Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Demanding novels from Vladimir Sharov and Theodor Storm - This exchange reconciled nobody.

Two novels that depend heavily on context, maybe on outside knowledge.  What novel doesn’t.  More than usual, I guess I mean.  These were difficult books, I know I mean.

Before & During by Vladimir Sharov, 1993, tr. Oliver Ready.  Ready translated the zippy recent Crime and Punishment.  He must like texts that make him work.

Sharov’s novel at first appears to be about a man who is having memory problems.  He enters a mental hospital in the first sentence.  He is writing a Memorial Book, portraits of people he has known, or has thought about a lot, given that the third memorial is for Leo Tolstoy, who is from long before his time.

The first two memorials took odd turns, but the Tolstoy portion turns out to be largely about Tolstoy’s son, who is also Tolstoy himself, let’s say for simplicity a clone, and writes counter-novels arguing against his father.  So, a fantasy novel in some way.  Fantasy stories, at least.

The conversation had come back to Tolstoy.  Clearly, this was an inexhaustible topic for them, one that, for whatever reason, had long been troubling them, to no avail.  This latest exchange, like the previous one, reconciled nobody.  (93)

The patients at the hospital are arguing about Tolstoyism.  This passage is a kind of trick.  I was about a quarter of the way into the book, ready for a series of “memorials” hooked to the hospital.  But no, there is really just one more, that lasts a couple hundred pages and is about Germaine de Staël, the Swiss writer who died in 1817, and her direct involvement in Russian history up to and past the 1917 Revolution.  She occasionally gives birth to herself, which grants her effective immortality.

She also gives birth to Joseph Stalin, and then later becomes his lover.  It is that kind of novel.

There is a section where Lenin transcribes the mystical ranting of Scriabin about how his symphony of smells has the method to overthrow the Russian government encoded within it.  Lenin then uses the symphony to overthrow the government.  This was the only section where I was thinking “Please let’s move on.”  But it is far from the only part where I thought “What exactly is going on here?”

Weird, fascinating, and beyond me.  Sharov is a major post-Soviet writer.  He died recently.  Lizok knew him and wrote him a nice obituary.

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family by Theodor Storm, 1884, tr. Denis Jackson.   Storm is an intensely local writer, and Grieshuus – just “Gray House,” really – is another Frisian story, set a few miles north of his familiar Husum.  But it is also set much earlier than usual, in the late 17th and early 18th century, amidst the so-called Northern Wars, when the Swedish Empire was dissipating its might throughout northern Europe.  The Second Northern War, the Scanian War, the Great Northern War.

I suppose it would be possible to read the book like a fantasy novel, a tragic fairy tale about the son who destroys his old noble family through a single horrible violent act, and take the shifting wars and troops and kings as background noise.  I thought the history was woven into the story pretty tightly, though.  This was a book that earned its extensive notes.

Denis Jackson has done heroic work with Storm, and is happy to annotate everything to the point of exhaustion.  I believe this is Jackson’s last Storm translation.  There is, surprisingly, an old translation, which Jackson calls “wildly inappropriate” (20).  This translation is an act of justice.

It is an exciting and sad story, with murders and wolves, so many wolves.  I was never actually baffled, as I was with Sharov.  But it felt like a text for the more devoted readers of Theodor Storm.


  1. Oliver Ready is no slacker, Amateur Reader (Tom)! I wish I'd thought to call his Crime and Punishment "zippy" -- that's the perfect word for it. I loved seeing how he resolved interesting translation issues.

    You capture Sharov's Before & During perfectly, too, with your "weird, fascinating, and beyond me." "Fascinating" won out for me because I found the book strangely mesmerizing. (I read Oliver's translation.) I had a similar feeling -- of mesmerization -- with The Rehearsals but set it aside because I need to find a different angle for approaching Sharov's world and worldview, which I have yet to truly break into. I'm going to go back to restart and finish Sharov book, Be Like Children, which I enjoyed very much but had to set aside because of other required reading (ah, required reading!). Then I'll do some remedial reading on history and return to The Rehearsals.

    In case you're interested, here's a piece that Sharov's wife sent me just yesterday. It lists/summarizes his books. I'm also very interested in his The Old Girl, but it's apparently out of print. Finally, thank you for linking to my post about Sharov's death. I still can't quite grasp that he's gone.

  2. Okay, good, nobody understands this novel. I love the quote in the survey piece you linked that the book "leaves the reader to look for their own explications." No, please, explicate! I am ready to hear your explication, professional reviewer.

    I hope to read The Rehearsals someday. Not right away, though.

  3. There's a Mexican slang word that perfectly fits Before & During: desmadre.

    Most writers, musicians and assorted other kinds of artist are just trying to emulate earlier works that either sold well, or were artistically successful, or that they admire, or are fashionable at the moment. How boring.

    Truly original writers, like Sharov, who also happen to be brilliant and talented, are exceptional. However, just as it was the case with the modernist titans, the price to pay for this innovation is that there is no map yet to these newly discovered literary territories. Readers need cartographers to lay down the pathways into the work. How exciting, how fascinating it is to get lost in exploration!

  4. And those cartographers are generally the future writers who are inspired by or fight with the genius. So, some patience, right?

    Sharov talked about Andrei Platonov as his true predecessor. I have never read Platonov, but when I do this Sharov novel will possibly make him look a little different than he would have.

  5. I do like weird and difficult and as I've read (and loved) Platonov I probably will have to have a go at exploring Sharov... :)


  6. I think The Rehearsals is easier to read and understand than Before & During but that might just be me. What Cleanthess writes about maps and territories fits perfectly with my difficulties reading Sharov, though I've described my task as feeling more like breaking into a house. (I told one colleague I may need a crowbar!)

    Like kaggsysbookishramblings, I love Platonov, though I haven't read as much of him as I'd like because reading him, by which I mean really reading him, requires (for me, anyway) incredible mental preparation and serious concentration. But I've been thinking about him a lot lately, feeling an itch...

    I translated a Platonov story (this one!) in collaboration with Robert Chandler and an hour or two on that at the end of the day made me feel like I'd run a marathon: it was absolutely exhausting but I always felt a certain giddiness, an exhilaration, too. (Having never run a marathon, that's probably not a valid comparison to make but there you go!) Like so much that Platonov writes, I find "Immortality" absolutely beautiful (it sometimes left me in tears) and weird and, of course, train-related. I love the story and the opportunity to work on it was a tremendous gift from Robert Chandler.

    Tom, if you're interested in reading Platonov, my suggestion would be to start with a short story, perhaps "The Return," which is one of my very favorite short stories. I'd also strongly suggest reading Robert Chandler's translations: I think he's done beautifully with his poetics for Platonov. Chandler's Soul collection for NYRB contains some other good stories. ("The Motherland of Electricity" was among my first Platonov so it certainly helped get started with him!)

    Thank you for this opportunity to start my Thanksgiving in your virtual literary salon! :) Enjoy your reading, everyone!

  7. Yes, Kaggsy, please give one of these Sharov novels a shot if it crosses your path.

    Lisa, thank you for the Platonov advice. It seems to boil down to "read everything Chandler et. al. has translated," which is pretty much what I had guessed.