Invisible Books: Sergei Dovlatov

October 11, 2019 Leave a comment

I hadn’t heard of late Soviet-era satirist Sergei Dovlatov until I saw the biopic on Netflix about him last year. Intrigued, I ordered copies of the three of his books in print in English. My favourite of these is probably Pushkin Hills, a semi-autobiographical account of a struggling writer’s angst at the thought of his ex-wife and child leaving for the West while he fritters away his time providing tours of the Pushkin Estate to bored Eastern-bloc tourists in the 1970s. Dovlatov has a light touch, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut, and his stories are always amusing. The Suitcase is a collection of short tales about items supposedly contained in the protagonist’s suitcase when he finally follows ex-wife and child to America. Finally, The Zone is an account of the author’s time as a prison-camp guard in Brezhnev’s USSR. All three of these titles are well-worth reading and readily available from Alma Classics. 

Dovlatov died of cancer in his mid-forties, but he lived long enough to produce plenty of books and even publish a number of stories in The New Yorker. The only other title of his I’ve been able to track down cheaply secondhand is Ours: A Russian Family Album which, like The Suitcase, is a loose but very enjoyable collection of tales.  Overlook Press supposedly re-published Dovlatov’s The Invisible Book a few years back, but I can find no copies of it for sale either new or secondhand, and so I can only presume it was never released.

 

Lastly, there are two other books published in English, A Foreign Woman and The Compromise, but these are long out of print and horrendously expensive secondhand. I’m hoping that Alma Classics may consider expanding their Dovlatov collection in the near future, perhaps in part due to the increased attention Dovlatov has received due to the biopic. I certainly hope so, because I think the author may be among the very best of the chroniclers of the absurdities of the late-Soviet period.

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Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think

The mild Western Australian winters have always appealed to me more than the harsh summers and I’ve often done my best writing at this time of year. As a high school English teacher, I know when my windows of writing opportunity open—for two weeks in April, two weeks in July, two weeks in September/October and six weeks in December/January. Twelve weeks a year when I can write instead of going to work. At least that’s the theory.

The winter holidays have often been my most fertile period of the year. In July 2013, I wrote ‘A Void’, which was later shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Award and published in The Great Unknown. In July 2014 I wrote ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’, which found a home in Tincture Journal. In 2015 it was‘Epoch O’Lips’. 2016 was a rare winter strike out, but in 2017 I produced ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’, which won the Joe O’Sullivan Writer’s Prize and was published in Award Winning Australian Writing. 2018 was another bust, but I had the excuse that my wife had just given birth to my third child and thus I was otherwise occupied. Between July 2018 and July 2019, I wrote precisely one story. Not surprisingly, I called it ‘Mr Agoo’.

In writing short stories, I’ve often found it helpful to rely on some kind of visual or musical stimulus. Some competitions, such as the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award, require authors to respond to a painting in written form. In 2015, the painting was of a lighthouse in Fremantle entitled ‘(Light) House of the Rising Sun’. In preparation, I listened to the famous song by The Animals before starting work each day to get into the mood. For once the planets aligned for me and ‘Frank’ became my most successful story, not only winning the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award but also finding homes in Award Winning Australian Writing and Westerly: New Creative.

This probably helps to explain why I carried around a leaflet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, pictured (on fire!) above, for more than six months even though I am and remain the staunchest of atheists. It was the title, ‘It’s Later Than You Think’, which inspired me. At nearly thirty-eight years of age, I’m conscious of the fact that my time in this vale of tears is limited and no one knows just how limited it might be. Turns out there’s an old song by Guy Lombardo, ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’, that the Jehovahs had (presumably unwittingly) referenced in their leaflet. I’m sure you can picture me huddled over the computer screen, religious material in hand, listening to a song from 1949 that exhorts listeners to seize the day by asking, ‘how far can you travel when you’re six feet underground?’

In a celebratory mood upon finishing the draft of the story, I finally got to do something I’d been itching to do for months—burn the leaflet. It’s not that I have anything against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the symbolism of a cleansing flame appeals to me deeply as a sort of writerly ‘scorched earth’ policy. So, phone in hand to capture the requisite picture, I burned it. And now, the more I look at the photograph, the more I can see a hummingbird or maybe even a penguin jumping out of the flames at  me. What does it all mean? Who knows, but if I’m lucky I might get another story out of it.

Maybe next winter . . . .

Categories: My Writing

A Primer to Russian (and Ukrainian) Literature

December 16, 2018 1 comment

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If you ask someone to name a work of Russian literature they will probably give you War and Peace, and if you ask for a second the answer will likely be Crime and Punishment, but there’s more to Russian Literature than the works of the giants of the nineteenth century in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. This year I read more than 40 books by Russian and Ukrainian writers (the latter of which are often labelled as Russian anyway), discovering a number of well-known writers and a few who are somewhat more obscure.  What follows is a brief primer to these authors and some of their most accessible works in English translation. My focus here is on shorter works and those that are in print. I’m aware of the paucity of women writers on this list, so I’m eager for recommendations.

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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is one of the greatest Russian authors of the twentieth century and he is best known for his opus The Master and Margarita. My favourite work of his, however, is the delightful A Country Doctor’s Notebook (also translated as A Young Doctor’s Notebook). This is a series of semi-autobiographical stories based on Bulgakov’s experiences in the medical profession in Russian backwaters around the time of the Revolution. The book is also the subject of an equally wonderful BBC mini-series starring Daniel Radcliffe. Another accessible work is the novella Heart of a Dog.

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Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is best remembered for his satirical novel Dead Souls and his story ‘The Overcoat’, the latter of which is included here in Petersburg Tales. I loved not only ‘The Overcoat’ but ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ and the hilarious ‘The Nose’. I would definitely start here with Gogol, before moving onto Dead Souls and his most famous play, The Government Inspector.

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Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) is the author of the essential Life and Fate, a hefty tome that deserves close attention, but the first book I read of his happened to be his last, and probably his shortest, An Armenian Sketchbook. Penned as a result of the author’s travels to Armenia shortly before his death in 1964, this is a delightful meditation on life by one of the twentieth century’s most important writers.

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Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) may be my favourite Russian writer of them all. Suppressed by the authorities and mostly obscure during his life and long after his death, Platonov is the author of The Foundation PitHappy Moscow and a number of beautifully sad and elegiac stories. My absolute favourite of them is ‘Among Animals and Plants’, which you can read for free here at The New Yorker, and the best collection of his shorter work can be found in Soul and Other Stories.

 

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Robert Chandler is one of the main English translators of Platonov’s work and he’s also the editor of this truly essential collection from Penguin Classics. Here you’ll find not only the established greats of Russian literature and some of their most famous works (Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’, for example) but also a smattering of equally delightful pieces by much less well known authors like Mikhail Zoshchenko, Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal and Sergei Dovlatov. (Note: this is $11 currently on Book Depository, so get in quick!)

I could go on, but this is supposed to be a primer and thus I suppose five books is enough. Some honourable mentions to finish though:

Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov

Recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, this is an amazing work of literature – 600+ pages of stories from the gulags of deepest Siberia.

The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

This is an endearing and amusing collection from the ‘Russian Kurt Vonnegut’. There’s also a Netflix film about the author (titled, predictably, Dovlatov).

The Beauties by Anton Chekkov

Pushkin Press produce some beautiful books and this is certainly one of the finest.

Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam

I haven’t read much Russian poetry as yet, but Mandelstam is very impressive.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If you’ve ever played the first person shooter game STALKER, you were playing an adaptation of Roadside Picnic. 

Digital Writers’ Festival 2018

October 30, 2018 Leave a comment

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Ever wondered what a lonely wine bottle thinks about once the wine has been imbibed? If so, you can explore the ‘Room’ as part of #DWF2018 and listen to six writers’ tales on the secret lives of inanimate objects. The Digital Writers Festival starts today and runs until Nov 3rd.

http://2018.digitalwritersfestival.com/event/room/

Categories: My Writing Tags: ,

Award Winning Australian Writing 2018 is here

September 26, 2018 Leave a comment

This slim volume from Melbourne Books is jam packed with award-winning Australian fiction and poetry and has recently been released. It contains my story ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’, which won the 2017 Joe O’Sullivan Writers’ Prize, and is available from all the usual online outlets. Huzzah!

The Dying Rain and Other Forays into the Bramble Noir is on the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award longlist

July 18, 2018 2 comments

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Meet Tyler Bramble, the grimy future’s answer to Philip Marlowe. Armed with what he considers to be a razor-sharp wit and what his supervisor considers to be a troubling history vis-a-vis illicit pharmaceuticals, Tyler takes on drug dealers, dodgy doctors and extortioners, and it’s all in the name of the long suffering Victorian taxpayer. These Bramble Noirs—wise cracking, off-beat, occasionally zany tales in a post-apocalyptic Melbourne—reboot Raymond Chandler for the twenty-first century, critiquing toxic masculinity and poking fun at the tired tropes of the tawdry PI genre along the way. At least that’s what it says on the label.

You can read an extract from ‘Blue Swirls’ here.

PRESS RELEASE

The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award longlist announced

Eleven finalists have been announced by renowned Australian author Carmel Bird in the first year of the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award.

Launched at the State Library Victoria in December 2017, The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award showcases new works of short fiction from Australian and overseas writers. The longlist was judged from a field of over 130 submissions, including short story collections as well as novellas, many of which included digital narratives with multimedia elements.

Carmel Bird was pleased with the diversity of entries to the award: “I was surprised and delighted to see the large number of entries, coming from a great range of writers, some of whom were unpublished, many of whom were students in writing courses, and others who were established writers.”

“It was fascinating to observe what was a kind of broad snapshot of the thinking and practice of fiction-writing in Australia today. The energy of so much of the work, the range of subject-matter, and the confidence in the use of language and form were a source of great pleasure,” Ms Bird said.

Finalists in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award will be showcased by State Library Victoria via the online platform, Tablo. Visitors to Library’s Tablo page will be able to read and respond to an extract from each submission. The three winning entrants will receive cash prizes totalling $5000 as well as publishing agreements with Spineless Wonders. The winners will be announced in September.

Justine Hyde, State Library Victoria’s Director of Library Services and Experience, said the Library was always looking for new ways to shine a light on digital writing: “The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award is a great way for us to highlight talented and creative authors who bring together the literary and digital worlds. We are thrilled to support this award in unearthing innovative and exciting new digital work.”

The longlisted entries are:

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Flicker of Justice, No More

Craig Cormick, Everybody Loves a Good Cook Book

Susie Greenhill, Maps for the Lost

Mel Hall, Goodbye Tom Morrow

William Lane, Small Forest

Catherine Moffat, Remnants of Sound

Ruairi Murphy, Two Sets of Books 

Arna Radovich, Mosaic of Loss

Bronwyn Rodden, Darkness

Guy Salvidge, The Dying Rain – And Other Forays into the Bramble Noir

Beth Spencer, The Age of Fibs

Amethysts and Emeralds by Daniel King in review

Daniel King is the author of award-winning prose fiction, some of which is collected in Memento Mori from Interactive Press, but he’s a critically-acclaimed poet too. His latest collection, Amethysts and Emeralds, features “58+1” poems, some of which first appeared internationally in the likes of The London Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal and Poetry Salzburg Review. Domestically, King’s poem “King Henry X” won the 2017 FourW Award for Best Poem. The poems range in form from free verse to villanelle and sonnet, and cover a vast intellectual and spiritual territory. Fourteen of the poems concern Kalki, “the tenth and final avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu (the Preserver), incarnating this time and forever together with Shiva (the Destroyer)” (ix), and others address Christian and Ancient Greek mythology.

King’s work is dense with allusions and will reward careful reading and re-reading, but a number of poems and images caught my eye during my first foray. In “Io”, I enjoyed images such as of “The Ionian Sea!/The dark night cliffs, the lines of waves/Like sentences in some mysterious calligraphy,/Delimited by distant future Italy” (14) whereas, in “Narcissus”, “My tears, a line of tiny spheres, are like an ellipsis,/Pointing to my omissions;/Their ripples form the circles of a target/At which I never aimed” (19). In “Cadmium”, the spectre of WWII is invoked alongside Greek mythology: “Ensnared by Ares — but what was not, in Fascist 1941?/The regents with their razor-wire regalia;/The salinelle of stinking plasma:/The fount of propaganda my protective coating could not reach,/Nor my poison” (23).

Of the poems concerning Hinduism, “Sonnet for Kalki” is among my favourites, and begins: “A rider of the white-horse waves, I came/To surf. My wild blond hair is matted like Shiva’s./I wander continents for men to tame/And men to love” (p 49). In “Sonnet for the Watchers”, an astronomical perspective is provided: “The galaxies now asterisks, footnotes,/The stratosphere’s long lockstep learned by rote” (22). Amethysts and Emeralds closes with “Hymn to Kalki”: “Spirit and Christ, Great Kalki, we hail you as one born of/the Ocean/And we worship you our way, Lord:/Your infinite time-line, crafted by Kalra, and your three-/circled crown, your journey from the stars” (71).

I enjoyed those poems that were on astronomical themes, such as “Ixion”: “Borne on the gusts of planetary rust,/We surely can engender life among the dark brass-/coloured stars,/Semi-bestial though its early stages may be,/If we seduce the air and rape the rocks./It’s not too late to leave a sewer world:” (26). “Alpha Crucis” (the brightest star in the Southern Cross) contains stanzas of beauty and wisdom such as “The Logos is regained as a bright flux,/A still, white diamond that never dies./With the Diamond the sky instructs/The Greeks with tropes, with semiotic conduct” (37). In a different mode again is the award-winning “King Henry X”, which ends: “For Roland Barthes to the White Tower came/To write Morte D’Author, explorer-entwined/So home rule’s peacock-coloured skies proclaim/The Word, and King and INRI X the same” (61).

As perceptive readers will no doubt appreciate, Daniel King is a poet of great intelligence and spiritual feeling. Amethysts and Emeralds is a formidable and insightful collection and well worth your close attention.