Existence Precedes Essence: Understanding Existentialism

Posted December 5, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Philosophy / 2 Comments

When thinking about the term existentialism, a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre may come to mind; “existence precedes essence”. 1 This was a relatively new way of thinking within philosophy. The idea criticises the concept that everyone has an essence and our lives tend towards the actualisation of our essence, which dates back to Aristotle. Over the years, this idea of essence evolved into predestines, as philosophers leaned more towards religious ideas. For Sartre, this was an absurd way of thinking and this might have been connected to his atheist beliefs. However, this is not a universal idea in existentialism, many disagreed with Sartre, but it did start a new philosophical movement.

existentialists
Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre

While Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky are all considered existentialists, the term was actually coined by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is widely believed that Kierkegaard may have been the first existentialist philosopher but he used the word ‘individualism’ to refer to his philosophical ideas. When looking as his writing, it is easy to see why it is closely associated to existentialism. In his book The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” 2

This leads us to ask, ‘What exactly is existentialism?’ which is not an easy question to answer. If you consider historical events that were happening at the start of existentialism (early twentieth century), you notice the world was a confused and complex place. When Sartre started his works, the world had already experienced one World War and was about to head into a second one. The political landscape was very unstable; Marxism, Communism and Fascism were all growing movements. Western ways of thinking were not providing the answers people craved about the meaning of life or at least a way to address the human condition.

Existentialism became a new philosophical way of thinking; a new way of facing a confused world that they could not accept. It was not a doctrine or a philosophical system rather existentialism was a movement. It was an inwards approach to thinking, when Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence”, he was stating we exist first, and it is up to us to find what defines us then live our lives accordingly.  Which linked back to Søren Kierkegaard who said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” 3 This was the foundation of existentialism; it did not matter if other philosophers believed existence came before essence, what mattered was living life authentically. To do so, there were three main sides to this form of thinking to consider: individualism, freedom and passion.

Individualism is the ethical idea that we are all responsible for our own actions. Rather than living by the morals set out by our society, religion and our elders, we must seek our own individual self-relevance and liberties. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” 4 Moral individualism should not be confused with selfishness or a desire for anarchy; rather it simply suggests that humanity must be defined by the individual. No two people are alike; thus, having set rules and ideas for everyone imposes restrictions on living authentically.

Freedom was a response to the current social/political situations; without freedom there was no possible way to allow people to be individuals and is considered the primary virtue to authenticity. This is more than the freedom to do whatever one desires. Existentialist often use the term facticity as a term to mean the limitation and a condition to freedom. For example, our birthplace, past choices and so on, may either limit or aid our quest to live our life authentically. If we are born blind, that may take away our freedom to read this text but does not mean we can never read.

Passion is self-evident, the need to find a purpose to life. A primary concern to “existence precedes essence” was simple to find a reason to live – your passion. For me, my passion would include literature, philosophy and writing articles like this. I am motivated in working towards a way to make my passions my career. That is not to say that there are no other reasons to live; such as loved ones or the simple pleasures in life.

meaning-of-lifeOnce you establish these four philosophies as the backbone of existentialism, you may have started on the journey down the rabbit hole into the existentialist way of thinking. Having definitive answers to life maybe be attractive but we realise life is not that simple. When adopting existentialism as your personal philosophy, be warned that many of the great existentialists did abandon their own philosophies. To quote Søren Kierkegaard once more; “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 5 Existentialism has its appeals; it is often adopted by young adults as permission to be an individual and focus on themselves. However as the quote above stated, it is only in reflection that we understand our lives and where we went wrong and life is not that easy, you cannot simply rely on other people’s ways of thinking.

Essentially, existentialism suggests that we should all live our lives authentically and free. Our goal in life is to find our essence – our reason to live. Albert Camus has been quoted as saying “should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” 6 which suggests that something as simple as a cup of coffee is enough to continue living. There are two major branches of existentialism that I have not mentioned, nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless) and absurdism (life has no purpose and the universe is chaotic) but I will not be going into details about the differences at the moment.

My goal of this was to give you a better understanding into existentialism but as you might have discovered, it can be complex. I hope you now have a basic understanding, allowing you to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about philosophy and what you believe. For more information about existentialism and the people behind this philosophical movement, I would recommend the book At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. 7 This covers the history of existentialism as well as a little about people involved, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and so many others. I felt very inspired after reading At the Existentialist Café, that I have gone down a rabbit hole exploring philosophy and hope to write more about it in the near future.


Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

Posted November 29, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

Missing Person by Patrick ModianoTitle: Missing Person (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Daniel Weissbort
Published: Verba Mundi, 1978
Pages: 192
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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I have been wanting to read Patrick Modiano; not only has he won a handful of awards, he is the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel was “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable of human destinies” but the committee also called him the “Marcel Proust of our time”. Unfortunately, not many of his novels have been translated from the French into English, despite the fact that he is so prolific (I counted six English translations prior to winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and a further eight since winning).

Missing Person appeared to be the perfect starting point for me, as it covered two elements that I am drawn to in literature, noir and philosophy. The novel follows Guy Roland, who was been working for Constantin van Hutte in his detective agency for the past eight years. As Hutte has decided to retire, Roland embarks on one last case, to find out who he really is. Guy Roland (a name given to him by Hutte) lost his memories during the war and is essentially a blank slate.

What drew me into this story was the cinematic style; it feels like a French film noir. The French title of the novel is Rue des Boutiques Obscures, which translates to the Street of Dark Shops. This is not a hard-boiled story, as Roland is not hard-boiled in anyway; this is what I would probably call existentialist noir. A perfect blend of the mysterious setting; dark cafes and plenty of wine and cigarettes. With the enhanced feeling of being completely lost, as Roland tries to find out who he really is.

“The sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments.”

Essentially this is a novel exploring the ideas of identity and memories. I like the way Modiano played with the idea of a blank slate. What defines this person? What makes up this man’s character, and will what defined him in the past return to him? An exploration into the way people remember you and how that shapes your character and personality. Roland tries on different personas; in his investigation he may not discover who he really is but he adopts this ideas of people to see if it feels right or sparks a memory. The way memory plays out in the novel is particularly interesting; in one scene he recalls a love affair with a woman, but fifteen years after the breakup she denies that it ever happened. So you are left wondering if it did happen, or is this a distortion of the truth or maybe even a suppression of her past.

This is the type of novel you do not read for the plot. Missing Person is meant to explore an idea, invoke an emotion and get you thinking about identity and memories. The pulp-ish style to this novel really worked for m., I love the idea of investigating yourself; playing with the idea of self-discovery and identity. I will be exploring more from Patrick Modiano; in particular I want to try his novel Honeymoon. I am glad I read Missing Person and I have not been able to stop thinking about the ideas explored in this novel.


Harlequin’s Costume by Leonid Yuzefovich

Posted November 23, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Crime, Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Harlequin’s Costume by Leonid YuzefovichTitle: Harlequin's Costume (Goodreads)
Author: Leonid Yuzefovich
Translator: Marian Schwarz
Series: Ivan Putilin #1
Published: Glagoslav Publications, 2013
Pages: 266
Genres: Crime, Historical Fiction
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

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, Glagoslav (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I am very particular when it comes to crime novels; I like it to be dark and gritty. However there are some exceptions to the rule. Harlequin’s Costume is an exception, and I do not believe it is just my love of Russian literature. The premise of the novel is simple; set in St. Petersburg 1871, an Austrian military attaché is found murdered in his bed. Chief Inspector Ivan Dmetrievich Putilin leads the investigation for this high profile case. Although investigating this case is not going smoothly as the Tsar has also called in the secret police to find out if this murder was politically motivated.

What drew me to this novel was the fact that Ivan Putilin was a real person, he was the Tsar’s Chief of Police in St. Petersburg from 1866 to 1892. I am fascinated when authors manage to blend the line between fiction and reality. In particular when they take historical figures and add them into their novels. There is a fine line, and it is hard to get right. I think picking someone like Ivan Putilin is an easier pick as I cannot find much information about this man (I do not understand Russian so that causes limitation). I would imagine picking a well-known historical figure would require more research.

What I really enjoyed about Harlequin’s Costume was discovering Leonid Yuzefovich’s own interest. He was a history teacher and a Ph.D candidate of Sciences, with a focus in Russian diplomatic etiquette (particularly in the 15th-17th centuries). The novel has a focus in the Russian Empire politics, both foreign and domestic. With my love for Russian literature, I found myself focusing on the Soviet era and have not spent much time exploring the history around the Tsardom or the politics surrounding it. In fact my main knowledge in medieval politics comes from a video games like Crusader King II and Europia Universalis IV, so it was a thrill to learn more.

Harlequin’s Costume is a perfect blend of a historical crime novel and an exploration into Russian politics. The novel seamlessly was able to offer a thrilling read while still offering something far more detailed. I am curious to see if this will become Russia’s answer to a classic detective like Sherlock Holmes but I am also now interested in trying out Boris Akunin. While I would not call Harlequin’s Costume a perfect crime novel, it offered more than I expected and hope to read more of Ivan Putilin.


Down the Non-Fiction Rabbit Hole

Posted November 2, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Literature, My Essays / 6 Comments

The quote by Socrates “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know” has been on my mind for quite some time. There seems to be no truer statement to describe how I feel at the moment. One of the reasons I spend so much time reading is because I want to learn. Fiction can tell us so much about the world around us, and the experiences faced by different cultures. I am drawn to translated fiction because of what it can teach me about the world. It has taken me some time but I am slowly been drawn to non-fiction as well. Reading recently Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Bela Shayevich) and Wild Swans by Jung Chang I discovered just how much about the world I still need to learn.

While Russia is a particular interest of mine, Secondhand Time gave me some insights I did not realise I needed. This is a stunning collection interviews collected by Svetlana Alexievich of people just talking about their personal experience with the collapse of the USSR. I thought I had a decent grasp of the history of the Soviet Union but this book shattered it completely. It is not enough to understand the basic history, life is much more complex and there is so much more to learn. I need to know more about post-Soviet Russia and I plan to learn, starting with The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky.

Wild Swans is a biography of three generations of women living in China. Jung Chang tells the story of her grandmother, her mother and then herself, the experiences they all faced in a rapidly changing country. Her grandmother, grew up in a world of foot binding and warlords, while her mother saw the rise of Chairman Mao and communism. This is a story that spans from the Manchu Empire to the Cultural Revolution. It was here I discovered a deeper understanding of communist China; I would never have known about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution in such detail without the personal accounts found in this book. If I combine my love for Soviet history, I find myself wondering if I should learn more about communism in other countries. Do I dare to try and compare the differences?

nonfiction2016

There is so much to learn and I feel myself being drawn down the rabbit hole. I have identified three major interests that seem to be the current focus of mine when it comes to non-fiction. This is Russian history, philosophy and books about books. I know this is only the tip of the iceberg and I will be venturing down so many more paths in the future but for now I will start here.

With my love of Russian literature, I feel the need to have a deeper understanding of their history, especially surrounding the politics. Not only will this aid my understanding into the literature I am reading but it will also help me better appreciate the satirical nature that is often found in Russian literature. I am slowly working my way down this rabbit hole with books like Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum, a look into the way the USSR treated Eastern Europe and Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (translator: Antonina W. Bouis), an oral history into the nuclear disaster in 1986. Even a book like The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée has been useful; not only does it explore the story of Doctor Zhivago but the impact it had on the world around it.

A new love for philosophy started with At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell and now I want to know so much more about Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Søren Kierkegaard. But I do not plan to just stop at the existentialists, I have so much to learn. My knowledge of philosophy may have come from a novel called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (translator: Paulette Møller). There is a lot more I could learn from the philosophers, and I have started my journey, with Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche (translated by R.J. Hollingdale) and The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant.

Finally, my love for literature has drawn me to reading about literature. Not just memoirs and biographies, although you may notice in my reviewing that I find context important. So a memoir or a biography gives me a deeper appreciation of the literature. A memoir like Little Failure gave me a greater understanding about its author Gary Shteyngart and a collection of letters and diary entries called Manuscripts Don’t Burn (translated and edited by J.A.E. Curtis) was a valuable insight into Mikhail Bulgakov. But then there are books about the reading journey that are entertaining to read, while still being a valuable part of my own reading life. I am talking about books like The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I can be very particular about books about books, the tone has to be right, their taste in literature and the way they talk about literature is equally important, and so for my money I would recommend Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman as the pinnacle in this genre of non-fiction. My reading journey is far from over, in fact it is only just beginning. Having only spent six years as a reader, I have so far to go. It is all part of my never ending quest to become well read. I will be focusing on reading more non-fiction, starting with these three interests and branching out.

Following the path of knowledge wherever it might take me. I look forward to talk about my journey as I continue and would also appreciate any recommendations.


Happy Moscow by Andrei Platonov

Posted October 14, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Short Stories / 0 Comments

Happy Moscow by Andrei PlatonovTitle: Happy Moscow (Goodreads)
Author: Andrei Platonov
Translator: Robert Chandler
Published: Vintage, 1991
Pages: 263
Genres: Short Stories
My Copy: Library Book

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“Life has become better, comrades, life has become merrier” – Joseph Stalin

Happy Moscow was an unfinished novel by Andrei Platonov, finally published in 1991 and yet it still became one of his greatest works. It is believed that Platonov started the novel in about 1932 but abandoned it a few years later. Happy Moscow tells the story of Moscow (or Moskva) Ivanovna Chestnova, an orphan trying to make her way through life. Named after the Soviet capital, Moscow becomes a metaphor for life under Stalin.

The story of a woman’s struggle through life is an obvious metaphor for Russia’s own journey starting with the revolution. Starting off with a clear and ascending life however as the years go by, life becomes more and more complex. Dreams turn into distant memories as responsibility and bumps along the way happen. While Andrei Platonov was a communist, his novels were often banned due to his criticism towards Stalin regarding collectivization and other policies. It is easy to see why Platonov would leave this novel unfinished out of fear of the consequences.

This anarchic satire is very odd to read, it is fragmented due to it being left unfinished and Platonov’s experimental or avant-garde style. There is a complex struggle that comes out in the writing, making this more of the writings of a man trying to understand his own views. This alienating struggle that unfolds on the page is what made Happy Moscow an interesting read because Platonov’s writing style was a struggle. Platonov is a philosopher, using his writing to explore his ideas, often drawing on Marxism or Leninism while criticising Stalinism. Stalin obviously did not see Platonov as having any worth in literature but his feelings were some what complex, calling him a “fool, idiot, scoundrel” and then “a prophet, a genius” in the same meeting. Platonov was eventually arrested and exiled to a labour camp as an anti-communist (anti-Stalinist would be a better suited term).

The book I read contained a few short stories and a screenplay with the unfinished novel Happy Moscow. These stories include ‘The Moscow Violin’, ‘On The First Socialist Tragedy’, ‘Father’ and ‘Love for the Motherland’. While all had their own themes they all seem to have similar threads that tie them back to Happy Moscow. Andrei Platonov was a difficult author to tackle, but I am glad I did it. There are a few more of his novels I would like to get to including The Foundation Pit but I think they will be in the distant future


Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Posted October 1, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Classic / 2 Comments

Doctor Zhivago by Boris PasternakTitle: Dr Zhivago (Goodreads)
Author: Boris Pasternak
Translator: Max Hayward, Manya Harari
Published: Everyman's Library, 1957
Pages: 512
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Hardcover

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When thinking about staples in Soviet literature, one book immediately comes to mind, and that is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. A novel in the vein of the Russian epics like War and Peace, Pasternak’s novel tells of a tragic hero, Yury Zhivago. The novel follows the life of a flawed character as he tries to control his life and his hormones. While trying to live a moral life, he is often a victim of his own desires and misfortune, while Russia changes around him.

I have mixed feelings about this modern classic and this is mainly due to the fact that some people refer to this as an epic romance. Doctor Zhivago is as romantic as Wuthering Heights as it explore romanticism rather than love. Russian Romanticism often has an emphasis on the metaphysical discontent of society and one’s self. In this way, yes, Doctor Zhivago is a wonderfully Romantic novel but if you are looking for love, you’ve come to the wrong book. I know translator Richard Pevear has called this a moving love story (which cements many issues I have with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) however, can you call the struggle with morality a tale of romance?

Let’s talk about the relationships found within Doctor Zhivago. The relationship between Yury and Lana is the main focus of this classic; a woman he has lusted after for his entire life. However he marries Tonya, a woman that Yury shows no real affection towards. This is not to say that Yury does not care for Tonya, just the whole idea of marrying someone while in love with someone else is just stupid. Now I know this is an autobiographical novel and it is a reflection of Boris Pasternak’s own relationship mistakes but the relationship between Yury and Lana was always doomed, especially since she shows no interest in him.

There is something to be said about the marriage of Yury and Tonya. Following the loss of his mother and the abandonment of his father, Yury is consistently seeking out a maternal figure. One may even call it an Oedipus complex and Tonya is more of a mother figure to him. This brings up a major theme in Russian literature not just Doctor Zhivago. In the case of this novel, the human desire for companionship plays out in context of the longing for stability. Russia has suffered a lot of tumultuous times and the desire for stability tends to be reflected in their literature.

What interested me the most about Doctor Zhivago was what it had to say about the political landscape. This is why the novel was refused publication in the Soviet Union and the story behind the book is just as interesting. I picked up The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée as soon as finishing Doctor Zhivago. This book is part biography on Boris Pasternak and part history of the novel.

Boris Pasternak was so passionate about writing Doctor Zhivago, he would continually return to it in-between paid translation work. He knew that it would never be published in the Soviet Union but wanted his story out there. Because the novel covered a time between the first Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Civil War. The reader is able to follow the ideological struggle that Pasternak would have had towards his much loved motherland, from the dreams of a socialist utopia to its grim reality. These themes, its criticism towards Stalin and mentioning the realities of the Gulag (covering this topic before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) were some of the main reasons this book was denied publication. It was the CIA who published the book and distributed it in the Soviet Union as propaganda, the story behind this an interesting one, which I learnt from The Zhivago Affair.

Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the country by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli with Pasternak asking him to help get his novel out to the world, who first published the book in Italian. Pasternak also gave the manuscript to George Kutkov in the hopes of a decent and faithful English translation. Katkov promised the best translation possible and settled on Max Hayward and Manya Harari for this task. According to The Zhivago Affair, “The pair alternated chapters and then checked each other’s work. Katkov supervised them both, ‘going over everything for accuracy and nuance.’”

Originally Katkov suggested to Pasternak to use Vladimir Nabokov for the translation but this idea was rejected. “This won’t work; he’s too jealous of my position in this country to do it properly.” I am not sure what the relationship between Pasternak and Nabokov is but he has been quoted in 1927 as saying “His verse is convex, goitrous and google eyed, as though his muse suffered from Basebow’s disease. He is crazy about clumsy imagery, sonorous but literal rhymes, and clattering metre.” When Doctor Zhivago was published in America it knocked Lolita off the number one spot on the best seller list. This lead Nabokov to call it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences.”

Despite the criticism and while I do agree it is a little clumsy in its coincidences, I cannot deny Doctor Zhivago as anything but a masterpiece. I know Boris Pasternak wanted the novel to be accessible and simple, and I was surprised how easy it was to read. There is plenty to say about this novel and I would love to talk more about it. I know this will be a novel that will be read over and over again and I encourage others to read it not for the story but for what is says about the Soviet era. Doctor Zhivago is such a cultural phenomenon and at great risk to its author, in fact apparently when Boris Pasternak gave the manuscript to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli he said “you are hereby invited to my execution.”


Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Posted September 27, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Classic / 2 Comments

Pale Fire by Vladimir NabokovTitle: Pale Fire (Goodreads)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 246
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel centred around a 999 line poem of the same name by fictional poet John Shade. It is primarily focused on a literary commentary by Charles Kinbote, an academic with an obsession with the poet. Starting with the poem in four cantos, then leading into Kinbote’s analysis, Pale Fire is a wonderfully complex novel on obsession and literary criticism. While Nabokov’s 1962 post-modern masterpiece might sound dense on the surface,  I found the novel itself easy to read, but difficult to unpack.

Before sharing my thoughts on Pale Fire, I feel it is important to point out Vladimir Nabokov’s academic career in America. While in America, Nabokov worked as a lecturer mainly in Russian and European literature, most notably at Cornell University from 1948-1959. The reason why this is important is the fact that this experience would have contributed the satirical nature of Pale Fire. I often found the novel to be a tongue in cheek look at literary criticism. On reading this, I found myself laughing at the leaps Kinbote often took to explain the Shade poem. I could not help but think this was a reflection of some of the assignments Nabokov read as a lit professor.

Looking deeper into Pale Fire and there is a lot to gain from the novel. What I noticed first seems to be a popular trope for Nabokov, and that is the unreliable narrator. I cannot help but comparing Charles Kinbote to Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Not only is he unreliable but the obsession with the poet John Shade feels very similar. His obsession towards the poet and the art leads to an artistic passion, however this turns into a struggle with desire exceeding creative capability. It is here we get an interesting idea of critical commentary verses the desire to creating literature.

As things progress the novel shifts to an exploration into reality. I found myself questioning the sanity of Kinbote and maybe he is actually King Charles of Zembla. He could in fact be the exiled king or far more likely, he is suffering from dangerous delusions. From what I know after reading Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading (the only other novels I have read) Nabokov likes to play around with obsession, in particular the dangerous realities it may lead to. It is here where I wished I had read Speak Memory or a biography on Nabokov, because I get a feeling of autobiographical elements in Pale Fire. There are moments that seem to parallel his own life, in regards to fleeing the Soviet Union and even teaching literature. Zembla resembles the Soviet Union but portrayed in a nostalgic way. Like Kinbote looks at the country through rose-coloured classes, not remembering the harsh reality.

Apart from the wonderful writing style to be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, you can expect to see plenty of allegories and references. One thing I love about Russian literature (and I call Nabokov a Russian simply because he was born there) is the way they often reference other novels; it is the same joy I get from reading books about books. Pale Fire is jammed packed with references from The Brothers Karamazov, A Hero of Our Time, James Joyce, Keats, Proust and even mentions Lolita. A better review could go into a lot of detail exploring the references and what they mean to the novel but I will not go into those detail.

Pale Fire is a book that will take a lifetime to read, there is so much here to explore and that is what appeals to me. The more I read from Nabokov the more I want to read, and re-read. I do feel like I need to learn more about this author before diving back into his novels. Speak Memory will be my next read from Nabokov but I am half tempted to crack open a collection of essays I have called Lectures on Russian Literature. I am excited to return to Pale Fire in the future and talk even more about the novel.


The Complexities of Being a Book Nerd

Posted September 16, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Literature / 2 Comments

mount-tbrThe life of a book nerd can be a confusing one. I have so many conflicting moments, I find it hard to know what is actually going on inside my own head. Let’s start with a recent bookish existential crisis I had. I have talked about this previously; I worked out that if I was to live for another fifty years, I would only get to around five thousand books. This really stuck with me, I decided to set myself a task. I called it Project 5000, and the goal was to make every book count. Before picking up a book, I think to myself “Is this a book that I would want to include in the 5000?” My goal was not to read anything that I only had a minor interest in and focus on the books that really interested me.

Lately I have been having a completely different train of thought; I have been thinking more about re-reading. While I know I have so many books I want to get to and only have a limited amount of time, the desire to go back to older books directly contradicts my goals behind Project 5000. However, I have grown as a person and a reader, and there are many books that are crying out to be re-read. While watching The Gilmore Girls, I was drawn to a profound quote by Richard Gilmore, “a good book takes a lifetime to read”. This idea has haunted me for a while; the whole idea that great books need to be constantly returned to just feels right. I have read Frankenstein multiple times; I had at one point planned to re-read it every year. While that has not worked out, I still feel drawn to return to it. I would also like to re-read more of my favourites, like Crime and Punishment or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It is not just favourites, I would love to dip into the Foundation series again or just see how I feel about The Catcher in the Rye now I have grown as a reader.

I seem to go in cycles for my reading desires, at the moment I want to read philosophy but that will change. One month I could be interested in reading Russian classics and the next I might be craving science fiction or pulp novels. I can never plan out my reading because I never know what I will be interested in reading. I have a huge interest in the Soviet era, philosophy and books in translation, so I do know that my reading may often be linked to one of those interests. That does not make my reading life any easier, there is so much out there to explore.

One major issue I feel I have is the fact that I feel so far behind in my reading journey. There are so many books out there that I should have read already. This is ridiculous, I know I have read so many great books and should be proud of my reading journey. I am cursed with a never ending TBR pile and I have to find ways to manage that.

Currently I am already planning my reading goals for 2017. I know I will continue my journey in having more than 50% of my reading be translations (currently it is 46% for 2016 and trending upwards). I want to read more non-fiction (9 books this year) and more re-reading (only three this year). I do not want to commit to these goals just yet, I have to think on this some more. However I wanted to give you some insights into what goes on in my head and just how complex being book nerd can be.


The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Posted September 12, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Literary Fiction / 2 Comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel DaoudTitle: The Meursault Investigation (Goodreads)
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2013
Pages: 143
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the key components to philosophy is the ability to argue your point, this is done in many different ways and Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger does exactly that. Kamel Daoud took the same approach for his counterargument, with his novel The Meursault Investigation. This novel seemed to have taken the world by storm, winning the Goncourt du Premier Roman, the Prix des Cinq Continents, the Prix François Mauriac and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. It follows Harum seventy years after his brother Musa (the Arab) was killed by Meursault. Harum is reflecting back on his life and the impact Meursault’s story has had on himself, his family and Algeria.

Kamel Daoud’s response to The Stranger is basically saying that life is not absurd, it has meaning. Taking a life has consequences and execution is not simply a life for a life. Meursault killing the Arab had a big impact, and never referring to him by name allowed Camus to focus his story but at the risk of missing the bigger picture. So seventy years later, well after Algeria has declared their independence from France, the story of Meursault is still a topic of discussion.

First of all, the death of Musa has an impact on the life of Harum and his family. The Meursault Investigation starts off exploring the life of Harum and his mother and how the death of Musa effected them. The novel spirals out, first looking at the effect it had on Harum, then his mother and family and then finally Algeria. This may come across as repetitive but I think it was important to understand the impact.

I watched a lecture by Daoud that talks about The Stranger and comparing it to Robinson Crusoe. This is an exploration into post-colonialism; Meursault meets someone who was different to him and kills him. Robinson Crusoe did the same thing to Friday, just not physically; he forced him to convert to his idea of civilisation. That meant changing the way his acted, dressed and most of all his religious beliefs. The fact that Meursault killed an Arab on the beach could be symbolic of the island. If you follow this train of thought, The Meursault Investigation turns into a very complex philosophical argument, not only against The Stranger but the opinions of Western society (especially France) towards the raise of Islam.

The Meursault Investigation is an angry novel with some very deep philosophical ideas embedded into the pages. Published originally in French (translated by John Cullen) this novel evoked similar reactions for me as Submission by Michel Houellebecq in the way it explores France’s reaction to Islam. I understand people’s criticism about repetitive in The Meursault Investigation but I feel like it was necessary as Daoud needs to keep circling back to the death of the Arab and exploring how it affected everyone. This is the butterfly effect and I enjoyed every moment of this novel.


The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

Posted September 8, 2016 by Michael Kitto in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Dead Lake by Hamid IsmailovTitle: The Dead Lake (Goodreads)
Author: Hamid Ismailov
Translator: Andrew Bromfield
Published: Peirene Press, 2014
Pages: 128
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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While I actively avoid a novel that is described as a modern fairy-tale, it is a good term to use while talking about The Dead Lake. The novella tells the story of Yerzhan growing up in the remote parts of Kazakhstan, in an area that the Soviets used for atomic weapons testing. As a young boy he tried to impress the neighbour’s daughter by diving into a forbidden lake. The lake was radioactive and diving into the water changed Yerzhan forever.

Diving into the dead lake means that Yerzhan will now never grow into a man, he is doomed to watch his love grow into a beautiful woman while he will forever be a prepubescent boy. The plot is very fairy-tale like and the reader has a front row seat into a struggle in masculinity. While never growing old may seem like a dream for some people, never reaching puberty would not be desirable. While re-reading Interview with the Vampire, I wanted this exact issue explored with Claudia. The idea that while Yerzhan may never physically age, time and experience means he grows and matures. His inner self is not reflected physically and he is doomed to be always treated like a child.

While the plot tells a fairy-tale like story, underneath all this there is something different happening. The Dead Lake is an exploration into the environmental impact of the cold war. Not just exploring the effects the Soviets had on Karakhstan but rather the impact both American and the USSR had on the world to demonstrate their power. I believe this novella was based on Lake Chagan, which the Soviets conducted nuclear tests on in 1965 and is still radioactive today. Around about 100 times more than the permitted level of radionuclides in drinking water.

This grim book deals with some hard hitting topics but credit to Hamid Ismailov for producing a beautiful novella. The writing in The Dead Lake is so lyrical and poetic it just flows off the page. I found myself captivated by the writing and completely sucked into the story. While it is no secret that I am a fan of Soviet and post-Soviet literature, there is something special about this novella. I love the idea of a bildungsroman where the protagonist is physically unable to truly come of age, I would like to read more novels like this.