We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937, Russia)

Translated by Bela Shayevich

We is a classic work of dystopian fiction, described by Ursula le Guin as ‘the best single work of science fiction written’, and book 4 of my 20 books of summer ’22. Reviewed by George Orwell in 1946, it apparently inspired or at least informed 1984.

Completed in 1921, We was banned by the newly established Soviet Union, deemed, in Orwell’s words, ‘ideologically undesirable’ until 1988. It is set in the 26th century, in OneState, a perfect society where the authorities have made use of a mathematical formula to ensure the happiness of its inhabitants. Along with the rational precision of mathematics, comes the loss of any sense of individuality or personal freedom. In charge is the semi-divine Benefactor, a totalitarian leader who is voted into power each year by unanimous agreement (or else), and oversees a society that is always punctual and clean, with perfect blue skies and full employment.

People no longer have names, but are identified by number, and live in homes that are transparent boxes, all the better for the state to keep an eye on them. Sexual relations take place on state-sanctioned, hormonally appropriate occasions, arranged with the allocation of a pink ticket at pre-determined times during which the curtains are permitted to be briefly lowered.

The book’s protagonist, D-503, is a talented engineer, who has been working on a new space craft, the Integral, which is designed to allow the culture of the OneState to be disseminated more widely.

He is a committed worker and compliant member of society until he meets the sexy I-330 who secretly drinks and smokes, never turns up when she says she will, and who begins to sow a seed of revolutionary zeal in poor D-503, who is starting to experience feelings he never knew existed, and shows signs of an undesirable ‘soul’.

Written as a series of diary entries by D-503, the style is quite difficult, and the book is nowhere near as readable as 1984, Brave New World or, for that matter, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but this is an intriguing and influential book and I’m glad to have read it.

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Russia)

Translated by Sasha Dugdale

“And you see only those who stand in the light.

While those in the darkness nobody can see.”

Bertold Brecht

This extraordinary book, like its subject matter, is difficult to pin down. A blend of philosophy, travelogue, memoir, cultural criticism and group biography, it is book 3 of my 20 books of summer – I’m at various stages with several others – and has been short-listed for various prizes, including the International Man Booker (though it is not really fiction, or only in the very faintest of senses) and the James Tait Black prize for biography. Published by the always interesting indie Fitzcarraldo, and beautifully produced as ever, it opens with the death of an aunt, and a discussion of the detritus accumulated over a lifetime: photos, books, old clothes.

Stepanova (a renowned Russian poet and journalist, and editor of the temporarily silenced online journal Colta.ru) wheels off through the history of her Jewish Russian family, and the troubled history of the 20th century, as well as the nature of memory itself. Often the personal history that she seeks to investigate remains shadowy and occluded – sometimes due to deliberate obfuscation by her family, desperate to survive in Soviet Russian – but her writing is so beautiful that i was happy to go along for the ride.

“With every new selfie we take, every group shot or passport photo, our lives become arranged into a chain of images, a history which is quite different from the one we tell ourselves and want others to believe. The line of was-and-will-be, a compendium of single moments, poses, mouths open to speak, blurry chins, none of which we choose ourselves.”

The book is a chunky 500 pages, encompassing subjects as diverse as the art work of Francesca Woodman and the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell, the origin of the dolls known as Frozen Charlottes, the writing of W. G. Sebald and the photography of Rimbaud.

It includes a series of letters, sometimes heart-breaking, from now-dead relatives: those of a gentle doomed boy-soldier are poignant, saying very little of his experiences, and ending always, almost like an incantation: “I am in good health and doing well. How is everyone? Write to me about everything. Only please don’t worry about me, it’s quite unnecessary. Be happy and healthy. All my love to Mother, Auntie Beti, Lyonya, Lyolya, their baby and Sarra Abramova.” Stepanova acknowledges the moral difficulties that come in reproducing elements of someone’s history in this way: is she memorialising her family or appropriating them?

Having finally finished the book, I wanted immediately to read it again, as it is swarming with so many ideas, but it is dense and long, so that will have to wait for a while.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (USA)

This is book 2 of my 20booksofsummer22, so I seem to have made a slow start, although I am partway through six more of my 18 remaining books!

The Sentence was selected to read by my small book club, which comprises me, my pals Jo and Sonia (who I’ve known since we met at an NCT group in South London when we were all expecting our first babies 18 years ago), and Emily and Shona, who I met through Jo when we set up book club about 12 years ago, and who are now buddies. We’re not a typical book club I think, as we’re mainly there for food, drink and chat, though we probably give a discussion of books and the picking of new books an hour of our evening…

This was my first read by the much-garlanded Louise Erdrich, a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and The Sentence was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. It takes in important contemporary issues – the impact of the George Floyd murder, COVID – as well Native American history and folklore.

The overall premise of the novel sounded really intriguing. In her thirties, heroine Tookie made a mistake that landed her a long spell in prison, but is apparently now fully rehabilitated, married to an ex-cop and working in an independent Minneapolis bookshop. But, when the shop’s ‘most annoying customer’, Flora, drops dead and soon afterwards proceeds to haunt the store, Tookie has a mystery to unravel.

The trouble is, I didn’t care. I quite like a spooky book, but the haunting felt a bit silly for the most part. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected from the opening chapter, when Tookie is feckless, high, drunk and prone to hilariously awful mishaps. As a responsible member of the community the character was suddenly drained of all of appeal for me. The digressive style didn’t reel me in either, and the novel felt a bit under-edited and thrown together, like a few other examples of the new brand of ‘pandemic lit’ (Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat is another).

In fact, my favourite thing about this book is its secondary discussion of books and authors. Tookie mentions books she’s read, and recommends books to others. The Sentence even contains a sort of appendix, with lists of books in the back: a list of perfect, short novels (The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson…), a list of ‘sublime books’ (Exhalation by Ted Chiang, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro…), books on indigenous lives, and a ‘ghost-managing book list’.

I have had a secondhand copy of Erdrich’s Beet Queen lurking on my tbr shelves for years, and this book has slightly put me off ever reading it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon)

This 2016 debut novel, raved over by Oprah, won the Pen/Faulkner award, and is the first in my list of 20 books for summer reading this year.

It’s towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, and Jende and his wife Neni are trying to make a life for their family in New York, in the land of opportunity, far from their home in Linde, Cameroon. While waiting for his asylum application to be processed, Jende miraculously lands a dream job as a chauffeur for Clark, a senior executive with Lehman Brothers, and his family. Neni, meanwhile, is an international student, training to become a pharmacist.

We know, of course, that Lehman Brothers are doomed, and we know that the crash is coming, but the novel’s cast are blissfully ignorant, even if there are more than a few urgent, muttered calls between Clark and other executives in the back of his limo.

The novel sensitively portrays the hopes and dreams of economic migrants (so vilified by the UK Government and Priti Patel, who is herself so monstrous that she almost veers into self-caricature). All the characters are flawed and all deserve our empathy – it’s not a straight ‘good immigrants vs evil capitalists with a false sense of entitlement’ narrative.

As Jende and Neni’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the lives of Clark and his glamorous, brittle wife Cindy, the novel becomes quite a page-turner. However, I did find the narrative lost its way a bit after the economic crash, and that edge of the seat momentum completely dissipated. And Cindy could feel a bit of a cliché. Overall though, this is a really enjoyable and sometimes enlightening read.

Imbolo Mbue is herself a former resident of Limbe, Cameroon, who has subsequently made her home in New York, so perhaps her own experiences are what make both Limbe and New York feel so vividly realised.

I requested this book from the library, and one disappointing thing really is that from the “BLA” sticker on the outside I can see it is shelved in a “Black Fiction” section of the library, which feels rather like segregation – I knew I wanted to seek this particular book out, but another reader, browsing the main fiction shelves, would never have found it, denying it the wide readership it really deserves.

Georgian Food at Kartuli, London

As part of my monthly exploration of different countries, I’m trying to sample a menu from each country, and I happened to find myself in local Georgian restaurant Kartuli with two of my closest gal pals. It’s taken me too long to write the review.

The restaurant was very busy on a Thursday night, just two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the service was good, even if they did initially charge us for a bottle of wine we didn’t order (soon rectified).

We had some Georgian Shoti bread to accompany a sharing platter of Pkhali dishes, which are cold starters from the western Georgian regions of Imereti and Guria, based around beetroot, pinto beans, carrot and spinach (the pinto bean starter was my personal favourite).

I followed this up with a vegetarian main, a sort of hearty ratatouille-esque stew called Ajapsandali, described on the menu as a “vibrant dish cooked with aubergines, green beans, red and yellow peppers, fresh herbs, tomatoes, onions and garlic, seasoned with Georgian spices”. It was delicious, and I ordered some pan-fried potatoes on the side, though the waitress looked slightly askance at this choice.

Together with some delicious Georgian wine, and some interesting, slightly Addams Family-adjacent art on display (see below), this was a great night out.

My 20 Books of Summer 2022

I’m delighted that Cathy is hosting 20 Books of Summer again this year. I’m going for the full 20 again, although I’ve not once succeeded in hitting this target. I think I can read 20 books between 1 June and 1 September, but the challenge is keeping to these particular 20 (including Ulysses), plus I tend to fall at the hurdle of being arsed to write the actual review! Here I’ve gathered up 20 books that are definitely going to be a challenge one way or another:

1 The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Women’s Prize/Book Club commitment)

2 Your Ad could go here by Oksana Zabuzhko (short stories: understanding Ukraine, on kindle)

3 A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (understanding Ukraine)

4 The Gates of Europe by Serhiy Plokhy (non-fic: understanding Ukraine)

5  Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid (non-fic: understanding Ukraine, on kindle)

6 Reparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal (keeping up my French)

7 Nadja by Andre Breton (keeping up my French)

8 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (understanding the headf*ck that is Russia)

9 We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (understanding Russia)

10 In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (understanding Russia)

11 Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson (understanding Russia)

12 The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldan (Bolivia – reading the less widely published parts of the world)

13 The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (clearing TBR)

14 They by Kay Dick (recently republished “lost” dystopian masterpiece)

15 An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (clearing TBR)

16 Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon – reading the less widely published parts of the world)

17 French Braid by Anne Tyler (recent release)

18 Ulysses by James Joyce (my reading 1922 project)

19 Claudine’s House by Colette (my reading 1922 project)

20 Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (my reading 1922 project)

Other possibles, excluded reluctantly for now, include The Young Pretender by Michael Arditti, Tormented life: Nine Hypochondriac Lives by Brian Dillon and The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen.

Total pages: 6,373 = 69 pages a day

Middlemarch by George Eliot (UK)

I have made up my mind to take Middlemarch as it comes, and shall be much obliged if the town will take me in the same way” – (the all too fallible) Dr Lydgate

I tried to read Middlemarch in January, but my poor addled brain refused to decipher the text or concentrate on the storyline. Have I spent so much time scrolling through Instagram that I can no longer focus on huge, dry Victorian tomes?

Finally, determined to see this through, I switched to the audio book. It was nearly 40 hours long and it took me three months to get through. My kids would wander into the kitchen (listening was usually an accompaniment to domestic tasks) and marvel: “are you STILL really listening to that?”.

It’s odd that I was quite so compelled to persist with Middlemarch, given my longstanding aversion to Eliot’s Silas Marner, not the most thrilling book to be forced to plough through for GCSE English. I remember Silas used to tie (his?) (adopted?) infant to his weaving machine so he could get on with his work. After having children, this image used to pop unbidden into my mind as I failed to impose some kind of order on my days, surrounded as I was by wailing infants. I felt Silas Marner’s child-rearing methods would have been unhelpful.

There are some rewards to be had in tackling this sprawling epic of Victorian provincial English life, which is set in a fictional version of Coventry (fetchingly pictured at the top of the post). Middlemarch appeared in instalments in the early 1870s, and looked back on a period about 40 years prior to that. Eliot has a satisfyingly caustic but accepting view of her creations and their flaws, even while the construction of the first railways, though no doubt a hot topic in the 1800s, is now, well, tedious.

There are some great characters, not least the quietly monstrous banker Bulstrode, and narcissistic hottie Rosamund. Dorothea is the book’s heroine, in that do-gooding, earnest way that the Victorians had a thing for. She makes a terrible mistake in marrying pompous professional pedant Casaubon. (Apparently Susan Sontag cried when she read Middlemarch at the age of just 18, realising that she had accidentally married a Casaubon too.)

We can see Dorothea’s mistake coming, just as we can predict her subsequent inconvenient attraction to Casaubon’s nephew (or was it cousin?) Will Ladislaw, who is no Harry Styles, but who when compared with dusty old Casaubon (setting the bar perilously low) is virtually a Greek god.

There are worse ways to spend three months.

Film review: The Worst Person in the World (Norway)

I haven’t written anything for the blog for a while due to too much work, and have been meaning to review this film for ages.

Back in April I snuck off to an early evening showing of Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s Oscar-nominated, Oslo-set film The Worst Person in the World with my good friend Bridget.

I didn’t have particularly high expectations. The premise I already found a bit annoying: young girl-about-town is unable to commit to a career or a man. I felt like I wasn’t in the right demographic for the film, or the romantic movie genre, and suspected I might find it mostly irritating.

Pre-conceptions can be way off the mark though, and I loved this movie, which proves that apparently tired tropes can be given a whole new lease of life and an instant classic feel in the hands of the right creative team.

The story follows Julie, approaching 30 in the opening scenes of the film, and played by Renate Reinsve, who won the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress for the performance.

Divided into 12 “chapters” in a novelistic pastiche, the film opens with a Prologue, in which an archly ironic narrator provides a rapid whip-through of Julie’s adult life to date: she is a medical student who becomes a trainee psychologist, before setting her sights on photography. And at each iteration of her life, she is dating a different guy. But then she meets Aksel (Anders Danielson Lie), a slightly older writer and illustrator of comic strips featuring the obscene and unreconstructed “Bobcat”, and things between them get serious. Julie moves into his home, and the film proper gets under way.

Although they get along, Aksel wants children, and Julie, typically, isn’t sure what she wants. She seems to find his entitled, breeder friends a bit tedious, an effort, and they to find her faintly threatening and unsettling. Aksel begins to grate a bit, and you sense she thinks his Bobcat comics aren’t necessarily all that, and are a bit embarrassing given the glaring anti-feminism of their protagonist. (Aksel takes them very seriously.)  When she meets another man, Eivind, at a party the cat is set among the pigeons, and decisions that matter are called for, in the archetypal coming-of-age style.

Nevertheless the film steers deftly away from cliché, and is a warm, sometimes laugh out loud experience to sink into. It is also emotionally real, with elements of tragedy, and prompted some teary snorting and snotting from some of my fellow cinema-goers. The only thing that I found weird was the way Julie seemed to have no female friends to hash things out with, and only existed in relation to the men in her life. She could really have done with a decent gal pal.

I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue (Norway)

Translated by B. L. Crook

I do not want to live a life of rage and grief. I write it off me. I reject it.”

I Live a Life Like Yours is published by Pushkin Press, and was longlisted for the Barbellion Prize (for authors living with chronic illness and disability, and now in its second year). It was also the first work of Norwegian non-fiction in 50 years to be nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.

Jan Grue is a highly successful academic and writer, a father and husband. He also lives with a severe physical disability, and was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at the age of three. His condition was expected to progress, and his limited mobility to deteriorate even more, but that hasn’t been the case, and indeed his childhood diagnosis no longer stands. Nevertheless, he remains a disabled man living in a world that does not cater well for disabled people, even in major progressive societies like Norway, the USA and the Netherlands – all places that he has lived over the years.

He is intelligent, socially adept and ambitious, with supportive family and friends – all of which have helped him to push against the strictures surrounding those living with disability. But he is articulate, erudite and philosophical in recognising the societal impediments that throw up additional obstacles to those trying to navigate the world with a disability. He reads and interprets widely, referencing writers from Michael Foucault, to Erving Goffman, to Joan Didion.

He recognises the invasive procedures to which children with medical conditions and disabilities are subjected to, and which made me reflect on my daughter’s encounters from birth with neurologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, experts in development and neurodisability, autism specialists, radiographers and orthopaedic surgeons after a stroke just before birth.

I was not an institutionalized child. No more so than any other kindergarten or primary school child. However, I was constantly in contact with institutions that do not exist for everyone. I have memories of being examined by doctors and physiotherapists. I am six, seven, eight years old in these memories, in rooms that are a little too cold, in my underwear. Someone is touching the muscles of my arms and legs. I am instructed to walk from one end of the room, turn, and walk back. I know that I am being observed. I don’t know why. Then my parents and I go home.”

“The language of clinics and institutions is the language of depression, expecting little and hoping for even less.”

Jan Grue’s eloquent memoir is great, if heart-breaking, on the internalised sense of shame that living with disability can create, and which was recognised by Foucault in his writing – and how difficult and necessary it is to resist this subjugation:

The clinical gaze creates subjects … The subject always has a self-narrative, she is an active party and learns to believe that her actions are her own, thus the subject comes to believe that she alone bears responsibility for the situation in which she finds herself. Subjugation is an assignment of responsibility without self-determination, resulting in the internalization of guilt, which then becomes shame.”

Grue is good too at articulating the thoughts that whirl around my own mind, which is forever full of what ifs:

It could have been different. It always could have been different. But who would I have been if I hadn’t been born with a muscular disease? There is a lived life and there is an unlived life, and the lived life contains the unlived one as water contains an air bubble.”

This book is important in challenging able-bodied readers to see the world from a different perspective. It is also a book about acceptance.

As the able-bodied parent of a disabled child I found the book didn’t depress me as one might assume, as the points Grue makes simply articulate aspects of life with disability that are already familiar or evident to us as a family, such as the need endlessly to fight institutions and service providers for basic support, in the face of red tape and institutional barriers. And Grue is an inspiring figure for disabled and non-disabled readers alike, because against so many odds he lives, in many way, a ‘normal’, indeed highly successful, life.

And you may ask yourself, Well … how did I get here?” (Talking Heads)

Story of O by Pauline Réage (a pseudonym for Anne Desclos, #1954club, France)

I read Story of O this week, not because I’m starting up a new erotica review site, but because it’s Simon and Kaggsy’s #1954club week and the 1001 books to read before you die book told me that Story of O is a book from 1954 that I should read … before I die. The translator of Story of O wisely seems to have remained anonymous, so I can’t credit them here.

The book’s cover tells us “Before Fifty Shades of Grey there was … Story of O“. (Oh, can I just add before I go on, I did not spend cash money on this book, I got it from the library, to where it will be returning tomorrow.) Fifty Shades of Grey was an unreadable pile of hokum that I did attempt to read on holiday once (why did I take shit erotica on holiday to read while caring for three under-10s?). Anyway, I remember wanting to hurl it across the villa patio and into the pool, but unfortunately I was reading it on my Kindle (for obvious reasons), and didn’t want to smash it.

The front cover endorsement here, then, didn’t exactly whet my appetite. Then, inside the front cover, comes a rave review from Graham Greene, of all people:

A rare thing, a pornographic book well written and without a trace of obscenity”

Ok Graham… Story of O is undoubtedly nearly 300 pages of absolute filth, in which a young fashion photographer is coerced by her boyfriend René to go to a weird Gothic castle in Roissy and be abased and abused by random men for days on end, even to the extent at one point of being forced to sleep in a filthy castle dungeon, chained to the wall. Back at home, he prostitutes her to toff Sir Stephen, who likes anal sex and more whipping (did I mention there’s lot of whipping), and who it turns out is a sort-off half brother/step-brother to René, but with an unexplained title. And English.

O later becomes a kind of Ghislaine Maxwell-type procuress for the torture castle in Roissy (luckily she works with models, you see). One of my daughters is 15, and they had definitely lost me by the time they were corrupting 15-year-old Nathalie, though I’d been lost from around page 15.

Greene’s claims of lack of obscenity I guess must come from the weird glossed over references to body parts. Men have a “sex”, women a “womb” or a “belly”. So, a man might “grab” O “by the womb”, which sounds frankly agonising and also made me picture him as Donald Trump, divesting the narrative of any hint of eroticism as rapidly as O loses her complicated corsetry. And don’t get me onto the “fleeces”.

Shall I go on? You probably want me to stop by now, so I think I will.

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