Beautiful Books £16.99 (563pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Life as a Literary Device, By Vitali Vitaliev

A highly-regarded journalist and author in the ex-Soviet Union, Vitali Vitaliev published his work in distinguished journals like Literaturnaya Gazeta, and wrote for the satirical magazine Krokodil. His investigative skills gained him unwelcome attention both from the "mafia" and the KGB, and he defected in 1989.

He has since lived in a variety of places (Melbourne, London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Folkestone) and travelled to many more. "How are you going to cope with stability, Vitali?" he recalls being asked by a former editor. In fact, he says, he is "addicted" to instability and has had no trouble re-locating it in the West. This quality is what makes him such an effective travel writer.

Many of his dispatches are woven into this "writer's manual of survival" and form its liveliest scenes. Vitaliev has a keen eye for the comic or incongruous, whether penguins in the Falkland Islands busily walking along "like Oxford Street shoppers", or photographers in Shetland, whose shaggy hair reminds him of the Shetland ponies. His portraits of the UK, particularly pre-regeneration Folkestone, are revealing and salutary.

Life as a Literary Device is an unconventional autobiography. Vitaliev tells us that its aleatory style was inspired by one of his favourite 20th-century Soviet writers, Valentin Kataev, who described some of his works as mauviste. The term derives "from the French mauvais – bad – the essence of which is that since everyone nowadays writes very well, you must write badly, as badly as possible, and then you will attract attention".

Mauvist writing is "bad" rather than bad, of course: Kataev's refusal of the narrative conventions is artfully Modernist. In this book, life is not so much the device as the model. Here are thoughts, observations and memories "in no particular order; poems written down like prose... gaps between paragraphs and even sentences, like the brief stops of a marathon runner to regains his breath".

This description gives us only a few of the flavours in the borscht. Vitaliev recycles letters, quotations, extracts from admired authors. He adds interviews, anecdotes, and "survival tips".

Life as a Literary Device teaches the reader with a secret craving for chapter-headings, bibliographies, and beginnings, middles and endings to abandon logic and go with the authorial flow. Eventually, all the aspects begin to make sense, even the sentences that replicate themselves, and the shifts of viewpoint from first person to third.

In fact, under the flurry and slither of flashbacks and fast-forwards, a compelling narrative assumes shape. The unstable freelance life teeters more and more desperately. The author loses his column. His marriage breaks up. He becomes depressed. He needs an angioplasty. A story-teller's instinct, always visible in microcosm, has by now taken the wheel, and we hold our breath as Vitaliev steers us downhill, and smile with him when a brighter horizon dawns.

Vitaliev is a genial companion. His tone is immensely likeable. He relishes his successes without arrogance and suffers disappointment without self-pity. He is a genuinely comic writer – not a sabre-toothed satirist, despite the Krokodil years, but friendly and slightly melancholy. His English is fluent and idiomatic. For all the zaniness, there is a good deal of humanity and common sense in this miscellany. I was sorry when the journey ended, and wanted to start the rolling, rocking ride all over again.

Carol Rumens's latest volume of poems is 'Blind Spots' (Bloodaxe)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent