Cross-curtain literature, and pretty covers

I’ve had a bit of a reading bottleneck recently. I suddenly realised that there was a short but pressing list of books that needed dispatching for one reason or another and plunged into them with great gusto, if I may say so myself. But now I’m briefly surfacing to mention the new list of Central European books Penguin will be publishing in May, which sound great. Penguin don’t have a special page about this series for some reason, but you can read about it here.


I’m a big fan of Russian, Eastern and Central European literature (put those borders wherever you like) and it bothers me that in order to read as much as I would like of them I’d pretty much have to learn Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and all, as they’re not widely translated. Although, having said that, my joint-favourite publishers Pushkin and Hesperus Presses do a fine line in cross-curtain literature. But I am particularly gratified to see Central European writing published by Penguin, as it seems to signal a move towards the U.K. mainstream for these books.

Pushkin Press

Plus the covers are by gray318, who’s Jonathan Lethem covers are really nice, though I’m not 100% sure about these ones. It may be a bit too intentionally ‘quirky’, following along with the commonplace of Central/Eastern Europeans as the writers of almost self-consciously odd works. 

Pushkin, Hesperus, and the NYRB books always give their books lovely covers, whereas some publishers don’t treat their literature well at all.

Unpleasantly covered Capek

 You see how maltreated Capek has been in the past. I don’t know why publishers of books they deem to be obscure usually condemn them under such covers as these. As if to say, ‘no, I don’t know why anyone would read this’. And yet once you get past the covers the books are a revelation.

Anyway, to veer back towards the original subject,  I want to read all of the Penguins, and more of the same.


Contradiction, paradox and the text

An enormous difference exists between a text that ‘contains’ a paradox or contradiction and one that ‘holds’ them. A text that simply contains contradiction does so either without being conscious of the conflict, or whilst being uncomfortably aware of it, and refusing to address it. A text which holds contradictions/paradoxes, on the other hand, seems to revel in it: it is completely aware, and addresses the conflict simply by revealing it, holding it up to the light.

Obviously I’m thinking of Keats’ negative capability: “that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (letter to George and Tom Keats, dated 22 December 1818, Hampstead). The tension of a contradiction or a paradox in a text can be electrifying if it is properly held. Kafka exploits the potentials of paradox all across his work, to dizzying effect.

Shalamov’s ‘Kolyma Tales’ has plenty of examples of contradiction, such as when he states that the Gulag destroys any sense of morality in man and then disproves himself a couple of pages later with descriptions of moral acts. Similarly, Holocaust survivor memoirs (such as Primo Levi’s) sometimes assert that survival was impossible, which is contradicted by the author’s own biography. But by properly holding contradictions, these texts reveal deeper truths. The experience of the Gulag was such that moral life was perceived to be suffocated, and yet individual examples of morality survived. Likewise, the experience of the Holocaust’s concentration camps was eschatological, inescapable, yet people did survive. Contradictions in logic do not necessarily provoke contradictions in experience. As memoir and literature deal in experience rather than fact, ways must be created for them to hold these contradictions with a sophistication that appears, at first glance, to be inconsistency.

David Shields’ ‘Reality Hunger’ (yes, I am still going on about this) performs another act upon the contradiction: it forces it into the text in a forlorn bid for complexity. Yet his contradictions are too unsophisticated to hold any power: the sort of mental luminescence provoked by a well-held contradiction is entirely lacking from such insights as “these categories are plastic. But they aren’t. Ah, but they are” (p. 187), which is sophistry masquerading as sophistication.

Two failures

Lately, though I should be concentrating on other things, I’ve been slightly preoccupied with two books, both of which must be classed as failures. They are the terribly-titled ‘But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury’ by Gillian Freeman and ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields. I think in both cases what has interested me is monitoring my own reactions to these books, more than their actual content.  


‘But Nobody… etc’ is an attempt at a novel about the Bloomsbury group, settling mainly on Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. It is written in short passages, of no more than a couple of pages each, and usually of far less than a page. It manages to be both bad and a bit fantastic at the same time. I try to stay away from reviewing anything negatively because there is an enormous temptation towards rhetorical excess in negative reviews – ‘I would rather eat my own eyes than be forced to read another word of this’ and such. I’m of the belief that it useful to read bad writing, in a way, as you learn more about what makes good reading good, so although I can’t sing this book’s praises I’m going to write about it anyway.  

The image that comes to mind to describe the experience of reading this book is that of skimming a stone – you bounce across the surface of these people’s lives without ever plopping into the depths. If you haven’t read anything about the Bloomsberries I would imagine that it would be incomprehensible; you certainly don’t learn anything new, and the characterisation of Woolf etc is entirely lacking in insight.  

Some scenes are so short they become inadvertently hilarious. The following is an entire section:  

The rose was on the bedside table. Clive and his married mistress were naked in bed together. They had just made love. (Gillian Freeman, ‘But Nobody… etc’, Arcadia, p.30)  

As this illustrates, the writing itself is the main problem. It shows an astonishing lack of editing:  

Vanessa (and nine-year-old Julian, who was listening with almost adult intensity) was no longer pregnant.  

I promise, on my life, that is an actual quote from the book. I may even take a photo of the page to prove it. It is also fast becoming one of my favourite quotes from any book.  

Actually, very little else needs saying apart from that quote. Except for that you get the sense that the publishers have been dazzled by the subject matter, so much so that they haven’t fully evaluated the content; which leads me on to my second failure, ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields, where the same phenomenon has occurred.  


This is a failure on a far grander, more pompous scale. I have developed a fondness for ‘But Nobody… etc’ whereas my feelings for ‘Reality Hunger’ vary between disappointment and irritation. Shields’ subtitle is ‘A Manifesto’. ‘Reality Hunger’ is not a novel, but a non-fictional ‘collage’ of small passages, most of which are quotes from other sources rearranged into a new text. You can see why I was excited: the structure is exactly that of ‘The Arcades Project’ by Walter Benjamin, which the reader(s) of this blog will know is one of  my all-time, desert-island favourite books. He even quotes Convolute N, 1,10:

This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage.  

Shields’ basic premise is that the novel is no longer relevant in today’s post-postmodern society, and instead the ‘lyrical essay’ should take central place as a means of artistic expression. Reality is the new fiction, so to speak. His ‘manifesto’ has garnered an extraordinary amount of praise from various writers, many of whom he uses in the book and none who make the link back to Benjamin. In interviews, Shields says that the form of the book came to him in the shower, when he suddenly felt that this ‘juxtaposition of quotations’ was the way forward. He doesn’t mention Benjamin, or that he must have had the ‘Arcades’ in the shower with him at the time. I find this irritating on a number of levels: 1) because I like it when people talk about WB; 2) because it comes over as either bad research, if he hadn’t heard of the ‘Arcades’, or disingenuous, if he’s trying to take credit for a form developed by WB; and 3) because I’d like to know why, if he had heard of the ‘Arcades’, he chose this form, developed in 1927, as the answer to the problems of post-postmodern literary culture? Elsewhere he quotes someone or other saying ‘Modernism has run its course’, but has it, if this overtly Modernist form provides Shields’ structure? If anything, this book proves that we haven’t yet fully absorbed the revolutions of Modernism. To dismiss something whilst borrowing so heavily from it is completely bizarre.

The blurb, in an astonishingly irritating fashion, tries to create a division between those who will champion this book as a revolutionary call-to-arms and those small-c conservatives who will ‘defend the status quo’ and therefore hate the book. This is false, because Shields’ message is neither new nor revolutionary, which is why I class it as a failure. The only people who will either praise or condemn it in these terms are those who do not fully understand its context.

Like Freeman’s novel, ‘Reality Hunger’ is a failure of form in relation to content: Freeman sets herself the task of writing a novel in fragments and then fails to do anything with it, and Shields repeatedly states the need for revolution but does so within a framework that was developed by WB in 1927. The quotes from other writers merely show up Shields’ own brittle thoughts: his pseudo-aphorisms are empty and weightless. People who haven’t read or heard of the ‘Arcades’ will think this is brilliantly new, and generally brilliant, because the gaps in Shields’ patchy thought will be filled with their own concordant beliefs. People who have read or heard of the ‘Arcades’ will be left with the feeling of a massively evaded opportunity: Shields avoids doing anything new or exciting with this form, and actually manages to coerce his collection of quotations into a fairly monologic whole which doesn’t produce anything of the vertiginous excitement of reading Benjamin.  

However, I’m glad I bought the book, because it has sparked off a lot of thoughts, precisely because it is so badly done. Taking apart different aspects of its failings will provide hours of fun, and probably a good few more posts on here. Shields’ smug assertion of being provocative, of being radical, is, like Freeman’s writing, unintentionally hilarious when brought to bear on the reality of his work; but nevertheless he is provoking, as failures often can be in a way a success could never achieve.

Far-flungerie in the digital age

I honestly didn’t know about this when I wrote about far-flungerie a couple of posts ago, but it turns out that Google Russia has recreated the whole of the Trans-Siberian railway online, in real time, complete with rolling view of the countryside out of the train window, and the sound of the train rumbling over the tracks, if you want, or otherwise the sound of someone reciting War and Peace in Russian, or a nice bit of balalaika.

You can ‘get off the train’ at various stops and make use of a virtual guide who offers tours of various sites along the way. The entire journey takes six days – 150 hours – and you can follow the route on a satellite map as you go. Read more about it here.

I can’t tell you how fantastic I think this is. Filming took 30 days and was a ‘major logistical effort’ in the Guardian’s words, all to produce something so essentially, wonderfully pointless as a six-day video of the view out of a train window. As well as the balalaika and the Tolstoy, you can also listen to Russian pop music or Gogol’s Dead Souls. This is far-flungerie in its most Farkas-ish sense. He would have loved it.