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Thursday 29 April 2010

To thine own self be true

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

Ring To thine own self be true: this is another one of those expressions that we use all the time, albeit in modern English; it trips off the tongue but what’s it really saying? Be selfish? That is it, isn’t it? Look after numero uno. Do your own thing and sod the consequences.

How can one be true to oneself until one knows oneself, though? As we grow up we try on different selves, look in the mirror (literal or metaphorical) and go, “Nah.” Then one day the person looking back doesn’t appear so bad and we say, “You know, I could live with that,” and we stop all the psychological dressing up and let who we are coalesce: this is who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. Later on, years later usually, we perchance to glance in that mirror and who we thought we were has started to crumble a bit, but we’re not as pliable as we once were and change is hard; oftentimes we give up and settle, learn to live with who we have become even if we’re not who we hoped we’d be by then.

russian_doll I was a poet when I was a boy. I looked in the mirror and a poet looked back at me. But over the years layer after layer were slathered on top of him and eventually only I ever knew there was a poet there on the inside. It happens to us all. All of this I talked about in my ‘Russian Dolls’ post recently. But just because something is buried doesn’t mean it can’t be alive. Our hearts are buried in our chests and they’re very much alive. I’ve certainly never seen my own heart – I sincerely hope I never do – but I know it’s there and I do what I can to look after it. A whole new man has grown around that heart, one I really don’t recognise when I look in the bathroom mirror these days, but my heart is true, it is still the heart of a poet.

That’s another expression people use, “To thine own heart be true”:


When, yestereve, I knelt to pray,
As thou hast taught me to,
I seemed to hear the angels say,
"To thine own heart be true."

Haddonjg It’s from a song by Sydney Grundy from the operetta, Haddon Hall, but the expression goes back generations no doubt.

You don’t often hear the expression, “Be true to your own mind.” “Know your own mind” is probably the equivalent.

The past is a big hill to climb and it’s getting bigger day by day. When Beethoven studied music what was there? Haydn, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart and no doubt a plethora of minor composers who were big in their day. Nowadays a modern composer has literally hundreds of years’ worth of composers to study before he can clamber to the top of that hill and breathe. And, amazingly, new ones keep cropping up with their own unique sounds, e.g. Ligeti, Pärt, Glass. You would think that every tune that could have been written would have been written by now – let’s face it they’ve only got twelve tones to work with – but apparently not. And yet when we listen to them it’s nigh impossible not to hear echoes of all those who’ve gone before them. I remember listening to the soundtrack of Alien if memory serves me right (although it may well have been Aliens) and thinking, I know that tune and, after digging around in my music collection, there it was, a snippet from Barber’s Piano Concerto. It may have been deliberate – composers do quote from each other often blatantly (Rick Wakeman incorporated a few bars ofRick_Wakeman-Journey_To_The_Centre_Of_The_Earth-Frontal[1] Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King into Journey to the Centre of the Earth) – it might be a coincidence or it might have even been unconscious; it doesn’t matter.

We writers have a bit more scope – a whole twenty-six letters – and again new writers appear with wholly unique voices, e.g. Beckett, Brautigan, Bukowski. No sooner do they appear, however, than they begin to be imitated, which is flattering but it is right? It’s certainly not wrong. It’s natural. And imitation is the highest form of flattery. Beckett was so in thrall to James Joyce that he didn’t simply emulate his writing style – anyone who has struggled through Dream of Fair to Middling Women will know exactly what I mean – but he even wore shoes that were the same style and size nearly crippling himself.

SB was sycophantic, imitating Joyce's posture, drinking white wine, holding his cigarette affectedly, and wearing tight shoes (Joyce was proud of his small feet). - The Grove companion to Samuel Beckett

When you consider what an original Beckett became it’s cringeworthy to read about what he was like as a young man. (Beckett met Joyce in 1929 when he was twenty-three.) The simple fact is he had to get him out of his system. It’s like a crush. You know it’s a crush. You know it’s not love and yet it won’t let you go. In my experience there’s not much you can do but wait for it to run its course and set you free. Enjoy it for what it is.

I think I’ve been quite lucky in that writers who have had the most profound effect on me have not been easy for me to imitate. This doesn’t mean I haven’t tried:

Poem to be Read in the Dark

(for S.B.B.)

That is how it is.

but for the clouds
and my breath.

for the footfalls.

for the angels of darkness.

Bright at last –
at the end.

23rd July 1989

It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever written. I think of it more like a wee bit of fan fiction than a serious poem. Here’s another that I would never have written had I not come across E. E. Cummings’ poem about a falling leaf:


un emptiness1_thumb[1]



It’s the only poem in my canon like that and I never expect to write another. The same goes for this recent poem which I wrote after finishing reading a collection of Bukowski’s poetry:

not a Bukowski poem

Bukowski I am not Bukowski
but I am the kind of person
he would have written about
if he had lived in Glasgow
or I had lived in L. A..

he would have sat at his desk
with his shirt off,
watched me
and decided what kind of man
I was.

it’s uncomfortable having the shoe
on the other foot.

5th January 2010

Why did I write these three poems? Essentially to understand the mindset of the writer. You really don’t understand a thing until you do it. You can analyse someone’s work till the cows come home but nothing bests getting your hands dirty.

Question: What makes Beckett Beckett, Hemingway Hemingway and Kafka Kafka? The fact that the writing embodied them. None of the three poems above is really me. I wrote them but they’re not my typical style. I’ve talked about finding my own voice before. I would hope that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my approach. If you’re new then there are links in the right-hand column to all the poems that are live online at the moment – please feel free to have a shuftie at a few. I’m not really sure how I would describe my voice but I definitely have one.

Let’s try: I have my recurrent themes, there’s no doubt about that, the nature of truth being way at the top of the tree, but it’s more than that. There’s certainly an aphoristic quality to most pieces, short pithy statements, and I do love a punch line that’ll wind up my reader. The Bukowski poem is closest to my own style but that’s one of the things I appreciated about his poetry and probably why I connected with it immediately.

My wife says my poetry is “naïvely twisted and brilliantly obvious. You look at everything as if it’s the first time you’ve ever looked at it ... you make us see those obvious things in a different light.” She said more but that was all I managed to get down accurately. I do believe I’m blushing under all this hair.

Drummer I think one of the hardest things for any writer is to march to the beat of his own drum. Especially when everyone around him is drumming so loud. The only way I found I could do it was to isolate myself. I read very little of other writers especially those with strong styles. You can’t walk through the perfume section of Lewis’s and not come out smelling of roses or of something anyway.

Time for an anecdote:

A novelist I know went on a blind date with an optometrist (built-in irony!), and she not only suggested new glasses for him, but after the movie they saw, she spoke about which actors had contacts or needed glasses. He spoke about the film in literary terms, of its "character arc" and "turning points." Their specialties made them see the film in different ways. – Christoper Meeks, ‘Finding your voice’

swampthing Like a lot of writers I’m quite an introspective guy. It’s probably why I’ve walked into so many (metaphorical) walls in my life because I’ve not been looking where I was going. Who am I? Who the hell am I? I’m unique that’s what I am. I have a mindset and an accompanying set of experiences and knowledge that sets me apart from every other person on the planet which is why you’ll be just as likely to find me prattling on about Alan Moore’s tenure as Swamp Thing’s writer in the eighties as I might end up discussing the rape of Tamar (which I thought about referencing when I was talking about crushes but it would have needed too much explaining). As I grow older my palette expands and I expect to continue to grow into myself until the day I drop dead.

So what’s Swamp Thing to do with anything? In 1982, DC Comics revived the Swamp Thing series, attempting to capitalize on the summer release of the dire Wes Craven film of the same name. When Alan Moore took over the project not long after he had a problem. Was he going to do the same as DC did with the Batman comic after the TV show in the sixties turned the whole thing camp (and basically ruined a great character for twenty years until Frank Miller came along and saved him?) or was he going to, like Miller would, do his own thing? He chose the latter and, after one issue, killed off the character and began reinventing him in what came to be a landmark series that culminated in the abandonment of the CCA’s Comics Code. That’s what Swamp Thing has to do with it. Moore took a muck-encrusted monster whose outdated book was expected to be cancelled before too long and transformed it into the most important ongoing series at the time.

Model-T It’s easy to do what works. The Model-T worked. It got people from A to B. Stephenson’s Rocket worked. It’s not enough to just work. Moore could have continued with the storyline that Martin Pasko had left him. Well, he did kinda have to which is what his first issue does, it takes up the reigns and drives the whole thing over a cliff. From there on Moore did his own thing. You can actually download the entire second issue (#21) here if you’re interested.

There are a lot of people out there who want to tell you what works. Stories with beginnings, middles and ends work; the three-act structure in films works; haiku that are seventeen syllables long work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these. They are established, tried and tested. So why go against the grain? Quite simply because there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

I don’t think that rules are made to be broken, I like rules, I like driving on the left and knowing that no one is going to plough into me because he felt like driving on the right that day. There are some areas of our life where we need hard and fast rules. Writing is not one of those areas though. All the rules people made up in the past are simply guidelines as far as I’m concerned. I can make up new rules any time I like, and you can’t say you need no rules because that’s plain daft. When Moore threw out the rules book in issue #21 of Swamp Thing he immediately established his own. The first story is called ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ in which he sets down what the true nature of the beast will be from now on but he does it without pooh-poohing all that went before him. If I can use a musical analogy, he modulates from one form to another: from a man who thinks he’s been transformed into a monster by the kind of accident that befalls most comic book heroes (Peter Parker being bitten by the spider, Bruce Banner being exposed to gamma radiation) to an elemental creature who only thinks it’s human. Genius.

Being true to oneself requires a certain level on confidence. This wasn’t Moore’s first gig. He’d been writing for about ten years beforehand in which time he had developed his own style. He had his heroes too and has been called “a disciple of Kurtzman's style”; that would be Harvey Kurtzman, founding father of magazines likemad105 MAD and Help! Will Eisner and Jack Kirby are also cited as influences along with a load of non-comics-related people. I’m not sure I can see any Jack Kirby in his work but I’m happy to be corrected.

After standing on the shoulders of giants Moore has become a giant in his own right and his influence is being openly acknowledged:

His talent for unflinchingly showing people what they really are has made him an inspiration for everyone from Joss Whedon to Lost producer Damon Lindelof to director Christopher Nolan, who has noted the influence of Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke on The Dark Knight. – Andrew Firestone, ‘The Wizard of “Watchmen”’, The Salon, Mar 5th 2009

Everyone starts off somewhere. I started off talking about Shakespeare and ended up talking about Alan Moore. It’s all grist to the mill.

Sitting in front of a blank screen can be a lonely place but in reality we’re never alone. There are so many voices all clamouring for attention and what we have to learn to do is not listen to them. It can be done. In a busy bar you can block out everything that’s going on around you and focus on the person you’re with. It simply takes effort.

Listen to your own voice. Yet another pat expression like all the others I’ve incorporated in this article. But how can you trust it? Your elders and betters are wiser and more experienced than you, surely if they say to go this way you should listen to them? Maybe. If they’re telling you not to jump out of a third-story window because no one is buying your paintings then that’s pretty good advice. You never know, they might have felt exactly the same forty years earlier. Nothing changes, not really. I remember the alternative comedians of the early eighties, the likes of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, who are now the establishment and people use the word “classic” to describe their most famous efforts.

van-gogh-self-portrait It’s a gamble. Different is not always good. Vincent Van Gogh was different, so different that he famously only ever sold one painting in his lifetime and yet he doggedly persisted, doing his own thing and if he could see people forking out tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars I wonder if he would feel vindicated or that some people simply had way too much money. There are others: Gerard Manley Hopkins was the most experimental and most challenging of the Victorian writers and almost unknown in his own lifetime; much the same is true of William Blake, H. P. Lovecraft, Johann Sebastian Bach can you believe, Søren Kierkegaard, Wilfred Owen and some bloke called Nostradamus apparently.

Time will tell. Actually there’s no rule that says time has to tell anybody anything. It can keep completely schtum if it so desires. And it has done many, many times. Time only remembers those who happened to be in the right place at the right time or, as in the case with Kafka, not in the right place at the right time. Had he lived he may very well have destroyed everything that made him famous today. If fame is your goal you’ll probably fail. So few of us ever get famous for more than fifteen minutes. I doubt any of the above sought fame; most were just looking to earn a buck but at the same not compromise their own artistic integrity. George B. Stauffer has this to say in the cover notes of a recording on Bach’s preludes:

The preludes display a wide range of experimental designs and styles and reflect Bach, the bold innovator. The fugues combine sophisticated four- and five-part counterpoint with bravura passagework and illustrate Bach, the polyphonic master.

bach.h1 It’s hard to imagine Bach as an innovator. But he was. And yet in an article on Bach’s fugues, John Stone, remarks that “stylistically, there is much in the fugues that looks backwards to the so-called stile antico practices of Palestrina and other Bach predecessors.” No one is without their influences.

Think about it, without the past what would we have to rebel against? The past is our cocoon and the struggle to free ourselves from it is what enables us to fly but more than that, it forces blood into our wings and gives them colour. If you’re gonna fly, fly in style.

Monday 26 April 2010

The Passport

passport There was a time, in my early twenties, when I only read novels by people who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This resulted in me reading many good books. And a few naff ones. Having won the Nobel Prize doesn’t mean that everything that author has written will be a work of genius particularly if it’s an early work in their career.

The recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize was the Romanian writer Herta Müller whose first book was published in 1982; she’s 56 now, a comparatively young writer considering the fact that Doris Lessing, the last woman to be honoured, was 87 when she received her award. Müller’s writing focuses on life under the brutal Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu and, in a radio interview, she explains why:

I have no other landscape other than the one I know, the one I came from. [My] literary characters reflect what happens to the human being in a totalitarian society or system. And I believe this is not a topic that I chose, but rather one that my life has chosen for me. I don't have that freedom of choice. I cannot say: 'I want to write about that thing, or about that other thing.' I am bound to write about what concerns me and about the things that won't leave me in peace.[1]

People write about what shapes them. For some it will be an overbearing parent but for others what goes on in the home is merely a reflection of the society that home is a part of.

When she received the award only one book by her was available in English, The Passport, a novella a mere 92 pages in length. Having a fondness for short books I ordered the thing there and then but it’s only recently I’ve got round to reading it. Since then publishers have rushed to reprint some of her other eighteen books, five of which have been translated into English so far.

Der Mensch ist ein Grosser Fasan auf der Welt The original title of the book is Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt which we might translate roughly as Man is a Large Pheasant in the World. It’s a line that appears in the book, a Romanian proverb which underlines man's status as prey for fate. Whatever its title the subject matter concerns a family’s difficulty in obtaining a passport.

It is an odd book to have been written by a Nobel laureate. Seriously it reads in parts like a Dick and Jane reader. The Nobel committee, in their citation, refer to the “frankness of [her] prose” and there will be not a few people who’ll pick up this book and wonder what got into the heads of those who nominated her in the first place. On one level she is very easy to read. There are no complicated words although a brief glossary at the back of the book explains the significance of three terms for the benefit of non-Romanians. But that’s it.

Windisch is a miller, a Swabian, that is, as the glossary explains, one of the “German-speaking minority in the Banat” which is a “[f]ormer Hungarian province under the Habsburg monarchy. After the First World War it was divided between Romania and Yugoslavia.” Windisch is married with a grown daughter, Amalie, a nursery-school teacher. He has applied for a passport so they can all emigrate to West Germany The book opens with him cycling to his mill, counting the days:

Since Windisch made the decision to emigrate, he sees the end everywhere in the village. And time standing still for those who want to stay.

He is up to two hundred and twenty-one days and still no passport. He has, of course, resorted to bribery. The previous summer the mayor had told him:

Another five deliveries, Windisch, then the money at New Year. And at Easter you’ll have your passport.

The Romanians don't like the Germans and are happy for them to go but they don’t make acquiring a passport easy. Windisch has now made twelve deliveries of flour, paid the full ten thousand lei demanded of him and Easter is a distant memory, still he sees no sign of any passport. Others have theirs, the skinner for example, who is now emptying his house, selling off everything he owns, in readiness for leaving. How have others managed when he has not? It seems that sacks of flour and even hard cash is not enough; sex apparently is the preferred currency and who is going to want to sleep with his missus? Which only leaves his daughter.

Müller was born and raised in the German-speaking town of Niţchidorf, Romania in 1953, in effect being born into exile. Her father served in the Waffen-SS (the crack combat troopwaffen-ss-pics of the Nazi Party) in World War II, and her mother was deported to a work camp in the Soviet Union in 1945. “She spent five years in a labour camp, paying for the ‘collective guilt’ of Hitler's deeds. They called that internment Aufbauarbeit,’ ‘reconstruction work.’”[2] I have no idea how much the mother in the book is based on Müller’s own mother but I found one of the most touching chapters was ‘Grass Soup’ which is a flashback to the mother’s five years in Russia. It begins:

Windisch’s wife had been in Russia for five years. She had slept in a hut with iron beds. Lice cracked in the edges of the beds. She was shaved. Her face was grey. Her scalp was red-raw.

The chapter then goes through with us what he had to do to survive:

When the snow melted the first time, thin, pointed grass grew in the stone hollows. Katharina had sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good. The hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours.

Then the second snow came. Katharina had a woollen blanket. During the day it was her coat. The hedgehog stabbed.

When it was dark, Katharina followed the light of the snow. She bent down. She crawled past the guard’s shadow. Katharina went into a man’s iron bed. He was a cook. He called her Käthe. He warmed her and gave her potatoes. They were hot and sweet. The hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours.

And so the years progress. When the cook dies she moves onto the doctor and from him to the gravedigger; she sells what she has until when the fifth snow came, “Katharina’s brown cloth dress was her coat.” But she survives through a mixture of sheer determination and maybe a little kindness. The world she finds herself in now she is back home, where the authorities can come and cherry-pick from their stock or demand bribes to do the most ordinary of things, is not new to her. What is new is that she is now incapable of doing what’s required.

Needless to say, Windisch is also unhappy about what he is going to have to require of his daughter. In an earlier chapter, ‘Mass’, his wife goes to mass but he refuses to join her:

“I’m not leaving the house,” says Windisch, “I don’t want people saying to me: now it’s your daughter’s turn.”

Windisch puts his elbows on the table. His hands are heavy. Windisch puts his face in his heavy hands. The veranda doesn’t grow. It’s broad daylight. For a moment the veranda falls to a place where it never was before. Windisch feels the blow. A stone hangs in his ribs.

Windisch closes his eyes. He feels his eyes. He feels his eyeballs in his hands. His eyes without a face.

With naked eyes and with the stone in his ribs, Windisch says loudly: “A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world.” What Windisch hears is not his voice. He feels his naked mouth. It’s the walls that have spoken.

This is a very typical passage. It’s also almost a complete chapter, albeit one of the shorter ones; none are more than a page or two.

Lyn Marven, a lecturer in German studies at the University of Liverpool who has written about Ms. Müller, said: “It’s an odd disjunction to write about traumatic experiences living under a dictatorship in a very poetic style. It’s not what we expect, certainly.”[3]

This is very true. And ‘poetic’ is just one word that people have used to describe the writing in this book. Others have been ‘surrealist’, ‘magic realist’ and ‘fable-like’ and there are bits of the book to which each and every one of those expressions could be applied, like this one:

Cabbage White The cabbage white flies through the tailor’s cheek. The tailor sinks his head. The cabbage white flies out of the back of the tailor’s head, white and uncrumpled.

or this one:

Before the war an apple tree had stood behind the church. It was an apple tree that ate its own apples.

The night watchman’s father had also been night watchman. One summer he was standing behind the boxwood hedge. He saw the apple tree open a mouth at the top of the trunk, where the branches forked. The apple tree ate apples.

In some cases the allegorical language is clear – that both the priest and the militiaman seek sexual favours is clearly indicative of the individual being screwed (metaphorically) by both church and state and an owl as a symbol of death is an old one – but I can’t pretend I know what the butterfly is all about.

I’m sure knowing a bit about the history would be of a help in understanding this work but it’s not essential. The sad fact is that too many people throughout the world will know exactly what it’s like to live in a country where corrupt government officials are the norm. Fellow Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu calls her work “Kafkaesque”. He says:

The writings of Herta Müller are indeed the product of an intense obsession, a unique, paranoid terror of being followed, held in suspicion, persecuted, of having to fight a pervasive and incomprehensible enemy, which is bent on defacing and misrepresenting her.[4]

Crucifixion He’s right too. And yet there is great beauty in her descriptions. I suppose it’s like many of the depictions of the Crucifixion: great art but whatever way you look at it it’s still depicting a man being executed in a particularly cruel way.

What do people cling to when trapped? Faith, superstition and tradition. They overindulge in what’s available. Sex usually. Often drink. Gossip even. Whatever gets you though the day. And that’s how Windisch and his neighbours cope. They make the most of small things.

This is a book that has polarised readers. I’ve seen five-star reviews and I’ve seen it panned. Admittedly those who say they don’t like it admit that this is because they found its overbearing hopelessness a drain (a few compare it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when searching for something they can relate to), that and the dense language is hard to get to grips with. These are fair comments. Everyone’s entitles to their own opinion. I don’t happen to agree with these people. I read the book over a couple of days but in several sittings. Like poetry, or flash fiction, it’s not good to try and gobble down a book like this. Also I found there was there was a wee bit of rereading necessary, bits like the butterfly flying through someone; I wasn’t sure I hadn’t misread that but, no, that’s what she’s written. And you simply cannot read her quickly. You need to breathe after every sentence: read a bit, breathe; read a bit, breathe; read a bit, breathe.

Müller didn’t get the Nobel Prize on the back of one book though. From what I’ve read about her this is probably not her best book either. I suspect that might prove to be The Land of Green Plums which won the 1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the German Kleist Prize but we’ll see. It’s now available again in English and is clocking up five-star reviews on Amazon.

Some believe that Herta Müller's victory reveals a European bias among the committee – there have been a lot of European winners of late – other have suggested that it was a way of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mostly the cry was: “Who she?” The fact is that’s she’s not a very public figure and hardly known outwith Germany but when you check out her Wikipedia entry, the books she’s written and the prizes she’s already won you can see why she would have been a contender.

Like other writers I’ve written about over the past few months, for example, Dương Thu Hương, Ma Jian, Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Herta Müller was bullied by the State. Müller studied German and Romanian literature at university and became involved with the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of German speaking writers who opposed Ceauşescu's dictatorship and sought freedom of speech.
Aktionsgruppe Banat
After graduation she became a translator at a factory, but she lost her job when she when she refused to serve as an informant for the Securitate (the secret police).

[I]n an essay ‘The Securitate is Still in Service,’ which attracted widespread attention when it was published recently in Die Zeit, she detailed how the Securitate terrorised her over years.


She described how agents or "securists" bugged her house, hounded her from her job, turned friends against her, interrogated her, threatened to kill her and even continued to follow her once she had left Romania – incidents that are dealt with in detail in her novels.


Müller also detailed the "psychological terror" she endured over years. "The secret service came and went as it liked when we weren't at home. Often they left deliberate signs that they'd been there such as planting cigarette butts, taking pictures off the wall, turning chairs upside down. The creepiest thing was stretched over weeks, when a fox fur that was on the floor was bit by bit taken apart – the tail, the feet and finally the head was cut off," she wrote.[5]

While she has been celebrated in her adopted Germany (she emigrated in 1987 and is now living in Berlin), Müller's achievement has attracted mixed reactions in her homeland and include accusations that she has deliberately sought to denigrate Romania. In a 2007 article for the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau Müller said Romania had developed "collective amnesia" over its past: "They're pretending that it disappeared into thin air...”[6] which maybe goes some way to explain why Cristian Tudor Popescu, one of Romania's most prominent journalists, said that Müller's reputation was based purely on her ability to attack the Ceauşescu regime, rather than on any literary merit: "When she got the prize she spoke about the dictatorship, but not about literature, as if she were Nelson Mandela. The Nobel Peace prize would have suited her better."[7]

I imagine much the same might be said about Solzhenitsyn and Stalin.

One of the saddest things I read about, in the aforementioned essay, was what she had to say about her friend, Jenny:

A year after my departure from Romania in 1987, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassments in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I had been sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and in it additional visas for France and Greece, I said to her face: "You don't get a passport like that for nothing, what have you done to get it." Her answer: "The secret service has sent me, and I absolutely wanted to see you again." Jenny had cancer – she is long dead. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the beginning, her friendship being a task.[8]

Herta-Mueller-at-the-Germ-012 Müller's new novel Atemschaukel, which follows the story of a German-Romanian teenager deported to a Ukrainian labour camp, will be published in the UK next year after independent press Portobello Books fought off five other publishers to acquire translation rights. It will also have a name change, to Everything I Possess I Carry With Me. I look forward to it with interest.

The Passport is a haunting book. I have no doubt that what Müller went through that resulted in the writing of this book will haunt her for the rest of her life.

There are three non-consecutive chapters of The Passport available online here.


Markus Wein, ‘The Germans in Romania – the Ambiguous Fate of a Minority', The Expulsion of the ‘German’ Communities from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, ed. Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees


[1] From a transcript of a 1999 radio interview for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty's Romania-Moldova Service

[2] From a transcript of a 2009 radio interview for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty's Romania-Moldova Service

[3] Motoko Rich and Nicholas Kulish, ‘Herta Müller Wins Nobel Prize in Literature', New York Times, 8th October 2009

[4] Mircea Cartarescu, ‘Ode to Herta Müller',, 13th October 2009

[5] Kate Connolly, ‘Herta Müller "has a psychosis", claims Romanian agent who spied on her’, The Guardian, 26th November 2009

[6] Quoted in Shane Dingman, ‘German author Herta Mueller wins Nobel Prize for literature’, National Post, 8th October 200.

[7] Kate Connolly, ‘Herta Müller "has a psychosis", claims Romanian agent who spied on her’, The Guardian, 26th November 2009

[8] Herta Müller, ‘Securitate in all but name’,, 31st August 2009

Thursday 22 April 2010

What are you so afraid of?


I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. Frank Herbert, Dune - Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

There are people in this life who have a fear of spiders, enclosed spaces, open spaces, flying, the number thirteen, clowns, intimacy, dead things, and homosexuals. I don’t get any of them. I understand the words. I know what homophobia is and triskaidekaphobia. My wife ran into a mottephobe once in St Enoch Station. He was working behind the counter and Carrie just so happened to have her butterfly top on. The guy got into a panic and couldn’t serve her until she’d done her coat up, the poor love.

blank_page I know exactly what it’s like to have a crippling phobia but of what I’m keeping to myself. What I am not afraid of, however, is a blank page. I imagined you’d call that tabularasaphobia considering the fact that they didn’t have pages back in the day (tabula rasa = blank slate) but apparently the accepted term is vacansopapurosophobia. Neither is an expression that trips off the tongue.

Phobias are supposed to be irrational fears. No doubt some are more than others. I can see why someone would be afraid of heights. It’s not so much heights as falling from those heights and I can’t imagine anyone not being a bit afraid of falling and hurting themselves. But what harm could a wee sheet of paper do? It’s not the page, or more often the screen these days, but what it represents. It’s like Sisyphus’s hill, it’s not insurmountable, but once you get to the top everything resets and you find yourself back at the bottom and, like poor old Michael Finnigin, you have to “begin ag’in”.

The pressure comes from the fact that people place too much importance on the opening lines of a novel as if everything depends on getting it spot on. I worked out once, though please don’t ask me how I did my calculations, that I devoted twenty-four hours working on the first sentence of my first novel and to this day I can’t say I’m happy with it. In case you haven’t availed yourself of a copy of the book here’s that sentence:

Had it been Death that had called that day everything would have been all right.

The main thing I kept changing was adding (and then taking away) a ‘Now’ at the beginning of that sentence but another popular version was:

If Death had called that day then everything would have been all right.

I just dug out the very first draft of the book, basically a long short story, and the first sentence is exactly as it appears in the final book, word for word. I probably considered that sentence for a matter of a few seconds before I starting typing, a minute tops, and yet I kept going back and reading it over and over again, not simply the first sentence but the first paragraph, the first chapter and then on until the last sentence. But more than any other sentence in that book that first one will have been read hundreds, probably thousands of times and to what end? And how long did it take you to read it, two seconds perhaps, maybe less?

Inevitably there have been some corkers of opening sentences over the years; my own personal favourite is by fellow Scot Iain Banks, from The Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Crow Road It’s an absolute corker but really it has very little to do with the rest of the book. You can’t say the same about my sentence because Death is one of the characters, albeit a minor one, who does finally appear. I didn’t know that when I wrote the sentence. I didn’t know anything bar the fact the protagonist is a guy who thinks he’d be better off dead. That was it.

Rather than list off all the famous ones – there are plenty of sites available – here are a few from my library that please me:

On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.
Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane

I am, therefore I think.
Birchwood, John Banville

My brother’s cradle and the other baby stuff got us from Mineola to Birthrock.
The Way The Family Got AwayMichael Kimball

We came in over the sea, we came in the morning, just after the sun, coming low out of the east across the flat sea, on time, the two of us.
Standard TimeKeith Ridgway

One of the things about The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet was that they weren’t an octet.
The Little White Car Danuta de Rhodea

We had to take the universe in hand, my brother and I, for one morning just before dawn papa gave up the ghost without a by-your-leave.
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of MatchesGaétan Soucy

The thing I never did was sit staring at the computer screen worrying about how I was going to start. I pretty much typed the first thing that came into my head. There’s nothing that says you have to stick with it. I inserted an entire chapter, albeit a short one, into my third novel at the start which I would never have thought about because the direction of the novel changed completely during the writing. The important thing I find is to start. You can always chuck out anything that doesn’t work. What wastes more time: writing rubbish or writing nothing? At least if you’re writing there’s the possibility that it might not be rubbish but if you don’t write anything then you won’t have written anything. Forgive me for stating the ruddy obvious but sometimes it helps.

So what is it about blank pages that gets some authors right in the stomach? One author of historical fiction, Christina Phillips, writes: “That dreaded blank page is sitting there mocking me.” I can get that. You feel vulnerable, inadequate and would rather being cleaning the fish tank than sitting there pretending you’re a real writer. Maybe it’s not vacansopapurosophobia you’re suffering from. Kat Johnson suggests an alternative: atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia - the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.

  • Atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia - the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.

· Word origins: ‘Atelo’ from Greek ateles literally ‘without end’, meaning incomplete, inchoate, imperfect. ‘Demiourgio’ from Greek demiourgia literally workmanship, handicraft, meaning creative activity. ‘Papyro’ from Middle English / from Old French papier / from Latin papȳrus, papyrus plant, papyrus paper / from Greek papūros.

This really only affects artists these days since most writers will work on a computer screen and you can erase any false start over and over again without ruining that perfect white surface. It’s one of the things I love about computers, I can make my writing look beautiful right from the off, it looks like the finished product and not some scribbled mess.

This is where I think tabularasaphobia is a better expression for the abstract quality of the fear we writers have. It’s not the blank paper we fear, it’s the blank mind. Or the fear of saying the wrong thing the consequence of which would be what? Rejection? Ridicule? That’s not such an unreasonable fear for any writer to have. The list of famous writers who have been rejected over and over again grows longer every day. Somewhere in the world a  writer is being rejected as I write this. And there goes another. And another. You never know, someone might very well defeatbe rejecting you as you read this. Better check your inbox just in case. Maybe you have kakorrhaphiophobia – the fear of failure or defeat.

Quitters never become winners but they can become whiners. So what do you do when you have a phobia? The first thing you have to do is understand your fear and put it in context. Agoraphobia patients can experience sudden panic attacks when travelling to places where they fear they are out of control, help would be difficult to obtain, or they could be embarrassed. That is what they are afraid of, not outside. So you take steps, you make sure you have contact details on you, that your mobile phone is fully charged, that people know where you’re going, by what route and how long you expect to be. You can’t anticipate everything but you can do a lot to minimise your fears.

I think one of the most important things is to realise that you’re not alone. Writing is one of the loneliest of professions so it’s not as if you’re sitting in a room with a hundred other people all sitting staring at blank screens. I wonder if that would help, packing your lunch in the mornings and heading down to your office, a room you share with . . . would even one person be too many? I guess it would be a real problem if a writer suffered from monophobia (fear of being alone) and how the hell could you write a novel if you suffered from neophobia (fear of anything new)? My wife and I both have our own offices but most of the time I write in the living room with her and I don’t have any real problems. The bird chirruping to his reflection in the mirror is actually more distracting. (When he gets too bad I stick him on the shelf in the bathroom and let him chatter away to the mirror there.)

I think using the wrong metaphor can go a long way to clouding our judgement, talking about “confronting” a blank sheet of paper. All the word means is to go face to face with something but it has such connotations of hostility.

For me as a writer there is nothing so frightening than looking at a blank page that needs to be filled with words. Not that I have no ideas, rather the contrary... – Matthias Wurz

Matthias makes a good point. Oftentimes the fear is not what to say but what to choose to say because there’s so much we have to say and we can’t say it all at once. What I find helps, especially with blog-writing, is just to say something. Quite often the first paragraph or two of my blogs is me just warming up to a topic. If I were writing articles for a serious publication then I’d edit them to death but everyone online accepts a more casual approach to writing. Let’s talk about my very first blog for a second. It’s called ‘Death and heroes’ and I wrote it on 6th August 2007. I doubt anyone read it other than my wife and me. It’s not even an especially literary post; it’s about the death of Ingmar Bergman and my first line was:

Ingmar Bergman is dead.

Bergman That was me. I’d started. I was no longer sitting looking at a blank screen. It’s not a great blog, four short paragraphs, but that was me finished. I’d written a blog. What more was there to fear? The next post was more refined and on topic. The first one was simply to get one out of the road.

Was I afraid of that first blog? Nah. It’s the wrong word completely. It blows the whole thing out of proportion. That’s what I hate about all these fancy schmancy phobias – they turn something into something else. I don’t like going out when it’s icy. I’m afraid I might fall and injure myself. Does that make me pagophobic or maybe cryophobic? Or I might have traumatophobia. Or is all this getting out of hand?

It’s a blank sheet of paper for Christ’s sake. Get over it and write something. It’s not going to bite you. Your firstborn is not going to die if you don’t. There’s not going to be a knock on the door in the middle of the night from men in black no matter what drivel you write. It doesn’t work that way.

Eric Stoveken calls this “blank page syndrome” and this is what he has to say about it:

Think of blank page syndrome in terms of other things in your life and you will soon see it to be the ridiculous psychosomatic condition that it is. Try to imagine having parked car syndrome, a disorder by which you can't shift your car into first gear for fear that you might secretly be a lousy driver. Or empty desk syndrome where you never go to work to avoid being bad at your job.

Do either of these seem reasonable? Of course not. Likewise, blank page syndrome should make no sense if you are compelled to be a writer. – Avoiding blank page syndrome as a writer

It really puts the whole thing into perspective, doesn’t it?

I wrote a story once about a blank page. It’s a bit too long to post the whole thing here but I’ll leave you with the opening three paragraphs:


water bomb instructions 

from Blank Page

The future as a blank page – it’s a popular metaphor – and I thought I knew what my dad was going to go on about the moment he opened his mouth. Why, I’ve no idea, because, predictably, and, in that way that endears people to him, he flipped the whole illustration on its head and left me gobsmacked. Or am I just seeing him with a daughter’s eyes?

“The future,” he began, before pausing for effect no sooner than he’d started, “is like a blank piece of paper and there’s nothing more foreboding that being faced with a white sheet of paper when you’re not sure what you’re expected to say. But who says you’ve got to write anything? You could draw on it, scribble on it, fold it up and put it in your pocket, rip it to shreds or make an origami water bomb out of it. It’s your future – you’re the one who has to live in it when everyone has long run out of remarks to pass about it. Remember that.”

He’s a clever old thing, my dad, and that wisdom rests on a pile of mistakes a mile high. “We learn from our mistakes,” he once told me, “which is why I’m a genius.” He’s not a genius but I do tend to listen when he goes into wise old owl mode. It doesn’t happen too often these days and I know that these are some of the moments I’ll go all smooshy about when he’s gone. I’m not so young and inexperienced that I don’t know that; I am, after all, my father’s daughter. The difference is, I just know about stuff – he’s been there, bought the T-shirt and outgrown it. I wish I could pinch that the way I do his shirts.

Monday 19 April 2010

The Last Station

 The Last Station

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia - Woody Allen

I open with the Woody Allen gag because it reminds me of when I was a kid, maybe about ten. Having learned that, according to many, War and Peace was regarded as the greatest novel ever written, I ordered the book at my local library. It was a popular tome and so when it arrived I was only permitted to borrow it for two weeks. I made a valiant attempt to get through it but after the fortnight when I tried to renew it I was told other people were waiting and had to hand it back in. I never attempted to read it again.

All I can remember about it is that it was about Russia . . . oh, and the names were all terribly, terribly long. Since then I’ve made my way through a number of Russian novels, all of which had two things in common, they were about Russia and all the characters had terribly long names. And variants on those names depending on the circumstances, which can be confusing. So, before I start talking about The Last Station a brief breakdown on Russian names.

Every Russian name consists of three parts: a first (given) name, a patronymic name and a surname. Let me illustrate:

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev

The first name is given by parents shortly after the child's birth. Accordingly to Russian laws child can change the name after majority. The first name is the main name of Russian people. Most of Russian names have a variety of forms:

● The full form Mikhail Sergeyevich is used in formal relationships

● The short name Misha is used by friends and family members.

● The affectionate form Mishenka or Mishunya is used by parents or grandparents.

● The rude form Mishka is an uncouth derivative of the name.

Each chapter in the book is written as if in the first person by five different people:

● Countess Sophia Andreyevna (Sofya) – wife of 48 years

● Vladmir Grigorevich Chertkov – closest friend, confidant and promoter of his work

● Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov (Valya) – secretary

Alexandra Lvovna (Sasha) – youngest daughter who acted as a typist and secretary

● Dr Dushan Petrovich Makovitsky – personal in-house physician

These, along with Tolstoy, are the main protagonists. Mention should be made of three secondary characters:

● Masha, a tall girl, Finnish in appearance who has recently joined the Tolstoyans at Telyatinki (Chertkov’s home). Not to be confused with Tolstoy’s daughter, Masha. She and Bulgakov become romantically involved.

● Varvara Mikhailovna, Sasha’s intimate friend who also does secretarial work at Yasnaya Polyana (the Tolstoy estate).

● Sergeyenko (Chertkov’s secretary)

Tolstoy-Sitting-with-Sofya Leo and Sofya had thirteen children, five of whom died during childhood. Apart from Sasha, only Sergey and Tanya, their eldest son and daughter, receive more than a passing mention. There is also Tolstoy’s bastard son, Timothy, who has grown up to be a coach driver on the estate.

In addition to the five narrators already mentioned there are also chapters headed L.N. and J.P., the former being excerpts from Tolstoy’s letters, diaries and other writings and the latter being three poems by the author which personally I found out of place but they don’t take up a lot of room.

I was curious why Parini had chosen this approach to his novel. In the book’s afterword he explains that it was because most of the people who were there had either written diaries or produced memoirs after the fact and so he found himself with a fractured picture of what went on; everyone has their own perspective and only by presenting several do we get a rounded picture of the events covered in the book. Why write a novel and not a biography?

Straight biography is fairly rigid in its conventions, and the straight biographer never enters into the subjective consciousness of a subject in the way novelists always do. – Paul Holler, An interview with Jay Parini, Bookslut, April 2006

The marriage of Leo and Sofya was marked from the outset by a mix of sexual passion and emotional insensitivity when Tolstoy, on the eve of their marriage, handed her his diaries detailing his extensive sexual past and the fact that one of the serfs on his estate had borne him a son. From the outset the newlyweds have a tempestuous relationship, full of loving – and angry – War and Peace passion. Even so, their early married life was ostensibly happy and allowed Tolstoy the freedom he needed to produce his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Sofya acted as his secretary, proofreader and financial manager. It’s a matter of record that she copied War and Peace, by hand, no fewer than seven times, from beginning to end. However, in later life their relationship deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical and he sought to reject his inherited and earned wealth, including the renunciation of the copyrights on his earlier works.

When the book opens Tolstoy is eighty-two and his wife about to turn sixty-six. It’s clear from the off that their relationship is a complex one. Everyone bar family refers to Tolstoy as Leo Nikolayevich, however his wife calls him by the affectionate name Lyovochka. In the first chapter Sofya Andreyevna is doing the talking. Her husband is asleep:

Lyovochka slept on, snoring, as I smoothed his hair. The white hair tumbles on his starchy pillow. The white beard like spindrift, a soft spray of hair, not coarse like my father’s. I spoke to him as he slept, called him ‘my little darling.’ He is like a child in his old age, all mine to coddle, to care for, to protect from the insane people who descend upon us daily, his so-called disciples – all led on, inspired, by Chertkov, who is positively satanic. They think he is Christ. Lyovochka thinks he is Christ.

So Sofya sees herself as the faithful and loving wife-cum-protector of her aged, slightly dotty husband.

Chertkov_by_Repin In the second chapter we find Chertkov advising Bulgakov who is just about to take on his role as Tolstoy’s secretary what his duties will be, his official duties (mostly filing and answering letters) and his unofficial one (maintaining a private diary for Chertkov). Despite having a property close to Tolstoy’s Chertkov is actually living in exile. In their conversation he says:

I don’t want to prejudice you against Sofya Andreyevna, but it would be impolite of me not to mention her disagreements with Leo Nikolayevich. It has been an unfortunate marriage – for him. Frankly she is not one of us. I would go so far as to say that she despises us and would do anything in her power to see that her husband’s work does not go forward.

So, as you can see there’s no love lost between the two. And it only gets worse as the book progresses.

By the time he is well into his fifties, Tolstoy was constantly in touch with learned men and philosophers (there are George_bernard_shaw letters to George Bernard Shaw and Ghandi included in the book) and his celebrity status and public opposition to the status quo in Russia attracted a constant stream of admirers. One of these was Chertkov, a man twenty-five years his junior who encouraged him to concentrate on his moral teachings; distributed his writings; and organised his devotees into communities that abstained from tobacco and alcohol, pooled property and goods, practised chastity and vegetarianism, and lived by the principles of love, truth and peace. It is Chertkov who formed the Tolstoyans. To some degree Chertkov becomes the high priest of Tolstoy’s own tenets, moulding his thoughts as he sees fit and chastising him for conflicting behaviour. He reads a bit like “Colonel” Tom Parker to Tolstoy’s Elvis.

What can we say about Sofya other than this is not what she signed up for. She married a count; she is now a countess and expects to live and be treated like one. It is a mark of Tolstoy’s love and regard for her that he allows her to continue in the manner to which she has become accustomed. He continues to live in the lap of luxury although this is against all his principles and clearly pains him.

Many have wondered why he did not turn his back on the family and his rich estate, as he clearly desired to do, and go off to live in a hut as an impoverished religious hermit. This would have squared him with his conscience which on this score never gave him any peace of mind. But more than once he explained, and there is no good reason to doubt his sincerity, that this way out was a temptation which he must resist, for he was convinced that he had to work out his salvation in the milieu where God had placed him. - Ernest Joseph Simmons, Tolstoy, p.130

The main subject of conflict in the book concerns Tolstoy’s will. Sofya writes:

There is something going on behind my back, something to do with the will. Yesterday, I asked Lyovochka directly, ‘Has anyone approached you about your will? Has anything changed? You would tell me, wouldn’t you, if anything happened?’

He thinks he can give away everything we own: the house, the land, the copyright to all his works. Has he no sense of responsibility?

‘You mustn’t worry, Sofya,’ he said. ‘Nothing has happened.’ But I’m worried.

Of course she has every right to be worried. But Sofya being who she is isn’t content to be worried. She spies on her husband, is often at loggerheads with him in public, runs around with a loaded gun and even attempts suicide in a bid to gain the upper hand. Tolstoy bends over backwards to keep the peace. Her most vicious attacks are understandably against his relationship with Chertkov:

It’s unnatural for a man of my husband’s age to cluck and coo over a beastly younger disciple.

She demands to read her husband’s diaries for evidence of impropriety:

‘I want to read all your diaries from the last ten years.’

‘I’m afraid that’s impossible.’ He looked away from me as I spoke.

‘Where are they Lyovochka? Where have you hidden them?

‘I have not hidden them.’

‘Are they here?’


‘Does Chertkov have them?’

‘Please, Sofya. I . . . I –‘

‘I knew it! He is greedily reading everything you have said about me. This is despicable. Have I not been an honest, loving wife for all these years? Answer me, Lyovochka!’

Tolstoy and Bulgakov Although it has been some years since they opened their diaries to each other Tolstoy acquiesces. Bulgakov’s picture of him as “a henpecked, gentle, silent, austere father figure who fends off the world like [his own] grandfather did, somewhat ineptly” is quite accurate. She gets the diaries back from Chertkov and soon enough finds what she expected. Shortly after dining one evening she comes onto the terrace where Bulgakov, Dr Makovitsky and her husband are sitting and reads a number of extracts she has made including this one:

‘“Beauty has always been a huge factor in my attraction to people. . . . There is Dyakov, for instance. How could I ever forget the night we left Pirogovo together, when, wrapped in my blanket, I felt as though I could devour him with kisses and weep for joy. Lust was not absent, yet it is impossible to say exactly what part it played in my feelings, for my mind never tempted me with depraved images.”’

Leo Nikolayevich, looking disgusted, stood and excused himself. I was relieved.

‘See what you’ve done, Sofya Andreyevna? He has been driven from his own terrace,’ said Dr Makovitsky.

‘He is aware that I have hit upon the truth. Why else would he chase about like a schoolboy after Vladimir Grigorevich? He lusts after the man. He wants to roll about in bed with him, to smother him with kisses, to weep on his breast. Why doesn’t he admit it? Why doesn’t he just do it?

Parini doesn’t explore or explain these entries in Tolstoy’s diaries any more that he pursues the lesbian inclinations of Tolstoy’s daughter Sasha. Tolstoy asks his daughter pointedly at one point if she loves Varvara and is happy to hear that she does. Whether they have consummated that love is never pursued. The feeling I got from the book is that both loves, Sasha’s for Varvara and Tolstoy’s for Chertkov, are fairly innocent. Sasha writes:

He’s always buoyant when he has seen or is about to see Chertkov. He loves Vladimir Grigorevich as I love Varvara Mikhailovna. I would never begrudge him this.

Anything else really has to be conjecture. But this is also where Parini’s approach works well because here we have Chertkov’s point of view:

People are mistaken when they say I love the man. What I love is the Tolstoyan firmness, the call to truth and justice. The lineaments of his prose entangle, embody, render visible the elusive matters of these virtues.

Descriptions of the physical attraction between men appear in The Cossacks and Anna Karenina and other works. Tolstoy also describes homosexual attractions in his autobiographical Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. By the time Tolstoy wrote his last novel, Resurrection, he had turned against all sexuality, and he considered homosexuality as simply one more symptom of the moral decay of society. He even had doubts about the role of sex within marriage. Certainly he and Sofya had not been intimate in some time.

The Tolstoyans’ view was not, however, that all sex was wrong but sex outside marriage was certainly frowned Masha and Bulgakov upon. Despite that, it doesn’t take Masha long to seduce Bulgakov. According to Parini, Masha is the film’s sole fictitious character. He said he created the character for the novel because he felt Valentin needed a love interest; I personally found it somewhat implausible and really unnecessary but it doesn’t hurt anything.

The situation between Tolstoy and his wife proves untenable. Short breaks don’t work, writing her letters doesn’t work, and pleading with her face-to-face doesn’t work. Finally, on discovering that she’d been searching through his office looking for a new will, he decides to flee and in the early hours one morning leaves with a small band. Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Sasha and the good doctor head off with the bare essentials:

‘I can take nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.’ These included a flashlight, a fur coat, and the apparatus for taking an enema.

Astapovo He doesn’t get far. Ill health forces him to alight at the station of Astapovo, the last station of the title, a mere eighty miles from his home. This is on page 324 of a 370-page novel. This surprised me a little considering the fact that others have devoted whole works to this single incident. I had expected more time to be spent on it. This doesn’t mean it’s skimmed over. Understanding the build-up to the night flight is important. It’s only fair to make it clear how much of the book is devoted to the station. In that respect The Last Station might not have been the best choice for the book’s title but that’s a minor gripe.

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy have recently been published by Alma Books and I was offered a copy for review but it never arrived in the post. Having read this book I’m rather glad; I can see that her diaries would present a very one-sided view of the goings on at Yasnaya Polyana, the 4,000-acre estate where she lived for more than half a century. Also apparently the events of the last ten days of her husband’s life are barely touched on by her in her diaries; no doubt she was too distraught to write. That her diaries of Sophia Tolstoy were not published in Russia in the 1970s is clearly indicative of their content. They do not present the great man in a good light.

I’ve seen The Last Station criticised because it focuses on Sofya. I really can’t see how it could do otherwise. She’s by far the most interesting character. It’s she that turns this from an engrossing piece of academia into a real page-turner. I’ve not seen Helen Mirren’s performance other than a few clips but from what I’ve read her Oscar nomination was no surprise. That said The Telegraph calls the film “a stuffy non-starter of a prestige picture with more putative class than intelligence.” So who knows? It’s certainly has the potential of being the role of a lifetime because Sofya’s mood swings are extreme, the whole gamut from empress to madwoman. A number of other reviewers have noted that The Last Station is a film script masquerading as a novel and I can’t disagree.

My main problem with it, as you’ll see from this review, is that you really need to know quite a bit to put the storyline in its proper context. Parini does as good a job as any in balancing back-story and action but there were things I would have preferred to know more about, for example, I would have liked to learned how the “Nihilist [a man] completely without faith” (which is how he describes himself in What I Believe) became the Christ-like figure we read about in this book; everyone, even illiterate peasants, revered him. And also how did this most revered of men manage to get himself excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church? That said, as an overview to a serious study of Tolstoy I think it does a good job.

Some may object to the way he has “Englished” (his word) quotations by Tolstoy. His reasoning was to make sure the Tolstoy of history and “the Tolstoy of his invention” sounded like the same man. I didn’t find it a problem. I didn’t even notice it. What he does do on occasion is modernise the dialogue. Purists will most certainly grue when Sofya says things like “I don’t find it amusing. I find it sick,” but it didn’t upset me. Then I don’t know any better.

Unlike many historical novels Parini has had the benefit of a great deal of data recorded at the time and shortly thereafter by people directly involved in his story. How accurately he has interpreted that data is anyone’s guess. Historical accuracy aside what I can say is that this is a well-written, very readable novel – in his afterword he is keen to emphasise that it “is fiction, though it bears some of the trappings and effects of literary scholarship” – and, bearing in mind we all know how the book is going to end (and if we didn’t the blurb on the back of the book tells us), he also manages to build up a reasonable amount of tension and anticipation in the final few pages.


Jay Parini Jay Parini, an American poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His novels include The Apprentice Lover, Benjamin's Crossing, and The Last Station. His fifth volume of poetry was The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. He has written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner, in addition to The Art of Teaching and Why Poetry Matters. His reviews and essays appear frequently in major periodicals, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Guardian.

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