Review: Deep Country – Neil Ansell

Britain has the reputation for being an over-crowded country with a population much the same as France but with only one third of its area. These figures can mask the fact that much of the British population is located in cities and conurbations and as soon as you drive outside these you can find solitude a-plenty, even in counties like my own, East Sussex.  However, Wales is a much less-populated region and if you hanker after the quiet life, that could be the place for you.

Neil Ansell had the opportunity to rent a dilapidated cottage deep in the hills of Mid-Wales, in countryside so remote that you could walk twenty miles in one direction without encountering another dwelling.  What started as short-term let, turned out to be a five-year period of solitary living, far removed from the services we expect to find today – hot water from a tap, central heating and plumbing.  The rent of £100 a year reflected the lack of services but failed to take account of the incredible beauty of the location and the land available to the tenant.

Neil has a great affinity with nature and things which would phase other people were causes of delight.  I am not sure how I would feel about sharing my home with twenty of thirty bats for example.  Even Neil however baulked at the spring-invasions of mice – fortunately the pretty field mouse variety rather than the disease carrying house mouse.  The mice reduced Neil to hanging food in carrier bags from ham hooks embedded in the ceiling.  The only way Neil could reduce the population of mice was to trap them and carry them across a river where he released them.  No doubt killing them would have had no effect other than to make space for others.

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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”.

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Review: The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

I find the Alma Books catalogue always worth following, and it was a particular pleasure to discover in it the recently published Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, with the informative and insightful introduction by Doris Lessing.

Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries provide a dramatically different picture of Leo Tolstoy to that presented by his followers who seemed lost in adulation of the great man.  To them he was the inspiring writer, the saintly prophet and pacifist who renounced his worldly ambitions to follow what they saw as a simple lifestyle as a celibate and vegetarian.  Sofia’s diaries reveal a rather different character – a pronounced anti-feminist whose views of women was little less than contemptuous and whose later other-worldliness came at great cost to his family.

To a family like the Tolstoy’s, diaries were of crucial importance.  As Doris Lessing points out in her introduction, they were written so that others might see them.  Sofia’s diaries were, “her life’s work, and the counterpart to her life and marriage”.  As their marriage deteriorated, “it was to her diary that she confided her worst fears and deepest anxieties . . . in the hope that he might see them”.

The diaries of Tolstoy and his wife had to be protected and fought for.  As Tolstoy became increasingly surrounded by acolytes, Sofia had to hide her husband’s diaries away, even to the extent of depositing them in the State Bank, while her own became of immense interest, and soon, as she reports in 1910, “Now they have discovered that I am keeping a diary, they have all started scribbling their diaries”.  Clearly everyone wanted a part in the great man’s literary legacy.

Diaries were also dangerous.  When Tolstoy married Sofia he insisted that he read his diaries, as a sort of confession.  Poor Sofia was in for a terrible shock as she read of the gambling, the sexual excess (with peasant women and prostitutes) and the drunkenness.  Sofia was an upright and moral woman who never quite got over the shock of learning of her husband’s past, and often refers in her diaries to her jealousy,

When he kisses me, I am always thinking, ‘I am not the first woman he has loved’.  It hurts me so much that my love for him – the dearest thing in the world to me . . . should not be enough for him.  He has loved and admired so many women, all so pretty and lively, all with different faces, characters and souls, just as he now admires me. . . it is his past which is to blame.  I can’t forgive God for making men sow their wild oats before they can become decent people. Continue reading

Review: The Last Cigarette – Simon Gray

Note:  Since publishing this volume of his diaries, Simon Gray has now died.

The Last Cigarette is the third volume of playwright Simon Gray’s diaries which he began with The Smoking Diaries.back in 2004.  Its not easy to categorise these books – I’ve chosen “diaries”, for most of the time they record daily events over the course of a year or so, but also slip back to descriptions of events in the past.  The free-form, conversational style gives the reader the impression that he’s almost feel that you’re listening to Simon Gray while chatting in a bar – which is not surprising because apparently he writes his diaries on an A4 pad, whenever he finds himself alone in a café, bar or hotel room.

The diaries contain a wide range of topics – descriptions of holidays in Greece and Barbados, the period when his play Butley was being produced on Broadway, stories about student days at Cambridge and early girlfriends, and underlying it all, Gray’s love/hate relationship with cigarettes and his attempts to stop smoking.  Needless to say, we never actually reach the “last cigarette” by the end of the book, despite countless struggles during earlier chapters.

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