By Olga Tokarczuk, and Jennifer Croft
Flights, which was awarded Poland’s biggest literary prize in 2008, is a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy. Olga Tokarczuk perfectly intertwines travel narratives and reflections on travel with observations on the body and on life and death.
Winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.Tweet
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Sadly I found this book a difficult read, and struggled to maintain concentration as the book wandered from vignette to vignette. I got about halfway through the book but didn't manage to engage particularly well with the style and rhythm of the writing. Not loved by me.
An interesting book, beautifully written in places, which ultimately left me feeling rather disappointed and frustrated.
The author combines "short stories" with curious digressions about anatomy, the preservation of bodies after death, airports and nomadic sects (among other things), and these digressions didn't add much to my enjoyment or understanding of the book. I found my concentration flagging in places, and reading on became a bit of a chore. The stories brought the book to life, but often - just when Tokarczuk had grabbed my attention - she would abruptly change direction leaving me with little idea of what actually happened.
Overall, I finished the book feeling mildly confused and with the feeling that I'd lost my way somewhere on this journey.
“God writes with his left hand and in mirror writing” – this is one of many lovely moments in the book; in parts it is beautifully written and engaging, though sadly there are also many parts which are obscure and dense. There’s a lot in this book, it’s brimming with ideas, stories and observations. It’s readable but is not a novel in the traditional sense; there are themes and threads running through the book but they do not quite pull together. It’s actually quite difficult to say exactly what it is about and I suspect that every reader will find something different to delight (or not) in the book. So mixed feelings about this one, but it did make me want to travel …
I read this as part of Gloucester Book Club's shadowing of the Man Booker International Prize 2018. This exercise in itself has been a fulfilling experience and I am very pleased to have taken part in it.
We were given the book Flights, (410 pages) with a fairly tight deadline to read and review. My friends in Gloucester Book Club have reviewed their experiences with Flights, and I won't try to emulate their eloquent descriptions and assessments. Suffice it to say that I felt like I missed my own connecting flight with this book and I was adrift for some of the time. A dense, challenging read and I made slow progress, preferring to dip in and out of the book, setting myself daily reading goals to achieve the brief - to read and review. I wouldn't describe it as a novel, certainly not a light beach read because the print is fairly small and needs a level of concentration you wouldn't necessarily have after slapping on the Factor 50.
Its themes are movement and stasis, things changing versus staying the same. At times beautifully written, not a typical travellers journal and without detail about the places the narrator visited. Perhaps it's more of an inward journey, what happens to us when we travel, what kind of relationship with have with our memories, bodies and objects. I loved most of the short stories interspersed with the narrator's meanderings which I didn't warm to. Apparently the maps throughout the book are very important to look at, unfortunately I didn't and perhaps I should have paid them more attention. Jennifer Croft appears to have done a good job with the translation. I'm not convinced Flights' parts held together, but I felt like I'd been on a kind of pilgrimage.
I also read this novel as a member of Gloucester Book Club. I couldn't fully engage with it.
We're treated to glimpses of fascinating characters, the alcoholic Erick, Mr Blau and others and to a number of intriguing relationships, none better than Karen's ultimately dysfunctional relationship with her elderly professor husband. These glimpses are full of promise but are frustratingly abandoned without any conspicuous attempt at real development or resolution.
The book appears to be concerned with themes which ordinarily would be irresistible: time, memory, travel, displacement, what it means to feel at home. The problem is that the reader is continually sidetracked by a host of other impenetrable narratives, observations and comment. On too many occasions it's unclear who is narrating, whether that person is or was real, in what point of time they are uttered, and what the point of all of it is.
I found it impossible to resist the conclusion that the author is being gratuitously obtuse. At the end of the book - I can't call it a novel - I was left with a hankering for what might have been.
‘...a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.’
Olga Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International-nominated novel, Flights, begins with the nameless narrator’s childhood recollections - of her first awareness of her physical presence in the world, her first expedition, and the contrast between the settled life of her parents and her own rootlessness. The themes are explored through a succession of stories, essays and fragments.
Tokarczuk has described Flights as a ‘constellation novel’. It certainly does not follow the classic pattern of plot- or character-driven novels that English-speaking readers are more used to. Rather, it is meditative, discursive and driven by ideas. It is for the reader to draw the meaning from the fragments. Half-way through, Tokarczuk asks whether another way of writing might not have been more effective:
‘Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs?’
Towards the end of the novel, we meet a retired professor who is giving lectures on a cruise of Greece and its islands. In the professor’s lecture on the forgotten gods, the ones that did not make it into the Homeric legends, he talks of the relationship between time and place, which for this reader was one of the key themes of the book.
‘they’ve preserved something the well-known gods have lost forever - a divine volatility and ungraspability, a fluidity of form, an uncertainty of genealogy. They emerge from the shadows, from formlessness, them succumb once more to looming darkness. Just take Kairos, who always operates at the intersection of linear, human time and divine time - circular time. And at the intersection between place and time, at that moment that opens up for just a little while, to situate that single, right, unrepeatable possibility. The point where the straight line that runs from nowhere to nowhere makes - for one moment - contact with the circle.’
For Tokarczuk, stories are not necessarily linear and we cannot think of time as one thin after another. In an interview with Claire Armistead in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/20/olga-tokarczuk-interview-flights-man-booker-international) , Tokarczuk reflects on the differences between English and Polish novels.
‘The first thing is that we don’t trust reality as much as you do. Reading English novels I always adore the ability to write without fear about inner psychological things that are so delicate. In such a form you can develop a story in a very linear way, but we don’t have this patience. We feel that in every moment something must be wrong because our own story wasn’t linear. Another difference is that you are rooted in psychoanalysis while we’re still thinking in a mythical, religious way.’
On a personal level, I responded more to the theme of travel than to that of the body, with one exception. The story that most moved me was that of Angel Soliman, the child sold into slavery who became a courtier of Emperor Joseph II. After his death, he was stuffed and put on display in the Emperor’s cabinet of curiosities. His daughter writes to the new Emperor to ask for his body so she can arrange a Christian burial. Her increasingly desperate pleas for the dignity of humanity are poignant.
The meditations on travel will draw me back to this book. I have always been fascinated by liminal spaces, those zones of transition where strangers’ lives intersect, if only for a moment. But that is a moment where anything could happen, a moment pregnant with possibility. And travel, being in motion, has often felt liberating. Am I engaged with this novel because I myself am restless?
Restlessness is conveyed by the structure of the book. It is fragmentary. We may think we have finished with a story, such as that of the Polish tourist, Kunicki, whose wife and child disappear on a Croatian island. Nearly 300 pages later, we meet him again. But the language flows. Reading this book is not difficult, once you surrender to its form. Credit for this must go to the translator, Jennifer Croft, as well as to Toczaruk herself.
This book is astonishing, rich and full of insight. It will travel with me, to be reread and rethought.
Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (2007), translated Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo editions (2017)
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a ‘novel’, about ‘travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy’.
Not an easy one and I think Olga Tokarczuk copped out (though, presumably, it was her idea).
Firstly, I’d ask, how much of this is about travel?; and how much is actually about the physical act of a person moving from A to B―an activity which can usually hardly be dignified with the term, ‘travel’? I’ve just driven back from Gloucester. it was journey, but I wouldn’t call it travel. ‘Travel’ is having a set of rich experiences on the way, which is hardly possible in a Ford Fiesta on the A417.
In this respect, a lot of the ‘travel’ Tokarczuk writes about is banal moving from A to B. The frantic husband looking for his wife; the same wife wandering (?―we never really find out) in the woods? Not exactly a cruise in the Aegean, or a hike up the Andes.
Further, the bits about human anatomy strike me as being mostly about the study of human anatomy, which is not at all the same thing.
Secondly, it is disappointing that the author makes only halfhearted attempts to weave the two themes together. One is driven to invent one’s own metaphors, about an underground train system, say, being like veins and arteries. Otherwise, you just have a man journeying to meet the widow of an anatomist, for example. The travel is strictly functional: it is the meeting (and the anatomy) which interests Ms Tokarczuk.
The book contains around eight stories, which take up half its pages. The stories are mostly about people―mostly women―who, more or less arbitrarily, step off the path they must have thought life had dictated for them, into the―what?―unknown.
However, in 403 pages there are over a hundred sections; many are much shorter than the stories―many under a page and one only 17 words (‘pretentious?, moi?’). And I say ‘around eight stories’ because, it is not clear (to me) what is a story and what isn’t. These short section are, shall we say, tangential. Their relevance to the matter in hand is opaque. One is left thinking they had been left ‘wadded up and dusty in a drawer of bras and knickers’ (page 333) and the author thought they would add a sort of confected mystery to the book.
I completely get that the whole point is that the book isn’t intended to hang together. One is intended to relish the scenery―meditate on it, perhaps―as it goes by, moment by moment. However, while on a journey there is a logic to why this church is here, and that tree there; the author makes no attempt, through her choice of sections, or the way they are written, to justify why this story and not another one, why this character and not some other. Why this sequence and not a different one.
This is one of those books. You either like it or don’t like it. I can’t say, love it or hate it, because it carefully avoids anything so dramatic that such extreme emotions might be aroused.
It can be annoying, and certainly self-indulgent; pretentious even. As when the narrator asserts that she (?) has remained loyal to only two travel books: one an obscure, and itself pretentious, eighteenth century tract. And the other, Moby Dick. Puh-lease (76-78).
I didn’t appreciate the frankly ignorant foray into science with which the author is inadequately familiar: ‘Am I subject to that much-lauded [sic] law of quantum physics which states that a particle may exist in two places at once?’ No, you aren’t. Quantum mechanics applies strictly to a micro environment of subatomic particles, not to human beings in their totality (58).
For all that the writing reads well, and it does, it is too dispassionate for me (a consequence, perhaps, of the author, apparently formerly psychiatrist, having to put up with one too many patients’ traumas) and that dispassion too often becomes blandness or even banality. No Chekhov, she.
‘Satellite images flash through his mind―they say you can make out the writing on a matchbox with them. Is that possible?’ Yes, it is. Even in 2007, this shouldn’t have been a revelation (56).
‘Airports have a soundtrack. A symphony of airplane engines… A requiem [why a requiem?] that opens with the potent introitus of takeoff…’. But take off is to do with the aeroplane [sic], not the airport. She should have stuck with ‘symphony’ and left it at that, if only to avoid the inevitable questions, ‘which bit of the fight is the Benedictus?’, ‘Which bit the Sanctus?’ (63)
‘These are individual episodes, isolated gestures, like a footprint on a soft carpet made endlessly and always in the same exact spot and then vanishes’. Apart from noting that that should be, ‘…and which then vanishes’, I am baffled by this. How can an isolated gesture be like lots of gestures (ie lots of footprints)? Why does the footprint then vanish? Someone, whether author, translator or editor, needed to intervene here (69).
Housekeeping. It’s disappointing that the book is translated into US English, but with inconsistencies, particularly of spelling. But, ‘I had gotten stuck in a big city’ (18) is ugly. ‘Draft’, not ‘draught’, please (69). ‘[pedestrian] crossing’ not ‘crosswalk’ (363). It is a European novel and a European language would have been appropriate.
A number of words are broken over two lines in the wrong place―for example, ep/idemics (22) , helicop/ter (44), ‘ca/thedral’ (67).
The book is afforded generous margins, so it’s a shame that the inner margins are unnecessarily narrow, as if the designer hadn’t realised you can’t open the book flat without breaking it. And the run of the mill paper is extraordinarily translucent. Even my modest pencil notes grin through.
The cover is, well, banal.
The stories are not so well told as to be particularly interesting in their own right, though I am sure that readers who make it to the end will have their favourite; mine was the one about the professor on the cruise ship being looked after by his wife―seemingly inadequate men being looked after by their wives or other strong women being one of the main themes of the book. But they aren’t so poorly told as to make one simply give up.
The authorial voice dispensing aperçus on travel is better done by Alain de Botton in The art of travel (let’s give him a Booker prize!). The vague, whimsical stuff is done better by―one of many examples―Ali Smith in Autumn.
So: it isn’t a novel; the travel in it is of the *twentieth* century; and it’s not really about human anatomy. Ms Tokarczuk should sack her publicist. Is this really one of the six best fiction books translated into English and published in 2017? I rather hope not.
© 2018, Jeremy Marchant
Not a novel per se but a collection of stories. Some are essays and some merely of paragraph length with the remainder between the those other two categories. the shortest are unrelated to the main stories but this did not detract from the merit of the book in my opinion. The author bases the book on her ideas of time, travel, the body and the characters lives and often their death.
Time is represented in the details of life in childhood, youth and beyond as well as in differing eras ranging from time of Francis 1st through Chopins time. 1950s Eastern Europe and modern times. there is a painful description of how over a short period of time a wife and child go missing. The author does not give any long term answer to this mystery.
In relation to travel reliance is put on journeys involving airports and the life of the airport itself as well as rail journeys and cruises. The latter two produced wonderful accounts of a how an exhausted carer "loses" herself to the Moscow metro over a few days of endless and pointless travel. The cruise story tells the sad tale of an age disparate couple where the older husband dies of a stroke and the description of the course of the stroke in his brain is superbly written.There is a beautiful vignette of a journey undertaken by a woman to a former lover who requests euthanasia by her using her knowledge of poisons.
The topic of the body is minutely discussed through illness but particularly through dissection, autopsies and all things body related. autopsies and dissection are described in minute detail but it is informative not sensational in its telling. The tale of Solemon who is desperate to retrieve her late fathers embalmed body mixes the workings of her mind with the gruesome detail of the treatment of her fathers body
Some characters such as Chopin and Ruyuch are real whereas Dr Blau - a particularly disturbing character are fictional. Tokarczuk portrays the fluidity of time and travel excellently.It is an engaging but challenging read.It is not verbose or turgid in its differing and disjointed nature. The main themes are powerfully observed.
Probably more suited to a long winters read over days rather than summer light reading on a beach! Translated very well and the book thoroughly engaged this reviewer!
A book of multiple genres, relatively unstructured; a writer's notebook of short stories, anecdotes, historical snippets, musings, psychological speculation. The key refrain is the juxtaposition of movement and stagnation, motion and decay. Throughout the book two motifs dominate: the meaning, purpose and practicality of travel, and the anatomy of the human body. The author argues a sub-genre of travel psychology, in both compulsion to travel and the role of journeys in our lives: airports as new cities, the intimacy of enforced proximity on an aeroplane, the futility of arrival, the the interaction of itinerants. The theme of constant motion is linked to the anatomical refrain: body parts and fluids must keep moving or the body dies. The collection of short stories are complete in themselves, are not encompassed within any narrative structure, and some are left with deliberately ambiguous endings. In the original Polish version the title referred to the concept of 'Wanderers', nomads who defy categorization, those who avoid petrification by constant movement. The journeys, the relationships, the short stories, the psychological musing, the anecdotes are never confined to any linear structure. The book is a constellation of ideas, a melee of realities, a moving landscape.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk was read as part of Gloucester Book Club’s grateful participation in The Reading Agency’s project to shadow the Man Booker International Prize 2018 shortlist.
Flights comes over initially as an extremely dense, difficult read; as if trying far too hard to be clever for the sake of it. It is essentially a collection of short stories and essays, vaguely on the theme of the movement of people or time. These are interspersed with seemingly random ideas and comment pieces. Tokarczuk herself describes Flights as a “constellation novel”, which “throws stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes”. To be fair, Tokarczuk gives a very engaging and articulate explanation of her approach in a sub-titled interview on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o_clmBrpQs and anyone considering reading Flights and wishing to try to understand it intellectually, would be well-advised to view it before starting. However, to me, “constellation novel” is code for a stream-of-consciousness presentation style that basically says: ‘all my thoughts are important, you sort out this mess and make of it what you will’! This pretentiousness adds absolutely nothing to the book, it simply serves to consolidate the ‘wading through treacle’ experience.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that some of the short stories and longer essays are really engaging and beautifully written. Once I had resolved to treat Flights as a series of short stories interrupted by easily skimmed or, in some cases, skipped, literary radio static, I was much happier and my enjoyment of the book was much increased.
A number of the stories are clearly very well-researched and cleverly blur the line between fiction and non-fiction: Tokarczuk’s obsession with the history of anatomy as explored in the story of 17the century Flemish anatomist, Filip Verheyen.
Amongst the fictional short stories, the stand-out for me is Kairos, short but so well observed, concerning Karen, the second and much younger wife of an aging professor, on their final cruise around the Aegean, during which the professor lectures on ancient Greece. Their marriage of convenience has clearly become so much more a marriage of deep love and partnership. Their routine progress through the Aegean a metaphor for their marriage, the tragedy of an accidental fall and the professor’s fatal brain haemorrhage, all described with such beauty and tenderness; the metaphorical description of the haemorrhage’s progress artfully echoing Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Compliment where compliment is due: it is clear that Flights is, with one or two minor aberrations, very well and dynamically translated into English by Jennifer Croft; it cannot have been an easy job.
In conclusion. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is a very challenging read. I would only recommend it to a suitable reader and with the caveat to treat it as a collection of short stories and skip the intervening observational pieces. They just over-complicate and spoil the book: life is too short to waste your time struggling with someone else’s inability or unwillingness to marshal their ideas into an engaging and readable format. I am sorry, but I am not falling for the “constellation novel” nonsense, notwithstanding Tokarczuk’s eloquent defence on YouTube. The fact that I have to qualify my recommendation in this way must affect my score, so: *** [3 stars or 6/10].
Joe Fullerton, Gloucester Book Club.
The author describes this as a constellation novel, where we see different points of light and our brain makes them into a pattern. I'm afraid for me it did not engage. Some of the episodes were interesting but we never found out what happened to the character (what happened to the missing wife and child for example) and then we were given something else, seemingly at random. There appeared to be two parts to the book, anatomy and travelling, which made it even more disjointed. Could she not have picked one theme and elaborated on it? Some of the writing was very good, and her ideas on airports interesting, but for me the lack of cohesion made it a frustrating read. A writer's notebook of ideas rather than a novel.