Stinkhorns, Mongrels and A Way with Words

As Domino has pointed out, with typical grace, the writer George Forthwith-James was, to all intents and purposes, ‘as slimy as a stinkhorn’. As I have countered, however, had she ever received a personal message from said scribe, she would have eaten her words pronto. For Forthwith-James had the rare gift of phenomenal charm: a magnetism that no logic could ever overcome. Face to face he was no great shakes – but when words began to spill from his pen there was no stopping him. He had a way with words – and god knows that this, much like a pretty face, makes up for all sorts of deficiencies. As waves re-sort the sand, so words strip the sinning beach clean.

Speaking of bastards, a month or so ago I devoted half a dozen posts to a loose review of Boris Yasmilye’s new novel The Bastard. The title, of course, does not refer to George Forthwith-James, or any sort of man: the bastard in question is the book itself, a bastard in the original sense (The Mongrel might have been a better translation of the title, but we’ll let it stand).

Having said this, The Bastard does deal with themes particular to Forthwith-James. Its main concern, after all, is the art of letter writing: our man’s favourite medium. And what it says about this appears to confirm the problem at the heart of this matter – that words written from one person to another have a power greater than words written to a general audience. Or should I say: words that appear to have been written from one person to another. For is this not what the best fiction does – it gives the appearance that the author has written it for us alone; that the novel is in fact a letter from them to us: a direct, personal appeal from one soul to another?

Intimacy shouldn’t be something one can ape – and yet Forthwith-James, like many a good writer, was painfully adept at doing just this. He used words to make connections; frequently false connections, or connections based on shaky foundations. But connections nonetheless…

Nakedness Will Not Save the World (The Bastard 6)

According to Boris Yashmilye, at least, who has decided – after a decade or so – to apologise to all those non-communists whom he ‘flashed’ as part of the publicity tour for his debut novel Flashe[r]s at Midnight.

‘Though I’ll never regret using nudity as a form of protest against communist crimes in Bulgaria,’ he told The Vienna Globe, ‘I have gradually come to the opinion that nakedness will not save the world.’

It’s a fair point. The interesting connections between Nazis and nudism have always intrigued people, whilst the majority of us have long considered the possibility that one can believe in love and peace and keep your trousers on.

No explicit mention, incidentally, of nakedness in Yashmilye’s latest novel, The Bastard – although most of the characters don’t wear clothes. But then a lot of them are squirrels.

To the Bemused (The Bastard 6)

Seeing as I’ve been writing about a novel concerned with the nature of correspondence, it only seems right that I should introduce some correspondence of my own, written in response to issues arising from both old and new reviews of Boris Yashmilye’s fiction.

‘I am bemused,’ writes my letter writing friend (whose name shall remain unknown). ‘More than that: I am positively flummoxed. And let me tell you why’. Tell away, I say, tell away. ‘It is principally a matter of dates’. Ah yes, 1066 and all that. Unless of course you refer to the edible drupe of the date palm tree. No? All right: go on. ‘Your review of Boris Yasmilye’s first novel, written some years ago now, refers to your having read the book as a student, only to imply that it was written, at the earliest, in the late 1980s, almost a decade after your student days. Perhaps you could explain this curious discrepancy’. Perhaps I could, perhaps I could… But stop: there is more. ‘On top of this, I find in your more recent review of Yashmilye’s career [see this post] a distinct reluctance to confirm the dates of all his novels, or to offer an explanation as to how and why the writer seems to have written only five novels over the space of twenty-five years. Slow progress, is it not?’

Truth be told, these are all good questions. So let’s throw some facts upon the table. Boris Yasmilye’s debut novel was, as far as I know, first published in 1991. A rather poor English translation appeared the following year, later superseded by a much better, albeit controversial, translation in 2005. Yashmilye’s second and third novels were published in 1994 and 1997 respectively. I can’t recall the dates of their English translations. Out Damned appeared in 2003. Translations of this exist but have yet to be published. The Bastard was published this year. Again, a translation exists, but no willing publisher.

Meanwhile, your point about my claims to have read Yashmilye’s debut as a student is well-made. I note, in retrospect, that the tone of my review (to be found here) is indeed a little misleading. I appear to suggest, do I not, that I first encountered Yashmilye as a young, fresh and quite possibly foolish man; that Flashes at Midnight was one of those books one falls in love with in the days of one’s youth – and fears, in later life, of offering no more than an air of nostalgia.

This, as you have no doubt realised, cannot be true. For in fact I was in my late thirties when Yashmilye’s book was published; no fresher than cut-price carrots: a bright young thing whose bulb had long since broken. And yet, and yet – I was, officially, still a student. Those were still student days. So too, indeed, are these present days. I am, after all, still engaged on my doctorate; ever the pupil in the classroom of life, eager to learn and never less than keen to confess my eternal ignorance.

As for your second point (or was it the third? I forget…) you will have noticed that Yasmilye has actually, according to these facts, written five novels in eighteen years. This is not an awful writing rate, though you are right to draw attention to it, as there is a distinct gap of eight years between his third and fourth novel; one which ought, I admit, to have been underlined at a previous juncture. Though I can’t at present supply a precise reason as to why Yashmilye took so long to produce Out Damned, certain details may go some way to alleviate your concerns. Chief among these is the fact that Yasmilye, like a lot of obscure European novelists, simply does not make enough money from his writing to support himself. This is a point much overlooked by critics, I confess – and one which we should make every effort to address in the future. For the truth is that many European novelists have alternate careers; careers which can, on occasion, pull them away from their literary concerns.

Yashmilye falls into this camp. During the period in which his five novels have been published, he has held a variety of other jobs, from bookseller to bookmaker, from farmer to pharmacist. For a man as talented as he, this is far from ideal. It is, however, the sad reality of things. Whether this completely explains the eight year gap I cannot quite say, but it must be kept in mind, if only to serve as a much-needed reminder of the far-from-charmed lives than so many of our great writers lead.

One last thing. As a postscript my close-reader of a correspondent writes: ‘A final query. Your original Yashmilye review tells of how you spend every June and July in your summer cottage in Vladivostock. I presume that means you are there now’.

I offer only a short answer to this one: don’t presume anything.

Cute Animals Harbouring Cruel Intentions (The Bastard 5)

As every man and his dog knows, stories with animals in them are not, on the whole, about animals. They are stories written by humans who are ashamed/afraid/incapable of presenting ideas without first hiding them under the skin of a fluffy bunny. Bring forth the bunnies and everything seems a little bit easier; safely removed one step from reality, hard edges softened by the simplest of literary tricks. There is, of course, a word for this – a word so closely associated (in my mind anyway) with proud young students of literature that I feel disinclined to use it here.  So disinclined, in fact, that I feel myself resisting the urge entirely. See how I resist, oh see how I resist.

Let us move on with sweet speed, stopping only briefly to consider the case of Pierre Manniac, a man who, you may remember, turned this tradition of which I speak on its furry little head. His ultra-violent story of gangland murders, Death: A Way of Life, would have been a generic shoot-em-up were it not for one fact: Manniac decided to replace all his humans with animals. Suddenly everything became strangely interesting (according to some: personally, I remain unconvinced). Readers who might have been bored stiff by an account of a bloody fistfight between two brainless gangsters were, it seems, beguiled by a reenactment of the same scuffle featuring a polar bear and a giant lobster. The animals, somehow, made the story.

Manniac’s path to anthropomorphism (resistance duly over) wasn’t the usual one, granted. It was, in fact, a last-minute get-out clause, if not a lucky mistake. Others might have got there quicker. Some people, indeed, struggle to get anywhere else. For animals dominate the stories of amateur storytellers. Folk tales are swimming with them. And many of the worst are – like Manniac’s novel – saved by them. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s hard to write a bad story with a talking goat in it. Or at least, harder than writing a bad story with a talking bank manager in it – even if the plot is, essentially, the same.

Boris Yashmilye is not an amateur storyteller – not by any means – but The Bastard nevertheless hands a lot of pages over to amateur storytelling; to join-the-dots narrative construction; to wax-crayon on sugar-paper plot prefabrication. This after all, as Yashmilye well knows, is what happens when one tries to create a story out of correspondence with people who, to put it simply, both lack the true writer’s touch and, most significantly, see some kind of need to hide their true (and possibly cruel) intentions behind cartoonish, distinctly non-human characters. What is true to Yashmilye’s experience is undoubtedly true to mine: get a group of perfectly sane people together to weave a story and there’s every chance that what they’ll come up with will feature, somewhere along the way, a cute-faced kitten with a hidden agenda.

Admittedly, there are no kittens in The Bastard. Still, there are some pretty fine substitutes, well poised to make up for this oversight. There is, as previously noted, a pelican or two, a ship of parrot pirates (with small men on their shoulders) and at least one talking potato. On top of this we have what is for me a first in modern European fiction: a ‘sqirl’ (a small female squirrel). Oh dear me yes. Sqirls there are in abundance. Sqirls everywhere. And I dare to say that I actually like this novel!

So it is. For the sqirls, at least, are not without their uses. Indeed, I would even so far as to call them a masterstroke. Awful as they are, their awfulness is not without a certain beauty; a certain calculated beauty, I should say, testament to Yashmilye’s understanding of what The Bastard is all about. And here, again, the footnotes save the day, alerting the dazed reader to the curious set of circumstances that surround the invention of – and consequently save the copious employment of – these tragically adorable creatures. Yasmilye’s brilliantly weighted interjections not only excuse the sqirls, but they make them integral to the project: pathetically heroic symbols of the novel’s central themes.

But be warned: a sqirl in the hands of a less talented writer is a very different sort of animal.

Great Nest of Pulsating Emotions (The Bastard 4)

Boris Yashmilye’s new novel, The Bastard, consists – as previously noted – of a story stitched together through the correspondence between the author (or author substitute Ivan Grilenko) and three women. The result is somewhat of a chaotic compromise, cunningly lifted from the quagmire of ineptitude by the careful use of our old friend the footnote. Through this the novel becomes less of a poorly constructed patchwork quilt, and more of a subtle exploration of the implications of a poorly constructed patchwork quilt. The difference between the two may be negligible: nonetheless it saves the novel.

Throughout the book, one particular question reappears: are the three women aware of each other, or is each of them under the impression that they are in sole correspondence with the wily Grilenko? The truth is that all three have their suspicions; the narrative is too choppy for them not to, too fraught with incriminating possibilities; but these come out, not in forthright accusations, but in delicate underhanded allegations, quietly woven into the fabric of this strange, cooperative tale. The story is, thus, a great nest of pulsating emotions: a fantastically intricate four way dialogue – an almighty bust-up, you could say, squeezed through the sieve of a peculiar little story about pelicans, pirates and potassium-rich potatoes.

More on this – i.e. the pelicans – a little later.

Saving a Spoiled Broth (The Bastard 3)

Only one name finds its way onto the cover of the book, but as the title suggests, The Bastard is the child of more than one creator. Yashmilye’s hero (or alter ego) Ivan Grilenko admits as much in the introduction: ‘My letters have always contained stories. Correspondents have not always cared for this habit, a rule to which there have been three main exceptions, all female, all of whom have taken my weakness for telling stories and thrown it back in my face, with pleasing results. This novel is one result: a collaborative story, constructed through letters’.

One word at least will have set a few alarm bells ringing. That word is collaborative. For the bastard book-child of several parents seldom promises beauty. History has taught us that stories with many parents (excepting folk tales, carried across generations and softened like pebbles by the raging seas of sense) are, more often than not, a poor bunch. Get a group of friends together to forge a story and, fun as it may be, the tale that is conceived will probably be a formless compromise; a cacophony of divergent styles and ideas, a crude and careless mish-mash.

Think, for instance, of the infamous Obo Urlach project (reviewed, in a fashion, here). Fourteen talented writers came together to produce what was, by all accounts, one of the worst novels ever written. It was so bad, indeed, that the vast majority of the copies were destroyed (usually by the authors involved). I doubted for some time that the book even existed. Ironically, it was the reluctance of so many of those involved to mention it that lead me to believe it did.

The Obo Urlach book was a deformed bastard; the difference between it and Yashmilye’s novel is that the latter is fully aware of its bastard status (proved, resoundingly, by its title). Not only aware, indeed, but willing to draw the reader’s attention to it. Collaboration is the subject of the novel, not its shameful weakness. What happens when a story suffers under the hands of several writers (and Yashmilye is quite aware that most stories, his own included, do suffer under these circumstances) – that is the real story of The Bastard.

So how does Yashmilye manage to present his readers with a cruel compromise of a story without losing them? Being aware of the flaws doesn’t make the flaws go away, after all. But drawing yet another story out of them does help one understand them anew, viewing them from a fresh perspective. And this is what Yashmilye does: adding to his letters a commentary, in the shape of footnotes, which glues together the chaos of the collaboration, giving the novel a new and moving shape.

All of which begs the question – would explanatory footnotes have rendered Obo Urlach’s Fires of Wilmeldestran readable?

Some Bare Facts (The Bastard 2)

Before donning bathing caps, flippers and goggles and plunging with energetic elegance into the deep pool of The Bastard, it’s well worth paddling our dainty or not-so-dainty feet in the side-pool of solid facts. Who is this Boris Yashmilye fellow anyway? What else has he written? Does he open doors for all women, or only for the pretty ones?

Yashmilye’s most celebrated novel remains his first, the strangely titled Flashes at Midnight (which I review here); still thought by many – myself included – to be the definitive text on the subject of political streaking (aka ‘Disrobing for Democracy’). A cheeky novel, to be sure, publicised with equal insolence. I recall another critic leaning over a dinner table two or three years ago to share with me the information that ‘in his considered opinion (which knowing him, was not all that considered) Boris Yashmilye was a total arse’. Though these are words I rarely employ myself, I had to agree that all I had seen of the young Bulgarian confirmed his theory. For the truth is that I have met Yashmilye only once, shortly after the publication of Flashes at Midnight, a book he choose to advertise by means of imitating its protagonists. Which is to say that Boris, mistaking me for a bloodless bookhound, bore his bare backside at me.

This would suggest something of a brutish character, which isn’t entirely true, though it would be fair to say that youthful extravagances got the better of Yashmilye following his early success. Both his second (The Musala Affair, a faintly pornographic spy thriller) and third (Nuts, Nuts, Nuts, a decent book ruined by the overuse of the word ‘metaphysical’) novels received a deserved critical pounding for a writer of his obvious talents. Rather like an older version of the Norwegian firebrand Edmund Ek, it looked as though Yashmilye had burnt himself out: that he was a one-trick pony, a single-swindle stallion, an lone-dupe donkey.

Then came Out Damned, a glorious fourth outing (reviewed here). The irreverance  remained – it is, after all, the story of a fantastical expedition by a team of very small people across the face of an unfortunate acne-strewn teenager – but it was, on the whole, a much more consistent work than its limp predecessors. Yashmilye, at his best, combines sheer silliness with passages of a strangely moving power. That he manages to get away with this, particularly in Out Damned, might have something to do with the increasingly autobiographical nature of his work. Flashes at Midnight was clearly based on aspects of his own life, admittedly, but it was the facts rather than the emotions that fuelled the fiction. In Out Damned – and his new novel, The Bastard – we find Yashmilye facing up to the less immediately amusing sides of his own personality. Not only does he face up, but he sees the the examination through. Any fool of a writer can come up with a good idea: Yashmilye has turned himself into a man capable of seeing these good ideas through. This is what makes him one of our best contemporary novelists – a judgment which the publication of The Bastard seems unlikely to overturn.

As for the third question mooted above, I have it on vaguely good authority that, for all his bottom-baring, Yashmilye is a ‘gentleman’ – and will gladly open a door for any girl, whether she looks like Helen of Troy, or the loneliest warthog at the savannah school disco.