Review: Life as a Literary Device – Vitali Vitaliev

British readers may remember Vitali Vitaliev from his time as Moscow correspondent on David Frost’s 1990s television programme, Saturday Night Clive, and many broadcasts on BBC Radio 4. Vitali was born in the Ukraine, eventually defecting to the West, living in Britain and Australia, and eventually returning to London where he is a successful journalist and writer.

Life as A Literary Device, is partly biographical, partly reportage, and partly miscellaneous musing on life.  The book consists of  “seemingly disjointed snippets of real life, they connect by association alone – the random pieces of coloured glass that from themselves into a pattern if viewed through that wonderful children’s toy, the kaleidoscope”.

Early in the book he writes of being influenced by the Russian writer Valentin Kataev, the founder of a literary style which he called “mauvism” – “a literary device consisting of the complete negation of all literary devices”.  The term mauvism comes from the French word “mauvais” meaning “bad”, and as Kataev himself wrote, “I am the founder of the latest literary school, the mauvistes,  the essence of which is that since everyone nowadays writes very well, you must write badly, as badly as possible, then you will attract attention”.

I am pleased to say that Vitaliev does not write badly – far from it in fact, but he has certainly held to the principle of mauvism in writing a book for the Internet age where  “one website routinely carries links to many others.  You open a link in a story that you are reading and it takes you away to another story loosely connected to the first one yet years and/or miles away from it;  you then close the link and return to the story you were reading in the first place”.

The result is a book which holds the interest throughout as Vitaliev describes his travels in various parts of the globe, muses on countless contemporary themes and journals his way through marital breakup, unemployment and temporary states of depression.  I am sure that there are hundreds of topics and themes covered in this substantial, 565 page volume, but the book does not seem to be particularly long when you are reading it.

Its very difficult to describe this book, a vast potpourri of thoughts, impressions, reminiscences so perhaps the best way in to describing it is to give a few examples of the topics covered.

The plight of asylum-seekers sent to live in almost uninhabitable blocks of flats in Sighthill, Glasgow:

Covered with graffiti – like the body of a hardened criminal with tattoos – Sighthill was far from a pretty sight.  What struck me most however, was neither dust and litter flying in my face, nor frozen spittle in the lifts or putrid puddles of dubious origin under my feet, but the behaviour of some of its Scottish residents.  Whereas foreigners  were invariably civil, neatly dressed and polite, the “locals”, particularly teenagers, were – with very few exceptions – foul-mouthed, agressive, uncouth and either tipsy or dead-drunk (or stoned).  They corresponded to the image of would-be terrorists better than any of the asylum-seekers of Sighthill.

The growth of “book towns” such as Hay on Wye and Wigtown:

In the tiny picturesque Ardennes village of Redu in Belgium, there are now as many bookshops – twenty four – as there are children and the trade is drawing in 350,000 visitors every year.  Interestingly, before bookshops appeared in its centre, the village was experiencing the same economic woes as Hay on Wye.  Bredevort in the Netherlands also copied the magic “Hay forumula” and now boasts 300,000 visitors a year.

Vitaliev’s love for old guidebooks:

I am proud to have discovered my own way of time-travelling – Baedekers, Murrays, Bradshaws, Cooks – of all of which I am a passionate collector.  To me these pocket-size tattered volumes are full of time travel magic, especially when I find an old London Tube map (with a curtailed pink “Northern line” ending at Highgate), a faded landing card, or just a dried out hundred year old flower in between their tattered pages.  Touching such books is like touching eternity itself, for bygone realities and small practicalities of a distant past come to life in their estranged, meticulous and matter of fact style.  In this respect old guide-books are preferable to fiction:  they provide me with an ossified time carcass, which I am free to fill with the contents of today’s reality.

Not that there aren’t major themes running through the book.  The core experience Vitaliev was going through in the years he compiled this material was separation from wife and family and unemployment.  During this period he was offered at cheap rent, a small cottage in the run-down South Coast town of Folkestone.  Folkestone proved to be a dispiriting place for Vitaliev and he captures the sense of down-at-heel decay which has afflicted the harbour area of the town now that the ferry services have largely departed the town.  The place matched his mood only too well, and having had a similar time of isolation in a small town myself in my early twenties I could relate all too well to these sections of the book while giving thanks that I have never had to endure such a time again.

Each of the book’s countless sections is complete in itself but they all offer interest, for Vitaliev has an enquiring mind which leads him into meandering reflections on most things around him.

This book is going to be a great travel-companion when its released in paper-back.   You can dip in and out of it and not need to remember what went before.

As to the “mauvism” – this theme keeps coming up in the book – and Vitaliev like to categories his own work as following in the style of his Russian mentor.  One of his own descriptions of his work is, “the Badlands of literature” which is true only insofar as he covers a vast miscellany of messy subjects somehow synthesising them into this quite unique volume which is by no mean “stylish” in the usual sense but certainly kept my interest throughout.

Title:  Life as a Literary Device
Author:  Vitali Vitaliev
Publication:   Beautiful Books Ltd (31 October 2009), Hardback, 565 pages
ISBN:  9781905636440

Newspaper reviews:
Vitiali Vitaliev’s Wikipedia article

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