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 most terrifying two days of the entire trip.

It all started well enough. We took the bus back to Irkutsk, had a Siberian pizza then went back to the station to get our train. We were venturing off the main Trans-Siberian route, heading north towards Tomsk, and you could tell the difference straight away – absolutely no one spoke a word of English.

To my absolute delight, one of our compartment-mates was a small cat called Lyusha. She was very self-composed and spent most of the time asleep on her bunk, although she did allow me to pat her in between naps. Her human companion was on her way to visit her Mum for an extended stay, so she had packed the cat.

Sadly they left a few hours after we boarded. Things began to deteriorate rapidly after that. The man in the bunk above them moved down into the lower bunk and started chatting in a friendly enough way, but then he drank quite a few cans of Baltika beer. Baltika beers are numbered, seemingly in order of strength, and his was a relatively high number. He got very glassy-eyed and drunk very quickly, and kept trying to make conversation, though his slurring drunk Russian was well beyond my understanding.

The trouble started when Victor arrived, very late, just as we getting ready for bed. Victor, a young man around the same age as me, had booked himself the lower bunk, the one recently vacated by the lady and her cat. However, the drunk man decided he wanted to sleep there. At first the drunk man yielded, but then he changed his mind and sat back down on Victor’s bunk.

It was around midnight. We all just wanted to get to sleep. The drunk man, slurring and staggering about, began to shove at Victor to shift him off the bunk. Victor defended himself. A fight broke out, and they ended up rolling around on the floor between the bunks, kicking and battering at each other.

Victor definitely had the upper hand in all sorts of ways. Firstly, he had a ticket which entitled him to the disputed bunk. Secondly, he was strong and well built, and clearly not afraid of a fight. Thirdly, he wasn’t blind drunk. Unfortunately the other man was so far gone he wouldn’t have either noticed or cared about these points. Even though Victor kept subduing him, pressing him to the floor with his arm twisted behind his back, the drunk man would just start up again as soon as Victor let him go. I was shouting at them both, but they completely ignored me. The drunk man went for Victor again and they both burst out of the compartment together, tripping over, and the drunk’s head fell with a horrible crunch against the wall of the corridor outside.

Up until then I had effectively been trapped in the compartment with two wrestling men between me and the door. Chris was likewise trapped in the bunk above me. Now I jumped over the men and into the corridor.

Never in my life have I more wanted to be able to speak Russian. I didn’t even know what the word for help was, let alone “Help, my compartment mates are beating the living daylights out of each other”; instead the only Russian I could bellow was “Provodnitsa! (carriage attendant) There’s a problem!”

Still, this had an amazing effect. People began to pour out of every compartment in our carriage. A heavily-tattooed, wiry little man from the next door compartment waded in and separated Victor and the drunk. They both went back into the compartment and sat down, and the tattooed man grinned at me. “Eta Russiya,” he told me – this is Russia. He wasn’t the only one to say that to me over the next hour or so.

As soon as we had returned to our compartment an enormous, blonde, terrifying force of nature swept in. This was the provodnitsa. She started laying into both men with such verbal violence it put their scrap on the floor to shame. Everyone was cowed. Then she turned to me.

“And you!” she said, and something else I didn’t understand. I held up my hands in abject surrender.

“I’m English!”

She wheeled back to Victor and the drunk. “And you do this in front of the foreigners! Shame on you!” She launched another few minutes of verbal water cannon at them, then swept out. We were all stunned.

The drunk man packed up his things. I thought he was going to be moved to a different compartment, but then we pulled into a tiny little station in the middle of nowhere and two policemen got on to talk to us. They spoke to the provodnitsa, then I gave the world’s worst witness statement: “This man- (pointing to Victor) – good man. No problem. This man – (pointing to the drunk) – lots of beer.” Even the terrifying provodnitsa snorted with laughter at this and relayed it to audience of fellow travellers in the corridor.

They ripped Victor and the drunk’s side of the compartment apart, searching it thoroughly, but didn’t touch anything of ours – they didn’t even ask to see our passports. Then they escorted the drunk off the train, and we set off again.

I lay down on my bunk, trembling. Victor got into his bunk opposite, and we started talking – both of us were far too wired to sleep. Somehow the adrenaline unlocked a load of Russian vocabulary I’d forgotten I had, and we managed to have quite a long conversation about all sorts of things, politics, Putin, the lack of jobs in Siberia. Victor spoke very slowly and clearly, finishing sentences for me when I got lost in them and correcting my grammar and pronunciation in a very kind, encouraging way. Eventually I nodded off, feeling safe and rather proud of my linguistic efforts.

It was now at least two in the morning. I thought our troubles were over. Yet, around twenty hours later, Chris and I would find ourselves speeding through the forests of Siberia in a taxi driven by an angry man with a very large knife. But I’ll save that story for my next post.

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 from confiding to a stranger at the pedestrian crossing that “I’ve got a Chinese visa now, you know.” I don’t think random City b(w)ankers are the best people with whom you can share this sort of news.

After much vacillation I have also chosen my One Other Book to take. The longstanding reader(s) of this blog will not be surprised by my choice. I have already planned to take a small Russian phrasebook, an even smaller dictionary, the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the 100-page emergency poetry anthology and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. All quite small volumes, and the Nepal guide will be ditched before I leave that country.

My criteria for the One Other Book were simply that it must be small and light yet interesting enough to be consulted repeatedly for seven weeks. Seven weeks! That’s about fourteen books’ worth of time. The shortlist included A History of Religion East and West by Trevor Ling, the first volume of Copleston’s history of philosophy, the Metheun Dictionary of Modern Painting (a brilliant book, go and buy it immediately) and – a drastic choice – Taking No Other Books at All. None of the other choices, apart from the last, qualified as small and light, and the last cannot be consulted repeatedly. In the end I went and bought a new paperback copy of One Way Street and Other Writings by Walter Benjamin. It’s less than 300 pages yet can be read over and over, and weighs far less than my pre-existing hardback copy, which however is a better book as it has an introduction by Susan Sontag and a better selection of other essays in it.  But it’s certainly not worth carting around the extra weight and bulk – the Penguin edition will be sufficient, and as it’s a spare copy it doesn’t matter what happens to it.

This is it now. All the decisions have been made. Everything that can be booked has been booked. Now I can just relax and go on holiday.

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 from slagging off Stefan Zweig – I will probably be writing more about that at some point – to translate Roth’s letters, and the New Yorker has kindly printed the ones addressed to Zweig. They make for interesting reading.

In the picture above, Zweig is on the left and Roth on the right.

EDITED: I’ve just glanced over this post and realised I wrote Michael Hamburger above rather than Michael Hofmann. Michael Hofmann is the one who has been kicking up a fuss about Zweig’s style; Michael Hamburger was a poet and translator of Celan, Sebald, and various others, and as he died in 2007 it was a little amiss of me to accuse him of critical sniping. All these damn Michaels. Sorry about that.

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 from Radio 4’s page about it:

Simon Gray embarked on a dramatisation of the book for Radio 4, but it was unfinished at his death in 2008. Another writer, Clare McIntyre, was also attracted by the story and wrote a stage version, but she too died before it was completed. Stephen Wyatt has taken on the task of writing a two part radio version based on Clare McIntyre’s material[…]

Stephen Wyatt is clearly a brave, brave man. But Zweig’s novel is such a pleasure it is easy to imagine why anyone would risk death to work on its adaptation. It’s one of those books where you actually find yourself pleading out loud with the characters, begging them not to do the foolish things they are clearly about to do; you wince at their errors and read on compulsively to find out what happens.

In the book, the dashing Hofmiller unwittingly invites a paralysed girl to dance. His guilt at humiliating her and his pity for her condition result in him showing her rather more attention than he should, with disastrous consequences. Zweig has an extraordinary ability to describe vividly the agonies of emotions such as pride, pity, humiliation – emotions with a social content, caused by his characters’ sensitivity to other people’s opinions. The Post Office Girl, Zweig’s other longer work, also explores these emotions, but in a darker, more bitter way than Beware of Pity, which I prefer.

Although I’ve read and commented on his semi-autobiography, I hadn’t read any of his biographies until recently, when I tackled Mary Stuart. It is another page-turner, although given the material this isn’t surprising: even the driest recounting of poor old Mary Q of S’s life would be fascinating. Mary doesn’t really fit into Zweig’s usual pattern of characters, as seen in his fiction; she’s less of a tortured inward-looking intellectual outsider than he often describes, and yet he still gets to grip with her character in an interesting way. He’s rather harsh on Elizabeth, though, presenting her in a deeply unsympathetic light whilst being quite indulgent towards Mary’s husband-murdering tendencies. I’m glad his isn’t the only biography I ever read on the subject as he doesn’t hide his bias, but it is still an entertaining and atmospheric portrait of Mary and her era.

Anyway, if my incoherent mumblings have not been enough to tempt you to listen to Beware of Pity, bear in mind also that it has Ronald Pickup in it. Ronald Pickup, who recently did a fantastic Lucky in Waiting for Godot and who will forever be dear to my heart as Yakimov in the TV adaptation of The Fortunes of War. Go and listen to it right now, then buy the book too, for good measure.

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, has been published. Less productive yet still living authors should take note.

Back in September(ish) I finally got round to reading In the First Circle. I wrote about The First Circle as part of my BA dissertation, so I was slightly nervous about reading the updated version in case the changes utterly destroyed the tentative undergraduate conclusions I had drawn. In the… is undoubtedly the better work, as it deepens and makes more explicit what exists in the earlier published version. Volodin’s fateful phone call at the beginning of the novel is not to warn his family doctor about betraying drug information to the West: it’s a call to the American Embassy about atomic bomb technology, an incident drawn from the real-life events of Georgy Koval’s defection to the West. Obviously, Solzhenitsyn couldn’t write about this as directly when he was trying to get his novel published in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Neither could he hope to include his most inflammatory, and fascinating, chapters written from the point of view of Stalin himself.

Overall, the version called The First Circle is lacking nine chapters that Solzhenitsyn restored in In the First Circle. Volodin’s character is far more fully drawn in the second version, with chapters following him to visit his uncle, and on a walk with his wife’s sister Klara. These chapters are striking as they take the reader outside of the city and into the Russian countryside, which Solzhenitsyn depicts skilfully.

Volodin’s Uncle Avenir and his hidden archive of condemnatory newspaper cuttings is a particularly interesting addition. Avenir is engaged in the exact opposite occupation to Winston Smith in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: while the latter rewrites history to suit the present needs of the state, Avenir preserves evidence of inconvenient truths from newspapers that prove the changeable nature of Soviet ‘reality’. I thoroughly wish I’d had access to this chapter when I was writing up my dissertation in 2005.

It is definitely worth reading the new version even if you have already read its predecessor, especially as an absorbing afternoon can be whiled away comparing the two. Over at The Faculty of Useless Knowledge Katia Shulga has written about the fun to be had comparing different versions of books written in the Soviet Union – Grossman’s For a Just Cause in her case – and her points apply here too. As she says

 It is always fascinating to see the progress of a novel from inception to publication, but in this case it would also illuminate the inner workings of Soviet censorship.

With the new In the First Circle we have the novel republished exactly as the author wanted it, freed from the immediate demands of the state. I always thought that The First Circle was a pretty good, but In the First Circle is a very great novel indeed.

Next on the posthumous Solzhenitsyn list comes Apricot Jam and Other Stories. About a month ago I went to a talk on this book at Pushkin House with the writer’s son, Stephan Solzhenitsyn, who translated one of the stories in this collection, but I’ve only just got around to reading the book. Solzhenitsyn Jr was very interesting on the subject of his father. You can listen to him talking to Mark Lawson on Radio 4 (from about 5:38); the talk he gave at Pushkin House covered much the same ground.

Stephan is rather keen on drawing a firm distinction between Solzhenitsyn the writer and Solzhenitsyn the ‘newsmaker’, as he puts it: the man whose fame puzzled his son when the latter was a child. It seems that Stephan would like a line to be drawn between Solzhenitsyn’s work and the more dubious utterances of his later years. This is always a complicated argument to have about any writer: I quite like VS Naipaul’s books, especially A Bend in the River, but I’ve completely gone off him since discovering what an appalling sexist he unfortunately is. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn’s rants rather cloud one’s opinion of him. Yet I find Solzhenitsyn easier to forgive than Naipaul; very possibly this is because none of Solzhenitsyn’s xenophobia touches me directly, whilst Naipaul’s reactionary drivel does.

The nine stories in Apricot Jam are written in what Solzhenitsyn called a ‘binary’ structure. Each had two sections separated by a switch in character or a significant break in time. They are all fairly long short stories, at about forty pages each (the book is 365 pages long). There is a good review here at Books, Books & More (New) Books.

The binary structure is effective, allowing Solzhenitsyn to achieve a breadth of scope that is otherwise difficult to draw out of a short story, and the juxtapositions are startling. Two of the stories handle these juxtapositions particularly effectively: the eponymous ‘Apricot Jam’ and ‘Zhelyabuga Village’. In ‘Apricot Jam’, the first half of the story is devoted to a letter sent by a semi-literate worker to a nameless famous writer, detailing the hardships of life in Soviet Russia. In the second half, the pampered ‘Writer’ entertains a guest in his well-appointed, well-stocked dacha, and mentions the letter he has received, discussing it only as an interesting insight into indigenous writing style rather than as a desperate plea for help. In ‘Zhelyabuga Village’ we see the same village as a chaotic battle during the Great Patriotic War and then many years later, in the fizzling end years of communism, as a forgotten, dying pocket of Russia. Both juxtapositions are heartbreaking, yet still subtly drawn.

Some stories, such as ‘Times of Crisis’ about Zhukov, read more like extracts from a longer work than as short stories in their own right. I read somewhere that other people suspect that some were chiselled out of the hefty unfinished cycle Solzhenitsyn was working on in his later years, which included The Red Wheel, his take on the Russian civil war. Yet they are all good, well-written stories, full of character. Solzhenitsyn’s war stories make for an interesting comparison with Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and The Road; both writers concentrate on character and atmosphere rather than the usual whizz-bang heroic deeds and blood and guts often found in war stories, although both have distinctively different voices.

Stephan Solzhenitsyn has said that there is plenty more work by his father to be translated, so it looks like Solzhenitsyn’s posthumous productivity will continue for years to come. It will be interesting for English-speaking readers to gain an understanding of the writer outside of his Gulag output. Apricot Jam certainly shows that his talents extended far beyond the reach of the archipelago; I’m looking forward to reading more.

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 – and who can blame them, there are hundreds of characters in Life and Fate – but eventually they established that he was the holy fool in the German prisoner of war camp with Mostovskoy. Well, they said: we cut him. A week’s worth of drama wasn’t long enough for everyone in Life and Fate to appear.

At the last talk on the second day, the academic conference, this same audience member, Alex Danchev, proceeded to give a paper on why he thought Ikonnikov was at the very heart of Life and Fate. He took us back to a passage that Robert Chandler also discussed in the first session of that day, when Mostovskoy, Ikonnikov and Gardi are having a poly-lingual conversation about the fact that they are building an extermination camp for the Nazis. The other characters conclude that they don’t have a choice: they are prisoners. Ikonnikov says that he does have a choice. He decides that he will refuse to work on the extermination camp, and soon vanishes from the novel, shot dead by his captors.

The irony of Ikonnikov’s subsequent vanishing from the Radio 4 adaptation was not lost on anyone at the conference, but no one seemed to blame the BBC for overlooking him. After a day crammed full of papers on all aspects of Vasily Grossman, I think we were gaining an expansive, prismatic view of the writer and his work, a view that could stand a little irony, omissions and a few contradictions. The breadth of the experts gathered to talk about Grossman was a statement in itself, with people from international relations, politics, history, Holocaust studies, and Russian, obviously. The talks took in Grossman as a witness, as a journalist, as a moralist, and as a writer. The discussion that followed the talks was extremely lively, and productive, I think: the variety of expertise in the room led to plenty of cross-pollination.

It’s difficult to pick out highlights, so I shall be entirely partisan and say that the papers from my alma mater, the SSEES delegation of Sarah J Young and Katia Shulga, were undoubtedly the best. They were the only people to focus closely on the writing itself (apart from Robert Chandler the translator, obviously). Sarah Young spoke about Grossman’s other writing, the non-Life and Fate parts of his oeuvre and the recurring themes that are found within, and Katia Shulga spoke about Krymov’s evolution as a character in L&F.

I enjoyed hearing more about Grossman the witness at Treblinka, the historical context of his birthplace in Berdichev, his earlier works, his relationship with Ilya Ehrenburg, his influence on Levinas and his writer’s diary; by the end of the day I felt that a thoroughly three-dimensional picture of Grossman had developed. This picture was far from complete, but it was fascinating: a portrait of a truly great writer reacting to his complex times.

Meanwhile the BBC adaptation has run its course on Radio 4. I have only listened to a few of them so far, I must admit, and have yet to form a proper opinion about it. It’s hard to know what I think as I know the book quite well now, and I’m not sure whether I’m reacting to what I hear in a scene or to what I know is there when you read the text. The views I have canvassed from friends seem to be mixed, so far, but everyone seems to want to hear more, at least. If you haven’t done so already, go and download the series right now. Apparently it’s top of the UK podcast download charts on iTunes.

On another note: if you are the person who typed ‘vasili grossman life and fate boring’ into Google and somehow ended up on my blog – yes, I can see these things, creepily enough – stick with it. The first couple of hundred pages can be a little confusing. It’s the sequel to another book, and there are a great many characters to get your head round, so make good use of the character list at the back of the book and of this brilliant chart from the BBC. Your efforts will be amply repaid. Don’t give up!

War and Peace, the 4500 year old work of art

The Sumerian Standard of Ur, showing 'peace'

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 century ago. One side depicts the civilisation at peace, and the other side shows war. Woolley thought it was a standard, to be carried into battle on the top of a pole, but this is probably wrong, and no one knows what it was really for. I think it was possibly the base of a lyre – the shape has a soundboardy quality to it – or else it was simply a One of Those, a thing in itself.

The ‘war’ side of the object

I was going to plunge straight on with my series of Life and Fate-themed posts, but instead find myself detouring into the Ancient Near East because I keep seeing this version of War and Peace bloody everywhere. It is obviously the go-to image for book designers tasked with choosing something about Mesopotamia:


 And this is just the tip of the lapis lazuli-encrusted iceberg. I don’t have anything against the Standard of Ur – it is an incredible work of art, worth lingering over in the British Museum – but I am starting to think that using it on the cover of so many Ancient Near East-related books shows an astonishing lack of imagination. It’s as though a third of all books about Ancient Greece had the same damn vase on the front. And there is so much wonderful, lively material to choose from – just look at these wonderful chaps in their sheepskin kilts:

Mesopotamian votive statues

– with all their magnificent eyeliner. There’s really no need to go for the same thing all the time, no matter arresting it is.

If you want to hear more about the Standard of Ur, I’d recommend this episode from Radio 4’s other recent magnificent project, the History of the World in 100 Objects, which appeared in conjuction with the British Museum.

Normal (Vasily Grossman-related) service will resume shortly.

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 was chaired by Bridget Kendall. This was followed by a panel with Robert Chandler, Grossman’s translator, Lyuba Vinogradova, who worked on A Writer at War with Anthony Beevor, and Carol and John Garrard, Grossman’s biographers; it was chaired by Mark Damazer, the former controller of Radio 4 who is now the Master of St Peter’s.

Then there was lunch, and then Start the Week presented by Andrew Marr with Anthony Beevor, Andrei Kurkov and Linda Grant, both novelists. This was followed by a five o’clock talk chaired by Bridget Kendall again, with Linda Grant and Francis Spufford and ending in an incredibly moving reading of ‘The Letter’ from Life and Fate, performed by Janet Suzman. In the background to these events was an exhibition from the Study Centre Vasily Grossman, a private research organisation based in Turin of all slightly incongruous places. (You can ‘like’ them on Facebook, a page that is quite lively at the minute.)

Sarah J. Young has written a good summing up of the day which I agree with, so I won’t try to reiterate the same points here. But I will add, firstly, that I enjoyed the last event of the day almost as much as the first one. It had an air of an AA meeting about it that I rather liked. People were standing up and saying how they came to the book and what a powerful effect it had on them when they read it. Bearing in mind that this was the weekend of September 11th, I was struck by a slight parallel between these statements and the way people want to talk about where they were on that day. Reading Life and Fate seems also to be a deeply impressive, life-altering event, although obviously the context and scale are completely different.

Secondly, it surprised and irritated me how few people spoke about the fact that Life and Fate is a sequel. It’s worth emphasising the existence of For A Just Cause (login required with the link) as it explains a lot about the beginning of Life and Fate and also about why Grossman had hopes of getting it published: the previous volume made it into print, albeit after a shocking struggle.

For a Just Cause hasn’t been translated by Robert Chandler, though he said that he was due to begin working on it. I can’t wait to read it. (Cough cough, hint, HINT…) Everyone agrees that it is not as good as Life and Fate, marred by extremely boring passages of military strategy and what have you, but even so: Tolya’s alive! You find out how Yevgenia Nikolaevna met Novikov! You see Stalingrad before it was invaded (briefly)!

Yes. A good event, overall, and brilliant to see so much time and energy focused on Grossman. It was very interesting to hear about the process of adapting the book for the radio, and the excerpts we heard sounded promising – I’m looking forward to next week, when the drama will be aired.

There will be more to come on this subject, I’m afraid.