I’ve been interested in Ukraine these past few weeks, for reasons that will soon, I hope, become apparent. Francis Spufford and Aleksander Hemon have also been interested in the country recently, obliquely and in very different ways. I came across Spufford’s Red Plenty in the reference section of my local library (and I’ll take this opportunity to support the institution of local libraries, and the very different serendipity they provide), so it’s obviously been classified as a sort of history. Which is, as I discovered when I read it, exactly what it is. A sort of history. The book’s slightly ill-served by its subtitle – ‘Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream’ – not only because the book ranges more widely in time than that decade, encompassing Khrushchev and beyond, but also because it suggests something dryer and more objective, in a documentary sense, than what’s actually being offered. The book’s an odd amalgam of fact and fiction, commentary and story, telling and showing. Each section begins with an authoritative, albeit highly personal, account of the economic and political developments in the period about to be portrayed. It’s an unglamorous era on the whole, if the massacres and idealism that preceded it can be said to have glamour, but Spufford’s decision to use fiction to develop the book’s historical insights, more than makes up for – indeed, illuminates – the overall greyness. And Russia in the 50s and 60s was not entirely without its own idealism, and massacres, as the book shows. It’s a crafty book, in both senses, well-made and insidiously enjoyable. And it reminded me of Farrell’s Empire trilogy (see below), although the two works couldn’t be less similar in their approach or style. But the tension in both comes from the (mis-)match between the larger world and the individual, and the responsibility the latter, willy-nilly, infinitesimally or not, has for the former. Spufford’s very good on complicity and compromise, two of the main channels along which that responsibility flows. But he’s also generous, and understanding, and this compassion for his characters, which extends even to Khrushchev, is certainly something he shares with Farrell. And there’s a story about Brezhnev’s buttons that has to be read to be believed.
Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project couldn’t be more different. Where Spufford is restrained, structured, superficially objective, Hemon is extravagant, sprawling and both eccentric and central to his own project, which is only partially that of Lazarus. Ostensibly an investigation into the life and death of a young Russian immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch (Have a book?), who died in mysterious circumstances in Chicago at the start of the last century, the book’s main concern is with its author, also an immigrant, also, as Lazarus was, reborn. It’s a passionately written book, which benefits and suffers from the fact that its author is not a native speaker. The language has the greedy and unrestrained ebullience of a dumb man recovering his voice; it’s not always accurate, but it never fails to give pleasure. It’s an over-egged pudding, and there are occasional moments of bathos, but these are a small price to pay (and may even reinforce) the book’s powerful, relentless portrayal of loss and displacement. The figure of Lazarus’s sister, Olga, is particularly impressive, and occupies, for me, the emotional heart of the novel. If the aim of the project is to understand what made Lazarus tick, and how he died, its success is partial, as it must be, rather like that of the journey the narrator takes into the new ex-Russia from which Lazarus, twice-victim, twice-born, was forced to flee, a journey as disturbing and ambiguous and, ultimately, thwarted as that of the novel’s eponymous hero. But this double failure only enhances the overall impact of the novel, as grainy and dark and, ultimately, compelling as the photographs – both old and new – that form its shadow. There’s a fascinating passage about the nature of photography towards the end of the book, which ends with the observation: “I felt as though I had achieved the freedom of being comfortable with the constant vanishing of the world.” The book, as a whole, is proof of how illusory that freedom is.