Saturday, 23 October 2010

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago is a big book, physically and in terms of its themes, multi-stranded storylines and historical backdrop. It is a character-driven novel whose subjects live intense, interweaving lives set against the great sweep of early 20th century Russian events.
At its heart is the eponymous Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his relationship with two women: his wife Tonya and his lover Lara. A supporting cast weaves in and out of the novel, manipulating, inspiring, intimidating, interacting and sometimes simply just being in the vicinity of the central trio.
Although the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and subsequent civil war in Russia form an historical backdrop, their keynote events are hardly mentioned. It is history’s impact on individuals that concerns Pasternak.
However, Zhivago struggles to maintain his individuality at a time when individuals are regarded as canon-fodder to be sacrificed by Czarist Russia in its war against Germany while those who survive find themselves thrust into a fledgling society ruled by the Bolsheviks who regard concepts such as individualism as outdated and dangerous.
Zhivago and those close to him are mere bit-players in the huge social upheaval in which they are being swept along, but Pasternak plucks them from obscurity to dissect their psyches and put a human perspective on the times in which they live.
As millions die during wars and famine, Zhivago is torn between his love for Tonya and Lara and the betrayals that this inevitably brings. His poems, collected at the end of the novel, serve as an alternative narrative, charting his internal obsessions and yearnings.
This is a new translation by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky a novel that is already well established in the canon of great 20th century fiction. For those who have copies of the translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari on their shelves it is tempting to occasionally compare the two versions.
A key passage is one in which Zhivago reflects on the death of the woman who raised him and how this family tragedy and the emotions it stirs in him can be transformed into something positive.
In the 1958 translation by Hayward and Harari the passage reads: “In answer to the challenge of the desolation brought by the death into the life of the small community whose members were slowly pacing after him, he was drawn, as irresistibly as water funneling downwards, to dream, to think, to work out new forms, to create beauty.”
While Pevear and Volokhonsky render this as: “In response to the devastation produced by the death in this company slowly walking behind him, he wanted, as irresistibly as water whirling in a funnel rushes into the deep, to dream and think, to toil over forms, to bring forth beauty.”
Both translations work as an image of the poet reworking a real life tragedy to write verse, but the new translation seems to suggest that this is an innate “response” by Zhivago, rather than a considered “answer.” And then there is the more psychologically nuanced image of water (experience) rushing “into the deep,” with all its inferences of the subconscious, as opposed to the water merely “funneling downwards,” while in the just-published version he “brings forth beauty (poems)” rather than simply creating them.
Perhaps such detailed comparisons are reading too much into what is simply a fresh perspective on Pasternak’s original Russian text. But then Zhivago is, as was his creator, a poet and a complex person whose story lends itself to poetic prose that brings to life the various layers of his persona and the psyche that lies behind it.
At its simplest level, this new translation, extensively annotated to explain the more obscure references, is a welcome opportunity for anyone who has already read Dr. Zhivago to revisit it and experience a richly rewarding fresh take on an epic tale. For those coming to it for the first time it is a chance to read one of the greatest novels of all times.
This review was written for and first published by The New York Journal of Books.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Hooleygan by Terri Hooley and Richard Sullivan

Music impresario, punk raconteur and bar room philosopher Terri Hooley has just published his life story in a book that captures the essence of his character – anarchic, dishevelled and hugely entertaining.
Probably the most surprising thing about Terri Hooley’s autobiography is that it has taken so long to be written.
The man who discovered The Undertones and whose record label put Northern Ireland back on the musical map in the late 1970s has never been too shy when it comes to talking about his own life.
But then someone who once punched John Lennon at a party, was told to ‘eff off’ by Bob Dylan and – ahem – smoked with Bob Marley, definitely has a story to tell.
Hooleygan, co-written with Richard Sullivan, recounts all those incidents but also gives much more depth to one of Belfast’s best-known characters.
Interspersed with Hooley’s own reminiscences are first-hand testimonies from those who have worked with him, who know him best and those whose lives and careers became inextricably linked with his.
Brian Young from Rudi, Greg Cowen from the Outcasts, Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol, John O’Neill of The Undertones and director John T Davis, who made the film Shell Shock Rock, all contribute.
Sitting last week in his Good Vibes record shop in Belfast’s Wine Tavern Street ahead of the book’s publication, Hooley admits that telling his life story quickly became something more than simply recounting anecdotes from his past.
“I found it very difficult talking about friends who had died,” he says.
The early chapters of the book will contain the most surprise for those who thought they knew Hooley. His mother was a deeply Christian woman whose brothers were members of the Orange Order.
By contrast his English-born father was a life-long socialist and atheist.
“He was a staunch trade unionist and proudly boasted that he was the first person to sing The Red Flag in Belfast City Hall,” Hooley says.
“But his trade union activities caused problems for me and my brother. We used to get beaten up when he was standing as a Labour candidate in East Belfast. People thought Labour were a republican party.”
Hooley says his own political radicalisation was driven by global events, rather than those closer to home in Belfast.
“The Cuban missile crisis [in 1962 when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war] really affected me,” he says.
“Then later in the 1960s I became involved in campaigns for nuclear disarmament and against the war in Vietnam.”
“I definitely got caught up in the whole hippie thing and started producing magazines with poetry and articles that tried to capture that.”
It was the Sex Pistols singer John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon who said “never trust a hippy” but Hooley says the punk movement, which emerged a decade later after ‘the summer of love’ was a natural progression.
“A lot of the people who used to go to the first punk gigs in Belfast at the Harp Bar, where former hippies,” Hooley says.
In 1977 he opened his first record shop in Great Victoria Street and it became a gathering place for many of the young punk bands that were beginning to form in Belfast.
“In the 1960s there were about 60 clubs in Belfast were you could go and hear live music from bands like Them with Van Morrison and Taste with Rory Gallagher but that all ended with the Troubles,” he says.”
“But in the 1960s there was never a record industry here. Bands had to sign to English labels and many ended up being exploited. I wanted to put Northern Ireland back on the musical map in the 1970s and give the bands that were emerging an outlet here in Belfast.”
Hooley set up The Good Vibrations record label and began releasing records by Rudi, The Outcasts and, most famously, Teenage Kicks by Derry band The Undertones.
Hooleygan co-author, Sunday World deputy editor Richard Sullivan, says that Hooley’s influence was an entirely positive one during the height of the Troubles.
“Belfast was a very dark place in 1977 – literally. There was not a light on in the city centre,” Sullivan says.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Terri and Good Vibrations kept a lot of people, on both sides, out of jail by pointing them towards music instead of getting involved with paramilitaries.”
Sullivan says the whole tone, design and layout of Hooleygan is an attempt to reflect its subject – pictures, text, ink scratches and scraps of graffiti nestle side by side on the pages.
He has done his job well and perfectly captured Hooley’s tone and his sometimes rambling sentences when he veers off from what he was first talking about into a totally different anecdote before eventually coming back to his main point.
“I didn’t want a standard book, with picture galleries in the middle. Terri’s life has been chaotic. He is a person to whom things just happen and I wanted to reflect that,” Sullivan says.
Hooleygan – Music Mayhem Good Vibrations, by Terri Hooley and Richard Sullivan is published by The Blackstaff Press, £14.99.

I wrote this for the Irish News and it was published on Friday October 1.

For an interview I did with John O'Neill from The Undertones and various others, including Terri, about the Good Vibarations record label click here.