Friday, 15 November 2013

Mr B's Reading Year, One: 'the unknown merchandise at the end of their wait'

When Anna decides to walk home from work a different way one day, she stumbles upon a boarded-up kiosk with a brief line forming. This is an unsurprising sight in Leningrad after 'the Change', with the novel's twentieth-century Soviet setting based, in the author's own words, on 'the repression of Stalin's 1930s, the hopefulness of Kruschchev's Thaw (late 1950s - early 1960s) and the stagnation of Brezhnev's 1970s.' However, Anna is drawn to this particular kiosk, and alongside her husband Sergei and son Alexander, becomes a regular visitor to the line. It is only after visiting for some time that the family discover that the kiosk will be selling concert tickets for the composer Selinsky's triumphal return to his home country to conduct his last symphony a single time, a plotline based on Stravinsky's historic concert of 1962. Anna determines to purchase one for her fading mother, who still recalls her brighter days as a ballerina, but as the family form a rough shift system to hold their place in the line, personal desires begin to take over. As Anna thinks at the very beginning of the novel, when she is set free from her teaching job into 'the glittering white stretch of the afternoon', she will go to the kiosk, where she is filled 'with a sure presentiment of a change… something, she thought, to make her and her family happier, or lend some simple beauty to her everyday life.' The possibilities offered by the kiosk sit in contrast to the Soviet winter, where 'time had all run together for quite a while… like a vat of frozen concrete.'

The use of the American word 'line' rather than the British 'queue' both makes sense, given that Olga Grushin lives in Washington DC, and is more resonant within the novel as a whole, as characters speak of coming 'to the end of the line.' Predictably, waiting becomes an emotional event in itself for Anna, Sergei and Alexander, as Anna battles with her desire to have just one thing that is her own, Sergei embarks on an illicit affair with a fellow queue-goer, and Alexander paints the town red with new acquaintances. The line reflects the realities of their lives in this version of Soviet Russia, where little changes, but hope remains constant that something will. Putting it this way makes the novel sound banal, but the skill of Grushin's writing makes the conceit work. She is particularly good on weather and its emotional resonance, whether that's the sky waving 'back and forward in a skeletal dance of black branches' or the 'skinny parings of sunlight' that squeeze through the gaps in Anna's curtains. She is even better on dreams and dream-like imaginings, a ferociously difficult thing for an author to write well. Whether it's Alexander fantasising about the train he will take to 'a remote, desolate, beautiful shore, and strange birds dipping and rising overhead, and whispers of tall silver trees, and horses running, and the sea' or Anna's mother's memories of 'mermaids sipping frothy drinks from dainty little cups in terraced cafes', Grushin continually finds the balance between the cliched figures (the horses, the sea, the cafes) and the personal detail that characterises all our fantasies.

So there is much to admire in The Concert Ticket, but for all this, the novel remains curiously static. Of course, given its subject-matter, this is deliberate, but I found myself wondering if it might have worked better as a novella rather than something that's over three hundred pages long. It reminded me strongly of Russian absurdist fiction, particularly Gogol's short stories, although it is obviously rooted in a realist tradition as well, and also of folk storytelling, given its quasi-mythical setting and the orderly repetition of certain events. Given this, I felt a shorter form might have worked here as well, especially as the only character I felt I could truly care about was Anna. It's a beautiful read that captures the experience of longing for something undefined that one can't have better than almost anything else I've read, but in the end, the wait is too long and the pay-off too small.

This was the first book from my Mr B's Reading Year, and although I had mixed feelings about it, I'd still like to thank Mr B's for their selection - I would never have chosen this novel for myself, and I'm very glad to have read it.

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