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Reading the World: ‘The Suitcase’ by Sergei Dovlatov ***

Translated from its original Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase fits wonderfully within my Reading the World Project.  I had never read any Dovlatov before picking this novella up in the Books for Amnesty shop in Cambridge, but was intrigued by its premise: ‘Several years after emigrating from the USSR, the author discovers the battered suitcase he had brought with him gathering dust at the back of a wardrobe. As he opens the suitcase, the seemingly undistinguished items he finds inside take on a riotously funny life of their own as Dovlatov inventories the circumstances under which he acquired them’.

9781847492791Dovlatov’s books were banned in Russia, and he was forced into a life of exile in the United States.  The Suitcase, published for the first time in 1986 in Russia, and in English translation in 1990, is perhaps one of the most modern male-written Russian books which I have read, as I tend to plump for the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  The Suitcase is a comic work, ‘overlaid with Dovlatov’s characteristically dark-edged humour’.  On the book’s blurb, in fact, he is deemed ‘one of the finest satirists of the twentieth century’.

The Suitcase has been simply but effectively split into sections which detail all of the things found in the suitcase, from ‘The Finnish Crepe Socks’ to ‘The Winter Hat’.  This essentially forms a series of interconnected short stories.  The narrator of the piece is named Sergei Dovlatov too, but it is not entirely certain whether this is a work with autobiographical echoes in terms of the existence of such a suitcase and its contents.

We learn quite a lot about Dovlatov the character from the stories which we are told.  After he has been released from prison at the outset of the work, he gives a short appraisal of his life, and where he finds himself: ‘I almost wept with self-pity.  After all, I was thirty-six years old.  Had worked eighteen of them.  I earned money, bought things with it.  I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me.  And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that’.

Dovlatov is amusing and sardonic throughout, although some of the chapters are certainly funnier than others.  He mocks the Communist regime, and the way of life which had to be adhered to when he was young and living in Russia: ‘As a schoolboy I liked to draw the leaders of the world proletariat – especially Marx.  Just start smearing an ordinary splotch of ink around and you’ve already got a resemblance…’.

The Suitcase has been written and translated well, but I did not enjoy it as much as others seem to.  The writing is more matter of fact than pretty, and the descriptions are cursory when talking about anything other than the items within the suitcase.  Dovlatov seems to subscribe to the ‘tell rather than show’ method of prose writing.  It is rather a quick read, and a thoughtful one at times, but whilst there is a social commentary and historical details – black marketeering, politics, figureheads, industry, Communism and Capitalism, and propaganda, to name just a few – running throughout the book, there is not the depth to it which I was expecting there to be.  There is profundity at times, but I feel that this could have been used to better effect had the writing sparkled more.

There is not much of a geographical sense of place within the pages of The Suitcase, which would have added depth and context to the whole.  It is also quite dialogue heavy, something which I’m not that keen on in stories unless it’s done incredibly well.  Whilst it does hold interest for those fascinated by Russian history, I have discovered that I am far more a fan of the descriptive variety of Russian literature, by the likes of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Bulgakov.  The Suitcase does present a series of stories which circle around a clever central idea, but I found that I liked the idea of it more than its execution.

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Reading the World: ‘Reader for Hire’ by Raymond Jean **** (One From the Archive)

The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series.  Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter.  The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny.  A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.

Marie-Constance is our protagonist.  The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’.  After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself.  And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.

The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.  I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday.  It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”.  I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember.  It struck me that my voice was really rather nice.  But can we truly hear ourselves?’  The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’.  The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts.  A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’.  The subsequent cast of characters is varied.  As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature.  The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse.  The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.

Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained.  The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language.  The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before.  On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.

Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services.  A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life.  We are shown the power that words are able to hold.  Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature.  In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.

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One From the Archive: ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen ***

Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is the first book in Peirene Press’ Chance Encounter series, and the 16th publication on their list.  It has been hailed an ‘extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’.  The novella is also the recipient of several prizes, including the Best Finnish Debut Novel of 2012.

As ever with a Peirene publication, one knows that the story which awaits will be intelligent, thought-provoking and difficult to put down.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, compares White Hunger to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive’.

Set in 1867, White Hunger deals with a devastating famine which swept across Finland, affecting everyone in its wake.  The novella’s main protagonist is Marja, a mother and farmer’s wife from the north of the country.  She and her family are slowly starving, and as she has heard that there is bread in St Petersburg, she decides to travel there with her children, Mataleena and Juho.  Her husband Juhani’s impending death is the crux which leads her to leave her home.  Ollikainen uses colour marvellously to describe his final moments: ‘The colour is being drained from Juhani’s face.  The first to go was red, the colour of blood.  Red changed into yellow, then yellow, too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now fading gradually into white’.

Alongside Marja’s story, we learn about others whom she comes across on her journey.  A subplot deals with that of assistant accountant to Finland’s senator, a man named Lars, who is trying desperately to hold everything together: ‘Lars was a mere messenger, but the senator directed his anger at him…  Finally, he [Lars] cursed the stupid farmers in the country’s interior – fat, lazy landowners who threw out their workers so they would have more for themselves, even though by rights they should have fed their poor’.  Ollikainen also speaks about Lars’ brother Teo, a local doctor, whose methods of practice add more historical perspective to the whole.

The descriptions throughout White Hunger show the desolation and starkness of the surroundings, and the power which nature has upon the people: ‘The wind tugs waves out of the water.  The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed’.  The rural and bleak situation of the unnamed Finnish town are well built too: ‘Your hometown’s a miserable village on a wretched little island’, Teo is told.  The author’s building of scenes in this manner adds an almost claustrophobic feel to the whole.  The presence of snow, which is described as a ‘suffocating blanket of white’, is sinister in itself: ‘The door is the worst.  Snow pushes in through the chinks and forms a frame, like a cadaver bent on settling in the cottage…  They need to get as far away as possible from their miserable patch of land.  All that is left here is death’.

Ollikainen’s occasional use of present tense adds an immediacy to the whole, and makes it feel almost contemporary at times, despite its historical setting.  The comparisons which he makes between humans and animals is so perceptive; images such as one character ‘grinning wolf-like’, and another ‘hunching his narrow shoulders in the manner of a dog caught by his master up to no good’ are prevalent.

White Hunger has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  Both translators are fabulously thoughtful at what they do, and the whole has a marvellous flow to it.  The novella is quite tender in places, and this contrasts well with the more frightening elements.  As one might expect with a plot such as this, darker aspects of life have been woven throughout – prostitution, murder, and the objectification of women, for example.  The bleak and powerful plot and almost compulsive readability make White Hunger a good fit upon the Peirene Press list.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Misunderstanding’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in September 2012.

Irène Némirovsky’s first novel, The Misunderstanding, was written when she was twenty one years old and published in a literary journal two years later in 1926. The book presents a ‘tragic satire of French society after the Great War’. The Misunderstanding has been newly published in English this year.

Denise Jessaint and Yves Harteloup are the protagonists in this novel, which is set in a small village named Hendaye in an ‘enchanting corner’ of the Basque region, as well as Paris, in 1924. Yves holidayed in the resort as a child, where he had savoured long, golden days, as delicious as ripe fruit’, and has returned in order to gain some respite from his stuffy office job in the city. He is in his thirties, ‘so weary, so lacklustre’ in appearance, ‘with that slight bitter grimace at the corner of his mouth’. He fought in the First World War and bears a scare from ‘his last wound – a shell that had exploded and almost killed him in Belgium’. Born to rich parents and raised on old money, he ‘grew up learning to love beautiful things and how to spend money, how to dress… how to regard women as the only worthwhile worldly possession’. Yves is disenchanted with his new working life, wishing to be carefree once again: ‘This young man, who for four years had been a kind of hero, was cowardly when faced with the daily grind, the need to work, the petty tyranny of existence’.

Quite by chance, he meets Denise on a beach, where she is playing with her young daughter, Francette. Denise is ‘beautiful, frank, direct’, with ‘the worrying nature and anxious imagination of a true mother’. Bored with her marriage to Jacques, who met Yves at a hospital in Belgium when both were wounded in the war, Denise is enthralled with Yves’ company, and they soon begin a relationship with one another.

The novel is rather a compact one, taking place in around a year, but this small timeframe only adds to the story. It is clear that Némirovsky’s has considered the impacts of such a relationship on both involved parties, and the way in which she writes about how their affair grows and then begins to dissipate is masterful. The turns of events which she has fashioned throughout are believable, and we learn about their affair and all that goes with it – secrecy, lies, misunderstandings, clandestine meetings, happiness and unhappiness.

‘As in many of her works,’ notes Sandra Smith, the translator of all of Irène Némirovsky’s novels into English, ‘Némirovsky closely examines an extra-marital affair… Even in this early novel, however, she is able to see both sides of the question and alternates between writing from the perspective of the man and the woman’. This is not an entirely true statement. Whilst Némirovsky does follow both Yves and Denise separately and then together, the third person omniscient perspective has been used throughout. Whilst we get to know the characters and the inclusion of their thoughts and feelings does allow us to perceive them as realistic, we never truly get inside their heads.

Sections of the dialogue throughout does feel a little disjointed at the beginning of the novel, and it consequently does not always read as a true-to-life conversation would. This does improve as the story progresses, however. The only real qualm in the story is the author’s portrayal of two-year-old Francette Jessaint. In some chapters, she acts as one of her age would be expected to – making pies out of sand and amusing herself through play – but in others she seems far too grown up. Some of the words and phrases which she utters are too advanced for her age group, and it seems that there is no real consistency with her character or dialogue.

Némirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful, as are her turns of phrase. Her prose style is wonderfully executed. She is incredibly perceptive of the world around her and builds up the relationship between Yves and Denise realistically. The Misunderstanding is a rich, multi-layered novel, which shows just how the past affects the present.

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‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid ****

Published in 2007, and subsequently shortlisted for 2007’s Man Booker Prize, so much of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is still timely and relevant.  In fact, I can hardly put it better than the official blurb, which states: ‘Challenging, mysterious and thrillingly tense, Mohsin Hamid’s masterly The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a vital read teeming with questions and ideas about some of the most pressing issues of today’s globalised, fractured world. ‘

9780141029542The Reluctant Fundamentalist is both spellbinding and important.  It opens in a cafe in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province in Pakistan, when a ‘mysterious stranger’ comes to sit at your table – for the novel is addressed to ‘you’, an unnamed character from the Western world, who is not given a name or identity of their own.  ‘Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this speaker of immaculate English to seek you out.  For he is more worldly than you might expect…  He knows the West better than you do.  And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream – and a Western woman – and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens.  Then the true reason for your meeting becomes abundantly clear…’.

Hamid’s writing is sometimes rather spare, but if anything, this gives it more power.  In essence, we are party to a one-sided conversation.  We are lulled into the realistic, fluid voice of the narrator, which has been beautifully crafted, and that makes the horrors which he sometimes discusses all the more poignant and shocking.  The inclusion of the second-person narrative perspective is incredibly immersive, and allows us, the reader, to feel an incredible range of emotions whilst reading.  The way in which the conversation takes place over a single day, is a simple yet effective tool which adds more immediacy to the whole.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the first of Hamid’s books which I have read, but it will by no means be the last.  It is beautifully sculpted, and holds so much importance within its pages.  The multilayered approach, and the way in which interconnected threads and stories weave in and out of the narrative, has been used to great effect.  There is a strength and quiet power to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as well as incredibly memorable scenes and turns of phrase; the combination of its briefness, depth, and memorability render it nothing short of a modern masterpiece.

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‘Plain Girl’ by Arthur Miller ****

Whilst I am rather a big fan of Arthur Miller’s plays, Plain Girl, which I purchased from Books for Amnesty in Cambridge back in April, was the first of his prose works which I had read.  It seemed a fitting tome to read in the current climate; its blurb states that the novella (or, arguably, the extended short story) ‘is a beautifully crafted account of a quest for personal fulfilment against a backdrop of world crisis’.  Rather than the threat of Trump and the havoc which he is already wreaking, the threat in Plain Girl is Hitler; even in New York, ‘the Germans were rallying on the street corners to bait Jews and praise Hitler on summertime Saturday nights’.

Published in the United States in 1992, and in the United Kingdom in 1995, Plain Girl has been very highly praised; the Evening Standard calls it a ‘superb fiction’ which ‘deserves praising to the top of the highest skyscraper for its humanity, wit and depth’, and The Sunday Times deems it ‘a tiny jewel of a book.

Janice Sessions, the protagonist of the piece, is seen by all as a plain girl, despite being the daughter of a ‘stylish old-fashioned New York Jew’.  We first meet her as she lays beside her dead husband in bed; much of the novel then goes back to look at her past relationships.  When her beau, a ‘passionate communist’ named Sam, leaves for war, she begins to discover her own identity, falling in love once more, and feeling valued.  9780413694805

To anyone at all familiar with his plays, it will come as no surprise that Plain Girl is marvellously written.  The sense of both time and place is strong, and Miller demonstrates a wonderful insight.  From the first page, Janice has rather a startling psychological depth to her, and is not at all a stereotypical woman of her class and period.  She is rather a complex character: ‘She was and wanted to be a snob…  She wondered if she’d been drawn out of the womb and lengthened, or her mother startled by a giraffe…  She had a tonic charm and it was almost – although not quite, of course – enough, not since childhood…’.  So many of the themes which are explored here are of great importance now, from politics and grief, to family, war, sexual relations, and literature.

Plain Girl is a poignant and resonant novella.  At just 76 pages of rather large type, it is incredibly brief, a mere breath of a story.  Regardless, Miller packs in such depth.  The whole has been well ordered, and intelligently crafted.  Miller provides a quick but thought-provoking foray into the mind of a woman, and her struggle to find her own place in an unstable world.  Whilst Plain Girl did not take my breath away in quite the way that his plays have done, and did not feel quite as clever, it is certainly worth seeking out.

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