Viv Groskop is a writer, presenter and comedian. And what she doesn’t know about Russian literature you could Sharpie on a kopeck. Her latest novel, The Anna Karenina Fix, now available in paperback, is a witty, clever self-help guide to the life lessons that can be learned from the Russian masters, including Tolstoy (of course), Dostoevsky and Chekhov, amongst others.
The brilliant thing about this book is that you need no prior knowledge of Russian literature to enjoy it. Thank god. I’m such an ignoramus in this department I’d never even heard of Anna Akhmatova (hardly anyone has outside of Russia and academic circles, apparently) and yet her story is possibly the most fascinating and impressive of all those mentioned. Cited as ‘the unofficial dissident poet for the Stalinist age’ her work had to be produced in secret. It could never be physically written down because she wasn’t a state approved writer and the KGB regularly searched her home and those of her friends. Therefore, she had to commit her work to memory and had a select group of trusted friends do the same. She’s quoted as saying ‘Eleven people knew Requiem by heart and not one of them betrayed me.’ Unimaginable stuff, especially to someone who can’t even commit three items on a shopping list to memory.
The message in Akhmatova’s work is How To Be Optimistic In Despair and I would honestly recommend the book on this chapter alone. As a self-help book, albeit a tongue-in-cheek one, it can be read and enjoyed cover to cover (as I did, and loved it) or you can dip in whenever life throws you a curve-ball. After all, you never know when you might need advice on How To Keep Going When Things Go Wrong (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn), How Not To Be Your Own Worst Enemy (Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin) or How To Have a Sense of Humour About Life (Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita).
It’s said that if you want something done, ask a busy person. As a writer, performer and mum of three, I’m delighted (and frankly astonished) Viv was able to squeeze us in to give us her Power of Three. Yet here it is. Be inspired:
- As a writer, what’s your greatest fear?
I’ve worked really hard to overcome a lot of my original fears as a writer (getting terrible reviews, getting something factual unforgivably wrong, insulting someone I care about with my writing…) by focusing on what matters: saying what you want to say in your work as truthfully, entertainingly and vividly as you can and getting your work out there. You can’t do anything interesting, useful or meaningful in life without taking risks — and the only thing those original fears represent is the fear of risk.
- What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
I’m pretty sure it’s from Anne Lamott in her brilliant book Bird by Bird or if it’s not then I’m paraphrasing what she says there: “Bum in seat.” (She definitely doesn’t say this. But it’s what she means.) 99% of writing is turning up and being prepared to be bad but being there anyway.
- What are your three favourite books and why?
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
Because it survives multiple re-readings and you can “read” how you’ve changed yourself over the years because it feels like a different novel every time. (I used to love Vronsky. Now I think he’s a moron.)
Little Women by Louise May Alcott
Because it’s the first book I ever read that made me realise people can have a life close to the life they want but that life might also be difficult and compromised and that’s OK. (This is Jo’s storyline.)
The Life of Stuff by Susannah Walker
A brilliant memoir about hoarding and mother-daughter relationships because it’s the last book I read and I always evangelise about the last thing I read (until I finish the next thing).
This summer Viv is appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with her new show Vivalicious. For details visit www.vivgroskop.com