Category: Literature

Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller: On reading, retail, and regrets

Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller: On reading, retail, and regrets

In case you’re beside yourself with curiosity, there is more than a smidge of Dylan Moran’s gorgeously disheveled elegance in this scrupulous account of a small-town bookshop’s daily comings and goings. However, to slap on Shaun Bythell’s narrator a generic “misanthrope” label would be a cruel negation of the devotion, patience, and more than the occasional act of clemency bestowed upon rude customers, insubordinate employees, and the merciless meat grinder of online retail. To own and operate a bookshop, in case it’s not already painfully clear in the era of Amazon blitzkrieg on all manner of retail, one must sweep away the idealist confetti of fantasies in which a bookseller is a sagely wizard, sprinkling his paperback and hardcover magic onto the souls hardened by their routines and devices, awakening that proverbial inner child, thawing the frost of transactional interactions, breathing life back into the community, blah blah blah. No. That never happens maybe once or twice a year. The rest of the time it’s long hours, slobs, curmudgeons, cheapskates, ingrates, tech failures, estimating, pricing, haggling, packing, lifting, and delivering of boxes across and beyond the quiet corner of southwest Scotland where this heaving epicentre of literary activity is situated. Wigtown and The Book Shop (and its allegedly obese cat) are very much real (and tantalizingly cozy as per Google Maps), which makes the sardonic everyday encounters even more hilarious:

“When the old man in the crumpled suit came to the counter to pay for the copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, I discreetly pointed out that his fly was open. He glanced down – as if for confirmation of this – then looked back at me and said, ‘A dead bird can’t fall out of its nest,’ and left the shop, fly still agape.” 

There’s more Rabelaisian stuff in here:

“The source of the shit became the subject of discussion for the rest of the day. Nicky leading the investigation with forensic scrutiny, which included rifling through the bin to retrieve it so that she could measure it. She became increasingly convinced that an elderly visitor had done it without noticing, and that it had slipped down their trouser leg. Other theories included the suggestion that it was actually icing from my birthday cake, which Anna has made. When Stuart suggested that the turn may have been Captain’s, Nicky’s instant and vituperative response was, ‘Nae chance, the bore’s wrong.'” 

Beyond assorted bits of hilarity, what is bound to spur sentimentality is a substantial quantity of episodes on the subject of legacy, heritage, death, bereavement, and the lifecycle of books as they pass hands, like orphaned treasures, sometimes for centuries. There is a particularly moving account of a two-volume Decameron finding a new home with a young woman after lingering for God knows how long in a sad little flat after coming to Scotland’s shores once upon a time in a suitcase of a courageous Italian immigrant. We die, but books stay for a wee bit longer, retaining the micro doses of our hands’ warmth deep within their pages. That’s where the bookseller comes in, the dutiful ferryman between the dead and their books which go on living…

At present, the scythe of ecommerce is merciless and methodical, so the following encounter with a witless customer seems increasingly less daft and ever more existential:

“One of the new customers was a woman who spent ten minutes wandering around the shop before coming to the counter and asking, ‘So what is The Book Shop? Do you sell the books or what? Do people just come in and take them?’ Temporarily stupefied, I was unable to answer. Thankfully, she broke the silence and ploughed on, ‘I am not from here, I am a tourist. Do people just hand you the books in? What happens in here? Is that what happens in here?'”

“Retailpocalypse” was declared by business savants two years before the pandemic has delivered its deathly punches. The future is foggy, but in the meantime Shaun Bythell has two new books out. Marvelous.

Svetlana Alexievich: Anthropology of Homo Sovieticus through compassionate eyes

Svetlana Alexievich: Anthropology of Homo Sovieticus through compassionate eyes

“No one had taught us how to be free. We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.”

Svetlana Aleksievich, Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union

Belarusian author, journalist, oral historian, and now also a political dissident Svetlana Alexievich, to use that chilling Stalinist phrase about writers, is a certified “engineer of human souls” and has a Nobel prize to prove it. Four decades ago she acquired a tape recorder (500 rubles, an astronomic number for your run-of-the-mill 100 rubles desk job salary) and set out to catalogue a multitude of voices, old and young, surging in a cacophonic symphony of victimhood and heroism from every far and near corner of the Land of the Soviets. Six books were born out of this labour, each one a raw manifesto of truth, suturing a particular apocalyptic wound (Second World War, Afghanistan War, and Chernobyl, among them).

This is not the kind of literary product one can savour with a glass of flinty Chablis, half-listening to the analog grit of some fresh lo-fi chillop. This is work both for the intellectual and the emotional aspects of readership, often punctured by tears, but always ending in a classic cleaning catharsis. I am fortunate to be able to read Alexievich in the original Russian, but even the English translations retain the thunderbolt strength of her laconicism. Truly, if the story (in this case, hundreds of stories) is enthralling, it requires no embellishment (sorry, Tolkien). Today, as the pandemic world convulses in the corrosive slops of populism, and in Alexievich’s native Belarus the emboldened dictator releases smug videos of himself with an automated gun (and his own underage son grotesquely clad in a spetznaz uniform), I revisit her Secondhand Time in search of answers, clues, and prophesies. What is the essence of a Soviet (and post-Soviet) person? What knowledge (if any) has been retained after decades with so much happening within them and yet with so little to show? What hope is there for hundreds of millions of identities stumbling, half-conscious, from ideology into ideology?

Alexievich the chronicler, Alexievich the therapist, Alexievich the compassionate anthropologist… It is precisely this nurse-like compassion that makes Secondhand Time such a precious jewel among numerous other attempts to understand the “Soviet mystique.” Solzhenitsyn did this in Gulag Archipelago and in pretty much everything else he’s said or written, and also Aleksandr Zinovyev did this with his sarcastic buzzword Homo Sovieticus. This archetypal “Soviet man” is, in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, an “ideological schizophrenic, honest liar, a person always ready for constant and voluntary mental self-mutilations.” Bingo. That’s exactly it. Alexievich treads the very same conceptual path that Zinovyev and Solzhenitsyn stepped on before her, capturing the essence of homo sovieticuses from Belarus to Kazakhstan. What is this essence? Emanating from a breadth of ethnically and religiously diverse voices, the Homo Sovieticus is a brittle jelly held together by one thing and one thing only – a terrifying ability to consciously gobble up lies and to rationalize brain-frying contradictions. Homo Sovieticus reconciles the irreconcilable within the humble square footage of his grey matter. Homo Sovieticus is at once pitiable, admirable, loathsome, pathetic, heroic, insightful, ignorant, passionate, and inert. Homo Sovieticus, coming out of Alexievich’s pages, can start a sentence opening up about his parents being butchered by the Soviet regime, and finish off with emotional nostalgia over the golden years of Soviet bounty and the vitriolic indictment of democracy. There is no logic, no cause-and-effect relationship. There is only Stockholm syndrome and a severe, pan-national, untreated PTSD.

Many Westerners and ex-Soviets (the ones younger or simply fortunate to be better oriented in matters of history and truth) scoff at the Homo Sovieticus for possessing the naivete of a blind kitten. Not Alexievich. There isn’t an ounce of ridicule in her approach. Instead, there is a profoundly humanist understanding of immeasurable loss and confusion, of deracinated personhood, and of a perpetually shifting system of ideological coordinates that only amplifies this disorientation. At work you say one thing, at home another, you pretend to do your job, your employer pretends to pay you, in public you pretend to be atheist while at home you teach your kids to say the namaz, and on and on it goes, this neverending umbilical cord of duplicity, chaining a person to the regime of lies.

Why is this Homo Sovieticus anthropology important today? Well, for one it helps explain Transdnistria, Abkhasia, Crimea, Donbas, and other scenarios as something more than just bona fide putinist imperialism. This is a war for the last remaining grey matter square footage of the last remaining Homo Sovieticus generation.  More globally, Alexievich’s catalogue of Soviet souls, read against the backdrop of today’s fake news pandemic, clearly demonstrates just what kind of dire consequences befall the people who are brainwashed into kissing the cold portraits of their family’s murderers. Every and all evil can be excused if we cannot even agree whether the sky is blue…

Image: Vasily Kolotevy, Queue.

Simon Winder’s Germania: a scrumptious read for the Wanderlust-afflicted

Simon Winder’s Germania: a scrumptious read for the Wanderlust-afflicted

Sometime between traipsing along the Harz Mountains’ Grimm-like forest trails and tucking into a frothy beer at yet another charmingly nondescript rathskeller, Simon Winder casually mentions to his undoubtedly nerdy reader: “There could be an argument that this entire book should be understood to be in brackets.” Indeed, it takes a special sort of enthusiasm (for such a complicated country as Germany, no less!) and a special skill-set of hunting for precious trivia of insight in the crevasses of pompous historical brass to produce such a bursting beehive of architecture, history, folklore, Prussian militarism, Viennese nostalgia, cuisine, music, cabinets of curiosity, chocolate with ostriches, turrets, suspenders, and oompah.

Winder takes us across Germany, from the Roman times and until the morbid 1933 (although I do wish he’d continue until Goodbye Lenin! era or, if he’s feeling particularly ambitious, all the way to the Age of Merkel, arguably the other great leading female German since little Sophie Zerbst aka Catherine the Great). Much like his other fantastic book Danubia, Germania is a historical narrative knitted out of love and compassion, with generous attention paid to stuff from the arcane margins, from weirdo backwaters, from the cornucopia of Germany’s “doll’s handkerchief states,” ancient homes of Wagnerian heroes in bearskin, now reduced to comfy second-rate magnets for the middle-aged tourist whose poorly disguised modus operandi involves “sitting in groups around tables, eating astonishing amounts of sausage and cake, drinking massive glasses of lager and smoking furiously.” Stumbling in this gluttonous stupor one will inevitably walk into yet another painfully picturesque Schloss, at which point Winder will lovingly guide his reader up the winding staircase and into:

“… an attic room filled with wigs, pictures of basilisks, a giant model of the solar system, pickled geckoes, a little dog made out of seashells, wax heads, a dried cow-fish, a speculative engraving of the Ark of the Covenant, an opium pipe, shoes from around the world and, hanging from the rafters, the best and biggest stuffed crocodile ever, an ancient, gnarled Behemoth which, if it fell to the ground, would detonate in a great cloud of evil-smelling dust.”

From his ridiculously adorable glee over a nautilus-shaped drinking cup, to vivacious awe at the sight of a four hundred year old King of Sweden’s horse in an Ingolstadt museum, to a poetic moment on a Freising trek to the oldest brewery in the world where Winder feels like he’s walking through Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, one can only feel pure envy at his unbridled passion. May we all feel as strongly about our hobbies, interests, and fancies, for it would truly be the most delicious sort of life to live – a joyous wanderer with a massive heart, a contemplative mind, and a stomach tough enough for this:

“I once went with some friends to a traditional Frankfurt restaurant which turned out to be a sort of a temple to German hard-core, with undrinkable apple-wine and guests greedily tucking into blocks of lard on black bread. On the disturbingly narrow menu, the only choices seemed to be between cuts of hot fatty  ham served with the notorious Frankfurt ‘green sauce’ (an old enemy – vinegared chopped herbs), yet another bratwurst of a kind that even I was getting bored with, or something described as a ‘slaughterhouse platter.’ In a spirit of fatalism I went for the platter. This turned out to be a central ridge of sauerkraut flanked by two skin canisters, sealed with metal surgical clips – the one filled with blendered liver, fat, and water, the other with blood and a kind of mealy material. Sticking a fork in one cause the canister to detumesce, jetting its content over the sauerkraut.” 

The man should do restaurant reviews.

Image: Nose Dance, by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550).

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

This was supposed to be a bit of light-as-Devonshire-cream reading, a fun refresher for a lazy weekend. Instead, it turned out to be a captivating page-turner about depression. On the surface, it’s a well worn out trope, standing on the shoulders of giants like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Bronte’s Madwoman in the Attic, all the way down to Sylvia Plath and her “domestic surreal.” A woefully unfulfilled housewife Anna Benz is tumbling down the nauseating rabbit hole of tepid, monotonous, safe, sated, comfortable middle-class life and all of its requisite trappings. There’s a picture-perfect house tucked in a village near Zurich. There’s the Swiss banker husband, reasonably kind, reasonably good-looking. There’s the kids, suitably sweet, and a statuesque mother-in-law hovering ever so diligently somewhere on the horizon peppered with school runs, play dates, and zoo excursions. Kinder, Küche, Kirche, living strong and proud in the land of scrupulous financiers, punctual trains, and premium chocolate.

The reader is never explained what is the poison festering under such picturesque a facade (there are some scant nods to childhood trauma, but not much to go on). We are only led to accept the facts – Anna Benz is a serial cheater, engaging in infidelity with a mechanical rigour of an athlete. She finds little comfort or solace in this walking on a razor’s edge. Instead, there’s only desperately delicious darkness, thick and viscous like licorice.

Leafing through these litanies of busy nothings, the reader just knows something is coming. A jolt. A bolt of lightning. A catharsis. The only thing left to unveil is whether this is going to be the kind of seminal event that gifts redemption, or the final plunge into the abyss.

“Grief is not simple sadness. Sadness is a feeling that wants nothing than to be sat with, held, and heard. Grief is a journey. It must be moved through. With a rucksack full of rocks, you hike through a black, pathless forest, brambles about your legs and wolf packs at your heels. 

The grief that never moves is called complicated grief. It doesn’t subside, you do not accept it, and it never – it never – goes to sleep. This is possessive grief. This is delusional grief. This is hysterical grief. Run if you will, this grief is faster. This is the grief that will chase you and beat you. 

This is the grief that will eat you.”

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Two themes run in powerful streams through the heart of this book – psychotherapy and German grammar. Outside home, her therapist and her German classes are just about the only nodes on an otherwise barren network of Anna’s activities. Rolling off the tongue of Anna’s therapist are nods to Jungian mono-myths and origins of pragmatic Swiss mentality, and to Freudian dream interpretation. Dawdling over her German homework, Anna feels the clinical solitude of these complicated language rules: “The disconnect between ‘general’ and ‘specific.’ The vast, vapid chasm that divides ‘this particular one’ from ‘some of them.'” This language evades Anna, contributing massively to her alienation in this picture-perfect country:

“She thought about Switzerland. Where a smile will give you away as an American. Where what isn’t taboo is de rigueur. Cold, efficient Switzerland. Where the women are comely and the men are well groomed and everyone wears a determined face. Switzerland. The roof of Europe. Glacier carved. Most beautiful where it is most uninhabitable.” 

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Anna, she says, “was a good wife, mostly.” Alas, depression doesn’t care much. And even in punctual Switzerland there are days when all trains run late well into the night…

Image: Nonchaloir, by John Singer Sargent.