21 March 2011

Monday Book Review

I will return to Historical Moments week, but I thought I'd get back on the bandwagon with a book review.  This past week I read two CEE related books: Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd (collections of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky) and Václav Havel's The Beggar's Opera.  I hadn't read any Russian absurd literature or The Beggar's Opera prior to last week, so it was quite a treat.

The first book was delightful.  I wavered on reading the 35 page introduction, but I read it since I felt bad about skipping a huge section in a small book.  Much to my surprise, the introduction was actually interesting!  It also gave lots of rich cultural context to literature I had heretofore never read!  Wow.  Introductions are usually the death knell of such collections.  There was far more Kharms than Vvedensky and I'm not sure why, but Kharms' mini-stories were funny, insightful, and of course, absurd.  My favorite was "Blue Notebook No. 10", which is rather famous (so it appears) and should be easy to find.  Vvedensky's portion of the collection was "Christmas at the Ivanov's", which was odd but surprisingly smart and funny.  It very much reminded me of a wacky dream and could easily be played as such.  I very much enjoyed it by the end.  The book would have been ho-hum if I hadn't read the introduction, but with it, the book blossoms and becomes a voyeuristic experience into dreamland.

The second book was Václav Havel's version of the famous Gay piece.  I hadn't read/seen it before, but it seemed familiar none the less.  I am mostly impressed that the former Czech president was a playwright and a dissident.  Go Václav.  I have nothing to compare it to, but the play is incredibly funny.  Once again, the introduction set the stage for this version very well and I love the photos.  The play is rather complex when you think about all the double-crossing that goes on, but the translator does a beautiful job comparing the double-crossing in the play to the socialist life (in the introduction), which gives it an unusually rich meaning.  When you read it with this idea in mind, it opens up a whole new way of thinking.  Even if Havel had done nothing more than translate the play (which the translator makes clear he does not), it would still be a significant piece of writing; the quiet performance of the play in Prague was an act that captured the spirit and realities of socialist life and his translation made it possible.  If you haven't read/seen The Beggar's Opera, I would sincerely recommend reading this; if you have, then you would appreciate the differences, which I cannot do.

I've noticed I haven't given a bad book review yet.  Maybe I am too easily pleased.

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