Bread & Breath

“Meditation is bread.” At first my heat-saturated brain groped for the metaphor. Meditation as nourishment for the mind. Then I frowned. “Do you mean breath?” The novice monk nodded. “Yes, bread. Controlling monkey mind, always trying to have, always wants. Just focus on bread.” Then, of course, I became headily aware of my own breath….

Happy Moscow

The train to Moscow was pleasantly uneventful. The highlight of it was meeting our carriage mate, Larissa, a middle-aged lady from high up at the top of Siberia who force-fed us gooseberries and raspberries and marched me out into the corridor first thing the following morning for a glimpse of Vladimir. Chris was itching for…

Terror on the Trans-Siberian

We returned to Irkutsk as happy travellers. Relaxed from our time on the beach at Lake Baikal, and beginning to feel that we were getting the hang of this Trans-Siberian thing. Naturally we were wrong. The world had lulled us into a false sense of security, and we were about to be flung into the…

The One Other Book

I’m packed, booked, splattered with visas and ready to go. The Chinese Visa Application Centre near Bank is an absolute traveller’s dream – sparkling new, terribly efficient and well-organised. I picked up my passport with its Chinese visa yesterday and walked down Cheapside grinning like an idiot – in fact I had to stop myself…

The Letters of Joseph Roth

I’ve been rather preoccupied for the last month with work, bouts of wintery ill health, Christmas and various other things that interfere with reading. In fact, I shouldn’t be doing this right now, but I wanted to draw attention to this excerpt from the newly translated letters of Joseph Roth. Michael Hamburger has taken a break…

Beware of Pity

Oh, Radio 4, you are spoiling us too much. Already this autumn, as I may have mentioned before, we’ve had the epic adaptation of Grossman’s Life and Fate; now we have an adaptation of another top favourite book of mine, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity. This adaptation has had a strange history. Let me quote…

Solzhenitsyn’s Posthumous Output

Admirably, Solzhenitsyn’s death in 2008 has not stopped him from publishing more books over the last few years. In October 2009 we had the new and radically altered edition of In the First Circle (previously published as The First Circle) and now this autumn Apricot Jam and Other Stories, a collection of nine short stories,…

Still more about Vasily Grossman

My Google Alert for the terms ‘life and fate vasily grossman’ has come up trumps again. A series of interviews with Grossman’s English translator, Robert Chandler, have been put up on Youtube. I offer you the first of these to whet your appetite: the rest can be viewed on the aforementioned tube.

Life and Fate (iii)

During the first event at the BBC Radio 4 Life and Fate extravaganza in Oxford, concerning the adaptation of the book for the radio drama, a member of the audience asked the writers how they handled the character of Ikonnikov. The writers looked a little blank and had trouble summoning up precisely who Ikonnikov was…

War and Peace, the 4500 year old work of art

No, that’s not a typo in the title. I am referring to another great work of art on the subject of war and peace, one that wasn’t created by a Russian count with a big beard. I mean the so-called Standard of Ur, the 4500 year old Sumerian artefact discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley a…

Life and Fate (ii)

So, having muttered a bit about the book and the man, I can now turn my attention to events in Oxford last weekend. Last Friday (9th September) there was a ‘mini Grossman festival’ run by Radio 4 in St Peter’s College. It involved four events, the first being a discussion by the people behind the Radio 4 drama, which…

Life and Fate

Brace yourself: a literary time bomb is exploding as I type. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, one of the greatest books nobody’s heard of*, has just hit the number one spot on the bestseller list at Amazon.co.uk. Brace yourself again because I will probably be writing a lot about this for a while. I’ve just got back from a…