Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not.
The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates.
Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done.
The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status.
The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake.
Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious.
The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union.
Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life.
And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously.
Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit.
In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.
This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel.
The Vanishing Futurist follows the story of Gerty Freely, a British governess who happened to be working in Russia in 1917, as the Russian Revolution unfolded. In broad terms, her employers flee to the Ukraine and she becomes part of a commune living in the family's Moscow house. One of the members of the commune, Nikita Slavkin, is a futurist who is developing a time travel machine...
On the positive side, there is some good exploration of the psyche of a new Russia when it was not clear that the revolution had delivered power to a totalitarian regime. There was still idealism and attempt at dialogue with the new powers. There was a sense of common purpose based on ideology rather than expedience.
But on the debit side, the novel drags on way too long, with too many characters, most of whom are indistinguishable. They do not do anything or say anything terribly interesting and when Slavkin finally disappears, the reader is probably beyond caring.
Overall, The Vanishing Futurist does not deliver on the promise of the premise and the wonderful cover.
Once upon a time, when he was only moderately famous, Julian Barnes wrote a column for The Guardian called The Pedant In The Kitchen. The idea was that a “Late Onset Cook” would slavishly adhere to recipes and run aghast at the idea of improvisation in the kitchen. This book bring together those columns into a single (very) slim volume padded with pictures.
The concept appealed to me – I am an enthusiastic cook and would happily spend a day following recipes of some considerable complication. I do so to the letter; I see cooking as a co-production between myself as the technician and the writer as the conceptualiser. I think there’s a dose of art on both parts, but I know I will never be able to generate my own culinary ideas.
It was therefore reassuring to find Julian Barnes to be a soulmate. He has an obvious care and passion to put out the best food he possibly can. He too will adopts one or two recipes in a book whilst leaving many untested for no obvious reason. And he shares my frustration at imprecise wording or processes that are logistically impossible (such as the instruction to cook pork chops and halved endives face down in the same pan at the same time). It was even more heartening to find it all written with a delightful, self-deprecating humour. Julian Barnes’s recipe books are very much of his generation – Sophie Grigson and Elizabeth David rather than the names that fill my shelves – and he spends rather longer talking about soufflés than he might. What even is a soufflé? .
However, the columns run out of steam. After the initial rantings against specific recipes and specific writers, we depart into name dropping where Barnes discusses recipes with the various celebrity chefs, even eats at their homes. Then, in a futile attempt to breathe life into the series, Barnes falls back on cookery as discussed in literature. The series ends with a sort of whimper as Barnes tells us he’d rather be in his kitchen, trying out something new. By this point, so too are his readers.
The Pedant In The Kitchen is worth reading, is funny and is very human. The home cook will see himself or herself in at least some of the descriptions. The work will not take long to read, may not leave a deep impression, but will offer reassurance that what we try in the kitchen is OK. It’s OK to muff things up. It’s OK to buy stuff in. The only way to fail would be to stop trying.
Levels of Life is an unusual thing. It is not a novel; not a biography and not a memoir. The closest it probably comes to classification is a long essay, bound in its own hardback cover.
The subject matter: grief. Julian Barnes's grief.
We start out with a couple of rather dull stories about ballooning. The central conceit is that sometimes, when two things come together the world is changed. The first story is a mini-history of ballooning, ending when ballooning and photography come together to create something new.
The second story is a sort of love story between the French actress Sara Bernhardt and an English balloonist, Frederick Burnaby. It doesn't quite work out.
The third, longest section, is Barnes's outpouring of grief about the death of his wife. He expresses the intensity of loss, and also the undiminishing nature of the loss. He appears to take a swipe at others who experience grief in a lesser form - perhaps they simply did not love their lost ones as much as Barnes loved his wife. As he keeps reminding us, he is uxorious. Similarly, he swipes at those who grieve publicly in outpourings of tears - perhaps they are less dignified than Barnes.
Julian Barnes does convey his grief and despair in a most effective way. However, by opening a window onto his soul, one inevitably passes judgement on the soul. The result is not favourable. Barnes criticises the reactions of his friends as though they are unfeeling. They might avoid mentioning his wife's death at all, or perhaps use the wrong words, or perhaps seek to console. Nothing is quite good enough for Barnes. This may be his point, that there simply are no words that could work. But it makes him look churlish and miserable. And it's not as though his past works suggest he was a laughing boy before his wife died - The Lemon Table was a lengthy whinge about the injustice of ageing.
This reader, at least, was left wondering why Julian Barnes felt that the world had to know the extent of his grief. Were we supposed to think he was a man of unusual delicacy? Were we supposed to be impressed by the extent of his love and the length of his devotion? Were we meant to feel pity? Were we meant to wonder how he had managed to write something as impressive as Sense Of An Ending in such terrible circumstances? And on that subject, Barnes mentions a friend of his who was given a Damehood long after her partner had died - with the result that she felt she wasn't fully a dame because her partner didn't know about it. By extension, we are presumably to infer that Barnes does not feel himself to be fully a Booker Prize winner...
The sadness is that this reader was left rather cold, rather uninterested (see, Julian, I used the right word!). A man who appeared petty and humourless was unhappy. Big deal. Remind me precisely why I should have paid $15 to discover that.
As an essay goes, there are occasional attempts to cross-refer between the ballooning and the death of his wife, but they feel rather stretched. The first sections feel like padding to justify the sale of what would otherwise have been a 50 page vanity piece.
Others may get something from this, and fair play to them. There is good writing in the text and there is no doubt that Julian Barnes suffered for its creation. But it didn't feel like enough to justify the claim on readers' time.