Posts Tagged ‘Gaito Gazdanov’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

January 27, 2014

It was foul weather for Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, so I was amazed by how many people turned up, hooded, wellied and umbrellaed, keen to get out on the Heath in spite of the sheeting rain.

Alas our garrulous charge into the greenery soon dwindled to a conversation-struggling limp as no one could hear anything beneath their hoods, and were concentrating too much on missing the puddles to be able to talk about the book. Feeling rather feeble, we retreated to a nearby café, shedding our waterproofs and apologetically disturbing its quiet newspaper-reading clientele, as, revived with hot drinks, all thirty of us launched into an impassioned discussion of Gaito Gazdanov’s brilliant The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. As you know, this whole sitting down thing is anathema to the walking book club, so I managed to move a few people around every now and then to mix things up, and darted about between the groups, reading passages aloud and steering conversation as though we were on foot. While we were thwarted of the bracing air and soaring views of London, everyone still claimed to have enjoyed their morning, and many remained chatting bookishly in the café after I returned to work in the bookshop.

The Spectre of Alexander WolfWhat a great novel! And what a strange one. It hooks you from the start, with a terrific first sentence:

Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.

Critics have compared Gazdanov to Proust, I suppose because of the way a powerful memory can propel so much of the narrative, but this is murder he’s remembering, not a visit from enigmatic Charles Swann at idyllic Combray. And while Proust’s narrative is luxurious and sensuous, there is a febrile urgency to the dreamlike feeling of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. It is more a telling of an unshakeable nightmare than a madeleine-induced reverie.

Back to the murder. We are told that the narrator was fighting in the Russian Civil War when his horse was shot and he ‘went tumbling down with her’, although was unharmed. Coming towards him was ‘a rider astride a great white horse’:

I saw the rider let go of the reins and shoulder his rifle, which, until that point he had been carrying atilt. It was then that I fired. He jerked up in his saddle, slumped down and fell slowly to the ground.

The narrator looks into the dying eyes of the fallen man, when he hears hooves in the distance, and so rides off on the white horse and escapes. In Paris, many years later, the narrator is astonished to read a short story telling of exactly this episode but from the murdered man’s point of view. Of course he is determined to meet the writer – Alexander Wolf – and the book follows him on his quest to meet him.

Or does it?

For this is a strange shape-shifting book. It begins as a mystery, then becomes a picaresque evocation of life in Paris between the wars, pausing for a detailed account of a boxing match, before transforming into an intense love story, and right at the end there’s an unexpected turn into gangster noir. All this action is interspersed with thought-provoking philosophical discussions and digressions.

These plural forms of the novel make me think of when the narrator receives a phonecall from his lover:

Hearing those first sounds of her voice, distorted as usual by the telephone, I immediately forgot everything I’d only just been thinking about; it was so total and instantaneous as though the thoughts had never even existed.

The twists and turns of the narrative can feel similarly startling. There you are on the path of this mysterious Alexander Wolf and the next thing you know you’re at a boxing match, and it is as though the earlier episodes ‘had never even existed’.

Except of course you don’t completely forget about what’s gone before. The book, in fact, makes a case for the inescapable uncanny interconnections between everything and everyone – however disparate they might seem. Throughout the novel, Gazdanov repeats the phrase:

The chain of events in each human life is miraculous.

Just one action – the bullet from the narrator’s revolver – has brought together a whole world of consequences:

Who could have known that the bullet’s spinning, instantaneous flight actually contained that town on the Dnieper, Marina’s inexpressible charm, her bracelets, her singing, her betrayal, her disappearance, Voznesensky’s life, the ship’s hold Constantinople, London, Paris, the book I’ll Come Tomorrow and the epigraph about the corpse with the arrow in its temple?

And there is even more contained in that bullet, yet to be revealed. I don’t want to give away the twist at the end, but it rests upon the flight of another bullet. Perhaps the chain of events set in motion by the first bullet can only be halted by that of a second.

As might be expected from a book which encompasses so many genres, capturing many scenarios and ideas in its sweep, there is a great deal to think about. Just as compelling as life’s ‘miraculous’ chain of events – the spinning bullet which draws everything into its centrifugal force – is the idea that one man’s life can be inextricably bound to another’s. The kill or be killed situation at the start, which the narrator and Alexander Wolf both managed to survive and so cheat death, binds them together. As one walker said, ‘It’s like Harry Potter and Voldemort!’ Indeed it is! Quite why all the critics seem so bent on picking up echoes of Proust rather than J.K. Rowling is beyond me.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is one of those books that will continue to haunt me, just like the narrator is haunted by the spectre himself. It left me – and other walkers too – wanting to re-read it straight away, to try to make more sense of the strange connections and diversions which Gazdanov, thankfully, doesn’t over-explain.

And just who is Gaito Gazdanov? He fought in the White Army and then was exiled in Paris from 1920, where he became a taxi-driver by night and writer by day. Praise be to Pushkin Press for publishing his work in English. They’re bringing out another of his books in late August – I can’t wait.

Gaito Gazdanov