Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Eugene Vodolazkin at Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the coldest greyest wettest Edinburgh Festival that I can remember. But it’s been a year of unusual weather. There was the snow storms of March closing roads, disrupting transport systems and fast bringing chaos to our small island, then the glorious hot and sunny weeks of May and July. And now these grey skies and rain.


A peaceful place behind the scenes at Edinburgh's Book Festival

Still, I’ve been to several talks at the Book Festival, particularly by writers of translated fiction, which always interests me. The Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin (The Aviator, translated by Lisa Hayden) impressed me with his compassionate take on life.

The Aviator is about a man who wakes up in hospital, and who tries to retrieve and reconstruct his memories, his life. When Daniel Hahn, the chair, talks of the fragmentary structure of The Aviator Eugene says all his texts are fragmentary and it is a convenient structure, for it opens up the possibility of changes of focus; for we don’t describe our lives in detail day by day, we select. There are always empty places.

The germ of the idea for the novel came from the time when he walked every day through the streets of Paris on the way to work at the Bibliothèque Nationale. He passed the building where Stendhal lived and wrote Le Rouge et le Noir. Eugene imagined Stendhal coming back in the present day and finding no friends left, nothing, no black, no red, and he tried to imagine the melancholy he would feel. This was the beginning of his novel The Aviator.

Eugene says there are two types of history – the ‘big history’ of countries and nations,  and personal history.  ‘Big history’ is only a small part of the personal history of a man or woman. What a person remembers is individual to him or her – they might remember the sound of rain – as now, falling on the marquee roof – the little events which are written only in people’s hearts. It is our happy – or unhappy – days which make up our consciousness. And he says, ‘to use Lermontov’s expression – I have no great interest in history, my interest lies in the history of the soul’ that is, personal history.

Continuing with the theme of the personal in literature rather than the epics of great world events he gives an example from Nabokov, who said that if you want to understand Gogol’s writing don’t expect to learn about history, but you will learn about his personal demons. And he says it is the same for him, that in his writing, he is trying to solve his personal problems in a public way.

When someone in the audience asks how reliable are the memories of Platonov (the protagonist in The Aviator) Eugene replies that memories are not always 100% reliable, whether of characters or living people.  ‘As a historian I would say we have to deal mostly with our notion of real events’. In other words ‘actual real events’ are slippery and subject to human interpretation, colouring, angle, geography, climate, source of information. ‘Sadly’ he says ‘Newspapers try to change our ideas about nations and events.’ And while he has ‘no political views’ what is happening in the world right now could be described as ‘the war of the words’. There is so much propaganda and millions believe in this propaganda which makes things very difficult.  At no other time he says, has the world been  ‘so deformed by words’.

An expert in medieval Russian literature and folklore, Eugene is well versed in the positive power of language and stories. The main theme of The Aviator he says is loss, but it is also about the retrieval of stories, of bringing back together the pieces of the past. 

There’s also a fascinating interview with Eugene Vodolazkin here.

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