We’d had a warm-up event for our Siberian adventure the night before we left for Krasnoyarsk. In an atmospheric Moscow night-spot, Solyanka, we’d taken on the subject of ‘A Hero of Our Time’ with Melvin Burgess, Theresa Breslin and the Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. We used Lermontov’s novel as the launchpad for a discussion of the presentation of heroism and its opposite – villainy – in the modern novel. I’d only just come in from Domodedovo, and still wore something of an aeroplane sheen, the faintly nauseating aroma of a mélange of aftershaves applied as I passed through Duty Free in Terminal 5. I was quickly swept up in the discussion, though, and the headlong, frenetic pace of that afternoon was a fitting preparation for the next few days, where every minute seemed filled with literature, mind-expanding conversation, inspiring debate.
The overnight flight to Siberia was distressingly brief: I’d scarcely retreated into a world of headphones and shut-eye before we were woken. Such are the brutal vagaries of Russian time zones that it was already seven a.m. and dawn was gathering itself on the eastern horizon. (Conversely, on the way back, you take off and land at the same time and a path to immortality reveals itself). We arrived at the conference hotel where the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair was taking place. It was here, in this city of a million people within spitting distance of the Mongolian border, that the latest outpost of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference would unfold.
We met up with the third member of the British contingent – Tibor Fischer – in the hotel. I should make clear than my own role was strictly one of interloper. I had been commissioned to write a piece for the New Statesman on the founder of the Krasnoyarsk Book Fair (and sister of the opposition leader), Irina Prokhorova. When the British Council asked if I’d like, since I was in situ, to play a small part in proceedings, I jumped at the chance.
The discussions were structured as chaired debates centred upon two keynote speeches, one from an English author and one from a Russian. The speeches and discussions were fed to us via simultaneous translation, which always makes me feel like I’m at the UN. I kept wanting to jump up and declaim: “But this is a clear infraction of international law!”
The first debate saw a remarkably chipper-looking (given the amount of sleep we’d had) Melvin Burgess discussing ‘Should Literature Be Political’ with the Russian author and philologist Andrey Astvatsaturov. I had my own run-in with this thorny question on my last trip to Moscow in September, when a speech I gave at the International Tolstoy Festival went down like a Pussy Riot gig in the Kremlin. I’d made a case that books can change the (political) world, using One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisavich, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara as my evidence. There were no questions at the end, just a quiet but firm insistence by the chairperson that literature can never be political.
This was the most fascinating aspect of the Krasnoyarsk debates: the often diametrically opposed positions from which the English and Russian authors approached each subject. So often, when speaking at conferences abroad, you get the impression that authors are coming from identikit political positions, that they share similar stances on so many subjects, that we are all of the same flesh. Whilst this is comforting, it actually makes for a much more interesting and thought-provoking discussion when you have a situation like we saw in Krasnoyarsk. It often felt as if the British and Russian authors were from different planets, different species.
Melvin started off by arguing – quite reasonably, in my opinion – that politics defines every choice we make, that it shapes every exchange we have – the air we breathe and the water we drink, that even your shopping list has a political aspect to it. He also spoke movingly about what Walter Benjamin called “the tradition of the oppressed” – the need for writers to give a voice to those denied one by the superstructures of civilization. He saw this as the moral duty of an author, and spoke about the demands of being a writer for Young Adults. Interestingly, he viewed YA fiction as the grandchild of feminist fiction – that young people need emancipation now in just the same way that women did a century ago. He ended by telling us that to be unaware of politics makes us only half a writer.
Astvatsaturov’s response could hardly have been more different. My in-ear translator found himself fuddled a few times by the subtleties of the argument, but Astvatsaturov immediately disowned the terms of the discussion, claiming that the terms were fine in the 1960s (when the original EWWC took place) but that politics was now dead, overtaken by corporatism, that we now live in a post-political age. There is no subject to ideology, he went on, and the challenge of out times is not to be politically engaged, but to remain solitary. He held up Orhan Pamuk’s wonderful novel Snow as an example of this. He ended by telling us that, in 2012, politically engaged literature is impossible. What we make are gestures, rather than statements.
I couldn’t help grinning as I watched the British contingent’s response to this argument: baffled, incredulous. Irina Prokhorova, who was chairing the discussion, tactfully pointed out that the arguments perhaps bore more in common than might first appear. It was left to Tibor Fischer to point out the key issue here: that British authors have operated for centuries outside of state interference, that in Russia this was a relatively new thing. Until recently, to be non-political in Russia was, in itself, a political act.
That evening, we heard the Russian National Orchestra play Rachmaninoff in Krasnoyarsk’s magnificent concert hall. Diamond-bright smiles, long gowns, elaborate coiffures – and that was just Melvin. It was an extraordinary experience and one that will remain with me for the rest of my life. Then an early night interrupted by regular squawks and howls from the Playboy Karaoke Club directly below my room. I found these night-time noises strangely comforting, allowing me some snug nighttime hours to turn over the events of the day in my mind.
The next day’s EWWC discussion saw Tibor Fischer debating ‘The Future of the Novel’ with Konstantin Milchin, a literary critic. Milchin is a friend of mine (or at least the sloppy, lingering kiss he gave me as he left the conference the next evening made me feel as much). We’d met several times during my previous trip to Moscow, including one interview for television where he’d segued into French half-way through. Madame de Place, my schoolboy proffesseuse, would have been proud.
Tibor spoke first, taking us through the evolution of the debate, reminding us that, from Ortega y Gasset to David Shields (I think those are my examples, not his) the death of the novel has been proclaimed with numbing regularity over the years. Tibor spoke about the threat posed to the novel by the Internet, and the way that books were taking this on. He then talked about the death of the novelist, as opposed to the death of the novel – the way that it was no longer possible to make a living as an author alone, that one now needed to supplement one’s income through a portfolio of different careers. That writing has become, in Jonny Geller’s memorable phrase, a “passionate indulgence.”
Kostya responded by saying that it was not the Internet, but DVD soap operas that were a threat to the novel. That people were watching Mad Men rather than reading books. He was buoyed up by the democratizing power of the Internet, and said that electronic self-publishing was the future of the novel. Tibor winced. Astonishingly (to Theresa, especially, whose eyes were goggling at this point), Kostya went on to say that he felt a “gratification system” was the answer for novelists. That people should be given books for free and then pay what they believed them to be worth. He knew of an author who’d been sent £400 by one grateful reader. It is, perhaps, the greatest mark of the difference between our nations and their radically different approaches to the importance of literature and to the market economy that this is being raised as a serious model for artistic endeavor in Russia.
Theresa made an impassioned defence of the novel, where she said that there is no other artistic form that so neatly captures human experience, that it is impossible to separate one from the other, that the novel is, in essence, humanity’s art form. She then told people to read Alan Garner. I felt like jumping on stage and kissing her.
I missed Theresa and Kirill Kobrin discussing ‘Should there be a National Literature’ on the final day of the conference. I’d gone into a lawless downtown district of Krasnoyarsk in search of a story for From Our Own Correspondent and was briefly (if rather charmingly) kidnapped by a local gangland boss. From the testimony of those who were there, I missed an inspiring session.
The experience of this most remote of EWWC outposts was mindblowing. To be in a city described by Chekhov as “the most beautiful in all Siberia” (he also spoke of the local penchant for hunting hunchbacks), to be with three such intelligent, probing British authors, to meet so many great Russian writers and thinkers. I wrote after my last trip to Russia, also with the British Council, that as a person and as a writer I’d never be the same again. I can only repeat that to a factor of ten.
To finish, I come back to something I said earlier on. In an increasingly homogenized, globalized world, I find less and less comfort in knowing that people think and feel the same way as me. This kind of thing, I suppose, once offered reassurance to those living in caves, or in warring villages where the fact that the man across the valley with different coloured skin, or different gods had the same essential approach to life and love as you was somehow consoling. The most vital, energizing aspect of these EWWC debates was how different the writers were, how initially bizarre I found so many of the assertions of the Russian authors and how, over the course of the conference, I began to see my own peculiar prejudices and assumptions in this bright, uncanny light. I’ve never thought so much, or so deeply about literature as I did in Krasnoyarsk and in the days following it, and I’m delighted to have been involved – albeit tangentially – in the 2012 EWWC.
Alex Preston, November 2012