An Evening With Svetlana Alexievitch

IMG_4319On Monday 2nd November Svetlana Alexievitch, Nobel Laureate, came to the Odeon Theatre, Paris. Under discussion was her latest book ,recently translated into French as La Fin de L’Homme Rouge [Second-hand Time in English] ,and her work in general.

Born in USSR in what is now Belarus , her writing spans 30 years  following the Soviet Union from the aftermath of WW2 through its decline and eventual fall.She is living in Minsk currently but her work caused her to live abroad for much of her professional life as it proved displeasing to the powers that be.

She is an unusual Nobel winner in that her work is non fiction. Described as ‘polyphonic writing’ by the Nobel Committee,  she uses interviews with ordinary people to document the events that have touched their lives….WW2, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Chernobyl and most recently the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

During the evening extracts from two of her books (Second-hand Time and War’s Unwomanly Face) were read beautifully by French actor Feodor Atkine. She was interviewed by French journalist Sylvain Bourmeau. The questions were asked in French then translated into Russian for Alexievitch by Alissa Kats, who then translated the replies into French for the audience. As I struggled to take notes in English from the French Q&A , I was filled with admiration for the translator’s skills. What follows will ,I hope ,give a flavour of the evening.


Bourmeau asked how she had found the ‘voice’ for her writing. Alexeivitch started as a journalist. She was born in a village in Belarus just after WW2 (1948). There were no men other than one or two old ones,  just women. Women who led very hard lives but who would get together and swap stories at the end of a days work. She grew up listening to these voices and came to realise that they were rarely heard in literature. She has tried to transcribe this voice .

She acknowledged her debt to the writer Ales Adamovitch who tried something similar with his book’ I’m From The Burned Village’ in which he interviewed the few survivors of a nazi reprisal. A whole village was burned in retribution for a partisan attack. In it she recognised her own voice and childhood and she loved this book.

To her own work she has added the dimension of time. She is of a different generation to Adamovitch. Who is Stalin is no longer the most important question. Today’s questions are more metaphysical.

Bourmeau wondered how she had perfected her interview technique. Alexievitch denied she had one! There is not one way of doing it , it really depends on the person and the subject.She finds that in general it is more difficult to interview men as there she is entering a different space. This is especially true when they are speaking about war……..she finds there is always a certain contempt or mistrust.

Most people are happy to speak in banalities. If you want something different you have to ask the question in a new way that makes them reflect. For example, when interviewing an Afghan veteran about his war experiences she asked him not what was it like but how did you not go mad with what you had to see and what you had to do?

Bourmeau then asked  how she managed to navigate time……..her work spans WW2 through Afghanistan, Chernobyl and now the fall of the Soviet Union. She doesn’t approach history in that way. It is always the person that interests her. Inside each individual are many people and a time but she is interested in l’homme eternel ,that is unchanged since classical times.

For example, a female tank soldier in WW2 told her the worst attacks were those that took place at dawn. She would see the sun rising, hear the birds singing and think that she may not see the end of the day. An Afghan veteran told her that when he was fighting he was only 19 . He didn’t want to die , he wanted to live, get married ,have a family. These things are unchanged over centuries. Putting it all together is what makes it literature.

Bourmeau knows as a journalist that it is very easy to put yourself into the person you are interviewing. How does she manage that? Alexievitch listens and then she has to transform the oral into the written.She has to reduce what is sometimes several hours of speaking into perhaps half a page of text as well as preserve the person she was speaking to. She has to reproduce what she heard, an époque, a person…..that is always very difficult. She is interested in what she calls the language of tears  – the ideas, the energy, the emotion.

Bourmeau asked why she decided to write this book which she has described as being one of her most difficult. To Alexievitch it did seem the logical next step to write about the aftermath of the USSR. This, together with her book about Chernobyl ( Voices From Chernobyl) have proved the most difficult. They were both completely new subjects. With WW2 there are whole libraries of books you can consult. Chernobyl was a mystery … there people were describing a fear of the earth, the air, the food.

After the fall of the empire, the Soviet Union divided into 15 different countries. Everything had been destroyed so that something could be reborn. The red man was still there but he was living in a different way.It was difficult to write about that.

Bourmeau wondered whether finding a title helped her to organise the material. Does it take a lot of time to put it together?

It is difficult to put together but there are usually 10 -15 accounts that stand out. Her aim is to put them together almost like a Greek chorus . They sing a history but there is always a vision beyond that. It is hard to describe how you do it…….you can’t ask Shostakovich how he put together his symphonies! At times it feels like she is fighting against chaos. Is there a limit to the horrors a person can take? How does man preserve his humanity ? These are the questions she is constantly exploring.

Alexievitch has described that the writing of her current work focussing on love and getting old is proving difficult to interview people about. Former soviet people find it hard to talk about individual emotions. Is there anything of the soviet still in her, Bourmeau wondered.

When she reviews the diaries that she has kept from a young age, Alexievitch thinks she has been a dissident from the cradle. The war in Afghanistan completely freed her from  sovietism.

When she travels and sees people begging on the streets she finds that very hard. She always wants to give money. That is the soviet in her, she thinks. Every person deserves the wherewithal to live…..that was part of the revolution. In the gulags there were many idealists.

Bourmeau pointed out that in her art, Alexievitch has opted for a documentary style and now she had received the Nobel prize rarely given for non fiction. Does she think this means a new form of writing has been recognised.

In painting new forms are welcomed and accepted all the time, in music too.In literature we seem more conservative. She is pleased if a new form has been recognised but she doesn’t think about it much. She feels very lucky to be doing what interests her , her work remains important to her and she enjoys it.

Bourmeau wondered whether the international recognition that the Prize has given her would help her to raise the concerns she has in her own country.

That is a difficult question to answer when you live in an authoritarian regime. A dictator doesn’t much care about the Nobel Prize for Literature. At times she feels helpless but she has always thought it is important to resist power.

A wonderful evening in a beautiful venue.


Book Review : Little Failure by Gary Sheyngart

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Life is constantly changing for Gary. Born a Soviet citizen, he becomes a citizen of the USA. Named Igor by his parents, he changes to Gary in his adopted homeland, for reasons which are obvious to any native English speaker. Even his city of birth keeps changing its name….from  the original St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad….and finally back to St Petersburg again. No wonder he is confused!

Little Failure is the autobiography of US and jewish author Gary Shteyngart. The title comes from his parents’ nickname for him as a child . A constant source of disappointment to them, his nickname eventually becomes Failurchka ,coined by his mother in a melding of Russian and English.

Nothing he does seems right. On a parents evening a teacher gushes to Gary’s father :

‘Gary is very smart. We hear he reads Dostoevsky in the original.’

‘Phh,’ Papa said ‘Only Chekhov’

Born in 1972 ,Gary and his parents emigrate to the USA in 1979 under Jimmy Carter’s exchange programme….the Soviet Union is given grain , after another crop failure, in exchange for exit visas for Soviet jews. They arrive at JFK via East Berlin and a stay in Italy :

Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Much of the humour and indeed pathos of the book comes from Gary and his family’s attempts to understand and adapt to American culture. Gary undergoes a circumcision,with a hole cut into the front of his underpants by his mother to prevent post-operative chafing. The family receive a letter telling them that they have won $10,000,000 …their dreams have come true! They dream of what they can now afford to buy, and to send back to the beleaguered family still left behind in the USSR. Gary’s parents then find out the brutal truth…it’s a scam :

In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies – wheat harvest is up, Uzbek baby goats give milk at an all-time high, Soviet crickets learn to sing The Internationale in honour of Brezhnev visit to local hay field – but we cannot imagine they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That.

Igor had been too sickly to go to school in Leningrad but Gary is soon enrolled in the Solomon Schlechter School of Queens where his lack of English and lack of understanding of American culture make it hard for him to integrate. He reflects on SSSQ, as it is known,after watching the ABC post-apocalyptic TV film The Day After  :

My research indicated that two of the Soviet missiles would target JFK and La Guardia airports in Queens. SSSQ is geographically equidistant from the two airports, and the school’s glass-heavy modernist structure would probably buckle and split into shards  from the initial blasts, burning up the siddur prayer books like so many blue pancakes, and certainly the subsequent radiation would kill everyone with the exception of the rotund, self -insulated Rabbi Sofer.

So far so good.

It is at SSSQ that a sympathetic teacher first discovers Gary’s talent for story-telling and at the end of each lesson he is asked to read from his Asimov-inspired space story The Chalenge [sic] which at last brings him some acceptance amongst his peers.

Gary’s childhood is over-shadowed too by his parents’ bitter arguments often over the relatives, some in the US ,some left in the USSR, and their dramatic threats of divorce. After making it into high achieving Stuyvesant , his parents have hopes of an Ivy League college and law school. He drifts however and we follow his journey through academic underachievement into  a minor liberal arts college via a dabbling with alcohol and drugs and some unsuccessful love affairs

Each chapter of the book charts a different phase in the author’s development and is prefaced with a photograph of him at that time. It is an entertaining look at growing up through the eyes of a classic outsider…..however there is a serious side to all this. A near breakdown propels Gary , at the insistence of a friend, into therapy. He is finally able to make a reacquaintance with the land of his birth and eventually to persuade his parents to come with him on a trip to St Petersburg. There they are each able to confront some of their demons. As Gary’s mum says:

I only really beat you up once……and I was so sad afterward. I guess that from the start I was an American mama.

This is a wonderful book full of humour , humanity and compassion.I haven’t read any of Shteyngarts’s novels but will definitely do so now.

Little Failure is a must read……

Fathers and Sons…….and Nabokov

photo (3)What makes a good father? What makes a great novel? Can we ever be free of our past? These are some of the questions posed by David Gilbert’s New York set novel &Sons.

A.N. Dyer is an elderly Salinger-esque  novelist, haunted by his coming of age novel Ampersand and it’s hero, Edgar Mead. Haunted also by his relationship with his own sons… the elder Richard and Jamie; and the much younger Andy. Haunted too by his lifelong friendship with Charlie Topping ,in part an inspiration for Ampersand,  and whose funeral starts this novel.

Charlie’s death forces Andrew to face his own mortality and he convenes a family meeting to discuss the future for Andy, still a teenager.

The story is intermittently narrated by Phillip Topping, Charlie’s eldest son, a malevolent and very unreliable narrator. Phillip has discovered a store of letters and postcards from Andrew to Charlie when they were young men…..and crucially one from Charlie to Andrew.One of these is reproduced at the start of each of the eight sections……and so the background to Ampersand is revealed.

Meanwhile the relationships between Andrew and each of his sons unfold and we look, too,at the relationship an artist has with his creation.

This all sounds very intellectual but this is a very comic book . Not laugh out loud funny maybe but some very amusing observations , particularly of the world of publishing.

One of the funniest set pieces in the novel is a launch party thrown for the first book of the latest yet-to-be-discovered literary sensation….a spoiled little rich kid with zero self-awareness. Gilbert describes the gathered publicists,agents and novelists as :

....discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.

There are also sideswipes at the world of film making and acting, with Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to sell the movie rights of Ampersand.As well as a look at the strange world of on-line success stories when a rather tasteless video of Jamie’s goes viral without him realising.

Other reviews I read of &Sons talked about Gilbert’s admiration for Nabokov and drew comparisons with Pnin,  also intermittently narrated by someone with a grudge so I decided to read it as a companion piece.

Pnin tells the story of Timofey Pnin , a Russian emigre from the Revolution, who is now just about surviving as an academic in a lesser know US university. It was criticised when first published not being a novel at all but a stitching together of comic articles Nabokov had previously written for magazines like The New Yorker. It’s patchwork birth does show a little but it is , at best, a very funny early campus novel.

It has a circular structure and finishes exactly where it started.Much of the humour is derived from Pnin’s always incomplete grasp of the English language and it’s idioms. The now lost world of the Russian emigre is acutely observed. At times the writing is very moving.

A visit to a fellow emigre’s summer house and a discussion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provokes a ‘ madeleine moment’ for Timofey. He is transported back to the innocence and beauty of a young love affair, with the horrible knowledge that the object of his affections was killed by the Nazis at Buchenwald. A truly heart rending memory that moved me to tears.

I would describe both these novels as near misses rather than direct hits BUT both are enjoyable and , at times, thought provoking reads. I am not sure I am any closer to answering the question of the author’s relationship to his creation. Any ideas?