Month: November 2016

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

Buy: AmazonBook Depository
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

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

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
, 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.