Monthly Archives: December 2017

Books read in 2017 and to be read in 2018.

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It’s that time of year for book and film lists. I’ve been a slow reader this year and so maybe I’ll play around with a number of lists regarding the books that I have read, the books that I’ve started to read but will finish in 2018, the books that I’ve bought in 2017 and promise to myself that I’ll get round to reading them in 2018 (although fear that I may not get round to reading them before 2020), the books that I’m really ashamed about not having read, the books that haven’t been translated and prove that English-language publishing houses have followed the fashion noted by Juan Rodolfo Wilcock of employing farm animals as their readers  or are run by the same kind of cultural isolationists that tend to predominate in the London film critic mafia.

Anyway here’s my list of books that I’ve read and have really enjoyed during 2017 (some of them published well before 2017) and other books awaiting my free time and so on.

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Alexandra Petrova’s 2016 masterpiece Appendix which I’ve been reading and re-reading since its publication

The one major novel that was published back in 2016 and which I’ve been reading and rereading is a book which has yet to be translated but which I do hope to publish an English-language review of somewhere. This book is Alexandra Petrova’s 832 page novel Appendix. My review of it came out in Russian for the New Literary Observer (НЛО) in the late Spring and I’m hoping to rewrite my English-language review about the book soon. It won the Andrey Bely literature award last year but suffice it to say that not only I but many others, including one of Russia’s best literary critics, Alexander Skidan, believe it to a major literary breakthrough in Russian letters. Through eight major characters and numerous minor characters the novel takes up one of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s uncompleted projects of ‘translating’, or rather in Petrova’s case, ‘transplanting’ the Aeneid into contemporary Rome (and St Petersburg). Zinovy Zinik rightly chose it as one of his Books of the Year last year for the TLS and had this to say about it:

In her monumental novel Appendix (NLO, Moscow), Alexandra Petrova, an émigré Russian poet and translator, who moved to Italy in 1998, has managed to exorcize the traumas of her Soviet past by mingling them lyrically with those of idiosyncratic characters on the outskirts of life in a contemporary Rome unknown to foreign visitors.

It is rather impossible to summarise this novel in a few words but suffice it to say that its Rome is as memorable as the Romes of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Carlo Emilio Gadda and to me at least has something of those memorable foundational city novels of Latin American literature such as Marechal’s Adan Buenosayres. It is like those novels a most memorable depiction of migration and deftly avoids the autarkic moment of much contemporary Russian, European and British letters. It is too good a novel to be ignored by English-language publishers (and Italian-language ones at that) and let’s hope that some publisher has picked up on this genuine masterpiece.

 

I’m rather happy than a number of my recommedations for translations of foreign-language titles have been published in English. The book Sex of the Oppressed  is now published by Publication Studio in a translation by Jonathan Platt and one of the titles I highlighted in another blog post, Nanni Balestrini’s Vogliamo Tutto, has been published by Verso after having come out in a small Australian book publishers, Telephone Publishing back in 2015. I am also delighted that Elsa Morante’s fascinating poetic tract The World Saved by Kids and Other Epics has found its way to an English-language publisher. 2018 should be the occasion for the long overdue publication of Larry Riley’s translation of Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers, a book which was Number One in my list of books that needed to be published in my ‘If there were only another Feltrinelli’ blogpost back in 2013  way before I had even heard of Larry’s translation. Rachel Kushner’s novel of the same name is another novel I’ve finally got round to reading this year- it deserves considerable praise for its telling portrait of the Italian 1970s (Kushner  was the author asked to write an introduction to Matt Holden’s Balestrini translation). Let’s hope that if Balestrini ever gets translated into Russian, Alexandra Petrova will get to write the introduction given her own treatment of the Italian 70s in her novel.

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Matt Holden’s translation of Nanni Balestrini’s classic collective epic on the Italian ‘Hot Autumn (now republished by Verso)

Otherwise I’ve been mainly reading non-fiction this year. The two film books that mainly caught my attention were Jack Sargeant’s Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film. Those interested in what I have to say about the book can go to my review of it for Senses of Cinema but here is my concluding sentence regarding the importance of this book for any understanding of the other history of cinema:

When a major reimagining of film, and a rewriting of the “other history” of cinema is undertaken, Flesh and Excess will surely be seen as an urtext of this grand alternative history.

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An image from a film by Aryan Kaganof which serves as the cover for Jack Sargeant’s excellent new work on Underground Cinema Flesh and Excess.

I’m presently reading Duncan Ritchie’s excellent overall history of Underground Cinema which takes a more straightforwardly historical approach. So far I think it is excellent and is a great accompaniment to Sargeant’s book. I’ll never tire of recommending, too, Mikhail Trofimenkov’s Film Theatre of War, which I still think is the film title that people in the English-language film publishing world should translate. Any radical political publisher would also be wise to get their hands on such a title given its superb rediscovery of the history of anti-colonial cinema. (I’ve been banging on about this title for some time now and hope people start waking up to its significance).

Another film book that came out this year and which I’ve managed to read is Werner Schroeter’s own account of his life. A memoir written with the help of the critic and his friend , Claudia Lenssen, Days of Twilight Nights of Frenzy deserves notice. I’ve seen little of Schroeter on the big screen but his Reign of Naples will always be in my list of top films. Schroeter may not be as much a household name as Fassbinder but it would be a terrible shame if he were written of film history. He merits a major retrospective just as this title deserves a large readership.

Schroeter

Two more film-related books that I’ve read are Philip Cavendish’s The Men With the Movie Camera: The Poetics of Visual Style in Soviet Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1920s and Agon Hamza‘s more philosophy-related Althusser and Pasolini: Philosophy, Marxism and Film. The former is a welcome look at the stories of the unsung cinematographers behind the 1920s breakthroughs in Soviet cinema and the latter is a fascinating attempt to talk of two rarely combined authors Louis Althusser and Pier Paolo Pasolini through the prism of philosophy and film. In Russian I’ve read the recently published biography of Gennady Shpalikov, the Soviet Vigo. Director of just one film but author of a number of classics, Shpalikov would have celebrated his 80th birthday this year were it not for his tragic suicide at the age of 37. Nontheless, the traces he left in cinema deserve to be picked up. Anataoly Kulyagin’s biography fills in some of the details of Shpalikov’s life but it is Shpalikov’s poems, scripts and stories that truly deserve to be published outside of Russia along with a retrospective of the films that he scripted (together with his own A Long Happy Life).

Of the other Russian books read this year, I have already reviewed Ilya Budraitskis’ Dissidents Among Dissidents for this blog, another book that merits a long review is one of the major titles to come out on the Left Russian Avant-Garde of the 1920s. Published several years ago for the Higher School of Economics publishing house, Igor Chubarov’s The Collective Sensibility: theories and practices of the Left Avant-Garde is a major study of all the various avant-gardes that made early Soviet art of such universal importance. Chubarov is a leading contemporary theorist in Russia and it is about time that the western Left discovered more of the kind of debate that is going on in Russia itself. Both Budraitskis and Chubarov’s work in translationwould certainly help informed western Leftists to orientate themselves to further understanding the real legacy of the October Revolution in both arts and politics. Talking about the legacy of the Russian Revolution, or rather the complexities of the Soviet Century, Mikhail Ryklin’s own look at this through the optic of his own family history, Doomed Icarus which has recently been published by НЛО (New Literary Observer) books, is well worth reading (or well worth insisting that an English-language translation of it be published).

Doomed Icarus

Mikhail Ryklin’s look at sections of the Soviet Century through his own family history, Doomed Icarus. An author long worth translating into English.

Having contributed with a translation and commentary on one of the most fascinating texts of the great Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov  (Cosmology of the Spirit), for the most recent issue of Stasis Journal, it is vital to mention the recent publications of books of Ilyenkov’s early essays. Two volumes have been published by Moscow’s Kanon publisher of texts and material relating to Ilyenkov’s philosophical thought. While an earlier volume was devoted to the circumstances surrounding the famous theses that Ilyenkov and Korovikov published and tried to discuss in the early post-Stalinist Philosophy Faculty of Moscow State University, this new volume includes the very texts of these theses, hitherto not yet unpublished but undiscovered in full as well as many other pieces by Ilyenkov both previously published and hotherto unpublished. These texts come alongside major text by Vladislav Lektorsky, the late Ilya Raskin and Ilyenkov’s daughter Elena Illesh. Ilyenkov has yet to be given the recognition he merits but it does seem that his star is on the rise. Especially with a new documentary film made about his life by filmmakers Pyotr Laden and Sasha Rozhkov. Other Soviet philosophy books read or initiated have included Sergei Mareev’s new book on Vygotsky, and the book that most requires reading in 2018 are the unpublished Vygotsky writings from his notebooks and edited by the superb Vygostky scholar Ekaterina Zavershneva. A real treat.

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Selections from the notebook of Lev Vygotsky, published in Russia this year.

My reading of the Soviet historian Boris Porshnev has commenced this year with possibly his most accessible book, an account of the life of Jean Meslier (the first promoter of atheism, himself a priest, and the presumed author of the famous quote regarding entrails of priest and noblemen: “He wished that all the world’s high and noble would be hanged and strangled with the entrails of the priests.“. Porshnev biography is an excellent tract trying to rescue Meslier from the false redaction of his thoughts by Voltaire. Porshnev convincingly argues that Meslier not only the first atheist,was also very much a communist thinker. I’m not sure whether Porshnev’s biography has been reprinted much since it was first published in the mid 1960s but let’s hope that it will get some notice once again and not just in Russia.

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Boris Porshnev’s excellent biography of atheist priest Jean Meslier and presumed author of  celebrated quote about strangling noblemen with entrails of priests.

Porshnev has an essay devoted to him in the recent edition of Stasis which I mentioned above, and I’m glad to say that a copy of his book On the Origin of Human History is on my desk read to be rea in early 2018.

Other authors read in 2017 have included John Berger, notably his Landscapes book, Bento’s Sketchbook and a number of his Portraits. I’d loved Zinovy Zinik’s short History Thieves as much for its form as its storytelling– I’ve always wanted to compose a work that is ninety per cent footnotes to ten per cent text so Zinik’s nod in that direction delighted me more than irritated. I hope that 2018 will be the year when I catch up on his other works.

What more to add? It has also been a year of reading some Enzo Traverso and Marc Auge. I’ve finally got round to reading Andrei Bitov’s A Captive of the Caucasus.  I’ve started on Catriona Kelly’s promising St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past. And while it’s been the centenary of the Russian Revolution the only major work I’ve read on that subject has been China Mieville’s October. Wonderful narration that sometimes veers into depicting the Revolution as Slapstick (the story of Lenin’s wig for some reason often comes to mind). I don’t know if I’ll get round to reading Danilkin’s biography of Lenin in 2018, but I really do hope to read the various essays by Yaroslav Leontiev in the recently published book Reds. Jointly written with Yevgeny Matonin it is sure to tell us about other leftist figures and forces in the Russian Revolution that we rarely hear about, less crassly than James Medhurst does. 

I started Langston Hughes’ excellent autobiography and hope to finish it in January. Who knows which of these books (old and new) I’ve got colonising my workdesk I’ll get to read but, yes, there’s hope for them all in 2018:

  1. Giorgio Agamben – Che cos’e la filosofia? (What is Philosophy?)
  2. Alexander Skidan – Сумма Поэтики (Summa poetica)
  3. Oxana Timofeeva – История Животных (The History of Animals)
  4. Victor Misiano – “Другой” и Разные (The ‘other’ and various)
  5. Alexander Brener – Ка, или Тайные, но Истинные истории искусства (Ka, or the secret but truthful histories of art)
  6. Louis Althusser – The Future Lasts Forever
  7. A. Meshcheryakov – Awakening to Life
  8. Elena Aleksieva – The Nobel Laureate
  9. Ricardo Piglia – La Forma Inicial (Conversaciones en Princton) – (Conversations in Princeton)
  10. Georg Lukacs – The Theory of the Novel
  11. The Practical Essence of Man: The ‘Activity Approach’ in Late Soviet Philosophy (ed by Vesa Oittinen and Andrei Maidansky)
  12. Edward Upwards – In the Thirties

 

etc, etc, etc.

And then there’s the books still yet to be purchased:

  1. Georg Lukacs – The Destruction of Reason
  2. Sarah Schulman- The gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation
  3. the novels of Aleksandr Ilyanen
  4. Eugenie Zvonkine’s study of Kira Muratova
  5. Franco Fortini’s Attraverso Pasolini
  6. the Katerina Clark books I’ve yet to read (especially her ‘Moscow, the fourth Rome)
  7. the Maxim Kantor novels still unread
  8.  Ricardo Piglia’s Diaries of Emilio Renzi
  9. some of China Mieville’s sci-fi stuff
  10. Marco Bertozzi’s history of Italian Documentary film
  11. Benjamin Noys – The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory
  12. Alexei Tsvetkov – (Король Утопленников) King of the Drowned

etc, etc, etc

And then there’s that copy of The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala that the American author Rick Harsch has lying in wait for me as soon as I set foot in Trieste again and which will undoubtedly set back my other reading by a month or so given its purpotedly monstrous size. Of course there is Harsch’s The Skulls of Istria to read too…

 

The Mad Patagonian

 

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In Praise of Newcastle.

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Freedom City

In Russia my thoughts often turn to how one could flag up regional centres that few cultural historians or cultural commentators ever deign to visit, let alone write about. Indeed, I have long wanted to write a piece on the unusual cultural history of the Kuzbass. Novokuznetsk, the town where I lived for nine months in 2002-2003, does have the potential for an unwritten history. Aside from being the city where Dostoevsky first married during a brief stopover on his way to exile in Semipalatinsk, it produced one of the most interesting currents of photography in the late Soviet period, the Triva group or the so-called Novokuznetsk School of Photography. Then there was the Ilya Ehrenburg novel The Second Day, set in and very much based on his trip to the industrial city which was at the heart of the First Five Year Plan (by the end of the First Year Plan and for three decades, the city was to be known as Stalinsk). During those same years there was a visit by Joris Ivens to film aspects of this industrialisation process. Moreover, there are many curious stories of other international revolutionaries coming to Novokuznetsk and the other cities of the Kuzbass such as the German ‘Red Robin Hood’ Max Hoelz and the Dutch communist engineer and founder of the Kuzbass Industrial Autonomous Industrial Community, S.J. Rutgers. In the UK other regional cities tend to get an equally raw deal in the popular imagination as to what constitutes centres of culture.

Newcastle is a case in point. My first brief visits to the city in 2015 coincided with my work curating (together with Geetha Jayaraman) a Pasolini retrospective and exhibition and one which managed to bring a number of impressive speakers to the city. The Turner nominated artist, Craigie Horsfield made one of his extremely rare visits to the UK to speak about Pasolini’s Uccellacci e Uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows) with Daniel Bird. Other speakers included the author of Poor but Sexy Agata Pyzik; one of the UK’s more interesting film critics and a Wearsider to boot, Neil Young and the London-based Sicilian philosopher Federico Campagna. A far more impressive line up than events marking the fortieth anniversary of Pasolini’s death held in London.

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The first screening of the 2015 Pasolini Retrospective in Newcastle’s Culture Lab with Craigie Horsfield, a former Turner Prize nominee(centre picture) , film scholar Daniel Bird (to his right), Geetha Jayaraman( far right) Ian McDonald (far left) and myself.

During my 2015 trip to Newcastle I was fortunate to stumble upon an exhibition in the Laing Gallery entitled ‘For Ever Amber’. Detailing the decades-long work of the Amber Film and Photography Collective (coming together in 1968) whose production aimed to document the working class and marginalised communities of North East England, it paid tribute to one of the most impressive collections of post-war social photography in the UK. Indeed, the term ‘For Ever Amber’ was coined by none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson who spent his 70th birthday at an earlier retrospective of Amber’s work. In spite of the links with Cartier-Bresson and a highly-impressive photo and film collection of truly global significance, it took many decades for even the Laing Gallery to fully acknowledge their significance, and they still have yet to gain their due recognition outside of the Tyneside.

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One of Syd Shelton’s photographs detailing the Rock Against Racism movement

As my 2015 trip coincided with the renovation of the Side Gallery, I only visited it on this year’s trip. Based in an easy to miss location, my visit showed me precisely why the Side Gallery deserves a reputation as one of the most interesting national galleries. Two exhibitions were running there simultaneously and both were inspirational. Downstairs a collection of Syd Shelton’s photographs on the Rock Against Racism Movement in the late 1970s – a piece of history more than ever relevant in contemporary Britain. Upstairs were the moving portraits and photo’s detailing segregated America and the US Civil Rights Movment by Gordon Parks. Perhaps, the most moving part of the exhibition was the film and the series of portraits on the Fontenelle family from Harlem which was at the heart of the exhibition. Devised as an attempt to explain to the readership of Life why ‘race riots’ were happening in the late sixties, Parks was very much the chronicler of this period of American history. Looking through information about earlier exhibitions at the Side Gallery one can only marvel at why its name is not more well-known as one of the go-to photography venues in the UK. Next year promises to be a significant one too, at the beginning of 2018 it will be hosting two post-Soviet exhibitions on Lenin statues (entitled Looking for Lenin and an exhibition based on formerly prohibited photography sites in Belorussia).

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Gordon Parks portrait of the Fontanelles at the Poverty Office in Harlem

The exhibition tied in well with a year-long celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the visit by Martin Luther King in 1967 to receive an honorary degree from Newcastle University, the first and only UK university to award him this honour. An installation work entitled Freedom (directed by Ian McDonald and produced by Geetha Jayaraman- the people behind the 2015 Pasolini event) to celebrate this visit and to reflect on the contemporary echoes that this visit has, was on show at the Great North Museum in Newcastle. No strangers to innovative film practice, their four-screen installation deserves a much wider audience. A three screen installation was specifically devoted to the visit of Dr Martin Luther King to Newcastle containing both contemporary and archive footage linking the historic visit and speech to its own time and to the present time, and a further fourth screen (located elsewhere) with its poetic mediation on light and darkness based on Martin Luther King’s account of a moment in his earlier journey to India manage to further broaden the horizons of thinking about King’s visit to Newcastle in 1967.

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A frame from Ian McDonald and Geetha Jayaraman’s Freedom installation

The power of the installation work Freedom was due, in no small way, to the generous space afforded it by the museum. The three 5 metre screens in the centre of the hall meant that the effect that the film had on the viewers was, no doubt, a more powerful one than it would be were this to be given a lesser space. The three screens almost ensure that the scenes provoked in the viewer a larger amount of reflections than a single film and also gave the viewer a desire to go to multiple viewings (each viewing allowing for a new reception to the film). Second and third viewings definitely helped one discover further elements.

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The three screen installation of Freedom in the Great North Museum in Newcastle

The contrasting images and footage of Dr Martin Luther King’s speech at Newcastle and the events surrounding a contested visit by Enoch Powell to Newcastle in 1969 along with footage from recent pro-migrant demonstrations and with footage from a Donald Trump speech (with which the film begins) allow one to reflect on the links rather than necessarily giving the audience a didactic perspective on the images. The fourth screen  filmed in Kerala in a place where Martin Luther King had previously visited added an almost metaphysical note to parallel to King’s words on the dialectic between light and darkness. Moreover, the authors by giving their work the title of Freedom manage to generate in the spectator new questions. The deliberate lack of commentary or voiceover in this work reinforces this reflective nature of their installation. Hopefully, this installation will find its way to other venues (Brighton has been talked about as a possible second venue). It would be a shame for such a powerful piece of work to be limited to a single venue.

At the same museum 25 photographs by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, a Pittsburg photographer who documented the years of segregration are supplemented by oral accounts of the period. The oral and visual combination worked well. While Gordon Parks may have been a more significant photographic figure, Harris’s photo’s have managed to capture a wide spectrum of human experience in the town of Pittsburg lending a vivid realism to the image of the city in early post-war America. The ability to listen to oral recollections of the times while observing the photographs was also a very successful feature of the exhibition and a brilliant curatorial decision.

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One of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris’s photos of Pittsburg life in the ‘Not As It Is Written’ exhibition at the Great North Museum.

I only caught the tail end of the year-long celebrations of the brief visit by Martin Luther King to Newcastle but from some of the exhibitions designed to celebrate this symbolic visit, Newcastle has managed to create some powerful cultural events and make a relevant cultural intervention in the contemporary moment (alas I have yet to visit the Tyne and Wear’s large Contemporary Art Centre, the Baltic, which also celebrates King’s visit). Newcastle’s (and the North East’s) cultural vitality deserves to be celebrated and reminds us that many of the most interesting cultural stories and phenomena come from the regions rather than the capital (the parochialism of many of London’s film critics is clearly in evidence when set beside the far more cosmopolitan and wide-ranging film criticism of Tyne and Wear’s best film critics, namely Neil Young and Michael Pattison, for example).

To return to my own Russia-centric obsessions, I’m left wondering how the history of Russian literature would have been altered without Yevgeny Zamyatin’s journey to Newcastle in World War One . Maybe one can also muse on how Bukharin’s brief arrest in the city (a year prior to Zamyatin’s visit) may have imperceptibly modified the course of history.