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Recent Reads: The Works of Max Beerbohm

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Author Max Beerbohm is probably best known nowadays for his novel “Zuleika Dobson”, a satirical story of life in undergraduate Oxford, although Wikipedia reminds us that he was  “an English essayist, parodist, and caricaturist”. “Zuleika” has been sitting on Mount TBR, in the form of a nice old Penguin, for quite some time, so I was pleased to be offered a review copy of “The Works of Max Beerbohm” by the independent publisher, Michael Walmer (whose edition of “Vainglory” by Ronald Firbank I reviewed here).

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Beerbohm had a long and illustrious career and yet “The Works” was his first published book, a collection of essays previously appearing in various publications. There are seven of these, ranging in topic from dandies such as Beau Brummell, via a reconsideration of the life and character of King George IV through to one of his most famous, “The Perversion of Rouge” – the latter covering the resurgence of the use of cosmetics, an essay which was reputed to have moved Oscar Wilde to tears!

Stylistically, Beerbohm’s writing is ornate and very enjoyable. It takes a little adjusting to if you’re used to more prosaic modern writing, but once you get into the flow of it you find yourself reading surprisingly rapidly. MB certainly has a way with words and his prose really is a joy to read. Although the subject matter is not people or ideas that present-day readers would necessarily be familiar with, in many ways that doesn’t matter – there’s always the Internet to let you look up the history of, say, Robert Coates (whose terrible acting career is covered in the essay “Poor Romeo!”) – and in any event these essays are worth reading for the wonderful language alone.

“Most women are not as young as they are painted… Cosmetics are not going to be a mere prosaic remedy for age or plainness, but all ladies and girls will come to love them…the season of the unsophisticated is gone by, and the young girl’s final extinction beneath the rising tides of cosmetics will leave no gap in life and will rob art of nothing… Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom.”

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Beerbohm is a very clever writer, skilled at using language to play tricks and make the reader think completely the opposite to the obvious. In fact, the only trouble I had with this book was sometimes being unsure when Max was parodying or not! For example, his piece on King George IV actually came across as a genuine attempt to reappraise the man’s life and character; whereas “A Good Prince” very cleverly twists your expectations on the first page with revelations on the final fifth page which make you realise you aren’t reading about quite the sort of person you thought! And “The Perversion of Rouge” seems to me very definitely a cry out against the plastering on of so much make-up that the real person has completely disappeared – which is a surprisingly modern and relevant way of thinking, when confronted with today’s fashions of dying, primping, injecting and plasticising oneself so as to be as unlike the original as possible. Beerbohm’s Dandies are not that far removed from today’s fancy dressers, removing all trace of body hair, wearing fake tans (and fake everything elses!), spending fortunes on clothes and ointments – plus ca change, as they say! As MB points out, sun-tan make-up was being used by “countless gentlemen who walk about town in the time of its desertion from August to October, artificially bronzed, as though they were fresh from the moors or the Solent. This, I conceive, is done for purely social reasons.” How modern of them!!

These sparkling little essays were a real delight to read, and with surprising depth and relevance. The book itself is a nice little volume with stripey yellow covers and comes with a bibliography of the essays and their previous appearances. On the evidence of The Works, Max Beerbohm should certainly be remembered for more than “Zuleika Dobson”!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – thank you!)

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Olympian Writers

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I don’t like sport.

I don’t like totalitarian regimes.

I’m not particularly keen on modern politics….

So is it wrong that I’m still emotionally falling to bits after seeing a huge chunk of my favourite authors appearing in the Sochi closing ceremony?? Particularly seeing Mayakovsky, Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva up there, having spent much of their lives fighting the authorities. And the actors performing as Tolstoy and Akhmatova were pretty spot on.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

 

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

Gogol and Lermontov

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing CeremonyMayakovsky!!!!!!!

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing CeremonyNabokov, Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva

Basically – I just *love* Russian authors!!

The ceremony is still on the UK BBC iPlayer if you want to see this bit – about 1hr 20 mins in – just ignore the totally stupid and insulting commentary which really was reprehensible….

(photos mainly from examiner.com)

Hesperus Book Club: Death in Pont-Aven by Jean-Luc Bannalec

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The latest volume from the Hesperus Press book club is another murder mystery – in the form of the first in what I hope will be a new series of cases for Commissaire Dupin. “Death in Pont-Aven” is set in Brittany, in the artists’ territory of Concarneau, and intriguingly enough was first published in German. Add to that the fact that there is absolutely nothing to be found online about the author (except for this bald statement on Amazon: Jean-Luc Bannalec is a pseudonym; the author divides his time between Germany and the southern Finistère) and the plot thickens…! However, none of this has anything to do with the book, and so onward with that.

Let’s get the obvious references out of the way first of all: our detective, Commissaire Georges Dupin, shares a surname with one of the earliest protagonists of detective fiction, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. And the opening pages of the book are set in the Admiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s “Yellow Dog” (1931) when Maigret stayed there while investigating a murder. Having dealt with these nods to the past, we are introduced to Dupin: a Parisian exile, sent to Brittany because he doesn’t play the game, says what he thinks and is generally bad-tempered and wayward – particularly if he hasn’t had enough coffee! However, as he is drinking his third cafe a lait of the day, he receives a call to a murder – Pierre-Louis Pennec, the aged owner of a hotel with artistic history, has been found dead in the Central’s bar. He was an old man, so who would want to kill him? Dupin, along with his sidekicks Le Ber (who he likes and trusts) and Labat (who he can’t stand) starts to investigate – but then there is a break-in and another death. Dupin has to start digging deep into family and local histories, going back to the time of Gauguin and the artists colonies, to find out the motivations for the murder and track down the killers plus some unexpected loot…

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I have to say that this book was a real joy. I’ve become so jaded with crime novels over recent years, owing to the extreme violence of the plots; and although found “Spring Tide” refreshing and enjoyable, it *did* still have the odd moment when I had to let my eyes skim over the page. Not so with DIPA, though – it’s a much more traditional murder mystery, and for once the victim isn’t female! The killer isn’t some weird serial type with odd motivations – here, the plotting, the location, the psychology of the people in the village and their lives and history are the important things, and the book is so much more realistic and readable because of it.

Bannalec (whoever he – or she! – is) paints a wonderful picture (ha!) of the Breton landscape and people, so much so that I felt like jumping on the next ferry to go and spend some time there. The characters are beautifully drawn – the individual, grumpy Dupin, who knows what he’s doing but doesn’t let anybody else in on it; his understanding secretary Nolwenn, who can seemingly work miracles and sort out everything he needs instantly; the irritating Inspector Labat, who nevertheless is useful to Dupin in certain situations; the reliable Inspector Le Ber who tries to keep up to speed with his boss, but doesn’t always get there.

The local people are a lively bunch too – the Pennec family, who are still looking back to the time of Gauguin, when their hotel was founded by Marie-Jeanne Pennec who gave shelter to the artists staying at Pont-Aven; the locals, including Beauvois the local art historian; Pierre-Louis’ best friend Fragon Delon; Madame Lajoux, who virtually runs the hotel and is rumoured to have had an affair with the deceased old man; and the various doctors and forensic staff, all having to deal with Dupin’s temper. Add in the half-brother politician and various art experts from elsewhere, and you have a rich and entertaining cast.

“Der Spiegel” has rather facetiously described the book as “a cheerful, sun-drenched, stress-free whodunit thriller” which I think actually doesn’t do it justice. To be pedantic, it *isn’t* sun-drenched – Bannalec captures the moods of the coast and its weather in all its extremes; cheerful is a daft word to describe a murder mystery and although this book isn’t filled with gloom and torture, it has long-held family secrets and resentments. But it was stress-free in that I didn’t have to negotiate bloodthirsty murder and torture, it was peopled with appealing characters and a satisfying mystery, and in the end I suppose it was the modern equivalent of what some might call a “‘cosy read”.

I really enjoyed making the acquaintance of Georges Dupin and his team, and I hope there are more books about Concarneau and its detectives in the wings – whoever they’re written by!

…. in which I, rather surprisingly, develop self-control!

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Fortunately for my bank balance and the rapidly diminishing space in my house, I was incredibly restrained this weekend! I didn’t actually buy myself anything from the local Big Town (although I was tempted at times) – I *did* bring home one small volume, but it has a story attached:

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Yes, it is indeed a Beverley – one of his children’s books. I was having a coffee in Cafe Nero, feeling very smug about my lack of purchases, when I thought I’d have a look at their Bookcrossing books – they’re our local host for this. Although I joined Bookcrossing years ago, I confess I’ve never done anything about it, although I am aware of the Nero books. Usually there isn’t anything to interest me (the row of Eastenders spin-offs have been sitting there for many moons) – but this is a Beverley! So I brought it home and I *will* go on Bookcrossing and do whatever you do with it.

However, here’s the problem – well, two actually! Firstly, this is the third book in a series. Secondly, it’s abridged.

So now I have to persuade myself that no, I *don’t* need to go online and seek out a complete unabridged set. No, I really *don’t*……. Sigh……. 😦

Pushkin Press Fortnight: The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb

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I hadn’t intended taking part in Stu’s wonderful Pushkin Press Fortnight, despite a great love of the publisher’s books, simply because I had a pile of other books I was planning to read. However, when I read Annabel’s glowing review of “The Pendragon Legend”, and realised I had a copy lurking on Mount TBR that I’d picked up last year in the Oxfam, I just couldn’t resist….. All other books got put to one side and I instantly became immersed in this wonderful story!

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To be honest, I’m not sure what I can add to Annabel’s excellent review – and I think she’s nailed it with her title! – but here goes! Wikipedia tells us this about Szerb: “Antal Szerb (May 1, 1901, Budapest – January 27, 1945, Balf) was a noted Hungarian scholar and writer. He is recognized as one of the major Hungarian literary personalities of the 20th century.Szerb was born in 1901 to assimilated Jewish parents in Budapest, but baptized Catholic. He studied Hungarian, German and later English, obtaining a doctorate in 1924. From 1924 to 1929 he lived in France and Italy, also spending a year in London, England. Elected President of the Hungarian Literary Academy in 1933 – aged just 32 -, he published his first novel, The Pendragon Legend (which draws upon his personal experience of living in Britain) the following year. His second and best-known work, Utas és holdvilág, known in English as Journey by Moonlight, came out in 1937. He was made a Professor of Literature at the University of Szeged the same year. He was twice awarded the Baumgarten Prize, in 1935 and 1937.

In 1941 he published a History of World Literature which continues to be authoritative today. He also published a volume on novel theory and a book about the history of Hungarian literature. Given numerous chances to escape antisemitic persecution (as late as 1944), he chose to remain in Hungary, where his last novel, a Pirandellian fantasy about a king staging a coup against himself, then having to impersonate himself, Oliver VII, was published in 1942. It was passed off as a translation from the English, as no ‘Jewish’ work could have been printed at the time. Szerb was deported to a concentration camp late in 1944, and was beaten to death there in January 1945, at the age of 43.”

I quote this at length deliberately – as Szerb is another writer we lost thanks to totalitarianism and human brutality, and unless Pushkin Press had published his work I might not have heard of him. So they definitely deserve kudos for bringing his work to the English-speaking world, and additionally in such lovely editions – mine is on thick, creamy paper with texture on one side which is lovely to handle and to read. However, on to the story itself.

The book is narrated by Janos Batky, a young Hungarian scholar who lounges around London in the 1930s, spending much of his time reading in the British Museum Reading Room. Janos is a bit of a dilettante, with enough money to live on so he can amuse himself with his research. At a swanky soiree, he is serendipitously introduced to the Earl of Pendragon, who shares his interests in the occult, the Rosicrucians and the search for eternal life. The Earl has a mysterious history going back hundreds of years and invites our young hero to his castle in Wales for a visit. After Batky has accepted, that’s when things start to go wrong….

I shan’t waste time going into a huge plot summary because in many ways that would spoil the joy of you reading it. However, let’s just say that there are attempts on various characters’ lives, blackmail, poison, murder, ghosts, attempts to raise the dead, plenty of Welsh mysticism, sacrifices, kidnappings, chases, mysterious horsemen, love, hate and a whole lot more. The book is packed with action and never really lets up, which makes it a great read. And Szerb’s characters are just wonderful!

Antal Szerb

Janos Batky is a fabulous character – a mixture of smartness and naivety, quick to acknowledge his failings, often fooled but sometimes surprisingly astute. Apparently he’s based on the author and his time spent living in England. Then there’s Maloney, the engaging and plausible Irishman, who seems to think he can solve anything; Cynthia Pendragon, lady of the manor and representative of highly bred Englishwomen; Osborne, Cynthia’s brother, who is not a man of action but ends up having to become one – and quite likes it! One of my favourites is the larger-than-life (in most ways!) Lene Kretzsch, Amazonian modern woman of many talents, seductress, and definitely the person to call on in a crisis – her snappy come-backs and aplomb in most situations are a joy. And Batky’s explanation of how they met is a delight:

“This was how our friendship began: I set myself on fire and she put me out. I’d been sitting by the hearth with The Times. I’ve never been able to handle English newspapers – apparently one has to be born with the knack of folding these productions into the microscopic dimensions achieved by the natives – and, as I flicked a page over, the entire room filled with newsprint.

Just at that moment, it seems, the young bellboy topped up the fire, rather carelessly. The Times burst into flames, and I took on a resemblance to a Burning Bush. The details escape me. All I know is that in a trice Lene was towering over me, stamping on the blazing pages, sousing me with whatever cups of tea were on hand in the room and tugging at my hair in the belief it was being singed. Then she hauled me off to her room, washed me down, stripped me naked and dressed me in some extremely masculine woman’s garment, which was far too big for me anyway – and all before I could murmur my undying gratitude. Then she gave me a thorough scolding for being so inept.”

There is of course a wicked women, in the form of Eileen St Claire, who really should be more careful where she dabbles… Add in a collection of strange and lunatic Welsh people, some typical thriller-style villains, cranky servants, plus creepy houses and castles – well, what’s not to like?!

This is an unusual book in many ways – Wikipedia describes it as “a philosophical thriller/comedy/murder-mystery/ghost story set first in London and then in Wales”, and to handle all those elements takes no mean talent. And it *is* funny – some of Batky’s comments are a scream! But there are the other sort of screams to, and the book is quite dark in places, hinting at the things we don’t know, and the things it’s better not to know. Szerb pulls all the threads together at the end magnificently, with remarkable command of all this material. I don’t know how it reads in Hungarian, but in this lovely translation by Leonard Rix it reads beautifully in English and I couldn’t put it down!

So I’m definitely with Annabel on this one – “The Pendragon Legend” is one of those books you feel compelled to rush headlong through after the narrator till you reach the end breathless. I’m now very keen to read more of Szerb’s work (apparently more serious than this book) but in the meantime, TPL comes highly recommended!

Recent Reads: W of The memory of Childhood by Georges Perec

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Well, this book was the second purchase in Foyles during my recent trip to London, and it was actually difficult to choose what Perec to read next. Having loved his “Life: A User’s Manual”, I didn’t want to leave it too long before picking up another of his works – his words and images are rather haunting me at the moment, so much so that I felt the urge to do a jigsaw and picked up a nice one of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square! But that’s by the by – the book is what matters!

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However, I’m actually finding it hard to approach writing about “W” for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a hard book to classify – fiction? autobiography? a strange fantastic blend of both? It was in the fiction section of Foyles, and Vintage have stated quite clearly on the back cover “Fiction”. Yet, anyone with a small smattering of knowledge about Perec’s life will know enough to realise that one section of the book is certainly autobiographical. Secondly, the subject matter is quite intense and painful in places, bringing forth quite an emotional reaction – it takes a little while to assimilate then mentally deal with this work.

“W” has alternating chapters of two stories – the first consists of fragments of memories, recollection of events from Perec’s youth and childhood that he attempts to piece together; including some which were actually written in his youth. The second story, the italicised chapters of the book, tells the tale of one Gaspard Winkler (a name Perec used for one of the main characters in “Life”). Winkler provides a brief autobiography, in which he tells how he was orphaned, grew up, joined the army, deserted and escaped to Germany. Here, he is tracked down by a strange man, and it transpires that he has taken his identity from a shipwrecked boy called Gaspard Winkler. The boy is believed to be alive, and the impersonator is sent to search the islands off Tierro del Fuego to look for him.

The book is split into two parts, and in the second part, the italicised chapters tell of the island of W (which should be correctly rendered as double-vie in French, i.e. it can be read as ‘double life’ which kind of gives you a handle on how to read the book). The island’s hierarchy and way of life is entirely based on the Olympian ideal of sport. Initially, this seems to be some kind of utopian place, but as the story develops and more is revealed, it becomes clear that W is really not a nice place to live. Perec states that he invented the story of W in his youth, but it is unclear whether what we read here is the original or an expanded version – Perec is good at blurring lines.

Parallel to the W story, Perec continues with his memoirs of his youth – being sent away by his mother to live with a variety of aunts and attend local schools. His father died unnecessarily of a war wound and after his mother sent him away, he never saw her again. Perec is left with a handful of photos, a mixture of fragmented memories and a sense of loss. As the two strands of the book progress, it becomes clear that if/when Perec wrote about W as a youth, it was an analogy. W is anything but a paradise, it is simply an allegory for the concentration camps in which his mother lost her life, and the horrors it reveals are quite chilling. The reality of living under the Nazi regime is shown quite clearly and the hopelessness of those in the camps is staggering:

“There are competitions every day, where you Win or Lose. You have to fight to live. There is no alternative. It is not possibly to close your eyes to it, it is not possible to say no. There’s no recourse, no mercy, no salvation to be had from anyone. There’s not even any hope that time will sort things out … wherever you turn your eyes, that’s what you will see, you will not see anything else, and that is the only thing that will turn out to be true.”

Perec states early on:

“I have no childhood memories. I was excused: a different history, History with a capital H, had answered the questions in my stead: the war, the camps.”

In many ways that’s understandable, because as an evacuee, in effect a refugee from the Germans, he was very likely in denial about much that had happened to him. But I do feel that Perec is commenting on the quality of memory in general. I’m often suspicious of detailed autobiography, because I know from personal experience that it’s very difficult to remember your life. You retain fragments, images, feelings – but not a clear narrative of  your own existence. You don’t really have time to do that as you’re too busy living!!

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The autobiographical section is infused with sadness, loss and the confusions that children often feel, not understanding what is going on around them and why. And the human mind blanks out things which are painful, which it can’t deal with. The horrors revealed on the island of W, as its story unfolds, are the evils endured in the camps – random favouritism, cruelty, unfairness, inequality, brutality, the use of women as breeding machines and everything else that existed under the Nazi regime. By the end of the book it is quite clear that the two strands of the tale are related, with Perec trying to rationalise the events around him by creating the island of W.

“The Law is implacable, but the Law is unpredictable.. The Law must be known by all, but the Law cannot be known. Between those who live under its swat and those who pronounce it stands an insurmountable barrier.”

I am sure that, as with “Life”, I will get more from this book on a re-read. Thinking back on it, it’s still a hard book to mentally classify. “W” is a chilling story and one which bleakly reveals the evil of the concentration camps. It seems to me that perhaps the unusual structure is due to the fact Perec can only tell this story obliquely because of the implicit horrors it contains – if he looked at his past head-on, it would be too much to deal with. This is a stark book and one that will stay with me; and despite only having read two of his books, Perec is well on his way to becoming one of my favourite writers.

Recent Reads: Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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(Warning! There *are* slight spoiler elements to this review!)

I don’t like to be away from my Russian authors for *too* long, and it’s always a delight to explore writers you haven’t read before. The Strugatsky brothers are a case in point – I’d heard of them through their novella “Roadside Picnic”, upon which the Tarkovsky film “Stalker” is based, but I’d never actually read any of their works. However, I picked up another novella of theirs, “Definitely Maybe” in London recently, and really felt drawn to read it soon – and as I’m a person who always follows their reading whims……. 🙂 It *is* very highly rated, and the great Ursula LeGuin says:

”One of the Strugatsky brothers is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekhov, but nobody is sure which is which. This is definitely, not maybe, a beautiful book.”

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“Definitely Maybe” was published in 1974 and tells the story of Malianov, an astrophysicist. The place and time are unclear to start with, but it is in high, hot summer and mention of White Nights soon reveals that the story is set in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was during Soviet times). Malianov should be on holiday, but he has sent his wife Irina and son Bobchick away as he feels he is on the verge of a great discovery. However, he is finding it very difficult to work…..

If the weather conditions were not bad enough, there are the interruptions. First, a large delivery from the local story, with caviar, vodka and all kinds of goodies. Then an attractive young woman turns up, apparently an old friend of his wife. His neighbour in the flat opposite, also a scientist, commits suicide and some strange heavies turn up to interrogate Malianov, accusing him of murder. His scientific colleagues visit, relating tales of also being unable to work owing to distractions. Who or what is causing these problems – is it aliens, or some weird supercivilisation? – and does the mathematician Vecherovsky, who lives upstairs, have a clue to the answer?

This is a fascinating book on a number of levels, and very gripping and readable. It’s written as a series of extracts from a journal so the story dips in and out, which is a clever device to move the plot along, but also keeps you guessing about quite what is happening. Poor Malianov is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep his thoughts together despite the sabotage to his work that is going on. There are clutches of scientific talk where I’m not sure whether it was real scientific talk or not, but in many ways that doesn’t matter. What matters is Malianov’s struggle – who it is against and what it’s for.

And here we get to the nub of this book – is it science fiction (for which the Strugatskys are known) or is it satire? That’s a good question, particularly as the term Sci Fi encompasses such a wide range nowadays, from classic speculative fiction a la Wells, to modern space sagas of strange alien armies fighting each other for aeons (and all things in between!) It seems to me that the brothers were using a Sci Fi format to house their satire – and obviously doing a good job as it got past the censors mainly intact. But if satire is a literary form that critiques the current regime or norm, then this is certainly it – and a satire with depth and compassion.

arkady and boris strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As a brilliantly written piece of speculative fiction, the story stands in its own right. However, this being a piece of work produced  under the Soviet regime, any reader would be looking for a sub-text – and it’s not difficult to find. Malianov’s struggle is obviously an allegorical one, with the right to do his own research challenged by external forces – not the authorities, not aliens, not a supercivilisation, but a kind of homeostasis; a self-regulating force of nature that wants to stop humanity developing anything that might one day bring about the end of the world. Of course, the forces of nature represent the huge weight of the Soviet state, a constant malevolent force that seemed to be able to throw things in the path of a citizen in the most unexpected way. Although farcical in places, it’s chilling to find that the final, successful method that Nature uses to stop Malianov is the same used by the state in Soviet Russia – to threaten a person’s nearest and dearest.

“Who knows what’s in store for us? Who knows what it will be? The strong will be, and the blackguards will be. And death will come and sentence you to death. Do not pursue the future….”

And so the book becomes a poignant discussion of personal integrity – it is easier to be strong if you are a single person like Vecherovsky, who at the end of the book is the only one left fighting. The minute you care about anyone else you become vulnerable, and Malianov goes through much soul-searching before coming to his decision – the consequences of which he will have to live with forever. He recognises that others have made the same decision he has to make:

“I rolled up into a tighter ball. So that’s how it was. The man had been squashed. He was still alive but no longer the same man. Broken flesh, broken spirit. What did they do to him that he couldn’t take? But there must be pressures, I guess, that no man can take”.

How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche. Malianov’s decision is a realistic, human one and he knows the consequences.

“Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

DM manages to be funny and sinister at the same time, and the commentary on the Soviet regime is obvious. I found the book a really thought-provoking and quite emotional read and I salute the Strugatkys for getting so much into a short novella. I definitely want to read more of their work – there’s no maybe!

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