One of the good things about a sober evening is the mental energy to read.
This is the only way I can survive a night without a drink, really, by drowning my thoughts instead with literature (or however one defines the masturbatory prose farts I vomit out myself*). Other people are what I need a distraction from; the demi-art that is television is always improved by a swig of gin and a few negronis and most of a bottle of wine and a beer-
Literature, the best Art, is best consumed sober. One doesn’t enjoy Proust more for being spangled, one doesn’t get more out of Woolf by being pissed… maybe there’s an argument for nosin’ a bit of charlie and reading American Psycho aloud to a room of braying suits, but as a general rule, books and intoxicants work best when they only overlap on the pages.**
So, late night and sober, I have read another one of those tiny books they sell by the tills in a Waterstones. This one is The Neva Star, a short story by C.D. Rose that has been rather attractively published by Daunt Books, the publishing arm of the chain of upmarket book shops (i.e. bookshops where people buy hardbacks and the books they try to push beside the tills are other hardbacks).
The story is 25 pages long and is about three Ukrainian sailors who are stranded on a ship in the port of Naples. The rest of their once 70-strong crew have long since departed, but these three men – all named Sergei – have remained for three years out of an economic stubbornness: they will not be paid for their work on the ship’s journey to this port (or the time they’ve spent on board since it docked) if they leave the ship. So, together, they wait.
The authorial voice slips from man to man. One of them has found a bundle of cash in the abandoned captain’s quarters; one of them laments his wife leaving for a richer man; another laments his wife leaving for no apparent reason; one of them thinks about the time he kissed another Sergei’s wife; one of them leaves the ship and meets other outcasts in Naples; one of them stares at Vesuvius; another stares at the buildings of the city; one them tries to fish in the port; the one who wanders the land gets told a local myth about a boy who dived into the waters of port and never came back…
Rose deliberately confuses the reader. Though the Sergei who was married to Masha is definitely not the same Sergei who kissed Masha on a visit to St Petersburg, that’s about as close as we get to differentiation. It is probably the same one who wanders the city who has the cash in his pocket, but every line and paragraph break leaves this in flux. Maybe all of them enter the city, maybe all of them were married to Masha, maybe all of them flirted with each other’s wives, maybe all of them ached to leave the ship they could not leave, maybe all of them stared at the volcano and the city and the sea…
Naples is a beautiful city. It is loud and dirty and, when I went there one Winter, it was cold and wet. It is old, it feels old, and it is a city that has a rich and international history. It is the birthplace of pizza, a dish and a word that one can find in most towns across the planet. It was a Roman port, it sits in the shadow of one of the most famous volcanos in the world and it exists, culturally, as a glamorous and significant Italian city.
Naples is the perfect place to set a timeless short piece about people on the edge of a society. People who are noticed and observed as a curiosity, but then forgotten, for that is how history treats all but the rarest of individuals. The Neva Star is an arresting and very short piece, offering a gentle insight into the slow loss of an identity, or the coagulation of three identities into one. The men start apart, distinct, and crowd together, like drops of water or oil on a flat surface. Their minds and their distinctions flow into each other. They share names and they share histories – the places they have been together and the three years they have spent as a trio, stationary – and slowly they begin to share a common personality. With experience comes identity, but also through comparison with others: we are not only who we think we are in comparison to our own earlier selves, but we are also who we think we are in comparison to those we interact with.
If I spend most of my time only with my puppy, I will feel old and tired in comparison to him, Cubby. When I spend most of my time with myself, I will feel without hope and without a future, because I have much less of both than I once had.
And there is other knowledge that helps me:
- I have hundreds (though likely not thousands) of wonderful books to read over the rest of my life, maybe even over the next few years.
- There are things worth living for, and they are all books.
The Neva Star is short, offers psychological and geographic detail that is knowable, understandable and sharp. If you’re considering one of those mini-books by a bookshop till, this is a great one to go for.
* Is that too many bodily functions?
** I’m talking about being intoxicated, I’m not saying that having a beer or a glass of wine whilst sat in a trattoria ruins whatever book is ones dinner date, but I am saying that once one has necked the fourth or fifth, you’re not going to notice either the language or the narrative with the intensity that the fact of the book’s publication implies it deserves.