Russian Reading Update – You must read this book: ‘Cancer Ward’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1966)

bookshelf_bannerSometimes whole years go by during which I forget how much I love Solzhenitsyn. I know, it seems almost unbelievable.  Because, sadly,  there are only 12 months in the year, he didn’t make it into my 2015 Russian reading project; now it’s time to right the wrong.

One of the astounding things about Solzhenitsyn’s writing is that he’s just so accomplished. When you think about it, setting a novel in a hospital ward is almost too obvious. It’s a perfect, depressing microcosm of society. From secure bureaucrats to ‘exiles in perpetuity,’ from ageing peasants to educated teenagers, the most unlikely people become neighbours and companions.  Each has a unique perspective on Soviet life and ideology, a perspective which may be perceptive and accurate but which certainly won’t help them fight their life-threatening disease.  Everything works on so many levels so the book is an allegory, a warning, but also an enthralling and completely believable work of fiction.


‘Cancer Ward’ is such a rich book, any reading is going to bring up new insights. The last time I read it, I couldn’t get over the patient/doctor relationships Solzhenitsyn explores, specifically the firmly held belief that patients should not know what is wrong with them and should learn nothing about their treatment. Their job is to unquestioningly do what they’re told. This is so opposed to NHS policy that it seemed to move the book from realist novel into Kafkaesque fable. The other really striking section was any moment that featured Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, possibly the most vile character in literature. Pavel is a vicious, cowardly hypocrite who is proud of and validated by his role in ‘personnel’- he’s a Party member and his job is to terrorise workers into appropriate ideology while informing on any who proves suspicious. Utterly repulsive and fully human; he goes a long way to answering questions about why and how Stalin’s reign of terror was so successful.

Reading ‘Cancer Ward’ as a belated addition to my Russian reading project meant that I was especially interested in seeing how it fitted into its rich literary tradition. I have come to the following conclusions:

1. The whole novel can be read as a riff on Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ only here there are so many people living with the prospect of imminent death the individualism of the seminal short story is taken in radical and frightening new directions. Many of the patients follow Ilyich’s mental processes, others come to very different conclusions. Unlike the novella, this isn’t a middle-class philosophical parlour piece. Here a whole community of men are forced to confront their mortality while, through them, the power and limitations of Soviet society are exposed.

2. Following on from the above, this is a novel about death, rather than life; the characters themselves are all obsessed with the future rather than the past. Now this may seem obvious, but as the book progresses it is shown to be a blackly comic reflection on the optimism of Stalin’s vision for Russia, a vision many characters have been brought up to believe as moral truth. The whole country, especially the young, has been taught only to look to the future, the unexpected realisation that this is the mentality of the fatally ill suddenly repositions the mirror the novel holds up to its society. Solzhenitsyn isn’t just writing about an isolated ward in an obscure hospital, but about the whole ‘cancerous’ society in which he lived. It’s powerful stuff.

As the year goes on, I will be reviewing more of Solzhenitsyn’s novels. They’re always books to look forward to, but this time I’m especially excited to see how my reading changes with my increased knowledge of their literary tradition. There is a convention of separating periods of Russian literature into the pre-twentieth century Golden Age, pre-revolution Silver Age and then 20th century (pre and post-Soviet), but this can’t be right. Wherever the best writers are, that’s when you’ll find Solzhenitsyn.


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A Powerful Companion to ‘The Colour Purple’: ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ by Alice Walker (1992)


Alice Walker’s most famous novel is her 1982 classic, ‘The Colour Purple.’  In it, she takes an abused black teenager living in the deep South, and turns her story into a wonderfully life-affirming tale of female solidarity and the possibility for agency and hope against the odds.  ‘The Colour Purple’ is quite unbelievably uplifting considering its setting and subject matter, a fact I desperately tried to keep in mind when starting to read ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy.’  ‘Possessing the Secret’ is the sequel to ‘The Colour Purple’; it’s not about unchallenged domestic abuse though, it’s about Female Genital Mutilation.

While I’d always recommend anyone new to Walker starts with ‘The Colour Purple,’ the two books do not need to be read together or in sequence.  The characters belong in the same worlds, but their stories are so different the books exist in their own spaces.  One reason for this is the redemptive fairy-tale quality to ‘The Colour Purple.’  Although the journey is not smooth, the book has a forward momentum, moving away from suffering towards internal and external peace.  It’s a powerful message, both appealing and unsentimental.  In contrast, ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ fights such linear story telling.  It jumps between different narrators and time periods, echoing the trauma suffered by the protagonist.  Truths are hidden and rarely celebrated, hardly surprising given the pressure within the book to literally cut off emotion, expression and freedom from so many female characters.

The main character in the novel is Testi, a deeply troubled woman who makes a small appearance in ‘The Colour Purple’ as the happy and forthright girl who rejects Western influences when she decides ‘to have the female initiation ceremony … Tashi was happy that the initiation ceremony isn’t done in Europe or America, said Olivia.  That makes it even more valuable to her‘.  ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ follows the devastating consequences of this decision, on Tashi and on those around her.  Poor Tashi is shown to be so wrong, from her rebellious acceptance of her culture’s traditions to her false belief that such customs are absent in the West.  Walker is controlled in her focus though, and Tashi’s story is never allowed to dominate the novel, instead it is used as a case study for a problem that goes far beyond the personal.

As the narrative lurches forwards and backwards in stuttering bursts, the readers find themselves as challenged as Tashi is.  There is a clear binary opposition between the powerful and the powerless, but how this actually fits over racial, geographical, educational and gender divides is often less clear.  For much of the book, it is women, more than men, who are shown to perpetuate the traditional mutilation; the potent women, pitiful men dynamic that gives ‘The Colour Purple’ its empowering and unexpected ending is tragically subverted in this later novel.

Softening the pain of the story is Walker’s beautiful prose.  Soothing and fluid, the writing style turns this into a stridently powerful novel, rather than a depressing yet ‘important’ modern classic.  I realise the book is a hard sell, but I do recommend at least reading the opening story if you ever see it in a shop or library.  The novel begins with a beautiful, haunting allegorical tale; it was enough to remind me that no one educates, alarms and comforts like Alice Walker.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The book is challenging but rewarding, honest but sympathetic to both its characters and its readers.  A modern and sadly all-to-relevant classic for the 21st century.

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A Californian Classic: ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon (1966)


Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up altogether, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit … Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward pattern a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she’d tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.

This summer I had my first encounter with Thomas Pynchon, a writer who, according to the New York Times, writes in the tradition ‘of Melville, Conrad, and Joyce, of Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Nabokov‘. So, not intimidating at all.

I like to think I was smart; given the pressure of expectation suggested by the list of names above, I decided to begin my Pynchon reading with ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. To those who really want to get to grips with this intimidating American author, I do recommend starting light, and ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ is really a novella at only 160 pages long. To put this into context, Pynchon’s most famous major novels are ‘V’, which makes up for its impressively short title with the nearly 500 pages of text the book contains. Then there’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, a literally heavy text at over 900 pages long.

So excited was I at the prospect of a relatively easy read, I forgot to take the title into consideration. That is, I didn’t pause to realise that I had no idea what it meant. Hardly a great start to decoding a Joycean text. The title is confusing, the passive construction, the ambiguity of the word ‘lot.’ My advice to readers is to ignore the title until you get to the last line of the novel at which point it may, possibly, make sense.

And this is kind of the point. The whole book is about a quest for meaning, with the ironic understanding that the ultimate answer may not quite be worth it. The heroine, Oedipa Maas has been named executor of her ex-lover’s will. While the reader tries to untangle what on earth is meant by her name, she’s on her way to San Narciso in an attempt to work through her lover’s insanely convoluted holdings, how these relate to American history and how she herself can deal with death, love and her place in the mad modern world.

The novel is funny, paranoid and densely packed with meaning. At the time, it seemed a bit too ambiguous to be satisfying; in retrospect however, it was rewarding, not least because I now feel like I’m a member of the Pynchon gang. Certainly, I finally understand that there’s more to Californian literature than Steinbeck’s archetypes or hardboiled LA noir. Arguably, I could have learned this from the equally dazed and confused searchings in Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls,’ but some patterns are difficult to decode and some things take a long time to comprehend. I’m sure Pynchon would have agreed.

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Enigmatic, and sometimes exasperating: ‘The Famished Road’ by Ben Okri (1991)

I’ve wanted to read ‘The Famished Road’ for simply ages. It always stood out on any bookshelf as a chunky, prize-winning modern classic of post-Colonial literature. Then, as time passed and my to-be-read pile only grew, it seemed like ‘The Famished Road,’ despite (or because of) being an unmissable doorstop of a tome, was going to fall off the list. Forcing myself to actually start it was part of the impetus behind this year’s aspirational Diverse Reading A-Z; it’s August now, and I’ve finally succeeded in a long over-due reading aim.

With such a build up, I was somewhat surprised on starting the book to realise that I’d formed no expectations as to what it would be about. Ben Okri’s a man so I thought there might be a male protagonist and it won the Booker in 1991, so I was prepared for subtle or not-so-subtle social commentary. Despite having spent much time contemplating the front cover and spine of the novel however, I somehow missed out on reading the blurb.

If I’d been savvy with my review reading, I’d know that ‘The Famished Road’ was the story of Azaro, a ‘spirit child.’ He usually exists within the spirit world, only making very brief appearances in the mortal realm. At the start of the novel, he decides to make a prolonged stay on earth:

It may simply have been that I had grown tired of coming and going. It is terrible to forever remain in-between. It may also have been that I wanted to taste of this world, to feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it, and to have that sublime mood of eternity in me as I live the life to come. But I sometimes think it was a face that made me want to stay. I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.

Azaro’s mother’s life is certainly not a happy one. She lives in a harsh society, with random mobs and violent political parties constantly intruding into the family’s story. If this wasn’t enough, her husband is an increasingly obsessive fighter who wants to take on the world, while her son is continually harassed by frightening semi-human figures, his spirit brethren who seek to bring him back to their world.

Through kidnappings, elections, brawls and parties, Azaro’s story of his time as a mortal is dreamlike and cyclical. As the list in the above quotation shows, the narrator himself is both stubborn and tentative, fixed in his own course of action but unable to really explain why. In fact, the whole book is filled with riddles and enigmas. The setting is politically and geographically vague (elections are fought between the ‘Party of the Rich’ and the ‘Party of the Poor,’ both of whom use the same tactics and seem to have identical policies). Significant events (illness, fights with spirits, fights with people, mob violence…) break up the narrative, but rarely prove to be major turning points in Azaro’s journey through life.

I’m pleased to have read ‘The Famished Road,’ but I did find it a challenge. This was partly because I couldn’t identify with the main characters (spirit or mortal), but mostly because I kept feeling like I was missing something. Given the symbolic-sounding title and the archetypal characters, the whole novel felt like it had a clear metaphorical message that I was failing to grasp. I can see that the writing itself would be a selling point for some readers, but it failed to enchant me and so I was constantly looking for something more.

If you’ve read ‘The Famished Road’ and loved it, please let me know why. I’d be more than happy to reassess my less-than-overwhelmed reaction to a book I’ve looked forward to for so long. As for my own future plans for catching up with Diverse literary classics, the next book I’ll be tackling from the A-Z is Alice Walker’s ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy.’ I can’t wait.



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In honour of the Rio Olympics: A round up of great sport books


As this blog amply demonstrates, I’m more of a sit-still-with-a-book person than someone who’s really into sports.  Once every four years though, I do get into the fun of watching others break records, push their bodies to the limit and generally be amazing and inspiring.  In honour of the event that will absorb me for the next sixteen days, here’s a list of top books for linking literature with Olympic sports.












Equestrian.  Warning: features cruelty to horses

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Really couldn’t pick for this one – both these wonderful books feature rowing.






For one of the most memorable swims in literature.


Wishing everyone a happy sporting summer!

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Murder well written: ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)


The cover tells you what you need to know about ‘His Bloody Project’.  It’s gruesome, visceral and immediately intriguing.  Once you get past the red, smudged splatters and fingerprints, you see there’s a subtitle, the book is really called ‘His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.’  Playful name games aside, this is a heading to fill a classic book lover’s heart with delight.  There are times when I really think that all horror and crime books should be presented as documentary evidence with the author masquerading as the editor.  It worked for ‘Dracula’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’; it worked for Conan Doyle and it worked for Poe.  Burnet’s Booker long-listed novel shows the convention is still going strong.

‘His Bloody Project’ relishes its literary tradition, from the beautifully dated language to the tone of the editor, who tells us at the start of the preface ‘It is not my intention to unduly detain the reader, but a few prefatory remarks may provide a little context to the material collected here.  Those readers who prefer to proceed directly to the documents themselves are of course free to do so.‘  The self-conscious editor is a joy whenever he appears, but most of the book is taken up with other voices, giving a wonderfully textured view of crime, law and everyday life in the nineteenth-century Highlands.

The main ‘document’ in the novel is the memoir of Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter who opens his writings by telling his audience ‘I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed.‘  For all that this book has been labeled as a crime story, there is never any question about who-dunnit or  how-dunnit; the memoir and the accompanying eye-witness testimony all agree.  Fortunately, none of this affects the tension and drama of the story.  Roderick Macrae’s memoir is a wonderful account of a specific region at a specific historical moment.  There is a gothic isolation and barbarity in his narrative, thrown into sharp relief when more cosmopolitan voices show their own mid-Victorian views on the ‘primitive’ ‘squalor’ of this traditional way of life.  Culduie, home to the Macraes for generations, is a feudal agricultural community, untouched by the modernising industrialism booming across Britain at the time.  Questions of Roderick’s guilt are tied up in an understanding of entrenched power structures; when the journalists discuss the trial ‘Only John Murdoch departed from the notion that the verdict was a foregone conclusion.  His southern colleagues, he explained, overlooked the empathy the jurymen might feel towards an ill-used crofter.  The resentment caused by centuries’ ill treatment of the Highlander was keenly felt, and in Roderick Macrae, they might see an individual who had revolted against the vindictiveness of the powers-that-be.’

There are (many) times when genre labels are unhelpful; if ‘His Bloody Project’ is a traditional crime novel in its framing and structure, it is an ambitious literary novel in its exploration of crime and punishment.  Like Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ this is not a book that seeks clear resolution, but a novel that delves into questions of truth, madness and justice.  The irony of the collection of ‘documents’ is that it leaves so many gaps; the stories told are so similar that any small disparity stands out with frightening significance.  Burnet is far more interested in building a forgotten world and filling it with uncomfortably familiar figures than with simple questions of right or wrong, good or evil.  His novel is ambitious, funny and shocking, everything the cover promised.

Other great unconventional crime novels

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Posted in Booker Prize 2016, Graeme Macrae Burnet | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Thank you so much for the reading suggestion! ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin (1974)


Last year I started a vague ‘Reading out of my comfort zone’ project beginning with China Miéville’s sci-fi classic, ‘Embassytown’.  The comments on my initial post were really encouraging and there appeared to be a consensus that
1. I was right to branch out into more genre reading and
2. Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ had to be high up on my reading list if I was to do the thing properly.  All I can say is that you were right.

In general, there seem to be three main strands to science fiction writing: scene setting, plot/character and ideas.  This means the genre is already going to be tougher to get right than literary fiction which generally has to work less hard at the first item on the list; books set on earth in the recognisable past or present simply require less explanation of the world in which the action takes place.  There is also an expectation that the setting, the characters/plot and whatever philosophical concepts are raised will all work together in harmony, each supporting and enhancing the other.  It’s a big ask and requires extremely precise writing if the strands are to be balanced, without any one becoming an overwhelming and so empty or didactic presence in what should also be an engaging work of fiction.

Needless to say, ‘The Dispossessed’ balanced these elements masterfully.  Take the introduction:

There was a wall.  It did not look important.  It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it.  Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary.  But the idea was real.  It was important.  For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced.  What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on…
…The wall shut in not only the landing field but the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the world they came from, and the rest of the universe.  It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.
Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.
… People often came out from the nearby city of Abbenay in hopes of seeing a space ship, or simply to see the wall. After all, it was the only boundary wall on their world.

Here we have complex ideas beautifully interwoven into the setting.  Anarres is a planet-wide philosophical experiment, an anarchic society with no leadership, no money and next to no contact with the nearest world, Urras.  Complex and challenging ideas about ownership, leadership, community and economics are going to be explored through the fraught relationship between the two planets.  The eponymous dispossessed hero is a man who escapes the theoretically boundary-less ‘freedom’ of Anarres for the hierarchical and restrictive possibilities of Urras.  He is a brilliant physicist whose plans for ‘instantaneous communication’ across the galaxy will have profound philosophical and economical consequences for the two planets.  Anarres is a proudly anarchist society, but the ‘leaders’ they claim not to have are profoundly troubled by the implications of Shevek’s work and have spend years blocking his progress and pressuring his supporters.  Urras has offered to assist his work, but can he trust that such a individualist and unequal society will use his findings for the general good?

I found ‘The Dispossessed’ a difficult and troubling read.  The ideas it raises about borders, exiles and outsiders are frighteningly pertinent and the characters are so believable that their inner conflicts struck a deep and personal chord. It is a book that will open your mind and force you to explore important and relevant issues about societies and the control they exert.  Everyone who suggested I read this was right.  It is rare for a book to be so challenging and so imaginative, with complex philosophical views transformed into the backbone of an enthralling story of human ambition, endeavour and aspiration.

Posted in Science Fiction, Ursula Le Guin | Tagged , , | 8 Comments