A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov“Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time demonstrates the peculiar fascination of the Byronic antihero. First published in 1840, the novel recounts a series of adventures of the military officer Pechorin during his travels in the Caucasus. He kidnaps the beautiful Bela, daughter of a Circassian tribesman, becomes involved with smugglers, and schemes to win the affection of a Muscovite princess while embarking on an affair with his former lover Vera. Ultimately his intrigues culminate in a duel with fellow officer.

“Pechorin embodies the concept of the “superfluous man” in 19th-century Russian literature. The character is an intense individual, a nihilist whose melancholic sensitivity is combined with a constant cynicism and sense of boredom. He remains distanced from the emotional manipulation he works upon others: “I often wonder why I’m trying so hard to win the love of a girl I have no desire to seduce and whom I’d never marry.”

“Landscape is rendered as compellingly as the central figure. Lermontov creates memorably lyrical descriptions of the vast, mountainous scenery: “Reddish crags draped with hanging ivy… yellow cliffs grooved with torrents.” The sublimely wild aspect of nature was a key imaginative concept for the Romantics. Here, the impenetrability of the landscape is a kind of physical correlative for Pechorin himself, who is both wild and inscrutable.

“Lermontov’s novel resonates today in the way it foreshadows contemporary concerns. … The fatalism displayed by the “superfluous man” heralded the nihilism of modern revolutionary terror. Especially stark is the depiction of the cold machinations that occur in the relationships between men and women, where the other always remains unfathomable.”


It’s strange how this novel is not so well known in English. It’s nowhere compared to the novels of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the short stories of Turgenev, Chekov and Gogol. Why is this the case? Also, it is interesting to look at this novel in comparison to French, German and English novels of this 1830s and 40s: the path from Don Quixote by Cervantes in the early seventh century to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the 1850s wasn’t merely a progression from romanticism to realism, nor were novels in all this time primarily concerned with the balance or struggle between the two – though it might often seem like it. But fitting Lermontov’s novel into this “progression” is an interesting if pointless occupation.

But this is, for a number of reasons a great novel though; maybe because of the way the protagonist is revealed to us through a series of narrators inside narrators.

Mr A


Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

‘We’re not Christians, Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’

Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo LeviExiled to a remote and barren corner of Italy for his opposition to Mussolini, Carlo Levi entered a world cut off from history and the state, hedged in by custom and sorrow, without comfort or solace, where, eternally patient, the peasants lived in an age-old stillness and in the presence of death – for Christ did stop at Eboli.

This is a really famous book in Italy, and beyond. Perhaps more for historical reasons than because of literary merit; that said though, this is a very well-crafted piece of writing: well written and well structured. Levi produced a startling and intriguing picture of the 1930s Mezzogiorno (southern Italy) – its abject poverty, the small mindedness, its parochialism, the distinct quality of life there, the history, the bad feelings and grudges, how the region had been left behind, perhaps taken advantage of by the north at unification, and really just left to decay in a medieval past, and the passions and perceptions of a people, so different to those living in the north of what was supposedly the same country, as well as the stultifying ignorance of a people resistant to every European “advance”, form Christianity to the Enlightenment, and every liberal notion of a modern European democracy; even Fascism doesn’t get a hold in this land, which nothing really ever infiltrates, nothing taints the primeval bond of the people to the land.

Mr A

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests by Italo Calvino

The Path to the Spiders_ Nests by Italo CalvinoA good review from The Independent:


An extract:

“CALVINO was ashamed of this, his first novel, and especially shamed of its success. He suppressed it and revised it by turns over a period of nearly 20 years and so its English publication has a somewhat tortuous history. Martin Mclaughlin has revised Archibald Colquhon’s 1956 translation to follow Calvino’s final 1964 edition and also provided an entirely new translation of Calvino’s 1964 preface. Only now does the reader in English have the young Calvino’s novelisation of his experience as a partisan and the mature Calvino’s misgivings over how that experience was squandered.

“The protagonist of The Path to the Spiders’ Nests is Pin, an urchin in his early teens, too wizened and malnourished to have attained puberty but horridly knowing through sharing a one room apartment with his prostitute sister. Cut off from boys his own age, he longs wistfully to be included in games of cowboys, instead through his associations with the dubious set of adults who tolerate his company he becomes attached to a platoon of partisans and plays war for real.

“…While he takes malicious pleasure in other people’s dirty secrets, his own are disarmingly innocent. He shares a passion for observation with his creator, and knows an obscure path by the river: “There, in the grass, the spiders make their nests, in tunnels lined with dry grass. But the wonderful thing is that the nests have tiny doors, also made of dried grass, tiny round doors which can open and shut.” It is a place of retreat but not of contemplation, Pin’s visits there are generally disastrous for the spiders, but it is where, in his solitude, he longs for a friend worthy of sharing his discovery.

“Calvino’s representative in the novel is Kim, the Brigade Commissar, whose restless thoughts occupy a chapter in what is an otherwise rapid narrative. Pin, immune from desire through his immaturity, believes adult failings are signs of treachery and betrayal rather than weakness. Kim, inexperienced and bookish, has no such illusion and is prepared to exploit these weaknesses. Both characters recognise that the urge to kill is linked to the urge to copulate. Kim understands what confuses Pin, that the social misfits who form the platoon could just as easily be Fascists, but consoles himself that their futile rage will be justified because their anti-social and destructive acts are done on the side of history, so history will make their frustrated lives meaningful.

“It was the fear that he had exploited his former comrades that caused Calvino remorse, almost as soon as the novel became a success. The partisans are presented as grotesques, and with the best of intentions, Calvino was determined not to bathe the partisan movement in the glow of idealism. But inevitably he drew the grotesques from real people, and when his caricatures achieved wider circulation than he expected, he regretted it. In the same way he came to recognise that his novel was a product of its time, part of what was hailed as a neo-realist movement, and realised that he had irretrievably sacrificed his experiences for the sake of literature. History had made his lived experienced meaningless.

“Time, as opposed to history, has treated The Path to the Spiders’ Nests well. When he revised the novel Calvino smoothed out the coarse eroticism and the political idealism. By 1964 the former was comparatively tame, the latter unduly subversive; even so it seems that it was sexual passages that caused him the most regret at that time, particularly the misogyny expressed by some of the characters. Both elements were excised from the first English translation and are now reinstated.

“The novel is faintly under the shadow of Hemingway, as any book written about war by a young man in 1946, was bound to be. Calvino’s mentor Cesar Pavese very presciently detected a fairytale element to it. This must be more apparent in the Italian (the book was written in the Ligurian dialect). Neither translator seems to have attempted to bring local idioms clumsily into English, or, thankfully, searched for Cor Blimey equivalents.

“…Calvino evidently wished he had mastered literature before representing the most important experience of his life. But it was his brutal disillusionment with realism that led to four decades of exploration of the mystery of fiction. If Pin had not gone down the path of the spiders’ nests, perhaps Marco Polo would never have performed his mute and desperate dances before the Great Khan. That would have been a loss. There’s quite enough experience in the world as it is.”

The opening of this little novel is beautiful; it is so artfully written. Ot does get a little silly and clunky in places latterly, but for all that, this novel is clear evidence of Calvino’s skill, as well as the fact that he had interesting things to do with fiction, as indeed has turned out to be the case. A beautiful little realist novel of the 1940s. Well worth reading.

Mr A

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo RovelliWhen people are “talking” about a book on physics, one is minded to read it; if only to see what the fuss is about. I’m not sure I would say the book is “enchanting” as The New Scientist describes it, or that, as the Daily Mail opines that the book provides “food for thought that will last a lifetime.” To someone who is reasonably science literate the ideas aren’t enchanting or revelatory, yet they are well expressed, and do whet one’s appetite to read more on the range of topics quickly but adeptly covered.

Mr A

Into the War by Italo Calvino

Into the War by Italo Calvino“The story writer, born in Cuba and raised in San Remo, Italy, near the French border, was just 16 when Mussolini linked up with the Nazis to make war against his neighbor. Young Italo was forced to join a Fascist youth group with a lot of other Italian adolescents who spilled over the border at the Riviera into France. Out of this experience came three early stories, which translator Martin McLaughlin has put together into a slim volume under the title Into the War. Each piece is thoroughly autobiographical and realistic; each is based on Calvino’s time as a teenager during the war.

“To see the self-portrait of the young artist as an unwilling proto-Fascist turns out to be quite rewarding. As he dramatizes the very first hours of the first day of Italy’s involvement in the war, as he describes how he joined scores of young men like himself in the rampage of the French town of Menton, and as he recollects how he teamed up with a friend to serve as a youthful guard in his hometown back across the border, his pages make for a convincing if idiosyncratic study of a small part of the population at a time of war.”

“…the true pleasure of reading this early work comes from young Calvino’s easeful sense of metaphor — how, for example, marching among the art nouveau buildings of Menton, abandoned by the French, he feels the city is “a theater with its lights out, with scenery discarded and in disrepair.” And Calvino is a prodigy at the job of creating mood, as when the young narrator, “wandering along the seafront with its low, prickly palm trees” notices:

…the slow beating of the sea against the rocks mingled with the natural stillness of the countryside and enclosed in a kind of circle the deserted city and its unnatural silence, which was broken now and again by isolated noises echoing through it: the ta-ra-ra of a trumpet, a song, the roar of a motorbike.

“In this way these first pages suggest just how much the mature fabulist would give us later in life.”



It is interesting to compare this collection to the Fitzgerald one. Calvino’s volume was first published in 1954 and it is a world away from Fitzgerald’s – which of course it should be – but only 20 or 30 years separate them, apart from a world war and an ocean, as well as a language – and what must have been a huge shift in how writers and readers viewd the function of fiction – what is the point of fiction?

For both Clavino and Fitzgerald, fiction had to have a purpose over and above entertainment; what might be termed “generating insight” and communicating it to the reader was integral to either’s project – yet who is more effective at doing this? Is this even a sensible question? When you start to compare such different authors, though the use the same form, and though they are concerned with many of the same themes, they seem more and more to speak for their generation and their countries – they are of their time and place – and little more can be said. But then, when you compare either author to the other authors of their respective times and places, it might be possible to see just what each author was specifically about.

For me, Calvino is the more relevant author; though he is more modern, I don’t feel this need necessarily be the case.

Mr A


The Crack-Up With Other Pieces And Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Crack-Up With Other Pieces And Stories by F Scott FitzgeraldThis is a volume made up of two very different halves – the first half being a collection of autobiographical pieces – centred on The Crack Up of the title, and the second half a collection of five short stories by Fitzgerald that is a good illustration of how he plied his trade in the 1920s and 30s as a short story writer for the magazines such as The New Yorker, back when magazines paid for a published short stories form the best writers of the time and people actually read them and wanted them – people bought short fiction in sufficient numbers to make it a viable form. The first half is interesting – patches of good writing and all of it clearly imbued with Fitzgerald’s ability as a writer and the power he had to express complex ideas. The second half is a good illustration of how to make a good short story of a certain kind – the variety, I think, which still today most informs our idea of what a short story should be. The stories are polished and artfully structured. Maybe they’re a bit too slick for today’s reader.

Mr A

Jean-Paul Sartre on How American Jazz Lets You Experience Existentialist Freedom & Transcendence

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 philosophical novel Nausea, which he considered one of his finest works of fiction or otherwise, the stricken protagonist Antoine Roquentin cures his existential horror and sickness with jazz—specifically with an old recording of the song “Some of These Days.” Which recording? We do not know. “I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date,” writes critic Ted Gioia in a newly published essay, “I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst.”

The song was first recorded in 1911 by a Ukranian-Jewish singer named Sophie Tucker, who made her name with it, and was written by a black Canadian named Shelton Brooks. But Sartre’s hero refers to the singer as an African-American, or as “the Negress,” and to its writer as “a Jew with Black eyebrows.” Was this a mix-up? Or did Sartre refer to another of the hundreds of recordings of the song? (Perhaps Ethel Waters, below?). Or, this being a work of fiction, and Roquentin himself a failed writer, are these identifications made up in his imagination?

In his description of the recording, Roquentin reduces the singer and composer to two broad types: the jazz singing “Negress” and the “Jew”—”a clean-shaven American with thick black eyebrows,” who sits in a “New York skyscraper.”

This stereotyping creates what Miriama Young calls “an objectification of the voice and the persona behind it.” In the novel’s strangely happy ending, Roquentin recovers his disintegrating self by attaching it to these nameless, static figures, who are as repetitious as the record playing over and over on the phonograph, and who are themselves somehow “saved” by the music.

Sartre,” James Donald argues, “still believed in the redemptive power of art.” In the last mention of the record, Roquentin asks to hear “the Negress sing…. She sings. So two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Saved.” And yet, rather than discovering in the music a redemptive authenticity, argues Donald, Sartre’s use of jazz in Nausea is more like Al Jolson’s in The Jazz Singer, a “creative act of mishearing and ventriloquism,” or a “generative inauthenticity.”

Sartre’s early conception of “the redemptive power of art” depended on such inauthenticity; “the work of art is an irreality,” he writes in 1940 in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. As in Roquentin’s diary, writes Adnan Menderes, or the novel itself, “in a work of art the here-and-now existence of human being could be shown as interwoven in necessary relations. But in contrast to the work of art, in the real world the existence of human being is contingent and for this very reason it is free.” It is that very freedom and contingency out in the world, the inability to ground himself in reality, that produces Roquentin’s nausea and the existentialist’s crisis. And it is the jazz recording’s “irreality” that resolves it.

Sartre’s use of the racialized types of “Negress” and “Jew” as foils for the complicated, troubled European psyche is reminiscent of  Camus’ later use of “the Arab” in The Stranger. Though he critically explored issues of racism and anti-Semitism at length in his later writing, he was perhaps not immune to the primitivist tropes that dominated European modernism and that, for example, made Josephine Baker famous in Paris. (“The white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks,” Baker herself once wearily observed.) But these types are themselves unreal, like the work of art, projections of Roquentin’s imaginative search for solidity in the exotic otherness of jazz. Nearly ten years after the publication of Nausea, Sartre wrote of the pull jazz had on him in a short, tongue-in-cheek essay called “I Discovered Jazz in America,” which Michelman describes as “like an anthropologist describing an alien culture.”

In the 1947 essay, Sartre writes of the music he hears at “Nick’s bar, in New York” as “dry, violent, pitiless. Not gay, not sad, inhuman. The cruel screech of a bird of prey.” The music is animalistic, immediate, and strange, unlike European formalism: “Chopin makes you dream, or Andre Claveau,” writes Sartre, “But not the jazz at Nick’s. It fascinates.” Like Roquentin’s recording, the Nick’s Bar jazz band is “speaking to the best part of you, to the toughest, to the freest, to the part which wants neither melody nor refrain, but the deafening climax of the moment.”

Gioia recommends that we abandon Theodor Adorno as the go-to European academic reference for jazz writing (I’d agree!) and instead refer to Sartre. But I’d be hesitant to recommend this description. Jazz, improvisatory or otherwise, does extraordinary things with melody and refrain, tearing apart traditional song structures and putting them back together. (See, for example, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” from 1947, above.) But it does not abandon musical form altogether in a sustained, formless “climax of the moment,” as Sartre’s sexualized phrase alleges.

Yet in this new jazz—the crashing, chaotic bebop so unlike the crooning big band and show tunes Sartre admired in the 30s—it would be easy for the enthusiast to hear only climax. This music excited Sartre very much, writes Gioia; he “called jazz ‘the music of the future’ and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker [above and below], and listen to John Coltrane,” though “his writings on the subject are more atmospheric than analytical.”

With humor and vivid description, Sartre’s essay does a wonderful job of conveying his experience of hearing live jazz as an amused and overawed outsider, though he seems to have some difficulty understanding exactly what the music is on terms outside his excitable emotional response. “The whole crowd shouts in time,” writes Sartre, “you can’t even hear the jazz, you watch some men on a bandstand sweating in time, you’d like to spin around, to howl at death, to slap the face of the girl next to you.”

Perhaps what Sartre heard, experienced, and felt in live bebop was what he had always wanted to hear in recorded jazz, an analogue to his own philosophical yearnings. In an article on one of his major influences, Husserl, written the year after the publication of Nausea, Sartre describes the way we “discover ourselves” as “outside, in the world, among others,” not “in some hiding place.” Strong emotions, “hatred, love, fear, sympathy—all those famous ‘subjective reactions that were floating in the malodorous brine of the mind…. They are simply ways of discovering the world.”

We come to authentic existence, writes Sartre—using a phrase that would soon resound in Jack Kerouac’s coming existential appropriation of jazz—“on the road, in the town, in the midst of the crowd, a thing among things, a human among humans.” In this way, Gioia speculates, Sartre likely “saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the existential freedom he described in his philosophical texts.” Sartre may have misread the formal discipline of jazz, but he describes hearing it live, among a sweating, throbbing crowd, as an authentic experience of freedom, unlike the recording that saves Roquentin through repetition and “irreality.” In both cases, however, Sartre finds in jazz a means of transcendence.