I See What You Did There!

Russian Universe


Of all the possible quotes from Russian literature they’ve chosen this one from Ivan Turgenev’s novel (and without actually mentioning his name). I see what you did there! Pretty smart for a Penguin.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-27-29-pmThe Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery (2006)

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Gallic Books, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog only really starts in Chapter Two of Summer Rain: The Great Work of Making Meaning. All that I read up until that point, excluding some mild philosophical insights, was a litany of self aggrandising and cerebral insecurities.

Finally, there is a lovely point on page 174 where Renée’s past is slowly and sensitively revealed in an anecdote of a little glass globe which held all of her possible hopes and dreams. All of which had been locked away for too long.

Unfortunately for the book and my impressions of Renée, the indefatigable stereotype of the disgruntled and uneducated concierge persists rather too long. Admittedly the book seems to be set in a different time, so some of the of the cultural and class bigotries were still pertinent, and certainly are still applicable today. However, I found it so incredibly difficult to reconcile Renée’s new found confidence with the down trodden perspective which seems to have blighted her whole life:

“I am not accustomed to such a relationship with the world; it seems to me that he views it with indulgence and curiosity, whereas the other human beings I know display with wariness and kindness (Manuela), ingenuity and kindness (Olympe) or arrogance and cruelty (everyone else).” p.225

I was really put off by this almost fetishisation of orientalism and who calls people human beings? Of course the latter could simply be an error of translation; this book was so popular that I was even ignorant as to it being written originally in French. For the former, however, there seems to be no justification. The lack of self-awareness paired with an inept smugness and superiority towards others in the world was really unfortunate and certainly broke any feelings of sympathy for the characters:

“What would I do if I were Colombe Josse, a young student at the École Normale with all my future before me? I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity, to resolving issues that are crucial for the survival, well-being and elevation of mankind, to the fate of Beauty in the world, or to the just crusade for philosophical authenticity.” p.248

Admittedly at this point I was convinced that the book was a scathing criticism on the failures of naivety, or at least an ironic account of a misguided save the world impetus common to many failed literary heros. The only reason I moved away from such a view was that things started slowly to get better. To get richer, to get fuller and to get much more interesting.

I think that instead of following the method of simplicity which builds into dimension in the development of her characters, Barbery decided on the something like the opposite. The characters are immediately so self-assured with their own superiority that they only grow into three dimensional individuals by virtue of their relationships with other people. Even though their personal foundations are vapid and ultimately vain, once they come together, the softer more human aspects of their personalities are free to emerge.

It is only at the point when Paloma and Renée start to recognise one another on an existential level that some truly redemptive moments are given the room to evolve: “You have found a good hiding place.” (p.241) These sweet uncalculated moments are a significant commentary on the fallibility and ignorance of intelligence. Which is what I believe Barbery was ultimately aiming for. Finally, although there is no comparison with another well known work of philosophical fiction; Sophie’s World, there are some absolutely heartrending moments in the book, which do much to make up for the beginning.

Omon Ra

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-12-37-02-pmOmon Ra
Victor Pelevin
New Directions Paperbook 851, USA, 1998
Translated by Andrew Bromfield 1994

Omon Ra was written by Russian author Victor Pelevin and tells the surreal history of “the heroes of the Soviet Cosmos“. Given to me by my good friend Jemima for my birthday it was clear from the very outset that she has a very good understanding of exactly the kind of literature which would grasp my attention. Russian, surreal, unclear and allegorical: Omon Ra is many things which I look for in a great book.

In addition to being comical, the book opens with the family history and childhood development of the young protagonist, fittingly called Omon. We are immediately invited into his family with a poignant discussion on the significance of his name. This intimacy remains with us for the rest of the story. Omon comes to life in ways which are not possible for the other characters. Often more archetypical than three dimensional, they are however only ever the more interesting because of it.

What happens is for each reader to figure out for themselves, however I had a strong sense of the duality of life and a greater appreciation for the possibility of parallel worlds living alongside each other in alternate realities. Pelevin draws significantly from the traditions of surreal renditions of the Soviet period, and as Omon plunges deeper and deeper into the fallacies set out in front of him the true monstrosity of this world is revealed. Pathos is the only word which feels at all fitting for an account of my sentiments at the conclusion of Omon’s story. Filled with uncertainty and a distinct sense of disappointment the ending is certainly an allegory of Soviet Russia.

The Essential Hemingway

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-10-01-42-amThe Essential Hemingway 
Ernest Hemingway
Vintage Books, London (2004)

This collection of novellas and short stories gave me an entirely new appreciation of Hemingway. Reading a couple of his novels set in Spain did not cause me much excitement so I thought I would be faced with something similar throughout his short stories.

The reality was very different. Hemingway is certainly a master of the story. I got this feeling more from the last set of stories in the collection such as; The Light of the World, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Death in the Afternoon. Each of these deals, as does the whole collection in some sense, with the ever approaching spectre of death. In the last stories I saw the culmination of a life’s work, one which was unceasingly ebbing closer to the abyss and silence. Silence as an author’s worst enemy is approached in these stories with a defiant din. An echo back to the void.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place resonated especially with myself, as someone always searching for that last call, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this image of a small bar, in a small village on the edge of a small night and in the depth of sentiment toward a patron trying to ride through the solitude of night. This story is especially pertinent to life in Sydney were all of the bars are closing and all of the lights are being turned out in favour of the ding of the casino bell or of the soft quilted bed cover. Ever less room is being left for those of us who love the night and the rhythm of a bar just before closing hour. The later that hour the better. It not a matter of a party or even of socialising, it is the possibility of disappearing into the night and into its anonymity. It doesn’t matter so much that you can’t sleep when so many others are not sleeping either.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-9-43-25-amLe ravissement de Lol V. Stein 
Marguerite Duras
Gallimard, folio 1964

Honnêtement je n’ai pas beaucoup compris de ce qui se passe dans ce livre flou. J’étais abordée par des images et des sensations; l’une après l’autre sans cesse jusqu’à la fin.

Lol m’a vraiment prise dans son monde de la folie et des vagues de la mémoire. Je ne savais pas à qui j’avais à en parler pendant la plus gros partie du livre et parfois ca m’a donné l’impression d’être perdue moi même. Jusqu’au aujourd’hui je ne sais non plus. Cependant, c’est un livre que reste avec moi et de qui je vais penser pendant des jours et des nuits de l’été. Cette figure de Lol seule; contourné de ses nombreuses phantoms, c’est un image qui va rester et qui est digne du passé du temps.  






Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 9.40.04 PMZadie Smith

The Penguin Press, USA (2012)

NW tells the story of a group of individuals living in a northern corner of London and their various experiences in life. Leah starts off this multi-perspective tale with a dramatic event which seems to alter the very fabric of her existence. Unfortunately we are waiting to find out how and what exactly causes this change through the rest of the book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the revelation that occurs is the realisation that she does not wish to have any children of her own. There is a clever kind of suspended mystery at play here, for although we know this to be the case from the beginning and as it is a fact articulated by Leah to herself throughout, we are still shocked or at least gratified to find its verbalisation to those closest to her to add another level of meaning when said out loud. Natalie (Keisha) is the other fundamental character to this story and her life is also disintegrating before our eyes. Initially her life, as seen from the perspective of Leah and Michel, is depicted as a bastion of marital and motherly bliss. She is successful, independent and a natural mother. All of these illusions are stripped away in the third section of the novel when Natalie is revealed as duplicitous and voyeuristic with regards to her own life. She herself feels to be disengaged from her identity and even her own life; watching with apparent boredom as she engages in various sexual exploits with multiple anonymous partners. All of this is presented to us as though it doesn’t really matter. No one really cares if Natalie is a nymphomaniac just as much as Felix’s death is nothing more than a blip registered on the eternal periphery of these interconnected yet absurdly disinterested lives. In a way, this allows for a much larger picture of NW, one which is built from the many mirrors and intersections of every day life to form a world where everyone and paradoxically no one is watching at any one point. The sense of observation bears down upon each individual story, each of which is linked indeterminably to another, and another etc and continum ad absurdium…

Certainly a great insight into life in a vacum and it being the first book I have read by Smith it will be my pleasure to read more.

Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 10.56.16 AM

Guy de Maupassant
Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris
Librairie Paul Ollendorff, Paris 1919 [1880]

A simple tale of a man searching for health and completing the cycle of work and life in an ordinary fashion with frequent trips to the countryside. Maupassant exhibits his infinite talent for turning irony into meaning, whereby Patissot’s lack of self awareness allows for the expression of  a wonderful third person omniscient perspective:

“Et Patissot, en s’en allant, fut pris d’une immense consideration pour cet homme, non pas tant à cause de ses grands succès, de sa gloire et de son talent, mais parce qu’il mettait tant d’argent pour une fantasie, tandis que les bourgeois ordinaries se privent de toute fantasie pour amasser de l’argent!”

(And Patissot, going upon his way, was seized with an immense sense of esteem for this great man, not so much for his successes, his glory or his talent, but because he was so willing to spend such large amounts of money on a whim, whereas an ordinary bourgeois citizen would sacrifice all whim for the chance to accumulate more money) 

The irony extends to real life when Patissot is asked to visit a famous artist by his journalist cousin and is informed that the best way to deal with artists is to

“…faites seulement des compliments, rien que des compliments, toujours des compliment…”

(… all you need to do is pay them compliments, nothing but compliments, always compliments…)

The irony becomes apparent when in fact the artist in question is Emile Zola, Maupassant’s mentor and friend. When we do reach the scene with Zola, the joke continues, as hinted by their arrival at a tiny house built by the previous owner which now stands in the shadow of Zola’s construction:

“Avant d’entrer, ils examinèrent l’habitation. Une grande construction carrée et neuve, très haute, semblait avoir accouché, comme la montagne de la fable, d’une toute petite maison blanche, blottie à son pied. Cette dernière maison, la demeure primitive, a été bâtie par l’ancien propriétaire. La tour fut édifiée par Zola.”

(Before entering, they analysed the facade. A huge square building, new and very high appeared to have birthed, as the mountain in the fable, a small white house pressed tightly against its feet. This last house, primitive in its design, had been built by the previous owner. The tower was of Zola’s creation.)

The physical character portrait of Zola however, is completely in earnest. We can almost imagine the great Zola standing over an already 30 year old Maupassant lecturing on the limits of style. And with what seems fitting to Maupassant’s world view the giant on top of the hill descends to share in common the universal pride of property:

“Alors le propriétaire s’éveilla dans le coeur indifférent de l’homme de lettres qui, souriant, ouvrit le vitrage pour montrer l’étendue de la perspective.”

(And so the indifferent heart of the great man of letters was awakened, and with a smile he opened the window out on to the extensive views below.) 

These are most certainly the most interesting scenes in the novella, with the rest focusing on the superficialities of contemporary French society and bizarre relationships formed by strangers. However, there is a turn towards the absurd with the case of the disappearing Government:

“Pardon, monsieur, on ne peut pas le voir. J’ai essayé plus de cent fois, moi, monsieur. Je me suis embusqué auprès de l’Elysée : il n’est pas sorti. Un passant m’a affirmé qu’il jouait au billard, au café en face ; j’ai été au café en face : il n’y était pas. On m’avait promis qu’il irait à Melun pour le concours : je me suis rendu à Melun, et je ne l’ai pas vu. Je suis fatigué, à la fin.” 

(Excuse me Sir, but we cannot see him. I myself have tried at least a hundred times, Sir. I petitioned the Elysée: to no avail. Someone in passing informed me that he was playing at billiards in the cafe near by, I went to the cafe nearby, he was not there. They informed me that he would be at Melun for the races, I presented myself at Melun, and I did not see him there. To be honest, I am exhausted.)  

It’s refreshing to read some obvious parody of French institutions that we all so love to hate. Although the there is no real ending, and is rather abrupt in its denouement, the various chapters churn through unlikely characters who are more than keen open up to Patissot:

“C’est vrai, monsieur ; mais, si les prêtres étaient des hommes comme les autres, mes malheurs ne seraient pas arrivés. Je suis ennemi du célibat ecclésiastique, moi, monsieur, et j’ai mes raisons pour ça.”

(It’s true Sir, if priests were men like all others, my misfortune would never have come to pass. I myself am revolted by ecclesiastical celibacy, Sir, and I have my reasons. )

Maupassant is well versed in the fact that a good story is one in which everyone has their own.