Sunday, 30 December 2012

Not a biography

Echenoz's book about Emil Zapotek is called Courir in French and Running in English, with the subtitle Un roman - A novel, published in 2008 by Editions de Minuit, Linda Coverdale's translation appearing a year later under the imprint of The New Press.

It is the story of Zapotek and of Czechslovakia and its people, during a difficult time. Emil Zapotek loved running and loved his country. He was the fastest man on earth (long-distance) for some 6 years or so, winning many Olympic medals. Gentle Emil often smiled and found it hard to say No to people's requests. He saw himself as an ordinary man and remained matter of fact and humble despite his success, becoming a most loved figure in Czechoslovakia.

Like most people of my generation, I recognise the name Zapotek from my childhood. He was world-famous. The Czechs seem to have the rare ability to produce wonderful people, and to recognise and honour them. I am thinking of another Czech hero, Vaclav Havel. Apart from that, I am not very knowledgeable about the Czechs.

When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in the 50s, and put a stop to the Prague Spring (this was Dubcek's time), Zapotek, then in his forties, spoke up at a protest rally and said that the URSS should be boycotted at the Olympics in Mexico (I remember that happening). He was stripped of his rank as a colonel in the Czech army, lost his job, was banished from Prague and sent to work in a dangerously radioactive mine. After he had been there for some six years, the apparatchiks thought it would be a good idea to humiliate him by giving him work as a garbage collector in Prague. 

The crew he was assigned to refused to let him handle the garbage, and he simply ran behind the truck, while the people hung out of the windows applauding him and bringing the garbage to the truck themselves, so that in the end the authorities recognised their failure and made him a filing clerk somewhere obscure...He had a loving wife called Dana. During the time in the mine he managed to escape three times to visit her in Prague.

This is a story about a person who existed, yet Echenoz describes it as a novel. There is no reference to his sources. He has chosen to leave out many things. There are no years/dates, no listing of the times Zapotek achieved, no clear description of his training method - we learn that the next person to finish a race took 20 minutes longer, or that he was the first man to run 20 km in under an hour...Echenoz calls him Emil - the name Zapotek only occurs 3 times in the entire book, the first time on p. 80 (out of 122). The other names are his wife's, those of a few other runners, and of a couple of statesmen. Also: no quotation marks for speech. There isn't much speech anyway.
The story unfolds chronologically, with few flashbacks. The language tends to be calm, moderate. The words everybody, everywhere are used often - the word everyman seems to be waiting in the wings. This is how good an ordinary human being can be.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


An almost-centenarian of my acquaintance very much enjoyed Mrs Queen Takes the Train, by William Kuhn (Allen & Unwin, 2012). Mr. Kuhn is a journalist and has no fear of cliches. The dialogue is often wooden and one can almost hear him giggle as he writes the predictable repartee between gay characters.

That is the book's main drawback - the way it is written. The story is funny and entertaining, as long as you like reading about royalty and don't expect anyone to behave realistically. I read the edition for sale in Australia, and the jacket is as cheerful as the rest of it. I finished it in one sitting and enjoyed myself. I liked the queen's foray into yoga, a good idea. 

I double-checked and found via the web that Paxton & Whitfield 'since 1797' do exist, and on Jermyn St too. They have a well-developed web-site which makes no mention of this book anywhere - a lack of whimsy on their part. They will benefit enormously from the publicity, even though the cheese in the book is bought for a cheese-loving horse. The horse, after all, has been named Elizabeth and is stabled at the palace.

Oh, and the Duke of Edinburgh has been left out of the story. It is a mystery.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Proust on friendship

Back to Proust. I am reading A La Recherche - about to finish Volume 3, Le Cote de Guermantes.

Joseph Epstein has written a moving review of M. Proust's Library, by Anka Muhlstein, published in the Wall Street Journal. I have not read this book, yet.

There is mention of a 1905 essay by Proust entitled On reading, which I shall try to get hold of . Here is what Ms. Muhlstein says about it, according to Epstein:
" Proust's freeing himself to write his great novel, he quoted Descartes: "The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated of men of past centuries who have been their authors." Proust's examination of "the original psychological act called reading," that "noblest of distractions," holds that books are superior to conversation, which "dissipates immediately." A book, he felt, is "a friendship . . . and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving." Books are actually better than friends, Proust thought, because you turn to them only when you truly desire their company and can ignore them when you wish, neither of which is true of a friend..."

The final paragraph of the review includes the following description of Proust, which corresponds exactly to my own dawning realisation:
"...No other modern author was more alive than he to the toll taken by snobbery, cruelty, brutishness; none so exalted kindness, loftiness of spirit, sweetness of character, the kind and generous heart..."

However clear-sighted he is, and conscious of people's foibles, he is never less than kind and compassionate in his writing about them. Also very funny.

The rest of the review is worth reading too.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Pleasant characters

I re-read Margery Allingham's Coroner's Pidgin (first published by William Heineman in 1945, more recently by Penguin).  It's an Albert Campion 'thriller' - the quotation marks are there because I didn't thrill.  It is a period piece which brings back my teenage years, when I was first allowed to read her books, supposedly for 'grown-ups'. The writing itself is excellent, but the story is twee.

Her story includes a description of war-time London, in ways which can be unexpected: London's "thin, war-time traffic", someone leaning back on the taxi's leather seat, ARP personnel "on duty in the square" keeping pigs there, and calling them 'old girl', a soldier finding himself "living in two worlds which were utterly different" - the civilian and the military, familiar landmarks vanishing - "avenues of neatly tidied nothingness".

Returning the book to the shelf, I found another of her books, Tiger in the Smoke, written in 1952. Again, Albert Campion plays a role, and so does Canon Avril, a wise and kind excentric. There is a cute warning, printed as a small block in italics in the middle of the page preceding the table of contents:

Only the most pleasant characters                                                              in this book are portraits of living                                                                   people and the events here recorded                                                             unfortunately never took place.

The characters' behavioural cliches made me cringe at times, but I remained compulsively involved right  to the end.