Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2020

Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets, by Subhash Jaireth

A week or so ago, Ivor Indyk drew attention in an essay published by the Sydney Review of Books to the problem that bedevils writers and publishers of books in markets that don’t value the unusual or different.  Discussing two of my favourite Australian authors Brian Castro and Nobel-nominee Gerald Murnane, Indyk pointed out that even when the books of these authors win prizes that recognise their brilliance, sales are low and publication is unprofitable.

And yet, writers of such books persist, and so do their publishers, bringing pleasure to those of us who like to read outside our comfort zones, and perhaps staking a claim to longevity.  Because at the end of the day, it is not the easy-to-read bestsellers that appeal to the mainstream that will be remembered in the future, it is the books that challenge us.

Spinoza’s Overcoat, published by Transit Lounge, falls into this category.  It is a book that will appeal to poets, and to writers and readers of certain kinds of books.  Certain kinds of travellers will love it too: compared to Jaireth my pilgrimages to bookish sites are Homage Lite, but I loved reading about his travels to places that matter to me because of the authors who were once there.

This is the blurb:

‘It starts to rain as I step out of my hotel ….’ So begins Subhash Jaireth’s striking collection of essays on the writers, and their writing, that have enriched his own life. The works of Franz Kafka, Marina Tsvetaeva, Mikhail Bulgakov, Paul Celan, Hiromi Ito, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and others ignite in him the urge to travel (both physically and in spirit), almost like a pilgrim, to the places where such writers were born or died or wrote. In each essay a new emotional plane is reached revealing enticing connections. As a novelist, poet, essayist and translator born into a multilingual environment, Jaireth truly understands the power of words across languages and their integral connections to the life of the body and the spirit. Drawing on years of research, translation and travel Spinoza’s Overcoat – and its illuminations of loss, mortality and the reverie of writing – will linger with readers.

My favourite chapter is ‘Bulgakov’s Margarita’.  I read The Master and Margarita when I was young and ignorant at university.  I have rated it five stars at Goodreads based on my fond memories of its bizarre storyline but alas, I didn’t keep a reading journal back then so my thoughts about it are vague. I read the novel before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the USSR, and in my 20s, despite the beset efforts of my uni lecturers, I had only tabloid impressions of the Soviet Union, mostly based on James Bond movies. I didn’t really know how truly evil Stalin was. Jaireth’s essay about the impact on writers such as Bulgakov makes me realise that I should read the novel again, and soon.  It’s a miracle that it was ever written at all…

There was little improvement over the course of the decade.  In a letter to his brother Nikolai, dated 28 August 1929, Bulgakov sums up his frustration: ‘All my plays have been banned and not a single line of my fiction has been published.  Bulgakov, the writer, is dead.’ Five months later, on 16 January 1930, he writes again to Nikolai, ‘This is to let you know that all my literary works are dead including any future ideas and plans.  I am doomed to remain silent and possibly starve.  In these very hard conditions I wrote last year a play about Molière, the best play I have ever written.  But all signs indicate that it won’t be allowed to be published or performed.’

Bulgakov received the official letter banning The Cabal of the Hypocrites, the play about Molière, on 18 March 1930.  In desperation he burned the manuscripts of his two novels, one of which was an early version of The Master and Margarita. (p.93)

The essay conveys the story of how the book was written under such difficult circumstances in unexpected ways.  He begins with his visit to the building that features in the novel, and tells us how the clandestine readers of the book used graffiti, drawings, sketches, slogans and announcements to show the importance of the book and made the building into an impromptu museum.  He tells us how Bulgakov and his wife had to beg for food because he couldn’t get work when his writing was banned.  He tells us how Bulgakov even, in desperation, wrote to Stalin, begging to be allowed to leave the country if he wasn’t going to be able to work. And how, shocked by the suicide of a the poet Mayakovskii, he realised that he should not let his frustration get the better of him, and how in 1932 he started a second version of the novel without the drafts and notes because he remembered every word of what he previously written.

This astonishing achievement in the face of oppression reminds me of the extraordinary achievement of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who narrated his iconic quartet to fellow prisoners in an Indonesian prison, and then on release after many years, wrote it from memory afterwards.  (All being well with my eyes, I’ll be reading the last of this quartet for my Indonesian book group next month. In the meantime you can read about the first three books of the Buru Quartet here).

Jaireth also shares his own personal journey with the novel…

As readers, we cone to like and love this or that book for many reasons.  Often we like a book because we can’t imagine ourselves growing up without it.  It appears suddenly and we find that we are ready for it, and, like a good friend, it opens its secrets with grace and facility.  After we have finished reading and moved on to other books, it still doesn’t disappear. Like an afterimage, it remains attached to the retina of our life; like a reflection in the rear-view mirror of a car, it travels with us, showing the path we have traversed.

The Master and Margarita is a milestone in my life, a sort of signpost with a double-headed arrow that I can use to delineate before and after reading.  It also separates my time in Moscow into two neat segments.  I had come to the city in 1969 and spent five years immersed in Russian culture.  I read the book in 1974, after which I spent another four and a half years in Moscow.

Russian Samizdat & photo negatives of unofficial literature in the USSR (Wikipedia*)

The book changed me.  Suddenly the rumours and whispers about the dark past and the undercurrents of dissidents became more audible and meaningful.  I slowly began to read more of the samizdat and tamizdat (Russian books published abroad) literature.

I also began to pick up the double entrendres in the speech of my Russian friends.  A rupture appeared between the Russian I had been taught and the Russian I heard. This brought a feeling of uneasiness, but it also made me realise the power with which language can do its job and say the unsayable. (p.103)

[I would also say that the more I read literature from China, the better able I am to pick up nuances in what is not said.  I can read between the lines in a way that I could not when I first began reading it.)

Naturally, I most enjoyed the chapters about authors familiar to me, but on International Women’s Day I want to acknowledge the very first chapter, about Kafka’s favourite sister Ottla, about whom I knew nothing. At Wikipedia You can read a dry account of her life, and her murder in Auschwitz when she volunteered to accompany a group of children; in Spinoza’s Overcoat you can feel Jaireth’s anguish about her non-Jewish husband’s betrayal and her fatally tragic belief that the transport she was boarding from the ghetto was taking the children to a safe haven in Sweden or Denmark.  And you can read in Kafka’s own words how wonderful she was.  After she, despite parental disapproval, set up home independently to earn her own living, Kafka came to live with her:

Staying with Ottla he felt free as if she was ‘…carrying me on her wings through a difficult world’. ‘I live with ottla, ‘ he wrote jokingly in another letter, ‘in a good minor marriage.’ In her he saw the mother he did not have.  ‘Ottla’, he wrote to Felice Bauer in a letter in 1916, ‘at times seems to me just like the mother I would liked to have in my past: pure, truthful, honest, consistent, with humility and pride, receptivity and reticence, devotion and independence, shyness and courage in unfailing balance.’ (p.15)

Kafka, dead in 1924 from TB at the age of 40, would have suffered the same fate had he lived.

You can see a photo of them both here.

Other authors with a presence in this lovely book are:

Some of the poems are reproduced in the back of the book.

Shahriyar and Scheherazade, 1975, Abu Nuwas Street, Baghdad (Wikipedia*)

Finally, having grown up in a multilingual home in India, Jaireth shares his thoughts about translation in the chapter called ‘Carson’s Work of Remembrance and Mourning’:

Because translation reclaims and recoups the original piece, it adds a breath of fresh oxygen so that the piece can endure the onslaught of time.  Thus salvaged, a poem is ready to enjoy the hospitality of its linguistic kith and kin.  This idea of linguistic hospitality delights me. The house in which the translated poem begins its new life, notes Ricoeur, is a place ‘where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word in the home, in one’s own welcoming house.’ (p.238)

This was perfect for me right now, because I could just read a chapter a day, progressively adding my musings on it to this post. But I’d suggest that this is actually the best way to enjoy this book, whatever your circumstances.  Enjoy the subjects you know, and take the time to explore the ones you’ve never heard of.

PS In the review at ArtsHub, Erich Meyer writes that On the basis of the 12 essays in Spinoza’s Overcoat, Subhash Jaireth deserves a place alongside other revered essayists like David Foster Wallace and JM Coetzee.

*Image credits:

Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets
Cover design by Peter Lo, cover image by Roberto Pavic/Trevillion Images
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760460, pbk, 288 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and Fishpond: Spinoza’s Overcoat

Update re availability: I’ve had an email from Barry at Transit Lounge: The e-book is available internationally, otherwise unfortunately for OS orders from our website we add $20 for postage.


Responses

  1. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I really adore that cover!

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    • LOL we do it all the time.
      And thank you for reminding me that I should have acknowledged the designer, will fix that right now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a delightful book it sounds. My daughter is reading Spinoza at present and to be reminded of the solace and inspiration that comes from these minds is so important in this time of such stupidity. This is another must on the ever increasing list TBR. Thanks Lisa and hope recovery is moving along.

    Like

    • He’s not a philosopher I know much about, but I like his idea of an indifferent God. I don’t understand how anyone could believe in a God that acts for the furthering of human good because there’s so much suffering in the world. And I find the idea of prayer obscene: that a loving God would act to relieve the misery of some but not others because they do or don’t pray.
      My eyes seem a little better today, thank you. The specialist has cut down one kind of eye drop from 4x daily to 3x and added a different one, and it feels as if there’s less pressure (though of course I don’t have the fancy machines to measure it!) Next op is on Thursday so we’ll see what happens then!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The cover the title and the author’s Indian name caught my eye and I looked for this and at some of his earlier fiction and nonfiction before even making it to read your review. His work is expensive to track down in paper but all readily available on e-books and, well, I just bought a new washer and dryer today so my book buying budget is firmly in the affordable ebook range at the moment so perhaps I shall check this book and some of his others out. Thanks for introducing me to a new author!

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  4. So many of my favourite writers mentioned here- clearly, this book would be just perfect for me!

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  5. Sounds like a lovely book Lisa – a travel book focused on writers. What’s not to like?

    BTW as you know the Wikipedia entry on Kafka’s sister should be dry because it’s an encyclopaedia, though it would be perfectly OK to include a properly cited quote from Kafka to give a sense of her, I think. However, what an amazing woman she sounds. No wonder he was fond of her.

    Oh, and I printed out that article – based on a lecture I think? – by Ivor Indyk, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet!

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    • Oh, of course you are right about WP, and I didn’t mean to criticise it, only to point out that the book offers so much more. I wrote this post in disconnected scraps of time over the 20 days it’s taken me to read it, so I’m not surprised that it’s not my best review ever!
      I think the Ivor Indyk piece was an oration somewhere…

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      • Thanks Lisa. I understand the challenges you are reading and writing under. You know how I am about people understanding Wikipedia. I knew you did, but not everyone does. I take your point.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not sure I could read this but it sounds a invitation to a wonderful literary journey.

    I don’t know how to improve my reading skills when it comes to essays. Nothing stays with me when I read them. I read pages and think “what did I read again”?

    Like

    • I know how you feel: when I was studying Greek and Roman Art at university, I simply didn’t understand what I was reading. I worked incredibly hard and took copious notes without knowing what I was doing, and I had a wonderful friend who helped me to predict what sort of questions we might get in the exam and we wrote notes about what our answers could be. All that hard work paid off when it turned out to be an open book exam and we were allowed to take our notes in with us. I would never have passed otherwise, and I am still a complete ignoramus when it comes to the theory of art.
      I think we all like reading different types of texts and that (unless there’s work or study involved) we should read what we enjoy.

      Like

      • Well, I had to do the same with physics in high school. My lab partner, who was also my best friend and was heading to scientific studies, used to tell me when we arrived in class : “please don’t touch anything” because I didn’t know what I was doing and was terribly clumsy. I never who have passed this class without her.
        Now I’m struggling with The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius!

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        • Gosh, why Suetonius?
          I read that at university (I majored in classics and English Lit) and while I enjoyed reading it, I found that trying to remember it in detail was complicated. That Imperial Family was so complex! Not long ago I started reading Robert Graves I Claudius which is a fictionalised diary of the Emperor Claudius, and it’s just the same: so many members of the Imperial family all tangled up together, it’s really hard to keep track of who did what. I’ll have to start again at the beginning when I get back to proper reading.

          Like

          • Why Suetonius? Hmm, it’s on the TBR 😊

            It’s dry and I don’t get everything because my knowledge of Roman culture isn’t great but it’s interesting for a French because the Roman world had so much impact on our history.

            My book comes with a chart of the family and a map of the Roman empire. It helps.

            Not only with Roman monument but also its influence on theatre (Racine, Corneille), politics (Napoléon)…

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            • Yes, the Romans were influential everywhere in Europe. I didn’t realise until I went to Russia that they even had colonies there…
              I think a chart of the family is what I need to read I Claudius, when eventually I get back to it. I’m also going to watch the BBC series starring Derek Jacobi, at least if I have a face to put to the names it will help (even though they will only be the actors’ faces).
              Did you know that all those statues of the emperors were not made to resemble them and we actually have no idea what they looked like? They had this idea that they were gods, and gods had perfect faces and bodies, so the statues, which were really propaganda, had to look perfect. (How about that, I do remember something from that uni course!)

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  7. This sounds as marvellous as I though it would be, Lisa. Unfortunately, my only option in the UK at the moment is a ebook edition (I hate e-reading) so I will to have to investigate sourcing it direct (which I think will not be cheap). With Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva it will be essential for me… ;D

    Like

    • I’ve emailed the publisher to see what the options are for overseas buyers, so wait a day or two before you order till I hear back from him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! It’s on Amazon here as an e-book only, but the postage to get a hard copy from Australia is pretty steep…. :(

        Like

        • I’ve had an email from Barry at Transit Lounge that confirms that. He says “The e-book is available internationally, otherwise unfortunately for OS orders from our website we add $20 for postage.”
          I would say, given that I think I know your tastes, that this book will bring you much pleasure and that someone who loves you ought to buy it for you:)

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks Lisa! As it’s Australian dollars the exchange is better than if it was US. I’ll have to drop a few hints…

            Liked by 1 person

  8. I like making the connections between books and places but I don’t like reading about them so much. If I’m going to read an essay it has to be about someone I am currently researching, I think. To go back to the top, you got me reading Murnane for which I will be ever grateful, but not Castro, not yet. So many of today’s prizewinners are General rather than Literary fiction, which is a good thing because it sells books, but is also a shame.

    Like

    • I know what you mean, and truth be told, I would probably have agreed before reading this book. I like literary bios, and most of them explore place as well, but rarely with the degree of feeling that Jaireth evokes. Of course it also helps that I’ve visited Moscow and St Petersburg, which haunted me even then when I was flitting about being a tourist with a sense of melancholy about the sufferings of the Russian people…

      Now Castro, I beseech you to try him. I would like you to start with Drift, which will be hard to find so if you can’t source a copy I will lend you mine (on pain of death if you don’t return it,)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Lounge, 2020). I will, in due course, write a proper review of this exquisite book, (update, here’s my review) but today I want to pay tribute to Marina Tsvetaeva, who is the subject of his second chapter, […]

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  10. How wonderful is this review! – – I didn’t enjoy The Master …which I had read relatively recently and, well, it wasn’t fresh and exciting to jaded old me. But reading this review has reminded me again about the importance of context. Wonderful review – thanks, Lisa.

    Like

  11. … and i love the information on Kafka and his sister.

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    • Hello Sara, I am loving the feedback about this review, because it confirms for me that so many of my readers will love the book.
      And yes, Kafka’s sister… somebody ought to write her story, I do not want her forgotten. (I really wanted to include a picture of her, but I couldn’t find one that was copyright free.)

      Like

  12. […] Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets, by Subhash Jaireth […]

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