Ivan Chistyakov – The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oleg Zaionchkovsky – Happiness is Possible

Happiness is Possible
by
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.

We live in a society where we’re expected to give our lives meaning. As the art critic Boris Groys writes In The Flow (2016):

‘In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media’.

In Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky, we’re confronted with a narrator who is constantly struggling with distinguishing the difference between his work, his writing and how he ultimately interprets meaning from them.

The narrator is never referred to by name. His impetus, drive, or energy for his novel appears to have deserted him, and indeed, desertion is a running theme in his life as those he has loved have also departed from his orbit leaving just his dog. His life is uneventful: we witness him visit parts of Moscow and pick up threads of conversations as he tries to a conceive a story and narrative for his own work. As A.D Miller writes in the introduction though, ‘the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work’: ultimately, we are watching a novelist living and at work, but what is the work that leads to meaning and its worth?

When work does come his way, it’s a commission to review a restaurant, which he attends with his ex-wife and her new partner Dmitry. Her new partner has become an important figure in his life, lending him money to help keep him afloat (‘when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it’: surely it is the writer’s job to ‘write it off’). It is here however we see how difficult a task he finds writing:

“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.’

Can he not make it up you ask ? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him:

“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”

People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself here and the work of the novel and pure labour are indistinguishable to Zaionchonsky’s narrator. A motif from Zaoinchonsky’s novel is that of the writer sat in his apartment . Reminscent of Camus’ Outsider – Meursault – although Camus’ novel is not about a writer necessarily, it does ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find and make meaning from the society which he engages. Meursault, after seeing his dead mother retreats to his flat where he idly sits looking out of his window watching the world happen below and like Meursault, the narrator here is ‘boxed in’ that flat, excluded from making meaning. Remember how in the opening he says how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker’? It’s old, in history and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his apartment as he notices:

I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.

The author is not dead but he is mute and in, what he terms, his ‘own soap opera’. The sole, individual creator of novel begins to look archaic and we might be tempted to view it as a hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers and artists, but it also boils down to this sense of an individual being able, at least, to turn something large and at the macro-level of experience into something personal and meaningful. He cannot help take the ‘box’ with him though. He needs others, but others don’t need him.

It is also inherently paradoxical and a scene from Camus’ novel conveys the absurdity of this situation. When old Salamano’s dog escapes, where does it escape? When the old man is distracted by the stalls at the fair and the performance of the ‘The Escape King’. In other words, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. And so here, in Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of not ‘The Escape King’ but of the dog disappearing, and we are watching the watcher. Art does not render you unconscious, art is more than distraction but it does require somebody to pay attention to your attention.

Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin

Fardwor Russia!
by
Oleg Kashin (Translated by Will Evans)
Restless Books (Simon Schuster UK):220pp.:£10.99rrp

The title of Oleg Kashin’s new book is based on the moment when Dmitry Medvedev, President of Russia, made a typo when he signed up him and his country to Twitter; and so instead of the account being called @KremlinRussia, he instead titled it @Kermlin Russia. Ironically, the cognitive mechanism of you still being able to read the word even when it is incorrect, occurs, and it can still be read as Kremlin. This does not happen with ‘Fardwor’ because the first and last letters are changed; these two errors provide an interesting framework for what Kashin is trying to do with Fardwor Russia!

Prior to the novel, Oleg Kashin has received international coverage for the attack that happened to him, rumoured to have been instigated by Russian government heavies as a result of his journalism. It shows signs and evidence of autocratic ways in Russia, coverage of which has sharpened in recent years. Here in the West, we’ve witnessed Russia’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy in the Crimea and Syria; whether or not this transfers to domestic living or not, we don’t know. We can only understand through accounts like Kashin’s. These are books within borders.

The way Putin appears is important for him and for outside interpreters. He can only appear to people not in Russia, and appearance to him seems a very important property. Internally he seems to have orchestrated a new conservative Russian image alongside a brutally, domineering, global one, predicated in his foreign policy. Andrea Merkel said that he “lives in another world” and he certainly is nowhere near the cosy, neoliberal mechanism of the European Union. No, this is a more belligerent, masochistic kind where if corruption is exposed, he doesn’t care. He is as Forbes said, “so powerful he does what he wants and gets away with it”. Athletes were banned from this year’s Olympic Games after it was revealed that state-sponsored doping has been conducted; Russia’s military campaigns have been, as we’ve mentioned, brutal in Ukraine and Syria, and the way that Russia appears to be engineering its way into the global game has been a individualistic and belligerent one. The incumbent American President Donald Trump is reportedly close to Putin; one can see him wanting to adopt a similar approach.

There are more than the glorifying reasons Donald Trump would want to pursue this Putinist path though. Indeed people like Trump and Putin seem to thrive on fear and crucially, this appears to be some of their own fear. Trump certainly in his first few appearances since winning the American Presidential election looks the polar opposite to his brash persona he orchestrated in his campaign, so it’s no wonder that he’s claiming to be so close to Putin, because he’s probably very afraid of him. In fact, he’s probably seen the images of Putin riding topless on horseback – which is frightening in more ways than apparently obvious – because the selfie-lover on social media will probably not be the vain, over-confident person you believe them to be and they are probably racked with self-consciousness, constantly seeking affirmation from others.

So where Putin has been bullish in diplomatic/governmental/military ie. Real terms, he has also been in image as well. We’ve already mentioned his renowned, slightly homoerotic photoshoots, but there are reports that propaganda has been an important medium of communicating domestically and abroad. The use of propaganda in the Soviet Union has almost taken on hipster quality, but in Putin’s occupation of the Crimea he has apparently re-used the power of propaganda to aid a physical occupation with a psychological one. Propaganda at its most effective, adds to and channels fear away from the nation state and helps build the fiction of nationalism.

Kashin’s work oozes this sense of dominance. Although Fardwor Russia! is told in a satirical and ironic way, there is a latent sense of physicality and brutality in the work. Let’s look at the central premise of the book – a scientist, Karpov, invents a growth serum. People can grow beyond normal proportions. Vasya, a circus midget, who rides a horse and plays a violin for public entertainment is first subjected to the serum. People and his audiences do not realise at first that he is no longer a midget and the narrator likens it to a pregnant woman who you suddenly realise is pregnant. The message is overt, the message is constantly overt, only guised by fiction, but this sometimes you don’t see it happening, like the pregnant woman..like propaganda?

Vasya is booed off of the stage and fired and Karpov worries that Vasya does not understand the implications of ‘growing’:

“His [Karpov] only concern was whether or not Vasya understood that if clown (midget) was written on his professional resume, then he needed to remain a midget, and if he didn’t want to remain a midget, then why the hell was he still working in a circus?…Of course the news wasn’t front page material (or as they say “a cover story”), and no one had claimed that it would be; it was just a funny little blurb: midget sues circus that fired him for growing taller”.

It’s a snowball effect. He is, as it is later remarked, an adult midget. It’s a formulation akin to Orwell’s “two-plus-two-is-five” from 1984, an illusion that you are forced to believe in but the anger and fear needs catharsis and direction. As the midget grows so do the reverberations through the Russian Government and as Karpov works his way into the circles of the government, it really does become a case of if you can’t beat them, join them.

Before you’ve even divulged into the narrative though, the book comes with an introduction by Max Seddon which would appear to be included to help readers less knowledgeable of the context of Oleg Kashin’s work both in the novel and as a journalist. Seddon isn’t convalescing and even is admissary for Kashin’s writing style (indeed, fast, furious, angry as you’d expect). It helps identify who Kashin’s absurd caricatures and Seddon states:

“By changing the setting but leaving the essential details of the plot untouched, Kashin turns a didactic Soviet warning of the evils of capitalism into a comic indictment of Russian culture – where the Soviet Union itself was the greatest science fiction project of all – and the rapacious greed undercutting it. Medvedev’s concept of “modernising” Russia in top down- Soviet-style fashion without touching the country’s entrenched, retrograde bureaucracy is mocked through the concept of a “modernizational majority”, a play on “Putin’s majority”.”

We need not repeat the principles of communism to show how ‘wrong’ and far this is from Marxism’s original tenets – which would be an incredibly fashionable and liberal thing to do – but two words stand out from that passage – “top down”. Kashin’s world in Fardwor…effectively shows the merciless nature of living and working in a society as an individual against a brutal state. The unbreakable bureaucracy led by Mevedev and the untouchable Putin figure above it all? Sounds more like Roman Catholicism than any form of ‘communism’, and indeed, whatever the Cold War represented, it at least allowed a feasible excuse for the West to say that this is what happens when you try and do Communism; remember Vladimir Sharov’s statement that “the history of Russia is just commentary on the bible”? Well Before and During’s message is pertaining here. Truth: ‘true’ communism preaches from the bottom-up, and Kashin is not preaching any kind of communism, but he is turning the world in his fiction bottom-up to reveal a truth, and attempting to redirect the message:

“the girls could draw pretty well for their age – to design a poster for the dining room: a flag with the slogan, “Forward Russia!” They drew it, and the poster was like a grown-up had done it, but the slogan came out as, “Fardwor Russia!”

The clue is in the title, it only takes a few letters to change the meaning. If Putin is spreading fear through message and language, then Kashin is showing how it can easily be ruptured and become comic. Yet Kashin’s work encloses much more than this. Orwell’s 1984, I don’t believe, in terms of political depictions, has been surpassed, because it manages to invoke a fear that is not simply one of image and atmosphere, but it is one of transcendent truth; something lived and experienced and not just fictionalised. It generates a fear both justified and frightening. Kashin, I believe, like Orwell, has experienced his own and both Putin’s abstracted fear that we see in images of Putin but exerted in places like the Crimea, but he has experienced it individually and physically.

As old political systems become harder to maintain, and the friendly face of neoliberalism is stripped away to show the mercantile system it is, we’re left with leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, people who share, like you and me, human emotions such as fear. When you’re at the top though, this runnels down, so Vladimir Sharov’s statement becomes more pertinent still – Putin’s image is one built of image and remove and endless power. If there is a message in all of Kashin’s work it might be this: although the forces may promote themselves as demigods, and statesmanlike leaders of men, they’re never a block too far away to remind you of their physical power as well.

Thanks to Restless Books for the review copy

The Power to be Moved: Part 2

At the time Chekhov was writing, Russia was enduring and beginning a tumultuous period of history by any country’s standards. The October revolution would begin just under twenty years later, but before this came the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, leaving Russia with large scales of emancipated peasant communities that was still enduring in Chekhov’s time. With this in mind, let’s look at Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.

Nikolai Chikildeyev, becoming ill whilst in Moscow, decides that he should return ‘home’ to Zhukovo, the village that he grew up in. Although when he arrives:
“in his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened.”

In the last post, we talked about this issue of blindness and occlusion that can sometimes be overtly obvious (ie.a mirage like in ‘The Black Monk’) or more subtle but personally powerful, like childhood memories. This is another occasion of expectations not being met, or of a person’s representation of something not corresponding to reality, or to a reality that occurred a long time ago (‘The Kiss’ operates the other way round – the representation becomes everything).The peasant hut is dirty, and Nikolai, back from the city cannot understand how they live in such a feudal fashion. Yet, there is something about the village, something transcendent, beyond the fact that it is a very religious village, and the passage deserves quoting and delving into extensively:

“Behind the peasants’ properties began the descent to the river, steep and precipitous, so that there were huge rocks here and there in the clay. There were paths winding down the slope close to these rocks and pits dug out by the potters, and there were whole heaps of fragments of broken crockery piled up – now brown, now red – while spread out there at the bottom was a broad, even bright-green meadow, already mown, on which the peasants’ herd was now out walking. The river meandering with wonderful curly banks, was a verst from the village, and beyond it there was, again, a broad meadow, a heard, long lines of white geese – then, just as on this side, a steep uphill climb, and at the top, on the hill, a village with a five-domed church, and a little further off, a landowner’s house.”

If that does not get you awing at Chekhov then I don’t know what will. It starts with an occlusion, a blindness, as we are ‘behind’ the peasant’s property and as a result there is a suggestion that we should see behind and beyond. One must willfully do this though as the passage subtly urges, and the overall feeling is that this will be a trying effort. And then what we’re shown is more images of fragmentation and breakage, with the broken crockery, now brown, now red as if we’re following this scene. Yet at the bottom of the image presented to us, there is a bright-green meadow. The contrast between the colours is remarkable, from suggested manufacture to natural wonder. People are working here though. This isn’t a meadow that is naturally green, somebody has had to labour to make it green, and we realise that is ‘already mown’ – the freshly cut blades are glistening and the peasant’s herd are starting to make their way across it. Then as we go further out, the scene starts to come together, the perspective allows us a cohesive picture. We can see the hill and the climb and the village on top, which notably finishes with that structure that for so long facilitated communal togetherness – the village church.

This is Chekhov in Tolstoyan mood. But where Tolstoy would suggest that this sense of naturalness is the dream, Chekhov is asking, is this unobtainable like a dream? It is a matter of perspective. Were we not in the village and were stood on that hill looking down, would we see a similar, rural pleasantness where the peasants are, like Nikolai had? And let’s not forget Nikolai started off with a desire to return here, based on his own childhood perspective, and now we’re already seeing the promise of something else. No matter how obvious the vision maybe for Chekhov, it always represents something that cannot be obtained, even when it may appear obviously real to the character. We’re in the moment though and Chekhov will leave it to the reader to answer the questions that Chekhov not only asks, but the questions the reader asks of Chekhov.

The light and the church become important motifs for the story, especially as this theme of fragmentation continues.Further on in the story “when the bluish morning light was already breaking through every crack” of the peasant’s house, and when the sister-in-law’s of the two separate families go on a walk together in the morning there “stretched a strip of light, the church was radiant and the rooks were calling furiously in the landowner’s garden.” There is the light again and there is the church. What do we make of this light? Here we have two families of different class yet are related. So we’re lucky to have all this splendour surrounding us, but are these gifts of God or of nature? This is made no more obvious when Olga recites Scripture, “pronouncing words,even ones she did not understand, her face would become compassionate, emotional and light”. She is enlightened but there are parts that she does not understand, so what are the enlightening forces?

The whole passage becomes a frantic search for that cohesiveness, or more poignantly, meaning, and so anxiety becomes the compelling mechanism. Quoting at length again:

“Laid across the river were some unsteady log planks, and right underneath them, in the clear, transparent water, swam shoals of broad-headed chub. On the green bushes that looked at themselves in the water the dew was sparkling. There came a breath of warm air and a feeling of pleasure. What a splendid morning! And what a splendid life there would doubtless be in this world, were it not for the need – the terrible, incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere! You had only to look back at the village now for everything from yesterday to come vividly to mind, and the enchantment of happiness that seemed to be all around to disappear in an instant.”

Constant movement external and internal, but this time it has gone from the picture of serenity on the outside, to the sense of breakage on the inside. The outside again is seemingly a world of togetherness (“the shoals of chub”) and positive reflection (“how the green bushes look at themselves in the sparkling water”). The splendid morning is an objective, declarative statement – no matter one’s standing, all the criteria are met for it to be a splendid morning, but this is irrelevant, in fact, makes the subjective position worse because of that need.

What is the need? We do not know where it comes from, but one can only say that this need is something that is ‘beyond us’, yet of this world. It is transcendent but humane. Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) that for the Christian “sin lies in the will, not in the knowing; and this corruption of the will affects the individual’s consciousness”. Chekhov’s characters are Christian characters, but the notion of being a Christian in a Christian world, or being a person living in a Christian world without a God, was now a conundrum. Schopenhauer, thirty years before Kierkegaard had published his work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), which brought a new light on this inexpressible thing that drives us but is not necessarily divine. Nietzsche would publish then Beyond Good and Evil (1886) where he moved these explanations of impulses beyond binaries of good and bad. Following this, Freud would publish his work The Intepretation of Dreams (1899) at the turn of the century. Look at the years of those publications. Chekhov’s first notable story, ‘The Huntsman’ arrived in 1885; the formalising of Chekhov’s brilliance happens in an implausibly short space of time, and arguably as rapidly as thought was changing in a period of global modernisation.

Looking at Chekhov in this context we get some answers posed by his work: here we see perhaps, why Chekhov perhaps didn’t write anything longer – it is about that moment that this will takes over, at the moment the will begins to asks questions of the world and the self. You could argue that nothing is explained in his elusiveness, but you could also say that everything is explained by it, the answers are not there to be answered. We get a brief glimpse of the human spirit, and Chekhov, although writing in extremely political times, does not suggest that this is anything to do with the rise of capitalism by the industrialisation of peasantry or anything like that; it is instead historical, something passed down the generations, explained in different terms by different generations, yet permanent and all too human. In this light he is ahead of the philosophers who were working around him.

If there is an answer we’ll examine it by sticking with that notion introduced above by Kierkegaard – the sin lies in the desire, not the knowledge of it. Although philosophers like Nietzsche were aiming to philosophise without concepts such as good and bad, there is still sin in Chekhov’s world, as there still is now. Whether or not we ascribe the term guilt to that ravishing anxiety we can sometimes feel at the expense of the will, it does suggest that guilt is unavoidable. It is interesting that Paul Virno in his recent publication – Deja Vu and the End of History (2015) – described in the blurb as a ‘radical new theory of historical temporality’ uses St. Augustine’s Confessions for some support. He cites a passage from the Confessions to make his point:

“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”

Confessions was a work obviously propelled by guilt, and whatever your understanding of guilt is, it arises out of the feeling of not knowing where something is located, or where something arises out of history to make itself known to be felt more urgently felt in the now, whether that be a feeling or a memory.

A lot of Chekhov’s characters we have determined, are always moving; forward, back, their physical manner usually antagonising their psychological desires. Chekhov often focuses on the males, but there is always a strong female presence. They both have their needs (they need each other), and they’re aware that they have them, but not all that clever on knowing how these desires manifest and operate. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which really is as good as it gets, the lady in the title, finally comes to terms with the liaison that she is embarking on with the man:

“But here still was the same diffidence, the gaucheness of inexperienced youth and an awkward feeling; and there was an impression of bewilderment, as if someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, this “lady with the little dog”, regarded what had happened in a special sort of way, very seriously, as though it were her fall – so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her features had drooped and faded, her long hair hung sadly down the sides of her face, and she had fallen into though in a doleful pose, like a sinner in an old painting.”

Perhaps it could be argued that Chekhov missed a note with his use of the adverb ‘sadly’ (translations though), but the terminus of that inner will has never looked so futilely affecting as now. You can pick out Augustine’s classifications of ‘time-presents’ from that passage, but look how the passage ends. She has gone from a feeling of movement, the resurfacing of her inexperienced youth at the start, but has been pushed too far – she feels like she has fallen. It almost feels as if Hitchcock stole that closing moment for the impetus of Vertigo, but that image is extremely powerful. We are aware of her, not just as a woman, but now as a piece of art; whilst she may feel the sin in the will, all we have left of her, in that moment, is the static rendering of her as a sinner. In this case, she has been rendered immovable.

Chekhov’s works, like his life, were short. Most of them are elegiac in tone, and the one thing that does feel tangible is a descent into delusion or death. We could argue then that it is death, or the knowledge of it that is driving the pieces, that is driving the character’s self-awareness. But death is always in combat with something else.

Carver was heavily influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story about Chekhov in his final hours, but Carver’s most famous collection and story was What we talk about, when we talk about love. Chekhov’s characters are always finding ways to deal with their fickle emotions and fragile existence, are always finding that whatever lies beyond death, there is only one way to get there, through living and trying to love. There can’t be any love the Huntsman said but all too often there is. I think even when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about it.

The Power to be Moved: Part 1

The Kiss and Other Stories
by
Anton Chekhov (translated by Hugh Alpin)
Alma Classics: 256 pp.: £7.99 rrp.

There is a story in another edition of Chekhov’s stories that I have – About Love and Other Stories (2004) – published by the Oxford University Press, and the first story of which is called ‘The Huntsman’. It is four and a half pages long and it features a man called Yegor Vlasych,who is merely known as the Huntsman, until he is called by somebody as he passes through the village. This woman is his wife, Pelageya. On one page, happiness is ‘raditating’ from her face at seeing the man, but by the next she is sobbing: “It is a sin Yegor Vlasych! You could at least have the heart to spend one day with me. It’s twelve years since I got married to you, and…there hasn’t been love between us once! I’m…I’m not crying…” she says.

The Huntsman, rather than spend his days in the village with his wife, is employed as a huntsman, at a presumably rich man’s estate, where he brings game to to the rich man’s plate. There he is fed and bathed as well as being employed and cannot stand the village life that he has left behind any more. On his wife’s above denouncement of their love he replies: “Love…There can’t be any love. We might officially be man and wife, but is that what we really are? To you I’m someone wild, and for me you’re just a simple woman who doesn’t understand anything. Do you really think we are a couple? I’m an idler, I’m spoilt and free to roam, but you’re a labourer, a peasant; you live in filth and you’re always bent over double…” It turns out they were married off drunk, and because of the man’s other intoxication with his free spirit, he then heads off again out of the village and the story is over.

One could go on for pages about this story alone, but ‘The Huntsman’ provides a brief, yet lucid portrait of what to expect when reading Chekhov. As one of his first published ‘serious’ stories at the age of 25, there is that male figure, the sense of a drifting presence, and the fickle, but powerful emotions people experience at the fate of elusive, powerful desires. Yet even though Chekhov’s stories focus on the individual male, the female has a strong presence and not just as a conduit for the male character. Here we have a writer, writing in a time of modernisation, but not necessarily grappling with it; a sense that things are changing but Chekhov is not necessarily going to be the great chronicler of it. What we have then in his work, is a feeling; he is a writer concerned with what moves us, and when it moves us.

Chekhov has a solid standing in the pantheon. There are his critics such as Nabokov (more a begrudging admiration: after all, who did Nabokov actually like?) and where one sees Chekhov’s main admirers like Hemingway and Carver you can see why there might be a difference in opinion. Indeed it shows the problem that can be at first presented when reading Chekhov by the person who might be averse to the more pyrotechnic of sentence writers, because Chekhov’s sentences present themselves with a deceptive simplicity. He is often labelled as ‘elusive’ (cf. Virginia Woolf). Epiphanies can pass you by, and the affects can slowly accumulate but then be gone, missed or enduring in the instant. As a result its simplicity is deceptive, like his reliance on the blindness motif, because there is a timeless maturity to Chekhov’s works that can only be gained by re-reading, a form of a maturity in itself.

This is a lesson I had to undertake. On presented with a new translation of Chekhov’s works, I’m not going to sit here and propound the critical benefits and lessons to be taken from Chekhov (I am not qualified to do that and people have been doing that for a hundred years now), so instead I am going to show what I have learnt from Chekhov and what Chekhov means to me, through Alma’s new translation.

Alma’s new collection, translated by Hugh Alpin, is a good place to start. Here are seven stories, arguably the most well known, including ‘Ward Six’ and ‘The Lady With a Little Dog’. They’re presented in chronological order so you can see the trajectory of Chekhov’s writing and the development of the society that he was living in. In ‘The Kiss’ , the first story, there are the familiar Chekhovian elements of grand houses in rural settings, but by the end we have telegraph wires in ‘The Bishop’ and the more cosmopolitan lovers of ‘The Lady With a Little Dog’ toward the turn of the century. Intersecting these is the longer story ‘Ward Six’ which sees somebody battling with the seemingly outdated methods and principles of institutionalization; or the peasants in ‘Peasants’, who’s village has a feeling of been left behind, or the differing views of the Landscape artist in ‘The House with a Mezzanine’.

By the time Chekhov was gaining maturity, the greater works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were already published. Tolstoy was turning to the shorter stuff and Dostoyevsky had died. Chekhov is arguably the last great name of the Golden Age, and his works capture this sense of change and development in the society he was living in. He doesn’t necessarily capture the changing patina of society, advancement in technologies or anything like that, instead he captures the consciousness of these changes. There is a great sense of society dealing with new ideas and new professions and new discourses as a result.

Ultimately, you’ll see Chekhov is concerned with movement. In essence, there is a constant sense of movement and transition in Chekhov, a subjective kind of emotive change which can contradict the physical state. People can be rooted to the spot, but still be at the whim of their emotions, which I don’t think any other writer so subtly captured at the time. There is a persistent sense of something driving, a kind of will, but with the dilution of God, this will is not so simply explained any more.

So let’s start with the first story – ‘The Kiss’. A tired Artillery Brigade stop in the village of Mestechki. A man on a strange looking horse arrives telling them that the local landowner and Lieutenant, General von Rabbek, wishes them to visit his house for tea. They’re tired and they’re all reminded of a time last year, when in a similar situation, their host had kept them up all night and as a result they were not able to get any sleep (which indicates fortunes were greater for the army last year).Raising the spirits however, is the prospect of women being at the house.

Eventually the focus goes to Staff Captain Ryabovich who recognises himself to be the most timid man there. On our introduction to him we are told that he has a ‘psychic blindness’, where he sees but cannot comprehend what is in front of him (something that recurs through Chekhov’s stories, this sense of visual occlusion as both a metaphor and device). When Ryabovich leaves the men watching billiards – bored – he gets lost in the large house, and as he his stood trying to determine where he is, somebody grabs him and kisses him, who then steps back in disgust when she realizes that it was not the person she was looking for.

‘The Kiss’ is a good place to start and indeed, it is the start of this collection. It’s a fine example of showing how Chekhov likes his characters to be ‘moved’ physically but also mentally. Chekhov does not necessarily show the results of the moments people experience like in The Huntsman, but it is as if the act of the short story, that elusiveness that is often admired and criticized, is ideal for him to catch that moment somebody is ‘moving’. The near past is always in reach as if trying to impress now and we only get clues to the greater history of what has happened to the characters and ultimately the society they live in and how it is affecting their internal world.

Ryabovich at first is described as, before following the men to the billiard room:“With nothing else to do, and wanting to take some part in the general movement, Ryabovich wandered after them.” His boredom is already apparent and when he wanders away again he becomes lost and is “stopped in thought”. After this he is mistakenly kissed and at first he is “tormented by shame and fear that the entire hall knew about his having just been embraced and kissed by a woman,” but moments later he becomes “the whole of him, from head to toe, was filled with a new feeling, which kept growing and growing…”

Strange new feeling indeed – all this happens in a page – and all just because of some kiss that was not meant for him? Let’s not forget Chekhov’s often true masterpieces are cited as the plays, and like Shakespeare did with his characters, we do not know what has proceeded and we do not know what will follow: we only see the rise or the fall. This isn’t just a virginal man who has had his first sexual experience, and nor is this kiss itself a euphemism for something greater; instead we have seen the moment. Ryabovich now becomes “absorbed in his pleasant new thoughts” and as he continues with his brigade, in what seems like a very long and boring journey, with no hint of battle, it is conducive to his meandering, wishful thoughts:

“On 31st August he was returning from camp – not with the whole brigade now, though, but with the two batteries. All the way he was daydreaming and agitated, as though he were going back to his birthplace. He had a passionate desire to see once again the strange horse, the church, the insincere Rabbek family, the dark room; the “inner voice” that so often deceives those in love was for some reason whispering to him that he was sure to see her…At the very worst he thought, even if he were not to meet with her, the mere fact of walking through the dark room and remembering would be pleasant for him…”

There is a whole host of details in there that could be swept over, but look how much movement there is within movement. He is agitated but is this inspired by the boredom of the journey or his own intense desire to experience the kiss again? Where has this ‘inner voice’ come from that Ryabovich did not seem equipped with before? And finally who is ‘her’? Ryabovich slowly becomes more concerned with the kiss than the woman who potentially kissed him. Is the ‘passionate desire’ commensurate with the fact we believe the ‘inner voice that so often deceives us’?

Something has awakened in Ryabovich, but Chekhov subtly does not let us believe that it is a life-changing course inspired by an unexpected event. He has had an epiphany of sorts, but the way forward is not necessarily clear. The inner voice was already there it seems, but has become louder because of the kiss, and there is the detail that it felt as if he “were going back to his birthplace”, rather than him going forward in any particular way. What’s past is prologue said Antonio to Sebastian in The Tempest and although they were committing murder, there is a sense here that love is as bound upon strong desires as the forces they were experiencing.

The characters are at the expense of some kind of greater force, but the questionableness of that greater force has never been so intense. It is not so simply a matter of faith any more, or if it is faith, it’s not necessarily faith in a discernible, all-powerful big Other like God. This is then is what I will with deal with more directly in the second half of this piece as we take a closer examination of how Chekov’s characters are moved.

Books within Borders: Russia

They say that reading opens boundaries, horizons and borders, but sometimes it seems that where you cross one border, another awaits. As much as we love to pretend that literature is a benign and noble endeavour, it is surrounded by market forces and an illusion of choice. Market forces obviously dictate what we have available to read and buy, and only recently does there seem to have been an awareness of this. Now people are campaigning against what they deem a culturally homogenous industry, with campaigns for more women, more ethnicities, and more independent publishers to be given coverage, and there does seem to be some kind of response.

We can only read what there is read. We find ourselves, like most other consuming habits, going down similar paths, tracks, indeed brands, and sticking with what we know and what we’re familiar with and ultimately what we know we enjoy. But when we want something, we should ask for it. Politics and ideology infiltrate our lives, but the mind should be free of ideology when it reads (as much as it can be). One can make ideological assumptions to fit a certain theory, as I have done, sometimes not for the best, but these are different to agendas and nobody should feel that they have to read something. This is dogma.

Why am I doing this and why am I sharing it? Egotism said Orwell and there is some if that like all writing endeavours. But of course, the aim to is to shed light on potentially new writers and publishers. But also old writers in renewed editions of old classics or perhaps undiscovered classics from well-known writers and writers who didn’t perhaps get the coverage they should have done, either because they were suppressed or just because they were not ready for the time in which they were writing. The Russian canon is one of the most famous and formidable in history, so where does it stand now? What are writers writing about now and why? And who are publishing these writers?

This is of course a personal odyssey, and it would be cynical to suggest that I’m doing any kind of duty by doing this. Classics may emerge that you have never had the opportunity to tackle, but now want to and feel that you can. Struggled with a 600 page Dostoyevsky? Maybe now is the time to tackle it. But new writers may emerge, not to mention translators. New themes and issues may come to the fore. It would be great to see a diaspora of different writers from different backgrounds, but the least we can hope for is something unexpected. It may hark back to the oldest books in the history of the literature, but good literature, whether it’s a writer you know well or not at all, should give us a fresh experience and a different perspective.

To set a mood, here is a photo gallery from the Guardian showing a handful of archived images in Russian history.

Thanks for contributions so far from;

Alma
And Other Stories
Dedalus
Restless Books

Review: Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me.

Tom Barbash’s  first collection of short stories comes adorned in  the superlatives that Nathan Filer recently admonished. Not to say that no other book does, but Barbash’s jacket space are lucky to have two big David’s names on them (Eggers and Mitchell). The times we are unsatisfied by the work even with notable names endorsing them, but thankfully for Stay Up With Me, this is not the case. In all fairness, Barbash is skirting a precarious line with his characters. As Eggers states, it is a universe where all the characters might know each other as they all have some level of middle-class wealth, a degree of privilege, mostly suburbanites. As some other reviewers have noted, this could lead to instances of schadenfreude, but gratefully this doesn’t happen, although you would be forgiven for a slight joy about your own situation.

‘Balloon Night’ and ‘How To Fall’ skirt this precarious line. Whilst the world around the two central characters is alive and thriving, people wanting to be in their environmen, they two characters want nobody but themselves and a past partner. Timkin’s wife (his name seems to invite pity) in the prior story has left him on the night of their annual party in his New York apartment. Whilst everybody is convivial, Timkin can only reflect on how his party and New York ” would be a good place for a terrorist to strike, how many prosperous lives could go up in flames.”

On the back of another break up in ‘How To Fall’, the central character is conscripted into a singles, skiing weekend by her friend. Typically she is no good at skiing. Talking to two men, Roland and Kevin, with Roland taking an interest in her,she cannot stop thinking about her ex.

I couldn’t have been much fun, as I drifted more than once on our chairlift rides into a private theatre wherein I was screening a movie of me and Mitchell in Cape May, when we stared at the sky until five and then slept together in our bathing suits on a lounge chair, next to a pitcher of daquiris.

Your heart bleeds.

As a British reviewer (and psychology postgraduate student), these seem like prime candidates for the psychoanalytic scene, much more prevalent in America. You can see these Betty Draper style, bourgeois types, in the midst of an existential crisis, enjoying the riches and promises of individualism, but encountering the disillusionment that their chronic self-fulfillment has inevitably brought. All our material things have ultimately become immaterial you can hear them say. Although most of the stories feature relationships on a sexual level, there are also maternal and paternal ones which also struggle with this, as the son in ‘The Women’, watches his bereaving father now ‘back on the market’ as a singleton.

Alluded to in the quote above from ‘How To Fall’, the characters are constantly creating narratives for themselves, watching, or likening themselves to the movies. In ‘Letters From The Academy’, this takes on an extreme form. Comically appearing as a series of letters from a young tennis player, Lee Wilcox’s coach, to his father, telling him how good his son is, they slowly turn into a creepy exposition of hero-worship of Lee’s dad.

I wonder how much of you is in Lee, and whether in your early days with the All-City Orchestra and later with Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton you were equally intense and abstracted. I must say i’ve always loved your work.

The devotion to improving Lee, give way to a jealousy as the letters become obsessive, and are then intruded by an account of Pete Sampras as he takes Lee under his wing from his stalking coach (“I do not know if it is in your wishes for your son to be the hitting partner of a washed up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet”). It almost becomes Lolita-esque with the crude name of the coach, Maximillian Gross (more grotesque sounding than Humbert Humbert), when his new young, female pupil Vivi makes a move to kiss him (according to Maximillian).

This sinister darkness presides over the stories, and is perhaps something we should expect when in the first story, ‘The Break’; a mother watches her son returning home for the Christmas break talk about the people in his class.

He was talking about someone in school who had lost her mind, a pale, pretty girl, who’d been institutionalised and who sent a scrawled-over copy of The Great Gatsby to a friend of the boy’s. In the margins, she had pointed out all the similarities between the character’s situation and what she believed to be hers and that of the boy’s friend. She had earmarked pages and scrawled messages. YOU ARE GATSBY, she wrote on the back of the book. I AM DAISY.

Just look what happened to those poor blighters. Like the book that charted the dawn of the modern age, there’s that continual feeling of being a witness, and despite being part of them, we are unable to stop them reaching a fateful conclusion, like Nick Carraway was in Gatsby. There’s the foreboding and Thanatos overriding the stories, which really comes out in ‘Spectator’,  a second person account of a car crash. Lacking that self-conscious irony, they have the modern feel, which is why they invite the joy and the pity, and nearly the schadenfreude.

Although the big themes are hinted toward (‘Paris’ perhaps the story that tackles these the most, and very enjoyably escapes the neurotic nature of the others) they are not divulged. We are aware that they are living in a capitalist, materialist society, but that is as they are, and these stories are merely within it. To explicate the big themes would be to take away the simplicity of the stories characters just trying to navigate this world and their self, rather than change it. Because at the heart of these meticulously crafted stories is a potent, yet simple, but often forgotten truth: stop thinking about yourself all the time.

If anything, we’re still looking at a society that still looks to those modern authors,  like Fitzgerald nearly a century ago, to teach us how to write, and more importantly, how to live.

Stay Up With Me  (212pp) by Tom Barbash is released on 14/08/2014 published by Simon & Schuster. Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Review: Graham Swift – England and Other Stories

With the surge in the short story’s popularity, a current trend is for all the stories to be embedded in a unifying theme. Graham Swift, as the title suggests is tackling one big old subject. As we emerge out of the postmodern age, conceptions of British society, affected by more wars, multiculturalism, capitalism, nostalgic notions Blighty have never looked so fractured, yet so enforced. Swift, then tries to chart this chaotic sprawl and capture this land he has written about over the years.

The stories span the length and breadth of England from Yorkshire to Yeovil. But it’s not the glorious England, nor is it necessarily the ugly England, it’s the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years. They’re also usually confronting death or trauma, something that has carried on from his recent novels Last Orders and Wish You Were Here.

In under 300 pages, there are 21 stories, which renders them mostly unresolved and elusive Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane lives of England, are laid out here. The title is ironic though as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain, but rather a window cleaning business. Charlie and Don discuss how they ended up going up in the world physically, watching those who have actually ‘gone up in the world’, cleaning their windows for them, and looking from the outside-in.

But to say it’s about the mundane lives of ordinary people, it’s not on the back of mundane events, because British history is hardly mundane. As a result war existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here, which prominently addressed the Iraq war, it had that element of both the fascination and national celebration of war, but also it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. Lives like in ‘Fusili’, as a man shops in Waitrose after the death of his son in Afghanistan.

If there’s one thing the British do generally, unequivocally celebrate, it’s the monarchy. In ‘Haematology’ William Harvey, Doctor of Physic, writes to his cousin Colonel Edward Francis, The Council of Officers in the year 1649. William is exiled, and although the reasons are not made clear, it’s due to some kind of heresy against the King in the name of science: “there is heresy and heresy, there is dogma and dogma” he remarks. ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form though. It is paradoxically for the now because these stories are hardly ‘real’, instead there’s a trepidation about the world Swift battles with in a meta-way, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such is our new world,” says the exiled physician.

This slight disdain to authority permeates the stories. It’s like a rejection of their older selves, that the young people didn’t want to become, but ultimately did, when their youth had no boundaries, no preconceptions . In ‘Ajax’, the naivete of a young person, it is assumed, leads him into an almost deathly, juvenile trap because of the ‘weirdo’ next door. “I was the undoing” the narrator says of himself, stopping Mr Wilkinson doing unconventional activities in his underpants – unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least.

But it seems the small act of communication that the protagonist tries to instigate in ‘Ajax’, which he is restricted from doing, carrying it out through his fence (an obvious symbol) is something that Swift is trying to urge. Communication breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with is Swift’s take-home message. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with it, but it also captures a sense ofBritain’s ‘small-island syndrome’. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England?

As sardonic as Swift’s voice is through the stories, there is a sense of serious that he captures in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’. Two men discuss the way papers always relate everything to tragedy – “Ever feel there’s too much tragedy about” Mick says in their blokeish, everyman wisdom, which Swift is so adept at conveying:

“Tragedy’s about acting too. It’s about stuff that’s happening on stage. Shakespeare and stuff. That’s the thing about it. It’s not real life.”

What is this real life? What is ‘stuff’? That word ‘stuff’ is so perfect. The two blokes don’t know the answer, and nor does Swift. And tragedy is everywhere in apparently ‘real life’ these days, but if the novelists art is about language, and ultimately the communication of this language to his reader what would Mick’s reflection the Beano suggest? “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories , but rather an example of how those onomatopoeic words are exactly that – words without meaning, yet they are the only ones that can or rather could, invoke a genuine reaction in Mick, where words like ‘tragedy’ cannot. it bears repeating.

Swift’s prose is not the most figurative, but he is deeply concerned with its possibilities, limits and barriers. There are the accents (although sometimes descending into Dickensian mawkishness), the double entrendre’s, Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusili of war?). The pun might be the cheapest form of a joke, but it has the ability to immediately change the meaning of one word into another, and Swift is at home with it.

But one only needs to read the epitaph from Laurence Sterne at the start (Lord, still, appropriately censored out): indeed, what is all about? Swift doesn’t deliver answers and doesn’t expect to. Instead all we can do is reflect and remember, and ultimately fictionalise like the person says at the end of ‘England’ – “He really knew, he thought, as brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it all.”

England And Other Stories (274pp) by Graham Swift is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (Hardback: £16.99 ). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Below the Surface: Reading Burmese Days

George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days (1934) is preceded by a quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘That in this desert inaccessible, Under the shade of melancholy boughs’. This spoken after Jacques encounter with the clown Touchstone. And so, In Burmese Days as John Flory occupies deepest Burma, in the wilderness of British Colonialism, Flory exists in a place of remote despotism – Burma ruled by the British Empire. As Orwell reflects on the empire supposed to be Great, we’re reminded of Touchstone’s later remark in the play ‘And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot’ which sounds even more poignant. The Empire for Orwell, was both a source of enrichment and poison.

Perhaps there is something in that sense of delay, of Orwell not giving that more urgent precedent. The Empire was rotting or a rot as Orwell saw it, and it was not a method of ‘ripening’ or enlivening humanity. But for something to rot it means that there is still action, change and transformation; something is living, even though it may not be the thing itself. As bacteria eats away at the dying, essentially, the thing has ceased to exist yet. Orwell said in 1929, under his real name of Eric Blair, in a French newspaper ‘The government of all the Indian provinces under the control of the British Empire is of necessity despotic, because only the threat of force can subdue a population of several million subjects. But this despotism is latent. It hides behind a mask of democrac’. Whilst decay may be obvious, we’ve all heard the case of the ‘rotten apple’, not knowingly unhealthy until we’ve bitten into it, or as Orwell said there – revealed its mask.

Burmese Days is a bite into that apple. It is set within the British Raj, living inside its processes and contradictions, based partly on Orwell’s experiences in the military police whilst in Burma, and in the words of Orwell, ‘much of it is simply reporting what I saw’ (although admitting that most of it was inaccurate). We know now to be careful of how we interpret Orwell’s matter-of-fact statements, a man who has written fictions about ideologies, cannot simply be reporting what he has seen. Before Orwell was stationed in Burma , Emma Larkin in the introduction to the 2009 edition, and author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell In a Burmese Tea Shop, notes how Orwell was a ‘typical child of the empire’ and ‘enjoyed the decadence of the ruling class in Burma’. For Orwell to say it was ‘simply reporting what he saw’ is arguably one of the several tongue in cheek remarks he made about his fiction and in his non-fiction. However you take it, what Orwell saw in Burma was a formalising element for his fiction and perhaps his non-fiction as well.
It focuses on John Flory – not a wholly semi-autobiographical account for Orwell despite sharing particular traits and looks – a 35 year old teak merchant in the fictional district of Kyauktada. Here, the Europeans have higher prestige over the Burmese, which the Burmese submissively recognise. Zadie Smith remarked how Middlemarch despite its size physically and metaphysically, was weirdly and obsessively local. Here, Orwell seems to share that very British trait. Local politics naturally reflect global ones, and Orwell seems to have the very British fascination with locality. U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate plans to destroy the reputation of the Indian Doctor Veraswami, because of the election to the European club, and it is the chalice that they ultimately both desire, and Veraswami, in a non-exploitative way hopes his friendship with Flory will get him there. Flory and Veraswami then is quite an unconventional relationship as Veraswami, the native and the oppressed defends the Raj to Flory, the oppressor’s, disdain.

In Flory, it is not so much a biographical device, but it does feel like an abstracted Orwell, the roaming spectator of a man who could eventually write 1984 and Animal Farm. Certainly, early incarnations of Orwell’s ideas appear to be prevalent; Flory is ‘the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature’ which is something that could have been taken from 1984. With Orwell, his prophecies of totalitarianism were often attributed to the rise of fascist states in Germany and Russia, but it’s evident that the warnings come from much closer to home. There is the irony and contradiction again. Orwell was a series of contradictions and the Empire was an ultimate contradiction for him, to at one time in life to enjoy its decadence that it afforded, but to realise its penury later.
Let’s look at the prevailing and obvious motif in Burmese Days –  Flory’s birthmark, a large physical aspect of Flory’s appearance. It’s given an introduction by Orwell worthy of being its own separate character: ‘the first thing that one noticed in Flory was hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth…And all the times when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he maneouvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight’. And keep it out of sight he does, quite implausibly throughout apart from one important moment, which is the enduring, impossible irony. Whilst Flory shares some aspects of Orwell’s appearance, the birthmark represents that token of appearance that is central to life in Kyauktada – skin colour – but also its obviousness means that it’s something more than that. As Larkin states in the introduction, the birthmark marks represents that personal emblem, that love he had of a child, unwittingly not knowing the implications of it, yet that stays with him. A ‘child of the empire’ she calls him and and whether Larkin chose those words purposefully there is an unsettling of coincidence if she did not.
A birthmark is irremovable, they can fade or become more noticeable through several factors, but where white skin supremacy is prevalent throughout Kyauktada, is it then Flory’s or a projection of Orwell’s blemish? Is it that sense of rotting or of there being something beneath the veneer? In this sense I think Orwell shares something with later Philip Roth, this explicitly male fascination that Burmese Days upholds, the revulsion but also the wonder of the messy contradictions of humanity (admittedly, mostly male). With Flory made to bear it and take part in it, he is the only redeeming white man at the European club, despite him still being part of it. It’s only personal that he seems to be able to rebuke it. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, he wears his stain on the outside (unlike a novel such as The Plot Against America the stain is within: the narrator, a young Philip Roth, bears witness to the many different males in his world wondering what to revile and what to admire and eventually becomes externalised).
Time has not done a great service to Orwell, which is ironic, as he was a man who had an ability to resurrect or sustain disregarded writers through his own criticism. Perhaps this is because Orwell is a writer who can be taken upon any mantle to prove a point; at times he appears to revile against individualism, but then at others, he only sees futility in a collective state, and an inevitable descent into totalitarianism. As such his verbatim quotations are ravaged out of their context to support any argument. But I think this is a fate Orwell would have taken a humorous satisfaction in; he was a writer at home with contradictions and realised that from contradictions, there emanated truths. We all know of his essays on writing and perhaps most famously, Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, some years after Burmese Day, where he wrote of prose being like a ‘windowpane’, and ‘not choosing long words where short ones will do’. These are all quite idealistic, even juvenile mantras, largely dismissed even. But instead, reading them now, after my own, probably juvenile fascination, they represent a way of saying that the truth is not so easily obtainable as reducing writing to simplicity, but there is not necessarily any greater or higher artistic truth to be gained either.

And if you look at Burmese Days, the novel represents a lesson in that. As Orwell said in Why I Write ‘I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…. is rather that kind of book’. It was an experiment in contradiction. Orwell’s biographer D.J Taylor said ‘the most striking thing about the novel is the extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand’ and then you start to see the formula behind Why I Write. Like his experience of the Empire, it was as if Orwell did not want to gloss these truths for the sake of an artistic truth, for the sake of imagery, because that was what he was riling against in the first place. Perhaps then Marcellus’s line from Hamlet would have been a more appropriate epitaph: ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’, substituting Denmark for Burma. There was something rotten in the state of the world, and Orwell realised by the end of Burmese Days that there was no point in concealing it. Like Kyauktada, Orwell realised that beneath the skin, of which our imperialised world based itself on, was the messy world of humanity, a world of flaws, contradictions and painful truths: we have to be thankful that writers like Orwell were willing to confront this, because often we cannot do it ourselves and for good, life-affirming intentions. Orwell was willing to bear his own failures of belief and conviction. It wasn’t flaws in his writing (although sometimes it was), but one can feel the flaws felt personal, even if they were detached and removed from himself, problems with the world; a realisation that fiction can only go so for in correcting our internal world, sublimating it into an understanding for ourselvesbut only going as far as illuminating the outer, proper world.

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Death and Night and Blood: Why I Read Yukio Mishima, by JuleJames1961

I was, and still am, a big fan of The Stranglers. They came to the fore during the First Great Punk War of 1976/77 but were never accepted as part of that scene, too old, too musical, a couple of them had long hair and beards. After their first two albums: Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, in 1978 they released their third album: Black and White. It was more cerebral, still angry, still unmistakably The Stranglers. They allowed their musicianship to come through more than they had on their previous two albums. Fourth track on the Black side was: Death and Night and Blood (Yukio).

Jean Jacques Burnel, The Stranglers’ bass guitarist explained in an interview in the NME, that Yukio was a Japanese author: Yukio Mishima.

And that would have been the end of that, except…

…I was 16 at the time and from the local library I was borrowing books in a methodical system: week one, three books from the ABC section; two weeks later, three books from DEF; and on until I got to XYZ; starting again at ABC. I chose books because of an interesting title or spine colour or cover art or, in the case of Clockwork Orange, notoriety. I read George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, John Le Carré, H G Wells and a forest of books that have since disappeared into the murky cupboard that is my memory. Then one week while in MNO I came across The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima and thanks to J J Burnel I took it home.

If asked, ‘What is your favourite book?’ by default my reply is 1984, however, I can’t remember the first time I read it or how I felt. There have been other books that have left me astonished on the first read: A Clockwork Orange; Nicholas Nickleby; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning; and The Decay of the Angel. I was hooked from the first page, he was describing the sea, colours, boats, the prose was extraordinary.

I can’t remember if I knew that it was the fourth part of a tetralogy or if I knew anything about Mishima other than the blurb on the inside of the cover, I know it was the only Mishima in the library. I was captivated, I had never read anything like it before, the words flowed from the page. The fact that it was the fourth part meant that I dismissed the character Honda and only in subsequent years would I realise that he was in fact the central figure in all four books. Kinue and Tōru, particularly Kinue fascinated me, a mad girl who believes that she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

A few years later a picked up a copy The Sea of Fertility containing all four books: Spring Snow; Runaway Horses; The Temple of Dawn; and The Decay of the Angel. The stallholder was a bit upset that someone had bought it; as she wanted to read it herself and suggested that I should bring it back when I was finished with it. It’s still on my shelf 30 years later.

By this time I’d learnt more about Mishima, his politics and his life, none of which chimed with me but didn’t diminish for me the beauty of the writing, in a strange way it enhanced it.

Nearly 35 years after I first read it I downloaded onto my new Kindle the four books that make up The Sea of Fertility, I spent the next year re-reading them, I originally planned to read one after the other but in the end decided to spread them out, I knew that once I started Angel I would be near the end and I wanted to put that off for as long as possible. This re-read was an eye opener, I appreciated the thread of reincarnation that runs through the four books this time, the ending of Angel made more sense when read in context of the series, if fact reading Angel this time I questioned what the 16 year old made of it. I was reading the first three books just as a prelude to those first few paragraphs of Angel. I was not disappointed, I wasn’t as astounded as I had been all those years ago but it was still a pleasure and there aren’t many books that can do that.

This time with access to the Internet I had the ability to learn more of Mishima the man rather than Mishima the writer which gave an edge to the stories. Having knowledge of his death made the almost loving description of the ritual of Seppuku more poignant and the failed coup in Runaway Horses is strangely reminiscent of Mishima’s final days.

His Imperialism, his patriotism, his violent end are at odds with his incredibly beautiful words and that paradox makes Angel more substantial, deeper.

The Stranglers at the time were unpopular with the music press, they didn’t take criticism very well, journalists were likely to end up gaffer taped to the Eiffel Tower after a bad review; they were the Men In Black, macho, misogynist. But underneath the black leather jackets they were bright, articulate, literate musicians, at least one of them had read and appreciated Mishima, and thereby inspiring at least one person to pick up The Decay of the Angel.

JuleJames1961 ©2013

Bio.
JuleJames1961: I post a weekly blog on literature and the sheer joy of reading. Everything from Dickens to Orwell via Ian Fleming and Enid Blyton.
Visit: read-it-in-books.blogspot.co.uk/
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