Archive for September, 2011
News emerged today that Jake Wallis Simons (32), a novelist and journalist, has been approached by the Russian secret service, the Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации (or FSB for short).
“Although it was top secret, they had discovered that I’d recently applied to join MI6, and been rejected,” said Simons. “They suggested that I join the Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации as a mole, under the codename Sloppy Seconds.”
Although he did not say so directly, Simons intimated that the approach by the Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации mirrors their attempt at recruiting a young David Cameron in 1985. “Cameron was approached by a sexy couple on a beach,” said Simons, “but he was able to resist their allures. Personally, I was approached by a chap calling himself Steve, who was wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a cigarillo. It amounts to the same thing. David and I are men of a similar calibre.”
Speculation surrounds the question of whether or not Simons accepted the Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации’s offer. “To be honest, I’m not allowed to say either way,” he said. “My controllers have forbidden it. MI5 have ears everywhere.”
He confirmed rumours that he had started to study Russian, but said that this was “just a hobby.”
“Don’t forget, President Dmitri Medvedev said that Cameron would have made a very good agent,” Simons stressed. “I’d like to think he would say the same of me.”
A Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации spokesperson, however, denied that they had any interest in the writer. “We have never heard of him,” he said, fondling a vial of polonium-210 in his trouser pocket. “What could we do with a novelist anyway? We don’t recruit writers. It just doesn’t make sense.”
All Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации agents are young and good looking, anyway, he added.
Simons was trawling through the Wikileaks dossier, just to see if he could find any details that other people had missed. “A cable of May 2003 shows that before he was famous, David Cameron played the role of Igglepiggle in In The Night Garden,” he explained. “Thinking about it, it was just so obvious.”
Although the claims are hard to dispute, Downing Street has been evasive. “We are unable to confirm or deny that the Prime Minister either did nor did not play Igglepiggle or any of the other characters on children’s television,” a Spokesman did not say. “He may or may not, or he may not or he may. We neither have, no do not have, any further comment.”
According to Simons, further revelations include the fact that Cherie Blair once auditioned for the role of Upsy Daisy, and that Cameron once played the roles of all three Tombliboos when the regular actors didn’t turn up.
“He was a very versatile actor,” Andrew Davenport, one of the producers of the popular children’s series, did not say. “We could tell he was destined for great things.”
Sources close to the Prime Minister confirmed that Cameron still has his blanket from his Igglepiggle days, and has told close friends that he “thinks of his time in children’s entertainment fondly.”
In an unexpected development last night, Jake Wallis Simons (32), a writer, had a dream of himself wearing a suit. “It’s not that I’m particularly against suits in general,” he told reporters at a press conference this morning. “I myself have several different suits which I have been known to break out from time to time. This is no bare-footed hippy you’re looking at here. But this was different. It was a proper, pinstriped, double-breasted, silk-lined business suit. It even had a hankie in the breast pocket. I’ve never owned a suit like that in my life.”
But was he wearing a tie?
“Yes,” he replies without pausing for thought. “A tie that perfectly matched the hankie.”
Professor Steven Freud, a psychoanalyst from Belsize Park, London, said that interpreting the dream was an easy job. “It’s clear that Simons is regretting his career choice,” he explained. “His unconscious mind is screaming at him, give up the wordsmithery! Become a banker! Train as a lawyer! Before it’s too late and you go bankrupt! Either that or it is representative of his oedipal complex.”
Simons, however, disagreed. “That’s just a load of cock,” he said. “I am so glad to be an impoverished writer. So fucking glad.”
The problem, he said was taking one expert view in isolation. “You need to build a consensus on these things,” he said, “or else it’s not honest reporting.”
He waved his hand and Mystical Margot McGuinness, a soothsayer from Co. Tyrone, emerged from behind a curtain. “This dream fortells great success for Simons,” she told the press conference, “great success. The suit is a symbol of luxury and riches, which shall soon be attained through his writing. That psychoanalyst doesn’t know what he’s carping about.”
With that, Simons and McGuinness walked off the stage, leaving the press conference in the hands of Simons’ lawyer.
“I can’t really comment,” he told reporters, “as the process is top secret. Suffice to say that I was approached at a cocktail party by a chap called Steve, who asked me to attend an interview at a secret location in Connaught Place, London, just opposite the Mayfair Conference Centre, in one of the upstairs rooms. Number 314 I think it was. At the interview I was asked about my views on Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, extraordinary rendition and the legality or otherwise of targeted assassinations. I was also asked in what circumstances I believed that international law did not apply. Then I was subjected to extensive psychometric testing, and a rigorous physical examination. I was exhorted not to breathe a word of this to anyone, and told I would receive my next instructions within ten working days. At the end of the interview, they asked me if I had any questions. I asked if the code name 007 was taken in real life, and if not, could I bagsie it? They said they’d factor it in. I’m actually really excited.”
When asked what prompted the sudden career change, Simons was candid. “It all comes down to my deep-seated sense of patriotism, which was magnified following the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “Also I could do with a steady income. And a license to kill would be not unwelcome.”
MI6 sources, however, have dismissed the writer as just one of hundreds of fantasists they face every week. “Nobody has ever approached the man, and if he contacted us, we’d certainly never take him seriously,” they said. “What use could a hapless novelist ever be to us? Connaught Place? What? Simons has just written a thriller, don’t forget. We think that speaks for itself.”
Simons responded with characteristic disdain. “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” he said.
It’s not often that Radio 4 clears its entire drama schedule for a week and replaces it with a single nine-hour radio play. Yet on the week of the 18th September that is precisely what will happen. The play—Life And Fate, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role—is an adaptation of the postwar novel by little-known Russian writer Vasily Grossman.
Although Life and Fate centres around the moribund physicist Viktor Shtrum and the epic battle of Stalingrad, the novel weaves hundreds of interrelated stories and characters together to show a vivid cross-section of life under Stalin. Grossman was a high-profile frontline reporter during the war, and his fiction displays the same perceptiveness and honesty for which his journalism was renowned. Stories and characters arise and subside like waves in the broad river of humanity, winding through the horrors of the Eastern Front; the result is a novel that manages to be at once sweepingly panoramic and minutely detailed.
Life and Fate, by all accounts, is a work of colossal genius. Martin Amis called Grossman “the Tolstoy of the USSR,” and the historian Antony Beevor—speaking on a special Grossman edition of Start The Week on Radio 4 today—described the book as “one of the greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century.” Mark Damazer, the former controller of Radio 4 who commissioned the drama adaptation, was more laudatory still, calling Life and Fate “the best and most important novel of modern times.”
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, but because of the novel’s dissidence—it dared to compare Nazism and Stalinism, for example—the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB, who famously seized the typewriter and carbon paper that Grossman used to write it. A decade and a half later, a small group of radicals managed to smuggle a microfilm version of the book under the Iron Curtain; an English edition was finally published in 1985. Frustratingly enough, by that point all eyes were on Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and Life and Fate was eclipsed.
This new radio adaptation should bring the work to light again, though for the best parts of Life and Fate, you have to read the book. Continue reading on the Prospect Magazine website
It features a dense collection of video footage, manuscripts and — last but not least — life-sized cardboard cutouts of the writer. It has travelled from St Petersburg to Jerusalem, Buenos Aires to New York, and this time it was headed for Oxford, where a special edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week, dedicated to Grossman, was being recorded. Known for his monumental depictions of life during the second world war and under Stalin, the Russian writer remains relatively obscure. But Maddalena insists that he is in the same class as Tolstoy and Chekhov. “I am trying to spread the word,” he says. “Everyone should read Vasily Grossman. It will change your whole perspective on life.”
The professor is not the only person with a passion for Grossman. Nor is he the most formidable. Other fans are said to include Martin Amis (who dubbed Grossman “the Tolstoy of the USSR”), Tom Stoppard and Mark Damazer, master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who until recently was controller of Radio 4.
One of Damazer’s final decisions as controller was to commission an eight-hour dramatic adaptation of Grossman’s magnum opus, Life and Fate, a momentous 855-page novel centred on the battle of Stalingrad. The main strand of the story follows the Shaposhnikov family through their experiences of life under Stalin and the horrors of the Final Solution. Other narratives, however, sprawl out from this central core, providing a rich tableau of life and fate in the Soviet Union of the “great patriotic war”. The central character, Viktor Shtrum — widely seen as Grossman’s alter ego — is a physicist burdened with the knowledge that his best work is behind him. (Grossman himself was a trained engineer.) In the radio play, this role will be played by Kenneth Branagh.
“I first read Life and Fate five years ago,” Damazer says. “In addition to being a colossally serious book, the novel is a page-turner. I was desperate to know what happened and read at a gallop, late into the night.” Damazer became absorbed into the world of the book and did not emerge for almost four days.
“I was completely secure in my own mind that it was a work of thundering brilliance and importance. I knew then that I would spend a large part of my time proselytising for it and getting it onto the radio.”
Antony Beevor, author of A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, will be one of the guests on Start the Week. “Life and Fate is one of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th century,” he says, weighing his words carefully. “It is even more important than Dr Zhivago and The Gulag Archipelago. It forms an incredibly powerful portrayal of the struggle between Stalinism and Nazism, and the way it affected the population. It reveals the gross contradictions and dishonesties of life under Stalin.” According to Beevor, Grossman’s moral and physical courage “shines out” in the book. “It struck me straightaway,” he says. “Life and Fate drew the comparison between Stalinism and Nazism, which was almost suicidally brave. It made Grossman the first dissident.”
Grossman was born in the Ukraine in 1905. During the war, he was a special correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, and became known as the most perceptive eyewitness of the Soviet front lines. His courage under fire, as well as his seemingly charmed life — a hand grenade once failed to explode between his feet — earned him the nickname “Lucky Grossman”. He was among the first to write about the horrors of the Holocaust, and The Hell of Treblinka, his depiction of the liberation of the death camp, ranks among the finest such accounts ever written.
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, and — some say naively — submitted it for publication. The KGB’s response was incisive.
Within months, they had “arrested” all copies of the manuscript (as the Russians still put it), and even confiscated the typewriter ribbons with which it was written. (They also dug up a Grossman family vegetable garden, but found nothing.)
Grossman was deeply affected by the loss of his book. In a letter to Nikita Krushchev, he wrote: “What is the point of being physically free when my life’s work has been arrested?” The poet Semyon Lipkin, a close friend, recalls that the writer “aged before our eyes. His curly hair turned greyer and a bald patch appeared. His asthma returned. His walk became a shuffle”. Four years later, Grossman succumbed to cancer. He would never see his masterpiece in print.
In 1975, the writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich made persistent efforts to convert the novel to microfilm and smuggle it out of the Soviet Union. On his third attempt, he was successful, and in 1977 it arrived on the desk of Efim Etkind, a scholar living in Paris. He painstakingly salvaged the material from the microfilm and pieced it together. The near-complete Russian text was accepted for publication in 1980. At around this time, the writer Igor Golomstock, who was then working for the Russian service of the BBC, took the manuscript to a friend, the young Russianist Robert Chandler.
“Igor came in with this huge sheaf of papers,” Chandler recalls. “He said it was an unpublished masterpiece, and I could make my name by translating it. At first, I just laughed it off. But when I started to read, I realised that here was something remarkable.” It took Chandler several years to render it into English. The result remains the definitive translation and is the one on which the dramatic adaptation is based.
One of Grossman’s most visionary skills is to articulate profound philosophical questions through the lives of ordinary people. Among Life and Fate’s key pegs, for example, is a view of history as constituting a battle between a “small kernel of human kindness” and the ruthless pursuit of an abstract “goodness”. As one character, Ikonnikov, puts it after witnessing the massacre of 20,000 Jews: “I don’t believe in your ‘Good’. I believe in human kindness… You ask Hitler, and he’ll tell you that even this camp was set up in the name of Good.” Reflecting this, in one of the book’s most powerful scenes, a young Jewish woman voluntarily goes to the gas chambers in order to comfort a small boy in his final moments. The contrast between her innate kindness and the inhumane ideology that was responsible for her murder could not be more affecting.
Grossman’s daughter Ekaterina — now 81 years old and living in Moscow — believes that Life and Fate encapsulates her father. “His mind combined the cerebral with the intuitive,” she says, “and he valued freedom above all else.
He found cruelty, hypocrisy and selfishness alien concepts, and always believed that good will prevail.” Life and Fate, she says, although painful to write, reflected all of these qualities. “He was an extraordinary man,” she says. “Even as a small child, I remember being proud of him.”
Jonathan Myerson, one of the dramatists who adapted Life and Fate for Radio 4, says: “We saw the text as a collection of Chekovian miniatures. Every episode stands on its own, which makes it easier for listeners.” This, he explains, also allowed the many powerful vignettes to come to the fore. “In one scene, an executed concentration camp victim revives, digs his way out of his grave and asks to be shot again,” Myerson says. “Grossman’s notes reveal that this was taken directly from real life.”
According to Maddalena, this unflinching realism lends gravity to his work. “Grossman makes you understand that beyond the confusion of life, there is something originally good,” he says. “He experienced all the darkness of the 20th century and still believed that freedom lies in living according to the goodness that can be found deep in our lives. That is why he is so important.”
Start the Week: Grossman, his life and legacy is on Radio 4 tomorrow; the dramatisation of Life and Fate is on Radio 4, Sept 18-25
When Jake Wallis Simons (32), a British writer, received news of the Booker Shortlist, he reacted with an unprecedented display of elation. “I couldn’t contain my joy,” he told reporters today. “I had zero stake in it, personally. I wasn’t even longlisted. Yet I felt spontaneously happy. It was weird.”
Pundits have speculated that Simons’ outburst of emotion was due to a vicarious sense of celebration on behalf of Alison Pick, whose novel Far To Go shares many common themes with Simons’ own The English German Girl. One analyst even described it as “displacement euphoria.” According to Simons, however, the real reason is rather different.
“It came to me in the middle of the night,” he told reporters this morning. “I dreamed that a grapefruit on the table started speaking to me. It told me that the reason for my cheerfulness was that whereas before there were thirteen titles highlighting my inferiority, now there are only six. In a way, since the Shortlist was announced I’ve become 46.15% better as a writer. The grapefruit’s insight struck a chord with me. I think it was saying sooth. Now I’m really looking forward to the winner being announced.”
Alison Pick, who is rumoured to be appearing alongside Simons at Jewish Book Week 2012, was unavailable for comment.
The first thriller by Jake Wallis Simons, writing as Jake Simons
A renegade Mossad operative in London. A mysterious woman with CIA connections, running a drugs cartel. An important Israeli politician killed by a suicide bomb. Wikileaks. And the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, coming closer with every breath.
Coming March 2012