September 2023

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste
Hard to understand why anyone would write or read this novel in which nothing happens.
Sir Walter Scott, The Black Dwarf
The first of the Tales of my Landlord series that interrupts the Waverley series. Novella, strongly Gothic. After the problem of The Antiquary lacking a coherent plot, The Black Dwarf possibly suffers because of the neatness of its plot, which has a strong resemblance to that of a play. But the dwarf, and the discovery of his identity and how that both explains his attitude, his behavior, his choice of location, the marriage he blocks and the one he facilitates, all this works really well. In particular, there is the early comment to Earnscliff concerning Elliott's encouragement of him to seek vengeance against the house of Vere for the injury done to his father (whom the dwarf himself killed to defend the life of Vere, who then betrayed him.) This is quite a clever design, looking back through the novel, as it helps explain the dwarf's relative tolerance of Earnscliff and Isabella Vere.
Viktor Pelevin, Omon Ra
Short sci-fi novel by a Russian author. Extremely good, an unpicking of the Soviet era that centres on a young boy's dream of traveling to the moon.
Slava Gerovitch, Soviet Space Mythologies
Chapter 7 provides the context for Omon Ra of post-Soviet reassessment of the Soviet space program by both institutions and the public in the light of the release of fresh archival material and the publication of memoirs by space program participants.
Elena Gomel, Viktor Pelevin and Literary Postmodernism in Post-Soviet Russia Journal article that provides a reading of Omon Ra and, while agreeing that Pelevin is a postmodern writer, argues that post-Soviet postmodernism differs from the Western kind and, in fact, exhibits a continuity with the ideology of the Soviet period.
Alexandra Rowe, The Importance of Satire, Parody, and Absurdism in Soviet and Contemporary Russian Literature
Informative blog post by a researcher countering the popular view of Russian literature as uniquely gloomy by highlighting counter-examples and noting how specific historical situations encouraged particular forms of humor. Contains a section focusing on Omon Ra LINK
A 2019 interview with Viktor Pelevin LINK

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
Children's literature. Excellent reading, a close to perfect work of art.
Samantha Schweblin, Distancia a Rescate (Fever Dream)
Reading this in the original Spanish. The strongest literary experience I've had yet reading fiction in Spanish, this is a fascinating work in terms of the way the narrative situation is constructed: a woman who lies dying in a hospital due to some kind of parasite is being asked to give a detailed account of the events preceding her illness by a young boy, David, who turns out to be the son of a woman, Carla, who, in the first section of the narrative, tells her own story of how David fell ill and some kind of medicine woman saved him by helping his soul transmigrate.
Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me
Extremely enjoyable children's novel. Rather than nature, as in A Monster Calls, this book, set in New York City, focuses on social relations, and is very cleverly arranged to facilitate the unravelling of a complex plot involving time travel.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Science-fiction novel set in a world where ecological disaster has destroyed much of human civilization. The blending of different kinds of discourse is impressive, but the writing itself less so. I found there to be a particular cadence to the sentences that gave the final word a beat that became tedious after thirty pages or so. There was also the problem of the author having the protagonist possess lots of fragments of literary texts, which seemed highly unlikely given the character's behavior and back story, and which therefore felt more like a contrivance to add an extra 'poetic' layer to the text. Riddley Walker was much stronger in this respect, by having these references present within the word forms, even though their full import was lost on the speaker.
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
This 1955 novel by the Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo, is seen as the first example of magic realism and was praised by both Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I'm reading it in both the original and in English translation (which loses some of the clarity of the Spanish) and it's a superb novel. One of those rare examples of a novel that is formally innovative, almost experimental, but which is also interesting at the level of content, as well as being highly poetic.

Short Stories
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
Extremely brief short story. Appallingly written, I can see why this kind of genre fiction has been sneered at by so many critics. I am troubled, really, by the idea that the ethical question posed by this story constitutes its value in lieu of any aesthetic claim on the reader's attention. In other words, the ethical question could be paraphrased and would have the same weight: Would you be prepared to accept the suffering of a child as the basis of your own, and your community's, happiness? Do you already accept this, given the condition of the society you live in? Or, if you do accept it, is there this difference, that in this global, interconnected society, there is no way to walk away? Then, again, if there is no way to walk away, then is it acceptable to resign oneself to that fact or must one fight to improve the lot of this suffering child? You can discuss all these questions without requiring any recourse to the text, so, in that sense, I wouldn't regard this as art, the story is simply a container for these questions to be posed to the reader.