My Books Read shows I haven’t read a single Russian book this year, which is quite unusual – on the other hand the two best works I’ve read to date this year have been two quite longish (this one is c.40 pages, the other c.80) Russian short stories.
The Bookmark is the second short story in the collection Memories of the Future (after a very odd story Quadraturin, about a spray (I think it was a spray) which causes your living-quarters to expand (you’ll probably have to read it to understand what I mean)). The Bookmark is about a man who one day comes across an bookmark he’s left in an old book, which causes him to wonder why he doesn’t use bookmarks any more, to which his conclusion is that books just aren’t interesting enough these days to cause the kind of contemplation which warrants the need.
So he goes out for a walk, and encounters a man, referred to as the theme catcher, who, under a compulsion to turn everything he sees into a story, spends his time reciting tales to complete strangers. These tales, of which they are a few told in their entirety during the course of the story – told in the syncopated manner of a plot summary – are themselves startling good (in this respect, being worthwhile themselves but also serving the purpose of the whole, even though complete, they reminded me of Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night…); – and sure enough, it turns out that the theme catcher has found it difficult in 1920s Russia to get his stories published; editors in general recognise their worth, but just keep advising him to write about something else.
We find ourselves then in that familiar world of Russian literature just before it is crushed for good by Soviet realism – or just as it is being crushed; the very same place where we habitually encounter Bulgakov and Babel and Mayakovsky, and indeed the author of the other Russian story I enjoyed this year. The story is a lament for what has been lost; but (it seemed to me at least) it’s not simply a complaint that it is ideology which is excluding thought-provoking (or even good) literature, but just that in general thought-provoking literature is no longer what is wanted. And so I felt the story loosened from its Soviet moorings; as much a tale, if you like, about our own literary world, which, driven more by the market perhaps, seems to me no different – even what we might call high-end literature these days being entirely bereft of this quality; so that I’ve often found myself wondering the precise same things as my narrator.
What’s particularly pleasing about The Bookmark is that it is the kind of literature it admires: it took me about four hours to read, because so often my mind had drifted off into long trains of thought. Sadly though I read it five days ago now, and I’ve forgotten all the fascinating things I had to say about it.