All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

24 January 2012

Funeral beat

The first name that sprang to Matt’s mind was David Bowie. It was a good one. Matt closed his eyes and, in delirious excitement, played the first verse of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” in his head. It was all coming so real: the beauty of the tune was breathlessly gnawed by hollow, funereal faces of his friends and relatives. Then Matt suddenly thought about the song’s lyrics: no, it really didn’t make any sense. “Time takes a cigarette…” was, of course, one of the best starts imaginable, but most of what came afterwards just didn’t fit. And ‘suicide’: he wasn’t planning it. It would be a heavy blow to his father, who, if last week’s tests were anything to go by, had a serious heart condition.

While trying to fall asleep the other night, Matt suddenly realised that if he happened to die (and accidents happen, they say – even if you are 21), there would not be any specific song playing at his funeral. Just some random crap, whatever his half-blind grannies and tone-deaf nephews would choose. Something classical, something obvious. What was perhaps even more disconcerting, was that the music could well be picked and provided by some clueless funeral office. In that case, Mozart’s “Requiem” was bound to be on top of the list. And how sad would that be?.. He really had to come up with a good song. The kind that could be both dramatic and understated, the kind that could make the sullen flock of mourners and criers cheer up a bit – and yet realise what a tragic loss they faced. The melody? Slightly lethargic – but with definite glorious undertones.

Despite rejecting “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”, Matt didn’t feel like he was done with Bowie. “Life On Mars?” was another strong contender. That emotional vocal delivery would alone do the trick. And even if the lyrics didn’t quite match the occasion, they had the right vibe to them. And anyway, who would get into specifics when there’s an open (it had to be open) casket nearby. It was about the general feeling of boundless, overpowering grief, and “Life On Mars?” certainly had that in spades. Still, Bowie’s vocal intensity on that one was a little too theatrical and overbearing. Matt decided to contemplate other options.

For instance, he toyed with some older classics. Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”, he’d always been a fan of that one. But since it was probably extremely unimaginative and too much of a cliché, he binned it. Even “What A Wonderful World” crossed his mind at some point, but at best – it seemed cheeky. At worst – cynical. 

Johnny Cash? Leonard Cohen? Tom Waits? All three would make an unbearably grim impression, which he didn’t need.

Paul Weller’s “Going Underground” would be a witty choice were it not for the sheer drive, speed of The Jam’s punkish spirit.

Some Roger Waters’ song off The Final Cut? The mere thought depressed Matt.

A song like “Death Is Not The End” (Nick Cave’s rendition was Matt’s favourite) was slightly more upbeat lyrically, but at a funeral it would just come off as a bad, cruel, pompous joke. 

After some consideration (and since the situation left no room for procrastination) Matt thought he was on to something. He took out a sheet of paper from his drawer and wrote: “Rainy Night In Soho” by The Pogues – to be played…” He halted. He couldn’t finish the sentence. Not because he suddenly experienced a heart attack or his sister knocked on his door (it was long past midnight) or his pen ran out of ink – he just couldn’t write those words. “Fuck, I’m only 21!” So he tore it all up in as many pieces as he could, threw them under his bed and, exhausted, fell asleep.

For once, the tests didn’t lie, and after a couple of days Matt’s father died in his sleep. In their thoughts and conversations everyone kept exaggerating that bit about ‘in his sleep’. It was the only thing they could all hang on to.

Also, what made it a little easier was the question that someone raised. It was a timely distraction, and everybody's mind raced towards it.

- What song will they play at the funeral?

This could have been Matt’s little sister.

- Do we have to? – asked someone.

- No, but it would be a good thing to do, – said Matt’s mother. – Any ideas?

- Well, – it was Matt, – it depends on what kind of stuff he liked…

- No it doesn’t. Come on, you are the one who knows so much about music. Think of something.

Everyone was looking at Matt.

- Well, it’s… Okay, I’ll think of something.

Matt went to his room. Mozart was heavily on his mind, but he knew he still had lots of time. He was thinking of his father: it was the right thing to do. Matt tried to recall his father’s face, but it wouldn’t come. Instead, there were memories welling up inside his head. Numerous formless fragments, they were a lot like those pieces of paper now scattered under his bed.

Matt lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. Like a marching army, the images were overwhelming. For once, he let them in.

19 January 2012

A new course of creative writing


Mr Lines, I would just like to tell you that you have been such an inspiration these two months. And to think how wary I was at first! I mean, were it not for my former boyfriend – I wouldn’t even be attending this writing course of yours. Honestly,  Mr Lines, you just can’t imagine how pathetic my writing got at some point: forced, tedious, bland. I thought I got burnt out on the whole thing – without actually achieving anything. I thought I would never again experience any remotely interesting idea. I thought I was dried out, faded. And then all these courses of creative writing started coming up here and there: in Internet ads, in conversations. To be completely honest, I thought them precarious. I thought – no, you can’t teach that, let alone in 3 months. But your class seems to have such a great effect on me. All of a sudden I knew how to strangle Mrs McGarrigle and how to poison Mr Alistair. Still, I can’t get rid of these doubts, Mr Lines. What if my writings are a waste of paper and time?

But I must be boring you. I can imagine the withered look and I can hear exactly what you’re thinking: oh no, not another young ‘writer’ spurting out her pathetic anguish. Sorry. This was meant to be a ‘thank you’ note, not some annoying confession. It’s been such a privilege, all this time with you, the excerpts from your novels and your priceless advice; I’m glad I’ve still got two full weeks to look forward to!

P.S. And thank you so much for the kind words regarding my latest short story. It’s precisely your invaluable encouragement, Mr Lines, that keeps me going.

P.P.S. Oh and of course: I hope you remember me. It’s Helen Carpenter. Curly black hair. Front row.


Helen, how good of you to write and express yourself the way you did! You’ll be surprised: I very rarely receive notes of this kind. These writers (no need to put that in commas: I treat you all as real ones, it’s pointless otherwise) I’ve taught – they tend to hide it all inside, as if they want to keep it as a secret. As if they got this terrific present for their friend and suddenly found it too pretty and shiny to part with. This attitude is actually destructive if you are going to proceed with all this writing business.

I’m glad you are enjoying my class. That’s what this is all about, that’s what keeps me going. I can only hope the tasks I’m giving you can help you add a little edge to your writing. And speaking of edge, which task has been the most helpful so far?

As for these doubts of yours – well, Helen, it’s like you have some sort of disease: the best thing is to realise that the symptom, however frustrating and painful, is perfectly natural. And don’t forget what I said at the end of our class on Friday: everybody is a writer. It’s just that some are born with writer’s block.

P.S. Your short story was indeed extremely well-written. I’m actually rereading it now.

P.P.S. Of course I do, Helen. I remember you well.


Oh Mr Lines, have you actually reread that story?!? I feel so, so embarrassed. I’m actually blushing now. That ending, there’s just not enough twist to it – is there? Are you always satisfied with your work as you take it to your publisher? Because I’ve read all your books, Mr Lines, and envied every single one of them: they just seem so well crafted, so finished. (Off-topic: you’ve always looked so good on the back covers of your novels that my ex-boyfriend felt jealous whenever I was holding one of those!)

I perfectly understand what you mean by that ‘writer’s block’ remark, though wouldn’t it be boring if everyone was a writer?.. I mean, surely there must be some sort of elitism to it. There’s a Will Self story about all the waiters in London being secret and underappreciated writers. It’s hilarious. I’m sure you’ve read it?

Now on to your question: your tasks. Well, Mr Lines, they’ve all been most helpful and interesting. Personally, I liked the more challenging ones better. Like the very first thing you asked us to do: describe a sex scene. I’m afraid I completely flunked that one. I just kept scratching the words and whole sentences out; it seemed too rigid and verbose. John Updike? Well, I could definitely provide some competition there! ..

P.S. But the experience will hopefully pay off in this short story I’m working on at the moment…


No, Helen, the ending is my favourite part of it! And don’t you worry about the twist – it’s worthy of any of mine.

That sex scene of yours. Well, Helen, believe me, it was miles ahead of that overworked Rabbit Angstrom pap. And not just that: it had some unique and absolutely irresistible crudeness to it that just won me over. I myself have never been a fan of those who over-romanticize the sexual intercourse, so your naturalism was welcome (you bring up Will Self – well, remember his story “The Incubus”? That’s exactly what I’m talking about). Slightly excessive, granted, but that’s not something that can’t be fixed. Feel free to turn to me whenever you need any help.

As for your question, well, believe it or not: I never feel satisfied for more than a couple of hours. You are not meant to be. The day you are content with every bit of it – you are done or you’ve started doing it for money. And I’m pleased to discover that you are such an admirer of my work! So: what are you working on at the moment?

P.S. My photos were taken by my wife (we no longer live together), and I’ve always considered my look there to be kind of devilish.


You flatter and indulge me, Mr Lines. Good you can’t see me now: I’m blushing again. Certainly you can nail an ending like that on a bad day – eating breakfast!..

It’s exciting what you said about my sex scene. You see, I’m really this timid, shy person in real life, but here’s what I’ve figured out: you can’t be timid about passion. The moment you play it down, it just starts feeling so forced, so outrageously made up. Real sexual intercourse should always be about real physical passion. Always. Don’t you think? I’m actually working on a new short story now, and it’s supposed to have that kind of scene. What is more, the scene is supposed to play the key role in the while thing. Without it – it won’t go any farther. But I’m afraid I’m stuck.

P.S. Devilish? Oh I don’t know about that. But definitely attractive, if you don’t mind my saying so.


Helen, it’s my turn to be flattered. Look who’s blushing now. That bit about breakfast, I wish it were as simple as that!..

And like I say, if you are experiencing any trouble with your writing, I’m there for the taking. That’s what this whole course is for. By the way, totally agree with you on passion.

Just how stuck are you? If not much, come to me after tomorrow’s class and we’ll figure something out. I would very much like to read this new story of yours.


No, Mr Lines, I’m afraid I’m stuck a great deal, so it’s not a matter of fifteen minutes (even if you could spare me that much).

Too bad.


Helen, no reason to be so upset. We could easily arrange something. I’m not sure I’ll be at the University a lot these coming days, but how about some nice and quiet café?

We could have a nice chat about all things literature and discuss your new story. Tell me what you think.


Oh Mr Lines, will you really do that for me? Because I know just the place. I promise I won’t take much of your time.

I attach the picture and the address of the café. Will it do?


Oh yes, Helen, very well. 7 o’clock tomorrow then?

And don’t forget to bring your story.


Perfect, Mr Lines! See you there.


Good morning, Mr Lines!

When exactly does our Tuesday class start? I’m asking because I have an important appointment at that time I don’t want to miss.

By the way: I woke up twenty minutes ago, and I’ve already worked a bit on this short story of mine. I’m convinced now that it will work out fine. The scene clicked (but of course it did). The problems have been resolved, no tight knots anymore.

Interesting: it now seems like the story is writing itself.

P.S. How do you feel today?


Good morning, Helen!

It’s seven o’clock, as usual. I’m sorry to hear you won’t be there. And glad to know about your short story.

P.S. What do you mean by that?

14 January 2012

If We Were A Band

If we were a band, no major label would sign us. Like a bunch of one-legged, leprosy-stricken buskers, we would be shunned by all top executives and producers. They would probably find some of our tunes fairly nice and could even sing along to one or two, but in the large scheme of things – well, the big guys just wouldn’t be bothered. Small record labels wallowing in obscurity – now you’re talking.

If we were a band, what kind of music would we play? Rock, pop, soft jazz? I don’t know – I guess it would be bluegrass with a messy sound masquerading for lo-fi aesthetics. Fiddle, guitar, mandolin, Dobro, upright bass – in fact, everything except the five-string banjo (which we wouldn’t have). But since one instrument doesn’t make all the difference and its absence wouldn’t quite make it glam-rock or something, the sound would still be there. Muddy, muffled, but what the heck.

If we were a band, we wouldn’t be too good at our instruments. However, we would be quite capable of keeping a steady rhythm going. Completely unintentionally, we would be punks as they were meant to be. When in front of an audience, we would be shoegazers. When it comes to fans, we would be a Baptist choir.

If we were a band, we wouldn’t rehearse. We just wouldn’t have time for that. We would be too busy doing the real stuff. The real stuff is the only practice you need – or that’s what our manager would say anyway.

If we were band, we would have none of that fake bonhomie. Hanging out backstage with other bands or patting each other on the back after another successful outing. “You are like a real family to me, guys”. “How is Alice?” “The drinks are on me”. “No, you were good, Johnny, you were really good”. No, we wouldn’t say any of that bullshit, we would be telling it like it is.

If we were a band, would we tour? What venues would be play? Same as with major labels, I don’t believe huge stadiums and arenas would be banging on our doors. Though maybe once in a while our manager would be able to provide us with a glimpse of something bigger than a cheap cabaret circuit.

If we were a band, we wouldn’t be writing original material. We would rely on the older stuff, because it’s the traditional, well-proved, ever-green classics that can never fail you. So that this whole bluegrass thing would come in handy.

If we were a band, we wouldn’t take drugs.

If we were a band, we would never call it quits. We would be going strong against all rumours, logic and odds. You’d be gone or going, dead or dying, but we would still be around – like an impotent, misogynistic poet who is never quite done with his deeply romantic lines and rhymes.

I also wonder: if we were a band, could we possibly be a brass band? There’s no easy answer to that, but then… Since we can blow, I guess we could.

10 January 2012

A War Against Cliché

How are you supposed to say anything these days?

Last time you went to a party, there were conversations going on in different parts of the room. For instance, they were talking about art. Not something you would pass up after a timely, nourishing glass of white wine and the general feeling of joviality.

Ah! They are discussing impressionists, so you are eagerly joining in.

- Monet, – you chirp in. – Claude Monet is what it is all about.

And suddenly the faces of some of your interlocutors look distorted by boredom and thinly veiled contempt. You may not realise it yet, but you’ve just said The Beatles. Shakespeare. Beethoven. Jesus Christ. You have just been trapped by a cliché. Because what kind of man would mention that Claude Monet is his favourite artist during a discussion of the Impressionists?..

So next time you are well prepared, and you are not going to blow it.

- How about Monet? – you ask, disdainfully. – Does anyone still like that one?

And once again – boredom and contempt, and quite possibly from the very same people. You are losing another fight against cliché, because you’ve just said “Yesterday” is sappy and Hamlet is a rip-off. It’s too easy and trite – trying to make a point by dwarfing a giant.

So what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to say anything? Some say you can beat it by just ignoring the fact that what you think, say or do might be a cliché, and just go ahead with your thoughts, words and whatever it is that you do. But in that case you will just end up an obscure non-entity, a bastard child that posterity won’t adopt even out of compassion. I believe that it was Martin Amis who once gave the most brilliant piece of advice that a young writer could ever hope to hear: never write a sentence that absolutely anyone can write. You really have to give that one a good thought.

But why all the trouble? Why the hypocrisy? Why can’t you just be sincere and honestly state your preferences? Well, sincerity is of course nice and sweet, but in a polite and intelligent company it’s not enough to say that you just bloody love Monet. That is really not much of a smart remark; actually, that’s not much of a remark at all! You would have to add something to that. Like Monet’s childhood sketches are the real deal. Or that according to some experts he was a gay. Or that you really like Monet, but that Manet guy was a fraud, a real waste of brushes and canvases. You would need some rare and preferably bizarre fact from Claude Monet’s biography. Some knowledge, you see. Some wit.

But perhaps it’s getting quite complicated at this point. So why not just keep silent and listen to what the others say? Well, but then of course: silence is the biggest, most blatant cliché of all.  

7 January 2012


- Mary, – I said. – How did you like Rome?

My eyes got all jumpy and jittery from the road, so I put away the book and turned to my fiancée. Mary had all but given up hope of falling asleep, and was presently aimlessly acquainting herself with the rather dull scenery dragging along outside. It was one of those old-fashioned bus trips through Europe where you are equally frustrated and amused. Frustrated – because of uneven food, uneven sleep and uneven toilets, and amused – because Venice is still worth it regardless of the drowsiness or the sorry state of your bladder.

In fact, Italy was magnificent. Rome was the first city on the itinerary, and despite the drizzle and the relentless time limit, I was duly impressed by the sights and by the women – I really couldn’t tell which were sexier. And now, with the gaping neighbours and dusty bus windows closing in on me, I decided to invoke some of that enthusiasm. The thought of Rome’s playful freedom got me into a playful mood, so here was the deal: if Mary said a bad word about that city (and how could she?), I would break off the engagement.

- Rome? – said Mary. – You mean honestly?

- Sure.

- Quite honestly, rather boring. – And, as if to prove her point, she sighed all over my face. Slovenly, with no subtlety or tact. There was this distinct smell of a particularly bad cheese sandwich on her breath. The one we had bought the previous day in a cheap roadside café greasy with petrol and bored customers.

My excitement cut short, I felt like I choked on a shot of expensive red wine (quite possibly Italian).

- Mary, tell me you are joking.   

She wouldn’t. Mary was dead serious (she rarely joked, and I couldn’t blame her: women can only be funny for no particular reason and without actually realizing that). What was more, she gave me a scornful sideline glance that I kept refusing to get used to    and, for the record, have kept doing it since. Because frankly, coming from my future wife, that was not too encouraging. 

And now I was so overwhelmed by her words that I couldn’t find a retort strong enough. Also, there was this secret deal I’d made prior to asking my question. Surely I had no intention of dropping that. Even though by that point I had retained none of my initial playfulness. None at all.

- Bullshit! Bullshit, Mary! What exactly did you find so boring about Rome? The streets, the people, the statues, the air, the what? Tell me it was atrocious or disgusting, just don’t tell me it was boring. ‘Cause this is pathetic.

- Well, everything, really. – She disregarded everything except the question, which annoyed me. – Maybe not boring, but definitely nothing special. It’s all right, darling, it’s just my opinion.

She took my fingers in hers, as if that was all it would take to calm me down, but it only riled me even more. I jerked my arm away, indignantly.

- I’m breaking up with you. We’ve just been to one of the greatest, most spiritual places in the world, and your ignorance wouldn’t even let you admit as much. I’m telling you, that’s it. We’re through.

- Huh?..

Of course she couldn’t believe that. Even I couldn’t believe that, my words coming out like a bunch of terrified and terrifying aliens. But however infantile it might have seemed, getting worked up like that, my tone was harsh and left no room for misconception. Mary looked like she was gasping for air, like some beached fish. When in fact she was groping for words.

- Huh?.. What does it all mean?!? Just some goddamn city I didn’t like, and look at you!

- Goddamn city?

- Yeah, goddamn city! 

- We’re not getting married.

- We are not? I’m pregnant.

At first it sounded like an average hysterical point you would make in an argument you are not going to win anyway, but then suddenly everything inside turned sour, and I jumped out of my seat and bumped and staggered my way to the driver. It all happened in a flash. I said I wasn’t feeling well and needed to get out. The driver wasn’t too happy about that, but at the next filling station he did stop the bus.

It felt like I had to relieve myself or at least throw up, but nothing happened. My feet heavy and limp, I just walked around the place for five or ten minutes, irritating the other tourists waiting for me in the bus. I tried to think about Rome, but presently Rome didn’t make any sense. Just a blurry concoction of random streets, faces and buildings. What should I say to Mary?

While I was walking back through the narrow passage, overstuffed with sleeping legs and packets full of smelly leftovers, some husky male voice said: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” But I couldn’t care less.

When I got back, Mary was sleeping. She looked so cozy and content that I didn’t want to wake her up. But then a conversation was the last thing I needed at that moment. Instead, I just stared at her belly as if expecting something to happen. But nothing happened, and I gave up. I felt angry and confused. I felt lost. Frustrated, too, but not like a tourist: there was no feeling of amusement to reimburse the raging stomach or the uncomfortable seats. Perhaps the next city…

There were words in me, perhaps hundreds, millions of words, but they were an obscure, inarticulate mess. Like what was inside that belly of hers. I knew I wasn’t dreaming, and when I looked away it felt so much like switching off the Christmas tree when the celebrations are over. So: the next city. I examined the itinerary: well, Mary absolutely had to like that one.

I got back to my book. The Maugham short story was damn good, so I was ready to put some effort into getting used to the restless motion of the bus. Sheltered from thoughts, I had gone through that same story twice before we reached Florence.