Books

Holiday Reading: Modern and Contemporary Classics

‘Tis the season for curling up under a blanket by the fire with a nice whisky, and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t had time.

Here are five modern and contemporary classics to pack in your holiday suitcase to satisfy (almost) every mood, from the political, nostalgic, poetic and the controversial.

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Requiem for the East by Andrei Makine

Andre Makine was 30 when he defected to Paris from Siberia in 1987. Requiem for the East is his sixth book, written in 2001 after winning both of France’s top literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis for, Le Testament Français. Told through the lives of three generations of men from the same family, it details the history of 20th century Russia and the horrors met upon its people, flitting through memories from the Urals of Russia’s Empire on the cusp of revolution in 1917, to Stalinist rule, the Second World War, Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. The unnamed narrator – an army doctor eventually recruited into Soviet intelligence – spends his life with his partner (and lover) in conflict zones from Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, tracking down arms dealers who threaten Soviet interests. After the thaw of perestroika the search becomes one for his missing lover.

Requiem for the East is an exploration of loss, love and identity through memory, written in heartbreakingly beautiful and elegant prose that unsurprisingly has had the writer compared to Nabokov and Kundera. It is an examination of the Russian soul – a term coined by Gogol and which has had historical literary precedence in the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev – of survival, and the struggle to tell the truth. It is a search through the rubble and phantoms of the past in a quest to recompose one’s identity after the collapse of an empire, and the souring of dreams.

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This book is a masterpiece. A cutting satire of Soviet life, it was written during one of the darkest periods of the Soviet regime when Stalinist purges were an every day fact. A victim of censorship (despite the fact that he was Stalin’s favourite at one time), Bulgakov was scarcely published in his lifetime, his stories only reaching an audience if they passed muster with the authorities. To do so, meaning had to be hidden behind words, and readers were required to read between the lines. The Master and Margarita was written in complete secrecy, in the knowledge that it would not see publication in the author’s lifetime. It didn’t appear in print until more than a quarter of a century after the writer’s death, but it has endured long after the Soviet regime collapsed.

Spanning several days in Moscow, the devil, posing as a foreign professor and a specialist in black magic, proceeds to expose the corruptibility and greed of Moscow’s socialist elite. There’s a talking vodka-swilling cat, a decapitated civil servant, Pontius Pilate and Jesus, and a love story. Oh, and it inspired the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. What’s not to like?

The Master and Margarita is fantastical, absurdist, realist, tragic and comedic all at once, making ample use of political and religious symbolism throughout. It is a story within a story, complex and multilayered, and thus open to numerous interpretations. The book became a symbol for the fight for artistic freedom in Russia. It thumbs its nose at any and all ideology and conventions – religious, political, literary – and stands as testament to  faith in art and the truth in the face of oppression. I have read this book countless times and never tire of it. There is always something new to discover between its pages.

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 Crash by J.G. Ballard

Controversial and disturbing, Crash is a dark dystopian post-millenium gothic story of perversions, a twisted take on the timeless themes of Eros and Thanatos – sex and death.

Unfolding against a concrete industrial landscape of freeways, airports and parking lots, the story centres around a group of symphorophiliacs, who become sexually aroused when involved in car crashes. The narrator, Ballard (named after the author) describes in surgical detail the violent confrontation between the mechanical and the organic, the smashing of flesh into metal and glass, the injuries and resultant scars that are the assimilation between human body and automobile, and the concomitant sexual climax for him and the group of protagonists.

Ballard gives a whole new meaning to the term autoerotic. Crash is a satirical and critical take on contemporary Western society’s fetishisation of automobiles and technology, its obsession with celebrity and violence, and the conflation of violence, cars and sex. It reminded me of ‘40s photographer Weegee’s crime scene photos, which fed contemporary culture the tabloid fodder they wanted – crime and violence. He made us, as viewers and voyeurs,  complicit. We’re watching something horrible, and our fascination of it borders on the crass and perverse, but we can’t tear your eyes away, nor suppress the excitement, horror and curiosity. Crash is that, in words.

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 Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Since its publication almost 80 years ago, Nightwood has become a staple of gender and sexuality reading. But it is so much more than just an exploration of lady love, and to read it as just that is to miss the point entirely. Although the two main female characters do defy the social gender and sexual norms of the time, in only 182 pages, Barnes captures the headiness, the passions and decadence of Paris’ 20s bohemian life, and the intensity and suffering brought on by reckless love.

The book seduces you, drags you into its darkness, throws you into despair, yet leaves you wanting more. One slips into the world of destructive passion and desire of Nora Flood, Robin Vote, and the trail of ruined lovers in their wake, inhabiting their nights, drinking their wine and pain, scarred by their love and secrets. At its core it’s about flailing madly through life in the quest for freedom and love, two uncomfortable bedfellows.

It is glimmering polished jewel of poetry as fiction brought to life during the early 20th century of modernism, in which Barnes proved she was very much ahead of her time. William S. Burroughs called it “one of the great books of the twentieth century”, and it comes with an introduction by TS Eliot – certainly no small feat. Finely wrought and evocative, Nightwood is book is by turns tragic, beautiful and narcotic. Truly. Reading it is like being under the influence of an opiate. The words and world held within its pages haunt you longer after you’ve put the book down.

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On the Natural History of Destruction by WG Sebald

War may be politics by other means, as Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz once stated, but WG Sebald lays out in devastating detail the consequences of these means upon ordinary civilians and their cities. This is not a relaxing poolside read. On the Natural History of Destruction is an examination of German amnesia of the Allied bombing which resulted in the dropping of a million tonnes of bombs on 131 cities and towns in Germany, and the deaths of 600,000 civilians. This book puts a human face on war.

Shocked, traumatised and unable to honestly verbally articulate what they saw and experienced, survivors resorted to the language of kitsch and cliché. The book consists of an essay on the postwar German reaction, illustrated with small black and white photographs of cities before and after the bombing, followed by three pieces on the works of German writers Alfred Andersch, Jean Améry and Peter Weiss. Améry – a survivor of concentration camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald – was the only writer of postwar German fiction “who denounced the obscenity of a psychologically and socially deformed society, and the outrage of supposing that history could proceed on its way afterwards almost undisturbed, as if nothing had happened,” according to Sebald.

Sebald has delivered a text on memory, on what it is to be human, and the horrors we are capable of visiting upon one another. A text to remember.

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