The pioneering writings of celebrated Russian novelist Ezra Slef have made him a titan of contemporary Postmodernism, with a worldwide following keen to know more about the man behind the books. Enter Humbert Botekin, a disgraced former professor of literature, and Slef’s biggest admirer. He writes the definitive biography of Slef, with compendious notes, an introduction, a list of plates, and a glossary.
But Botekin’s narrative soon spirals dangerously out of control. A supreme egotist, Botekin cannot resist assuming the foreground, so that his ostensible biography of Slef gradually changes into a personal memoir in which we learn far more about the biographer than about his subject. The narrative is both sinister and darkly comic.
Botekin’s secrets include making a Faustian pact with a well-travelled gentleman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Devil – a likeness the self-absorbed Botekin fails to notice, even as his world collapses around him.
Ezra Slef: The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (Ezra Slef from here on in) is a wonderful, quirky read. I bought it on something of a whim – I’m a sucker for a Faustian pact! – and found it to be a thoroughly engaging read and something quite different to much of what I’ve read this year.
In Ezra Slef, we meet Humbert Botekin, Regius Professor of Postmodern Literature at Balliol College, Oxford. His title is one that he is extremely proud of, so much so that he often introduces himself by name and title given the slightest opportunity to do so, even when chatting up an attractive lady in the pub. Humbert isn’t an especially likeable character, largely due to the tremendous ego he exhibits throughout. His is a fascinating journey, however, with several high points, but some absolutely spectacular lows as well. Even from his university days, we see an individual who is intelligent – they don’t just let anyone into Oxford now, do they? – and yet not above seeking an advantage via other means where necessary. He quickly cottons on to the influence that one particular professor holds, and begins sending gifts in his direction, his masters and post-graduate courses no doubt rendered a little easier as a result. This same strategy also helps him to secure a position on the teaching staff upon finishing his studies, and later sees him promoted ahead of colleagues with more experience. He’s not afraid of hard work, and yet clearly doesn’t mind greasing a few palms if it makes his life easier. It sets up the narrative well for what is to follow.
Humbert sets out to write a biography of Ezra Slef – a Russian Postmodernist author that Humbert seems to be more than a little infatuated with. This sounds great in theory, except that Humbert is not provided with access to any papers etc. nor does Slef grant him any interviews. Rather, Humbert must use his own knowledge alongside the material that is already available in the public domain. And to fill in the remaining gaps? Well, Humbert assumes that his hero’s life is much as his own, and so he uses his own experiences to fill in the blanks, and we learn much more about Humbert than we do about Slef as the biographical work becomes more autobiographical in nature.
Ezra Slef himself remains a relatively distant character throughout, although we are treated to examples of his work and passages that Humbert is particularly impressed with. It comes across – deliberately, I think – as being quite niche in terms of its appeal, and yet Humbert will hear no word against him and his work. I did wonder if the author was perhaps having a little dig at the way in which some novels are raved about and yet hold very little appeal for the average reader – Slef’s work and Humbert’s admiration for it comes across as being a bit “emperor’s new clothes” to me.
Ezra Slef is about one man’s hubris – Humbert believes himself untouchable, particularly after taking advice from the rather mixed up (hoping you’re all cryptic crossword fans 😉) Rensip De Narsckof. Written in retrospect, Humbert makes several references to his eventual downfall and while we don’t know what will cause his demise, we do know it’s coming, and there are several elements along the way that could contribute to this. This makes Ezra Slef an extremely engaging read – I was fascinated with Humbert’s life which does seem charmed at times, and I wanted to know how and why it would start to fall apart. What is clear is that Humbert is the engineer of his own downfall, and I don’t mind admitting that there’s an element of schadenfreude in seeing him brought low.
Ezra Slef is an absolutely brilliant novel – I found it to be original and gripping throughout. And what a pleasure the book itself is. This is my first from Tartarus Press, but I love the quality of it. I feel a new collection coming on!