Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Two by Andrey Kurkov (#GoUkraine)

"An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted." 

-Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin, p. 34

I've been thinking about the Ukraine lately. Well, who isn't? There's a park near my house where school groups play if the weather is at all tolerable. I went by the other day and a bunch of six-year-olds were chanting, "Go Ukraine, Go Ukraine..."

So I ordered up some Ukraine books from the library.

The two Andrey Kurkov novels I got both date from 1996, both are set in Kiev, and are both translated from the Russian by George Bird. I read Andrey Kurkov's A Matter of Death and Life first, because it was the shorter... ;-)

Tolya has just lost his job and his wife. He contemplates suicide, but doesn't have the nerve to do it himself. He's got friends in dodgy places and decides he'll hire a hit man, ostensibly to kill the wife's new lover, but instead of the lover, he supplies a photo and location details for himself. Suicide by hit man. But then he meets somebody new, gets a job (though a fairly corrupt one). By an accident of timing, he survives the planned attempt on his life, and then decides he'd rather live.

I enjoyed this, and the twist that resolves his dilemma was pretty good, but it is slight. If it was longer than its 110 pages it would have definitely felt overstuffed.

Death and the Penguin is the better-known, and better, novel. I found it very good indeed.

Viktor Zolotaryov is a not very successful writer. He's written stories, unpublished, and dreams of writing a novel, but hasn't got the oomph. He makes (not much of) a living writing occasional journalism. Viktor's one distinction is he has a pet penguin. The impoverished zoo was giving away animals to those who promised to feed them.

Then a newspaper editor sees one of Viktor's stories, likes the style, but doesn't publish fiction. But he asks Viktor, for a handsome salary, to start writing obituaries--for the files. 

Viktor has a talent, or so it seems, but this isn't exactly a way into print because the obits are just kept on file for when they're needed. Initially he gets to pick his own subjects; a Mafia-connected figure comes by and asks Viktor to write an obit for a friend who's ill and offers extra cash for the job. But the friend recovers, and Viktor complains to the Mafia figure that he'd like to appear in print, but none of his subjects has died. The Mafia figure asks which of his obits does Viktor think the best and Viktor tells him.

Then one of his obituaries does appear in print. Somebody's died. Guess who?

"How did he die?" Viktor asked.
"Fell from a sixth-floor window -- was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn't his. And at night." [30]
The dam's burst; there's more deaths. Viktor has clearly gotten himself into the middle of something he can't control or even comprehend. Viktor is advised to disappear for a while for safety. His editor disappears for a while -- also for safety. The Mafia acquaintance disappears -- for safety -- and entrusts his daughter Sonya to Viktor -- for safekeeping. Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a friend, to help him watch over Sonya. Viktor and Nina become involved.

What is the nature of a normal life?
"...an ordered, normal life -- for which the essential requisites: wife, child, pet penguin, were present..." [149]

Is that what Viktor has? 

It's the mid-90s and Ukraine is newly independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Corruption is around every corner; differences of opinion are solved by violence; maybe a little exaggerated, but not inaccurate, I suspect. Is this violence and corruption normal and expected?
"The pure and the sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn't easy to remain entirely honest and upright." [61]

Russia doesn't loom as large in these two novels of the early independent Ukraine as it does now. 

The back of the novel cites Bulgakov; certainly it is a black comedy (and is definitely funny) along the lines of Gogol and Bulgakov, though perhaps not quite as extravagant as those two: nobody's nose runs off to a separate existence, nor does the Devil appear. (Though the penguin's story arc is definitely weird.)

The two novels are actually fairly similar in their structure: the protagonist gets in over his head and requires a twist to get out of the dangerous world of corruption he's fallen into. But the twist in Death and the Penguin is both better setup and more surprising. Highly recommended. 

I need to return these to the library soon; initially I got them pretty quick, but now everybody wants them. But in exchange I get to pick up Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

Go Ukraine.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Classics Club Spin #29


It's time for another Classics Club spin--this one is #29! You likely know the rules. One of these books will need to be read by April 30th.

I'm breaking up my list into two categories.

Remaining books from my Classics Club List:

1.) James Baldwin/Go Tell It On The Mountain
2.) Samuel Butler/The Way of All Flesh
3.) Willa Cather/A Lost Lady
4.) William Faulkner/A Light in August
5.) Oliver Goldsmith/The Vicar of Wakefield
6.) Thomas Hardy/Wessex Tales
7.) Henry James/Wings of the Dove
8.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris
9.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves
10.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

And...books I've downloaded from Project Gutenberg (but haven't read yet):

11.) Élizabeth Vigée Le Brun/Memoirs
12.) Goncharov/Oblomov
13.) G. K. Chesterton/The Man Who Was Thursday
14.) Thomas Peacock/Crotchet Castle
15.) Herbert Croly/The Promise of American Life
16.) Francis Parkman/Vassall Morton
17.) Israel Zangwill/The Big Bow Mystery
18.) Emile Gaboriau/The Larouge Case
19.) E. Philips Oppenheim/The Great Impersonation
20.) R. Austin Freeman/The Red Thumb Mark

I recently read Michael Dirda's Classics for PleasureOblomov, Crotchet Castle & The Man Who Was Thursday were all praised there. Mudpuddle read the memoirs of Vigée Le Brun not so long ago & it got downloaded then. I've read all of Francis Parkman's non-fiction, so why not his novel? I used to subscribe to The New Republic and have thought about reading The Promise of American Life for years. (Croly was the founder of The New Republic.) I downloaded it on to my Kindle; when the battery on the Kindle died and I bought a Kobo, I downloaded on to the Kobo. It would fit in with my recent Edmund Wilson reading. And the last four are classic early mysteries for free! Why not?

I've been a pretty sluggish blogger lately (though reading lots). Maybe this will get me my off my duff...

Which look good to you?

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Forlorn Sea


The Forlorn Sea

Our Princess married
A fairy King,
It was a sensational

Now they live in a palace
Of porphyry,
Far, far away
By the fòrlorn sea.

Sometimes people visit them,
Last week they invited me;
That is how I can tell you
They live by a fòrlorn sea.

(They said: Here's a magic carpet,
Come on this,
And when you arrive
We will give you a big kiss.)

I play in the palace garden,
I climb the sycamore tree,
Sometimes I swim
In the fòrlorn sea.

The King and the Princess are shadowy,
Yet beautiful
They are waited on by white cats,
Who are dutiful.

It is like a dream
When they kiss and cuddle me,
But I like it, I like it,
I do not wish to break free.

So I eat all they give me
Because I have read
If you eat fairy food
You will never wake up in your own bed,

But will go on living,
As has happened to me,
Far, far away
By a fòrlorn sea.

-Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is a favorite of mine, especially the poetry. Her sketches (as above) are fun, too.

Why is there a grave accent over the o in 'the fòrlorn sea?' Who knows? But it works somehow...

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Come Dance With Kitty Stobling (#ReadingIrelandMonth)


Come Dance With Kitty Stobling

No, no, no. I know I was not important as I moved
Through the colourful country, I was but a single
Item in the picture, the name not the beloved.
O tedious man with whom no gods commingle.
Beauty, who has described beauty? Once upon a time
I had a myth that was a lie but it served:
Trees walking across the crests of hills and my rhyme
Cavorting on mile-high stilts and the unnerved
Crowds looking up with terror in their rational faces.
O dance with Kitty Stobling, I outrageously
Cried out of sense to them, while their timorous paces
Stumbled behind Jove's page boy paging me.
I had a very pleasant journey, thank you sincerely
For giving me my madness back, or nearly.

-Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was an Irish poet. This sonnet was first published in 1958, and collected in book form in 1960. I don't know, I've always liked it. 😉 According to the editor, Antoinette Quinn, of The Collected Poems, Kitty Stobling is an invented name for Patrick Kavanagh's muse.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers


My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant's bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
"To eat these things,"
said my uncle,
"You must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what's solid
you must spit out the air."

as you partake of the world's bill of fare,
that's darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air,
and be careful what you swallow.

-Dr. Seuss

What can I say? Yesterday was Dr. Seuss day, i.e., Theodor Geisel's birthday. He would have been 118 if he'd still been with us.

It seems Dr. Seuss got talked into giving a commencement address once upon a time and was given an honorary doctorate as a sweetener. He was shy and hated the idea of talking at a bunch of people. And this, in its entirety, was his commencement address. It would have been a lot more memorable than my commencement address... (Details here.)

I can't say such silly stuff, sir. And happy belated Dr. Seuss day!