One Fat Man by Daniil Kharms

One fat man invented a way to lose weight. And he lost it. The ladies began pestering him, trying to pry out his secret. But the thin man replied that it becomes men to lose weight, whereas it does not become women at all; that ladies, on the contrary, ought to be plump. And he was absolutely right.

by Даниил Иванович Хармс [Danill Kharms] (Mid-1930s)

Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky

Russian Short Stories To Read Over The New Year and Christmas Period

Happy New Year to you all! Blwyddyn Newydd Dda! С новым годом!

New Year’s Day and to a lesser extent Christmas are a major holidayperiod in Russia and of course some of her greatest writers wrote stories set during this time of year.

You may wonder why I titled this entry with New Year preceding Christmas. The answer is quite simple: In Russia the Eastern Orthodox Church follows the Julian calender and thus celebrates Christmas Day on or near January 7. This date works to be December 25, in the Julian Calender, which pre-dates the Gregorian calendar most of us use today.

Nonetheless here is the reading list for you to choose from:

  • THE NEW YEAR’S TREE by Mikhail Zoshchenko
  • THE BOYS by Anton Chekhov
  • A CHRISTMAS TREE AND A WEDDING by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • AT CHRISTMASTIDE by Anton Chekhov
  • DREAM OF A YOUNG TSAR by Lev Tolstoy
  • MAKAR’S DREAM by Vladimir Korolenko
  • A WOMAN’S KINGDOM by Anton Chekhov
  • A DISTANT CHRISTMAS EVE by Kaudia Lukashevich
  • THE LITTLE BOY AT CHRIST’S CHRISTMAS TREE by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • CHRISTMAS PHANTOMS by Maxim Gorky, A LIFELESS ANIMAL by Teffi (a.k.a. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya)
  • MY LAST CHRISTMAS by Mikhail Zoshchenko

There are no doubt many others so if you have any recommendations please leave a comment.

The Old Man and the Sea

A 1952 novella by Ernest Hemingway that tells the story of Santiago, a poor Cuban fisherman, who has not caught a fish in several months and lives very modestly in a small shack on the beach front. His only real company is a young boy who he teaches fishing techniques to and in return is provided some basic supplies. He goes out to sea alone where he hooks a giant marlin, which he fights day and night, eventually catching it while growing to respect and identify with its struggle. After days of struggle in which he has allowed it to drag him further and further out to sea it finally submits to its wounds and dies. He lashes it to the side of his boat and tries to take it home to sell. Unfortunately, it is eaten by sharks, despite the old man’s valiant effort to fight them off. Defeated, the old man walks home and collapses in bed. It could be viewed as a moral victory, since he’s proved that he can still catch fish but in the closing paragraphs an American tourist confuses the now skeletal frame of the marlin for that of a shark showing how the personal victory is not appreciated by wider society although the boy and other fishermen acknowledge this achievement.

Due to the symbolism, relatively easy prose and short length, The Old Man and the Sea is a mainstay of high school English courses, and is perhaps one of the most widely-read books in the United States. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and pretty much sealed the deal on Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was adapted into a 1958 film with Spencer Tracy and into a 1990 miniseries with Anthony Quinn.

This is the first time I read a work of Hemingway’s. It was a very easy to read piece and I did so in a single sitting as it was only about 90 pages long. Very often I have heard the quotes of how he seems fixated on depictions of manliness and uses very simple language. It brings the mind the image of a man stood upon the shoreline with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and breaking open nuts, bear handed, in the other. He called this writing technique “the theory of omission” or “The Iceberg Principle.” While some authors criticized him for it, his style is widely considered to be very effective. Hemingway attributed his terse style to his training as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star because he had to communicate from Europe to North America by the expensive medium of cable, it was naturally expected that he should compose his reports to be as succinct as possible while including all the story’s salient information.

“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea…”

When I was in school the English teachers always found it hard to find pieces which intrigued the more traditionally inclined boys who preferred to be outside playing sport rather than sat reading and analysing fictional events. Often when asked to write comprehension essays, utilising the various narrative techniques we were learning, the teachers would bemoan how they ended up with multiple stories about football matches or other sporting events with little variety. I reflect now if perhaps studying the works of Hemingway might have caught their attention and, if not drawing them to become avid readers which admittedly would be a Sisyphus like endeavour, at the very least would indicate to them that not all respected literary classics are verbose and focused on societal or emotional content which is an anathema to teenage boys asserting themselves in order to impress upon others their masculinity. Hemingway is a ‘man’s man’ of a writer and using his work would be indulgent but at least show results by getting the attention of boys who find themselves disengaged in English lessons as they cannot identify with the subject matter they are presented with within the studied texts such as the works of Shakespeare.

“Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?”

To me the piece is a reflection of Hemingway’s fears of aging just as D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ reflected Lawrence’s fears of being unable to physically satisfy his wife after a near fatal attack of malaria and tuberculosis made him an invalid for the remainder of his life. Hemingway, in his novella, meditates on what will happen when he is no longer physically capable of leading the rugged lifestyle that he almost seemed to feel was all consuming both as a public perception of him but also his opinion of himself. Santiago for the most part is the standard Hemingway protagonist, a competent, utterly determined paragon of manliness. But he’s also ultimately an old man and the ravages of time have weakened him thus, despite his herculean display of willpower, he still is ultimately defeated with only a pyrrhic moral victory in the end. He proves to the other fishermen he still has what it takes to compete with them though it almost leads to his death and is meaningless to the wider society represented by the American tourists who misidentify the remains of the marlin. Hemingway was starting to age around the time he wrote Old Man, and it came right after he wrote Across the River and into the Trees, a book which got significant bad press. In a way, Santiago is probably something of a reflection upon the way Hemingway felt about himself and the hopes that he could remain ‘himself’ to the very end – which he ultimately did by committing suicide at the age of 61 rather than face old age and the deterioration which would inevitably come with it.

“The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.”

“I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one’s own body.”

“What kind of a hand is that,’ he said. ‘Cramp then if you want. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good.”

“You did not do so badly for something worthless,’ he said to his left hand. ‘But there was a moment when I could not find you.”

Santiago seeks challenge and to prove himself to society. In the marlin he finds a worthy opponent and when returning deems the blue shark, the first to attack the marlin lashed to the boat, as another. However after this initial attacker which Santiago is successful in killing he is later attacked by brown sharks who he speaks more and more disparagingly of as they are, it seems, scavengers taking advantage of his weakened state. Again this symbolism of the ravages of age and the fears of being at the whims of younger foes, which in his prime he could have easily fended off, arises yet again. There does seems an element of prejudice when comparing the blue shark and the brown, lesser sharks, but that may just be my interpretation in there being some defining distinction between what makes a worthy or unworthy opponent. A one on one fight is honourable while the scavengers appearing in groups are detestable in his view as they take advantage of a weakened individual.

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

“It is not bad,” he said. “And pain does not matter to a man.”

“They would hit a man in the water, if they were hungry, even if the man had no smell of fish blood nor of fish slime on him. “Ay,” the old man said. “Galanos. Come on galanos.”

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”

In conclusion: It was a very easy to read piece and I did so in a single sitting. It felt both a worthwhile read and yet at the same time underwhelming. You have the easy to follow story of a man’s struggle and the implicit commentary on aging through its symbolism but what do I take away from this? Aging is bad. You must fight it. It is inevitable. Others will come and take advantage of you. All your achievements will ultimately garner you no real respect. Loss and death are amongst the major themes in his writing and nowhere is this clearer than in the endeavours of Santiago.

“His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us.”

“Then he was sorry for the great fish… How many people will he feed?.. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course, not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.”

It is a novella for people who don’t like reading more poetic language but prefer facts – to be told bluntly what is happening without digression. However through Hemingway’s use of language he still delivers greater meaning beneath the seemingly basic surface level he presents for those with an eye to perceive it. It is the male equivalent of chick literature on the surface level and yet a powerful mediation on universal themes should the reader take the time to acknowledge that economy of language does not equal a simplification of message. This is a good story to get young, active, boys to understand why literature is important but I doubt it will inspire them to then go on to read his other works leaving this to be remembered by them as a ‘man vs nature’ story only sadly.

“He spat into the ocean and said, “Eat that, galanos. And make a dream you’ve killed a man.”

Hemingway’s writing style is deceptive. His powerful economy of words masks a nuanced narrative which would take other writers far longer to depict and ultimately would not have the same impact. Ultimately there have been many imitators incapable of having the same impact which has diluted people’s perception of Hemingway’s prose but nowhere will you be shown the power of economised word use than in this novella.

“He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.”

“He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”


I had a bit of a break from blogging. On the bright side it means anything uploaded at least will have been considered though perhaps not editted and drafted as well as it might have been if I was not so busy.

I enjoyed this novella but there are other works which I enjoy far more. this is a good introduction for traditional gender role orientated boys to the world of literature but I find Hemingway has always been at odds with himself and his desired audience. Journalism, going out and hunting a story down in the classic patriarchal role of hunter/gather is fine but creative writing has always, in the media, seemed to be portrayed as a feminine, not a masculine, pursuit. The sort of men Hemingway depicts are not men who would read his literature ironically. He idolises figures who would respect him as a man, if they knew his life story involving amongst other things the Spanish Civil War, but would never read anything he wrote despite its inherent masculine orientated world view.

How the Hay Literature Festival 2015 Ruined Hay-On-Wye for Me

I love the town of Hay-on-Wye where they have a large number of bookshops containing books on every subject you could imagine and often many you hadn’t even realised existed. Every visit to a shop is a new learning experience and in the tranquil setting you will find respite from the all too busy world. Every year I go to the Hay-On-Wye Literature Festival. I may not from now on. The world has found this oasis and seeks to drink it dry of its charm in the passage of a week.

I used to be a much smaller event with talks by a few people but always you were drawn to going into the town filled with its labyrinthine shops filled from floor to ceiling with eclectic collections of books ranging on any and every subject you could imagine if only you were willing to take the time to look through the stacks thoroughly. But my experience this year has cast a shadow over this place. To a bibliophile this town would sound like some unknowable heaven on earth but… celebrity and faux, waxing lyrical, philosophical rhetoric are the order of the day.

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Such immense crowds. Crowds the level of which, if we were talking of battery farmed live stock, would be unacceptable. I disdain it. Stephen Fry walked past me with an assistant guiding him like a sheep dog. I remember five years ago when he pranced around like a majestic stag free of restrained but not anymore. People gawp and coo. He and Jude Law, along with a few others, were reading letters of emotion and wit. This is a recurring event now apparently though it always feels like a easy to do schedule filler rather than something to be made prominent at the event. Sandi Toksvig walks quickly onto the stage to read her assigned letters but doesn’t remain for the applause afterwards as the others did. Far too busy now. This year I note they recieve roses made of paper when they were given long stem white roses in previous years. I see one of these tokens left discraded on the floor of the event bookshop later on. A sign of the times. The pace of the entire festival used to be leisurely and flowing but now it is all timed and erratic. No longer are you absorbing the occassion but rushing to the next fix of stimulation. This letter reading started fifteen minutes late, not accounting the time to get people into their seats, and so many people had to leave early to get to their next event on time. There is no real apology made except to acknowledge they will have a slight reordering of the readings.

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Too many people. The book shops seem to be charging more now. The main event book shop charges far too much yet you can hardly approach the shelves to see the books of the Event’s writers selling their wares.

I go to listen to a BBC Radio Wales programme being aired live. As I enter a steward repeatedly stabs at my shoulder with her talon like a bird of prey stripping flesh from bone. I turn around and she excuses herself. Did she think I was someone she knew? Was I trespassing following the other four people who were with me? I will never know. People don’t explain themselves when the authority of a neon yellow reflective tabard gives them the illusion of authority. I sit in the audience and Violet Skies sings a few songs in front of us. Later the presenter and his hench-persons declare there is going to be food next and won’t that be nice for us the audience? A single plate tours around the front row of the audience, who are people clearly associated with the BBC radio staff, but no one else gets a sniff of the veal sticks they are eating. It goes without saying that watching them eat was a highlight. (Violet Skies actually was and deserves support).

I saw some interesting books. Do you remember the books in school that were hardback B5 sized copies used year after year to teach set texts, usually something by William Shakespeare? Well there was one of modernism and the occult…. oh how I wanted it but the ticket price was £55! I thought it was a mistake and checked the other copies, but no, that really was its price for a measly 175 or so pages. I should add this was a newly published book in the main event bookshop yet somehow was £55. It made no sense. Also, at the exit, there was a stall manned by two Americans. They were trying to sell subscriptions to the international edition of the New York Times. The girl was the definition of a pixie hair cut with buzz cut side panels, thick black framed glasses, hipster stereotype and the guy a mass market John Hamm with casual wear perma-stubble ken doll. I saw a woman in the event bookshop buying lots of those ‘a simple guide to…’ type books en-masse. She wanted a working knowledge to discuss the topic but not enough to actually have any real knowledge of it. Posers everywhere. Rhetoric will be the stain of this age of humanity…. just as Socrates and Plato feared all that time ago in ancient Greece. Why know about a topic when you can just act as though you do. All the respect without the blood, sweat and tears of academic endeavour whether formal or informal. If given the test by Socrates of whether they desired knowledge as much as air many people here would fail.

So I didn’t enjoy. Apart from the ‘reading of letters’ event there was a talk about the Ukraine crisis with Russian journalists. It was sold out. I wonder how many attending actually had a long-term interest in the region, how many were just attending as it is a current event and how many just wanted sound bites to use of a dinner party should the topic ever arise. Faux-intelligentsia: a coffee in one hand, iPhone in their blazer pocket and a hemp bag in the other filled with the event freebies.


I finally made it to the town and heard an upbeat instrumental of Katyusha playing in a tent… I walked over and they got to the chorus and LA LA LA LA LAL AL ALALALALLALALALALLAA. They didn’t know the lyrics? Why LALALALALLALALALALALALLA? What was for a moment a glimpse of hope was dashed. On tables outside the tent people sell overpriced random rusty tat in hopes the hipsters will think it artistic and retro-chic. I remember a previous year when a drunk German sat in the nearby pub and espoused how we, here, are a stupid, inferior, mongrel race made up of the entrails of every invader’s unwanted spoils of war left behind to rot. The pub in question we went to for a drink. The barmaid said it was cheaper to buy the bottle than two glasses of wine so this advice was accepted. A round of drinks consisting of two cokes and the bottle turned out to be £19.50. For those who do not live in Britain the average round of these drinks would be about £7.50 up to £15 depending on the venue. Was this a one-off ‘event premium’ pricng stategy? I do not know but we go to the beer garden and already these sweet drinks are bitter to the taste buds. Somehow I look back and am less offended by that bigoted German than what I have seen today.

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One shop had an interesting, eclectic, interior. All the bookshops contain novelty but this one actually had chairs to sit in as you read. It is my favourite shop and I always buy from it… except on this visit as I was so demoralised by my experiences of the festival site. It stands across the road from the pulp fiction, crime and murder mystery specialist ‘Murder and Mayhem’ bookshop (with chalk outline drawn on the road outside it). Books pouring out of every crevice and on all topics. Books which you did not know existed and yet entrance you immediately. The prices here were fair unlike elsewhere. I do not give its name because you should discover this town for yourself and enjoy the experience of discovering its hidden wonders firsthand.

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However, to avoid you thinking I was going to end on a positive note, let me warn you of one shop not to purchase from. Booths, the self-declared ‘biggest second-hand bookshop in the world’, will overcharge and belittle you for daring to ask for anything not immediately apparent. The claim is of course a lie, a little boast allowed under law, to entertain the notion of encouraging your custom. This year it was closed at 5pm….. The arrogance of a second hand bookshop to do such a thing on a festival day as if to suggest they do not need customers and you should be grateful they allow you to enter. I hate that place. Once I had seen a book there and remembered the cover so asked the shop assistant to look up ‘Isobel’ a novel about a Scottish witch and let me see the google image results. Repeatedly he kept asking for the author’s name. Of course I did not know this otherwise I could have easily found it on the racks in the basement hence why I now was asking for his assistance. No he insisted he needed the name. He looks on Wikipedia for a moment but to no avail. We are still stood looking at the screen. I again ask him to look on google images. He relents after 10 minutes and the third image on the search? The cover of the book I was looking for with the author’s name! So he finally uses this name on the database and tells me they do not have it but can order it from them (for a premium). I decline and make my escape. They overcharge here for things that are not even rare. Architecturally the interior is stylish yet modern and the café is nice but I do not support this shop since this experiment in getting blood from a stone.

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During the festival the town is filled with hipsters. Hipsters of all ages, shapes and sizes. I felt dirty. This was not the celebration of literature, wit and knowledge but a cold exercise in placating the sycophantic, self-congratulating middle class ego with a sizeable disposable income.

The rest of the year this town is an oasis for the literate bibliophile seeking adventure and willing to spend an entire day trawling shelf upon shelf of unexpected books on topics that you would think too niche to be contemplated for publishing.

The festival is just there for star chasers, the bourgeois and people who need to be doing something to justify their elitist attitude the rest of the year. I doubt any of the books bought by the event speakers get read and just gather dust on the shelves waiting for the time they will grace the shelves, en-masse , of one of the numerous bookshops here at a far reduced price. I like this town but it is like a beach side town during the summer holidays during this festival.

https://www.hayfestival.com/wales/index.aspx?skinid=2&currencysetting=GBP&localesetting=en-GB&resetfilters=true


Other people poison your life. Yet humans are a social creature. But we build large caves in which to hoard our belongings. The selfish gene has gone grown stronger with the passing of generations and soon it will be a cancer leading to our downfall as a species if we cannot overcome it.

Today I Wrote Nothing Like Daniil Kharms

16. Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter.

Daniil Kharms,The Blue Notebook, 9 January, 1937

23. To have only intelligence and talent is too little. One must also have energy, real interest, clarity of thought and a sense of obligation.

25. Enough of laziness and doing nothing! Open this notebook every day and write down half a page at the very least. If you have nothing to write down, then at least, following Gogol’s advice, write down that today there’s nothing to write. Always write with attention and look on writing as  a holiday.

Daniil Kharms,The Blue Notebook, 11 April, 1937


So I didn’t update for a few days due to my cat dying and issues at work. Over the next few days hopefully I will be able to knock out a few reviews of some DVDs I watched recently. Now I made the effort to type something it should hopefully come back into motion again.

Daniil Kharms  (Russian Дании́л Ива́нович Хармс; 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1905 – 2 February 1942) was an early Soviet-era surrealist and absurdist poet, writer and dramatist..He came to be known for his children’s literature. Not too much of his work is available in English, or at least it doesn’t feel like it is as so much of it was composed of notebooks, letters, etc which were passed around as he was deemed to be in direct conflict with the state approved and enforced Realism movement in the arts. Kharms was arrested on suspicion of treason in the summer of 1941. He was imprisoned in the psychiatric ward at Leningrad Prison No. 1. and died in his cell in February 1942—most likely, from starvation, as the Nazi blockade of Leningrad had already begun.

If you are at all interested in Russian literature or Absurdist/Surrealist writing I would recommend hunting out some of his works as, despite their fragmented style, they are amusing and an insight into the repressed counter-culture of Stalinist Russia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniil_Kharms