0

‘The Vanishing Futurist’ by Charlotte Hobson ****

Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel.  Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions.  Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
9780571234875

The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’  A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune.  He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance.  The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’  Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.

Gerty, a headstrong young woman, takes it upon herself to find out the truth behind his disappearance, which becomes quite notorious in Russian circles.  In fact, his mysterious exit from Russia causes him to become a ‘Soviet icon’, with streets named after him, and films made about his life.  People remain convinced that one day he will reappear; ‘that if his Socialisation Capsule can distort our perception of temporal reality, then it can equally reinstate it.’

Gerty, in her late seventies, is looking back on her life, focusing upon her time in Russia when living in London.  She justifies this decision by saying: ‘My husband, Paul, died six months ago, and since then I have had the strange sensation that the present, my creaky old body in the little terraced house in Hackney which we bought together, is no longer my home.’  She reveals that she has kept this portion of her past a secret from her only daughter, Sophy, and it seems time to make amends.  Talking face to face seems difficult, so Gerty takes another route: ‘I find myself writing an account for her instead, using the papers as my starting point.  This way, I think, will be more truthful – more complete – than if I stammer it out incoherently.’

The novel is narrated by Gerty, who comes from Truro in Cornwall, and decides to become a governess for the Kobelev family in central Moscow.  Of her reasoning to do so, she states: ‘… I was a bookish, scrawny girl, a spinster in the making; argumentative and contrary to my father (as he often said) and disappointingly serious to my mother, who wanted to gossip with me about clothes.  Reading Tolstoy had made me long to visit this country full of peasant women in birch-bark sandals, young officers as fresh as cucumbers, forests filled with unheard-of berries.’ I found Gerty’s voice immediately believable, and its pace and turns of phrase were maintained with consistency throughout.

From the outset, Hobson weaves in rather sensuous descriptions to Gerty’s narrative, which allow her to deftly capture her drastically different change of surroundings: ‘… I was shown immediately to Mrs Kobelev’s room, the heart of the house, dark and hot and smelling of face powder and eau de cologne and slept-in sheets and violet lozenges.’  Moscow, one of my own favourite cities, has been marvellously captured in all of its mystery: ‘Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections.  At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might…  Yet slowly I came to know its little courtyards, its secret gardens and alleys, its cool green boulevards cast in relief against the bustle and noise.  It was impossible not to be charmed by the wooden houses and the bawdy streets, the little churches squeezed into every corner.  There was a sort of unexpected joyfulness about it all, unlike any other city I have known.’  Despite the outbreak of war, and the looming Revolutions, Gerty finds a freedom in Moscow that she has never known at home in Cornwall: ‘… I discovered a household where the most absurd and opposing views could be voiced, disagreed with, argued over or renounced without any tempers lost or touchy Chapel gods involved.’

Hobson successfully navigates her way through a pivotal period of Russia’s history, weaving in avant-garde elements against the backdrop of mass arrests and sea-change.  Moscow, and Russia on a grander scale, has been marvellously captured, and the entirety of the novel is so engaging.  There is humour here – for instance, Slavkin ‘ate a great deal of sandwiches, swallowing them whole, like a snake’.  I could not help but feel a fondness for Gerty.

Telling such a story through the eyes of a participant and also a bystander, as Gerty is, is a clever touch, which works well.  The Vanishing Futurist took a series of twists and turns which I was not expecting, and is a novel which is so clever, and so well executed.  I look forward both to picking up Hobson’s debut, and to seeing what she comes up with next.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Fairlight Moderns: Emma Timpany and Sophie van Llewyn

I published reviews of three of the Fairlight Moderns novellas recently, and having now read the last two in the series of five, thought that I would post reviews of these too.

Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany **** 9781912054480
In Travelling in the Dark, Emma Timpany’s protagonist, Sarah, is travelling back to her native New Zealand from her home in England, accompanied by her young son.  Her husband has recently left her, and she is making the journey in order to show her son where she spent her own childhood, and to meet an old friend with whom she has a lot of history.

Travelling in the Dark begins in such a vivid manner, in prose which feels at once simplistic and engaging: ‘Sarah is on an aeroplane, crossing the night sky.  Her hands are folded in her lap.  Outside the window there is darkness.  She could slide the small, white window blind down, close out the night, but somehow she cannot bring herself to make this one small act.  The sense that she sometimes gets, that she must keep watching or she’ll miss something of importance, is intense, though she cannot see anything beyond the veil of ice crystals.  No stars, no satellites.  No planets.  No moon.  No radiant light from some far city.’  As one can tell from this snippet, Timpany’s descriptions are often quite lovely, particularly when she gives her attention to the natural world.

Every other chapter, which is interspersed between details of Sarah’s present day journey, are vignettes set during her childhood.  Such a sense of place and character can be found throughout Travelling in the Dark, and I so enjoyed Timpany’s writing that I am now waiting eagerly for her next publication.
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn ****
9781912054305Bottled Goods is Sophie van Llewyn’s first piece of ‘long fiction’.  This novella begins in the Communist Romania of the 1960s, where, in the first scene, protagonist Alina is taken on a roadtrip with her cousins and Aunt Theresa.  Short chapters ensue, some of which are told using the voice of Alina, and others which use an omniscient narrator.  A few chapters consist largely of lists.

From the outset, Bottled Goods is vivid in its descriptions, and culturally and historically fascinating.  Van Llewyn does incredibly well to put across the terror and strength of the regime in such a succinct yet harrowing manner.  She demonstrates how quickly things escalated in the regime, and how far-reaching its effect was upon every Romanian citizen.  The use of magical realism works very well too, particularly given the point at which it is introduced; it is used in quite a serious way, so does not tend to lighten the tone of the novella at all, but it does make one think.  Van Llewyn’s blending of realism with the element of magical realism is rather inventive, and certainly makes for a strange, quirky, and memorable novella.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Two Underdogs and a Cat’ by Slavenka Drakulic ****

‘Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic here presents an unorthodox, imaginative take on the transition from Communism to capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Three characters – a dog, an underdog, and a cat – offer the reader narratives that reflect on life under Communism and what has followed in its wake. The first, “An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest,” is about a dog named Charlie, whose mother, Mimi, together with thousands of other pets, was thrown out into the street during the Ceausescu regime. In this interview, Charlie describes how not only people but animals, too, became victims during the destruction of downtown neighborhoods in Bucharest in order to build a pyramid-like ‘Palace of the People’. In “A Guided Tour of the Museum of Communism,” a sixty-year-old souvenir vendor-cum-cleaning woman in Prague reflects upon the meaning of such a museum and concludes wryly that she herself is possibly the museum’s best exhibit. Finally, “A Cat-keeper in Warsaw” describes an encounter with a person “of feline origin” who claims to be in possession of the cat-keeper called ‘General’ who declared martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981. The three stories are unified by powerful, but troubling questions: Are democracy and capitalism really a change for the better? Is the idea of social justice lost forever? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility? And how do we remember and understand our past?’

9781906497286I have wanted to read Slavenka Drakulic’s work for ages, and borrowed Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism, the only book of hers which my library had in stock. The volume is comprised of three short stories entitled ‘A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism’, ‘An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest’, and ‘The Cat-Keeper in Warsaw’, told from the perspective of a mouse, a dog, and a cat respectively.

Drakulic’s work is clever, deep, and well informed, with a touch of whimsy. Each story is engaging, and the way in which they are told and the content which they express mould to become something quite profound. In the first story, for instance, Drakulic writes the following: ‘Maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.’

Informative, powerful, and rather different to many of the reflections on Communist rule which I have read to date, Two Underdogs and a Cat is one of the most memorable books I have come across in quite a while. Drakulic effectively demonstrates how far-reaching Communism was, and the effects which still remain today for ordinary people. As she writes in ‘An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest’, in a clear play on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘In the transition from Communism to capitalism, all people are unequal but some are more unequal than others’.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The State and Revolution’ by Vladimir Lenin ****

‘The State and Revolution’ by Vladimir Lenin

My Dad gave this book to me a couple of years ago, and I picked it up when I felt like a Russian History kick in early December.  I have a different edition to the one pictured, which was published in the Soviet Republic and has no lettering upon its spine – so one can keep it secret upon one’s bookshelf, I suppose.

I am a self-confessed Russian History nerd, and will read anything whatsoever upon the vast and incredibly interesting country’s history.  The subtitle of The State and Revolution is ‘The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution’. The book has been split into quite short and concise chapters, and the information which Lenin presents is organised into shorter sections.

Throughout, Lenin writes about a wealth of information.  He sets out the Marxist theory and how he himself interpreted it, the notion of bourgeois rule, the ‘omnipotence of wealth’, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and the great divide between the two, propaganda and how it came to be used, universal suffrage and what it means for society, economic development, anarchy, social classes, serfdom, and so on.  He backs up his own ideas and theories with quotes by Marx and Engels throughout.

The State and Revolution has been well written, and the translation has been nicely done too.  It is a great add-on volume to The Communist Manifesto, which I read in my own time at University.  It builds upon the foundations which Marx and Engels present in their book, applying their theories to a real society.  I would certainly recommend it, as it gives a great overview of Communism in Russia, and the doctrines which it was based upon.