Thursday, July 12, 2018

James Brydon

James Brydon grew up in North Shropshire, England, and studied English at Oxford. For over a decade, he has worked as a cryptic crossword setter. Under the name Picaroon, he sets two puzzles a month in the Guardian, and he compiles for the Spectator, the Times (London), and the fiendish Listener puzzle, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as the films of Akira Kurosawa and the six-fold symmetry of snowflakes. He is fluent in French and Serbian, is currently polishing his German, and can hold a conversation in passable Chinese. He lives in St. Albans, England, with his wife and daughter.

Brydon's debut novel is The Moment Before Drowning.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry is without doubt the most striking, original and haunting book I’ve read recently. These interlinked yet fragmentary stories from the Soviet-Polish war present, as one of the narrators puts it, “a chronicle of […] humdrum evil doings” from a conflict steeped in violence: beheadings, slit throats, the numberless and nameless dead strewing the battlefields.

The book’s shifting narrators correspond to different sides of Babel’s character. There is the bespectacled, intellectual journalist horrified by the slaughter, but also a Bolshevik taking pleasure in the protracted killing of his master, who he tramples to death for over an hour. Babel unsettlingly interrogates the moral values we ascribe to acts of violence. When the journalist is incapable of shooting a soldier whose “stomach had been torn out”, he provokes the contempt and fury of another soldier: “You four-eyed lot have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse.”

Instead of the sempiternal clich├ęs of hope and the human spirit, Babel produces an enigmatic, vivid, poetic description of what he has witnessed. Lurking in the background is a sly, almost undetectable humour, because “only the wise man rends the veil of existence with laughter.” Red Cavalry is equal to the task of representing the disturbing brutality of the 20th century, of which Babel, executed by the Soviet police, was himself a victim. Ultimately, he resembles the painter Pan Apolek, who depicted figures of Scripture with the faces of the maimed and sinful peasants he lived among: I can only marvel at his “art, his dark invention.”
Learn more about The Moment Before Drowning at the Akashic Books website.

The Page 69 Test: The Moment Before Drowning.

--Marshal Zeringue