Iegor Gran ‘Competent Departments’

We should have neutralised Pasternak for good. Back in the good old days….the valiant Tcheka…the NKVD….I don’t understand why we put up with it.
What a dumb fool he is!
We have to be tactically astute, declares Pakhomov. We can’t just go in all guns blazing when the eyes of the world opinion are on you……the international interest of the foreign media have created an invisible protective dome around Pasternak.***

Iegor Gran takes us back in time to Moscow in the 1960’s and illustrates this schitzophrenic period by the true story of his parents and the five year hunt for his father by the eigth section of the KGB, responsible for anti-soviet propaganda.

This is a time, following Krouschev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes, where we follow the life of lieutnant Evgueni Feodorovitch Ivanov as he tries to find out who is hiding behind the name of Adrien Tertz, a jewish name, and is publishing in the West, first in French and then in Russian. His writings criticising the Soviets are too precise and could only come from within the USSR. Tertz begins by quoting the union of Soviet writers:

Socialist realism is the fundamental method in soviet literature and in soviet literary criticism. It requires of the artist a true historically tangible representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Amongst other things it should contribute to the ideological transformation and of the education of workers in the spirit of socialism.***

Siniavski and the French diplomat that helps him get his works out of the USSR laid down at the beginning, the strategy that allowed him to write for so many years, a Jewish name, hints of links with both Poland and Lenningrad that had Ivanov well off track in his hunt.

The main choice of Iegor Gran to reverse the vision and to write the story not from his father’s point of view but from Ivanov’s liberates the author to show the contradictions from within, for instance Gagarin’s first space flight and his hero’s welcome contrasting with his reward being a state secret, if the West were to get their hands on the clothing list he was granted as a hero, they would understand the state of things for the Soviet Peoples, as Gran points out the list was signed in person by Krouschev:

Coat mid-season – 1 off
Light summer coat – 1 off
Raincoat – 1 off
Suits – 2 off (one light, one dark)
Shoes – 2 pairs (black and light)
Shirts white – 6 off
Hats – 2 off
Ties – 6 off
Gloves – 1 pair
Handkerchiefs – 12 off
Socks 6 pairs
Underpants, vests – 6 off
Electric razor – 1 off***

As Ivanov laments, if only they could have found Adrien Tertz quickly, the Soviet Union was in a state of constant flux following the death of Stalin, each change affecting the resources and morale of the KGB, Krouschev denounces Stalins crimes, Stalin’s body is removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin and buried secretly, Krouschev is “retired” and throughout all of this the eigth section is unable to find Tertz. Meanwhile Siniavski knows he will be caught, sometime, he just doesn’t know when as months turn into years.

Iegor Gran then through his narrator tells us of the french and Italian, communist parties, the hope of whose victories kept the KGB hardliners in check, of the Nobel literature prize for Pasternack for the Dr. Zhivago that was forbidden in the USSR, as illustrated in the opening quote, of the eigth section often finding illegal copies on raids of the intelligentsia.

I particularly liked the raid on Siniavski’s house when his mother after years of preparation was more than a match for the officers, telling them when they revealed that her husband was in the Lubyanka of her relief to find out that he wasn’t with another woman. And of course when she quickly places her young baby, Iegor Gran, in Ivanov’s hands before he could avoid it.

He gives a sense of the time in history to the story and brings Ivanov to life as a complex character. Their very hunt for Tertz and his imprisonment bring the light of the western media on an otherwise little read author. This is an engaging book that will do well and would deserve a translation.

First Published in French as “Les services conpétents” by P.O.L in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

On aurait dû neutralisé Pasternak définitivement. Au bon vieux temps… La valeureuse Tchéka… Le NKVD…Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on tolère.
Quelle brute épaisse, celui-là!
Il faut être tactiquement astucieux, affirme Pakhomov. On ne peut pas y aller à la hache quand les yeux de l’opinion internationale sont braqués sur vous…….l’attention des médias étrangers à créer autour de W Pasternak un dôme de protection invisible.

Le réalisme socialiste est la méthode fondamentale de la littérature et la la critique littéraire soviétiques. Il exige de l’artiste une représentation véridique, historiquement concrète, de la réalité dans son développement révolutionnaire. En outre, il doit contribuer à la transformation idéologique et à l’éducation des travailleurs dans l’esprit du socialisme.

Manteau demi-saison – 1 unité
Manteau léger d’été – 1 unité
Imperméable – 1 unité
Costume – 2 unités (un clair, un sombre).
Chaussures – 2 paires (noires et claires).
Chemise blanche – 6 unités.
Chapeau – 2 unités.
Cravate – 6 unités
Gants – 1 paire.
Mouchoir – 12 unités.
Chaussettes – 6 paires.
Slip, maillot de corps – 6 paires
Rasoire électrique – 1 unité

Emmanuel Carrère Limonov

That the police or the army should be corrupt, it’s to be expected. That human life is worth little, that’s the Russian tradition. But the arrogance and the brutality of the representatives of power when ordinary citizens hold them to account, the certitude they have in their own impunity, that’s what neither the mothers of soldiers, those of the children massacred at the school in Breslin, in the Caucasiens, nor the families of the victims of the Doubrovka theatre could not accept.

At the death of Anna Politkovskaïa, the french journalist Emmanuel Carrère who was already in Russia was hurried over to Moscow to cover events and, attending a rally on the 31st of the month protesting in favour of article 31 of the constitution stating that Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets, there are, as always, more police than protestors and frequent arrests as referred to in the opening quote. At the rally, Carrère notices Limonov whom he had met years earlier in Paris.

In the days to come as he is working on the death of Politkovskaïa, Carrère is lead to put into question the views he had of this minor dissident from the Breznhev era who had been expelled from the USSR and had turned his experiences surviving with little or no money, living, amongst other places in Harlem, into a first book, his own version of “On The Road”, telling amongst other things of his homosexual relationships with down and out black men, which he managed to get published in France as “Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres.” Which I won’t translate (It was later published in English as “It’s me, Eddy”, and was published years later in Russia, see the cover at the start of this article. Limonov then moved to France and as Carrère describes his appearence:

We were right in the middle of the Punk surge, he claimed Johnny Rotten, the leader of the Sex Pistols, as his hero. He had no qualms about calling Solzhenitsyn an old fart. It was refreshing, this new wave dissidence, and Limonov was from the outset the darling of the small parisien literary world.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Limonov thought of himself as a revolutionary and wanted to be involved in the war in former Yougolsavia if possible fighting for the Slavs, which gave a whole other view to the west of Limonov:

We saw him in a documentary on the BBC, shooting up a besieged Sarajevo under the watchful eye Radovan Karadzić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs and an acknowledged war criminal.

So a decade or so later when running through Politkovskaïa’s articles he discovers a whole new view of Limonov, Carrère decides to plungeinto detail and write this book about Limonov, leaving no stones unturned:

Running through a compilation of articles by Anna Politkovskaïa, I discovered that she had, two years earlier, followed the trial of thirty nine militants from the national-Bolchevik party who were accused of breaking into and vandalising the headquarters of the presidential administration, crying out “Poutine out!”. For this crime, they had received long prison sentences and Politkovskaïa defended them with vigour: courageous young people, honest, alone or almost in giving confidence in the moral future of our country.
I couldn’t believe it. It had all seemed clear to me, unquestionable: Limonov was a terrible fascist at the head of a militia of
skinheads. But now, a woman, who since her death was unanimously considered to be a saint, spoke of him and of them, as heroes in the fight for democracy in Russia. Elena Bonner was saying the same thing on the internet. Elena Bonner! Sakharov’s widow, the great scholar, the great dissident, the great moral conscience, the winner of the Nobel peace prize.

Carrère’s book allows us to re-visit modern history, from Breznev through to the end of the Soviet Union, the chaos that followed, through to Putin’s Russia. All of this crossed with Limonov’s life, and Carrère’s own, and this is the interest of this superb biography.

First Published in French as “Limonov” in 2011 by P.O.L
Translated into English by John Lambert and published in 2015 as Limonov by Penguin.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Que la police ou l’armée soient corrompues, c’est dans l’ordre des choses. Que la vie humaine ait peu de prix, c’est dans la tradition russe. Mais l’arrogance et la brutalité des représentants du pouvoir quand de simples citoyens se risquaient à leur demander des comptes, la certitude qu’ils avaient de leur impunité, voilà ce que ne supportaient ni les mères de soldats, ni celles des enfants massacrés à l’école de Beslan, au Caucase, ni les proches des victimes du théâtre de la Doubrovka.

On était en pleine vague punk, son héros revendiqué était Johnny Rotten, le leader des Sex Pistous, il ne se gênait pas pour traiter Soljenitsyne de vieux con. C’était rafraîchissant, cette dissidence new wave, et Limonov à son arrivée à été le coqueluche du petit monde littéraire parisien.

On l’a vu, dans un documentaire de la BBC, mitrailler Sarajevo assiégé sous l’œil bienveillant de Radovan Karadzić, leader des Serbes de Bosnie et criminel de guerre avéré.

En parcourant un recueil d’articles d’Anna Politkovskaïa, j’ai découvert qu’elle avait deux ans plus tôt suivi le procès de trente-neuf militants du parti national-Bolchevik, accusés d’avoir envahi et vandalisé le siège de l’administration présidentielle aux cris de “Poutine, va-t’en!”. Pour ce crime, ils avaient écopé de lourdes peines de prison et Politkovskaïa prenait haut et fort leur défense: des jeunes gens courageux, intégres, seuls ou presque à donner confiance dans l’avenir moral du pays.
Je n’en revenait pas. L’affaire m’avait paru classée, sans appel: Limonov était un affreux fasciste, à la tête d’une milice de skinheads. Or voici qu’une femme unanimement considérée depuis sa mort comme une sainte parlait de lui, et d’eux, comme des héros du combat démocratique en Russie. Même son de cloche, sur internet, de la part d’Elena Bonner. Elena Bonner! La veuve de Sakharov, grand savant, grand dissident, grand conscience morale, prix Nobel de la paix.

Nathalie Azoulai ‘The Spectators’

On the 27th of November 1967, in all of the other houses in France, activities picked up again shortly after the conference. The television is switched off, people go out shopping, get on. For most of the French, nothing serious has has happened besides a few statements about foreign affairs which don’t concern them directly. England, the East, Quebec. Nobody makes the connection between a speech and everyday life, nobody understands the implications, considers them as more than particles in suspension particles that won’t fall and that will end up disappearing. But they know that it has already happened. Over there. They know that a speech by a head of state can be transformed in a few months, without being noticed, into measures, into farewells, into suitcases filled in haste.***

The starting point of Nathalie Azoulai’s ‘Spectators is a seemingly anodyne speech given in November 1967 by the General De Gaulle to the nation, we assist with an unnamed family, a thirteen year old boy his parents and his baby sister and we slowly pick up the tension from the boys viewpoint as we understand that they are exiles from an unnamed Middle Eastern country as described in the opening quote. The story slowly unravels, distorted by the boys vision, as told by a third person narrator, with his father rarely we get to know his mother, obsessed by the Cinema and the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden age through her discussions with Maria her Portuguese seamstress. She tells her of the different actresses and the background stories gleaned from her ancient copies of ‘Photoplay’ such as of Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s first choice to play in Vertigo and who would have had a very different career had she not fallen pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. Or of Cora who starred in 1946 in The Postman Always knocks twice, Cora is of course Lana Turner. She tells Maria of the marvellous dresses they wore on screen as she shows her photos of the dresses and asks Maria to make them. In line with this his mother had not wanted the television the had bought just before De Gaulle’s speech:

On the way back she rants, sighs, doesn’t stop saying that she hates television, that’s it’s letting the devil in the house, she prefers the cinema. From now on she’ll see the films without having to leave the home, says his father, in her nightgown if she wants to. And why not in slippers ? A film should be watched dressed to go out and with make up on she replies sharply. She will never accept to be so lowered before all of these impeccable actresses.***

During De Gaulle’s speech there is a question of a war, probably the six day war and his father tells his mother that if they win the war he will buy her the dress of her dreams. Later Pepito, Maria’s son asks him if they are Arabs to which he replies no, Pepito, who doesn’t understands then insists asking, but you do come from an Arab country to which he answers yes. We then slowly learn of their forced exile, and how in the two suitcases they were allowed to take she had tried to take her entire collection of Photoplay. Finally of the doctor she had met before leaving who she nicknamed Flynn. It was then no surprise that the boy tried to understand things:

There you are, for us France is finished! His father lets out.
Don’t say such foolish things, says his mother.
How do you leave a country you love so much but where you are so hated? he asks.
And there, it’s as if the television was suddenly turned off. His two parents turn towards him and give him such as if to turn him to stone.
Taking no notice, he continues: when do you know when it’s time to leave? you know because you’ve already done it.***

This is the story of a boy trying to understand his families complicated life, he had himself been born in France and we finish by understanding his mother’s obsessions, an enigmatic book.

First Published in French as “Les Spectateurs” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur le trajet de retour elle peste, soupire, ne cesse de dire qu’elle déteste la télévision, que c’est le diable dans la maison, qu’elle préfère le cinéma. Elle verra désormais les films sans avoir à sortir de chez elle, dit son père, en chemise de nuit même si elle veut. Et pourquoi pas en chaussons? Un film ça se regarde habillée et maquillée, cinglé-t-elle. Jamais elle ne supportera d’être ainsi diminuée face à toutes ces actrices pimpantes.

Le 27 novembre 1967, dans toutes les autres maisons de France, les activités reprennent dans la minute qui suit la fin de conférence. On éteint la télévision, on sort faire des courses, on vaque. Pour la plupart des Français, rien ne s’est produit de grave que quelques déclarations sur des dossiers de politique étrangère qui ne les concernent pas directement. L’Angleterre, l’orient, le Québec. Personne ne fait le lien entre un discours et la vie de tous les jours, personne ne capte les incidences, ne les considère autrement que comme des particules en suspension qui ne retomberont pas et finiront par disparaître. Mais eux savent que c’est déjà arrivé. Là-bas. Ils savent qu’un discours de chef d’État peut se transformer en quelques mois et sans qu’on y prenne garde, en mesures, en adieu et en valises remplies à la hâte.

Voilà, pour nous, c’est fini la France! lâche son père.
Ne dis pas de bêtises, dit sa mère.
Comment quitter un pays qu’on aime tant mais où on vous hait tant? demande-t-il.
Et là, c’est comme si la télévision s’éteignait d’un seul coup. Ses deux parents se tournent vers lui et lui lancent un regard qui cherche à le pétrifier sur place.
Sans se troubler, il reprend: quand est-ce qu’on sait qu’on doit partir? Vous savez, puisque vous l’avez déjà fait.

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam ‘Aracadie’

On the dance floor, Daniel opens his eyes wide, frantically trying to attract my attention. he must have noticed Maureen’s hand dissapearing into the front of my jacket.
-Do you know him?
-yeah we live together.
-He’s your flatmate?
How can I explain things to Maureen in between Sean Paul and Drake? That Daniel isn’t a flatmate, or a brother, not even really a friend?
-He’s your botfriend?
He could have been. If I’d followed Arcady’s insistence, we would have slept together, Nellie and I. Alone at first and then together with Arcady afterwards. That was the idea. Anyway, one of the ideas that sprouted from the fertile brain of my mentor.***

Bayamack-Tan’s story of a sect seen from the inside as completely normal by Farah who arrived at Liberty house at the age of six with her parents and her grandmother, fleeing modernity and its electro-magnetic waves which left her mother in a permanent state of weakness and were welcomed by Arcady. On top of this story of a free love community living in the hills in south eastern France and comprising weakened people from the margins of society and rich old ladies who basically subsidised the community, is grafted the story of Farah’s adolescence as she discovers and comes to live with her own story, discovering her MRKH syndrome “This condition causes the vagina and uterus to be underdeveloped or absent, although external genitalia are normal”

We follow Farah as she discovers sex with Arcady at the age of fifteen for one summer before the events which cause her to leave Liberty house. Life in Liberty house is built around the community with ideals of sharing, until a migrant hides in their grounds and steels some of their food, when Farah discovers the limits of their ideals. This is the event which pushes Farah and her friend Daniel to leave the community, there are no young adults in the community, they all choose to leave when the reach the age of about sixteen.

Farah, ill prepared for the outside world meets Maureen who comes to terms with her sexuality, but as the opening quote shows explaining Liberty house to the outside world would be no easy thing. How does life at Liberty House then develop? Do things end well? Well you would need to read the book but expect no surprises.

The book was well received, but I found it a hard read.

First Published in French as “Arcadie” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur la piste, Daniel ouvre des yeux ronds et m’adresse des signaux frénétiques. Il a dû remarquer que la main de Maureen a disparu dans l’échancrure de mon smoking
-Tu le connais?
-ouais. On habite ensemble.
-C’est ton coloc?
Comment expliquer ça à Maureen entre Sean Paul et Drake? Que Daniel n’est ni un coloc, ni un frère, ni même à proprement parler un ami?
-c’est ton mec?
Il aurait pu l’être. Si J’avais suivi les objurgations d’Arcady, nous aurions couché ensemble, Nellie et moi. Seuls d’abord et avec Arcady ensuite. C’était ça l’idée. Enfin, l’une des idées qui jaillissent du cerveau fertile de mon mentor.

Julie Douard ‘La Chair des vivants’

François was in the provinces doing a tour of the franchises to check that the marketing recommendations, drawn up by experts at the highest levels, were being applied everywhere; img_1385he had to check that the brand wasn’t being ridiculed by some provincial manager or another arrogant enough to think that he knew their customers better than the head office…***

This book is one of the entrants for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, a book that looks at a group of people working in the marketing department of a company, microcosm of many of todays groups of workers, a mix of people thrown together during the day, whose worries at the onset are more about who they are and their image in the group rather than the reason that that they work together or any hypothetical link of their jobs to the real world. The arrogance of the opening quote tells us everything we need to know in a brushstroke about the company the group of people are working for, centralised, elite and and the same time futile.

The group of people at the outset are under pressure to perform and are mostly middle-aged, a terrible thing to be in the modern competitive age. There is Henri a repressed forty something single man who had lived with his mother until her recent death and who, now free, develops a crush on his ex-miliary Serbian masseur and illegal immigrant, Goran, who Henri invites to live in exchange for becoming his personal trainer. There is the tyrant boss, Mr Michel and his trod upon assistant, Sophie, there is the discreet Francois in whom everyone confides but who never wants to take a risk with his life, there is the uninteresting Michon who has just started, by internet, to use a personal coach and of course the frustrated late thirty something receptionist Fabienne. We follow the evolution of this group, typified by the events which lead to Fabienne’s steamy day with Goran and Henri’s reaction illustrated in the following quote:

She, who recently had wanted her life to speed up, was more than rewarded: she had followed up a dinner date with the handsome François by a wild rock and roll dance where thanks to that chaterbox Michon, she had come over as a skilled dancer and then followed that by a mad day of sex that nobody was should have held against her and, precisely for this reason, Henri was now molesting her like an angry father whose barely pubescent son she had just deflowered… Fabienne got a grip on herself and gave Henri a good hard slap, and then another and so on, using both hands to make this machist phallocrat think a second time about his idea that she must be a right slut to shag a Serb on the Lord’s day…***

The book moves to it’s ineluctable end as, in preparing as a team for a marathon in which the company Number 5, the head of their department, takes a singular interest, their individual storylines each reach their conclusions.

First Published in French as “La Chair des vivants” in 2018 by P.O.L
*** My translation

Nathalie Azoulai ‘Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’

-It’s true then that you’ve chosen poetry before God…..
As with his language, his space is split in two, on one side there is God, the Abbey and the night, and on the other there is the King, Poetry and light.***

Nathalie Azoulai has built in her ‘Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’, part of my 2016 French lit targets a formidable romanticised biography of  playwright Jean Racine, starting out from a present day woman who has been abandoned by the man she loves, imagehe leaving her to return to his family, his surroundings and his wealth. She is desolate and in an attempt to understand what has happened to her she plunges into the works of the great French writer of tragedies, Jean Racine, who is vaunted to see events through strong but wronged feminine characters. And slowly re-builds herself as she comes to realise that if Titus left her then he loved her less than she loved him.

‘He thinks he can hear, buzzing around his head, the distant and muffled sound of all of his heroines grouped together, unified in their tears and their anger Hermione, Aggripine, Berenice Roxane, Monime, Phedre’***

As the opening quote tells us, Racine’s life is torn between opposites, he was brought up in a strict religious sect, at Port Royal des Champs, as a Jansenite, where he learnt rigour and precision in his writing and where his only non religious reading was through the Greek masters of his classical education.

‘Writing lightens him when it is precise, if he should only remember one thing from all of his years spent here (Port Royal) it would be this: precision is a thing that man owes to God.’***

His tragedies were written in the rhyming Alexandrine, with twelve syllables per line and rhymes at the end of each pair of lines that he and all of his contemporaries used and which he was taught and worked on at Port Royal:

-Jean had just managed to write lines with twelve syllables for the first time and he wondered if the Alexandrine was a guarantee of excellence, he wasn’t sure but every day after  he repeated the experience and understood that although we may not be able to code beauty, we can  code music.***

I have added here an example of the Alexandrine taken from Bérénice to illustrate the meter and the rhyme:

Le temps n’est plus, Phénice, où je pouvais trembler.
Titus m’aime, il peut tout, il n’a plus qu’à parler.
Il verra le Sénat m’apporter ses hommages,
Et le peuple de fleurs couronner ses images.
De cette nuit, Phénice, as-tu vu la splendeur ?
Tes yeux ne sont-ils pas tous pleins de sa grandeur ?
Ces flambeaux, ce bûcher, cette nuit enflammée,
Ces aigles, ces faisceaux, ce peuple, cette armée,

Nathalie Azoulai then takes us on to the second part of his life, ambition, creation and King Louis XIV the sun King. Molière is now old and the authors of the day are the Corneille brothers. Jean is obsessive jealous and because of his background he rejects the machines and the grandeur of the theatre around the King, stripping away the superfluous and concentrating on the feelings of his female protagonists. Seventeenth century France was no easy place to be a successful playwright, Azoulai describes an event at his opening of Brittanicus:

And there above the crowd, alone in an empty loge is the old shadow, watching and orchestrating the applause, the whistling, Corneille come to see close up how he is taking on Rome, his monopoly.***

We learn how Moliere’s leading lady actress defects to Racine and how together they become the court favourites, despite the Kings need for opulence and Racines leaning to sobriety in his tragedies, if not in his life, as the King says to him:

I wanted the sublime to be at the centre of the festivities and I think that we have succeeded began the King, this We melts on Jean’s tongue like a lump of sugar.***

We follow Jean’s life through his successes, through the deaths of Molière and then Corneille which cause people to ask themselves the question which of the two authors, Racine or Corneille will be most remembered and will embody the idea of French genius.

I hope that when this book is translated into English that you enjoy it as much as I have. I will be reading Racine before seeing his plays, in the near future I hope!

First published in French as Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’ by P.O.L in 2015
*** My translation