Monthly Archives: September 2012

Ilya Ehrenburg and The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito & His Disciples.


Among writers and novels consigned to oblivion as well as to derision, disdain, contempt or condemnation for various sins (imagined or real) there remain many mysteriously precious stones that should never have been cast out. For me the nearly absolute lack of translations still in print of Ilya Ehrenburg’s novels, especially those novels from the 1920s, although one may also include one of the great novels on Stalin’s Five-year plan(The Second Day) superseded, of course, by Andrei Platonov’s great novel(The Foundation Pit) but certainly not as some seem to think, useless dull propaganda. A few years ago when a Gallegan writer mentioned the name of Ehrenburg at Moscow’s Cervantes Institute, a Russian was quick to argue that he was a servile writer of the Soviet regime. Well, if indeed Ehrenburg can’t be idolised in the West as proto dissident unmasking truths about the regime, his story remains much more ambiguous than most people accept. Of course, his biographical trajectory was embarrassing for any who would like to be an apologist for the writer, Ehrenburg was no Soviet enthusiast in the 1920s, but he then became a correspondent for Izvestia in 1932 (just as Stalin’s power was fully consolidated). Ehrenburg has been denounced as the compromised writer by many and yet nonetheless he also became the literary symbol of the Thaw. Whether his silences during the Stalin period were nothing more than the necessary for physical survival, his autobiography People, Years, Life attempted to put the record straight. And it must be said that many biographers (such as Joshua Rubenstein) are rather sympathetic to his defence. At the time of his death some people were speaking of his courage and of his role as the “doubting Thomas of Soviet writers”& the Guardian spoke of him as a “bridge builder between East and West” while others, like Edward Crankshaw were more caustic (this led Ivor Montagu to denounce the likes of Crankshaw as being a “cold warrior of the cheaper sort” who never forgave those who survived for weathering the storm). Ehrenburg himself summed up the complexity of his life in a poem in 1966 (a year before his death) when he wrote:

Time to admit- even to howl or to cry,

I lived my life like a dog,

I cannot say it was bad, only different,

Not like other people or dolls

Or a respectable man…

I guarded the closed chambers

Not for awards but for abuse,

When the moon was angry

I howled and even barked,

Not because I was an animal,

But because I was loyal-

Not to the kennel and not to the stick,

And not to the fighters in the brawl,

Not to scuffles and not to nice lies

And not to nasty watchdogs,

But only to weeping in a darkened house

And to warm straw that smells like sorrow.


Nonetheless, for many the unfair image of Ehrenburg as apologist seems to have stuck and his writings have mainly since been consigned to oblivion. I have found second hand copies turning up in Italy and Spain but it seems that in the UK only his book on the automobile has been reprinted in recent years. In a hopeful sign of the renewal of interest in Ehrenburg, the Spanish translator Marta Rebon has just undertaken the gargantuan task of retranslating his memoirs into Spanish. This lack of Ehrenburg works is a genuine shame because few twentieth century Russian writers knew Europe as well as Ehrenburg (he was an émigréwriter who had lived from the age of 18 to 50 in Western Europe) and many of his novels were set in and were about Europe. The 1920s saw him prolifically writing nine books some of which truly deserve rehabilitation. In the 1920s he displayed true scepticism and was a nay-sayer to both western capitalism and to the oblivious hedonism & indifference of post-war capitalist Europe as well as a critic of the Soviet assault on art (which he had predicted before others). Denounced by fellow émigrés as a Soviet spy, he was equally denounced in the Soviet press as being ultimately a dupe of the West. It was widely rumoured that one of the most unprincipled émigré returnees under Stalin, Alexei Tolstoy, had denounced him to the French police thus earning Ehrenburg’s expulsion from France for many years. Many of his novels from the 1920s were either difficult to find in Stalin’s Russia and one The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitscwantz(Ehrenburg’s only Jewish novel) was not printed in Soviet Russia until 1989.

However, if one were to choose just one book of Ehrenburg’s to be reprinted it should surely be his book whose short title runs The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and his disciples (the full title runs to seventy words). It was, in fact, his first novel and written in just a monthin the Belgian seaside resort of La Panne “surrounded by sand dunes and breezes”.It is strangely similar in some ways to Roberto Arlt’sThe Seven Madmen (which I wrote of in an earlier post) in that it describes an assorted group of seven characters and their master Julio Jurenito intent on destroying European civilization. In some ways it was a roman philosophique similar to classics such as Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The novel well represented Ehrenburg’s deep ambivalence to European values and while few of the disciples are represented as positive and some are more decidedly negative such as the American Mr Cool (who believes that any problems can be solved with the help either of the Bible or his cheque books), the German Karl Schmidt (a regimental authoritarian) or the French bourgeois egotist and hedonist, Monsieur Delhaie than the others (Alexei SpiridonovichTishin the confused Russian idealist, Ehrenburg the Jew who appears in his own novel and Aysha the noble and rather innocent African represent the unprivileged nations) while the Italian ErcoleBrambucci, an indolent and rather anarchic tramp represents a kind of middle space  between these two groups. Ehrenburg partly expounded on some of his particular experiences in World War One (the mistreatment of Russian soldiers in the French army, and Aysha was also apparently modelled on some of the Senegalese soldiers he’d met during the War on the Western Front) as well as venting his spleen at some of the humiliations that he had experienced at the hands of the civilised nations. Whether it is really a cynical book or as he stated “the only book which I wrote ‘in earnest’”, it is certainly a satirical tour de force. He directs swipes also at Soviet reality (and will continue to do so for a number of years in his other 1920 novels and both Summer, 1925 (1926) and A street in Moscow (1927) are barbed portrayals of Russia during the NEP period). Also many have commented on the prophetic nature of the book – foreseeing the holocaust, describing the Nazi type years before they had really come into existence and even predicting the nuclear weapon attacks on Japan. For a book written in 1921 this was quite extraordinary. It gave Ehrenburg the reputation of being a cynic and he himself said that “neither the critics, nor readers, nor I myself, can precisely determine where the ironic smile ends”. First the book was confiscated in Russia and then was printed with an introduction by Nikolai Bukharin conceding that Ehrenburg had exposed “a number of comic and repulsive sides to life under all regimes”.  Although a very thinly exposed Lenin appears in the novel which bears a striking resemblance to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Lenin himself was said to remark that “our shaggy-haired Ilya has done a good job”, a view shared by YevgenyZamyatin who admired Ehrenburg’s irony (a “European weapon” that Russian writers seldom employcalling Ehrenburg a “heretic” and stating that “a genuine heretic has the same virtue as dynamite: the explosion (creative) takes the line of most resistance”.

A new translation of Ehrenburg’s book is long overdue (the last translation into English, it seems, was published in 1958) for surely the delirious vision that the book describes is alas, not altogether, out of place today. The scepticism, delirium, irony, prophetic prescience and sheer fantasy of the novel will surely be appreciated by a new generation of readers and a rehabilitation of Ehrenburg is surely long, long overdue whatever the qualms one may have of the prose style of this writer.

Translation of a poem by Rafael Alberti. Enemy Moon (Luna Enemiga)


This was one of a number of my translations from various poets that I used to read two decades ago. It is one of the only ones I have found amongst about fifteen poems that I had attempted to translate. All the rest seem to have been thrown away or lost.  A few months spent in Barcelona in the autumn of 1993 I spent on trying to rewrite my lost translation of Arlt, to learn Spanish and to discover more Spanish writers. One of these was Rafael Alberti. I purchased a book of his which including both his ‘Sobre los Angeles’ (About the Angels) and another collection of poems about early cinema ‘Yo era un tonto, y lo que he visto me ha hecho dos tontos’ (I was a fool and that which I have seen has made me become two fools). I loved the charm and playfulness as well as the absurd chants of the second collection but for me the poem from the first collection ‘Luna Enemiga’ had the most powerful impact on me. Of course, I am not a very capable translator of poetry (and I don’t think that any of my translations captured much more than a fairly accurate transposition of sense while losing much else). So it’s mainly for a sentimental reason that I’m posting this and out of a fear that even this one will be lost (or discarded) like all the others unless I post it somewhere. The loss of my translation of Cesar Vallejo’s ‘Los Heraldos Negros’ (The Black Heralds) which I rewrote at least six times and some poems from the last collection of Cesare Pavese – one of which I was almost satisfied with – particularly grieve me (even if the actual quality of translations left much to be desired).

Rafael Alberti:


As though unseeing at the clashing of the stars against my breast

I went submerging my shoulders into past skies

Ten autumnal kings rebelled against me

Angels and betrayals always quicken the falls

A leaf. A man.

In your orbit my blood was consumed by fire,

Enemy moon.

Save me from the years in their nebulous state

From the mirrors declaring dresses and vanished pages,

From the hands stamped in yawning memories.


They are burying us in the enemy wind.

And it seems that my soul has forgotten the rules.


Here is the original Spanish:



Como al chocar los astros contra mi pecho no veía,
fui hundiéndome de espaldas en los cielos pasados.
Diez reyes del otoño contra mí se rebelaron.
Ángeles y traiciones siempre aceleran las caídas.
Una hoja, un hombre.
En tu órbita se quemaba mi sangre, luna enemiga.

Salvadme de los años en estado de nebulosa,
de los espejos que pronuncian trajes y páginas desvanecidos,
de las manos estampadas en los recuerdos que bostezan.
Nos entierran en viento enemigo.

Y es que mi alma ha olvidado las reglas.

Roberto Arlt – Madmen in Revolt. Argentina’s greatest ‘styleless’ visionary writer.


The name of Roberto Arlt still means relatively little to most readers in Anglo-Saxon countries and yet for most Argentinians he belongs up there with Jorge Luis Borges as being the writer who forged the most enduring image of Buenos Aires. Julio Cortazar talks about despising all that has been said about Borges’s Buenos Aires which he called “fantastic, invented” and that while it does exist “it is far from being all that the city is”. For Cortazar, it was Arlt who “perceived things from below for cultural, vital and professional reasons” seeing “a Buenos Aires to live and stroll through, to love and suffer in” unlike Borges’s Buenos Aires of “mythic destinies”, of eternity and metaphysics, Cortazar in his work tried to follow and fulfil “a telluric, sensual and erotic … obedience to Robert Arlt”. Onetti, too, spoke of Arlt understanding like no-one else the city in which he was born, maybe even more than those who wrote the music and lyrics of ‘immortal tangos’. Ernesto Sabato spoke of the “formidable metaphysical and religious tensions of Erdosain’s monologue” and it was Martin Seymour-Smith in his “Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature” who compared Arlt to writers like Malcolm Lowry, Joseph Roph, Dazai Osamu and Hans Fallada as a “true poetemaudit in prose”. He makes further comparison in this sequence after which he laments the bewildering lack of translations of Arlt’s work: “He anticipated Celine in his excited portrayal of the urban nightmare and anticipated Cela and contemporary Latin-American experimentalism …he is versatile mixing naturalism, lyricism, hallucinatory purity and the effective crudeness of the early Gorky into a wholly original mixture whose undoubted nihilism is relieved only by his own vitality, prolificity and insistence on expressing himself at all”. 

Well, Arlt’s masterpiece (The Seven Madmen) was eventually translated- firstly, in 1984 by Naomi Lindstrom and then more recently by Nick Caistor in 1998. I myself had an almost obsessive fascination for this book in the early 1990s that would lead me to attempt my own translation (undoubtedly an extremely flawed translation given my fairly complete ignorance of Spanish at that time). My eccentric but passionately obsessive and rather neurasthenic translation has disappeared somewhere into the hard disk of an abandoned computer. Months writing and rewriting this translation firstly in Trieste’s Via Rossetti and then in some flats on the outskirts of Barcelona had been in vain. Yet Erdosain and his fellow madmen remained in my imagination for years and Arlt would remain a presence. At some point in the near future I’ll abandon my hubris and will sit down to read the two published translations of Arlttrying to give anunjaundiced opinion as to how they manage to recapture the Arltian universe in English. Alas, for English readers the sequel Los Lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers) is still unavailable (one of the true tour de forces of Arlt’s prose can be found here in the chapter entitled ‘The Agony of the Melancholic Ruffian’ which some argue is the finest piece in the whole of the Arltian oeuvre). Arlt was to write other works possibly of less force (including plays for the theatre and collections of short stories) and was also a prolific journalist who produced over 1,500 pieces for the daily ‘El Mundo’ – these ‘aguafuertes’ (as they were called) would appear between1928 and 1933 giving a unique view of both Buenos Aires and Spain where he was sent by the newspaper. His understanding of the earthly, telluric Buenos Aires compared to Borges’s metaphysical and fantastic Buenos Aires means that by neglecting Arlt and privileging only Borges, our view of a city, a country and a culture is suspended in unreality.

In one of my copies of Arlt’s selected works purchased in Barcelona I still remember a very personal portrait of Roberto Arlt by Juan Carlos Onetti. Explaining that he had just been told by a doctor of a serious heart condition (which was soon to kill Arlt), Onetti recounted that from that day on Arlt instead of taking the lift to his floor at the top of a building would walk up many flights of stairs up to his flat. This and similar gestures meant that according to Onetti there were three common descriptions of Roberto Arlt amongst those who knew him: some thought him to be a genius, others thought of him as a madman (just like the characters of his novels) and others would simply state that he was a son of a bitch. Onetti then goes on to state that he was probably all three.

Here below is a translation I made twenty years ago of an article that appeared in an Italian magazine. It was the article that led to my interest in Arlt. At the time I was living with two Argentinians in a flat in Trieste: it was a city of many Argentinians who worked accompanying many of Trieste’s former psychiatric patients through the city. (Trieste would lead the world in experimenting with the closure of all psychiatric asylums and a new type of community therapy under what was seen as the most progressive law in the western world ‘la leggeBassani’. Many in Italy would, henceforth, jokingly refer to the city as ‘la citta’ deimatti’ -the city of the mad as though a certain madness reigned in the city as a whole). However, for me it was the journalist and writer Albert Londres who discovered the link between these two cities– he talks about it in his The Road to Buenos Aires a book indispensable for understanding some of the context of Arlt’s work (and sharing one of the themes of Arlt’s work- the so-called ‘white slave trade’) and published the year before Arlt’s masterpiece:

La Boca: “the mouth”- the mouth of Buenos Ayres. Buenos Ayres is the southernmost of the three great harbours of the world. You must go three kilometres further to get to La Boca. Look at the map: you will see that the women there could not very well descend any lower. You have heard of the end of the world. La Boca is the end of the sea.

Andre’ Tudesq would have it that the sea began at a certain place, and that place was Trieste. On one occasion he kept me for a long time at that Adriatic port, and tried to prove by a series of the most cogent arguments that his statement was in no way fantastic. And at the height of an eddy which he noticed in a small bay, he shouted:

‘There you are, there’s the spring: look at it boiling up’.

If he had not left me, his old friend, at Saigon, and gone away to die, I would have taken him that evening to La Boca: ‘You told me a secret, you revealed to me where the sea began, and I thank you. If the sea begins it must likewise end, and I have found its end. Don’t tell anyone, I don’t want to be robbed of my secret: look, here we are’.

For me, then, discovering the work of Arlt (the writer of the city where the sea ended) in the city where the sea began still seems to have something poignant and fundamental about it. That TriestineArlt that these words of GoffredoFofi and my Argentinian flatmates introduced me to- in that city of another madman and genius and, most probably, son of a bitch (James Joyce) will remain with me for a long time, even if it isn’t my name (and most justifiably so) that comes after the smallprint on a page rarely read saying ‘translated by’. My rather insane, obsessive, neurasthenic love of Roberto Arlt amounts to much more than simply translating his book and then forgetting about it.As Nick Caistor put in his afterword to his translation of ‘The Seven Madmen’ one can only hope that Arlt’s“crazy, disjointed, glorious (work) still has in English the power of a good sock to the jaw- as Arlt himself described the power of literature”(and one might add, Eisenstein described the power of cinema).



Madmen in Revolt by GoffredoFofi.

A historical outlook is of great help in understanding and clarifying the work of Robert Arlt. The radical governments (in particular those of Irigoyen) were enthusiastically backed by the European middle classes having been given a significant role in the social structure of Argentinian society in that period. Even then Argentina meant Buenos Aires, the port city and oversized head of an enormous and almost uninhabited country. The oligarchy didn’t maintain its promises and while, initially, at the turn of the century, it had encouraged, and even imposed, an influx of urban immigration as a counterweight to the dangerous, rebellious and riotous gauchos, it soon became incapable of controlling such an influx unable to sustain politically and economically the weight of internal colonisation that it had dreamt of. It began to idealize the guachos after having defeated them, fearing an anarchic revendication by the immigrants for aspirations and demands denied any realization. The middle classes had become the support and spokesman for political radicalization but the crash of 1929 marked its defeat and the beginning of a long period of frustration and uncertainty.Arlt created his best works in between these two periods and they steeped in the atmosphere of the sense of the fickleness of past enthusiasms and of an air of delusion and dissatisfaction with the interminable present. As both the first and the last of his novels El JugueteRabioso (The Rabid Toy) and El Amor Brujo (Love the Enchanter ) -both filled with autobiographical elements- demonstrate, the characters’ sense of powerlessness is equally Arlt’s own sense of powerlessness. Arlt’s characters find each other bolstered in their attempts to escape, passing from schizophrenia to paranoia in an obligatory route through three stages: frustration, flight and fall.


Yet through them Arlt goes beyond a merely sociological and historicalviewpoint in looking at his own time associating himself with yet another viewpoint. If today his texts are also wonderful initiations into fundamental aspects of Argentinian culture and society, they are also significant, with their zany strangeness, a study in a kind of universal petit-bourgeois pathology. In this one can’t do without Arlt alongside more conventional sociological analyses of Argentinian society (Martin Estrada, Scalabrini Ortiz, GermaniSabelli, Vinas), these writers often, in fact, used Arlt in their analyses. Arlt’s world is also similar to those analysed by Riesman or C Wright Mills and even by Sartre. It is the ever-discontented world of the middle-classes, lacerated between their common destiny with the lower classes and their ambitions to reach the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie which holds it at bay with mere crumbs of its high culture. It is the universe of humiliation, of stupidity, of common sense and wretchedness, of the infinite tedium of everyday life. The characters of Arlt try to escape from all this. Condemned to work and to tedium, with its resultant sexual repression, dull wives, decorum and the Sunday football match- all this becomes absolutely unbearable. Yet how to flee from all this?

The adolescent Silvio Astier, in Arlt’sJuguete after a childhood of friendships with members of the working classes wishes to enter into a military academy but is rejected. Yet the ‘seven madmen’, adults conscious of their status as social outsiders and of the impossibility of entering through moral paths set out by society to avoid economic misery (money for Arlt plays a fundamental role, the weight given it by a society of rigid class distinctions or by capitalist society in general, especially in times of crisis) are intent on other paths which are initially individual and them, throughtheir delirious encounters, become collective. They are those who can be characterized in the Arltian universe with their symbolic names of Edison the inventor, Rocambole the rascal and Nostradamus the magician. Their private flights are merged into a fantastic unreality – so as to escape from the oppressive and imprisoning fly-paper of social and labour conditions – and then they produce their own reality/unreality of a magical solution that is doggedly pursued. (Arlt himself dreamed of becoming successful as an inventor, a field in which his main contribution was the idea of waterproof tights for women)… this all leads to a common project of the seven for a large enterprise dedicated to financing the revolution.

Of course, this project – a phosgene factory or a chain of brothels- is destined to failure. Yet the tragic failure, a hallucinatory crowning of the absurdity of the enterprise, however, has a different meaning with its mark of madness than that of Silvio Astier who sells out the working-class rebel protecting him because he himself is rejected by the bourgeoisie thus betraying his subordinate because he himself is betrayed from on high. Their wretchedness is a more desperate and tragic dejection whose morality remains linked to that of a high and noble project. The seven: the bank clerk and thief Erdosain; the chemist Ergueta who has discovered the secret of roulette boards, the presence of the apocalypse and the law of ecstatic synchronicity; the viscid and chatty dreamer Barsut, the Astrologer, the Melancholic Ruffian, Hipolita and EstaquioEspilo have all a logical project (that of revolution) in their minds that is followed through paths that respond to a logic and a strategy shaped by their incapacity of choosing a path and some allies. The fracas of every high and worthy aspiration is their necessary fate and the consequence of the raving individualism of their revolt.

Arlt’s grandeur consists in his ability to express a certain sociological reality (that of the life of the middle classes like Argentina and elsewhere) with a vigour and in a fashion that harks back to a great tradition, or rather two… the Russian tradition represented by Dostoyevsky and Gogol and the Spanish one of Quevedo and Baroja- and it draws its inspiration from a number of often contradictory sources which create a particular tension in the work of Arlt: the feuilleton and popular literature in general (based on the tango, the key expression of the immigrant’s sense of frustration and disorientation in the city of Buenos Aires). This language runs alongside the polished language used by the more established writers of the ruling classes. The tension between these is unresolved as is the sense of dissatisfaction in Arlt. The construction of a style needs time, as Arlt reminds us in his preface to the Lanzallamas(The Flamethrowers) and adds: “Today, amongst the ruins of a social edifice that is inevitably crumbling one cannot attend to its ornamentations”. Yet the tension exists due to that ambiguous use of the language and the high style of the upper classes all but resolved. It is not by chance that he often adoptsthe use of quotation marks for popular and working-class language precisely in order not to be seen as a popular writer. The sense of revolt andfrustration find their expression in this use of language with a revealing precision.

These tensions and conflicts, as well as the authors’ discontent, are practically resolved in the quickened pace and aggressive nature of the authors’ language and borne out, too, in those flashes of sinister melancholy which lead to a kind of fatal chain which carries each character, one by one, to their deaths in scenes reminiscent of Bunuel’s film Los Olvidados.

The relation between realism and fantasy is so typical as to be almost excessive in recent Latin American literature; in Arlt, however, there is a greater tendency towards realism but a realism transformed by allegorical and obsessional flurries. A sense of madness and magic, inextricably intertwined, belong to background plot and represents both temptation and a constant sense of threat. It is not incidental that there are seven characters. Although one senses a hint of pure fantasy (one certainly finds this in some of his tales and in the ‘Seven’) the key to Arlt’s work belongs elsewhere, his debt is to the novels of Dostoyevsky and the plays of Pirandello. To offer a spring-board to Arlt’s work is the strange logic that his characters follow to extremes, to the limits of the absurd. They are controlled only by a sense of sarcasm which somehow holds at bay the enormous reality of frustration. The excesses of the serial look after the rest. Perhaps it is this very refusal to overstep the line of fantasy, of abstract metaphor or metaphysics, a practice so well matured by other Argentinian writers, it is this refusal to play these games that gives Arlt’s work a less polished and noble feel. Nonetheless, he has a great ability to move us and has the tragic warmth of his visionaries, so exemplary and human.

Morley Martin: Another Juan Rodolfo Wilcock Portrait.


This time I thought that I would add one of my translations of Wilcock’s ‘The Temple of the Iconoclasts’  (or as the title is in Italian ‘ The Synagogue of the Iconoclasts’). It is entitled Morley Martin. (I translated it in late 1991 and can’t check the original so it is sure to be a rather poor translation). It is one of Wilcock’s portraits of strangely obsessed scientists who either had a fixed idea or made some entirely absurd new discovery. Here is the portrait.

In 1836 the Englishman Andrew Crosse had the pleasant surprise while carrying out a number of electrical experiments of witnessing the birth of several minute insects from a mixture of minced minerals. Crosse saw the following through the lens of his microscope:

On the fourteenth day of the experiment I observed a number of whitish protuberances, nipple-like, that appeared on the electrified mineral. On the eighteenth day these protuberances grew on the optic field and on each of the nipples there were six or seven filaments. On the twenty-first day, the protuberances grew clearer and longer and on the twenty-sixth day each of them assumed the form of a perfect insect, upright on the bundle of hairs that formed its tail. Up until this moment I believed it was merely a case of mineral formations but on the twenty-eighth day there clearly appeared small creatures which began to move their legs. I was most astonished.”

In this way he witnessed the birth of hundreds of midges. As soon as they were born the midges abandoned the microscope and went flying around the room and then would hide themselves in dark spaces. As soon as he had heard of this discovery a friend of Crosse- a certain Weeks from Sandwich, also a researcher and microscopist, decided to repeat the experiment obtaining an identical result. One may read of the exact circumstances of this strange experiment in the ‘Memoirs of Andrew Crosse‘ collected by a relative in 1857, in the ‘History of the Thirty Year Peace‘ by Harriet Martineau (1849) and in ‘Oddities: Unexplained Facts and Events‘ (1928) by the Second Commander Ruper T.

In 1927 in his private laboratory in Andover, the Englishman Morley martin took a piece of Archeozoic rock and subjected it to a process of calcination until it was reduced to ashes: from these ashes via a secret and complicated chemical process, he extracted a certain quantity of primordial protoplasm. Carefully avoiding any contact with the surrounding air, Martin subjected the substance to X-rays and slowly witnessed the emergence on the optic field of an incredible quantity of living microscopic animals and vegetables and above all small fish. In a few squared centimetres, the researcher succeeded in counting fifteen thousand minute fish.

This obviously meant that these organisms had remained in a latent life-state for billions of years from the Archeozoic era until 1927. This dismaying discovery was published in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Reincarnation of Animal and Plant Life from Protoplasm Isolated from the Mineral Kingdom‘ (1934). To this discovery the writer Maurice Maeterlinck dedicated a chapter of his book ‘La Grande Porte‘ (1939). Nowadays, the booklet of Martin is almost impossible to find but one is able to read a description of this remarkable experiment in the Maeterlinck volume:

  Grown in size under the lens of the microscope, one could glimpse the appearance of certain globules inside the protoplasm: several vertebrae were formed in these globules, these then formed a column in which there clearly appears the member, the head and the eyes. Usually such transformations took place very slowly requiring days but at times they would take place under the eyes of the observers. A crustacean, for example, hardly had it developed its legs would leave the microscopic field and disappear. These living forms move at times and grow as long as they find sufficient nutrition in the protoplasm that has given birth to them. Afterwards, they either stop growing or else devour each other. Morley Martin has, however, succeeded in keeping them alive thanks to a secret serum of his.

This discovery of Morley Martin, unfortunately since unrepeated, was acclaimed by the Theosophists especially since it confirmed Madame Blavatsky’s Theory of the Archetype of Primordial Life as arising from the period of earthly fires and gasses from which the evolutionary process has developed today’s well-known forms. Several years later, on the tracks of Martin, Wilhelm Reich discovered in the warm Norwegian sands a myriad of azure vesicles also alive and bursting with sexual energy and named biones by Reich. These biones are formed in bunches and then organize themselves into protozoe, ameboe and parmecli bursting with sexual desire and libido (Wilhelm Reich ‘Biopathy of Cancer‘, 1948).




The historical predecessors of Pussy Riot: American Punk Groups or Russian Female Revolutionaries?


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A number of articles have appeared in the press talking about the influence of American punk groups -such as Punk Grrrl and Bikini Kill in the 1990s on the Russian group Pussy Riot. One article while damning radical or political art as a whole, left a space for punk suggesting that it was an exception to the rule James Panero on Punk
However, the idea that Pussy Riot and feminist punk in Russia is a western import is far from the truth. It may have been an influence but only one of many – and most of the other influences are Russian. From the iurodivy traditions of Russian Orthodoxy to another more recent historical influence and one that was explicitly mentioned by Pussy Riot. A clue to this influence could be found near Vinzavod Art Gallery in the area not far from Kurskaya station this weekend in the form of five stencilled figures of graffiti on a street wall. This graffiti consisted of six female images, names and the punishments meted out to these women revolutionaries of the Tsarist and early Soviet periods.

The names and punishments were the following: Maria Spiridonova (36 years forced labour and exile. Shot); Irina Kakhovskaya (9 years forced labour, 35 years of prison camps and exile); Katerina Breshkovskaya (8 years forced labour, 19 years of exile), Vera Zasulich (20 years of illegal immigration), Sofia Perovskaya (hanged), Vera Figner (20 years of solitary confinement). These female revolutionaries were victims of political repression as well as some of the most active revolutionaries of their day who fought repression of both the Tsarist and Stalinist type. They belonged to leftist and populist movements such as Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) or the Left Social Revolutionaries as well as the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Party. Some were linked also to Bakuninist circles. Nonetheless, they all fought political repression both in a constant and determined way paying for this with both their freedom and, at times, their lives.

Each of these life stories are an extraordinary story in themselves. The life of Maria Spiridonova, for example, was one of continuous battle against political repression in which she endured continuous physical torture by both Tsarist authorities and the Chekhists and was eventually executed by the Stalinist NKVD in 1941. An account of Spiridonova after the revolution was given by the American anarchist Emma Goldman in her work My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) Goldman Vera Zasulich moved from populism to Marxism after being acquitted by a jury in her trial for her part in shooting a tsarist governor. She was forced into a long exile and joined Lenin and others in the foundation of Iskra (The Spark) although later in her life she parted with the Leninists. Trotsky wrote of her:

Sasulich was a curious person and a curiously attractive one. She wrote very slowly and suffered actual tortures of creation… “Vera Ivanovna does not write, she puts mosaic together, Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] said to me at that time”, And in fact she put down each sentence separately, walked up and down the room slowly, shuffled about in her slippers, smoked constantly hand-made cigarettes and threw the stubs and half-smoked cigarettes in every direction on all the window seats and tables, and scattered ashes over her jacket, hands, manuscripts, tea in the glass, and incidentally her visitor. She remained to the end the old radical intellectual on whom fate grafted Marxism. Sasulich’s articles show that she had adopted to a remarkable degree the theoretic elements of Marxism. But the moral political foundations of the Russian radicals of the ’70s remained untouched in her until her death.

Vera Figner was also someone who was closer to the Social Revolutionaries at one point but was to leave it after the Azef scandal. She published one of the greatest revolutionary memoirs ever written Запечатлённый труд (translated as ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionist’) and, although she wasn’t herself subject to repression in Soviet times, she would constantly fight against political repression and in 1927 openly called on the Soviet government to stop any political repression (alas, her voice was not listened to). Irina Kakhovskaya was also constantly subjected to repression under tsarism as well as under the Chekhists and Stalinists. The memoirs of Kakhovskaya were highly praised by Romain Rolland for their literary quality. Katerina Breshkovskaya, known as the grandmother of the Russian Revolution,was mainly linked with the Social Revolutionnaries and was involved for decades in revolutionary activity although she preferred renewed exile after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Sofia Perovskaya was the only figure here who did not live in both Tsarist and Soviet eras – she was hanged for her part in preparing the assassination attempts on tsar Alexander II. A Soviet era film was dedicated to her story in the late sixties (interestingly also during this period Soviet films would have some rather sympathetic and rounded portraits of other revolutionary figures, such as the above mentioned Maria Spiridonova, who fought the Chekhists as well as the Tsarists). A scene from the Soviet film of Sofia Perovskaya can be seen on YoutubeHanging of Sophia Perovskaya

The appearance of graffiti on a street in Moscow recalling these female revolutionaries of another era suggests that the historical precedents of Pussy Riot and feminist revolutionaries need not be linked to ‘western influences’ but are very much a part of Russian ‘tradition’ and history. They are joined by many names of contemporary Russia such as the anti-fascist journalist Anastasia Baburova assassinated by Neo Nazis alongside Stanislav Markelov in January 2009 for her resistance to the gunman as well as prominent figures of a new generation of Russia’s revolutionary left such as Zhenya Otto and Isabelle Magkoeva that have sprung up during the recent upsurge in political rebellion. In a period when feminism is declared in court as a political crime and the patriarchal hysteria of Orthodox religion and militaristic nationalism becomes state doctrine, the number of female revolutionaries looks set to grow.

Slavoj Zizek in Moscow. Some notes.


It is quite a complex thing to describe a Slavoj Zizek lecture. I went to two of his Moscow lectures- listened and laughed at one and listened, laughed and took copious notes at the second one. It seems such a long time since I attended the lectures that all I have are my notes on his second lecture and very vague memories of his first lecture. The problem with describing a Zizek lecture is in trying not to give a simple recapitulation of all the jokes and the serious philosophical or psychoanalytical points that these jokes or quotes from films are said to represent. As Zizek himself acknowledged many of the jokes and anecdotes have already appeared and are probably  already well known to the Zizek fan. So his quotation from Ninotchka about a waiter telling a client at a restaurant that there was no cream but there was milk so instead of having coffee without cream perhaps the customer would like coffee without milk was one I had already come across a couple of times. His jokes and anecdotes about the Communist era also came thick and fast – the wonderful conspiracy theory in the Soviet period where people imagined a secret KGB cell that was dedicated only to producing anti-Soviet jokes which would be repeated in kitchens throughout the country has since become my favourite conspiracy theory. Yet as Zizek had argued it, too, only reproduced the Stalinist paranoia that it was supposed to be conspiratorial about.

In any case the Hegel lecture was genuinely quite a fascinating one. As the person who presented Zizek argued, Zizek himself embodied a kind of truly Hegelian contradiction as was Hegel the embodiment of contradictions in his day. Zizek tried to develop this idea as to how Hegel could become both the philosopher of the Prussian State and of the French Revolution and of how Hegel went further in accepting the totality of the French Revolution, understanding that 1789 without 1793 was impossible. This led Zizek into a number of Hegelian concepts which he illustrated with the usual jokes and anecdotes. For Zizek, the contradiction of Hegel was embodied in being the end of the line in metaphysical philosophers and the first philosopher of modernity. Zizek also tried to show how the idea of great opening was embodied in the very moment of total closure and how the proclamation of an end (end of history, end of art, end of literature) is at the same time the proclamation of a beginning. (He went to hint at some of the errors of Kojeve who Lacan was greatly influenced by having said that Kojeve was the freest person he (Lacan) had ever met.

Zizek took up Hegel as a cudgel in the criticism of the totalitarianism approach. The Popperian idea of philosophers such as Hegel and Platon as represnting a threat of totalitarianism was denounced. Philosophy for Hegel was “time seized in thought”, in the sense that only when philosophy is totally immersed in a certain historical moment can it find any opening to a total or absolute knowledge. For Zizek, Lenin’s study of Hegel Logic must fully embodied Hegelian thought amongst Marxists (and that for the past 50 years no Marxist has been able to properly read Das Kapital was precisely because of their lack of knowledge of Hegel’s text). Zizek then took us on the detour regarding Lacan and Kojeve mentioned above.

Zizek also spoke about what he saw as the trinity of fundamental philosophers: Plato, Descartes and Hegel arguing that all philosophy has only ever been anti-Platonism, anti-Cartesianism or anti-Hegelianism. Zizek wanted to challenge the screen image of Hegel being interested in absolute knowledge and the philosophical madman at his purest.  He argued that there was another Hegel and then used some illustrations about Hegelian concepts such as Hegel’s idea of differentiality. Here Zizek spoke of Russian formalism and the Lotman school. He illustrated the absence of a characteristic feature as a positive feature in Hegelian thought illustrating this by the Sherlock Holmes curious incident about the dog last night story (ie the curious incident was that there was no incident).

Zizek went on to add in a number of theological ideas in his next section. Beginning with G.K. Chesterton’s idea of the philosopher policemen who tour philosophy conferences to see if crimes will be committed in the future he related this to Popper’s accusation/denunciation of Plato where Popper tries to prove that a totalitarian crime will be committed in the future because of Plato’s world view. Zizek then further elucidated Chesterton’s notion of the morality of the criminal but says that Chesterton doesn’t go far enough in discovering how morality itself is essentially criminal. The idea of Universal Law being crime elevated to the Absolute takes Zizek on a path from Proudhon, Wagner and Ilyenkov to Pussy Riot who Zizek called true Hegelians.  Zizek, then, introduces us to ways in which certain religious ideas and holistic truths become unbearable. Hegelianism is not, Zizek is saying, telling us to look at the bigger picture but truth for Hegelians is a kind of unilateral fact and here Zizek attacks the  the lie, or the deception of the middle path or the centrist (which was symbolised by Stalin and here we had yet another Stalin joke/anecdote about Stalin telling Bukharin -who believed that a future socialist society would still use money and Trotsky – who thought that socialist society would abolish money by telling them there was a centrist- for some there would be money and for others there would be none).

After this theology was discussed at some length- the book of Job (the first acknowledgment of the Death of God and the visit of the three ideologists), Chesterton (again) who accuses God of blasphemy, some Norwegian theologist (Krampfel?) who believed that God was all powerful but totally stupid and Levinas who argued that the injunction ‘Don’t Kill’ for example was addressed to God himself (Zizek argues that the first theology of God being dead is to be found in Judaism and not Nietzsche). He then argues about the difference between the death of God and the need for the death of Christ and that the message of this is that there is no one left to trust in. (Here he talks of Paul Claudel’s belief that we should not trust God but that God should trust us).

Zizek, then, talks about how the choices made during revolutionary times are always wrong choices at first but that the wrong choice needs to be taken in order to get to the right choice and here Zizek links this to Hegel’s understanding of the Prussian State and the French revolution.

Finally Zizek returns to totality as being only a retroactive truth – that is, every totality is only possible after the event. Here he relates it to Borges’s essay on Kafka creating his own predecessors as well as Eliot’s view in Tradition and the Individual Talent relating all this to the Hegelian view of contingency and arguing that Hegel is really more of a materialist than Marx. Hegel is more open to the ontological incompleteness of knowledge. Zizek, interestingly relates this to a Tarkovsky film where reality is not yet fully and completely formed. Reality itself, Zizek seems to be saying, is incomplete.

The exchanges after the talk were interesting and Zizek was definitely not brief in his answers. Zizek insisted that Hegel was no organicist and was not a thinker of proto harmony. Moreover he also mentioned the views of Boehme and the idea that Boehme was the first to point out the demonic side of God himself (that is, if mankind fell from God something terrible must have happened within God himself). Freud and sexuality came up in questioning too (sex not as an animalistic experience as the Church insisted but the first metaphysical experience and on this he spoke more at length during the first lecture).
Well there is no way of denying that listening to Zizek is an extraordinary experience, rather a whirlwind experience which it is difficult to pick at critically. Some comments that I have read from the Russian left are rather sceptical (both Boris Kagarlitsky and Maxim Kantor seem to think that Zizek is either rather insane or an idle chatterbox- Волван). How, in general, Zizek was understood in Moscow by those attending his lectures is hard to tell. The lectures nonetheless seemed to have generated quite a significant interest though how his ideas are interpreted still remains to be seen.

The Public House Bookshop, Brighton


Vladimir Sorokin in a small sketch on Moscow (included in the book with his filmscript for the film Moscow directed  by Aleksander Zeldovich) tried to describe and locate Moscow’s erogenous zones. He named the area around Moscow State University as well as two or three others. I’ve often come up with this image in my mind when I remember Little Preston Street in Brighton in the 1980s – the sensuality of the place came from the fact that it was the location of the kitchens of half the foreign restaurants of Brighton. So Greek, Lebanese, Indian, Italian and other cooking smells would come wafting down into my nostrils as I walked down the street. And maybe for me eroticism and ‘erogeny ‘ could only be present in a place that negated the very suggestion that it was part of England. For me that little corner of Brighton was living in the most alluring dream of ‘denial’ imaginable (but denial as the only healthy attitude available in Thatcherite Britain). I’d feel like a perfect Mr Benn walking along Western Road and then suddenly down Little Preston Street to be transported into another world. The actual destination of my walk down this street was the Public House Bookshop run by Richard Cupidi.

  I know that Brighton had a number of radical, alternative bookshops during the 1960s and 1970s and sorely regret never having been old enough to have known of the existence or visited the Unicorn Bookshop of the mythical Bill Butler, an American beat character who was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act in 1968 for publishing and selling J.G. Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Regan. The whole story of the trial has been told here Unicorn Books Trial Yet the Public House Bookshop was in some ways a continuation of Butler’s shop and, it seems, that Richard Cupidi was at one time a manager at Butler’s Unicorn Bookshop.

It is quite a complex task to explain the relationship to any city that one lives in and the forms of nostalgia one may have for each particular place. I´ve always told people that I have very little nostalgia if any towards Brighton and an American who had lived in Brighton for a number of years told me when we met in Moscow that she couldn´t believe that I was, in effect, a Brightonian. In many ways I have always prided myself on being ‘unbrightonian’ in spite of having lived in the city for the most part of my childhood and a fair stretch of my adult life. Brighton for me was  a town I always wanted to leave- I remember strongly identifying with the character in Fellini’s Vitelloni who finally manages to leave the city and I’d often quote to myself Samuel Johnson’s quip that Brighton was the kind of place where you’d want to hang yourself in if only you could find a tree on which to sling the rope. Moreover, I remember the joy in finding that I wasn’t alone in having this rather negative perception of Brighton and discovering for example Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend and rather enjoying through its jaundiced revenge fantasy story how it was the latest in a line of a series of books revealing the dark and unbearable side of the town. (On reflection I don’t think the book that great but I still loved its splenetic attack on the town, (sorry city) loving the blurb on the Italian edition of the novel which called Brighton ‘the city of English despair’ and referring to the misery of life in its basement flats). And, of course, it’s hard to find a writer who didn’t discover the dark side of Brighton: Colin Spencer. Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton hardly had much good to say about the city. Yet there were moments… no not walking along the grey, metallic waves of the seashore (who could love them after the Mediterranean?) but those moments existed for me most strikingly when Brighton disappeared as a reality. It seemed to disappear, albeit briefly, in Little Preston Street.

Of course, to be honest all towns are unbearable most- or a lot- of the time. I remember Trieste on a Sunday, walking around the empty city and decrying this citta’ morta (dead city) to a French friend I met by chance in the city. On another stroll I bumped into a fellow student at the translation school a number of times on the same afternoon- she quipped that we were going on our daily giro della prigione (prison stroll). Yes, even Trieste I could damn. But for Trieste there was a nostalgia that I’ve never felt for Brighton and during a return to Trieste I’m always left with a kind of melancholy feeling (but that’s not the word) that I had actually left the city. With Brighton this feeling has never arisen (yet the doubt arises have I ever managed to leave Brighton?). I think my feeling of unease about Brighton was best explained to me by a Peruvian who I met with a Spanish friend at a bar at the bottom of Duke Street one day. For her Brighton, for all its cosmopolitanism and its liberalism, was unbearable precisely because it wouldn’t let her feel the kind of sadness that she used to feel in Peru. That explained everything to me – yes, Brighton was the city where there was no saudade, тоска, груст, կարոտ, weltschmerz or even sehnsucht, no sevda. In plain, but utterly imperfect, English you can’t pine away in Brighton. And that to me was Brighton’s limitation. Perhaps if it could have cut itself off from England and floated south (just like in Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft) it could have saved itself, or perhaps even that was not enough.

Nonetheless there were sudden miracles in the desert. And one of these miracles was The Public House Bookshop. Finally I found a place where I could plan some kind of break out from the prison (and prism) of English reality. I remember the sticker that Richard would stick on the back of the books after buying them Public House Bookshop: Not just a Bookshop. Yet how to describe the place? I know that there are similar places wherever I have lived and they are not always associated with some cultural centre as such. In Trieste it was Libero Laganis’s mythic osteria in Via della Risorta, 13; in Moscow a number of places come to mind but mainly Музей Кино (Naum Kleiman’s Cinema Museum, or rather, Cinemateque near Krasnopresnenskaya metro), and now Фаланстер bookshop. In Odessa maybe Sasha’s погреб which I wrote about briefly in a post on another blog of mine Sasha’s Wine bar and other Odessan places  and in Novokuznetsk a bar that was named, I think, Среда where the local bards would assemble and sing. Anyway for me Brighton’s the miracle in the desert was, mainly, The Public House Bookshop.

Why it was so is explicable, of course, by the books and also by the atmosphere of both the shop, its owner and, I think, its location in Brighton.  I’ve talked about the location a little. The books and its owner, I suppose, were, in a way, inseparable as was the atmosphere of the shop. It was a radical bookshop and for me at least one of the least ‘stuffy’ of the bookshops in the town. I think there were only two or three bookshops in Brighton where this was true (a number were run by rather unsufferable snobs) the most reasonable owners resided at Public House, N.F.Brooks and The Odd Volume ( I with a group of friends used to name N.F.Brooks  ‘the fascist bookshop’ – after having read some article in the alternative local The Brighton Voice,  even though the paper had accused the owner in an article of association with some fascist characters). The owner himself was a fairly laconic though witty and quite friendly polyglot and besides I simply couldn’t have done without this book shops’ excellent stock of secondhand and remaindered stocks of otherwise unavailable translations of Central European and Russian classics whatever the owners politics. Years later finding the bookshop sequestered by some debtor agency  left an unbearable sense of melancholy (which was only exacerbated when I found some time later that some Christian bookshop had been installed there with bathetic volumes of religious nonsense). The ‘fascist bookshop’ had been banished through the owner buying too large a stock which would never be sold and I was lost without any chance of salvaging all those remaindered Quartet Encounter volumes that I loved so much.

However, while N.F.Brooks Eastern European soul was important and Odd Volumes politically radical and leftist second hand stock delighted me, The Public House Bookshop was still my favourite haunt. It was, perhaps, here where I would get my weekly shot of the Mediterranean. I remember once shocking Richard with my purchase of an anthology of Twentieth Century Polish Poetry when I should have been sticking to the latest Italian translation of Gianni Celati. Yes, this was definitely an incongruous choice. The Public House Bookshop was my introduction above all to Pasolini, Jean Genet, Gianni Celati, a number of Ed Emery translated authors as well as his amateur but excellent Red Notes pamphlets on Italian Revolutionary Movements of the 1970s (oh how I yearned that I had lived in Bologna in 1977 and not in tedious Thatcherite Brighton after reading them). The Public House Bookshop would be my City Lights introduction to Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti as well as to the Carcanet edition of Dino Buzzati’s stories. It would mean a discovery of the Semiotext(e) book on Post-Political Politics and those heady texts by Bifo and Mario Tronti, Toni Negri and Sergio Bologna. It would also be the place where I purchased the Gramsci Lawrence and Wishart volumes but also translations of Arthur Rimbaud and the Atlas ‘Four Dada Suicides’ which introduced me to the figure of Arthur Cravan . As well as a few great texts of Juan Goytisolo published by Serpents’ Tail- my favourite being his great elogy of Conde Julian – I still recall reading a ten page invective on the Spanish and their love of grabanzos which I’ve never been able to retrace in my Spanish edition of the novel. For years I’d daydream about becoming an English Conde Julian who’d grant access to the equivalent of the moros and hence bring art and culture into the hermetic wastelands of anglo-saxon seclusion and isolation.

Now the photos of Allen Ginsburg on his visit to the shop and Richard’s talk about translating Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (whatever happened to that project of his?) return to my memory now as one of the rare waves of Brighton nostalgia hits me now and again. Yes, of course there is more to add about Brighton: the Quadrant Pub, The Great Eastern (and, at times, Sundays in Brighton could be better than Sundays in Trieste), sociology lessons at Stanley Deason school in Whitehawk, even the Brighton Museum cafe and the odd cafe down from Western Road, certain intellectually fine moments at the University of Sussex, discussing Daniel Kharms and the iurodivy while sorting at Brighton Post Office. However, I could never fool myself that anywhere else other than the Public House Bookshop could I be transported for an hour or two back to the Mediterranean. I think at least there and then I could feel that sudden wave of sehnsucht which other Brighton spaces couldn’t contain, maybe with the exception of the odd seance at the Duke of Yorks or the Cinemateque (those Godard, Bunuel or Bergman seasons that will never happen anymore).

The Madonna in art before Pussy Riot.


Alek Epstein’s book on Pussy Riot is out – I reviewed it here Review of Epstein on Pussy Riot. – one of the sections has a fascinating look at the various radical art images of the Madonna. Here are some of the images that he mentions – from artists such as Munch, Petrov Vodkin, Ernst and Kulik, Bleikh and Chak:

Edvard Munch’s Madonna

Bleikh and Chak’s Ferror