Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Andy's holiday reading: the notes

Jerome K. Jerome, Sketches in Lavender Blue and Green (1897)
Short-stories, mildly amusing

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel (1990)
Very funny – though not as funny as Three Men on a Boat. Some useful lines: ‘We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and arte sorry when ‘tis over.’ ‘I wish no-one to read this book under a misapprehension. There will be no useful information in this book.’ ‘In this book there will be no scenery. This is not laziness n my part; it is self-control.’ ‘few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs recited by a young Englishman.’ ‘I am haunted by the suspicion you might skip all this.’

Jerome K. Jerome, Idle Ideas in 1905 (1905)
Essays, mostly humorous, including the one about Russia

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (1963)
Wonderful stuff, although tragically dated. Contains the line, ‘Unfortunately justice is the train that’s nearly always late’. Also, ‘There are times when I am very sorry I did not become a footballer. The thud of the bouncing leather ball was, to me, the most intoxicating of all sounds. To outflank the defences of the other side by feinting and dribbling and then to land a dead shot into the net past the helplessly spreadeagled goal-keeper, this seemed to me, as it still does now, something very like poetry.’

Venedict Erofeev, Moskva-Petushki (‘Moscow to the End of the Line’ or ‘Moscow Circles’)
Samizdat novel about a drunken nightmare train journey to the suburbs. Starts at the Kursk station.

Martin Cruz Smith, Red Square (1992)
Plodding third Renko novel.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864).
I didn’t like this at all, but there are a couple of lines we might be able to use : ‘The final end, gentlemen: better to do nothing! Better conscious inertia! And so, long live the underground!’ and ‘I longed to be left alone in the underground’

Martin Cruz Smith, Stalin’s Ghost (2007)
Dreadful fifth novel in the Renko series, re-using all the main elements of the earlier books. Stalin’s ghost is seen on the platform at Christye Prudy station. A body turns up in Izmailovo Park. And this: ‘For the workers who burned with ambition, for soldiers slack-jawed from hash, for those to old and too poor to wave down a car, for revellers going home with a split lip and broken glass in their hair, for lovers who held hands even wearing gloves, and for the souls who had simply lost track of
time, the illuminated red M of the Park Kultury Metro was a beacon on the night.’

Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Complete Plays of Mayakovsky (Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, Mystery-Bouffe, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse)
Fantastic. Just brilliant. Also completely bonkers. The Bedbug and The Bathhouse are time-travelling comedies, (influenced by the ideas of Nikolai Fyodorov about science and nature) in which the future is used as a stick with which to beat the failings of the present. Very slapstick. Mad scientists. There is no mention of a bathhouse in The Bathhouse, although when the play was attacked by critics, Mayakovsky erected a huge banner in the theatre: ‘It’s hard to get rid of / The swarms of bureaucrats: / Not enough bathhouses, / Not enough soap.’ In The Bathhouse the Phosphorescent Woman says, ‘You and we came toward each other like two crews of workmen digging a tunnel, until we met – today.’

Andrei Platonov Moskva Chestnova (‘Happy Moscow’) (written in the 1920s but not published until 1999)
Very interesting novel, part allegory, part satire – also influenced by Fyodorov. The heroine, who was orphaned during the Revolution is called Moscow. And she is always happy (hence the title). More crazy scientists. Moscow helps build the Metro:
‘Her life was still long, what stretched out ahead of her was almost immortality. Nothing frightened her heart, and somewhere in the distance, ready to defend her youth and her freedom, cannons were dozing, the way a thunderstorm sleeps in the clouds during winter. Moscow looked to the sky; the wind was moving about like a living being, stirring the murky mist that humanity has breathed up during the night. // On Kanchevskaya Square, behind the plank fence surrounding the excavations, the compressors of the metropolitan railway were snorting away. A placard hung by the workers’ entrance: KOMSOMOLETS, KOMSOMOLKA! HELP BUILD THE METRO! YOUR FUTURE WORLD NEEDS A GREAT RAILWAY! // Moscow Chestnova believed, and went in through the gates; she wanted to take part in everything and she was filled by that indeterminacy of life which is just as happy as its definitive resolution.’

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (written 1925, not published until 1987)
Almost perfect. More mad scientists inspired by Fyodorov. They transplant the pituitary gland and testicles of a man into a dog. The dog Sharik becomes Comrade Sharikov, a talking bi-ped and an easy joke about the limitations of science and progress (he still behaves like a dog, chasing cats and stealing sausages).

Sergei Lukanenko, The Night Watch (1998)
Daft and pedestrian supernatural thriller about the forces of Light and Dark that keep watch over Moscow. First in a trilogy. Some of the action takes place on the Metro (because Dark Magic doesn’t work so well underground). Occasional lines like: ‘I love the metro at night, but I don’t know why. There’s nothing to look at except the same old dreary adverts and the same old tired human auras, the rumble of the engine, the gusts of air coming in through the half-open windows, the jolting over the rails. The numb wait for your own station. // But I love it anyway.’

Viktor Pelevin, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (2004)
My favourite Pelevin so far. The usual Bulgakov tricks of people becoming animals. The Russian FSB is run by werewolves. Russian prostitutes are were-foxes. Good satire, missed with the usual chunks of Buddhism. The were-fox telling the story does not appear to care for ‘metaphysical blockbusters in which good allows evil to feed, because evil allows good to feed, and so on’ - ie Lykyanenko. Best of all is the suggestion that the first dog into space was a were-dog – the Cheka agent Sharikov! (this is why the MS of Bulgakov’s story was suppressed for so long)