This week, we are invited to pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title.
“It can be a ‘If you loved this book, read this!’ or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.”
China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017)
Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights & Measures, a novel which unfolds in the decade following, when the revolution feels both fresh and far-away
Admittedly, part of the appeal for me with Miéville’s book is that he is a novelist and a fantastical novelist to boot.
So he’s got world-building skills designed to bring another time and place off the page. History told like this? Who could ask for more.
This should be the perfect set-up for understanding the world in which Jocelyn Parr’s characters were coming-of-age and preparing to step onto the stage of her novel.
Unsurprisingly, Miéville intends for the work to be accessible and immersive. There is an interesting interview with him by Samual Goff on “The Calvert Journal”. And there is a clip of an interview with Verso Books in the sidebar below.
“I’t’s completely chimerical to hope to tell the whole story. It was never intended to be an academic book,’ he tells me. ‘The aim was to give you some sense of what an extraordinary story this was. On that level it’s that most straightforward thing: a narrative history.’”
Just the thing!
Ironically, however, but perhaps predictably, I read Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights & Measures first (it looked like Miéville’s book was going to take awhile to arrive in the library for me – then, there it was)!
I was curious about Parr’s novel because of its shortlisting for the 2017 Governor General’s Award for Fiction in Canada, but it was the first sentence which sealed the deal for me:
“Before Lenin was dead and before my life had properly begun, I used to spend all my time in a bookstore down on Nikitskaya.”
You could find the Moscow bookstore on the pages of a history book, but not Tatiana’s story. Her work as a scientist is just one of many state-sponsored positions, designed to create the opportunity for discovery and exploration (or the impression of it, at least).
“Science was a raised skirt or a missing button, concluded Bekhterev in one of his lectures. You always hope for a nipple, but even its suggestion will hold your attention for a very long time.”
Not only does one catch a glimpse of the excitement and anticipation of scientific discovery through this analogy, but also the atmosphere in which Tatiana studies and works. She is passionate about the possibility of understanding the genesis of genius.
It’s not all tiny slices of people’s brains, however. And it’s also not all about discovery, which is how Tatiana has imagined it would be.
“At the institute, the silence persisted for the first few months of 1928, so that work sounded like the shuffling of papers, the pouring of tea, the clinking of glass jars meeting each other in the sink. Drawers, cabinets, and catalogue trays slid open and closed. The typewriter cartridge shunted back to the beginning with a familiar ding.”
She has overlooked the importance of politics, the need to produce particular results, the kind of results which support a ruling power.
“Somehow, the city had shifted just enough to make us dizzy. As if the streets and buildings and parks had been lifted up off their grid and then given a sharp kick before being laid back down, so that they were now ever so slightly askew – north not so north anymore.”
There are some very pressing questions. People disappear. Key people. And Tatiana’s lover, Sasha, who was uncomfortable early on (when they met – yes, in the bookstore) becomes inconsolable.
“This is when the new feeling started, though at the time I wouldn’t have described it as such. It wasn’t fear exactly, but fear’s beginning: stranger seen once too often.”
The love story – another kind of discovery – is prominent but not sentimental. Their bond offers a kind of security otherwise lacking in their everyday lives in this time of flux and realignment.
“Historians and archeologists know this: war, natural disaster and sudden regime changes are the best thing that can happen when it comes to preservation of the past. A volcano erupts and sends its lava flowing. In its path, everything is captured exactly was it was. How else would we ever have known about Pompeii?”
Well, yes, how else would we know. About its complete and utter devastation. And is that really knowing? Is that not only knowing that it has been obliterated?
What do we do when that’s the only kind of history we have?
Well, we turn to stories. And to storytellers.