freedom

LIBERTY OR LOVE! BY ROBERT DESNOS

There is a photograph of Robert Desnos, taken, in 1930, by Man Ray.* In it, he is surrounded by four people. To his left is the sculptor Andre Lasserre; to his right is André de la Rivière, the actor; while behind him is the surrealist artist Georges Malkine and, although she is often mistaken for a man, his wife Yvette. The heads of Lasserre and de la Rivière are turned upwards, towards the Malkines, who are kissing. Desnos, however, is staring forward, at the camera, with an expression on his face that is almost indescribable. While the two men either side of him appear happy, healthy, and, more to the point, of this world, Desnos has the look of someone, or something, who has not slept for a hundred and fifty years. There is the hint of secret knowledge in his sly smile; and his disinterest in the scene behind, and above, him suggests, at least to me, that he knows more than most about the act of love. It was this photograph, more than my passion for transgressive and surrealistic literature, that inspired me to seek out Desnos’ work and which ultimately led me to Liberty or Love!

How many times, in stormy weather or by the light of the moon, did I get up to contemplate by the gleam of a log-fire, or that of a match, or a glow-worm, those memories of women who had come to my bed, completely naked apart from stockings and high-heeled slippers retained out of respect for my desire.

When La Liberté ou l’amour! was first published it was almost immediately withdrawn due to controversy over the content. It was reissued, following the removal of several offensive passages, a year later. The version that I read, from Atlas Press, which also includes the earlier Mourning for Mourning, is unexpurgated. However, for a modern sensibility, there is nothing in the text that is genuinely shocking. In the first few pages, the narrator – who is obviously a stand-in for Desnos – sniffs some discarded underwear, inhaling the ‘intimate odours’ and wondering, ridiculously, ‘what fabulous whale, of whatever colour, could distil a more fragrant ambergris.’ There are numerous references to sadomasochistic practices, which, on more than one occasion, involve teenage girls; but this doesn’t extend far beyond spanking [although there is the suggestion of rape when one girl is said to be ‘tenderly sodomised.’] Indeed, the most troubling passage in the book is likely to upset your stomach more than your moral equilibrium. This is the Sperm Drinker’s Club, where men gather to sample male and female ejaculate.

As one would perhaps expect of a surrealist novel, and this particular publisher, there is not a great deal of plot and even less in the way of well-developed characters. What there is involves the adventures of Corsair Sanglot and, to a lesser extent, his lover Louise Lame. Yet, in the main, Desnos uses this couple, and the situations into which he drops them, as vehicles to explore his ideas about love. At one point he intrudes upon the action to inform us that: ‘I still believe in the marvellous when it comes to love, I believe in the reality of dreams, I believe in heroines in the night, in beauties of the night, forcing their way into hearts and into beds.’ Which is a lovely, romanticised view, albeit one that is slightly at odds with some of his other statements. For example, when discussing the deeds of Jack the Ripper – who is mentioned numerous times throughout the text – he claims that ‘love is not merely some kind of pleasantry.’ This indicates that for the author it is something to be taken seriously, of course, something dramatic and, considering the link to the Ripper and the previously discussed S&M, potentially violent. I do not believe, however, that he is advocating literal violence, more a violence of feeling or experience. Indeed, later it is written that love  cannot be divorced from ‘a feeling of panic and sacred horror.’

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Love is, however, only one half of the novel’s title, and liberty is, in my opinion, and the author’s, just as important. The book begins with a woman shedding her clothing in public, a woman who is, by virtue of this act, liberating herself. This undressing could be seen in a sexual context, for the man following her, as previously noted, picks up her clothes, and smells her underwear; but I think there is a broader significance. Desnos was, I believe, interested in all forms of freedom, not just sexual freedom. In fact, surrealism, as an artistic movement, was concerned with rejecting conventions, with aesthetic [and moral] liberation. This is born out in the novel under review here, which not only lacks traditional characterisation and plot, but also revels in the unexpected. At one point, for example, Louise dies, only to reappear later. More beguilingly, there is the story of the skinless leopard, which is inspired by Louise’s fur coat, the talking cobblestone, and the mermaid who changes her scales, creating ‘a snowstorm of green and white.’ These episodes are not treated as strange excursions, they are fully integrated into the text, and are accepted by those within it on face value.

Before finishing, it is worth looking at the title one last time. Love or Liberty. In order to get closer to understanding Desnos’ beautiful, yet often confusing, work, one must, I feel, account for that or. The author is suggesting that it is a choice, that it is one or the other, that we cannot have both love and liberty. Indeed, he writes that love is ‘the only valid reason for temporary slavery.’ When in love one does not have absolute freedom, because one’s hopes, one’s desires, one’s happiness, one’s day-to-day life, is tied up with someone else, these things are at least partly dependant upon another. Love means, for me, and this is perhaps why I consider myself incapable of it, vulnerability, it means a voluntary relinquishing of complete control and power over oneself; it means holding out your arms for ‘the gentle handcuffs.’ Indeed, I saw in Liberty or Love! a message to myself: ‘Young convict, it is time to print a number on your calico shirt and fetter your ankle with the heavy ball of your successive loves.’

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THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS BY JOSEF SKVORECKY

I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.

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[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.

THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES BY KOBO ABE

One of my favourite topics of conversation is the relationship between man and the natural world. We are, where nature is concerned, both lovers and fighters, protectors and conquerers, but the mountain, the desert, or whatever, is, amusingly, entirely indifferent to us. The natural world cares not a fig for man and his intentions and desires. Yet this does not prevent us from being almost completely at its mercy; we are helpless in the face of the big wave, the punishing sun, the labyrinthian forest…the deluge, the drought…the snowstorm, the earthquake.

Despite being the indoor type, there have been a few times that I have been exposed to this power. For example, I was once caught out in a rainstorm, which came with a force I was unaccustomed to and unprepared for. The rain beat down; it cudgeled me. Within seconds my entire body was soaking wet, so that touching myself was like immersing my hand in a cold river. I could have hailed a taxi, but I had quickly descended into a state close to madness. I took the rain to be my enemy, to be something I had to overcome. I cursed the sky under my breath; I cursed a God I don’t believe in. And I plodded on, in shoes that now had the consistency, and protective capacity, of cardboard. My hair fell into my eyes, grasped at my face. My glasses were useless. I couldn’t see. One downpour and I had stopped being able to function; I had been brought to my knees.

All of which puts me in mind of Kobo Abe’s claustrophobic classic The Woman in the Dunes. The novel begins with a kind of preface concerning the disappearance of Jumpei, an ordinary man, a teacher, who, we’re told, having a keen interest in the natural world, had set out one August day in order to study insects in a sandy region of Japan, and had not returned. A few theories are floated – another woman? Suicide? – but we soon find out that he has, in a sense, been kidnapped, that he has been tricked into staying in a house at the bottom of what is essentially a large, unstable hole in the ground.

“What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”

The layman perception of sand, or this layman anyway, is that it is relatively hostile to life. Indeed, Jumpei – who is, if not an authority on the subject, at least fairly knowledgeable – acknowledges that is an ‘unfavourable environment’ in which only certain, especially adaptable, creatures, such as flies, can thrive. So, from the earliest stages of the novel, even before the teacher is captured, one is left in no doubt that it is not compatible with man. In fact, Abe, impressively borrowing from the horror genre, makes it seem almost sinister. At one point Jumpei sits down for a cigarette, and the sand, the ever mobile sand, starts to encroach, to cover his trousers, to almost devour him like a malevolent, hungry beast.

However, it is when he finds himself in the hole, and is denied almost all manmade comforts, that he is forced into a true, dire confrontation with the substance, with, essentially, the natural world. It is interesting, in this regard, that Jumpei is a teacher, a pedagogue, because one generally sees them as logical and assured. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Abe chose to pit such a man against something – sand – that cannot, of course, be reasoned with. Moreover, numerous times the sand does not conform to Jumpei’s expectations, suggesting that it cannot be predicted or worked out either.

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Generally speaking, I avoid descriptions, certainly in list form, of situations, important action or plot, but in this instance I believe it is necessary to fully understand the teacher’s brutal relationship with such apparently innocuous ‘stuff.’ Jumpei finds that it sticks to his face, to his body; it inflames his eyes; it gets into his mouth, and a ‘brownish scum’ oozes from the corners of his lips; and when he pulls his packet of cigarettes from his pocket there is sand there too. It gets, without exaggeration, everywhere, and it is not, as noted, friendly. Even the house, it is said, is being rotted by the sand, so that it unceasingly pours through the roof. In one of the novel’s most absurd, and funny, scenes Jumpei eats his food while the woman holds an umbrella over his head. Meanwhile, there is always the threat of a fatal avalanche or sandslide.

In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is significantly different from the work of Kafka, or certainly his two major novels, to which it is frequently compared. Kafka’s protagonists are oppressed by man; they are thrown into absurd situations and try to get answers, try to make headway, but find that other people, in their irrationality, ignorance or stupidity, prevent them from doing so; they are symbolically, not literally trapped. You see something of this in Abe’s work, for Jumpei is forced to remain in the hole by the villagers, despite his protestations, but their behaviour is not irrational, it is done, perhaps unfeelingly, but for a very specific, logical, reason. Therefore, Dunes actually has more in common with Fowles’ The Collector, or with films such as The Human Centipede or the more recent Room. Moreover, although there is snow in The Castle, it does not act as K.’s oppressor, he does not enter [willingly or otherwise] into battle with it.

“The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

I have not, so far, much concerned myself with the woman of the title. I imagine that you have guessed already that she lives in the house at the bottom of the hole, that it is her home. There was, for me, something amusing about this set-up. Not only is Jumpei kidnapped, and forced to live and work in a sandy hell, he is supplied with what is essentially a wife, one not of his own choosing. For anyone who suffers from intimacy, or commitment, issues this will no doubt cause a few shudders. The woman is referred to by the villagers as ‘granny,’ even though she apparently looks around thirty, one would assume as a way of suggesting that the environment has taken a toll on her, and as a way of making Jumpei’s situation seem even more grim [one thing being locked up with a sexpot, another with a grandmother] and to emphasise her lack of sexual appeal.

The woman is, moreover, consistently submissive. One wonders if this is a tactic she employs in order to disarm the teacher, and keep him calm, in the same way that one might freeze in the face of an agitated animal. Yet, as the novel progresses, it struck me that it is more suggestive of her status as a victim. One tends to immediately sympathise with Jumpei because he has been taken out of his ‘natural’ environment, he has more obviously lost something, been denied something i.e. his freedom. But I came to view the tragedy of the novel to be the woman’s, not his. She is resigned to her fate, to living in such awful conditions; she doesn’t desire anything, it seems, except company, if not from a man then from a radio or a mirror, at least. She, and indeed all the villagers, are, in a sense, social outcasts, they are Japan’s poor, forgotten and abandoned. There was, and perhaps still is, a caste system in the country, and one might see the villagers as representative of the lowest order, called Burakumin.

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Numerous times throughout the novel Abe points out that sand is never stationary, in other words it is free, which is ironic because Jumpei is not, of course. It is hardly a surprise that freedom is the central theme of the book, but it extends beyond the kidnapping. First of all, Jumpei’s holiday, his going to the dunes, is clearly a form of escape. It is something that he does in order to take a break from his unsatisfying existence. So, in essence, he swaps one form of slavery, one unfree mode of living, for another. Moreover, to be imprisoned is, without question, unpleasant, but it is more unpleasant, one would imagine, if your ‘cellmate’ cannot, or will not, acknowledge that you, and she, are actually in prison. I thought that was a clever, subtle twist.

Yet what is most important, most moving, is what Abe has to say about the nature of freedom, about what it consists of. Throughout the book Jumpei is looking for ways to get out, to return to the surface, and he also, at times, refuses to work, to clear away the sand. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers water, or a way of extracting water from the sand, and this discovery delights and stimulates him, to such an extent that he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay and work on it. Therefore, the ultimate message of The Woman in the Dunes seems to be that freedom is not about being able to go where you want to go, it is to be free from repetitive action, from mind-numbing work. To live, to be free, is to be fulfilled; it is hope, it is meaningful preoccupation. Which is, all told, a lovely sentiment.

The pictures in this review are stills taken from the 1964 film adaption of the book, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

WE BY ZEVGENY ZAMYATIN

I realised some time ago that I need freedom in all aspects of my life, that without it I become surly and depressed. My commitment fears; my intense, relentless fantasies about escape; my interest in creative subjects or activities; even the animals I admire [foxes, wolves, hares]: it all comes back to the same thing. Moreover, when I think back to my schooldays or any job I have had I’m immediately struck by how resistant I am to authority, so that if anyone tries to tell me what to do, or if it is demanded that I behave like everyone else, I immediately [childishly, perhaps] rebel. For example, whenever I was set a task in class, specifically in English or Art or Philosophy, subjects that I associated with a lack of rules, I would disregard it and do my own thing. Most of the time my teachers and lecturers accepted my work, welcomed it even, but there were occasions when I clearly pissed them off. I remember one time we were asked to write a story, and I made a suggestion about what I wanted to do, and this was rejected. And so I wrote something about murder and sodomy instead, and ended up getting dragged in front of the headmaster.

In this way, I am the opposite of D-503, the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential dystopian novel We, at least in the beginning anyway. When we meet D-503 he is a happy and productive drone, a mathematician [of course!] and engineer who is helping to build the Integral, which is a sort of space-rocket that is part of a plan to bring the One State’s ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ to other planets and civilisations [by force if necessary!]. Everything in the One State is regulated, is by appointment. You wake up, go to work, have your leisure time, etc when you are told to, at the prescribed hour; indeed, there is a Table of Hours, in which the greater part of your life is mapped out.

In Zamyatin’s future world, the focus is not on the I, but on the we. The One State is like a machine, and while people do have a defined function or role within it, it is the machine that takes precedence. Individuality is a threat to the perfect running of the machine, because individuals, with their own unique hopes and dreams and desires, are unpredictable. However, as noted, D-503 is not only happy to accept the prevailing conditions, the restricted or unfree mode of living, but is, in fact, convinced of its rightness and logicality. He also frequently scoffs at the Ancients [i.e. us] whose lives were defined by chaos, at one point dismissing our love of clouds, which for him spoil the perfect sterile blue of the sky.

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[From a series of images based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We by Eda Akaltun]

Bearing all this in mind, one can see why We is often thought to be a comment upon, a critique of, Communism, or at least a warning or prediction of what Communism might lead to. Communism, on the most basic level, advocates a classless society, whereby everyone has the same status, and what is produced by the collective or community is shared equally or according to one’s needs. Therefore, We, and specifically the One State, where everyone dresses the same, has a number for a name, etc, could be considered to be a Communist state taken to its logical conclusion. Yet, for me, the One State utopia ought not to be compared to a specific political movement. If it is the model for anything it is a number of dictatorial regimes, most of which are/were not Communistic [although there is, of course, something of a connection between Communism and tyranny]. The inhabitants of the One State are dictated to by a supreme leader called the Benefactor, who cannot be voted out of power; and those who rebel, or do not do as they are told, are publicly liquidated. Yet, even this interpretation is unsatisfactory, because there is no sense that the people, the cyphers or drones, are being exploited or generally mistreated.

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation of what is going on in We is that it is a kind of retelling of the Adam and Eve story. The heart of that story is the question of whether it is better to live free and have the potential to be unhappy, or to have no free will but guaranteed happiness [i.e. to never feel pain etc], and this is also what Zamyatin asks you to consider. In the beginning of the book, D-503 [Adam] is living in a state of blissful ignorance. He then meets I-330 [Eve], and together they taste the forbidden fruit of freedom by doing things that are against the rules. In doing so, they cause trouble in Paradise [the One State] and piss off God [the Benefactor]. Was D-503 better off not knowing 1-330? Was he happier having never experienced obsession, jealousy, rage etc? Possibly, but I’m personally an advocate of letting your soul get a little dirty from time to time.

However, I must confess that if all that was all the novel had to offer, if it was simply a political or religious allegory or satire, I might not have made it to the end. I’m on record regarding my dissatisfaction with satire and allegory, and I don’t want to go over that again, except to say that, for me, satirical or allegorical dystopian novels are often not nearly as inventive, clever or funny as they think they are. So, for example, when we are told that D-503 finds it odd that the results of our [the Ancients] elections aren’t known beforehand like theirs are, where there is only one candidate [the Benefactor], I might smile slightly to myself, and think ‘yeah, I see what you’ve done there,’ but I’m hardly knocked out by how profound this observation is. Moreover, for a book that is credited with such foresight and prescience, We also suffers from feeling rather dated or too familiar, mostly owing to the writers [Orwell, Huxley etc] who were heavily influenced by the Russian’s work and used it for the basis of their own.

“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

What I did find engaging, and what, for me, ensures that We is still worth reading, that it will always be worth reading, is the prose style and what Zamyatin had to say about love. When we meet D-503 he is involved in a pseudo-relationship with O-90, a rather chubby and cheery non-entity. D-503 doesn’t love her, but, rather, there is a kind of mindless acceptance of the situation, as though it is a duty fulfilled. Yet when D-503 meets I-330 his world [literally] changes. Crucially, I-330 is different to O-90; O-90 is comfortable, safe, obliging. I-330, on the other hand, is mysterious and maddening. Throughout the text there are frequent references to lips and mouths, and it is telling that O-90’s is described as ‘inviting’ D-503’s words, while’s I-330’s contains sharp teeth.

So, while we may be dealing with future worlds and all that, D-503’s initial situation is the age-old human predicament of being caught between two women, of having a nice but dull girlfriend, but feeling drawn to someone more challenging. Ah, yes, we’ve all been there D. Yet just when you think that We is going to be a sci-fi Age of Innocence, it actually morphs into something else altogether, something more unsettling and, well, ultimately unhinged. As is often the case with these threesomes, D casts aside the safe-option, and goes all in with the woman who is clearly going to be hard work. It was possible that one would lose sympathy for D at this stage, that one would see him as callous or selfish, but that is not the case. In fact, the process of D falling in love for the first time happens to be really quite moving. First love is, of course, invariably a bitch. I’m sure you can remember yours as well as I can remember mine. The confusion, the despair…feeling as though something has entered you, and not being sure whether it is wonderful or toxic. One minute you were absolutely carefree, and now suddenly you feel plagued, discomforted. Zamyatin describes this disturbance of one’s equilibrium as like having a fine eyelash in your eye. I was really very taken with that.

As a consequence of being in love, D starts to act rashly, to make poor decisions, to lie. He is, in fact, prepared to do whatever it takes to please I-300 and get close to her, even if it means participating in the destruction of the One State he admires so much. Sounds familiar, right? Oh, of course, our love-lives do not, as a rule, have serious socio-political consequences, but what Zamyatin seems to be suggesting is that love is a dangerous business, and I happen to agree with him on that point. Love is chaos, it is illogicality, it is, well, yeah, it is freedom. Great, isn’t it? When one considers all this one comes to realise that the title of the book has a significance beyond the political, that it refers to a couple, a relationship. We, us, me and my true love.

“Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.”

There is so much more that I want to say about D and I, about how one can interpret their relationship, about how even though I-300 just isn’t, y’know, as into it as he is, what matters is that he took a chance, that he opened himself up to the possibility of heartache, and how, for me, that is life at its best, that is what freedom truly is, but I am conscious of how long this review is already. I do, however, before I finish, want to briefly touch upon how intense a reading experience, and how unrelentingly psychological, We is, because I wasn’t prepared for that at all. One must remember that D is a man in crisis, a man who totally buys into the One State idea, and so as he follows I, as he rebels against it, one witnesses the entire fabric of his existence coming apart; this is a man, a mind, crumbling before your eyes. At times it is torturous to read in a way that only Dostoevsky’s work can match.

I haven’t yet said a great deal about the prose style, and I ought to to, because it is fantastic. I have never been accomplished at maths. My mind just isn’t wired that way. I knew enough to pass my GCSE, but I’ve always found numbers, equations, formulas, strangely alien and alienating, cold and restrictive. It is entirely apt then that We is strewn with mathematical references, language and symbols. Indeed, D-503 often uses mathematical imagery to describe people and things, which may sound gimmicky but is actually incredibly impressive. Less successful is the plot, which is episodic, repetitive, and never really goes anywhere, but I can forgive all that when the sentences are so beautiful, so idiosyncratic. More than anything, We reads like a delirious poem, a love poem for I-330, and for you too, you flawed but sometimes marvellous creatures.

EVERYTHING FLOWS BY VASILY GROSSMAN

It was with trepidation that I picked this up. As I wrote in my review, Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate is the only book I have ever snapped shut, not out of boredom or irritation or a desire to read something else, but out of fear, a fear of what I would be exposed to and how it would affect me. More than once – as I carried it around with me during the day, fitting in a few pages here and there – I made a fool of myself in public, especially at work, during breaks, sitting there damp about the eyes, with a pained expression on my face, and a lower lip starting to tremble. I had visions, as I came to read Everything Flows, of being solemnly escorted out of the building, a broken man, my head resting on the ample bosom of a stout motherly woman…’what’s wrong with him?’ my colleagues will ask her. ‘I have no idea! He was just reading a book.’

As one would expect of a book that only just breaches 200 pages, Everything Flows is much narrower in focus [in terms of its basic storyline], and less epic and panoramic, than Grossman’s masterpiece; it was, moreover, unfinished at the time of the author’s death, which perhaps accounts for how episodic it is. The man tying these episodes together is Ivan Grigoryevich, who has just been released from prison [after a total of 29 years] following the death of Joseph Stalin. The passing of Uncle Joe is significant, because it led to the overturning of many unsound convictions – including, in this instance, Ivan’s – and this, this acceptance by the State that people had been locked up, and murdered, on trumped up charges, meant that ordinary Russians had some uncomfortable truths to confront, not only about how their government had behaved but in terms of their own guilt or culpability also.

“The sea was not freedom; it was a likeness of freedom, a symbol of freedom…How splendid freedom must be if a mere likeness of it, a mere reminder of it, is enough to fill a man with happiness.”

What is most striking about Ivan is that, although he is so central to the plot, he is, as a character, almost non-existent. He is described as a once sensitive, timid and shy child, and, despite his experiences in labour camps, he has maintained a reserved bearing, calmness and politeness, so much so that other characters think him odd, or naïve, or simply stupid. Much like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, it is through this meek man, through their interactions with him, that others reveal their baser tendencies, or weaknesses or flaws. Take his cousin, Nikolay, a scientist who Ivan first visits upon his release. Nikolay has a guilty conscience, for he had not been denounced or arrested; he had, in fact, prospered under Stalin. He could not be said to have been entirely in favour of what went down, in fact he was much troubled by what happened to Jews and other prominent intellectuals, but he didn’t openly oppose it either; he didn’t speak out when they were relieved of their posts, when they were ostracised, etc.

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[Workers in a Soviet Gulag]

Throughout the opening stages of the book Grossman explores complicity in its different forms. He suggests that Nikolay was complicit in his inaction, in his reluctance to question the Party line, but most of all in his attempts to justify himself, or lie to himself, in order to have some peace of mind. It is a familiar story that those caught up in such large-scale abuses of power find it difficult to believe, or accept, what is actually happening; they doubt what they see or make excuses for it, because the truth is so awful, and, if accepted, the truth of things – that entirely innocent people are being systematically brutalised and murdered – necessitates action – because only a bad person could do nothing in the face of such horror – which is the last thing that most people want; they do not want to have to fight or oppose.

If challenged, those guilty of the complicity of inaction are likely to argue that they are but one man, so what can or could they do or have done? They also abdicate responsibility to the State or to authority. ‘It was not I, it was them; I trusted them to do the right thing…and so when they told me that such-and-such was guilty of a crime I believed them.’ I see this kind of passivity, this passing on of responsibility in the face of disgraceful authoritarian action, this moral weakness, all the time. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ applied to criminal cases? The idea is that if someone is accused of something there must be a reason for it, even if we cannot see it ourselves. It isn’t that people really believe the State is infallible, it is simply that it is easier to think so, to tell yourself so.

“The criminals had, after all, confessed during the trials[…]they had been questioned in public by a man with a university degree[…]there had been no doubt about their guilt, not a shadow of a doubt.”

After leaving Nikolay’s house, Ivan crosses paths with Pinegin, who is the man responsible for denouncing him. Pinegin worries that Ivan knows that it was him, but assures himself that he is imagining it. Here the emphasis is not on what people will allow to happen, what they passively sanction, but what ordinary human beings are actually capable of. I wrote in my review of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen that we comfort ourselves with the thought that we would never actively participate in mass oppression but normal people did and do. Grossman explores in detail why that is the case. Why do ordinary people condemn or murder for their governments? Are they evil? No, unfortunately not. Evil as a concept is, I’m afraid, simply another comfort blanket.

Some participate in order to get ahead, in order to prosper. If you help to oppress another group, not only can you take what is theirs, but there is less competition for what is not, for jobs, etc. There is also the pleasant feeling of being useful to the State, of being valued by the State. People like to be praised, they like to think that they are important or necessary. In Russia at the time, people wanted to serve Stalin, they admired him, loved him even. In terms of Pinegin, he denounced Ivan not because he hated him, but because that is what the State asked of him; he was, Grossman suggests, simply following orders or doing his duty. It isn’t, one could argue, for the common man to make these kinds of decisions, about what is right and wrong and fair or unfair, that is the responsibility of the State.* For me, there is an interesting subtext to all this, which is that morality is changeable, is malleable, and so if a State or an authority decide that someone is guilty, then they become guilty. It does not matter if another authority would declare them innocent. Therefore, those who participated in the functioning and application of that authority were also innocent, were in fact in the right, because they were behaving in accordance with the laws, rules and culture of their society.

Most of what I have discussed so far is found in the first fifty or so pages. For me, this was the strongest section of the book. Beyond those first fifty pages the storyline disappears somewhat, and Ivan gets lost among a series of [admittedly, very engaging] essays, ranging from the nature of freedom and hope, to collectivisation and a number of chapters dedicated to understanding Lenin and his role in what followed him. Therefore, as a novel, as a work of fiction, Everything Flows is a bit of a mess, is, in all honesty, not successful at all. Life & Fate also includes philosophical essays but they ride alongside a well-crafted narrative, are fully integrated into the text. This is not, however, too serious a criticism, especially when one remembers that the book was unfinished at the time of Grossman’s death; one assumes that, if he had had more time, he might have developed Ivan’s story so that it would not simply trail-off.

More of an issue is that Grossman’s treatment of the Russian peasantry and the oppressed is romanticised, so that it has almost a propagandistic flavour; indeed, I felt as though I, as the reader, was being manipulated somewhat. For example, during the chapter on collectivisation – which is, I might add, possibly the most harrowing and upsetting thing I have ever read – Grossman writes about one mother reading fairy-tales to her starving, dying children in an effort to distract them from their pain. All the oppressed people throughout the book are so lovingly described, they are all so gentle, so noble, so kind and patient and forbearing in their suffering that it just does not ring true. They are, like Ivan, like Prince Myshkin, christ-like, they are representations of The Russian Soul. For the record, I want to point out that my sympathy is entirely with them, with the ill-treated, with the genuine, real victims of Stalinism; in fact, there is a certain level of guilt accompanying my words here, but I am trying to approach the book as literature; and, as such, Everything Flows is a failure. But, then, I guess that a believable, successful novel was never really Grossman’s aim; what he wanted to do was try to understand what had happened to his beautiful country, his beautiful people, and so one can overlook, even admire, a touch of sentimentality.

For a book that had such a powerful emotional and intellectual hold on me, I do not want to end on a criticism. I said to someone the other day that Vasily Grossman had a simple, direct way of getting to the heart of everything, that I find very moving. And on that note I’ll finish up with something from the text, something simple and direct, and pretty fucking devastating…

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*these arguments, where it appears as though one is trying to absolve those who participate in tyrannical regimes, are Grossman’s not mine.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV

I’ve written before about how I often lament the fact that I can no longer read with an open heart, without judging and analysing every aspect of what I am reading. I’ve become ultra-sensitive, overly-critical, and, I worry, perhaps somewhat joyless. I wish, sometimes, that I could somehow go back to being sixteen years old, when I enjoyed pretty much any book I picked up on its own terms, without thinking too much about why and certainly without mercilessly probing the text for weaknesses. However, after rereading The Master and Margarita  – Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel about Satan’s visit to Moscow – I have been reminded that being an older [relatively speaking] and more experienced reader can have its benefits too.

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[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]

The first time I read this novel I liked it, but I did not get as much from it as I did on this occasion. That is, of course, on me. More specifically, it is due to the age I was and, consequently, how unsophisticated my reading was at that point in my life. I’ve always loved Russian literature, but my knowledge of Russian culture and history, particularly the period during which Joseph Stalin was in power, is much more comprehensive these days. And so there are things in the text that, yes, as a teenager I may have simply taken on face value, but which, due to my ignorance, may therefore have struck me as frivolous or meaningless. However, what I found as I came to reread the book is that, with more experience and with more knowledge, the things that I would have smiled gormlessly at before I am now able to properly appreciate.

For example, The Master and Margarita begins with two men, two literary types, at Patriarch’s Ponds. While having a conversation about the non-existence of Jesus, they are approached by a peculiar gentleman [Woland-Satan] whom they take to be ‘a foreigner’ and perhaps a ‘spy.’ This isn’t, of course, mere silliness, but is a sardonic wink at Soviet paranoia and the very real fear that one might, by talking to someone one shouldn’t, end up being arrested. Likewise, the conversation about Jesus, the pride the two men take in their atheism, is a reference to Communism’s drive to discredit religious belief [the rationale, I imagine, being that one cannot have something  – a belief in a divinity – that in a sense supersedes the authority of the dictator].

If you are at all interested in Communism and Stalin, one will be aware of what were the consequences of not toeing the Party line, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or saying what could be construed as the wrong thing i.e. you were arrested, interrogated, maybe killed, or shipped off to Siberia. In relation to this, it was apparent to me this time that The Master and Margarita, especially in the early chapters, is full of denunciations and sudden disappearances [it is worth noting that when someone suddenly disappears we often say that it was ‘as if by magic,’ while the disappearances in the text are, of course, literally the result of magic].

“And it was two years ago that inexplicable things started happening in the apartment: people started disappearing without a trace.”

The book is, then, very obviously a political satire, one that trades in often complex allegory. Perhaps the most well developed example is the second chapter dealing with Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov’s Jesus is also arrested for saying the wrong thing[s], is, in effect, denounced by various people, and therefore ends up being interrogated and executed. Likewise, in the opening chapter, Berlioz wants to inform on Woland; and another character, Styopa, is essentially exiled to Yalta.

Of course, fear and paranoia, exile and denunciation, were only part of the Soviet experience during the period that Bulgakov was working on the novel [1928-1940]. Throughout, he touches on a variety of other subjects [the housing crisis, being one], and attacks various types, or sections of society, that he considered to be avaricious or corrupt.

“Everyone knows how hard it is to acquire money; obstacles to that can always be found. But not once in his thirty years of experience had the bookkeeper ever found anyone, whether an official or a private citizen, who had difficulty accepting money.”

However, he seems to reserve a special kind of antipathy for artists or those involved in the artistic industry. For instance, poets, editors, and writers are routinely mocked, and, at the hands of Woland and his retinue, suffer the worst fates. One might wonder just what it was about this apparently harmless group that ground Bulgakov’s gears. If one was being uncharitable one could put it down to a kind of professional jealousy, but it would be extraordinarily petty to compose a whole novel in that frame of mind. If I had to guess at the main source of Bulgakov’s ire I would say that he disliked them for what he saw as their complicity. Consider how to be an artist in Russia at that time it was probably in your interests to self-censor, but that it was almost impossible to create something that could not be deemed controversial, and so one was always likely to face rejection or condemnation from cowardly editors and publishers and theatre managers etc. Moreover, some artists went even further and willingly produced or backed State propaganda, this despite knowing that it was, well, not only not in the public’s interest [because they deserved the truth] but that it was also bad art [it’s telling that Bezdomny admits that his poems are terrible]. Of course, you can’t ask everyone to openly and aggressively fight against the machine, some are just not up to it, but, on the other hand, one doesn’t have to oil its wheels either.

On one level, the book is a kind of revenge fantasy. If you know anything about the author’s life you will be aware that he had a personal bone to pick with many of his targets. A number of Bulgakov’s works were banned, and he struggled in vain to get this novel into print, and so having the Devil descend upon Moscow to wreak havoc and cause chaos amongst the kind of people who rejected him must have been incredibly satisfying. Indeed, an important storyline in the novel is about a failed writer, the Master, who too cannot get his manuscript published, who is denounced [there’s that word again] in the press, and who ultimately burns the script [which is also something that Bulgakov himself did with an earlier draft]. For me, one of the major themes in The Master and Margarita is freedom, both personal and creative. In this way, perhaps the most moving scene in the whole novel is Margarita’s flight through Moscow on a broomstick; there she is, naked, high above the city, absolutely free, and having the fucking time of her life.

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One of the surprises for me this time was that I found the book much funnier. Everyone always comments on the humour, and I must admit that previously it had almost completely passed me by. Again, I think some of that has to do with increased knowledge. For example, Berlioz wanting to inform on Satan is not really funny unless you understand something about the climate of the time; likewise, with the immediate designation of Woland as a foreigner, and all the suspicion that this entails, and the experience of Berlioz’s uncle when he tries to appropriate the deceased’s apartment. However, there are also some scenes that don’t rely on a political subtext to amuse. My favourites were the dancing sparrow in the doctor’s office and Ivan turning up at the Greboyedov restaurant in his underwear and Behemoth gilding his whiskers. Yet, having said all that, I must admit that some of the comedy is a little tiresome. There are passages, or episodes, in the text that I felt were sloppy, or lazy, or certainly unsophisticated, where I got the impression that Bulgakov thought that the mere presence of Satan and his retinue was enough to hold your attention and provide laughs, because, let’s face it, any set-up, or situation, becomes more engrossing and amusing if you plonk the Devil or a walking and talking cat into it. A walking cat! And, uh, y’know, that’s surprising…look at how surprised that character is…his eyes all popping out of his head…and, yes, I’d smirk and keep turning the pages, but it was a guilty kind of smirk, such as one might produce if one sees someone fall over.

This also leads me onto a more serious criticism, which is that the novel, at least in the first part, is repetitive; it is pretty much the same thing over and over again. Satan or one of his retinue will befuddle some dude, who, as a result, starts to question his sanity, before disappearing or ending up in the insane asylum. It struck me that this is why I remembered so little of the book after first reading it. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance level where this kind of thing is concerned. Mine is pretty high; I’ve read the similarly episodic, and much longer, Don Quixote twice; but unlike Don Quixote, or Tom Jones, The Master and Margarita does not really have a central character upon which to hang these episodes, and so it does at times seem unfocussed and even more rambling. It is worth remembering, however, that Bulgakov did not finish his novel; and so, as with Kafka’s work, these criticisms seem a little mean-spirited. Besides, what saves the book, even during the longueurs, is the author’s compassion and sensitivity and way with a memorable epigram; you’ll be reading a chapter and thinking ‘Christ, this is a drag’ and then he’ll hit you with a line like:

“Punch a man on the nose, kick an old man downstairs, shoot somebody or any old thing like that, that’s my job. But argue with women in love—no thank you!”

And you’ll immediately repent. Ah, I didn’t mean it, Mikhail, you’re a wonderful fucker!

Before I finish I want to say something about translation. I have it on good authority, from a number of Russian speakers/readers, that The Master and Margarita has never been successfully rendered into English. Recently an acquaintance of mine called it, in Russian, profound, and, well, I was quite shocked by that. Profound? As much as I have enjoyed the book that, profound, was one of the words furthest from my mind while I turned the pages. Now, I certainly am not scoffing at this description of the novel; in fact, I cannot even challenge it. Regardless of how we speak about translated literature – i.e. we instinctively want to say that we have read Proust, or Mann or whoever – the reality is that, unless we have access to it in its original form, we have only ever read someone’s idea of a writer or a book, and this someone is, in most cases, not a talented writer themselves.

That I am in no position to accurately judge Bulgakov, or any other foreign writer, is a source of extreme frustration to me. This frustration is made even greater by the possibility, the likelihood even, that I am missing out on something amazing, or, well, yes, profound; but, what, other than learning Russian, can you do about it? Sweet f.a., I’m afraid. Yet one has to wonder why is it not possible to capture that profundity in English, at least to some extent? One of the problems is that it is difficult to translate humour or satire, especially puns, plays on words, or words that have a double meaning, so that the richer, the more layered a work is the more likely it is that it will seem flat in English. Just consider how Ulysses might read in, say, French and how much would necessarily be lost and how, once stripped of certain layers, it might strike a French reader as no more than a tedious trawl around Dublin in the company of an ordinary bloke.

You might wonder where I am going with all this. To be honest, I’m starting to wonder myself. Am I saying that you should not read The Master and Margarita except in Russian? No, of course not; why deny yourself what is a tremendous work of fiction. I guess, more than anything, I am saying that choosing the best translation is vital, that one should always put some effort into it, because while one cannot access the real thing, or have the full experience, one should endeavour to get as close to it as possible. So which translation should you read? Ah, even this question is a tough one. Those best able to answer it will be those who have read the original and several translations. However, as this is my review I’m going to go ahead and give my opinion anyway. It is well-known by now, I imagine, that I have reservations, to say the least, about modern translations in general and the cult of the super-celebrity translator[s] in particular. This group of super-celebrity translators, which includes Michael Hofmann and Pevear and Volokhonsky, in my opinion, allow their ego to dictate how they render a work, by which I mean that each one of their translations will bear their own particular stamp, so that you, or I anyway, would be able to recognise their hand in something even without knowing who translated it. On this basis, I have never, and would never, read P&V’s version of The Master and Margarita. There are, however, numerous other versions, including the much criticised Michael Glenny, the acclaimed Mirra Ginsberg, and Burgin and O’Connor.

I first time I read the book I went for Burgin and O’Connor. My choice, at that time, was dictated by numerous reviews labelling their version the most satisfying. These days, in light of the critical success of P&V, I won’t blindly accept the prevailing opinion. For my re-read, I considered Glenny, who is thought to be the least accurate of all the translators to tackle the book, but whose version, for me, flows best in English; but he was not working from the complete text. I was drawn to the Ginsberg translation, but found, when comparing it to Burgin and O’Connor, that the differences were superficial, so, bearing in mind that Ginsberg was also working from an incomplete text, I decided to stick with my original choice. As with my first read, I found the style somewhat flat and laboured, which I am assured is not the case in Russian. In their introduction the duo claim that they tried to preserve the original word order and the length of Bulgakov’s sentences; and this, I think, explains a lot. If you try to be too literal what you end up with is inelegant, sometimes confusing English, because no two languages follow the same rules, of course. In my humble opinion, rather than pat themselves on the back for sticking so closely to the original, some translators would do better to concern themselves with the soul of the sentences. In conclusion then, the most I can say about Burgin and O’Connor’s version is that it is workman-like and readable and probably, if you want the complete text at least, the best we have at the moment.

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

In 874 CE a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson, became the first permanent settler on the island that came to be known as Iceland. Ah, truly an independent man! One can’t help but think that Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the dominant character in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, would have approved of such a state of affairs. As the novel begins, Bjartur has purchased his own piece of land, after working, for eighteen years, for the Bailiff. This is, despite the measly nature of the land and the shabby dwelling upon it, a momentous occasion for him; he is, at last, a free and independent person. Indeed, Bjartur prizes this independence above all else, so that it becomes almost a mania with him. For example, in the opening chapter there is told the story of the witch Gunnvor, out of which has grown a kind of superstition that one must, when passing her so-called resting place, ‘give her a stone.’ Bjartur, however, refuses, even when his new wife begs him out of a fear of bad luck. He would, it is clear, rather make her unhappy than compromise his principles, than for one moment sacrifice the smallest amount of his freedom [i.e. his freedom to act as he pleases]. Likewise, when she later yearns for some milk, he makes it clear that he will not countenance it because he cannot produce it himself. Bjartur will not ask for anything from anyone else, as he sees this as begging; nor will he accept gifts either.

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[Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus]

One might wonder then how one is to approach Bjartur, what one is to make of him, for there are elements of his personality and behaviour that are agreeable and elements that are, in contrast, entirely disagreeable. First of all, we instinctively root for those who strive for freedom; as we do those who live in accordance with their principles, and those who are prepared to work hard. However, his behaviour has disastrous results for his family. Hard work, principles, ideals, freedom, all that is well and good, but if the result is overwhelming misery then one must question whether it is worth it, whether the man who brings down this misery upon his family [if one wants to say that he does – and you do not want to blame economic conditions] is not actually a good person. This, for me, is one of the key questions that the novel raises: just how important are principles? Are they worth sacrificing your health and happiness for? I must admit that I was never really sure how I felt about Gudbjartur of Summerhouses. He has many admirable qualities, and he is capable of tenderness, but he is equally capable of monstrous behaviour.

“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.””

It is interesting in light of all this to consider that Laxness was, by all accounts, a Maxist. Indeed, he is said to have visited Russia prior to commencing work on Independent People and was very impressed. Even without this knowledge it is clear that with the novel Laxness was, to some extent, making a political statement. Throughout characters engage in political discussions, pass comment on the governing of the country, and wax philosophical about the status of the working man. Moreover, it is significant that the title is plural; Laxness is clearly not, therefore, only concerned with one resolute man, but, rather, an entire country or class. It is worth noting, in this regard, that from 1262 to 1918, Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark, and that the country itself only became independent in 1918, shortly before the novel was written.

Yet if you accept that Laxness was concerned with an entire class or country, and one considers the Maxist sympathies, then his message seems somewhat obscure [although this may have much to do with my own ignorance]. Marx was himself concerned with labour, production, and the proletariat, all of which obviously play such a big part in the narrative of Independent People. For the German, giving up the ownership of one’s labour is to be alienated from one’s own nature, resulting in a kind of spiritual loss. This seems somewhat in line with how Bjartur is presented, a man who certainly does own his own labour. However, Marx also advocated that the proletariat should have class consciousness, that they ought to organise, and ultimately challenge the prevailing system, which is not at all in keeping with Bjartur’s behaviour and opinions, as he is suspicious of political engagement and, well, men-at-large. For example, when the Bailiff’s son, Ingolfur, broaches the idea of a Co-operative Society for farmers, which would, he claims, prevent exploitation, Bjartur isn’t at all interested.

If Bjartur was intended as some kind of anti-capitalist hero then the book fails, because he is not necessarily against capitalism [he defends the merchant], he is simply against anything, or anyone, he deems to be in some way attempting to deny him freedom or independence. For Bjartur, one can be as ruthless and money-grubbing as one likes as long as you don’t interfere with him. Moreover, this free man, this man who owns his own labour, only ends up exacerbating the suffering of innocent people. As the novel progresses, the reader may legitimately ask if he, or certainly his family, wouldn’t have been better off remaining in the pay of a wealthier employer, if that wouldn’t be a more comfortable and therefore rational way of living. In fact, while one might look to the Bailiff and his wife – who periodically appears in the text in order to make glib and patronising statements about the working class, about how only poor people are truly happy, and how much she envies them. She contrasts this, of course, with the hard life of being a bourgeois employer, where all your money goes on paying wages and one cannot [the horror!] afford that dress you’ve had your eye on for a while – as the capitalist villains of the piece, the more I thought about it the more I realised that Bjartur himself could be called a capitalist, just not in the way that we tend to understand that term these days.

When someone says capitalist we [or certainly I] tend to imagine someone rich, with at least one thriving business, which is run on the toil of hired workers. Well, Bjartur is categorically not rich; nor does he own a thriving business; and the only workers he has are his own family. Yet his situation is a capitalist model; his farm, although not at all flourishing, is a private enterprise and his family are absolutely exploited as a means of production. The kids, the wife, all are expected to put in extremely long hours, and far from being rewarded commensurate to their efforts are actually given very little to eat, live in wretched circumstances [a small, foul-smelling, leaky hut] and have only rags to wear; indeed, these workers are actually sacrificed in order to protect the business’ assets [i.e. the sheep, which are given preferential treatment]. It is likely that I am wrong about all this, as I am admittedly no expert on Marxism and so on, but It was only when this interpretation came to me that the politics of the novel started to make more sense. Marx wrote about the “despotism of capital,” and that phrase could be seen to sum up this book.

I worry that so far I have made Laxness’ work seem horribly dry and grim and unapproachable. I mean, it is grim, there’s no way of getting around that, but it is not without warmth and humour and beauty either. Bjartur, although a kind of tyrant, is also a funny character, particularly in the opening stages of the novel; and even when things are at their blackest there are still moments of absurd comedy, for example, when Bjartur says, “A free man can live on fish. Independence is better than meat.” Furthermore, there is some fine nature writing which acts as a contrast to the unrelenting drudgery. In fact, Laxness’ prose is what makes the novel bearable. While I dislike throwing the word poetic around, because I think it is often used merely as a way of describing so-called superior or flowery writing, it is apt in this case; the Icelander was, I believe, actually a poet; and, well, it shows.

“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”

Moreover, as with all great novels of some heft, there are certain scenes in Independent People that will likely stay with you long after reading the book. For me, there are two in particular. First of all, there is the chapter when Bjartur leaves his wife Rosa on her own over night with his favourite gimmer [one of the Rev. Gudmundur’s breed, no less!] as company. Rosa, who has been on edge ever since not being allowed to give Gunnvor a stone, sees in the sheep’s frightened bleating some kind of evil omen. Laxness takes this potentially ridiculous set-up and manages to imbue it with a creeping tension and horror, until Rosa finally snaps and executes the gimmer. It is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful descriptions of madness in literature. The other big favourite of mine is when Bjartur goes in search of the sheep, for he doesn’t know it is dead, and spots a group of reindeer. He decides, being a strong-willed independent man, that he is going to capture the buck for meat. This is no easy feat, of course. During the struggle he climbs upon its back and the buck takes him into the river Glacier in an effort to throw him.

When I read another of Laxness’ most well-known works, World Light, last year I felt as though the characters lacked depth; it struck me that they had a signature mood or quirk, and that is all. As I reread Independent People I was starting to get the same feeling about Bjartur; yes, he has mania for independence and freedom…I get all that, I enjoy it, but one reaches a stage where this point has been hammered home so frequently in the first one hundred pages that you start to worry about another four hundred of it. What sets this book apart from World Light, and many other lesser novels, is that Laxness knew when to change it up. So when Bjartur’s one-man-show [he has a wife, of course, but she’s only really there for him to harangue about independence] starts to creak a bit, when it’s becoming repetitive, the author introduces a number of interesting new characters. In a way, one could criticise this move, for it is so abrupt, but providing Bjartur with a new wife, mother-in-law, and children gives the book fresh impetus. Moreover, this family is more finely crafted, have a greater emotional range and a more sophisticated inner life; this is particularly true of the children, Nonni and Asta, who are wonderful creations.

I’ve never been one for child worship, for finding a child’s misfortune worse than any other; I find that attitude quite odd, in fact; but Asta, Bjartur’s daughter from his first marriage, ruined me. She was born in extraordinary circumstances, tragic circumstances, and her life at Summerhouses proceeds in a manner no less tragic. There are numerous books that have moved me, many that have needled my personal sore spots [which this one does too, actually – anything to do with poverty tends to affect me emotionally], but this, as far as I can remember, is the only book ever to make me cry, to provoke a tear into dribbling miserably down my cheek. And it is all Asta’s fault. I’m not even sure why she got to me so much; she’s a sensitive, trusting slip of a girl, who, in her naivety or innocence, wants so little [her joy at being given an old worn dress of her mother’s all but finished me off], but, crucially, unlike her father, she does want; she is inquisitive, eager to learn. Maybe it is that: desiring such meagre or basic things, and being denied them. Or perhaps it is simply that having been brought up by a struggling single mother I just can’t bear to see women unhappy. I don’t know.

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that, after all the exhausting and frequently oppressive bleakness, there is, towards the end, a tiny shaft of light, a few whispered comforting words that suggest that love, at least, will endure. Ah, hold onto those words, store them in your heart, because a little hope, even blind hope, is the most precious thing of all.