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In Finland: Stalingrad, Success and Saturday

Updated: Jan 1

Kotka, Finland.

Unfair, perhaps, to begin Martin Amis's "Success" right after Antony Beevor's "Stalingrad", which is staggering - the work, the dedication, the authority - and of course the subject, those vast losses on vast Steppes, that brutal, barbarous 20th C.

"Stalingrad" gave me ideas - about reading Vasily Grossman, and the life of Vasily Chuikov, and in particular that pic of the young Romanian PoW, his head at a strange angle on his shoulders like someone cut it out of the photo and stuck it back wrong - but really, it's all in his eyes. That whole horrible chapter is in his eyes.

To then start "Success" - admittedly by a young Amis, a late-twenties "wunderkind" - who has never known doubt - which is his problem - the lack of doubt: "Look at me! Look at what I can do!" Not a single thought - only the presentation of words, of pretty over-polished phrases. Read about three pages - way too much.

So now, having raided our host's considerable library (multi-lingual, to my shame), have finally started Ian McEwan's "Saturday". A slow start, and the liberal Western fears seem shoe-horned from a separate narrative, but I persevered to the end. What is a writer, anyway, but a kind of brain-surgeon (or rather, perhaps, a surgeon of the mind), re-plumbing our neurological currents?

BTW I was in town that afternoon in '03 - not quite on the march, but with it - and it tickles me how close I was to the "action" McEwan describes - but it's like "Saturday" was written from a satellite. I share his ambivalence about the war and Saddam - but nowhere in the book do I get the inner turmoil that resulted.

Anyway: the book grinds wearily on, bloated by its author's success, weighed down with certainty (that word again), this extended fit of mild pique, this bourgeois exasperation, via dull interludes involving games of squash, meetings with senile mothers, an over-elaborate fish stew - without one single moment of raw emotion, and particularly of anger - has McEwan ever been angry? - until part 4, where we are treated to the least convincing conversation in recoded time between this "eminent" (but of course he is, darling!) surgeon and his prodigiously-gifted poet-daughter on the rights and wrongs of invading Iraq. The dialogue here is worse than anything I've ever read by anyone, ever. In fact the whole damn book is like growing up in 60s Perivale - is this what they mean by metaphorical onomatopoeia?

Following a newspaper commission I am contractually obliged not to give too much away about our trip - but we do love Finland. What a buzz, to be driving, and see signs for St Petersburg, the Russian border tantalisingly close. Which I guess is how the German Sixth Army felt - until it was far behind them...

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