The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin

I guess like others, my first thought was not as good as…that’s the trouble with creating a perfect work of art, one is haunted by it forever.

May I say this is ‘not as good’ but still SO, SO very good, that we are talking about giving this nine stars out of five, where we might have given Sukhanov ten.

Maybe the very big difference, the thing that makes one intuitively side with Sukhanov is that this novel has no one great character, rather, a group share centre stage equally. If you ask me, this just goes to show Grushin can do both of these constructions equally well. I think I was greedy to sink myself into a big character, the way one is greedy in one’s younger years to be immersed in the enormity of The Russian Novel. The longer the better. The bigger the better. But you grow up and the finesse with which Grushin manages the five or so main characters of this book is a treat to behold. She is such a skilled craftsman, both in use of language and structure without ever losing sight of the story and the characters: you CAN have all of this, the idea that technique is something we have now in modern literature instead of story and character is shown by this writer to be ludicrous.

It is odd to reflect that the essential qualities of Russian life, the ones that maintain a whole genre, The Russian Novel, are drabness, meanness, futility. Odd too that the genre requires they be invoked with both moving sensibility and the blackness of absurdism. As in her first novel, this is again achieved with consumate grace and skill. Again it is hard to put this down for even a moment. Remembering how I read this: on a 24 hour plane trip and then finishing it in a hotel bathroom at 3am, unable to sleep for the second night in a row, makes me even more uncertain of agreeing that it is – however slightly – less than her first novel. Despite the fact that I read it in invidious circumstances I hung on every word.

Bravo Grushin. Again.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

A quarter way through and I want to give this more stars (added later: than the four I began with) – yes, plural – and I want to say it’s the best Russian novel I’ve ever read…I’m throwing in Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, the lot.

Even better, it’s a Russian novel written in English. What more could one ask for?

I only want to say all this, I will say it for sure when I’ve finished.

By the way, I’m gobsmacked that only one of my friends has read this.

Now for the informed opinion. This book makes me want to reexamine everything I’ve given five stars too. Yet again one finds the very VERY best writing is simple, accessible; that the very best writing has plot and characters. And not for the first time, I wonder if it is so that non-native English writers can extract something from the language that those for whom it is always an old shoe cannot. Grushin’s use of language is exquisite: her need to be lush as she sees the world through the eyes of an artist never lacks precision, nothing, not even the dream sequences – something I might add, for which I normally have zero tolerance – turn into waffle.

Pick up this novel, begin to read it, and one is confronted by a Soviet pig of a man, a Party man who has risen to the top of one of those fields on which the Soviets placed some importance at that time. Truth told, you too may struggle with the first few pages, why would one want to read 350 pages about this pompous mediocre big noter. Stick with it and by the end of the first scene you will realise why. In Sukhanov Grushin has created a character of a tragic type I honestly can’t think has been bettered in the entire history of writing. ((Sorry, Shakespeare, I love you dearly, but I think Sukhanov is better than Lear.) (I almost can’t believe I wrote that, but I think I think it.)) I defy you to read this and not weep for Sukhanov and, if you have a creative bone in your body, for yourself.

Having started off thinking this was the best Russian novel I’ve ever read, it just goes to show…however great the desire by some to tidy away writing into genres – and might not we say The Russian Novel is the first genre, is there one that precedes it? – this is a sublime novel with no qualification attached. I’m astonished that such a young person who deliver such work. Mostly I’m on goodreads because I like to record what I have read, and because I am a compulsive writer; friends and votes are neither here nor there. But right now I would love to have the goodreads influence to make people read this. Why has only one of my friends read this? Like the Russians for time immemorial I want to wring my hands and ask What is to be done? I have no better answer than they ever did.

Much later.

I did talk a few people into reading this. The first, Margaret, who has read many, many books over the decades immediately declared that she could call it the best book she’s ever read too. Phew. I was afraid I was not overselling it, but creating a situation where expectation could not equal experience.

Anton Chekhov A Brother’s Memoirs by Mikhail Chekhov

For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.

I’ve read Anton Chekhov’s letters, a form of writing which might distinguish itself from autobiography by being both more honest and of greater literary worth. Letters are, after all – or where when people used to write then, at any rate – small literary gifts. I had a friend who used to send me letters hand-written and tied with a ribbon in a bow. They insisted upon being read in a special place with some degree of devotion. The experience is the very opposite of receiving an email and scanning it while logging onto facebook.

So when I saw this book half-price at The London Review Bookshop, I had to buy it, fully expecting it to add to my reading of Anton’s letters.

The book does not pretend to be more than it is: various pieces published over a period and now cobbled together. If you are expecting the book itself as a whole to be some sort of technical triumph, a remastering of the very idea of The Book, it isn’t. It’s a cobbled together collection of bits and pieces. But what marvellous bits and pieces they are. I am mystified as to why this book has been frequently panned. It’s nicely written – I’m surprised Mihkail Chekhov doesn’t seem to be remembered for his writing – with anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the pathetic. Some of them are directly about Anton and have, I gather, found their way into many a resource on him.

But much of the book is about the surrounds of the Chekhovs. How people like them lived in that period. The collective Russian artistic community, the intelligentsia, the bohemians, the people of the stage, the publishers of presses and magazines are the stuff of this book. We see how poverty-stricken, talented Russians like Anton and his siblings survived, not only economically, but spiritually in a period of censorship which is hard to credit. It serves to remind one that the Soviet model did not spring from nothing, nor did it spring from Marxism. It sprang from what was already in Russia, subservient masses, an aristocracy and a Tsar. It is an exceptional period in the history of the world and this book puts the reader vividly, right in the thick of it.

One vignette will serve to illustrate how extraordinary the censorship was in this period of late nineteenth century. Mikhail mentions the presence of detention cells in the universities. One of the reasons for being put in a cell was for applauding one’s professor. You may reread that last sentence, it won’t change. Every attempt was made to drum free will and independent thinking out of students. To publicly appreciate one’s teacher was punishable. You can see where Stalin comes from, not to mention Gogol.

I sense a strong connection between English and Russian. I gather it can’t be technical, but may be emotional. That doesn’t surprise me. Maybe the English and the Russians stand historically undefeated in similar ways, sharing a similar psyche, in some regards at any rate. It suits Russian to be translated into English is my gut feeling. The translator in this case, Eurene Alper, is a specialist translator of Chekhov. You can find at his site his translation of Chekhov’s doctor’s recollection of him. It will give you a taste for more. Then you can buy the book.

Stage Directions by Michael Frayn

Frayn is on record as regretting his fate – to be an all-rounder inspired in limitless ways. If he were only a translator or columnist, only a novelist or philosopher, only a playwright his talents in any of these would see him more highly regarded than he is today for being wonderful at all of them. He would make more money too. If only he lived in a period where a man was admired for talent that went in many directions, instead of in a period in which specialisation is worshipped and we view with suspicion those who are constitutionally unable to live the narrow life, or think the narrow thoughts, that result from specialisation.

This collection of writings about his theatre work, both his own plays and his translations, being a renowned Chekhov translator in particular, spans his career from the very beginning. And I do mean very beginning, with hilariously charming accounts of his productions as a small boy in which he took on all roles – writer, producer, set designer and maker, cast maker in the case of his puppets. The diversity is astonishing, from his discussions of the difficulties in developing his farces to a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the history that inspired one of my favorites, Copenhagen. Throughout, however, two things stood out for me.

The first was the sheer hard work involved. Anybody who thinks being a writer means putting a badly written, then badly proofed, badly laid out book on Amazon, faking some reviews on Goodreads and trying to solicit others to give them good reviews should read this. The dedication involved in his work is an example to all would-be authors.

The second is not unconnected to the first. Despite the vast amount of theatre I’ve watched in my life, I had never understood what an organic thing it is. The novel is an interaction, if you like, between the writer and the reader. The theatre interacts with director and designer, actor and cast, theatre-goer and audience. I’d never realised, consciously at least, that as a theatre-goer I’m part of an amorphous mass, ‘the audience’. I’d never realised that this thing called ‘the audience’ has important impact on the development of a play. It is never the high-handed ‘you will love my work or leave it’ in which novelists may indulge. Frayn describes two successive nights of a play’s performance, one might capture an audience in a mass hysteria, laughing until they are sick, the next will be like trying to raise the dead in a graveyard, not so much as a snicker to be had from the audience. This is particularly important in the case of farce and having seen Noises Off several times and Clockwise (film) which are perfect examples of that genre, it had never occurred to me how much sweat and angst had gone into them – not necessarily into them specifically but into developing the skills that permitted their perfection.

One can safely say after reading this part of the book that getting farce right is no laughing matter.

Frayn puts it like this:

I began my professional career in the theatre very late. Most playwrights, I think, start young, when they are full of passion and certainty; and often, by the age of thirty-six, which I was when my first play was produced, have already got it out of their system, and sunk exhausted into obscurity, celerity, or drink. What held me up was early failure, even before I’d got my foot on the first rung of the ladder. In my last year at Cambridge I wrote most of the Footlights May Week revue, and complicated things for myself by observing a rather austere aesthetic. No references to current affairs, or undergraduate life, or show business, or any of the other standbys of student shows and what was then called intimate revue. The humour was to be entirely abstract. I had got the idea from seeing a show in London called Cranks, created by the choreographer John Cranko. Cranks had made people laugh. My imitation of it did not. Every year, after its run in Cambridge, the May Week show transferred for a brief run in the West End…. – a precious opportunity for all of us with professional ambitions to get ourselves noticed. My show was the first that did not transfer.

Frayn does not strike me as a stubborn man and, indeed, the fact that he simply moved into other areas of writing with success perhaps goes to demonstrate it. But when he did return to theatre-writing much later, he couldn’t let go of the farce. One receives the impression of a person who does not struggle with his desires. The impulse was there, he stuck with it. Luckily for us. Lucky also that he is an incredibly diverse writer not only in form and style, but also in what he is able to portray. The farcical, the tragic, the humorous and the pensive, the slapstick and the intellectual, Frayn can do all these things. He couldn’t be more different from the formulaic professional theatre-writers such as Alan Bennett, David Williamson and so on. This means, of course, he is more likely to fail, and yet he rarely does so.

He tells the story of being asked by his children why he wasn’t famous like Alan Bennett, who lived across the street from him. Given that he is never going to achieve the acclaim he deserves due to the stigma of being an all-rounder, what surprises me is just how famous he is. The professional playwrights like Bennett play it safe. Frayn does not have that in him. He writes things because he needs to and tries things out because he needs to. Thus he has his failures. There is a saying in bridge that if you don’t occasionally defend game doubled and making, you aren’t doubling enough. Equally maybe if you aren’t having the occasional flop as a writer you are being too safe. I would dearly love to see Look Look which was a catastrophe when it came to stage in London in the early nineties. The idea of it is to examine the audience. I can see after reading this book that the audience, of which I’ve so often been a member, is an entity worthy of examination.

Revealing just how organic and shifting plays are, is the story of the writing of Copenhagen, not just the story of its original inception, but what happened after. It generated great interest in the science world and provoked the early revelation of correspondence which was supposed still to be under lock and key. All this in turn led to some changes in the play. I’d been wondering, as I started reading this book, why it is that I’m happy to watch a play based on historical events, but not a film. Maybe this is partly the answer. The biopic is generally false through and through. Its egregious changing of history may be for money, it may be arrogant, it may be through sheer ignorance, but there it is, a permanent record of history itself. Hoover is DiCaprio. In the theatre, it is almost never so that an actor overtakes the role in this way. The only obvious exception I can think of is Topol, but that is in a straightforward fiction. The actor doesn’t supplant the historical person in theatre. The story, the facts, the way in which it interacts with the audience, everything about a play can change with every production. If something is shown to be wrong, it can be fixed. What a wonderful thing Theatre is!

There is also a detailed account of the work and rationalisation behind Democracy, the story of Brandt’s fall from power. Reading this book has given me a taste for European history. This is another case where he carefully discusses the ways in which he has changed things due to the necessities of the form, theatre. If you are like me, there are various hats under which you will enjoy reading this stuff: as audience, as writer, as historian. As linguist, even. Whatever objections one may have to reading in translation (none in my case), surely they have to be shed in the case of the theatre when it is simply another level of interaction in an already complex amalgam of them. I have a better understanding now of why it is that playwrights rewrite each other’s work. It isn’t just for lack of inspiration.