A Short History of Marina Lewycka

As a subscriber to the Action Ukraine report (an often tendentious, but welcome sort of JRL for Ukraine, subscribable by e-mail to morganw@patriot.net) I received this on Monday.

I had read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian last year, so this rather piqued my interest. While it’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read by a long shot – not even the best in the past few months, that honour being held by A Confederacy of Dunces — I found it a very enjoyable read. And isn’t that the most important thing?

And, anyway, I found this to be a rather charming story.


PROFILE: Of novelist Marina Lewycka First Novel: “A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian”The Sunday Times, London, UK, Sunday, March 18, 2007

High-octane wit and sparkiness helped boost Marina Lewycka’s improbably named first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, into a runaway bestseller. Her uproarious comedy of manners made nearly every must-read list and was even the No 1 choice of holidaying Labour MPs.

Two years on, the imminent publication of her follow-up book is prompting speculation over whether the 60-year-old author has fulfilled the highexpectations of fans.

Writing a successful second novel can be a difficult trick to pull off.Muriel Spark’s follow-up, Robinson, was her worst book by far. Neither Monica Ali nor Zadie Smith were given rapturous receptions the second time around. Often, a writer’s best efforts are eclipsed by the starburst of hype surrounding their initial discovery.

The first shots in a likely critical battle over Lewycka’s new tragicomedy Two Caravans, published this week, were fired in The Times.

The reviewer either had a sense of humour failure that day or was critically unsparing, accusing the author of playing for “cheap laughs” and indulging in linguistic “caricature” reminiscent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

But it will take more than one critic to shatter Lewycka’s belief that she is about to stretch her literary wings.

“Publishing one’s first novel at 58 is both wonderful and terrifying,” she said. “Terrifying, because I feel this sense of urgency now. I have so little writing time left, and so many things I want to write.”

Such aspirations are only natural after being shortlisted for the 2005Orange prize for fiction and winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award.

A Ukrainian born in a refugee camp in Germany before growing up in Yorkshire, she had been contemplating retirement from her job as a lecturer on media and public relations at Sheffield Hallam University when her quaint debut novel made her a rich woman who could take her pick of literary festivals and foreign tours.

People who meet Lewycka tend to fall in love with her warmth and sense ofhumour. “She is extremely likable and funny, without any pretension,” said one. “She lives in the same house in Sheffield and has the same friends.”

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the infectiously funny tale of the ructions within a dysfunctional Ukrainian immigrant family in Britain when the ageing widower Nikolai is beguiled by a young, grasping Ukrainian divorcee with Botticellian breasts who marries him to get a British passport. Nikolai’s quarrelling daughters unite to resist the “fluffy pink grenade” who explodes in their midst.

Two Caravans deals with another kind of economic migrant – workers on strawberry farms exploited by gangmasters. Here is a larger cast of characters, including Irina, just off the coach from Kiev and eager to find true love with a romantic Englishman, two Chinese girls and an 18-year-old from Malawi who has come to England to look for her sister.

Lewycka would have been happy to write a sequel to the Tractors book, she admitted. “But everyone advised me against it, saying that sequels inevitably compare badly with the original. They said I should write something completely different but exactly the same – a tall order, but Ihope I’ve pulled it off.”

That’s precisely what she has done, according to Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times fiction editor – an indication that a battle of reviewers lies ahead.”Her last book was entertaining, but this one is better,” Kemp said.

“It’s a very buoyant, witty and informative book about the horrible jobs that people from eastern Europe and Africa find themselves trapped in. It’s a stylised comedy and not meant to be social realism. In fact I admire the way she had managed to moderate the tone.”

For the disparate ensemble of Two Caravans she found inspiration in Chaucer – one of her favourite poets, along with Shakespeare, Donne and Keats. Unlike Chaucer, she writes mainly in bed, from early morning until lunchtime. “It’s to do with the business of being in a separate world,” she explained.

Her “lovely” husband, a mining consultant who once worked for the National Union of Mineworkers, brings her porridge. (“He works at home, too, though not in bed.”) She then places her laptop on the tray, which rests on a beanbag to protect her from its heat.

The couple, who have a grown-up daughter, were 1960s left-wing activists who met in the London commune where Lewycka was living. “It was all a bit sordid,” she recalled. “When my mother visited, she would come down the stairs with a dustpan and brush.”

One of the two unpublished books in her drawer was a serious political novel that she hoped would “change the world”.

“I sent it to everybody, but no one wanted it. It was so mortifying.” She started writing Tractors about 10 years ago, but her lucky break came when she joined a free MA creative writing course at her university.

The students’ novels were sent out to an external examiner, who also happened to be an agent. Bill Hamilton, of A M Heath, recalled: “Her bookwas extremely polished.

She had the attention of the tutors, all of whom were well established novelists who gave wonderful hands-on support and advice. That’s what gave her the confidence to complete it.”
Lewycka not only presented Hamilton with a fully fledged book, but also a title that stood out as strikingly original. It initially caused some bookshops to shelve the novel in their agriculture sections, and Amazon to list it under science and technology.

She even suggested the cover, arriving at a lunch with some “lovely, rather naive Christmas cards to show the rather incompetent Ukrainian artwork that she thought would be a good style”, Hamilton said.

Her acclaim in Britain was in stark contrast to the sense of alienation she experienced in Yorkshire as a child. “I got picked on. They call it dual heritage now: you’re one person with your friends, another with your family.” Her parents ate borscht and spoke a strange language.

She was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the second world war, the younger daughter of Ukrainian refugees. She was too young to remember the camp.
“As I understand, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, they took a lot of able-bodied people to labour camps. My parents were part of that. At the end of the war, they met through the Red Cross. I was the product of that union.”

They came to England because the camp was in a part of Germany that had been liberated by the British in order to escape Stalin’s Soviet Union where a grisly fate often awaited prisoners of war and labourers.

Her father was an eccentric who, like Nikolai, had written a book about tractors. She thought the notion was hilarious. “But once I started looking into the world of tractor enthusiasts, I got hooked. Tractors lack glamour,but they feed the human race and they changed the world.”

She has been writing for as long as she can remember. She composed her first poem at the age of four and a pile of rejection slips attest to her perseverance. “It’s a compulsion. I have a story and I have to tell it. I’m an Ancient Marina, in fact.”

Before Lewycka’s mother died, Marina taped their conversations, hoping to write her story. But the war was taboo for both her parents, and she created a blend of fact and fiction in Tractors.
It was only when she began researching Tractors that she realised she had a family in Ukraine. Her parents had lost contact with their relatives and believed that had all died in the second world war.

Chancing upon a Russian family-search website, she posted a query and several months later three Cyrillic e-mails appeared in her inbox, purporting to be from relatives. “This must be an e-mail scam,” she thought.

But the letters that arrived next took her breath away. There were photographs of her parents as children and sepia photos of unknown grandparents, aunts and uncles – “men with long moustaches and women in crepe de Chine dresses and amazing hats”. And an invitation: “Marinochka, please come!”

Her cousin Yuri met her in Kiev and took on her on a magical mystery tour of her family in his old BMW. “I have an intense sense of homecoming,” she wrote. There was her father’s dilapidated old house with its earth closet at the back, and an 86-year-old neighbour who burst into tears.

“She tells us what she remembers: that the old Lewyckyjs were loved by everybody; that the Germans tried to drive the whole population into the River Bug as a reprisal for two soldiers killed by partisans.” The whole experience, she said later, was “like stepping into the pages of my own book”.

She can only watch helplessly as the pages of her latest work are dissected.But those who know Lewycka have little doubt that she will observe theadvice she gives to literary late-starters and those with other dreams to fulfil: “Keep going, keep going. It’s not too late.”



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