What intellectual or moral use does it have to think about a writer’s life? This question becomes all the more salient when — as in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky — it concerns an author, whose life has been systematically obscured for political reasons. Dostoevsky started well enough, from the later, official point of view. He debuted with the sentimental, socially conscious novel Poor Folk (1846), became a member of the Petrashevsky socialist circle, and suffered for his politics during his subsequent Siberian imprisonment and enforced military service. What the Soviets could not countenance, however, was the writer’s infuriating, post-Siberian right-wing turn, the erstwhile socialist dreamer becoming an ardent royalist and defender of personal responsibility. Thus, finding out about Dostoevsky became harder than ever during the Soviet era. The University of Toronto’s Slavic scholar Peter Sekirin, in compiling and translating around one hundred, rare first-hand accounts of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s life and career, attempted to fill this gap and identify as many previously suppressed voices as possible. Recently reissued, ‘The Dostoevsky Archive’ is the result of this painstaking effort. It is, writes BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, quite literally ‘the product of a liberal impulse’.
Fairy tales seem quaint, imbued with the patina of a bygone age — literary misfits in a modern world. Why, then, do they continue to be so remarkably popular? One reason is their appeal to timeless experiences, conflicts, and narratives that are intelligible across different traditions. In a new edition of a 1934 collection of ‘modernized’ fairy tales, which was first commissioned by Peter Davies (and has now been updated, with a new introduction, by Maria Tatar), much of the patina is stripped away from the olden stories — and a significant dose of satire and black humour is added — revealing just how much fairy tales can tell us also about the modern world. As reviewer Dieter Petzold observes, many of the modernized versions amplify the originals, by adding details that make their fictional world often seem ‘more real’ than the silhouette world of traditional folktales. And, perhaps more tellingly, virtually all modern writers take an ironic stance — adding a layer of self-conscious awareness to the intrinsic strangeness of the worlds described.
‘Zbinden’s Progress’, Christoph Simon’s fourth novel, tells the story of Lukas Zbinden, an 87-year-old former schoolteacher who lives in a nursing home in Switzerland and who, one morning, decides to go for a walk with his carer, Kâzim. As the novel blossoms, Zbinden’s rich life is narrated, through stories that sometimes fall into step, sometimes part ways. Yet throughout, writes reviewer Benjamin Morris, ‘the locus of attention remains the walk: not just the present walk with Kâzim, but all walks, from walks past to walks future to the history and theory of walks’. A few stumbles notwithstanding, the novel — with its simple narratological formula: ‘someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, goes for a walk’ — is a fascinating read, not least due to Donal McLaughlin’s seamless translation from the original German into English.
In his new novel ‘The Map and the Territory’, which won the Prix Goncourt upon publication in France in 2010, Michel Houellebecq tells the story of a fictional murder – of Michel Houellebecq. Calling the Houellebecq of the novel a genius, a brilliant writer, and echoing episodes from his life that anyone familiar with him would know, the real Houellebecq plays with the notion of a novel itself. In this sense, writes reviewer Jeremy Fernando, his novel does nothing other than remind us to look again – to re-look, and re-read.
River of Smoke follows Sea of Poppies, as the second instalment of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. Whereas the first book illustrated the rich details of opium production from its harvest to its packaging in earthenware balls for shipment, this second volume follows the path of the opium to its trade in Canton. The heterogeneous world of the Indian Ocean trading community is again clearly illustrated, with discursions into botany, painting, and the varied food available in each port. The subaltern can indeed speak in these books: characters who are of the “elite” are not the focus, rather those lower on the ladder, more directly affected by all aspects of the drug trade. As in Sea of Poppies, much of the dialogue is in various dialects — in this book, the pidgin of the Canton trading port — thus weaving a rich tapestry of the cosmopolitan diversity of colonial ports at the time. After production and trade, asks reviewer Katrina Gulliver, will the final book in the trilogy focus on opium’s end users?
The Poetry Lesson, by Andrei Codrescu, is a lucid yet playful book, that slips between memoir and fiction, jaunty anecdote and pure tangent, as it describes the first lesson of an ‘Introduction to Poetry Writing’ course, in the last year of its teacher’s institutional career. While Codrescu’s displays a light touch and an elegant frivolity throughout, the very cleverness of his approach leads reviewer Rupert Thomson to ponder what is left of the sense that a passion for poetry will achieve anything.
Ten days after submitting the manuscript of his novel “Suicide” in October 2007, French artist and author Edouard Levé hanged himself in his Parisian apartment. Yet, as reviewer Hugo Wilcken argues, it would be quite misleading to read Levé’s last book as a fictionalised account of his own suicide; it many ways it is a negative image of it. While the book may start as if it was a memoir, the reader soon begins to doubt. There are unlikely moments (the night where the protagonist talks for eight hours straight about Marx and Freud); even more suspicious is the way the author gets inside the suicide’s head, and recounts scenes he couldn’t possibly know about. “Suicide” was widely and favourably reviewed in France. It has since been translated into Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; translations into German and English are in preparation.