up much of the room in the book. Coetzee’s letters are shorter, preferring ethical analysis and psychological study (with Freud at his elbow), eschewing the personal – which is a pity, because he’s no slouch at storytelling either and his “chess story–which is also a kind of horror story” tells of a random ocean-voyage chess match made on his first trip to America. It ends in a draw and the feeling that he could have won plagues him across the States, consuming all his energy:

We docked. I was in the legendary city of New York. But the mood of the contest would not leave me, a mood of cerebral excitement, feverish and slightly sick, like a real inflammation of the brain. I had no interest in my surroundings. Something kept humming inside me.

…All I wanted was to be alone, so that I could replay the chess game on paper and settle the doubt that nagged me. All the way to Texas in the Greyhound bus (two days? three days?) I pored over my notations, following a hunch that I should never have accepted a draw; that in three or four or five moves Robert the German would have been forced to capitulate.

I should have been drinking in my first sights of the New World. I should have been making plans for the new life that was opening up before me. But no, I was in the grip of a fever. In a quiet way, I was raving mad. I was the madman in the last row of the bus.

That episode is what comes to mind when you write about the pleasures of competition. What I associate with competition is not pleasure at all but a state of possession in which the mind is focused on a single absurd goal: to defeat some stranger in whom one has no interest, whom one has never seen before and will never see again.

Be warned that there is a fair amount of sporting discussion over the course of these four years. I found it slightly irritating (they’re both aware that sport is, unless you participate, “an utter waste of time” and yet they persist) but I have to admit that they kept my interest far, far better than I would have expected. This is one of the subjects that Coetzee rescues with his focus on ethics, pettiness, grace, “the great school of losing

On the other hand, their political views are pretty bleak (in particular, Auster seems to be hopelessly naive about the way money works). Thankfully these conversations take up a very small portion of the book and the rest is given to more enjoyable subjects: modern poets, modern communication, Philip Roth, critics (surprise, surprise, they don’t like them), Philippe Petit, travel writing (they both suck at it) and family dinners, among other things. This is Here and Now‘s strong suit: humanizing a couple of literary lions.

Authors tend to be thought of as “different” – collectors of the strange, omnivorously stealing from other people’s lives to fuel their work; or solitary souls tormented by the blank page, whose personal lives invariably house a number of demons. While Auster and Coetzee acknowledge some measure of truth behind the “romantic bullshit” of the writing life, their letters show two well-adjusted men who enjoy a good film, suffer jet lag, are frequently baffled by their reader’s reactions and seem to be in happy relationships. Is any of this profound? Not really. Is it interesting? Surprisingly so.

As well as being pleasant to read, there is also a subtle evolution in their friendship over the course of Here and Now. Right from the start they maintain an almost-Victorian level of propriety regarding personal matters and though they sometimes disagree, they remain affable. Anyone hoping for soul-searching (or mud-slinging) won’t get it; Auster and Coetzee are the very soul of discretion. At the start of their correspondence Auster has this to say about friendship: “Friendship is good manners, kindness, steadiness of affect. Friends who shout at each other rarely remain friends.” They take this as their gospel and scrupulously stay out of each other’s personal lives, leaving the reader with no sense of voyeurism (an almost impossible feat in the realm of private correspondence). It is therefore a bit of a jolt when Auster expresses deep concern for Coetzee’s insomnia, pushing their previous boundaries of decorum in the process.

This incident comes at the tail-end of the book and leads me to wonder: Here and Now was published in 2013 and the letters cut off in August 2011, leaving well over a year of (I presume) continued correspondence out of the picture. Considering the greater degree of whimsicality/warmth on Coetzee’s part in his final letters, is it possible their conversation continued on a somewhat more personal level? Is that why it wasn’t included? I find myself hoping so. Politeness is a good thing but when it’s so painstakingly thorough it does seem to be selling the ideals of friendship a little short.

Coetzee (left), Auster (right). Not politically though.


My Year in Books: 2014


, ,

Escha van den Bogerd - Lady with cat reading at the windowAmong those things that derail one’s reading habits, moving ranks right up near the top for me. From Minnesota to Maine: new people, new experiences, new habits = less of a mind for reading. When the new becomes familiar (as has eventually happened) I settle back down.

In overview, this year impresses me even though I didn’t read much. I was hired to write for Media Snobs in January and though the site was liquidated by May it gave me my first job experience. I worked with editors (nice guys, I miss them), I changed my reading habits to focus more on world literature/contemporary writers and my reviews were always on time in spite of every obstacle. More than anything it gave me a sense of legitimacy in what I do.

Lost the job, moved to Maine and reading ground almost to a halt while I processed everything. One, maybe two posts a month. Not at all impressive, though life experience is all to the good. Now I’m taking stock before moving on to next year, which I’m planning to make more productive.

So here’s the recap of 2014:

Classic literature: The Old English Baron hardly constitutes a “classic,” all notoriety hailing from it being the first Gothic novel written in answer to Horace Walpole. Hopelessly bad though also short and I only read it as research, so no loss. Much later in the year I read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and was convinced of its excellence.

Literature in general: A friend recommended me Knut Hamsun, leading me to buyDreamers (New Directions) and read the remarkably pleasant village idyll Dreamers. And I finally revisited John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig for blogging purposes, finding it even better than I remembered.

Three Latin American story collections: Strange Pilgrims, read in honour of Gabriel García Márquez, Piano Stories by the Uruguayan writer’s writer Felisberto Hernández and a set of rather exhausting novellas by Carlos Fuentes called Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins. While only Strange Pilgrims was flawless, all three of these writers beat the stuffing out of Spain’s own Camilo José Cela, whose The Family of Pascual Duarte is one of the most crushing disappointments on my 2014 reading list.

I finally got around to The Lover, an ambiguous little book which I am likely to reread in the coming year (I’ve seen other Marguerite Duras in bookstores and have hesitated, a clear sign I’m not done with it yet) and also Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. The Assault (Pantheon)Most recently I finished the tremendous achievement that is The Balkan Trilogy and was hypnotized by The Assault (and read it in four days). Reviews for these books are pending.

Modern literature: My short-lived stay at Media Snobs got me reading genuinely contemporary publications. I started with The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, marketed as an uplifting story for cat lovers but in actual fact inexpressibly sad – which is what you might expect from Japanese literature. Also read Alejandro Zambra’s remarkably complex Ways of Going Home and Aka Morchiladze’s unsung Journey to KarabakhThen there was Karate Chop, the Danish story collection that took everyone by storm – everyone except for me, by the looks of it. All of these books contain sorrow and pessimism, making Budapest by Chico Buarque all the more enjoyable as a quirky tale of ghostwriting, language learning and insufferable self-absorption.

The English-language writers I sampled were sketchier. Peter Ackroyd’s new novel Three Brothers felt like a waste of time and I’m left undecided about him, being as I did enjoy (within limits) his earlier narrative The Plato Papers. I made House of Splendid Isolation my first Edna O’Brien and enjoyed the writing more than the story. Happily Angela Carter, who I’ve long looked forward to, did not disappoint and I was truly impressed with The Bloody Chamber.

The Bloody Chamber (Penguin)

Plays: Considering how short they are, you’d think I’d have fit at least one in… Was not the case. However I have plans to return to the Greeks in 2015, remembering how impressed I was by Sophocles a couple of years back.

Poetry: I was offered a copy of Anna Akhmatova’s White Flock in exchange for a Poems of Akmatovareview and in preparation read the selection of her work Stanley Kunitz translated with Max Hayward. Other poets read (all female this year, though not by design) were Anna Swir and Louise Labwith Building the Barricade (review pending) and Love Sonnets and Elegies, respectively.

Non-fiction: Got bogged down in an endless Simon Schama tome, so all I made it through this year were a couple of Harvard entries revisited for the sake of this blog: Plato’s Apology, Crito and Phaedo, followed by The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. Quite a drought compared to last year.

Light reading: One token 70s Gothic (House of Many Shadows by Barbara Michaels, so the writing was actually competent). Otherwise I somehow ended up reading an awful lot of crime fiction. Two gloomy Scandinavian novels: the literary crossover Before I Burn and the first Wallander, Faceless Killers, for a quick comparison.

Three hardboiled classics, the results of which were mixed. From James M. Cain I The Postman Always Rings Twice (Murder Mystery Monthly)found The Postman Always Rings Twice full-blooded, mean and totally satisfying while Double Indemnity, on the other hand, felt like he’d watered down his style for the sake of prudish Bostonians everywhere while also attempting an ill-thought “artsy” ending.

The Continental Op (Vintage Black Lizard)The winner in this category is Dashiell Hammett, without a doubt. The Continental Op towered above all competition. Sure, some stories were duds, but the rest were pure hardboiled goodness, and funnier than I expected. The narrator was a remarkable creation, full of personality despite no personal information being given. A fantastic way to kick back. I might be done with Cain, but I am not done with Hammett.


The resulting tally (33) isn’t much of a falloff from last year (37) and I have 19 linked reviews to show for it (as opposed to the 15 from last year) so all in all I’m quite pleased with how 2014 shaped out.

Happy New Year to all who read this blog!

I’m going back to my book now…

Jacquelyn Bischak

The Family of Pascual Duarte – Camilo Jose Cela


, , ,

the family of pascual duarteCamilo José Cela (1916-2002) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 but reading his first novel left me with the distinct impression of a second-rate Poe, featuring some of the most gruesomely ludicrous deaths since his idiotic orangutan wandered into the Rue Morgue. Because these (many, many) deaths destroy this novel’s credibility I have to write an extremely spoiler-heavy review for clarity’s sake, so you should proceed with utmost caution.

Problems start right out of the gate. Published in 1942, the same year as The Stranger, which made the literary establishment jump on it as a work of Spanish Existentialism. But they got it completely wrong. Pascual Duarte has an unshakeable belief in God and sees himself as a doomed sinner marked by fate: Who knows if it were not God’s vengeance upon me for all the sins I had committed and all the sins I would still commit! Who knows if it were not written in the divine record that misfortune was my only sign, that the road to disaster was the only path my dogged footsteps could travel throughout all my sad days? 

One does not ever get used to misfortune, believe me, for we are always sure the present affliction must be the last, although later, with the passage of time, we begin to be convinced – with what misery of heart! – that the worst is yet to come.

This tone is carried on throughout The Family of Pascual Duarte. It’s a bleak and dismal picture of the universe but that alone doesn’t make a work existential. Duarte believes in God, hence he absolves himself of all responsibility for his own actions and writes his life story, revisiting his worst moments, as an act of penance. Life is miserable but it clearly has meaning for him, and did I mention he has a conscience? Ex-i-sten-tial.

Secondly, for all the claim that this and The Stranger both revolve around “meaningless murder,” nothing is further from the truth. Duarte’s killings are unnecessary but always provoked. He’s a violent man, raised by violent, abusive, alcoholic parents. His simple solution to hatred is to kill the object of it. There is no comparison to Meursault’s emotionless crime in Duarte killing the pimp who used his sister and got his wife pregnant. Even a mild-mannered man would take that exceedingly poorly.

Anthony Kerrigan, who translated it in 1964 and wrote the introduction to my copy, continued this strange interpretation with his over-the-top preface, full of buzzwords like “anti-saint,” “will-to-eroticism,” “anti-Faustian man” (who’s apparently a “natural nihilist”), “purity in atheism” and on and on. If this was an atheistic, Nietzschean novel, it would be a great opening volley – but it’s not.

So the next question: is it a realist novel? It wants to be, but it’s about as realistic as Therese Raquin – like Zola’s work, it is the product of an angry young man so keen on representing the horrible aspects of mankind and the grisly features of the natural world that the result is a relentless scream of a novel. Disaster is laid on with a trowel.

And this is where the real problems arise. So the critics were wrong. So it doesn’t fit into a given “type.” On its own, these hardly matter but The Family of Pascual Duarte is marred by several flaws, particularly the worst foreshadowing I have ever come across. The reader is not given a moment’s peace from it. Here is one example:

Having sent his pregnant wife home on a mare which he already states would be the cause of the first disaster in our life together, Duarte lingers in a tavern and gets into a knife-fight. Then he and some friends walk to his house and pass the village graveyard. The cypress looked like a tall dry ghost, a sentinel standing guard over the dead… There was an owl in the cypress tree, a bird of ill omen, and he hooted mysteriously. The men go on to exchange comments on how it’s “an evil bird” and enquiring why they haven’t reached the house yet, noting each other’s pale complexions and nervousness (subtle this is not). They arrive at the house and it’s silent and dark! The medicine woman is there! Turns out the mare threw Duarte’s wife and she suffered a miscarriage so Duarte immediately goes out and stabs the mare to death – Cela even uses similar wording in both stabbings.

Another incident: Duarte’s wife is pregnant again and this time delivers a healthy boy. They spend two pages talking about how careful they’ll have to be in raising him, another three talking about how terrible it would be if something happened, mentioning an “ill wind” that brings death to infants and then the worried parents hear a window creak in the bedroom and suddenly the child moans! Of course after all that buildup the boy quickly expires and Cela moves us along to the next disaster. And THIS novel is praised by Alastair Reid for its “restraint?”

By about the time the above incidents happened I was ready to howl. It’s the worst of both worlds: the foreshadowing prevents anyone from reading this “for the plot” and yet the plot is so outlandish that attempting to read it for anything else is futile. It’s as if Cela’s intent was for his readers to study the protagonist as a representation of the violence, ignorance and fear which infect the lower classes but it’s not remotely credible. I suppose it could work as some kind of allegory for Spain at the time but if your book ONLY works as an allegory then your book is a fail.

What separates it from Therese Raquin, whose flawed sense of naturalism Pascual Duarte shares, is Cela’s hurried narrative. Zola offered great Gothic setpieces, inviting the reader to soak in the gruesome details until everything started to make emotional sense. In opposition, Cela as Kerrigan translates rushes from one catastrophe to the next, with pauses only so Duarte can ruminate on his predicament and despair. Some of his inner monologue is actually quite effective and contributes the best and easily the most realistic portion to the novel.

I have pondered a lot and often, till this day, truth to tell, on the reason I came to lose first my respect and then all affection for my mother, and finally to abandon even the formalities as the years went by. I pondered the matter because I wanted to make a clearing in my memory which would allow me to see when it was that she ceased to be a mother for me and became an enemy, a deadly enemy – for there is no deeper hatred than blood hatred, hatred for one’s own blood. She became an enemy who aroused all my bile, all my spleen, for nothing is hated with more relish than someone one resembles, until in the end one abominates one’s likeness. After much thought, and after coming to no clear conclusion, I can only say I had already lost my respect for her a long time before, when I was unable to find in her any virtue at all worthy of imitation, or gift of God to copy, and I had to be rid of her, get her out of my system, when I saw I had no room in me for so much evil. I took some time to get to hate, really hate her, for neither love nor hate is a matter of a day, but if I were to date the beginning of my hatred from around the time of Mario’s death, I don’t think I would be very far off.

This passage is actually quite good but even here it’s made extremely obvious what’s going to happen by the end of the book. Were the entire novel to consist of psychological narration only occasionally broken into by scenes of violence, the effect would very probably have been bloodchilling. In that way, my main complaint of this novel is surprisingly similar to that of Story of O, only in the latter’s case, the psychological passages were drowned out by a lot of over-the-top porn instead of over-the-top death scenes.

Upon finishing the novel it became apparent that Cela falls short of what other writers have done with similar ingredients and far, far superior use of foreshadowing. John Hawkes could walk away with this plot (it’s even got a horse) and craft a living, breathing nightmare out of it. Flannery O’Connor could weigh the scales of sin and redemption, turning the abject and grotesque into a resonant universe. Elfriede Jelinek could overdose on doom, despair, viciousness and the wrenching blows of fate with greater psychological acuity. And if you want a fucked-up mixture of crime, grime, realism and Gothic exaggeration, there’s always Therese Raquin.

So if you’re planning to read Cela, please don’t make my mistake. Presumably, his later novels are much better than this (which, to be fair, he did write at the age of 26). The Hive is respected. But so is The Family of Pascual Duarte, which was considered groundbreaking for Spanish literature at the time but only shows that as times change and context is lost some writings definitely do not cut the mustard.

Camilo Jose Cela

A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov


, , ,

A Hero of Our Time (Penguin) Paul FooteRussian novels of the 19th Century are known for their take-no-prisoners weight – you do not sign on lightly. A Hero of Our Time (1840) sits on the sidelines, easy to overlook beside the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. A slim novel of 150 pages, it is also Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814-1841) only work of prose fiction. Chiefly a poet influenced by the Romantic movement, he tragically followed in the footsteps of Pushkin and died in a duel at the age of 26, robbing Russia of its second major writer.

A Hero of Our Time is a peculiar, multifaceted novel in fragments. Set in the Caucasus (for the Russian audience of the time as exotic and intriguing as India was for British readers), it begins with a travel writer recording a second-hand account of Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, a man of mercurial moods but best summed up by his inner despair and outward indifference to others’ welfare. “Nothing counts for me. I grow used to sorrow as easily as I do to pleasure and my life gets emptier every day. The only thing left for me is to travel.” So travel he does, influencing strangers who don’t know what he is and leaving as soon as he, with intent or through carelessness, has caused destruction for them in an almost compulsory fashion:

Is is my sole function in life, I thought, to be the ruin of other people’s hopes? Through all my active life fate always seems to have brought me in for the dénouement of other people’s dramas. As if nobody could die or despair without my help. I’ve been the indispensable figure of the fifth act, thrust into the pitiful role of executioner or betrayer. What was fate’s purpose?

The novel is divided into five fragments, giving essentially random slices of Pechorin’s life. The travel writer first hears of him through an old soldier, then observes him firsthand before acquiring his journals and “publishing” three extracts. As such, A Hero of Our Time best qualifies as a character portrait.

However, it’s also an adventure novel, oddly enough. The segmented storyline and multiple narrators allow for greater tonal shifts than would otherwise be the case, so the ‘Bela’ story involves an abducted native girl, a daredevil brigand and horse theft while ‘Taman’ colourfully depicts smuggling, attempted murder, a creepy little kid and (of course) a stormy, fogbound coast. …I watched with bated breath as the frail little craft dived like a duck into the abyss, then, beating its oars like wings, rose up again in a shower of spray. Next I thought it was going to be dashed to pieces on the shore, but it deftly turned broadside and slipped unscathed into the tiny bay. Such set-pieces are richly melodramatic. Thus A Hero of Our Time sits at the crossroads – 18th Century Romanticism behind it while ahead lies the psychological and realist novel (and Oscar Wilde, whom Lermontov’s bored dandies predict).

And it’s a novel like a nesting doll for there are more layers yet. Even as Lermontov robustly engages with all the trappings of an adventure-romance he’s also undermining them. The book’s title isn’t ironic simply because Pechorin is a sociopath – there have always been sociopathic heroes. Pechorin is not a reliable man of action. He can hunt wild boar but his true talent is manipulation – recklessness costs him more victories than it gains, sometimes to satiric degrees, as when he disgustedly realizes he’s been robbed by a blind boy and very nearly drowned by a girl of eighteen.

Roughly half of the novel’s length is made up by ‘Princess Mary,’ a tale of love rivalry and deceit that places the surrounding vignettes in context and, ominously, ends with a duel (Lermontov had already been injured in a sword duel the year before his death, but didn’t learn his lesson). This lengthy plot provides the meat of Pechorin’s character – the depression you would pity him for and the predatory way he relieves himself of it through pointless, petty intrigue. His conversations with the worldly doctor Werner and other examples of “spa society” ring with the idle, malicious wit of the dandy. “Women only love men they don’t know.” His boredom drives him to scheme and seduce, his vanity drives him to win and he even welcomes making enemies.

I’m delighted. I love enemies, though not in the Christian way. They amuse me, stir my blood. Being always on the alert, catching their every glance, the hidden meaning of every word, guessing their next step, confounding their plans, pretending to be taken in and then with one fell blow wrecking the whole elaborate fabric of their cunning schemes – that’s what I call living!

It’s a truly brilliant portrait of a dangerous individual. I said that A Hero of Our Time was an ironic title but on another level it’s straight-faced – a condemnation of a society that admires Pechorins. Throughout the novel people are attracted to him – worse, people who knew him before and witnessed or experienced his callousness seek him out, make excuses, remain in love with him. Even Grushnitsky, a man who doesn’t like Pechorin, stays on familiar terms and shares confidences with him (disastrously, I might add). Only the unnamed travel writer can see that this man, though compelling, is better studied than approached. Some readers might like to know my own opinion of Pechorin’s character. My answer is given in the title of this book. ‘Malicious irony!’ they’ll retort. I don’t know.

And here I come to my last point: everything is contradictory. The simplest explanation given is that Pechorin is a creation of his society, but he uses that theory as an excuse for his actions and as a gambit for sympathy. Thus it must be taken with a grain of salt. You can’t rely on anything with Pechorin. Does he have many feelings or none? Does he believe in predestination or not? Is he actually a tragic figure or purely contemptible? His character is fluid and changeable (though not “unreliable” as his journals show he’s always honest with himself). Lermontov created a fully three-dimensional character rather than merely “a portrait of the vices of our whole generation in their ultimate development,” which would have resulted in a flat and uninteresting villain. A Hero of Our Time is much more durable as a fine work of literature.

Besides which, you get splendid plots, each one a gem of a set-piece. How many cerebral novels can you name that contain gamblers, brigands, smugglers, duels, eavesdropping, Russian Roulette and dramatic mountain scenery all at once?

Footnote: If you read this in the Paul Foote Penguin Classics edition you can skip the introduction till last, but it is helpful to have some background on Lermontov’s life, so don’t skip the Chronology Foote so helpfully supplied. There are parallels between author and character.

Mikhail Lermontov - final portrait, Kirill Gorbunov 1841

White Flock – Anna Akhmatova


, , ,

White Flock(This book was given to me by the translator, Andrey Kneller, in exchange for a review of my thoughts)

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is intimidating to review. Her work has such gravity that any attempted encapsulation would fail. White Flock is one of her early collections, published in 1917 and so tightly focused on themes of love and the Muse that at first glance it feels removed from the enormous tragedy of the First World War. Only on first glance. There is in fact a strong somberness at work here that enjoins you to read between the lines and find evidence of a world gone wrong, while as the collection progresses, references to the war become more regular.

May Snow

A see-through shroud now disperses
And melts unnoticed on the sod.
The spring, so very cold and merciless,
Is killing off each swelling bud.
So frightful of the early death,
That I can’t look at God’s creation.
I feel the grief King David left, –
Millenniums of desolation.


Andrey Kneller is an independent translator and he self-published this bilingual edition of Akhmatova in 2013. It’s a little bit hard for me to comment on his role in White Flock without familiarizing myself with earlier translations (I have only read the Kunitz/Hayward selections prior to this) but he clearly cares a great deal for the text and I found it pleasing to read, though not as impressive as her later works. A large number of the poems (one of the challenges inherent in this review is in her near-complete dispensing with titles – I can’t refer to poems but can only quote them) speak from the vantage point of a woman within whom love has ceased to be requited. An unassailable personage. Without love, I’m more at ease, I’m sure/The sky is high, the mountain wind is sweeping/And all my thoughts are innocent and pure.

We’re immediately in the ostensibly personal but icily aloof landscapes similarly mapped out by Polish poet Anna Swir, but where Swir’s retreat from the world seemed savage and ironic, Akhmatova projects a deep-seated calm, reserved in the midst of guilts and regrets. In one poem she gives forgiveness to a sick man and he concludes by saying “It’s good that you forgave,/You were not always so nice.” She makes no effort in her writing to seem “nice” – whether affectionate or austere, she stands strong and fortified. It does make it hard for the reader to get close to her… and in real life, her husband Nikolai Gumilev went to the front in 1914 and four years later their strained and dissolving marriage ended in divorce, adding another layer of conflicts and reservations to the poems written here.

Throughout White Flock Akhmatova displays a warm attachment to architecture and landscape. She grew up in Tsarskoye Selo (the town where Pushkin studied at the Lyceum) and viewed poetry almost as an inheritance. Mixing all her themes together, of love, landscape and the Muse, the result has the immediate flavour of “standard” poetry. Understandably, the Kunitz/Hayward selection drew few of its poems from this and her early work. If you want the Akhmatova legend, you have to read her writings from the 20s, 30s and after. However, the elements that went towards her great works began to appear in this volume. Kneller’s decision to use Joseph Brodsky as the back cover blurb was very smart, grounding the book in a critical evolution: “The mechanism designed to keep in check emotions of a romantic nature proved to be as effective when applied to mortal terrors. The latter was increasingly intertwined with the former until they resulted in emotional tautology…”

Of course, this means that White Flock intrigues more within her oeuvre than it does standing alone – though it is peaceful reading, at times with a somber beauty. Her rhymes as translated are sometimes too sing-song for my taste but contain a lilting musicality at other stations:

He was jealous, and anxious, and tender.
And I was like God’s sun to him.
To stop her from singing of the days she remembered,
He killed my white bird on a whim. 

Combining so delicate and childlike a rhythm with inexplicable cruelty makes this three-stanza poem one of the most genuinely haunting of the set. The best poems in White Flock resonate with a disciplined, survivalist serenity in the face of growing shadows. Like sorrow or song in me brooding/in the winter before the war. Love and war become metaphors mirroring one another and her heartfelt pleas present themselves more strongly when the text as a whole is so often reserved.


Give me sickness without an end,
Suffocation and fevers prolonged,
Take away both my child and friend,
My mysterious gift of the song –
After mass, thus I’m praying, impassioned,
After so many tormented days,
Let the menacing cloud over Russia
Shimmer brightly in glorious rays.


As for the physical qualities of the book, no problems there. It’s well-bound, reasonably heavy and there’s no question of the cover being ugly or wrongfooted (as often happens in the self-published sphere). A couple of grammatical errors (but no more or less than I’ve found in the NYRB Classic I’m currently reading) and some irrelevant commas are the only things I questioned. Bilingualism is always an appreciated feature where poetry in translation is concerned, so what I most miss in White Flock is a helpful essay (a biographical piece on Akhamatova’s early life and marriage, perhaps) but there is a brief and useful note on translation: Readers should be wary of [bad translations] as art collectors are wary of forged paintings. That I am so keen for detail on Akhmatova’s life is mostly an indication that I need to buy a biography of this woman.

For more information on Andrey Kneller’s work, here is his new Anna Akhmatova website.

Anna Akhmatova


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 132 other followers