150+ essays on literary topics
I am still reading Kilvert’s Diary a little at a time, which is I think the way it should be read, and keep coming across little gems of descriptive prose, insights into human nature and observations on a world in which early death was so common as to be almost unremarkable. It was a world of very different attitudes from ours in other ways too, as appears in the entry for 6 August 1874 in which he recounts a visit to one of his parishioners.
‘She was also troubled about her daughter Fanny who grieves her sadly by frequently lying and stealing. I told her she must correct the girl in time. “I do flog her,” she said. “And the other morning she was a naughty girl and her brother Joseph brought her in to me in her shimmy while I was in bed. I held her hands while Joseph and Charlie whipped her on her naked bottom as hard as ever they were able to flog her.”
A few days later, he is called back to the house because the child is ill.
‘I sat down by the bed and took her little hot hand. She seemed very feverish but was quite sensible and appeared to be very much softened and humbled. If so the severe chastisement she has undergone may have had a happy effect and have broken her self-will and cured her of her faults. Her parents very wisely have not spared her nor the rod.’
Peirene Press have just published their latest European novella, The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. In any translated work, two barriers stand between you and the original, one linguistic, the other cultural. Even the best translators use words that are only approximations to the words the writer uses and that, even if they have the same literal meaning, might lack other qualities the writer chose them for. A writer’s voice, belonging as it does to a particular language, is almost impossible to reproduce in another. But given a good translation, the linguistic barrier can to some degree be overcome. The cultural barrier however is something the reader must tackle alone. The more we know about a country’s history and geography, the more of its books we read, the more of its music we listen to, the more of its art we look at, the deeper our understanding and the greater our appreciation will be of each of them.
The Dead Lake is my first experience of the literature of Uzbekistan. It was written in Russian but its author is an Usbek who writes in both Uzbek and Russian. The story itself is set in Kazakhstan. It begins on a train ‘travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan’. Whenever the train stops at a remote station during the course of the long journey, the narrator hears trackmen tapping on the wheels and ‘swearing in Kazakh’. He feels ‘a secret pride that I could understand them’. English readers, being mostly monolingual, will have difficulty identifying with this at anything but an abstract level.
Difference is one of Hamid Ismailov’s themes: alien landscapes, a man no bigger than a boy, a woman much taller than the man she loves, nature made unnatural by the distorting pressure of exploding bombs. Stories is another and the first to be introduced. The story begins, ‘This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ A few paragraphs later, ‘So that’s the beginning of the story’. This is a story about a story. Ismailov’s story-telling style is rather plain and spare, the style of a story-teller rather than a story-writer. Folk tales, legends and old songs keep cropping up. The narrator starts by listening to someone else telling a story, then takes over himself, making it up as he goes along, while the story-teller sleeps. After a while, we don’t know who to believe. Is it a true story, a fiction, a legend, a metaphor, a parable?
‘Ismailov,’ a reviewer in The Independent is quoted as saying, ‘belongs to the tradition of Russian satirical novelists, from Gogol to Bulgakov and Platonov’. That’s quite a tradition and there are times when he reminds us of all of them. But there are as many differences between those three Russians as there are similarities. So is it really helpful to say that he belongs to such a diverse tradition? The reviewer perhaps feels the need to place the writer somewhere, so he invents a ‘tradition of Russian satirical novelists’ and puts him there. Another reviewer writes, ‘Like a market trader cascading one colourful rug after another at us, Hamid Ismailov unrolls his chapters vivid with exuberant detail and exotic colour’. This reviewer really is getting carried away, more interested in his or her own metaphors than Ismailov’s and, incidentally, creating a completely false impression of Ismailov’s writing, which is anything but exuberant and whose colours are anything but exotic. ‘The steppe looked just like the steppe: a small sun, as sharp as a nail, in a boundless, weary sky, scorched grassy stubble and stale, motionless air droning between them’ is a fairly typical piece of description. Beautiful writing, but not my idea of a colourful rug.
We depend on cultural context, even more than language, for our understanding of literature. We should be honest when we don’t have one and admit to the limitations that creates for us. Peirene Press itself describes The Dead Lake as ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’, which led me to expect something different from what I actually read. What I read was a haunting tale about the steppes of Kazakhstan and the blighted life of a man, trapped in a child’s body, the truth of whose story remains ambiguous and elusive. But how much of that is due to my ignorance and how much a feature of Ismailov’s writing is something I can only find out by reading more of his books. Only two, A Poet and Bin-Laden and The Railway, have so far been translated into English. The Dead Lake makes me want to read both of them.
Meanwhile, in his diary entry for 7 October 1874, Kilvert describes a moment familiar to all writers, no matter what language they write in.
‘For some time I have been trying to find the right word for the shimmering glancing twinkling movement of the poplar leaves in the sun and wind. This afternoon I saw the word written on the poplar leaves. It was “dazzle”. The dazzle of the poplars.’
The subject of my next essay, on 19 February, will be Fern Hill, the first of half-a-dozen or so that I’ll be writing on Dylan Thomas in his centenary year.
The next Reader’s Diary will be published on 26 February.
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