Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Little Saint - Georges Simenon

“If I were allowed to keep only one of my novels, I would choose this one.” So said Simenon of The Little Saint. On the face of it a curious choice. It is not the grittiest, not the most complex, perhaps not even the best written of his works. Yet it is obvious from reading the work, it is imbued with affection.

There are two main characters here. The first is, of course, Louis. Illegitimate son a street seller, he is small, delicate and with an otherworldly nature that sits at odds with his squalid and often violent surroundings. He lives with his mother, siblings, and a succession of men, some of whom take an interest and most who do not.

The early years of this child are told with realism and without sentimentality. The squalid conditions, poverty, disease, and promiscuous sexual nature are not glossed over. Nor are they sensationalised. Simenon tells a complex, nuanced story, even if it is not, to begin with, apparent what the story might be.

The other major character is the small section of Paris in which Louis grows up. This world expands as he slowly explores and is pushed out into the world. It is drawn with as much skill and affection as the inhabitants and together we get a very real sense of life in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Yet it the double portrait is filtered through Louis’s own sensibilities. And Louis is no ordinary child. He does not engage with the world in the same way as those around him. Not only is he drawn very strongly to visual stimuli in order to make sense of the world, he is, to begin with, extremely passive.

As he grows, he finds expression through painting. And as we read, we discover this is in fact a biography of a famous artist’s childhood. The adult years are glossed over because the book deals with the formulation of the creative imagination and the first exercising of the skills that allow that imagination a voice.

As with all Simenon’s novels, he has much to say, but he never once preaches a message. Much like Louis, if asked about a subject, he would probably have been tempted to say, “I don’t know.” Rather, he presents a complex portrait and pays his readers the compliment of having the intelligence to read and take from the work what they will. For me it is a vivid picture of poverty, of the growth of creative imagination, of the ways in which some people see the world differently.

It may be that Simenon’s fondness for the book stems from his own incessant creative urge. In it he was able to touch something of what may have been within himself, whilst also taking the time to explore a world he knew and clearly cared for. And as always with Simenon, it well written, concise, powerful, and very French.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Milkman In The Night - Andrey Kurkov

Let’s get the gripes out of the way first. To begin with, the translation. Whilst it is no doubt technically correct, it is possibly the dullest and most literal translation I have come across in years. Kurkov has been poorly served and a lot of the subtlety of his earlier writing (and which you sense is still there) has been lost. Indeed, the better known he has become, the worse has become the production of his books. Which leads to the second gripe. Proof reading. Do big publishers just not bother these days? Is it given to a semi-literate intern? One who doesn’t even know how to use a spell check (because some of the typos would have been picked up by that). It makes the book look shoddy and cheap. Which leads to my final gripe. Kurkov needs an editor. His early books were sharply written. Now they are bloated. I have no objection to a book being long if that is needed to tell the story, but we don’t need to know (time after time) that someone turned left onto this street and right onto that street before cutting through this alley and across that square, with asides that could have been lifted from a joke version of a tourist information leaflet for Kiev. It makes for incredibly dull writing in itself and ruins what would otherwise be a perfect book.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I can affirm that I still believe Kurkov to be a writer who is streets ahead (turn left down this one and right down that one before cutting into an alley and across a square – even all those streets) of contemporary mainstream literary British writers.

On the surface this might seem a superficial romance in which the lives of various characters living in and around Kiev are slowly woven together. Slowly is the operative word. Even had Kurkov been stricter with his editing, this is a book that proceeds at a leisurely, almost somnambulistic pace. And appropriately so. It is about everyday life and everyday folk and the wholly bizarre and often surreal everyday world in which they (and the rest of us) live.

The slow pace and quiet presentation of events are, as always with Kurkov, both disarming and deceiving. Because when you get to the end, you realise that a revolution has taken place. And along the way, the everyday concerns of everyday folk (which sounds a lot worse than it really is) have been examined, turned inside out, put right way back, and turned through one hundred and eighty degrees.

The many interweaving plots are to complex to relate, although they are not at all difficult to follow once you have remembered who is who. The overall effect is one of gentle comedy and great affection for the people and their country. Don’t expect another Penguin book. The surrealism is much more subtle. Do expect to be charmed and drawn in and, gripes notwithstanding, find yourself immersed in a fantasy every bit as compelling as the real life it reflects.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Zero Train - Yuri Buida

A lot of comparisons have been made to try to capture the essence of this short novel – Kafkaesque, Beckett with trains, you get the picture. And whilst these may be true to a degree, it is only a small degree. Buida has his own voice and his own approach. Indeed, like all good writers he has subverted everything without once straying from a path which anyone can follow. Most importantly, he has taken what many term Socialist Realism and used it to cast a blisteringly clear light on Stalinist Russia. That this would call to mind both Kafka and Beckett (and many more beside) is inevitable.

If that is his style, his subject is both simple and infinitely expressive, with a life beyond the episodic tale. A railway line is built along which travels the Zero Train. At intervals along the track there are stations and sidings, workshops, and all the life that is lived by those who maintain all these facilities. We are given glimpses into the long, bleak, and brutal life of one such place. It encapsulates the Stalinist era, but it also lays wide open the human condition. Those who arrive at the beginning, young, with hope, are ground down through the years. Those that survive are little more than that. Survivors. Their lives have been devoted to the Zero Train, the purpose of which is a mystery. When the train goes, they must go as well.

The whole book is a surreal tour de force. It sounds grim, and the realism spares no sensibilities, but at the same time it is a poetic work, and a paean to those whose whole lives were lived with the heel of the boot on their faces. Certainly a book worth seeking out.