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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Phoenix, 2005, 506 p, plus i p summary, i p about the author, ii p “For discussion”, x p “A walk in the footsteps of The Shadow in the Wind” including ii p maps. Translated by Lucia Graves from the Spanish La sombra del viento, Editorial Planeta, 2002.

The Shadow of the Wind cover

Well, this all started out promisingly enough with ten year old Daniel Sempere being taken by his father to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books to pick one out for himself, to keep it alive. This conceit hinted that the novel would be one of those books about books and the importance of the word like The Name of the Rose, especially since Daniel is told, “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens,” but the novel soon veers off into more conventional unravelling a mystery territory.

The book Daniel picks is titled The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax. Daniel reads it and is enthralled, wishing to find out more about its author and any other books he may have written. But Carax is an elusive creature. Very few of his books (most of which sold in pitifully small numbers) survive. In addition a mysterious man going under the name Lain Coubert, a character in Carax’s Shadow of the Wind, is going around buying them up – in order to burn them. Already we are in a recursive situation, a loop which is in essence claustrophobic. Too many of the characters in the book are bound up either with Daniel, Carax or both.

Daniel’s first infatuation is with the blind Clara, quite a few years his senior. Their (necessarily) chaste relationship – and her entanglement with her piano teacher – is somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but as if off-key, though paradoxically, given Marquez’s magic realism, none of this aspect of Zafón’s novel feels natural. It appears forced, occurring only at Zafón’s will. Other backstories read like information dumping and there are too many parallels between Carax’s life and Daniel’s; between his friend Tomás Aguilar and Carax’s, Jorge Aldaya, between his first lover Beatriz Aguilar and Carax’s, Penélope Aldaya.

As an example of an authorial misstep Zafón has Daniel tell Bea about Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind that, “This was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life,” inviting us to draw a parallel that had been obvious long before. Yes, Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, is a memorable character but the villain of the piece, Inspector Francisco Javier Fumero, tends to the cartoonish, his obsession with Carax insufficiently founded – at least to me. There are, too, frequent recapitulations of the story to other characters. The Aldaya mansion on the Avenida del Tibidabo, though, is a gothic enough creation, along with the statues in its grounds.

Attempts at background verisimilitude also fall down at times. An old quack’s “sole remaining wish was for Barcelona’s football team to win the league, once and for all, so that he could die in peace.” This is an odd observation for someone to make in 1954 as Barcelona had most recently won La Liga in season 1952-3 and also the one before. Again in 1954 a restaurant manager apologises for poor service by saying, “‘But s’afternoon, it being the European Cup semi-final, we’ve had a lot of customers. Great game.’” The first European Cup semi-finals did not take place till 1956. Similarly there is a mention of the League Cup – but the La Liga Cup did not start till 1984 (and only lasted four years.) Did Zafón perhaps have the Copa del Rey in mind?

Still, “‘Mysteries must be solved, one must find out what they hide,’” and I suppose this is what keeps us reading but while it may be true that, “People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t complicated enough,” I’m not sure I agree with the assertion, “‘When we stand in front of a coffin, we only see what is good, or what we want to see.’”

Set where and when it is The Shadow of the Wind could not avoid touching on the fallout of the Spanish Civil War but it does so only tangentially. It is eminently readable but in the end it doesn’t manage to achieve the stature that the author is clearly striving for. Quite simply in this book Zafón is trying too hard.

Pedant’s corner:- “a couple of nuns …. mumbling under their breath” (ought really to be breaths,) polanaises (polonaises; this correct form is used later in the book,) “froze the blood in my veins” (really? Especially when followed on the next page by “my blood froze,”) the Barcelós apartment (Barceló’s,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s,) automatons (okay it’s acceptable in English – as well as automata, the plural from the Greek,) “none of the drawings were more than rough sketches” (none was more than a rough sketch,) faggotry (a USianism,) “‘It’s my fault,’ I said. I should have said something…’” (missing open quote mark after “I said.”) “An act of charity or friendship on behalf of an ailing lady” (‘on the part of’ is meant,) “which violated at least five of six recognized mortal sins,” (shouldn’t that be “five or six”? – and violated here seems to mean committed,) morgue (mortuary,) with sudden heartfelt hug (with a sudden,) catlike smile the smile of a mischievous child (a missing comma after the first smile,) garoted (garrotted,) Jacintaʻs vision (has a backward, and upside down, apostrophe,) “so that he can have a brain scan” (a brain scan? In 1954?) Barnarda (her name everywhere else in the novel is Bernarda,) passion (passion,) a benzine lighter (the term used in English is cigarette lighter,) “and whose specialty was Latin, trigonometry, and gymnastics, in that order,” (that’s three specialties.)
Plus points for “not all was lost”.

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

Immortality by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1991, 391 p. Translated from the Czech Nesmrtelnost by Peter Kussi.

Immortality cover

In the first chapter the narrator tells of seeing a gesture by a woman who was just leaving a swimming pool and which inspired him to write the novel. I was struck by the ageist perspective with which Kundera treats this incident. Be that as it may, gestures and their meanings, their particularity or otherwise, are a feature of the book.

Set mainly in Paris (where Kundera settled after leaving Czechoslovakia) the meat of the book lies in the relationships between Agnes, her husband Paul, and her sister Laura. There are similarities here to the writing of Irène Némirovsky, also an exile in Paris, but at an earlier time. Unlike Némirovsky though, Kundera delves into the deeper past in order to interrogate the means of achieving immortality, in the sense of remaining famous after death, by examining the relationship between Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim) and Goethe, which has mostly been seen through the lens of Brentano’s accounts. Ernest Hemingway too makes appearances – notably in discussions with Goethe in the afterlife – as does Beethoven, and there is a disquisition on Don Quixote. The author himself also features as a character. (Perhaps it was this book which gave Orhan Pamuk that idea.)

The narration comments on itself at various points, and at times does not so much foreshadow as give the later game away. We are told of the death of one character and explore its consequences long before being shown it and that in Part Six a new character will appear and then vanish without trace – as indeed he does; but only to present us with a connection to another that had hitherto not been mentioned (or deliberately hidden.)

The narrator/Kundera notes a historical transition in the toppling of Richard Nixon not by arms nor intrigues but the mere force of questioning, the power of the Eleventh Commandment “Tell the truth.” (Sadly that power no longer seems to work.) He also tells us that nineteenth century writers ended their novels with a marriage not to protect their readers from marital boredom but to save them from intercourse. “All the great European love stories take place in an extra-coital setting…. there was no great love after pre-coital love, and there couldn’t be…. Extra-coital love: a pot on the fire, in which feeling boils to a passion, and makes the lid shake and dance like a soul possessed.” How much of this is an echo of Kundera’s own attitude to intercourse is a matter for conjecture. (Compare “The Unbelievable Prevalence of Bonking” as Iain Banks, in The Crow Road, characterised another of Kundera’s works.)

In amongst all the narrator’s philosophising are sprinkled some bons mots, “A person is nothing but his image” and “I think therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid.”

While at times the prose had the feel of a history book and of the literary work in general – one incident in particular reminded me of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterImmortality was never difficult to read – a tribute to the translator, Peter Kussi, perhaps.

Pedant’s corner:- Saint Vitus’ dance (Vitus’s,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) assininity (asininity,) Avenarius’ (Avenarius’s,) Hals’ (Hals’s.)

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Pushkin Press, 2014, 345 p. Translated from the Finnish Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta by Atena Kustannus.

 The Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

After a diagnosis of defective ovaries and a broken engagement Ella Milana has returned to her childhood home of Rabbit Back to take up a post as a substitute teacher. On reading a pupil’s essay where his description of the contents does not match her recollections she discovers on inspecting his copy that odd things are happening to the contents of books in the town. They are becoming plastic, events occur in them that ought not to be there. The local librarian, Ingrid Katz, takes the offending items to destroy them.

Rabbit Back is the home of Finnish literature, author Laura White many years ago having used her fame to recruit a group of talented children – all of whom are now successful in their own right – into the Rabbit Back Literature Society whose membership is one short of its maximum number. Ella’s own literary efforts are rewarded by publication in Rabbit Tracks, a local publication, and attract Laura White’s attention. She is offered that tenth position.

On the night of her inauguration White – in full view of the assembled guests – disappears from her own living room in a whirl of snow never to be seen again and Ella discovers there was an earlier tenth member, which intrigues her – especially when she finds he died in an accident. Membership of the Society is accompanied by a system of challenge known as The Game whereby each member can demand the truth of any question about another member; a reciprocal process known as spilling and the source of many of their stories. Through The Game Ella tries to find out about the original tenth member and what happened to him.

During one of these sessions a fellow member says to her, “‘Where would we be if anything at all could turn up in books?’” that under one reality there’s always another, “And another one under that.” In addition, “Sometimes reality shrivels up and blisters around Laura White” who, incidentally, believed that bacteria on books could alter their contents. Another tells her that everybody knows that “no healthy person would take up writing novels… literature… is mental derangement run through a printing press.”

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a sideways look at the whodunnit, with the aura of fantasy and more than a whiff of literary game-playing to it. Enjoyable stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- tasteless (distasteful, x 2,) she tried to smile broader than before (more broadly,) as an Laura White-trained author (a Laura White-trained,) “‘I had a true natural talent in handling the ball’” (in football it’s playing the ball – unless you’re a goalkeeper; the speaker wasn’t,) out of bounds (similarly, the term is out of play,) spread out broader (again; more broadly,) the jackets on your novels (of your novels is a more natural phrase,) it didn’t even phase me (faze,) overtime (over time.)

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Flamingo, 2001, 508 p, plus vii p Introduction and iv p Appendix of Works by Gao Xingjian. Translated from the Chinese, 灵山 (Língshān,) by Mabel Lee.

Soul Mountain cover

Xingjian is China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (though he has for a long time lived in France) and Soul Mountain his most well-known work. In it there is certainly a literary knowingness at work. At first it seems as if alternating chapters are being narrated in the second person, a notoriously unusual, and brave, strategy – with the intervening chapters apparently a more conventional first person – but it isn’t quite so, as the treatment is subtler than that. In fact the “you” of the “second person” chapters is an unnamed character in the novel – as are the “I” and “she” we also find within its covers. His portrait of historical China makes it seem a harsh, lawless place. The book contains an astonishing number of casually reported rapes and abductions of women.

Interspersed with innumerable tales and occasional poems or folk song transcriptions the novel is on the surface the story of a writer, unable to be published after being labelled a rightist, wandering around China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title, and the various encounters he has on the way, many of which are enigmatic. A blurb on the back describes it as “a picaresque novel on an epic scale” which “bristles with narratives in miniature”, and it certainly is picaresque in the dictionary definition. However, another word for it might be “bitty”.

The trouble is that the “you” and “I” are barely distinguishable and there is little in the way of forward thrust. In the writer’s voice Xingjian tells us, “I never speak of we or us. I believe that this is much more concrete than the sham we which is totally meaningless. Even if you and she and he and masculine they and feminine they are images of the imagination, for me they are all more substantial than what is known as we…. How many of we are in fact implicated? There is nothing more false than this we,” – an extract which conveys some of the flavour of the book’s reflective passages.

Xingjian’s purpose is, perhaps, laid out in Chapter 72 where a critic complains, “‘This isn’t a novel!’” and when asked what, then, it is, says, “‘A novel must have a complete story.’” Our narrator says he has told many stories some with endings, some without, and the critic responds, “‘They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t know how to organise connected episodes.’” As to how the critic thinks a novel ought to be organised, foreshadowing, climax then conclusion are cited. Our author then asks “if fiction can be written without conforming to (that) method …. with ‘parts told from beginning to end and parts from end to beginning, parts with a beginning and no ending and others which are only conclusions or fragments which aren’t followed up, parts which are developed but aren’t completed or which can’t be completed or which can be left out or which don’t need to be told any further or about which there’s nothing more to say. And all of these would also be considered stories.’” He retorts to the suggestion that there are no characters, “‘But surely the I, you and she in the book are characters?’” The critic claims, “‘These are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters,’” and also, “‘This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short….. You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!’” (This last could easily stand as a critique of the book.) In a less ambitious work the chapter’s ending, “Reading this chapter is optional but as you’ve read it, you’ve read it,” might feel like a slap in the face to a reader. As it is we’ve known for a long time the book is not straightforward.

In the guise of his writer Xingjian also says, “in the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from linguistic structures.” It is as if he is saying the practice of writing is useless. “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.” Not a sentiment I would have expected to read in a Nobel Prize winner’s book.

Pedant’s corner:- “it was annoying there was a place you’ve never even heard of” (past tense so “you’d”?) Peddlers (USian for pedlars,) eying (eyeing,) undefinable (indefinable?) “there are a series of courtyards” (there is a series,) bungers (these seem to be fireworks; so, bangers?) “this his how fights often start” (is,) “I didn’t seen anything clearly” (see,) “with no-one is sight” (in sight.) “Outside the upstairs widow” (window, I think,) “the band of shining feathers puff out” (the band puffs out,) wreathes (wreaths,) “none of the people sell tops” (none sells tops,) a fire burnt for days (burned is more usual as the past tense, burnt as the past participle,) mucous (as a noun; so, mucus,) an inscriptions (inscription.) “It is only when I stop the recorder to change the tape that, panting, that he too comes to a stop” (one “that” too many,) “came from an other” (is there a different meaning when “another” is used?) “of what consequence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written” (one book fewer?) “the totality of my misfortunes also exist within you” (the totality exists,) cockscombs (cocks’ combs,) “and you stop there and to look” (and look, or omit and,) “A unfriendly voice answers.” (An unfriendly voice,) stomaches (stomachs,) “I immediately open the rice wine right away” (immediately or right away; not both,) high-pitch voice (usually high-pitched.) “Where else can we find these songs which we should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found?” (“can we find”, or, “be found”, not both,) “Aren’t I welcome?” (Do the Chinese phrase this so ungrammatically?) “is that job?” (your job,) “‘But where is the criteria?’” (are,) “the lens were so worn they were like frosted glass” (lenses.) “The Immortal Cliffs slowly recedes” (recede,) artemesia (artemisia.) “Fragments of that hoary old voice sings” (fragments sing,) “his eyes have sunken deep” (sunk,) “striking it everywhere from its centre to their sides” (its sides,) “we… put our thumb print to it” (we; so, prints.)

The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2013, 162 p, plus iii p Translator’s Note and iv p Preface to the French Edition. Translated from the French Le Malentendu by Sandra Smith.

 The Misunderstanding cover

This short novel, originally published in 1924, when the author was 21, examines the love affair between Yves Harteloup and Denise Jessaint. Yves is a former soldier, a veteran of Verdun, but his family’s fortunes have been ruined by the war and he has been forced to work for a poor living. Denise is married (more out of a sense of duty than love) but she is still sexually ingenuous when they meet. Crucially though, her husband is well off. The mismatch in her circumstances and Yves’s is not so apparent at the holiday resort where in Denise’s husband’s absence on business they first spend time together but comes to dominate their relationship when they return to Paris. Denise is frustrated by Yves’s failure to say he loves her, Yves by her inability to act as submissively and devotedly as he would wish. Their mutual misunderstandings lead to a dissatisfaction on both their parts. A piece of advice from her mother precipitates their relationship’s crisis.

Even at this stage of her writing career Némirovsky had a firm grip on her subject matter. There are parallels with Madame Bovary here of which Némirovsky was undoubtedly conscious. Despite this being a first novel, her insights into character and attitudes are already well developed. Quite how much force there is in Denise’s cousin’s assertion that, “In the end, there’s no woman on Earth you can’t get over ….. We men know that from birth,” is debatable, though probably true in the vast majority of cases.

Once again (though see below) Sandra Smith’s translation flows smoothly but she is working with the best of materials. Any Némirovsky novel it would seem is well worth reading.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung up (sprang up,) “and white peacocks roamed the grounds were planted with” (seems to be missing a which.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologist’s attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) by Mikhail Bulgakov

Translated from the Russian Театрализованное Роман (Teatralizovannoye Roman) by Andrew Bromfield. Penguin Classics, 2007, 174 p including 5 p notes: plus iv p chronology, xii p introduction by Keith Gesset, i p Further Reading and A Note on the Text ii p. First published in Novy Mir 1965. The book seems also to have been published in English in 1968 under the title Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel.

 A Dead Man’s Memoir cover

Sergei Maksudov has written a novel: but it cannot be published. All who are shown it comment unfavourably, critically or dismissively and universally tell him it won’t pass the censor. He makes an abortive suicide attempt but then is invited to a meeting with a theatre director who has read the book and wants him to turn it into a play. It is only then that Sergei’s troubles begin. Not only does he sign an onerous contract on poor terms, he has to put up with interference with the text, actors’ jealousies, a misguided director and sundry other difficulties.

A Dead Man’s Memoir is semi-autobiographical, satirising Bulgakov’s experiences in the theatrical world of Moscow. This edition’s text is annotated with references to the real-life models for various characters. There is apparently a lampooning of Stanislavsky among others. The novel, however, remained unfinished as Bulgakov began instead to put his energies into work on his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. It stops on the eve of the first performance of Maksudov’s play.

I know the roman-à-clef is a well-established form but I have reservations about it as it leads some to believe that no characters in a work of fiction are ever entirely made-up. In this instance, though, the book can also be read as an allegory of the labyrinthine workings and the absurdities of the Soviet bureaucracy but in this it is nowhere near as powerful as The Master and Margarita.

Pedant’s corner:- in the introduction; Likopastov (Likospastov.) Elsewhere: “a sturdy man with a beard by the name of Vasily Petrovich.” (I didn’t know Russians named their beards….. The translator could have avoided this ambiguity by writing “a sturdy, bearded man by the name of,”) wee cucumbers (a Scottish translation of a Russian term is unusual,) span (spun.)

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

The Devil’s Elixirs by E T A Hoffman

Oneworld Classics, 2011, 287 p including 2p Editor’s Preface, 1 p Notes, iv p Introduction and ii p Chronology. Translated from the German Die Elixiere des Teufels by Ronald Taylor.

The Devil's Elixirs cover

This is not one of the Hoffman stories which Offenbach turned into an opera. It is, though, a very Gothic tale of temptation, mistaken identity, and encounters with the Devil. Francesco, brought up in a monastery with no idea of his ancestry experiences a sexual torment when he glimpses his music teacher’s sister partly dressed. Later he perceives a slight when seen kissing her discarded glove. To resist temptation he resolves to become a monk, taking the name Medardus, and develops a talent for preaching. The reception of his sermons, which bring in a growing audience, boosts his ego. He is, though, plagued by a vision of the painter of the portrait of St Anthony which hangs in the monastery. He is given access to a box which contains bottles left to St Anthony by the Devil. Of course he gives in to the temptation to drink from one, which makes him euphoric. Partly to remove him from the sin of pride but also from temptation, the Prior, Leonardus, sends him on an errand to Rome. There follows a series of fantastical adventures involving the woman Aurelia (who bears a remarkable resemblance to a portrait of Saint Rosalia,) Medardus’s ancestral family, his döppelganger and various deeds of evil on his part in which Hoffman seems to be saying that origins cannot be outrun and we are doomed to repeat the sins of our forebears. (Recognising and resisting the Devil might be an aid in avoiding that, though.) The plot is intricate, the lines of Medardus’s ancestry convoluted, incidents recur in slightly altered form. The story is presented to us at one remove as a found, or, rather, handed over manuscript (the prior who did so thought it should be burnt) written as a penance for Medardus’s sins.

Early on Leonardus tells Medardus that the pleasures of the world, “produce an indescribable disgust, a complete enervation, an insensibility to higher values, which spells the frustration of man’s spiritual life.” Well, maybe to the religious ascetic: but this acts as an indicator of a kind of detachment which Medardus exhibits in his relations with others and the world.

Pedant’s corner:- Cyrillus’ (Cyrillus’s,) Hermogenes’ (Hermogenes’s,) “I threw away the monk’s habit, which still contained the fateful knife, Victor’s dispatch case and the wicker bottle with the remainder of the Devil’s elixir,” (I read this to mean that the habit, knife, case and bottle had all been thrown away; but the last three are still in his possession a few pages later.) ‘“All the floral arrangements,” said my companion, the work of our beloved Princess,’ is missing a start quotation mark before “the work”, louis d’ors (I doubt this is the correct plural of louis d’or. Should it not be louises d’or? Compare “pieces of eight”. [Unless the plural of louis is simply louis in which case the coin’s plural should be louis d’or.]) Descendents (descendants,) imposter (impostor.)

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