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The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

the suitcase

A recent charity shop find, which I mentioned here, was a book I’d had on my radar and want-to-read list for quite a while – “The Suitcase” by Sergei Dovlatov, published by Alma Classics (who do bring us all kinds of interesting Russian things!). Dovlatov was an intriguing character, and his Wikipedia page makes fascinating reading. Born in 1941, his Jewish father was a theatre director and his Armenian mother a proofreader. After a colourful youth, spending time in the forces and as a prison guard, he then worked as a journalist while supplementing his income as a guide at a Pushkin museum near Pskov (which he draws on for another fiction). His work was of course censored and unpublished during his time in the Soviet Union, and he eventually emigrated to the USA with his wife, daughter and mother in 1979, where he finally achieved recognition as a writer.

You can divide the world into two kinds of people: those who ask, and those who answer. Those who pose questions, and those who frown in irritation in response.

Three of his books are published by Alma – Pushkin Hills, The Zone and The Suitcase; all three sound fascinating and are titles I’ve been hovering around. And interestingly, all three seem to draw strongly on Dovlatov’s life, though they are all billed as fiction. In “The Suitcase”, the author reflects on his emigration to the USA, and the fact that he was only allowed to bring a minimal amount of items with him. In the end, it was a single battered suitcase of clothes that travelled with him to his new life and one later day he comes across it in a cupboard. As he opens it to explore the items, each simple item of clothing sparks a memory from his past; a pair of socks is from the time the author was drawn into the black market trade; a belt is from his guard days; a suit brings back recollections of being asked to spy by the KGB; and a shirt recalls his courtship of his wife.

Each symbolic piece of clothing has a link to the author’s past, and Dovlatov revisits each event with humour and nostalgia. And as the book progresses, every tale adds more to the story of life in the USSR, with all its difficulties, red tape and stupidity. Yet there is a longing here, that of an exile from his country who’s chosen to leave but cannot quite abandon the past. So the items in the suitcase have been kept for what they represent, a personal history of the author.

Dovlatov 1980

So is this fiction or fact or something in between? Personally, I assume it’s the latter; ostensibly drawing on the structure of Dovlatov’s life, I imagine that the setting and events may be based on real ones, perhaps tweaked to fit the story the author wanted to tell. Regardless of this, it’s a wonderful little book, mixing pathos and humour and giving a real insight into what it was like to live under the Soviet regime. It’s funny and poignant, and very, very evocative. Dovlatov portrays himself as a bit of a failure, wonders about the state of his marriage, contemplates the stupidity of the system, all the while subverting your expectations. One chapter which I found particularly interesting was the one entitled “Fernand Leger’s Jacket” which reaches back into Dovlatov’s youth and his friendship with the son of the great Russian actor, Nikolai Cherkasov. The latter played most notably the title role in Eisenstein’s films of Ivan the Terrible – stunning films and stunning acting – and so I was fascinated to read about the family from someone who knew them.

“The Suitcase” is a short read – 129 pages – but it packs a lot into those pages, and it’s a book that will stay with me. It evokes brilliantly the sense of loss felt in exile, it vividly paints a picture of life under Soviet rule, and it’s also very, very funny. My first experience of reading Dovlatov has been wonderful, and I’m definitely going to look out for his other works.

Short, sharp and excellent!

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The Gingerbread Wife by Sarah Vincent

Earlier in the year, author Sarah Vincent was kind enough to offer me a copy of her novel “The Testament of Vida Tremayne” for review. Although I’m not always a fan of modern fiction, I absolutely loved her book, an exciting mix of psychological thrills, myth and a fascinating take on the mother/daughter relationship.

gingerbread wife

So when Sarah mentioned she also had a slim anthology of short stories, I was very keen to read these – if they were anything like as good as the novel I knew I was in for a good read. And I don’t quite know why it’s taken me so long to get to reading them (life and its demands plus too many books on the shelves I guess) but I finally have – and they’re excellent!

“The Gingerbread Wife” contains eight tales and each is a little gem of storytelling. The subject matter is sometimes a little darker than “Vida” and Vincent’s protagonists often encounter strange and mysterious elements. The title story, for example, is set in an unnamed place, possibly a dystopian setting, where the female protagonist is subject to the attentions of a harsh bone-man trying to mend her back when she would much prefer to see a local woman known as a witch. In “Well-being”, three women artists struggle to get on in a remote retreat near a healing Spring; and “The Centipede” is set in Spain where a woman and her weak husband are being bullied by the husband’s sister into buying a house much against the woman’s will. “The Perambulator”, a chilling little story, features a middle-aged waitress who can see the spirits who follow people around. These are just some of the stories in this varied and wonderful collection, and I was particularly impressed with “Think Big”, a remarkably clever take on a sensitive subject which has a wonderful twist and which I can’t say any more about without spoiling!

sarah vincent

All in all, this is a great collection of short pieces, displaying Vincent’s trademark spooky elements, excellent and atmospheric writing plus plenty of punch. The women in her stories are on the margins, struggling with self-doubt and lack of confidence, with outside forces against them in the form of errant husbands or unearthly agencies; however, the women often have their revenge and there’s an undercurrent of humour in the writing too. There’s a quote from author Linda Grant on the cover of the book that I have to share with you which says “this is a writer triumphantly in control of her material, of her style and of her ideas” and I couldn’t agree more.

The short story as a form seems to be making something of a resurgence; I’ve read several good collections this year, and I notice that some of the works here have appeared in publications like ‘Mslexia’ (which I really should check out). Sarah Vincent is obviously a talent to watch and I can highly recommend “The Gingerbread Wife” to anyone fond of short stories, magic realism, ghost stories or just good writing!

“The Gingerbread Wife” can be found here

Ghosts, sex and British folk legends – a heady mix!

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The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never going to be a great reader of ghost stories – mainly because a lot of my reading is done at night, and frankly I get very easily spooked by any kind of supernatural kind of book! 🙂 Approaching another Kingsley Amis book, in the form of “The Green Man”, and reading the first chapter in bed really brought it home to me that I couldn’t handle this type of thing in the dark; so I ended up reading the rest of the book in the full light of day!

green man

As you know, I read my first Amis recently, “The Riverside Villas Murder” and like it very much. So I sent off for “The Green Man” as it did sound intriguing, and it seemed like a good follow-up to “The Cheltenham Square Murder”. The Green Man of the title is a mediaeval coaching inn in the fictional Fareham, Herts, run by landlord Maurice Allington. The concept of a Green Man turns up in British folk legend over the centuries and there are numerous pubs, inns, festivals et all named after it. However, it often refers to a kind of pagan monster made of branches, leaves and the like, and that’s what’s central to the plot here.

Allington has baggage; his first wife had left him and was then killed in a car accident; he runs the inn with his second wife, Joyce, and his teenage daughter Amy is also living with them. Amy is introverted and reclusive, obviously suffering from the loss of her mother. Also present is Maurice’s fragile and ageing father. Maurice is basically an alcoholic serial womanizer, and quite why Joyce puts up with him is anyone’s guess.

However, the inn has issues of its own. It was the previous residence of the notorious Dr. Underhill, a 17th century nasty who practiced black magic and seduced local young girls. Rumour has it he murdered his wife using supernatural forces, and his ghost was said to haunt The Green Man. As the book opens, Maurice is struggling with his health; he’s drinking far too much, has numerous aches and pains, and keeps having blackouts of sorts, losing hours at a time when he can’t recall what he did or said. He’s also been suffering weird hallucinations, so when he sees a mysterious red-haired woman on the stairs who then disappears, is he (or anyone else) going to take it seriously? (This was the point at which I got spooked).

Maurice’s best friend locally is also his doctor, Jack Maybury. Unfortunately, Maurice has a less-than-loyal interest in Jack’s wife, Diana, and whilst struggling to deal with the apparitions and the alcohol, he’s also attempting to seduce his best friend’s spouse! However, a particularly dramatic black-out seems to take place, during which Maurice apparently encounters the ghost of Underhill, and he’s intrigued and irritated enough to do some research. A visit to Cambridge and a calling in of some favours lead him to Underhill’s long-forgotten journal, which gives Maurice plenty to think about. Underhill had apparently created some kind of unearthly creature, and his ghost was seen watching the copse behind the inn from where it came to kill his wife. Maurice is determined to prove he’s not insane or suffering from the DTs, and so begins to dig further (literally, at one point!) to try to find out the truth about Underhill and the ghostly presence.

Alongside this, somewhat bizarrely, he also hatches a plot to try to create a threesome with himself, Joyce and Diana! How he’ll manage this in his frail state of health is anyone’s guess – and he really needs to stop neglecting his daughter so much, too. However, the death of his father in slightly strange circumstances convinces him something has to be done; and an encounter with an unidentified strange young man, who has very strong powers, gives him the strength to go ahead with his plan. But has he bitten off more than he can chew (with both of his plans, that is)?

220px-Kingsley_Amis

I ended up liking “The Green Man” very much indeed, which I wasn’t quite expecting. Amis really was an excellent writer, and he created a brilliantly unreliable narrator in the form of Maurice. He’s flawed, human and not always likeable; nevertheless I couldn’t help hoping he would succeed in his battle against the very nasty past. For Underhill really *is* an evil piece of work: preying on the local young girls and conjuring up a really frightening monster, the fact that he’s trying to cheat death and affect the present day is chilling. He tempts Maurice, tapping into his subconscious and choosing things he think will appeal; however, fortunately for all, Maurice is sharp enough to see through Underhill’s ploy, recognising what he’s actually after.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because it’s brilliantly done, full of twists and turns, ancient documents, mysterious sensations in the copse, moonlit adventures, peril – and of course Maurice’s constant obsession with sex! I should really object to his womanizing, but I don’t because I think he’s one of those men who just can’t help having sex on the brain! Also, the book was published in 1969, a time when the liberation of the Swinging Sixties was very much to the fore – a liberation I personally feel offered a lot more to men than it did to women. Plus, he does kind of get his comeuppance at one point – I shall say no more!

However, Amis doesn’t shy away from tackling the larger subjects – life, death, the afterlife, whether there’s any point in religion, why we’re here and so on. Maurice’s encounter with the nameless young man is a serious one, giving plenty of food for thought, and in strong contrast with his funny and somewhat slapstick meetings with the local vicar (a very modern version of the Parish cleric). Light and dark are set against each other in a number of places, and it’s hard not to see some kind of parallel between Underhill and Maurice, with their sexual desires, although Maurice has enough decency and good sense to recognise Underhill for what he is. The book is genuinely creepy, and the menace very credible and frightening. I’m glad I *didn’t* try to read any more at night, because I would most definitely have ended up sleeping with the light on. As it is, I whizzed through the book in daylight, with bated breath, to a really satisfying ending. I’m very impressed with both of the Amis books I’ve read and I think I shall most definitely be exploring more of his work.

So – where on earth did the summer go?

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I’ve reached the start of September, and I suppose autumn, without actually noticing it (until I had to go back to work, of course!) And I don’t know quite where the summer went. I kind of feel as if I didn’t read a huge amount of books, though when I look at the little spreadsheet I keep I did get through quite a few. I think the fact that three of them were Dorothy Richardsons perhaps is a little misleading!

hudson river

August is, of course, All Virago/All August and though I didn’t stick exclusively to those, I did read several this year. Of course, I caught up on my Dorothy Richardson “Pilgrimage” read and I’m feeling more confident of sticking to it. Then there was the very wonderful “Hudson River Bracketed” by Edith Wharton which I *really* enjoyed and it’s made me keen to read more of her writing.

lifted veil

Perhaps I shouldn’t mentioned my other Virago read – “The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot… I know many Viragoites dislike it, but I found it most enjoyable and I’m glad I chose to pick it up this month.

recollections

I also reconnected with Virginia Woolf in a big way, enjoying the excellent “Orlando” and also getting very emotional about “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”.

artificial

Alas, I only managed one title for Women in Translation month, Irmgard Keun’s “The Artificial Silk Girl” which was another great book by this German author. Hopefully I’ll do better next August…

So, a bit of a mixed month. As for what I have lined up for September – well, I’ve read a couple of interesting titles and there are reviews scheduled. One is a Kingsley Amis, one is a Russian, and one is a wonderful little short story collection. I have a couple of interesting-looking review books to read, there’s Jean Rhys Reading Week coming up, and I’d like to get ahead on some of the titles for the 1947 Club, which Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be hosting in October. So plenty of good things to come, and let’s hope I can get into more of a rhythm with reading in September! 🙂

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