To Moscow! To Moscow! Recently I was in Russia as a guest of the British Council. My friend Damian Barr hosts a regular literary salon in London, and the idea was to put one on here, with the poet and essayist Linor Goralik, the novelist Alexander Ilichevsky, the publisher Dan Franklin and me. Extraliterary considerations: long johns. I asked my Russian friend Natasha, who’s from the Perm region, how cold I could expect Moscow to be in December. She made a hum-haw noise. ‘Actually you can’t know. Sometimes it can be pretty warm. It may even get up to minus five.’ She wasn’t trying to be funny. The great refrain of Chekhov’s Three Sisters has the advantage of not needing a Cyrillic keyboard to reproduce: ‘B Mockby!’ In English lettering, though, it sounds less like a cri de coeur than the name of a bureaucrat in an experimental novel of the 1950s. What does Bernard Mockby do with his life, I wonder? To what drab brown home in Metroland, to what stolid housecoated wife, does he return of an evening?
‘Talk to Russian writers,’ Linor said matter-of-factly as we sat before the event in the Cvet Nochi bar, ‘and the conversation will always turn to dead dogs and drunkenness.’ The other Russian writer appearing with us — Alexander, a winner of the Russian Booker Prize — announced that he doesn’t normally drink but intended to make an exception tonight. A man of his word, he was good and zonked by the time he was helped to his stool onstage, announcing genially that he was too hosed to read in English. He said something about dead dogs, at one point, and Linor grinned at me. The salon was, by all of our estimations, a roaring success. I asked Alexander whether he was conscious of writing in a tradition.