Boyd Tonkin: From murder to the marketplace

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A few yards away from the smart pavilions in which Russia proclaimed its presence as the country of honour - or, as they say in book business-speak "market focus" - at this year's London Book Fair, I met a British poetry publisher. He is one of the unlucky casualties of the latest Arts Council England funding settlement which (for all the fury in cyberspace) has in fact seen state support for literary organisations grow by around 10 per cent. His poetry press does excellent work with a notably cosmopolitan flavour. Not long ago, in the last round of grants, its success was rewarded with a handsome increase. What has changed since then? Nothing much – except, perhaps, a turnover of personnel that has meant the replacement of a go-between with the public authorities whom the press knew well by one whom they don't.

That imprint deserves a review and a reprieve – as do other victims of the axe. Still, it made for a moment freighted with historical irony. For much of the past two centuries, what would Russian poets and novelists have given to live and work entirely neglected by the state? WH Auden, in his great elegy for Yeats, wrote of the ineffectual art of poetry surviving "in the valley of its making where executives/ would never want to tamper".

Alas, commissars and bureaucrats often did. Most notoriously, in Russia, Osip Mandelstam in 1933 wrote the "16-line death sentence" of his "Stalin Epigram". In WS Merwin's terrific English version, his nightmare of the "Kremlin mountaineer" ends this way: "He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,/ One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye. //

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries./ He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home."

Mandelstam's own ending took a little longer. Stalin, who showed a fatally keen interest in poets (as in other artists), had him exiled to the northern Urals. He returned, was re-arrested in 1938, and soon after died in a Gulag camp in the Far East. Pace Auden, that poem made something happen. "Only in Russia is poetry respected. It gets people killed." Mandelstam once wrote.

I have no wish to haul in the horrors of Stalinism in order to belittle the efforts of British arts campaigners. By the standards of genocidal tyranny, pretty much nothing in our politics and culture just now would add up to Humphrey Bogart's hill of beans. Thank goodness. But it was was deeply instructive, at the Fair, to meet Russian writers who have lived through the transition from an almighty state that bankrolled, overlooked and interfered in literature to a market-driven free-for-all. A questioner in a session that I chaired asked if any censorship of books survives in Russia.

No, came the prompt response from the panel – because nobody cares enough. Critic Lev Danilkin pointed to "the amazing quantity of satirical portraits of Putin" in recent fiction. For better or worse, today's Kremlin mountaineers no longer notice the scribblers. Press and TV channels will tell a very different story, though.

The leading poet Maria Stepanova referred to the "envy" that their Western counterparts once felt for Russian bards who bent the ear of tsars (Romanov and Bolshevik alike). That era of a golden or fatal embrace, from Pushkin to Pasternak, has closed. The commercial hubbub now makes poetry in Russia as effectively invisible as in Plato's Republic. Sounds familiar, no?

Meanwhile, the direction of the post-Soviet state has meant that the liberal, arm's-length model of arts funding that we enjoy here - and complain about when it vanishes - remains rare indeed. For readers and writers, true independence seems to mean financial as well as intellectual separation from the powers-that-be. In a fascinating discussion of book prizes in Russia, Vladimir Tolstoy (a great-grandson of the novelist, who directs the state museum on the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana) told us about a new award that he manages. Now, you might expect that – of all honours - the Yasnaya Polyana Prize would attract the blessings, and the roubles, of the government. In fact, it's sponsored by Samsung - of South Korea. I know that the work of Leo Tolstoy belongs to humanity as a whole, but all the same...

Time to hear a big new voice

I was especially glad to see Emma Henderson's first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, appear on the Orange Prize shortlist. For Henderson does a wonderful job of making readers know and care about the inner life of a fragile woman written off and locked away by a world that values wealth, status and prowess. As our impressed reviewer, Freya McClelland, put it, "Grace Williams is a character who makes herself heard". But for a while it seemed that the book might share Grace's silenced fate. Now it has picked up volume. Sometimes novels need to grow slowly and steadily, not burn out in a flash of hype. Prizes can, and should, help that to happen.

The Orange? Not a Russian fruit

Our Book Fair discussion about prizes in Russia (see above) took place shortly after the Orange announcement. Could a women-only prize work in Moscow, I wondered? For Olga Slavnikova, herself a winner of the "Russian Booker" for her futuristic satire 2017, it might well backfire: "No woman writer would want to be selected for a ghetto. There would be a reverse effect. It would become a minus rather than a plus." As for male literati presented with such an award-winner, their response would be: "Thank you, my wife will read it." Slavnikova believes the Russian male needs all the literary help he can get right now: "Our men don't read that much anyway. They'll forget the alphabet soon." So, critic Mark Lipovetsky asked, would she approve a Macho Prize, reserved for male writers? Yes, she said, so long as only women judged it. They might choose as well as the female test audiences who picked out Sean Connery as the original James Bond... Maybe such a contest should include the swimsuit heat as well.