Saturday, December 12, 2009

Vitali Vitaliev: Life as a Literary Device

Sometimes a book comes along that defies categories and recently Vitali Vitaliev has written a truly enthralling, unique book. (Full disclosure: Vitali is an old friend of mine). I have even- for the first time- reviewed the book for

Here is what I thought about the book:

"Vitali Vitaliev is used to journeys, and in this book he takes us as a companion on a journey of time and space- dozens of countries over two decades- and a journey of the mind. He is a great companion. By turns wry, tragic and laugh-out-loud funny, in the end he delivers a tour-de-force of warmth and humanity. The stream of consciousness structure creates links between places and people- Tasmania and Clive James, London and Peter Ustinov- that scintillate with wit and wisdom. he meets his triumphs and disasters and eventually treats those two impostors just the same.

Moving in a zig-zag across the globe from his native city of Kharkiv in Ukraine to Folkestone, Melbourne, the Falkland Islands, the fall of the twin towers on New York, Mount Athos, Edinburgh, Siberia, a luxury round-the-world trip, Tasmania and on to the eccentric Letchworth Garden City where he now lives, he always returns to his beloved London. The contrast of Ely Place- physically London but for a long time legally Cambridgeshire- is where he espies his own identity: a Russian from the Ukraine, of Jewish heritage with an Australian and now a British Passport.

All the time he links the experiences he gains with the books that continue to inspire him. In the end the book and life itself overlap or blur. The cornucopia of literary riches include reflections on Valentin Kataev, whose "Mauvist" ideas blurring literature and life inspired the very structure of this book; on Simon Grey's "The Smoking Diaries"; on Chekhov and his clothes, on arranging to meet Joseph Heller- author of Catch 22- the day he died; his visit to the House of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn- all these amuse-bouches are little jewels offered by a true literary connoisseur.

From Huge wealth and fame, he slowly loses everything- marriage, job, health and even his beloved children- ending in a squalid corner of Folkestone. Yet this is not the end: he emerges reborn from an operation to fix his serious heart condition reflecting that he is indeed "a very lucky boy". He determines to share his fortune with us in a series of survival tips- the survival tips of a writer facing the challenges of life and overcoming them. This is the best book that Vitali has written so far, and is a rich an warm expression of his carefully gathered literary maturity. It may have claim to be one of the most important books of the decade- it is certainly one of the most charming."

I think the reason why I think this book is important is that the structure reflects so much of what else is going on in our culture and society. The structure of Norman Davies History of Europe- small vignettes amid the text- or even the endless branching links of the Internet reflect the growing knowledge we have of how the brain stores ideas and relates them to each other. In the same way that Virginia Woolf scatters extraordinary detail in her text, with different scents being followed by the hounds of the mind, so does Vitali's book. It is an exploration of literature and life for the quantum age. Yet all the while, it holds our attention: it interests us and amuses us along the extraordinary arc of its journey.

You can see for yourself by ordering it at Amazon here.


Newmania said...

Those Magnificently Pretentious Men In Their Flying Machines ? Not for me , sounds like more of a performance than a structured narrative and such endeavours are fiendishly prone to collapsing on the runway . Auto biographical elements used for purposes other than humour are hellish tricky to pull off ,without coming over as a egomaniacal bar bore, as well Still it was nice of you to support your chum My interest in people travelling the world having adventures stopped about the end of Kung Fu, I probably lack the right skill set .

Letchworth is nice though , some interesting houses .

Cicero said...

Try reading it- almost everything you fear is in the book, is not.