Monday 23 July 2018

Sholokov, Platonov

Down at the rocky swimming spot in Ballycotton sat a man reading a novel by Mikhail Sholokhov—I couldn't see which one—a day or two after I finished Happy Moscow. A spicy synchronicity. Stalin approved of Sholokhov, while Platonov was deemed unpublishable. Ballycotton can take them all—the choppy blue water and the thoughtful rope for hauling yourself out—and a reader down here who is not me, which is comforting, luxurious.

Back home I looked out Sholokhov's Virgin Soil Upturned on the bedroom bookshelves—reserved for childhood books and early independent purchases—one of those sunset-flavoured paperback covers with horses and wooden wagons and workers and scythes marching into the blaze of soviet realism—yes, if you can name it it probably doesn't exist. Any nation whose chief newspapers claim to be Reality and Truth must be deceived and deceiving much of the time.

I don't think I can read it now. I can catch the flavour (there are too many epithets, a forced grandeur, tons of moral imperative, yellowed cracky paper, tight print), read a few chapters, groan through the worthy translation, weary with the urgency of it all. What did I make of it in 1965? Why did I buy it? It was Russian and I identified with that, plus the title had an allure for a future gardener. I could not yet place the politics, the allegiances. Some writers work for a barely-knowing larger audience, a readily mythifying public. And Quiet Flows the Don is his most read book. Another alluring title. Don't be fooled. Even if did take 28 years to write.

Platonov is a desert writer, an urban writer out of the desert. Sholokhov is a romantic ruralist. Nothing like a good Cossack struggle. I would rather take Platonov to my desert island.

Saturday 21 July 2018

Platonov, Happy Moscow

Platonov's Happy Moscow has given me several stunned reading moments. The beginning of chapter 5 launches me into a prime 4 a.m. reverie. No, that's not the word. An uncanny sense of being as awake as I'll ever be, both soothed and alert.
Sambikin's economy with time made him untidy and slovenly, and the world's external matter felt to him like an irritation of his own skin. Day and night he followed the world-wide current of events, and his mind lived in a terror of responsibility for the entire senseless fate of physical substance.
Sambikin/Platonov absorbs and processes Stalin's Russia in the 1930s. I absorb, albeit at some distance, and would rather not process, the compound stare of Putin/Trump and wall-to-wall Brexit.
At night Sambikin took a long time to fall asleep, because he was imagining the labour, now lit by electricity, that was in progress on Soviet land. He saw structures, densely equipped with scaffolding, where unsleeping people came and went as they fastened down young boards made from fresh timber so as to be able to remain up there, high up, where the wind blows and from where night, in the form of the last remnant of the evening glow, can be seen moving along the edge of the world.
The awkwardness of translation, I like to think, is appropriate. Absurdity has to be scrupulous or it dissolves. Platonov is already translating Stalin's invented language, his invented reality. The only way I can absorb the absurdity of now is through the absurdity of then. I have difficulty reading newspapers. I do not officially live in a dictatorship. I cannot, as Platonov does, take the dictator's dictates, his language, and undermine it one comma at a time. There is not a dictator where I live, but there are many out there eating the ether and spitting it out, so we are all doused. Sad to say.

Happy Moscow fractures from the start. We have bad dreams. Blood is pouring from multiple fissures. Sartorius, sleepless, invents a weighing machine for weighing weightless things. Like filth and scum embedded in wounds. Like the sudden thrusting life a corpse could have.
Investigating more precisely, speculating about all this almost constantly, Sambikin came to believe that the moment of death some kind of hidden sluice must open in the human body, and that from it there flows through the organism a special fluid which poisons the pus of death and washes away the ash of exhaustion, and which is carefully preserved all through life, right up to the moment of supreme danger. 
Whenever that may be. It's a relief if there's a moment, like the end of a drought, or an electric storm, rather than the drift of history, insinuation of language, algorithms, unease, then or now.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Pierre Ryckmans and Simon Leys

I have one book by Pierre Ryckmans and one by Simon Leys, who are the same person. Why he does it I don't know, but the use of of two names gives full play to the doubt that permeates the average thinking life. In content, these two books are approximately polemic and reflection. Pierre Ryckmans The View from the Bridge is a series of lectures published in 1996 in Australia, where he lived and taught for many years. The Simon Leys was published in 2008 by Sylph Editions in London as one of their Cahier series. Notes from the Hall of Uselessness is a selection of pieces from the eponymous Hall, his writing room, where, as I can fully imagine, he contemplates the usefulness of the useless. Both books are permeated with Chinese thought and culture, and thus, for the European reader, they hang suspended in air of their own.

In presentation they are both slim volumes, but there the resemblance ends. The Cahier series published by Sylph are a model of thoughtful typesetting and design. The Australian book, published by the Australian Broadcasting Company, has an overlarge font and charmless layout. Does it matter?  Yes, for the way the reader is or isn't encouraged to read, and reflect. John Berger describes how, on first sight of a new book, he so disliked the production that he burnt it straightaway, which is a tad highhanded if a successful writer's privilege.

Pierre Ryckmans argues and implants ideas, he is not above being a perplexed old man. His chapter headings, in ABC's aggressively electronic font, are Learning, Reading, Writing, Going Abroad and Staying Home. Simon Leys, from the heart of the Hall of Uselessness, moves among words, music and silence, examines perfection and imperfection, listens with Glenn Gould to a sonata for piano and vacuum cleaner. The thinking and the layout of the page invite the reader to stop reading and look around, look back and forth.

I look forward to reading Notes from the Hall of Uselessness up at the reservoir. And then, settled in our spot, I note the local flora, go for a swim and fall asleep. 'Truth is grasped by an imaginative jump', is one of Simon Leys' headings. Truth is also grasped by falling asleep in the sun.

I like both writers, Pierre and Simon, Ryckmans and Leys. Though it's Simon Leys I would take to a desert island for his freedom, his interiority. If that isn't the Cahier style bringing me on.

Pierre Ryckmans chose Chinese and a pen-name, Simon Leys, and Australia. I chose French, and to keep my name, and Ireland, and Europe. Ryckmans is known for having debunked Chairman Mao before most had figured it. There is only one thing worse than being wrong and that is being right before anyone else.

Polemics leave me confused as to who scored which goal in what argument why. I like consensus conversations. I like to build à deux or alone, or with Mozart, or Chopin, and a writer who reflects. I find it hard to maintain an argument, I forget what it's for, or can't believe that any view of mine will hold, let along swing anything, which for a strong woman is a strange confession.

It is good to know that the hall of uselessness where Pierre/Simon/Judy write is useful for running all this before the mast.

Last night I dreamt of a drone attack, and later Mickos said I looked sad. That's how I feel about polemics as I build with Mozart over a shorn hayfield in Ireland's heatwave which is on the way to becoming a sea.