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Sunday 27 February 2011

The Hour of the Star


So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. – Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

When Clarice Lispector was writing the novella The Hour of the Star (A Hora da Estrela) – although ‘assembling’ is probably a better word apparently – she was dying. Shortly after The Hour of the Star was published, Lispector was admitted to hospital where it was discovered that she had inoperable ovarian cancer. She was not told the diagnosis and died on 9th December 1977, the eve of her 57th birthday. One has to wonder a) if she had been aware that this was going to be her last book would she still have written it the same way or b) perhaps she was more aware that her remaining time was running out faster than expected considering how portentous some of the writing is: the book’s narrator says at one point that Death is his favourite character.

In February 1977, Lispector gave her only televised interview, with Júlio Lerner of TV Cultura in São Paulo. In it, she mentioned a book she had just completed with “thirteen names, thirteen titles,” though she refused to name them. The book was actually only published just over a month before her death. According to her, the book is "the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs." That is overly simplistic and yet the plot of this book is anything but complicated. How Lispector chooses to tell this tale is, however, quite complex and requires careful rereading; rereading is recommended but at 75 pages that shouldn’t take you too long.

hora-da-estrela01 Macabéa (after the Maccabees) is a poor girl from the provincial Northeast of Brazil. She is the invention of a male author, Rodrigo S.M., who is the book’s narrator although he is no mere storyteller. He frequently interrupts his narrative with talk of his own life and the difficulties he’s having writing this piece, in fact it takes him quite a few pages even to get round to his story. We learn how long this tale has been gestating:

[F]or the past two and a half years I have slowly started discovering the whys and the wherefores.

and we learn where the inspiration came from too:

In a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the Northeast.

Like many authors though he thinks about Macabéa less as a tale to tell, more as something he has to write, to rid himself of. “I did not invent this girl,” he says. “She forced her being upon me.” If that is the case then this is the only time in her life the girl forced herself on anyone.

From the age of two she had lived “with her maiden aunt, a sanctimonious spinster, and the girl’s only surviving relative in the whole wide world” who wouldn’t even allow her a pet animal since “an animal in the house would simply mean one more mouth to feed, [something] the girl resigned herself [to], convinced that she was only fit for breeding fleas and that she didn’t deserve a dog’s affection.” Her parents died of typhoid fever. She can’t remember the details. Remembering is actively discouraged by her aunt and if she did recall some incident from her past then the aunt would reward her with a rap on the head.

If she had thought hard, she might have concluded that she had sprouted from the soil of Alagoas inside a mushroom that soon rotted.

Her aunt was also fond of thrashing the girl:

She would thrash the girl not only because she derived some sensuous pleasure from thrashing her – the old girl found the idea of sexual intercourse so disgusting that she never married – but also because she considered it her duty to see that the girl did not finish up like many another girl in Maceió standing on street corners with a lit cigarette waiting to pick up a man.


The girl soon forgot these thrashings. If you wait patiently, the pain soon passes. … The girl didn’t dare ask why she was always being punished. One doesn’t have to know everything and not knowing became an important factor in her life.

Her aunt finds her a job in Rio de Janeiro – in the industrialised, metropolitan South of the country – and then dies leaving the girl on her own, lodging in a bedsitter with four other girls – Maria de Penha, Maria Aparecida, Maria José and plain Maria – who worked as shop assistants, members of the lumpenproletariat who will never aspire to anything and yet still seem sophisticated to Macabéa. Macabéa, surprisingly, works as a typist – just about:

[S]he was barely literate and had only received three years of primary schooling. She was so backward that when she typed she was obliged to copy out every word slowly, letter by letter. Her aunt had given her a crash course in typing.

Her employer, Raimundo Silveira, pays her what she is worth, less than minimum wage, and she subsists on hot dogs, the odd mortadella sandwich, coffee (even though it gave her heartburn) and soft drinks, preferably Coca Cola. Mortadella is a large Italian sausage very popular in Brazil.

Macabéa is uneducated but she is not retarded – that is stated explicitly. It is how she faces her limitations that is of interest. In one respect she does aspire to be more than what she sees in the mirror, a plain, flat-chested girl: she takes pride in the fact that her job title is ‘typist’, she aspires to look like Marilyn Monroe – we watch her small attempts to beautify herself by painting her fingernails, buying lipstick at a store, and reading fashion magazines. She is pleased when she acquires a boyfriend and is delighted when the fortuneteller at the end of the book tells her all the good things she can expect life to present her with but she does little to actually better herself:

As for the girl, she exists in an impersonal limbo, untouched by what is worst or best. She merely exists, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. Why should there be anything more? Her existence is sparse.

Her life becomes so monotonous that in the afternoon she couldn’t tell you what did that morning.

She believed in everything that existed and in everything non-existent as well. But she didn’t know how to embellish reality. For her, reality was too enormous to grasp. Besides the word reality meant nothing to her.


She prayed but without God. She did not know Him, therefore He did not exist.

But what does the girl really see when she looks in the mirror? Rodrigo tells us:

I see the girl from the Northeast looking in the mirror and – the ruffle of a drum – in the mirror there appears my own face, weary and unshaven. We have reversed roles so completely.

This is something that all writers must go through. Where do our characters end and we begin or vice versa? As Rodrigo writes Macabéa he discovers her and we are privy to this discovery:

I have just discovered that reality made little sense to the girl. She felt more at ease with the unreality of everyday life. She lived in slo-o-ow motion, a hare le-e-eaping through the a-a-air over hi-i-ill and da-a-ale, obscurity was her earth, obscurity was the inner core of nature.


She is a misfit even in this world. I swear that nothing can be done for her. Believe me I would help her if I could.


If the girl only knew that my own happiness stems from the deepest sorrow and that sorrow is an abortive form of happiness. Certainly, she was a contented creature despite the neurosis. The neurosis of battle.


Why do I write? Can I explain? I simply don’t know. In fact, I sometimes think that I am not me. I seem to belong to a remote planet, I am such a stranger unto myself. Can this be me? I am horrified by this encounter with myself.


The only thing that can be said about me is that I am breathing.

Macabéa is not Raimundo’s only employee. There is also Glória who can do shorthand and everything:


Glória was terribly smug: in her own estimation, she thought of herself as being really something. Conscious of her mulatta sex appeal, she painted in a beauty spot above her lips, to add a touch of glamour to the bleached hairs around her mouth. Glória was a cunning vixen but none the less good-hearted.


Glória wiggled her bottom in an inviting way and she smoked mentholated cigarettes to keep her breath fresh… She was very self-confident, having achieved most of her modest ambitions in life. There was a defiant note in Glória’s attitude as if to say: ‘Nobody bosses me around.’

Is it any wonder that Macabéa’s boyfriend, Olímpico, ditches her when he catches sight of Glória? But how did someone like Macabéa ever acquire a boyfriend in the first place?

In a downpour of rain, she met (bang) the first boyfriend of any kind she had ever known, her heart beating furiously as if she had swallowed a little bird that continued to flutter inside her. The boy and the girl stared at each other in the rain and recognised each other as native North-easterners, creatures of the same species with that unmistakable aura. She stared at him, drying her wet face with her hands. The girl only had to see the youth in order to transform him immediately into her guava preserve with cheese [a luxury from her childhood].

He . . .

He approached her and spoke with that singsong intonation of the North-easterner that went straight to her heart. He said

― Excuse me missy, but would you care to come for a walk?

Olmpico It takes three dates (during every one of which it rains) before she asks him his name. He tells her it is Olímpico de Jesus Moreira Chaves which was a lie; “his real surname was simply Jesus, a clear indication that he was illegitimate.” Although poor like her Olímpico is ambitious:

He never once referred to himself as a worker but always as a metallurgist.


― One day, I’ll be a rich man. [He was] convinced that he was a demon of power: the strength bleeding in his young limbs.


In the Northeast, he had saved week after week to earn enough money to have a perfectly sound canine replaced with a false tooth in glittering gold. A gold tooth gave him some standing in society. Moreover, to have actually killed someone had made him a MAN in capital letters. Olímpico felt no remorse, he was what people in the Northeast would call a ‘brazen thug’.


Macabéa was undeniably a primitive creature while Olímpico de Jesus saw himself as a man about town, the type of man for whom all doors open.


Olímpico concerned himself with important things but Macabéa only noticed unimportant things such as herself.

Needless to say their relationship is short-lived and painful to read on many levels. Just as her aunt abused her physically so her boyfriend abuses her verbally. Much of it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

It’s at this point in the story we see Rodrigo start to soften in his writing when talking about Macabéa:

Oh, if only I could seize Macabéa, give her a good scrubbing and a plate of hot soup, kiss her on the forehead and tuck her up in bed. So that she might wake up to discover the great luxury of living.

At the start of the book he only referred to her as “the girl from the Northeast,” then “Macabéa” but, towards the end of her story, she has become Maca. Perhaps, by this point, he realises that things are not going to end well for his creation:

Yes, I adore Macabéa, my darling Maca. I adore her ugliness and her total anonymity for she belongs to no one. I adore her for her weak lungs and her under-nourished body.

In much the same way that Beckett gave a voice to the disenfranchised, to those of the edges of society, so does Lispector through her mouthpiece, Rodrigo S.M.:

There are thousands of girls like this girl from the Northeast to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, living in bedsitters or toiling behind counters for all they are worth. They aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence. Few of them ever complain and as far as I know they never protest for there is no one to listen.


What I am writing is something more than mere invention; it is my duty to relate everything about this girl among thousands of others like her. It is my duty, however unrewarding, to confront her with her own existence.

For one has a right to shout.

So, I am shouting.

So, yes, this is a book about class but it is also a work of metafiction about the difficulties involved in writing honestly. To relegate Rodrigo S.M. to the role of narrator is to miss much of the point here. When the book was filmed[1] his role was dispensed with completely in much the same way that, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted as a film the narration by, and perspective of, Chief Bromden was lost.

The book is light on descriptions. In fact her whole universe can be summarised in the following short sentence:

Acre Street for living, Lavradio Street for working, the dock for excursions on Sundays.

It’s an exaggeration to say that because she goes to the pictures, to the doctor and to a fortune-teller in Olaria but I suppose these are exceptions rather than her norm. She even gets a taxi to go and see Madame Carlota, the fortune-teller: such extravagance!

Interestingly, the description of Acre Street resembles closely the zona district bordered by docks in Recife, a Northeastern Mecca for thousands of migrants from the sertão, and the city where Lispector spent her early childhood. According to Giovanni Pontiero, who translated A Hora da Estrela into English, Lispector became obsessively nostalgic for Recife in the months before her death, returning to the city to visit friends and once familiar landmarks. Back in Rio, she began frequenting the São Cristóvão marketplace to observe the Northeasterners who sold foods and handicrafts there. All this was apparently in preparation for A Hora da Estrela.[2]

The Hour of the Star, in fact, manages to compress most of Lispector’s obsessions into one tiny thumbnail of a book. Macabéa, a driftless immigrant from the northeast, shuttles to and from her job as a typist, her boarding house, and a soulless love affair in Rio, while slowly gaining inklings of her own freedom and ultimately finding redemption.[3]

It took me a while to work out where the title comes from, The Hour of the Star. It is actually something that the fortune-teller says to her:

For in the hour of death you become a celebrated film star, it is a moment of glory for everyone, when the choral music scales the top notes…

Can death defeat someone who has already been defeated by life? Lispector portrays this as the moment where final self-realisation and self-illumination can take place – it is this hour that Lispector has been heading towards all along: death is the ultimate starring role. In his afterword to his translation Giovanni Pontiero notes:

What Macabéa perceives, Lispector has always known, namely that: ‘Death is an encounter with self.’ A brief, ecstatic moment of transition as corporeal form is miraculously transformed into ‘vigorous air’. The promise of sudden release is inviting, but life demands the greater courage.

This is a writers’ novel if ever there was one but it’s one where the author shows rather than tells. “This book is a silence: an interrogation,” it asks its readers questions but doesn’t necessarily provide answers. If you enjoy a book that makes you think and doesn’t take 1000 pages to do it then this is the one for you. Clarice Lispector once proclaimed The Hour of the Star as a book made without words. That’s clearly untrue and so she must mean something else. I think the words that are missing from this book are the answers to some very important questions.


clarice-lispector Clarice Lispector, is recognized as one of Latin America´s greatest writers and is only now being discovered by English readers, surprising given that “Clarice’s beauty, genius, and eccentricity intrigued Brazil virtually from her adolescence.”

Born into a Jewish family amidst the horrors of post-World War I Ukraine, Chaka Lispector was to escape to Brazil in 1922 and be re-named Clarice. She was to spend many if her early years living a humble existence in Northeast Brazil. First in Maceió, Alagoas, then three years later in the Jewish neighbourhood of Boa Vista in Recife, Pernambuco, where a monument to her exists today.

Whilst in Recife, her mother died (1930) at the age of forty-two, when Clarice was nine years old. Her father continued to struggle economically, but Clarice was still able to attend the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro, which taught Hebrew and Yiddish in addition to the usual subjects. In 1932, she gained admission to the Ginásio Pernambucano, the most prestigious secondary school in the state at the time. A year later, she “consciously claimed the desire to write.”

In 1935, Pedro Lispector decided to move his family to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find greater prosperity for them. There Clarice became a law student seeking justice for prisoners and then a journalist.

In 1943, around the time of her marriage to a diplomat, she published her first book, the critically acclaimed Near to the Wild Heart. Success in her career was not reflected in her challenging family and personal life. She had a long-time love for the homosexual poet Lúcio Cardoso among others, and one of her sons was diagnosed as schizophrenic fostering a growing sense of isolation in her.

Several of Lispector’s works relate to her time in Northeast Brazil. Perhaps most famous of them was The Hour of the Star. Macabéa’s story is one of the most famous in Brazilian literature although Lispector is probably better known for her short collection, Family Ties, which has been called “the best book of stories ever published in Brazil.”[4] She has been described as, “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf[5] although what attracted me to her in the first place was a quote by the French literary critic and philosopher Hélène Cixous who said:

I discovered an immense writer, the equivalent for me of Kafka, with something more: This was a woman, writing as a woman. I discovered Kafka and it was a woman.


Lorrie Moore, ‘The Brazilian Sphinx’, The New York Review of Books, 24th September 2009

Benjamin Moser, ‘Why You Should Know Clarice Lispector’, More Intelligent Life, September 2009

Dennis Cooper, ‘Spotlight on ... Clarice Lispector The Hour of the Star (1977)’, DC’s, 10th February 2010

Claire Williams, ‘Macabéa In Wonderland: Linguistic Adventures In Clarice Lispector’s A Hora Da Estrela, Ellipsis, Vol. 3, pp.21-38


[1] See Darlene J. Sadlier, ‘Imitation of Life: A Hora Da Estrela, Forum Media 6, pp.150-167

[2] Darlene J. Sadlier, ‘Imitation of Life: A Hora Da Estrela, Forum Media 6, p.157

[3] Anderson Tepper, ‘Dizzy with Life’, Tablet, 30th January 2008

[4] Fernando Sabino in a personal letter to Lispector reprinted in Fernando Sabino and Clarice Lispector, Cartas perto do coração; p.124

[5] Gregory Rabassa quoted in Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector Clarice Lispector

Sunday 20 February 2011

Living Souls


Think of the wonderful circles in which our whole being moves and from which we cannot escape no matter how we try. The circler circles in these circles. – E. T. A. Hoffmann

Living Souls has the feel of a sprawling Russian epic novel – even the abridged English translation is 439 pages long (the original was 685 pages) – but it really isn’t; War and Peace (1440 pages) it is not, nor is it And Quietly Flows the Don (992 pages) or Doctor Zhivago (592 pages) but it does owe a debt of gratitude to all three and certainly follows in their footsteps. Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Sholokhov focuses on World War I which is also covered by Pasternak along with the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. Bykov’s novel, set roughly fifty years in the future, deals with what he imagines the next Russian Civil War might be like.

At the moment because of the oil situation in the world Russia is quite well off but what if an alternative fuel source is discovered? Bykov suggests that something called Phlogiston is discovered and the demand for oil shrivels up overnight, so much so that the populace end up eating synthetic food made out of the stuff. War brings no tangible results but it is a distraction. Unlike George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, to which this book tips its hat (he even borrows “Lies are truth, slavery is freedom” at one point), the reasons for the state Russia finds herself in are never clearly and concisely explained. There is much political discussion but it would have been nice to have been provided with something equivalent to Emmanuel Goldstein’s book that laid out things in a dispassionate fashion.

While set in the future you could never call this novel ‘science fiction’ although there is a touch of magical realism about the book, especially towards the end, and it is written with a satirical edge that inevitably conjures up the likes of Bulgakov even if the English title is more of a nod to Gogol than anyone else. Living Souls was not the original title of the work. It was ЖД which Google Translate renders as Railway. Railways are discussed at length in the book – they’re trying to build a single track that will encircle the whole of Russia for one thing as is illustrated on the cover of the original Russian edition (circles also crop up all the time and it’s impossible not to think of Dante’s circles of hell bearing in mind that the first part of Dead Souls was intended to represent the Inferno of a modern-day Divine Comedy) – but I can also see why, in her review in The Times, Elaine Feinstein suggests that the title would be more accurately translated as Zh.D “which suggests that Jews (Zhydy) are his principal target.”[1] This is perhaps borne out by an earlier translator’s decision to render ЖД as Jewhad – Francis Greene translated two episodes from the book for Glas[2] – but it is not as simple as that. Jews certainly crop up in the book as ‘Jews’, ‘Khazars’ and ‘Yds’ (presumably a contraction of ‘Yids’) but they are not its primary focus any more than the ‘Joes’ (a peripatetic band of men and women suffering from something called Vasilenko Syndrome) or the ‘natives’ the supposed true heirs to Russia.

Bykov goes out to court controversy and stimulate discussion, as can be seen in his recently published novel Zh.D., taken from two Russian letters of the alphabet: ‘It's going to be fiercely Russophobic and fiercely anti-Semitic,' he said just before the novel's publication. He went on, ‘It depicts both Russians and Jews as virus nations, which bring misfortune and decay to whatever they're trying to colonize. It's the best book I've ever written, it's actually the best book that can possibly be written today, and it's very, very funny.'[3]

Since this is the only thing by him I’ve read I can’t speak as to whether it’s the best thing he’s ever written but it is frequently humorous and many of its characters, albeit the minor ones, are quite preposterous. “To be fair, some of the humour bases itself on cultural in-jokes which do not easily make sense to the casual Western reader.”[4] There were several places I could tell there was something going on that I simply wasn’t getting.

Nick Harkaway met Bykov in Russia (and later interviewed him in the UK) and describes him as follows:

Bykov is elemental; a huge man with a huge voice and huge passion. In Russia he’s basically a rockstar – radio host, biographer of Pasternak, novelist, poet, TV personality… he’s a kind of cross between Melvyn Bragg and Bob Geldof; a cultural force who takes delight in causing outrage to enlighten.


I can’t help but hear an echo of P G Wodehouse’s Vladimir Brusiloff[5] in the assertion that it’s the best possible book in the world – and since Bykov reads Wodehouse, that’s not so far-fetched.[6]

ЖДIn a review of the book in Glas they also suggest that the title “could be tentatively rendered as ‘A.D.’ in English”[7] and the simple fact is that I would be hard pushed myself to come up with a single pithy title that encapsulates this book. I don’t think it tries to do too much. I just don’t think it does it (at least in translation) too well and a number of other reviewers suggest it would benefit from the ministrations of a good editor. I’m not going to argue but I would have been happy with a dramatis personæ, a map and a glossary.

I did an unusual thing when I got about 100 pages into this book. I stopped and looked it up on Google and read several reviews just to see if they were as confused as me. I was seriously considering abandoning the book there and simply talking about what I’d read. I’m glad I didn’t but I can’t pretend the book wasn’t hard work either. I said it wasn’t a science fiction novel and it’s not but the two things I can think to compare it too are: Dune (the 608-page book, not the David Lynch film) and Babylon 5. To fully appreciate both of these takes time to get to know the various races, their ethics, politics, religious beliefs and complex histories and Living Souls is no different. For starters, although Russians are mentioned in the book, the two rival factions are actually the Varangians and the Khazars and what made understanding where these groups had arisen from hard is that it was members of both groups talking to each other who told the story and each had its own bias. So it was hard to gain an objective perspective of what happened between now and then.

According to Bykov, since the seventh century Russia has been moving in a vicious circle consisting of revolution – tyranny – thaw – chaos – a new revolution, which is repeated again and again in Russian history. And behind both the disasters and the apparent achievements there is an opposition of two forces tearing Russia apart: the “Varangians” (or “Northerners”) and the “Khazars” (or “Southerners”), both invaders of Russian territory alternatively taking the upper hand and overthrowing the other.[8]

One woman describes them as “the Iron and the mad” and those aren’t altogether inaccurate titles.

The ruling Varangians are Odin-worshipping, Nazi-minded nationalists (they claim to be of Nordic/Aryan extraction) whose army (a semi-ecclesiastic system with seven distinct levels of initiation chained to an intentionally confusing Rulebook) considers stupidity a virtue and incorporates regular executions of their own soldiers to boost morale; they symbolise everything the West associates with Stalinist Russia. Priest-Captain Ploskorylov’s image of the typical soldier was a man whose “sole purpose … was to march as quickly as possible to his end, [a man] more afraid of his own side than his opponent’s.”

The Khazars, “Southern Russians bolstered by Jews and liberals exiled from Moscow, hark back to the Khazar Kaganate, a Caucasian kingdom that flourished between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, and converted to Judaism around the turn of the 9th.”[9] On the surface it might seem we have the good guys versus the bad but the Khazars are morally corrupt and represent the worst aspects of Western capitalism. They also have a book of rules, the Alternative Guidebook, which held that “any idea could take hold, however far-fetched, and would soon become the only one possible:

Point 1. No one knew what had happened.

Point 2. All sources were to some extent falsified.

Point 3. There was no truth, only a series of asymptomatic approximations.

Point 4. If something appeared to be true, it meant it wasn’t.

Point 5. Forget everything you’ve read and march onwards.”

The core difference between the two is explained by Major Volokhov, a former historian and an erudite, who I’ll talk more about later:

Your northern friends want to build an empire. There’s plenty of positive empire-building in history, but there's no truth or justice with these ones: their imperialism is about smashing others and grabbing for its own sake. Our Khazar friends aren’t building an empire of course, oh no, they’re building a corp… corporation, and a corporation has one simple principle, to be eff…efficient, that’s it.


Then there is the original population, the ‘natives’ as they tend to be called by both sides, or ‘Wolves’, exemplified by but not restricted to the Joes, a meek and tolerant people, the keepers of folk wisdom, who appear quite indifferent to the goings-on and in general seem able to adapt to whatever either side throws at them. They speak their own secret language which uses the same Russian words but assigns different meanings to the words making it sound as if they’re talking nonsense. At times they are preserved and looked after (some of the Joes being ‘adopted’ almost like pets) or, during food shortages when people can’t afford to be as charitable, culled.

There is another possible meaning to the title. In the book there are two villages mentioned, Zhadrunovo and Degunino. The latter is being constantly taken and retaken by either side because of the fact it magically never ran out of supplies – I’m being literal here; it has a magic stove and a magic apple tree. The book opens with the Varangians under Captain Gromov taking the village for the twelfth time and without a fight because its previous occupiers, having eaten their fill, have now scarpered. The war is now in its third year and “[n]either side could be bothered to kill the other, and both tried desperately to avoid fighting, unable to live together but ashamed to pack up and go home.” Zhadrunovo is a very different place. It’s said if you go there you won’t return although no one is sure if this is because you can’t escape from its clutches or don’t want to. Either way these are the two goals that most of the book’s main protagonists end up heading towards, some to engage in the Final Battle, the date of which has already been agreed in advance by the Varangian and Khazar generals, others to find escape.

The book doesn’t have a cast of thousands but I bet there are a couple of hundred people wandering through its pages – at least. The blurb on the back highlights four couples:

Against this rich backdrop of events, Living Souls follows the lives of four couples struggling to escape the chaos and stupidity of the war around them: a teenage girl who adopts a homeless man, a poet turned general separated from his lover, a provincial governor in love with one of the natives, and a legendary military commander who is sleeping with the enemy.

These are:

Vasily Ivanovich and Anka

Vasily Ivanovich is a Joe. The Joes were once called bomzh, meaning ‘of no fixed abode’, because one of the symptoms of so-called Vasilenko Syndrome is an urge to wander aimlessly. In one of the book’s flashbacks we go back to a time when the Joes were being “treated and sterilised [and sent] from the shelters to stay in people’s homes.” Anka has finished her sixth year with top marks and a certificate of merit and as a reward her mother offers her the choice of:

…a week in Crimea or a trip to Beijing Disneyland, where you got a load of free plastic toys that broke the first day so you didn’t have to take them home. But she refused both holidays: she wanted a Joe.

After complying with the bureaucratic requirements the family visit the shelter to pick their Joe. She chooses a man in his mid-thirties:

“He’s a very good patient, he’s been with us for two years,” Maria Stepanova [the Director] said, unembarrassed by his presence and by the sudden silence. “He’d forgotten most things when he came here, but now he knows everything. He can read the newspaper!” she added proudly, as though reading the newspaper was a gift bestowed only on the lucky few.

The two bond immediately. She takes him for walks. He tells her stories of which he seems to have an unending supply. Through spending time with Vasily Ivanovich she (and we) begin to get some insight into this strange subculture. When they meet other Joes in the street they often engage in brief interchanges but although Anka understands the words she has no idea what they’re saying to each other.

By the time Anka reaches fifteen things have changed. The country is now at war and the Joes are being exterminated. Vasily Ivanovich has to leave but in order to see him safely to his destination she decides to travel with him. This is necessary because he is quite incompetent. In fact his only talent apart from story telling is making intricate little boxes though he proves useless at any other task; even hammering nails in tasks him.

The two set out for Degunino.

Gromov and Masha

Captain Gromov, formerly a poet and philologist, is the first character we meet in the book. He is in command of the troop that retakes Degunino for the twelfth time although all that’s really on his mind is the fact that in three days he will be on leave and can return home to Makhachkala to reunite with his beloved Masha. But before he can be free he is given one final assignment: Colonal Zdrok orders him to escort one Private Voronov to the village of Koposovo where Voronov has instructions to execute a man and a woman although it’s a long time before we realise whom.

On their travels the pass through Blatsk, a remote town in the north of the county where all the crooks had congregated, and spend a night in a monastery with some unusual monks who appear to have some kind of sixth sense. They know, for example, about Voronov’s mission:

About the girl and the official you mean? Not much, just that there’s an old curse that if a native loves a Khazar or a Varangian they’ll have a child who’ll be the end of the world. It sounds absurd but absurd things can happen. For me it’s all wrapped up in mystery. Christianity demand so much of us that we’ve lost all our old mystical knowledge, all the pagan deities and magic. But people knew many things before Christianity, and in some places they still do. There are prophecies and spells and all sorts of nonsense, and it’s quite possible your Gurov has some understanding of them. But he’s an ordinary man, and he's not looking in the right places.

So who exactly is Voronov supposed to kill? Well, interestingly there are two candidates: Asha or Zhenka.

Borozdin and Asha

Asha, the native mistress of Borozdin, the governor of a distant Siberian tribal area, is pregnant. On discovering that Borozdin is a Varangian she goes into a panic and then into hiding. The reason is because of a prophecy:

She had told him the legend from the time of Rurik, of a man from the North who would sleep with a Wolf-girl, and their child would destroy the equilibrium of the two gods, and history would no longer run in a circle. The natives couldn’t let the child be born. The few who had known about them had tolerated their relationship, but as soon as Asha went to her grandmother to tell her she was pregnant … the natives’ bush telegraph began buzzing with rumours of the Governor’s lineage.

The two end up fleeing to her aunt who lives in Degunino.

Volokhov and Zhenka

The other woman who may well be carrying the Antichrist is a Khazar girl Zhenka Dolinskaya, who is a political commissar in the Khazar army. She is pregnant to Major Volokhov who is leading his partisan detachment – his “slowly awakening souls” – around Russia, like Moses, in order to retrain them into freedom-loving individuals, who will start a new nation. Their ultimate goal is Zhadrunovo.

The climax of the book is the Final Battle during which the troops engage in manoeuvres specifically designed to “regulate the flow of soldiers without any risk to themselves, at a safe distance from the fighting.” But there is a third force that isn’t interested in simply playing at war: the Earth itself joins in with the battle. And this is where the end of the book gets a little strange, with the appearance of mythical birds: Finist, the bright-winged falcon; the Phoenix; Sirin, the bird of joy, with the Gamaunhead and chest of a beautiful woman and the body of an owl; Alkonost, the bird of paradise and Gamayun, the prophetic bird of wisdom along with other talking animals. Has the story descended into fairy tale or have fairy tales risen up when they are most needed? I don’t have a good answer to that.

The book is in two parts, ‘Departure’, consisting of four chapters and an interlude, and ‘Arrival’ which is fourteen chapters long followed by an epilogue. It is interesting how a few times characters in the book talk about not the imminent end, although that’s also used, but an impending beginning, as if it is almost time to for history to start repeating itself again. This, of course, means that there is a lot left hanging at the end of the book but with circles there are no ends and so that had to be expected.

On the front cover of the Alma Books edition there is a quote from Elaine Feinstein: “A Catch-22 for modern Russia.” I can see why she might say that but as she herself points out “there is no character as likeable as Yossarian” for us to root for. For my money there were too many characters and too many of them had similar-sounding names; it got confusing. Of course one has to wonder how much of the problem can be laid at the door of the translator? On her blog translator Lisa Hayden who has also read the book in its original form had this to say:

The Living Souls translator, Cathy Porter, told me in e-mail correspondence that, in collaboration with Bykov, she didn’t chop but chose to prune things like repetition and untranslatable Russian word play, to keep the narrative moving without losing the book’s humour and poetry. Porter said Bykov, who encouraged a free translation, thoroughly appreciates her tightening of the text.[10]

Her overall opinion of the book corresponds with my own: “Great idea. Messy execution.” In that respect the adjective ‘sprawling’ does fit the book well. She also wonders if Bykov “couldn’t decide if he wanted to write essays or a novel” and I agree with her there too. There are lengthy bouts of exposition, some masquerading as conversations that make you feel like you’re attending a lecture rather than reading a novel for fun. It does feel as if he’s been determined to make use of every scrap of his research and touch on every aspect of Russian culture, past, present and future. What bothered me the most is that after wading through some of these conversations I found I wasn’t any the wiser. I’m sure if I had the time, energy and interest to read the book from the start I might get a lot more out of it. That is not a criticism. Who said the mark of a good book was a full understanding after one quick read? The main criticism levelled at it by the Financial Times was that “you almost need to be Russian to understand it,”[11] but having read the comments made by a couple of native Russians I’m not sure the answer is quite that simple.

Yes, there is much doom and gloom in this book, a society on its knees, where TV programs never use words longer than two-syllables, when they watch gladiatorial contests and ‘Joes’ doing tricks, where the government taxes the very language they use so that the newspapers have to misspell things or invent new words so they can afford to keep in business. But there is a ray of hope:

You can divide any society in the world into the Varangians and Khazars. You see it all over the place – the Kaganate in Gaza, the States under Bush, the French in Algeria. But people always find something bigger than their differences, It’s the same with men and women, so that the human race will survive. Everywhere else in the world people find something more important than what divides them.


Dmitry_BykovBorn in 1967 and one of the most prolific of modern Russian writers, in recent years Bykov has gained some recognition for his biography of Boris Pasternak, published in 2005. The biography broke with prior works in its account of Doctor Zhivago, and it earned Bykov the 2006 National Bestseller and Big Book awards. He later wrote biographies of Makim Gorky and Bulat Okudzhava.

To date Bykov has written eight novels and clearly has a fondness for dystopian fiction: Acquittal, his personal favourite, is an alternative history of Russia; Orthography is an intense personal saga set in revolutionary Russia and The Evacuator is a morality parable posing as an anti-utopia. Bykov's latest novel, The List, is the first instalment of a proposed grotesque fantasy trilogy. The protagonist, a young TV scriptwriter, suddenly finds himself on a secret list which includes, in addition to him, 180 other Muscovites aged 16 to 60. Nobody knows who, or what, has put them on this list. Fear, humiliation, hopes, rumours and the ghosts of the noughties – all find their way into this novel, part-thriller, part-fable and part-political satire.

As a journalist and critic, Bykov has been writing for the magazine Ogoniok since 1993. He has also periodically run a show on the radio station Echo of Moscow, running at least until early 2008. Earlier, he was one of the hosts of an influential TV show Vremechko.

In 2009, Bykov was named assistant editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Profile. He is also the editor-in-chief of the monthly literature-focused magazine What to Read.


[1] Elaine Feinstein, Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov’, The Times, March 13, 2010

[2] Glas 40

[3] Academia Rossica

[4] Gordon Weetman, Living Souls by Dimitry Bykov’, The Literateur, April 1, 2010

[5] Minor character in ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’

[6] Nick Harkaway, ‘In Conversation with Dmitry Bykov’,, April 14, 2010

[7] Live Souls (ZhD), Glas

[8] Live Souls (ZhD), Glas

[9] Paul Engles, Living Souls by Dimitry Bykov’, Book Geeks, July 22, 2010

[10] Lisa Hayden, Going Round and Round: Bykov’s ЖД, Lizok’s Bookshelf, April 13, 2010

[11] Paul Gould, Living Souls, Financial Times, April 5, 2010

Sunday 13 February 2011

A conversation with Stephen Nelson


clip_image002Stephen Nelson is a Scottish poet who lives in Hamilton. He writes a blog called afterlights which I’ve been following for a couple of years, well lurking around to be honest because I rarely make a comment. It’s not often I have nothing to say but the main reason I never comment is because Stephen specialises in all kinds of visual and concrete poems and most of the time I look at them I go, “Eh?” and pass on by.

I’ve been thinking about asking Stephen to do a piece for my blog for a while now and the fact that he’s up for The Crashaw Prize seems like a decent enough excuse but then I got to thinking and rather than a guest blog I thought I’d do a sort of an interview. Since I’ve never really been able to get my head around visual poetry I thought this might be a good jumping off point. I don’t especially like not getting things but I never seem to run into people who get the things I don’t get to ask them what I’m doing wrong. It’s like I’ve never actually met anyone who likes listening to Stockhausen. He’s an interesting bloke to talk about – a bit like John Cage in that respect – but I’d really like to meet a guy who would stick on one of his CDs to listen to while he’s making his tea and ask him why. Do you see where I’m coming from? And I feel much the same about visual poetry. I look at it – it’s often pretty to look at – but I’m not sure what to do with it. I was hoping since he’s are a practitioner that he might open my eyes a bit and maybe attract a few readers to his site in passing.


Day One

Like you I was brought up in Scotland and the fact that I wrote poetry was not something I publicised. Can I assume that being a visual poet is an even harder sell?

Well, yeah, I tell people I make visual poetry and it’s like, “What’s that?” So I mention concrete poetry and usually someone cracks a bad joke about bricks or buildings or something. Generally there’s an air of bafflement. You get used to it.

Where did you first come across visual poetry?

On the web. I was interested in concrete poetry. I knew about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work and was doing a search on him. It lead to bigger things. In particular a site called Minimalist Concrete Poetry, which presented a bunch of contemporary visual poets and introduced me to the term and its application.

Was it love at first sight?

Absolutely. But love mixed with confusion. A lot of it I didn’t get. What was going on? Why did I find it all so damn gorgeous to look at but remain clueless as to its meaning? Then it struck me. Text! A love of text. The look of written language.

Okay I walk into your Visual Poetry shop and say, “Hello I’m interested in looking at some visual poetry.” What would you pull out to show me?

I would give you (or sell you, it ain’t cheap) a copy of Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. A rare book. A precious book. In fact you can only looking at it wearing a pair of special protective gloves, in an air-conditioned room, softly lit.

I’ll show you two pieces which illustrate the process I’m involved in.

clip_image004    clip_image006

The first is a letter composition; the second a digitally processed version of the same poem. The key thing to understand is the material substance of the letters, the physical shape of written language. For a while I was interested in the letters “Y” and “K”, and how the shape of these letters could be interpreted imaginatively according to my own concerns. For example, these two letters are composed of thrusting limbs (a bit like the human body, which is interesting). The limbs reach up or reach out into the future, into the sky, moving forward, moving up, reaching, extending. The “Y” extends up in praise or celebration; the “K” reaches out exploring what lies ahead.

So in the first poem ‘Dance of Past Lives 1’, I use the celebratory limbs of one “Y” entwined with another, in a dance or sexual union (think Tantra or Kama Sutra), creating almost tribal shapes and patterns which represent the dance of life. I’m interested in reincarnation, so each coupling becomes a life, or if not a life then at least an important stage in one life, punctuated by full stops – death, the end, transition from one stage to another.

The second poem, ‘Dance of Past Lives 4’, I like to think of as a “version” of the first, a bit like the old Dubplate versions of King Tubby or Lee Perry. Here, the very substance of the language is transformed and irradiated at an almost cellular level. And so, for me, this metamorphosis acts like the transformation of the human body, or the Self, in a way which resembles Taoist sexual alchemy, Tantra, Jungian Individuation, Christian Resurrection, or, simply, as Gary Barwin put it, Dr Who style transformation. The digital tools allow that luminosity which I see as part of the process of change from grosser elements to more subtle forms of energy. They also create images which remind me of spirit beings or aliens or ectoplasmic entities, which I like.

When I look at the first piece my initial reaction is that these look like a form of hieroglyphics or logograms and it’s hard not shake that first impression and to want to define each ‘character’. Take for example this one:


There’s certainly something anthropomorphic about it. It could be a man doing a cartwheel. Rather than ‘praise’ might not this represent ‘joy’? It’s impossible not to want to try to interpret/decode the symbol. The problem with that is that we’ll end up labelling each one and end up with a list of nouns.

The title is a help because it suggests a sequence, like dance steps:


and so I suppose this could represent various stages in a life without trying to do anything as generic and ‘profound’ as The Seven Ages of Man. Of course when we get to the second piece it’s harder to see the ‘man’ in them – the blobs look more like amoebae and so we have to think about the sequence more abstractly. It’s hard though not to look at the symbols and try to impose a logical sequence on them. In many respects the second one is better because unless you know where it came from you don’t automatically see the letters. Letters, even funny-looking letters like Cyrillic, are the building blocks of words in my head and words are containers for meaning.

I looked up ‘cartwheel’ to see what the Chinese character was and got this:


which, reading from right to left, says ‘turn’, ‘hand’ and ‘side’ which led me to think that this might not be nine steps but only three. At the end of the day I still feel very frustrated because I want to be right and I’m very uncomfortable with vagueness. Overtones I get and I’ve no problem with subtext but this still feels like

E = mc2

when I don’t know what E, m or c stand for.

So, let’s say this isn’t a shop. It’s a class. It’s Visual Poetry 101, Lesson 1. What are the key elements you’d want me to take away today?

Teacher would like you to grasp the concept of the materiality of language (words, letter, even fragments of letters), the shape and substance of text, and how that can be applied imaginatively to the poem.

Okay, what’s my homework assignment?

Your assignment is a simple one. Pick two or three letters and compose them into a shape or pattern that you think has some poetic merit.

Day Two

I actually lay awake last night unable to sleep for thinking about this. This is what I finally came up with:


My thinking is that it can be read a ‘fail’ or ‘fall’ although I’m not sure if it might work better in lower case. You can probably see what was on my mind. I was afraid I might fail the test, that I was too bound to meanings and words. The fall of man led to him failing to live up to God’s expectations and that led to the grave. That wasn’t what I was thinking about but I guess that’s another way of looking at it. Then there is the famous Beckett quote about failing better coupled with his view of life as that glimmer between birth and death. I think my real aim was to say something profound. I don’t write nearly as much poetry as many of my friends online because I feel that I need to say something meaningful for it to count and although this conversation with you is basically light-hearted I am still sincere in wanted to get concrete and visual poetry.

So how did I do?

I like it. I think upper case is stronger and I see what you are doing. I like it when the word can be read in different ways – in this case "fail" or "fall". That's a characteristic of pwoermding and this is a decent visual pwoermd. I see the depth (not least in the grave), but I also see dark humour. These things can be profound but I think levity is ok too – it can be joyous, free, playful. Your poem is quite Scottish; dare I say Calvinist without being offensive? Anyway, keep it up. Visually it's striking and I like the shadowy quality.

Looking at the tags on your site I can see examples of bracket poetry, found poetry, sound poetry, pwoermds, punctuation cut-ups, minimalist and concrete poems, dripglyphs and something new to me: asemic writing, but not a lot of stuff I recognise (as in visualise as oppose to acknowledge) as ‘real’ poetry, the odd haiku or haiga perhaps or even a prose poem. A cynic might say that much of the stuff looks as if little or no thought has gone into it and so it probably doesn’t deserve a great deal of time spent on it. For example this piece posted in 2008:


I see the words ‘neon’, ‘one’ and I suppose ‘eon’ and the prefix ‘neo’ at a push but my reading of this is ‘one neon’ and I think to myself: What does this mean? Can that be it? What am I supposed to feel reading this? What am I not bringing to the piece to make it work? and I wonder how long this took Stephen to write?

Or this one from 2010:


An onion has many layers and words have many layers. Is that it?

Where am I going wrong?

Ok, let me start by saying that I don’t think the length of time it takes to create a poem is in anyway indicative of its value. You know that. I’m interested in the tiniest moment of poetry. That moment when poetry sparks in the mind and dies. It can be the tiniest movement of mind that produces poetry, and it can only take an instant to create a poem. Added to this is my interest in poetry as a spontaneous flow of creative energy, rather than a labour intensive craft. Poetry starts in the body for me, not the brain. It rises from the base of the spine, grips the chest and flows up out of the mouth or into consciousness as language in long flowing waves, or little staccato breaks, or tiny little puffs of sound or language.

I also have to say at this point that the work on the blog is very different from the work I submit to magazines, or the work included in the Crashaw Prize collection. For one thing blogging is a community activity. Its poetry created in response to other blogging poets. Blog alongside blog. (I think the “neon” piece was written in response to a poem by Mike Cannell). Blogging represents one side of my poetic – visual, minimal, yes, but also spontaneous and instant, rather than considered or thought out. Also, it’s difficult to format poems on blogger so the textual poems I post are usually laid out simply. My magazine poems are generally more considered, more worked through, or the result of a particularly intense (even special) creative rush.

But let’s get to the “neon” poem. Again the physical substance of the poem has to be looked at. In particular the visual rhythm created by the repeated word without any breaks. “Neon” begins and ends with the letter “n”, and so repeated creates words within words (an interesting phenomenon in itself). For me it has a dazzling, beautiful effect on the eye. It lights up! It sparks! And one doesn’t quite know where to focus: on “one”, on “neon”, on “neo” – the words you mention? So let’s take the two main words and how they have that destabilising, disorienting, (hallucinogenic?) effect – “neon” and “one”. Light is a key element in my work. I believe light, in its subtle form, is the spiritual substance of being and consciousness. Neon light is particularly interesting to me because it is the light of the city, the light of excitement, thrill, nights out, dancers, diners, the whir of the city at night. That energy has a spiritual quality. It unsettles the ego, allows some form of supra/unitive consciousness to emerge. I remember nights out as youth with my friends. I lost that sense of everyday identity, became part of a group mind, a city mind. A disordering of the senses. Which brings me to the idea of non-duality. Ego breaks down and consciousness unites with the Other, the One. And so from the neon dazzle of city nightlife, the One emerges, universally, to anyone open to it, experiencing it, attuned to it. This happens in a concrete way in the poem.

The same can be said of the “onion” poem, where the “I” sits in the centre of the poem, surrounded by the word “on”, and the brackets compose layers in which the “I” is buried, or alternatively, waves of energy radiating out from the central source.

To be honest, it helps to have an understanding of my central concerns, my interests, and how other poems may impact upon each individual poem. But bear in mind that blogging textual poems is only a particular strand of my work. It explores the “immediate”.

I think what really gets me about a lot of this kind of poetry is that it doesn’t seem very deep. I can’t imagine, for example, when my mum died expressing my grief in a poem like this:


Can you think of an example of ‘profound’ minimal poetry?

The central concern of minimalism is language itself, how it works, how it mutates, how it can be played with. You probably won’t find many examples of emotional depth in this type of minimalism. But isn’t play one of the profoundest experiences of your life? Or rather, didn’t it used to be? Whatever happened to all the fun in the world? And isn’t language itself the thing that binds us all together from day to day? That seems pretty important to me. One of the main things about my prose poems in the Crashaw collection is how words or phrases form unconscious patterns in the mind. My own interest is in language as “the Word” or as an expression of unconscious energy and how this reforms at a conscious level. This breaks down into minimalist poetry at times and seems to have a certain depth that is other than mere emotional expression. Have a look at my chapbook Flylyght[*], available at the blog or from the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press. Isn’t it funny how the word only represents the object. It isn’t the object. You can’t really say what the object is in essence. You can only represent it. Therefore the word, like the object, is subject to change. It is impermanent. Why not use that quality and play around with it a little?

In 2009 you posted a blog entry about Cythera by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a ring of standing stones situated near a busy road in your home town of Hamilton. The stones bear the following texts:



I was intrigued by what you wrote about your experience of them:

They are framed by the sky as every element of earth should be. When I look up at them I feel both solid and as light as a leaf in air. I feel the earth and I feel the sky. I feel rooted and I feel transcendent.

There are more which I may post at some later date. For now, these words are for me today. They exist for today. This day, as all days, I am of earth and heaven. I am both. When the balance is right, I exist centrally, solidly, softly. I have direction and belonging. I am of and I am to. Of and to. This is a blessing as words on stone are a blessing. Reaching from and to. For, of, in, up, to. Today, somedays, all daze.

You have clearly spent time with this piece. Is that what is needed with your own work?

I don’t think a lot of time is needed to appreciate the work, just a familiarity with the forms and an understanding of what’s going on. Although having said that, the idea of meditating for a time on a single word or image is important to my understanding of how to gain a peace-filled mind. That involves allowing the mind to simply rest in a chosen word.

Tell me a bit about your submission for the Crashaw Prize. Reading between the lines it sounds like you’ve submitted a few poems like this one:


Ma heid's fu ae letters
waukin through this park
the skirl ae the pipes
washin it clean so's
the letters fly up tae the sky
blue sky poems curlin
at the edges fur the
glories ae the nation.

Again not a poem I imagine the mainstream would jump at.

Not really. Again, this is more a case of a poem coming to me quickly in a given situation and getting it down and out there almost immediately. It has a superficial similarity to some of the Crashaw poems and is indicative of some of the dialect writing in the collection, but there are a variety of styles and forms in the book which I wouldn’t publish on the blog. Perhaps because these involve more of a shaping of creative energy, or more time spent in allowing the creative energy to flow, or perhaps because they involve a poetic style which I feel just isn’t suitable for the blog. In any case there are a variety of styles in the book bound together by ideas of awakening, unfolding, consciousness, experience, discovery. More than that I shall not say in case I jinx it. Well, other than there are only one or two poems in the collection which you’ll find on the blog.

Apart from your own work whose sites would you recommend newbie visual/minimal poets to investigate?

Geof Huth’s blog is essential reading for anyone interested in visual/minimalist poetry. In terms of great practitioners, Geof’s one. Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimalist Poems is a must, as is the site which hosts Robert Grenier’s box set of minimalism, Sentences. There is an abundance of visual poets on the web these days, most of whom are creating work which far outstrips my own. Some of them work with a far greater visual component than I do. Let me name just a few: Satu Kaikkonen, Andrew Topel, Nico Vassilakis, Matina Stamatakis, Marton Koppany, Scott Helmes. Look out too for mIEKAL aND and Endwar, a great minimalist, if that isn’t a contradiction. I could go on deep into the night. If you look, you’ll find them, and it’s a wonderful discovery.

Your bio says:

Stephen Nelson was born in Motherwell, Scotland in 1970, to the King of Belgium and his wife, a member of the Swedish Royal Family. He was educated in a monastery in Bhutan where he quickly learned the simultaneous arts of telepathy and levitation. He gave it all up for poetry however, and now practices visual poetry, minimalism and freeform songs.

I assume I can take that with a pinch of salt?

Just a pinch. Don’t you get bored of all these bios listing publishing credits? Seems to me that’s all about making a name for yourself. Let’s have a little fun!


I have to say I’m very grateful to Stephen for the work he put into this. I still don’t think I’m going to make any radical changes in my approach to poetry – a bit too long in the tooth – but you never know. I think I’m pleased enough with ‘fail/fall’ to stick it in my big red folder, give it a number and count it as one of my ‘real’ poems. What do you think?

You can read more of Stephen’s poetry on his site afterlights. He also has a couple of e-books uploaded to Scribd: The Ocean Refuses No River and Life and half-a-dozen at Issuu.

You might also find my earlier post ‘Less is more’ (parts one and two) of interest.

[*] You can read a review of Flylyght here.

Sunday 6 February 2011

The Story of Mr Sommer

suskind-story-mr-sommer If I had to describe this book in a single sentence I’d probably say: This is a children’s book for grownups. We all enjoy reading children’s stories. The lovely thing is that those of us who have been lucky enough to have children of our own get to extend that pleasure into adulthood without feeling silly reading to them. When you have a good look at it, I think you’d agree that children’s literature often deals with pretty adult issues, loneliness, prejudice, depression, and death just to mention four things, but it does so in a far more straightforward way than adult literature.

I’ve gone on a bit in recent reviews about authors who tell us stories but don’t tell us why. We see events unfurl before our eyes that we have no control over and we’re left after they’ve reached their inevitable conclusion none the wiser. Well I can remember that childhood was like that. I was witness to many things that I didn’t fully understand at the time. As a grownup I’ve since made determinations, added two and two together and gradually come to misremember the past as we all do attributing insights to our younger selves that were beyond us at the time. This is how I came to understand The Story of Mr Sommer. Unlike many children’s stories we’re never in any doubt that our narrator is now an adult looking back almost forty years to a very different time.

I’ve seen this novella described as an accelerated bildungsroman – in the UK the nearest common expression would be a coming-of-age novel but it doesn’t really fit with either of those. In a military setting a bildungsroman would involve a raw recruit leaving home and undergoing some kind of baptism by fire before returning as a battle-hardened soldier but nothing like that happens in this book. Other than your common-or-garden childhood upsets – not being noticed by the girl of your dreams,  sucking at piano lessons – our unnamed narrator’s childhood is quite a pleasant one, what he tells us of it. There’s no Classroomobstacle he has to overcome: he doesn’t stutter or have one leg shorter than the other. About the only negative thing is that because he lives in Unternsee (Lower Lake) and everyone else in his class (including his beloved Carolina) lives in Obernsee (Upper Lake) he seems to spend his entire childhood alone.

When I noted that I imagined that this was where Mr Sommer would feature – sommer is German for summer by the way and there is a definite seasonal feel to the book – I expected a friendship might grow between these two unlikely people, a kind of Germanic Goodnight Mister Tom. But that’s not how Süskind plays it. Only once does the boy actually meet Sommer face to face or, to be more accurate, he is present on the sole occasion when his father tries to be neighbourly offering Sommer a lift in his car one stormy night. Other than that Mr Sommer is almost always on the periphery of the boy’s and everyone else’s life. Considering he’s the titular character Sommer barely appears much in the story at all. Apart from the encounter with the boy’s father, our narrator only sees Mr Sommer twice more and, discounting the local gossip, it is these three sightings that are all he has to go on in determining what kind of man this is.

Other than that what we have here as some humorous – and one icky – memories of childhood beginning with this enormous sentence:

In my old tree-climbing days – a long time ago now, many many years have passed since then, I was just over three foot four, my shoe size was a child’s ten, and I was so light I could fly – no, that's no exaggeration, I really could fly – or nearly, or let’s say it was within my power to fly, if only I’d put my mind to it and tried as hard as I could . . . I can clearly remember the time I all but flew, it was on an autumn day in my first year at school, and I was just on my way home from school, and there was such a strong wind blowing that without even spreading my arms I could lean into it at a sharp angle like a ski-jumper, or even more without falling over . . . and when I ran down the grassy slopes of School Hill into the wind – because the school was on a little hill outside the village – and I pushed off just a little way with my feet and spread my arms, then the wind lifted me up, and I could quite easily jump five or ten feet up in the air and twenty or thirty over the ground – or maybe not quite as high and Hillas far, but what’s it matter! – anyway, I was almost flying, and if I’d just unbutton my coat then and held my coat tails in both hands and spread them like wings, why, then the wind would have picked me up altogether, and I would have soared off School Hill with the greatest of ease, across the valley down to the woods, and then across the woods down to the lake where our house stood, and there, to the boundless astonishment of my father, my mother, my brother and my sister, all of whom were far too old and heavy to fly, I would have executed a stylish loop over the garden and swung out over the lake, going almost to the opposite shore before finally leisurely letting myself be wafted back, and still be home in time for lunch.

I remember being that boy. Fortunately, for me and my family, I never had to go up or down a hill like that on the way to school and so never had such an opportunity but had I had then I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so slow to unbutton my coat and to hell where I ended up landing.

The aerodynamic properties of school coats is not what really interests the boy at that age, however, it’s climbing trees, particularly those where you need to hug the trunk and shimmy up until you find a safe branch and it’s after falling from one of these branches, one belonging to a white fir and located some fifteen feet above the ground, that he becomes intimately acquainted with Galileo’s First[1] and Second[2] Laws of Gravity; when not learning physics the hard way though he is happy enough to learn his “English vocab and irregular Latin verbs and maths formulae” while perched amongst the peaceful treetops free from “distracting calls from [his] mother [and] peremptory summons from [his] older brother.”

It is into this storybook-quality childhood that Mr and Mrs Sommer arrive, she on the bus, him, on foot, in fact he goes everywhere by foot even during the worst of storms; Sommer as you may have already guessed declines the lift from the boy’s father but not without revealing something about himself to the boy – the father is more irritated with himself for resorting to the use of a cliché when he tells Sommer, ‘You’ll catch your death of cold!’ – because this is the only time we get to hear him speak:

Mr Sommer stopped. I think he stopped just when he heard the words ‘death of cold’, he froze, so suddenly that my father had to put the brakes on so as not to drive past him. And then Mr Sommer transferred his hazel stick from his right hand to his left, turned towards us, and, ramming the stick repeatedly into the ground with an air of stubbornness and exasperation, he blurted out, loud and clear, the following sentence: ‘Why don’t you just leave me in peace!’ That was all. Just the one sentence. Then he slammed the passenger door shut, transferred his stick back into his right hand, and marched off, without a single look back.

Needless to say people are unable to stop themselves forming opinions about the Sommers. His wife appears to be the sole breadwinner (she makes dolls which she sells by mail). She is the only person who interacts with their neighbours in any way (once a week she does the family shopping) but apart from that she’s never seen. Her husband, on the other hand, is seen frequently; from early in the day until late Cycle at night come rain or shine Mr Sommer is to be found out on one of his walks. It is all he does. He walks, stick in hand masquerading as a third leg, mile after mile after mile with an empty knapsack on his back, empty apart from a sandwich, a tin water bottle and a rolled-up waterproof cape with a hood and this we only learn because once, while up a tree contemplating suicide, the boy spies Sommer below – that is their second encounter and a revelation it is because this time Sommer doesn’t realise he has an audience. He makes sure he doesn’t. He searches all about, peers in the bushes, looks all round the tree and listens but he doesn’t think to look in the tree above him. Convinced he is alone he throws down his stick and rucksack and lies on the ground:

[N]o sooner was he lying down than he emitted a long and ghastly sigh – no, not a sigh, because a sigh already affords some relief, it was more like a groan, a hollow anguished sound from deep within his chest, blending despair and longing for relief.

Piano What the hell is going on here? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, I’m not going to tell you. And I’m most certainly not going to mention their third and final meeting except to mention that by the time this happens our narrator is now five foot seven, weighs over seven and a half stone, wears size seven shoes, has smoked half a cigarette and has twice been to the cinema; he is still playing the piano but he hardly climbs trees any more. He has also become “an enthusiastic cyclist,” having discovered that “cycling was almost like flying.” Considering his early experiences with “the dark art of riding a bicycle” this is a significant accomplishment.

One of the reasons people gave for picking this book up in the first place was the cover. On flicking through I was also delighted to find, like any good children’s book, there are frequent drawings by the French cartoonist Sempé, one or two of which I’ve used to illustrate this review. The book is also printed on good quality paper. In fact, to my mind, the whole thing screams, “Present!” Although I bought the book for myself knowing, I have to admit, nothing about it – I simply wanted to read another book by Süskind and this was a lot shorter than Perfume – but now having read it, it is definitely the kind of book I would buy my daughter (now thirty by the way) as a gift; indeed I have bought her similar in the past.

Although written in a style that much younger children could cope with I’m not sure where I’d draw that line though. One of the Goodreads reviewers suggested thirteen and although it’s an arbitrary age I tend to agree. I think younger children would be deeply dissatisfied with the lack of information about Sommer and his wife and also some of the humour – all the discussion about falling out of trees, for example – would be lost on them. That said the discussion of snot during a piano lesson – the one ‘icky bit’ I mentioned earlier – would appeal to the youngest of kids if treated purely as a self-contained short story which given the anecdotal nature of the book is an easy thing to do. So, yes, you could read The Story of Mr Sommer to your kids at might but if you do then you need to be prepared for many questions. The physics ones will be the easy ones, put it that way.

I have to say I enjoyed this book. It’s a book that you could easily rush through in one sitting. It’s 127 pages long but only 100 pages of actual text. I actually read it over three days not wanting to rush it and, seriously, having just finished it I could easily have turned back to the first page and begun again. The Sommers are a mystery and the fact is that we only ever have a few facts to go on. In many children’s stories there will be a mysterious neighbour like Sommer, the one whose front door the kids dare each other to go up to, and in these stories one or two of them get to discover the truth. That’s not the case here and so the narrator can only go so far in what he tells us about Mr Sommer. What he can tell us is the effect that his encounters with this odd misanthrope have had on him and that’s really what the story is about, three key moments in his childhood and early adolescence that helped shape his view of humanity.

It’s out of print now. The book originally retailed at £7.99 but I’ve seen copies on for as little as a penny plus postage. And that’s my kind of price.


Patrick Süskind was born 1949 in Ambach, Bavaria, to the literary translator and political journalist Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind. Between 1968 and 1974 he studied Medieval and Modern History in Munich and Aix-en-Provence before becoming a freelance Suskindscreenwriter. In 1980 The Double Bass, his first play, became an international success and has been shown on stage in Germany, Switzerland, London, Edinburgh and New York. In 1985 he published his only novel to date, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which goes on to be made into a successful film. In 1987 he rejects all prizes (the FAZ Literaturpreis and the Tukan-Preis, most famously), dodges the media and slowly withdraws from the public. Next to nothing has been heard of him since.

In 1987 he published the novella The Pigeon, in 1991 The Story of Mr Sommer, in 1995, his short story collection Three Stories and a Reflection. A pair of essays, On Love and Death appeared in 2006.


[1] d = ½g x t2 – distance equals half the product of gravity by time squared

[2] v = g x t – velocity equals gravity times time

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