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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… 😉

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. 🙂

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… 🙂

‘I have gone where you did not want me to go’ (Lenin) @VersoBooks

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Such enthusiastic bedlam might seem a nightmare, or a strange, faltering carnival, depending on one’s perspective.

First up, before attempting to discuss this book, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast. I’ve read a good number of books about the Russian Revolution over the years since first studying the subject at Grammar School (I mean REALLY a lot!) and this one of the best – if not *the* best. Yes, it’s that good. And this is going to be a very personal response, rather than anything approaching a formal review…

“October” is published by the left-wing imprint Verso Books, and I hesitated initially before buying it. Having read so much on the subject, would I find anything for me in yet another work on the great upheaval of 100 years ago? Nevertheless, I *did* pick up an e-book version when it was on offer earlier in the year (damn you, Verso, with your constant money-off emails!); and what tipped me into reading it, as the anniversary approached, was Mieville’s appearance in that execrable documentary on BBC2 that I moaned about here. Along with Tariq Ali, he came across as a voice of sanity, and as I have been becoming heartily sick of right-wing revisionist readings of those cataclysmic events, I decided that this was the time to read the book. And that was most definitely the right decision.

From the very first paragraphs Mieville hooks you; his writing, as he debunks the myths about the founding of St. Petersburg, is just marvellous. Immediately, you sense that Mieville is bringing his novelist’s sensibilities to the telling of a history and the results are stunning.

After providing a succinct background of the Russian nation, Mieville takes you into the heart of his story, with a series of chapters devoted to each month between the February and October revolutions. There’s no point me relating the story, as the author does this so well, but basically the monarchy falls at the beginning of the book, with a variety of provisional governments attempting to rule alongside, or in opposition to, the soviets and myriad other groups with an interest in bringing democracy to Russia. And there are endless meetings, discussions, talks about having talks until you despair a little and wish someone would get on with seizing power!

Political activism through passive–aggressive dinner parties.

By the second, rather bloodless revolution at the end of the book, the in-fighting and dissension amongst political groups, added to lack of food and the failure of those temporarily in charge to end the ruinous first world war, led to the Bolsheviks seizing power and the formation of the first socialist state in the world. Mieville touches on the aftermath, but most reading this book will know how the 20th century panned out for Russians. The search for freedom and utopia would certainly go horribly wrong…

‘The man of the future in Russia’, says Alexander Herzen at the start of the 1850s, ‘is the peasant.’ Development being slow, with no meaningful liberal movement in sight, the narodniks look beyond the cities to rural revolution. In the Russian peasant commune, the mir, they see a glimmer, a foundation for an agrarian socialism. Dreaming their own better places, thousands of young radicals ‘go to the people’, to learn from, work with, raise the consciousnesses of a suspicious peasantry.

So – what makes this book stand out so much from the many others I’ve read? Well, a number of things, actually. There are other books that are more detailed, more politically involved, perhaps even more analytical, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that brought events to life so vividly. Drawing on a vast range of material, which he uses to bring the story truly to life, he renders complex events with incredible clarity and sheer narrative drive – this is writing so good that it gives you shivers as you read it. Mieville has a wonderful way of delivering snappy one-liners that cut right to heart of the matter at hand, and his narrative makes sense of the dizzying array of political groupings. Even though I knew what was coming, Mieville’s narrative was nail-biting; and as history can be dull, this was a considerable achievement!

3 a.m. Kerensky, who only a few hours earlier had claimed to be ready to face down any challenge, tore back, distraught, to General Staff headquarters, to hear a litany of strategic points falling. Loyalist morale pitched. Worse, though, quickly came. At 3:30 a.m., a dark presence cut the shadowed Neva. Masts and wires and three looming smokestacks, great jutting guns. Out of the gloom came the armoured ship Aurora, making for the city’s heart.

“October” also reminds us that the revolution was the result of a combination of factors – the push for reform by the revolutionaries, and perhaps more importantly a populace that had had enough of war and poverty. Mieville says everything that needs to be said about the Russian Revolutions, and much more eloquently than I possibly can.

Gone was the obsequiousness of 1905. Citizens across the empire waged what Richard Stites called a ‘war on signs’, the destruction of tsarist symbols: portraits, statues, eagles. Revolutionary fever infected unlikely patients.

Yes, there was iconoclasm; in the more modern definition of the word, literally ‘image breaking’, and applied to all representations of power in public space and not just religious ones. When you’ve been downtrodden for years and you come across the symbols of that repression what more visceral reaction is there likely to be than the need to destroy those symbols?

It was endgame at the Winter Palace. Wind intruded through smashed glass. The vast chambers were cold. Disconsolate soldiers, deprived of purpose, wandered past the double-headed eagles of the throne room. Invaders reached the emperor’s personal chamber. It was empty. They took their time attacking images of the man himself, hacking with their bayonets at the stiff, sedate life-sized Nicholas II watching from the wall. They scored the painting like beasts with talons, left long scratches, from the ex-tsar’s head to his booted feet.

Whilst decrying the violence that took place, Mieville recognises the urgent need for change and the crippling inequality which was perpetuated by an ineffectual regime. And he’s not blind to the faults that existed within the various revolutionary groups, refusing to be drawn into hagiography and acknowledging that no one person was responsible for what happened and that often events led with revolutionaries following.

To be a radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. ‘To patiently explain.’ How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move.

What’s also refreshing is that Mieville strips away the layers of dismissal that have been applied to the Revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union and not only attempts to get back the state of mind that recognises that change was essential and inevitable, but also refuses to judge those events by what came afterwards.

Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin. Today, any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future, that twinkly-eyed, moustachioed monstrosity, Uncle Joe, the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state – the -ism that bears his name. There have been decades of debate about the aetiology of Stalinism, volumes of stories about the man’s brutality and that of his regime. They cast shadows backwards from what would come.

With the horrors that came after the revolutions and the fall of the monarchy, it’s easy to forget just how radical a change took place in Russia; what had been a feudal, autocratic country, which failed drastically to fit into the parameters defined by Marxists of a place that could host a revolution, actually *had* one and needed to be dragged, screaming into the modern world. The expectation of a world revolution was a mistaken one, leaving Russia isolated in its attempt at socialism. The incompetence of the Romanovs is quite clear and Mieville nails the ineffectual Nicholas II beautifully:

He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu.

And later:

The tsar paddled on, dignified and proper, eyes on the horizon, the current hauling him towards a cataract.

Running through the books are masterly portraits of the protagonists, and Mieville is always fair in his portrayal of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky appear in all their complex and contradictory glory, and the latter comes across as a powerful and crucial contributor to the success of the uprising. The narrative always comes back to Lenin, however, and although the revolution was in fact an often ramshackle and random affair, there is the sense that events would not have finally succeeded without Lenin’s vision and drive. Mieville also acknowledges that it is very hard to look at 1917 without hindsight and a knowledge of what would come later (and he includes some lovely little nods to other great authors…)

And Stalin, the ‘grey blur’ at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.

Fittingly, I finished “October” as the anniversary dawned, and as I was composing my post on this truly magisterial work I was watching the revolution unfold ‘live’ on a fascinating iPad app which drew on, and provided, much of the same material as the book (yes, it’s taken me that long to pull my thoughts together…) I found it impossible not to be caught up in the emotion and the excitement of it all while I was reading “October” and whatever your political colour, this book will give you a marvellous insight into the motivations and actions of the revolutionaries.

The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labour, the better for humanity to flourish. ‘The true realm of freedom’, in Marx’s words: ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’. This is what they want.

There are a lot of quotes in this post, I realise, but I could have pulled out so many more – the writing is that good and Mieville’s take on events so necessary. What makes this book particularly vital is its acknowledgement that change was, and still could be, possible; and that we should not accept inequality and corruption but should strive for a better world. In a year when the world seems to be getting madder and madder, and the lunatics really *do* seem to have taken over the asylum, we need to be reminded that we can and should still dream of a utopia and an alternative. Read this book.

*****

There are a number of videos and interviews with Mieville available online which a quick search will bring up. They are making fascinating watching and reading as I start to explore them…. 🙂

We are sick and tired of living in debt and slavery… We want space and light…

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Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again. October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes a cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.

(“October” by China Mieville; Verso Books 2017)

Documentaries – A Coda…. :(

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“Russia 2017: Countdown to Revolution” on BBC 2…. I.Am.Not.A.Happy.Bunny….

Loved the concept – a mixture of historians and commentators set against some reconstructions of events, but the execution was completely off, as far as I was concerned.

Problems:

  • I didn’t like any of the actors portraying the three main protagonists, which may sound superficial but if they’re going to be giving a decent rendition of important historical figures they should be convincing. They weren’t. Frankly, the communist cooking sketch from Rutland Weekend TV had better acting (and was funnier…)
  • The acted sequences were pretty over-dramatised and over the top, to the point of caricature – come on, chaps, this was BBC2 not Channel 5 so credit your audience with a little intelligence…
  • I felt that Stalin’s role in the revolution was a tad overplayed (although I *was* happy that Trotsky got due credit).
  • The historians and commentators – ah yes, this was where things fell apart for me. I got remarkably vexed about the lack of balance in the programme with right-wingers like Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore being given much more air time than China Mieville and Tariq Ali. The latter two came across much more rationally and reasonably than Figes in particular, who was pretty worked up. I ended up getting very worked up myself and shouting at the TV, which rather upset OH…
  • Martin Amis – why was he there? (apart from the fact he wrote a book called “Koba the Dread” about Stalin, with whom he has a problem). Another wasted potentially erudite commentator.
  • Efforts to ramp up the tension by making the programme into a dramatic countdown to the actual October revolution just added to the sense of attempted style over content; hard facts were sacrificed for sensationalism; and what was one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century was actually undersold.

I was disappointed and angry; the latter mostly because of the bias, and the former because the opportunity for a sensible programme on the Revolution was lost. Mieville and Ali were so underused and yet their contributions were for me the most interesting. The whole thing came across as a comic-book style rendering of Big Events, and probably not aimed at someone who’s been reading about the RR since their early teens – I did find myself wondering what the casual viewer would have made of the show…

Obviously, one failed documentary doesn’t spoil the rest I’ve been watching, and there are a shed-load of Radio 4 programmes I can explore this week covering the subject (though I’m a little nervous about the bias I may find). Alas, it’ll have to be back to books – off to the Verso website to check out the books by Mieville and Ali … :((

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