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But Serezha could not sleep: he was only pretending to be asleep. Outside, the whole house was moving through the twilight into the evening. To the material slave-song of the floors and buckets, Serezha was thinking how unrecognizable everything would become in the light when all this movement was over. He would feel as if he had arrived a second time and, what was more important, well rested into the bargain.

Ah the Russians! What a people. The hallmark of a would-be teenage intellectual is a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky – though of course the French also have Sartre and Camus on offer, but really to my mind Notes from the Underground is required reading for the budding existentialist. The Russians nailed this philosophy of distancing oneself from life itself as an unromantic process before Frenchmen had even begun to enrage clerics with their secular pontifications (while donning the necessary turtle neck, puffing on a Gauloises and simpering in impressionable girls’ ears as well!).

As Lydia Slater points out in the introduction to this novel, Russians have the same word for pity as they do for love – zhalet, which may provide a clue as to why Russian literature enjoys such a reputation for philosophical depth. While I was reading the introduction I was alarmed at the degree of emotion expressed regarding the international reception of Pasternak‘s work following the phenomenal success of Doctor Zhivago. It was only later that I realized the introduction was written by the author’s sister.

Where family is concerned, perhaps it is difficult even for Russians to maintain that literary hauteur.

The story of The Last Summer concerns Serezha’s reflections on the events of the previous year in Moscow. The war is still ongoing. His mother has passed away and numbed with shock, he has only just managed to complete his university exams. He travels to visit his sister Natasha and her family. Exhausted from his journey an too tired to indulge his sister’s curiousity about events in the war, he falls into bed and thinks back on the summer just gone.

Following the completion of his studies, Serezha was hired as a private tutor to the son of a family named Fresteln. He is given a room at their mansion, is well-paid and finds the work not to taxing. In the evenings he joins the family for dinner and afterward wanders the city streets till well into the morning. Serezha is a curiously intense and romantic sort. He spends most of his evenings with prostitutes, even developing an obsession with them, convinced that it falls to him to ‘save’, them by dispersing large sums of money to each of the Muscovite street-walkers.

Of course, work itself is not the solution. Work enslaves and provides small financial reward. He hits instead upon the scheme of writing a play for an acquaintance, Kovalenko and with the proceeds liberating these women with whom he feels a kindred spirit.

However, the main focus of Serezha’s romantic interest is a fellow employee of the Fresteln household, a Danish maidservant named Anna Arild Tornskjold. Though she is referred to as the ‘companion’, of Mrs Freteln, when Anna speaks to Serezha she complains that she was recruited under false pretences. Her husband had only just died during a stay in Berlin when she accepted the notice and travelled all this way to discover the role was more menial than described. The two converse in a mixture of German and English, with the intimacy of their talks encouraging Serezha’s interest in the widow.

I have squeezed what little plot there could be said to be found in these pages, but do not take from that that this is a slight novel. Pasternak’s prose is a revelation of descriptive power and private musings. A morning start is described as ‘tangled threads of sultry heat, as nightmarish as crumbs in the beard of a corpse’. This is more poetry than prose, with heavy hints of semi-autobiographical reflection.

Pasternak appears to be describing the death-throes of romance itself in the wake of The Great War. His desire to save not just the prostitutes, but Anna herself, indeed all women, speaks to a peculiar messianism. Serezha’s concerns are far too bound up with his own thoughts. There is a beautiful moment when, having propositioned Anna, she finds him at the appointed meeting time furiously writing a draft of his proposed play. Quietly she retreats, leaving him to his private enthusiasms.

A master of language, beautifully written.

As I said  in yesterday’s review, I have decided this weekend to write about two comic book creators whom I am most excited about for the next year. Yesterday I wrote about Paul Cornell, today I have chosen Jeff Parker. Now as it happens I have already reviewed a book by Parker – the whimsical Mysterius the Unfathomable. His comic book career continues to grow from strength to strength, and like Cornell, he evidences a strong fondness for a brighter, more fun spin on the stories he writes. Agents of Atlas, his superhero team book for Marvel Comics, is a wonderful example of comic book absurdism, with talking gorillas, vast global conspiracies and underworld (literally) societies. It was fun, refreshing and each issue left me wanting more.

For this earlier effort from Parker published by Virgin Comics, he has teamed up with Ashish Padlekar to fictionalise a series of episodes taken from the life of creator Dave Stewart. Now I already thought Stewart was cool – he and Annie Lennox were a bright light in my culturally sour 80’s childhood – but with this book he outstrips even that previous coolness cachet.

What I really want to know is, when Stewart was a young fellow jaunting around Europe did he really meet a psychic octopus? According to Parker’s script something like that happened…

Well in fact the story of Walk In concerns a young Mancunian named Ian who has a habit of blacking out and finding himself in strange locations with no idea of how he got there. Recently these episodes have gotten worse and he has found himself coming to in new countries, with no memory of what he has done. In an attempt to cope with the dislocation, Ian begins to frequent strip clubs. They provide a decent cover for his unusual behaviour, plus there is complimentary food (and naked ladies).

He begins to experience visions after he arrives in Moscow, visions that he uses as part of a variety act at a strip club named Deja Vu. It appears his black outs have bestowed upon him the gift of being able to surf the patrons’ subconscious. He works for tips, is given floorspace to sleep on at an apartment belonging to two of the club’s strippers Astrid and Valery (shared with a German band named Doppelganger) and becomes a permanent fixture at the club, with his act as ‘The Dream King’.

His increasing fame draws the attention not only of the club patrons, but two sinister shaven headed twins who appear to be following him. Also his visions begin to become more elaborate. Not only is he witness to people’s dreams, he begins to see individual auras as well, not to mention the odd appearances of an octopus around Astrid’s neck. Finally one night, after hours of listening to Doppelganger’s turgid experimentalism, he goes into a trance state and sees an incredible futuristic vista of flying vehicles, incredible buildings and people resembling the unusual twins. Has he completely lost his mind, or is Ian actually stretched between two worlds.

Oh and there’s a talking bear from Sussex who is not too fond of string theory. Just throwing that plot detail out there.

This is a fantastic book. Also, given the locale of Ian’s adventures with drug dealers, Russian mafia and strippers, the tone is surprisingly innocent. Parker’s script gives Padlekar plenty of opportunities to include funny little details in the panels, such as a Pizza Hut sign in Cyrillic script, or Ian’s ‘Dream King’, costume resembling Dr. Strange‘s duds. There are also plenty of hints scattered throughout as to where the plot is going, such as Valery hearing from a fortune teller that she will lose her heart to a man with long hair. It does happen, but not in the way she expects.

The book itself is also very funny – the talking bear is also a sharpshooter, I love that damn bear – and Ian’s weary acceptance of his increasingly weird life is well described. His narration to the reader is audible to the other characters, who assume he is crazy. If you’re looking for a comparison, think Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but with a psychic octopus and some strippers with hearts of gold. Padlekar’s art is somewhat cartoonish, which adds to the slightly innocent tone as mentioned above, with plenty of opportunities given for psychedelic excess during Ian’s visions of the futureworld.

Strongly recommended folks, Parker is someone to watch for the future.

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