A Large Czeslaw Miosz With a Dash of Elvis Presley; by Tania Skarynkina

Trans: Jim Dingley

Scotland Street Press: £9.99

Reviewer: Alan Taylor

THE death of the essay, like that of the short story, has long been foretold. The form, which traces its origins to the sixteenth century with Montaigne and counts among its stellar exponents William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, Gore Vidal and Joan Didion, has of late suffered with the decline and disappearance of magazines prepared to publish pieces that run to several thousand words. Recently, though, with the burgeoning of the internet and the infinite capacity of voracious websites the essay has been showing signs of revival. If not exactly thriving, it is at least surviving.

This is a matter for muted celebration. One of the great joys of reading essays is that you feel an immediate connection with their authors and come to know what they like and don’t, how they might react in certain situations and where their sympathies and affinities lie. The great essayists not only have something interesting to say but are enthusiasts and eager to share with others the pleasure of discovery.

Tania Skarnynkina calls her twenty-eight pieces “stories for Belarus” but they read more like essays to me. Each one runs to around six pages and is given a teasing title, such as ‘Death and the Panama Hat’, ‘Rabbit Meat, Gypsies and the Ocean’ and ‘Pork Knuckle and Stuffed Camel’. Skarnynkina’s style is relaxed and discursive, even chatty. Thoughts come haphazardly to her, as they do us all, and, taking advantage of the form’s elasticity, she thinks nothing of veering off at a tangent or introducing one of her own poems or relating one of her bizarre dreams, which is a sure way to induce yawns in this reader. What Skarynkina has in abundance, however, is candour and charm. She writes as if penning a letter to a close friend, loosely, intimately, but never less than engagingly. One imagines she’d be fun over a drink or two.

Like the best essayists she is incorrigibly curious. “It’s Saturday evening,” begins ‘A Window on Another Life’. “I’m listening to the lectures of the Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili on Marcel Proust. I’m standing by the window, eating sausage with bread and spring onion. At the same time, I am pondering what my next essay might be about.” What follows is in part a rumination on the lives led by other people and how Skarynkina might write an essay on that subject. Towards its end, she admits: “I’m smoking and waiting for inspiration to hit me so that I can complete the essay.” Of course, she does find an ending, deep in the recesses of her mind, a remembrance of things past.

Skarynkina was born in 1969 in Smarho?, Belarus, where virtually all of these essays are set. Her country’s history is in her genes. Surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belorussians are in the midst of flux. Skarynkina is immersed in the literatures of her own country and those of its neighbours. Her response to them is eccentric and illuminating. Writing, for instance, in ‘Three Generations of Domestic Porcelain’ – the kind of title at which Alexander McCall Smith excels – she manages to allude to Milosz, Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Pushkin, whose self-portrait “in profile” adorned a cup she once bought for an aunt who loved the poet not for his poems but for his “amorous adventures”.

The title story, ‘A Large Czes?aw Mi?osz with a Dash of Elvis Presley’, is similarly playful. In an illuminating and essential introduction, Skarynkina’s compatriot, Maryja Martysievi?, notes that the essays were originally published weekly on a website. The eponymous title was apparently chosen because it contained the names of two people “around which whole cults had grown”. Fans of Elvis, I fear, are destined to be disappointed, for his appearance is fleeting. Mi?osz, meanwhile, is the object of a pilgrimage Skarynkina makes to Kraków in the hope of meeting the great man. When she is told by a stranger that he doesn’t want to see anyone she returns home content and writes up her excursion for a competition. Except, as she confesses, she did not in that version care to mention the main purpose of her trip: “I chickened out. I’ve made it up for here,” she insouciantly signs off.