A Primer to Russian (and Ukrainian) Literature

December 16, 2018 Leave a 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. 

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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.

Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?

 

William Gay’s Stoneburner in review

April 25, 2018 Leave a comment

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William Gay has two new novels out this year, which is a little strange since he died in 2012, but the life of William Gay was nothing if not strange. I first read him around the time of his death, happening upon copies of his novels The Long Home and Provinces of Night in a discount store in my hometown. I enjoyed those enough to send away for a copy of what I believe to be his best novel, Twilight, and an obscure little collection called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. Then in Sydney I found a copy of the superlative collection I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, and I’d read just about the complete published works of William Gay.

Turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg.

After Gay’s death, I turned up snippets on the internet about at least two other unpublished novels. The Lost Country had supposedly been coming out for years, and here was this other thing called Little Sister, Death that was to be published by Dzanc. The book came out in 2015 and I duly read it, thinking it interesting but below the standard of his best work, and I thought that would be it.

Nope. Still more iceberg.

Soon, I started reading about another unpublished novel, Stoneburner, that was to be released by newly-formed Anomolaic Press. For this, artist Paul Nitsche designed the cover based on one of Gay’s paintings. Like Harry Crews said, a man’s gotta have a little enthusiasm, and so I’m probably about the first person in Australia to read William Gay’s ‘film noir on paper.’

Stoneburner as a physical object is exceptional. It’s a handsome hardbacked volume with a cover painting that would have fit perfectly on Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Better yet, there’s a long essay on the author’s life and writing by J. M. White, who edited the volume and, as we learn in his piece, much more besides. I recall that White also wrote a piece on Gay in Wittgenstein’s Lolita, so I wasn’t surprised to find his words here.

This is where it gets really strange, and where the life of William Gay resembles not so much the life of a venerated Southern author but that of one of the characters in a Samuel Beckett play. So it seems that, at the time of his death, the author’s manuscripts and papers were in a state of disrepair. To put it mildly. White managed to track down a massive amount of material in the musty attics of various relatives, and then set about the gargantuan task of putting it in order. You’ll have to read White’s piece for the details, but suffice to say that it was a labour of love for which William Gay aficionados worldwide, including this one, will be forever grateful.

If that isn’t enough, turns out there’s even more unpublished material. Not only Little Sister, Death. Not only Stoneburner. Not just the forthcoming The Lost Country. Apparently there’s at least one more collection of short stories and a fourth posthumous novel, Fugitives of the Heart. Looks like William Gay’s going to have an literary afterlife more along the lines of a Franz Kafka. In White’s piece, I also learned that Gay wrote Stoneburner decades ago, but decided not to offer it for publication due to the release of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. And thus the manuscript sat collecting dust for at least another decade.

To the novel itself, then. Stoneburner is typical of Gay’s work in that it initially features a ‘bad man’, in this case the ageing tough-guy Frank ‘Cap’ Holder, and a much younger man, the unhinged Thibodeux. The novel is split into two parts: the first narrated in the third person by Thibodeux, and the second by his fellow Vietnam vet Stoneburner. There’s always a beautiful young vixen in these kind of stories, and here it’s Cathy Meecham, whom Thibodeux learns has ‘GOOD PUSSY’ via toilet graffiti. This first section reminds me strongly of Larry Brown’s work, especially Father and Son, although Gay’s novel was possibly written before Brown quit the fire department of Oxford, Mississippi. Set in 1974, the first part of the novel is a good ol’ yarn about drug deals gone wrong (nearly as wrong as in No Country for Old Men), cars skidding down embankments, young love, shotguns and drunken violence.

Unfortunately, Stoneburner loses its way somewhat in the second part. Narrated in the first person by Stoneburner, whom we learn fought in Vietnam with Thibodeux, the story meanders around for a good fifty pages or more before finally kicking up a gear toward the end. There’s a lot of beautiful writing along the way, perhaps not as refined as in Gay’s other published novels, but that’s to be expected of a work that it seems he never even had typed, let alone submitted to a publisher. I suspect that this may also be why Dzanc passed on Stoneburner despite committing to publish two other posthumous works, but let that not dissuade you. J. M. White and the team at Anomolaic Press have done a service to literature in bringing Stoneburner to life.

Fugitives of the Heart next?