“The Buddha’s Return” by Gaito Gazdanov

In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Gaito Gazdanov isolates the physical and psychological; he leaves his characters stranded in a half-reality, a philosophical dream of their own creation; and asks searching questions about what it means to be alive and conscious of one’s inner life. In The Buddha’s Return, he takes that discombobulation to its extreme – the unnamed narrator who drifts through the novel in a fog of uncertainty, suffers a kind of sporadic delirium which sees him slip constantly from reality into incredibly vivid, nightmarish constructs. These waking dreams almost always involve the narrator punishing himself in some way – the opening words of the novel, for instance, are “I died”; and later he finds himself a prisoner of a fictional state, accused of a crime he didn’t commit but cannot deny in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare (and neatly foreshadowing the second half of the novel). The fiction is as convincing as reality, and as the reader you have to try to follow the narrative thread like a trail of breadcrumbs through the narrator’s consciousness. It is very unusual, and despite being so fragmentary in some ways, incredibly gripping.

The central premise is that the narrator is imprisoned for killing a friend of his – a wealthy man called Pavel Alexandrovich, whom the narrator first met when Pavel was still a beggar on the streets of Paris. The one thing that offers the narrator some hope is that as well as killing Pavel, the murderer stole a golden statue of Buddha from Pavel’s apartment – a crime which the narrator could not have committed. In that sense this is, as is The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, an accomplished thriller, and it certainly has the pace and intrigue of a great piece of crime fiction. However that plot also functions as a vehicle allowing the narrator, and therefore Gazdanov, to explore issues of identity; alienation; loneliness; the power of our fictional inner lives; and a kind of social justice. The idea of justice in particular figures large here – both in the criminal sense, and with regard to a kind of broader social consciousness. The narrator is imprisoned by two justice systems in this novel – one fictional, and the other real – and in both cases he is urged to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, in order to satisfy the requirements of a monstrous judiciary. As a fictional interrogator tells him:

They will sentence you and adopt punitive measures – not because you’re guilty and it has been proven, but because this is how they understand the task of the Central Judiciary. Objection is unfavourable and punishable in principle. To argue with the law is a crime against the state, as is to doubt its inerrancy. 

When the legal system itself is so caught up with such corkscrewing levels of bureaucracy, what hope is there for the individual? The narrator is entirely alone in Paris – friendless, but for the enigmatic Pavel – and as such, wholly at the whim of the state. Indeed the entire cast of the novel is made up of foreigners, beggars, and prostitutes – everyone playing the hand life has dealt them, trying to surviving in what can often be an anarchic, unkind world. It’s a feeling of separation and unreality that feels very timely as we debate privacy laws, immigration, and live in dissonance with the natural world. Indeed in a novel that relies so much on mirroring, chance connections and repetition, there are only really two moments in which a genuine human connection is either promised or realised – the first being the conversation between the narrator and Pavel shortly before Pavel’s death, and the second offering a ray of hope at the end of the novel, as the narrator rediscovers the importance of a lost love. It’s comforting that even in a novel which is distinguished by their absence, mutual understanding and love are what the narrator finds himself striving for.

The Buddha’s Return is at heart a very European novel, which draws on the work of writers like Freud, Proust and Schnitzler (and of course, Dostoevsky) whilst being very critical of the continent’s history and class system. (As Pavel says at one point, “Here, every stone is dripped in blood. Wars, revolutions, barricades, crimes, despotic regimes, inquisitions, famine, devastation, and this whole historical gallery of horrors...” Europe, like the narrator’s internal life, is full of monsters.)  Managing to combine pace, great sensory detail and an ongoing psychological examination of his character, Gazdanov has achieved something very special. A novel like Rogue Male owes a debt, I think, to The Buddha’s Return – it’s a real feat to combine suspense and psychological analysis with such flair.


The Buddha's Return

“Mona Lisa” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Mona-Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia is a jewel of a novella, seamlessly blending theories about the power of art with slap-stick comedy. The premise is simple enough – reminiscent of the Pygmalion myth, a young French nobleman called Bougainville finds himself in Florence, in the home of the great Leonardo di Vinci. Wrapped up in the task of trying to catch a fly in Leonardo’s workshop (in order to settle a sudden argument about how many legs the insect has), Bougainville accidentally reveals the artist’s most famous painting, whose bewitching smile had been hidden behind a curtain. He immediately experiences an overwhelming feeling of love for Di Vinci’s subject, and resolves to find her. Leonardo explains that she is a fiction, a combination of many women both real and imagined –although in an effort to get the young man out of his house, he implies that she may have been loosely based on the young wife of a Florentian nobleman. The woman, he explains, died some years ago, but Bougainville cannot believe this to be true. He convinces himself that she must be alive and in peril, hidden from the world by a jealous husband. His search gets more and more frantic and, as he blunders through the city, he manages to make himself both a figure of fun and deeply tragic.

The tone of the story is unusual, and perfectly judged. At times it is, as I say, extremely funny. There is one scene in particular in which Mona Lisa’s mostly-naked husband, interrupted by the questing Bougainville and his cronies in the middle of the night, slides down his banisters in a bid to escape their questions. In another, Bougainville’s furious commander berates him whilst at the same time retying his shot-brocade trouser laces tighter round his thighs – since, we are told, For over a century trouser laces were wound round the thighs, and for over a century they did not stay put, but slid down the legs. It’s pure Monty Python. In among these farcical scenes, however, are moments of real feeling – because as ridiculous as Bougainville’s love is for the woman in the painting, there is no doubt that it is sincere. As he says towards the end of the story, Nothing is capable of separating two people who love each other – these binary stars eternally revolving round each other – not even God. He is willing to sacrifice everything for the image of a woman he has never met, and in his sincerity manages to humble even Di Vinci.

Ultimately the blend of absurdity and tenderness poses genuine questions about our relationship with art; whether it is possible to feel real love if it is inspired by someone fictional or unknown; whether dreams can, in fact, be more authentic than life itself; and indeed, if we ever really know the people we love, or if their true selves are as removed from us as the Mona Lisa is from her audience. Bougainville may be a fool – but aren’t we all when we experience love for the first time, no matter how inappropriate the object of our affections?

The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.

Mona Lisa

As  a post-script, I had never heard of Lernet-Holenia before, but he sounds like an absolutely fascinating figure with a complicated story of his own. Veteran of the First World War, author of what has apparently been called “the only Austrian resistance novel”, part of an army film unit for the Germans during the Second World War…I intend to obtain a copy of I was Jack Mortimer as soon this long, lean month is finally over.

Tree Charter

In 1217 King Henry III sealed the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to 1215’s Magna Carta. In the reign of King John (signatory to the Magna Carta and notorious Robin Hood villain) roughly a third of the country was made up by the royal forests, and there had traditionally been brutal punishments for “forest offences” (like poaching, or hunting protected deer). The Charter of the Forest redressed some of those inequalities by establishing a right of common access, thereby enshrining the rights of people to farm, forage and use the land to support their livestock. In essence the Charter achieved two significant things: first, like the Magna Carta, it recognised the fundamental rights of the common man; and secondly, it acknowledged that critical relationship between the English and their woodland.

As the centuries have rolled by our landscape has been stripped of much of its woodland by industry, farming, an increase in the population and most recently, the effects of climate change. As I have mentioned previously, it now covers less than 2% of the country;  indeed Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands. And our trees are constantly under threat from new pressures – like fracking, and the toothless National Planning Policy Framework, which gives politicians the right to cut through swathes of ancient woodland if they consider it to be economically expedient.

Which means that our remaining trees have become even more precious, and vulnerable, and deserve urgent protection. We need to remember that woods have always formed an integral part of our landscape, nature, infrastructure and folklore. From the totem-like pine poles at Stonehenge to Tolkein’s Ents, they are our symbols of the sacred and magical; our place of refuge; our resources; and, perhaps most important of all, our bastions of biodiversity. What is very clear, however, is that we cannot assume that our woods will be preserved indefinitely unless we take action.

It is very welcome news, then, to hear that the Woodland Trust is leading a call to establish a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, with a view to building on that thirteenth century legacy. The Charter itself will be drafted in 2017; for now, the Trust is asking “people across the UK to reflect on the role of trees and woods in their lives, their history, and their culture. By sharing stories of real trees and real lives in communities we will build a national story of trees and woods – showing how important they are to people today and what role communities want them to play in our future.” 

When I look at a tree that’s lived for hundreds of years, surviving storms, frosts, and human intervention, it is a very visceral reminder of our history– English oaks gave us the gall ink which recorded the words of our nation’s authors and poets for hundreds of years; the willow gave us the cricket bat; our woods built our ships and our churches. Most importantly, though, when a piece of ancient woodland is destroyed we lose not only a link to that past, but also a vital piece of our natural world – because trees are, above all, habitats. At a time when climate change is already causing such damage, it’s crucial that we re-establish our connection with these parts of our countryside and articulate the things that are important to us. Taking part in the formation of this Charter seems like an excellent place to start – and we can start by adding our own stories to the Tree Charter website, explaining what trees mean to us:  https://treecharter.uk/

“A Possible Life” by Sebastian Faulks

I don’t think you ever understand your life – not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.

In A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks tells five short, seemingly separate stories, plucked from different times, different countries, but with shared DNA. Each works as an independent tale, ranging from the horrors of the Second World War; a Victorian workhouse; a futuristic Italy; Napoleonic France; and 1960s California, and, as such, there is something to be said for the claim of some reviewers that this may not form a “novel” at all. That breadth, though, is surely the point of the structure –because in this ambitious book, Faulks isn’t just telling a single character’s story. He is distilling shared human experience into one expanded narrative, and very deliberately offering these five lives up as an examination of what we all have in common, not just what makes us unique.

I studied Birdsong when I was in my final year at school, and fell in love with it completely. It is, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, a story of two parts – a doomed pre-war love affair, which ultimately gives way to the horrors of the battlefield. One of that novel’s qualities is the mastery with which Faulks binds those two worlds together – images of Parisian waterways merge into trenches, and phrases echo one another across the years, offering tragic, clinging reminders of the proximity of life and death. Faulk’s has a way of concertinaing time, finding the epic rhythms which run through his characters’ lives, binding them to their forebears and descendants. It is not so much a democratization of experience as an insistence that what we think of as being our unique moments in fact ripple through time. It’s both an intellectual and tangible phenomenon – objects have tears in them, to quote Virgil, and Faulks uncovers this with rare skill.

A Possible Life exhibits that to maximum effect.  None of the stories are linked overtly, but the ripples are undoubtedly there. A chipped statue of the Madonna owned by one character finds itself in the hands of another, centuries later. The trauma of living through a war and bearing physical or mental scars is experienced keenly by three of the characters. A fleeting glimpse of a cricket match makes its way from the first story into the third. These people are explicitly bound by their things, their religion, their common humanity – and very literally, but the atoms from which they are made. At the end of the opening story, the main character experiences some subtle rearrangement of particles within himself. In another, as a character contemplates the death of her mother, she considers that the atoms that had made her mother had existed since the start of time. The sections of the novel aren’t just linked by themes and things, but by the matter which literally constitutes each character.

In the third story, a gifted scientist uncovers the mundane secret of human consciousness. It is the question which pervades each of these stories – how we cope with the weight of memory when we witness atrocities; whether our lives have a narrative we ought to be able to understand; the cost of creating a work of art so intimate that it speaks to the collective consciousness – essentially, how to understand the human condition. These are vast, existential ideas, but they aren’t overbearing. Instead the questions are woven lightly throughout narratives which otherwise deal with war, love, loss, art and loneliness; they flicker into focus occasionally, letting you know how connected we all are, even in isolation, but each section is otherwise allowed to have an arch of its own.

The only criticism I could offer is that, for me, the first story was so powerful that it rather overshadowed the rest of the novel. That perhaps betrays my own tastes rather than being an objective reflection on the success of the novel’s structure, but the poignancy of the opening story was only really recaptured by the beautiful closing lines. Notwithstanding that slight reservation, this is ambitious, protean, and thoroughly engaging. Faulks is the consummate master when it comes to revealing those minute, repeated details which pepper our lives, and as he has demonstrated so many times before, he can inhabit any number of characters completely believably (including, much to my delight, James Bond and Bertie Wooster). This is a very special, brave book.

“My time has come to disperse,” says my father. “We are made of fragments and they must go back. They have finished with this man.”

A possible life.jpg

“Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig

I only really discovered Montaigne through Sarah Bakewell’s excellent How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, though references to him (which I apparently failed to pursue) peppered many of my lectures at university. Bakewell’s book is incredibly entertaining and accessible, and was a perfect introduction to a writer who, at first glance, can seem so alien.  The reality, of course, is that Montaigne’s writing completely belies the stern portrait which glares at you from the cover of his Essays – he is funny, wise, thoughtful; the first writer to analyse his own internal life with such easy integrity and charm. I cannot think of a better guide through life’s thorniest questions.

Montaigne by Stefan Zweig is an exquisite offering from a writer who read the Essays with a particularly vivid intent; it is an excellent companion to the Essays, as well as being a remarkable work in its own right.

The context in which it was written imbues Zweig’s words with a terrible poignancy. Having been driven from Europe by the horrifying spread of Nazism, Zweig found himself in Brazil where, when exploring the damp cellar of his new flat, he found a copy of the Essais. It was a fateful discovery. For Zweig, the friendship and culture of Europe was everything, and he had been profoundly affected by his exile. In Zweig’s eyes, Montaigne had lived through a similar kind of cultural collapse – after the promise of the Renassiance where centuries were opening up where creative power, step by step, wave on wave, was carrying dark and chaotic existence towards the threshold of the divine, France has been struck by periods of incredible violence; the riots against the salt tax had been ferociously repressed in Bordeaux, and as a child, Montaigne witnessed terrible crimes against humanity. In spite of this, though, Montaigne successfully guarded his own, integral freedom – first through retiring to his tower and immersing himself in reading, and then later, through travel. For Zweig, who drew such important parallels between this and the violence of his own time, this was powerfully instructive; and ultimately, tragically, fatal. For at one point in his Essays, Montaigne suggests that a free man should choose the nature of his own death – and for Zweig, this became a very literal instruction. Over-burdened by the loss of his European ideals, and with no hope that the brutality sweeping across Europe would end, he eventually took his own life.

It isn’t something that Zweig addresses directly in Montaigne, and though it inevitably colours the experience of reading the book, Zweig’s writing, like Montaigne’s, is in fact full of an inspirational vitality. The challenge, he says, is to remain human in inhuman times; to live your own life, not simply to live. Zweig is brilliant at drawing out Montaigne’s most inspirational qualities – particularly his egalitarianism and tolerance. For the first few years of his life, he says, Montaigne’s father sent him to live with a family of poor woodcutters: In doing this, the father not only wants to accustom the child to “austerity and frugality”, in order to strength him, he wants to “bond him to the people from the outset and for him to experience the situation of those who have need of our assistance”, expressing a notion of egalitarian nurturing that seems almost inconceivable given the period. Of course, Montaigne’s life was cushioned by privilege, but those early ideals of freedom and egalitarianism stayed with him – as Zweig writes, He who demands freedom of thought for himself recognizes the same right for all men, and no one respected this tenet more than Montaigne…He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom on earth. What powerful ideals to speak across a span of four hundred years to a man who has just had to flee the genocial racism spreading across his own continent.

Zweig writes beautifully, transmitting Montaigne’s philosophy faithfully and without losing his own voice. I was, in particular, fascinated by the way in which he contextualises Montaigne’s life; the wheel of fortune, that favourite image of mediaeval literature, spins freely in Zweig’s account. Born at a time when the advancements of the Renaissance were at risk of being lost to a resurgent violence, Montaigne extracted himself from public life in order to focus on his own self-examination. In the late 1580s, when the Essays had given him such acclaim, he was summoned to negotiate a peace between the warring Henri de Navarre and Henri III, ultimately leading to the conversion of Henri de Navarre to Catholicism, guaranteeing centuries of peace and the glory of France. That’s quite a claim. Shortly before this zenith in his political life, though, Montaigne had been made a refugee from his home by the plague: Without even a coat, dressed in whatever he happens to have on, he flees the house without knowing where he is going, for no-one will take in a family fleeing a plague-ridden city. Far from being a recluse in a tower, Montaigne experienced life is all its glory and horror. It is in part what makes him such a timeless, wise literary friend, and what Zweig clearly found so compelling.

For Zweig, robbed of the Europe he valued so dearly, finishing the Essays marked the end of his own life. As Will Stone writes in the introduction to this beautiful Pushkin edition, he respectfully withdrew from the world, his artistic legacy to endure or fade at the discretion of posterity. The loss reminded me of a book I read last year, Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower, which offers a very different perspective on the same European crisis, and owes a similar debt to Montaigne’s incorruptible sense of self. For me, the last words of The Third Tower are the perfect articulation of Montaigne’s legacy – this, rather than Zweig’s final act, must be the true essence of the Essays.

Somehow, all it needs now is courage. Just don’t surrender your solitude for anything or anyone. How does Milton’s Satan put it? “What matters where, if I still be the same?” Whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.

It’s enough.

Montaigne Zweig