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Books I Probably Should Have Read…

As a voracious reader, I have always been aware that there are several (hundred) tomes which I should have read already, but haven’t.  I’m almost entirely sure that most readers have the same problem.  Rather than make this a self-pitying post to the tune of my never having picked up anything by Umberto Eco, for instance, I thought I would make a post detailing some of the books which I Probably Should Have Read to date.  I’m aware that I could probably fill a whole fortnight’s worth of posts with such material, but have decided to be relatively selective to compile a manageable list of ten.  (NB. It was not my intention at all to list almost solely books by men!)

 

86940051. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”

 

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

 

402003. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.

 

4. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
An American classic rediscovered by each generation, The Story of My Life is Helen Keller’s account of her triumph over deafness and blindness. Popularized by the stage play and movie The Miracle Worker, Keller’s story has become a symbol of hope for people all over the world.  This book–published when Keller was only twenty-two–portrays the wild child who is locked in the dark and silent prison of her own body. With an extraordinary immediacy, Keller reveals her frustrations and rage, and takes the reader on the unforgettable journey of her education and breakthroughs into the world of communication. From the moment Keller recognizes the word “water” when her teacher finger-spells the letters, we share her triumph as “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” An unparalleled chronicle of courage, The Story of My Life remains startlingly fresh and vital more than a century after its first publication, a timeless testament to an indomitable will.

 

176905. The Trial by Franz Kafka
Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.

 

6. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Steppenwolf is a poetical self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf. This Faust-like and magical story is evidence of Hesse’s searching philosophy and extraordinary sense of humanity as he tells of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope. Yet this novel can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of the intellectual hypocrisy of the period. As Hesse himself remarked, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”.

 

7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 227463
A vicious fifteen-year-old “droog” is the central character of this 1963 classic, whose stark terror was captured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film of the same title.  In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”

 

8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.

 

183067239. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.  Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

 

10. The Stranger by Albert Camus
Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” First published in English in 1946; now in a new translation by Matthew Ward.

 

Have you read – or not read – any of these?  I’m not going to pretend that I’ll get around to reading them very quickly at all, but hypothetically, which do you think I should begin with?

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‘The Adolescent’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent was first published in Russia with the literally translated title of A Raw Youth in 1875, and is presented in Dora O’Brien’s new translation by Alma Books.  O’Brien has previously – and seamlessly – rendered many works of Russian literature into English, by the likes of Tolstoy and Turgenev.  Dostoevsky feels like the feather in an already well-decorated cap.  With regard to Dostoevsky’s canon, The Adolescent is one of his later works, published just five years before The Brothers Karamazov.9781847494993

Our protagonist is Arkady Dolroguky, a nineteen-year-old, and the illegitimate son of a landowner and a maid.  The setting is the Russia of the 1870s, ‘a nation still tethered to its old systems and values but shaken up by the new ideological currents of socialism and nihilism’.  (NB. I could happily write an entire essay linking the tumult of modernity and the break-up of traditional Russia in the novel).  As is the case with all of Dostoevsky’s work, politics are ever-present, but never dull or overdone; indeed, in The Adolescent, the same pattern has been followed, and the historical and modern world unfold majestically along with Arkady’s own coming of age story.  Similarly, as often happens with documents of Russian life in novel form, an incredible amount of themes have been explored here, from capitalism and its evils, to all-consuming loves, and familial relationships.

The beginning intrigues: ‘Unable to hold back, I’ve sat down to record the story of my first steps on life’s path, when I could actually get by without doing so’.  Arkady’s first person narrative perspective is both engaging and enlightening; one gets a marvellous view of the protagonist – his hopes, his fears, and his state of mind throughout.  The reasoning which he gives for fashioning his autobiography is thorough, and not quite what one might expect.  Arkady is a clear and often complex character, struggling to come to terms with his life and his place within the world.

The style of the prose is rendered in what is almost a colloquial fashion; the entirety feels very fresh, perhaps due to its new translation.  Regardless, O’Brien has rendered the whole marvellously.  In no place is the prose stilted or clumsy; there is very little repetition, and a wonderful fluency to the whole.  The Adolescent has been well structured too; the shorter sections inside longer chapters help to nicely break up the reading experience.

It is worth mentioning that The Adolescent begins in much the same way as Alma’s other publications, with a series of sketches and photographs about the author and his circle, and a useful list of the extensive cast of characters.  The reading experience here is an incredibly pleasant one, and at no point did I feel daunted by the length (five hundred plus pages) of the novel.  As a parting thought, I shall leave you with what Albert Camus wrote: ‘The real nineteenth-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx’.

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Reading the World: Russia

We come to one of the most fascinating countries which I have ever had the pleasure to visit now – Mother Russia.  I have read much literature and non-fiction (particularly that which deals with the Romanovs) set within the vast country, and it has been rather difficult to narrow down my recommendations.  Rather than make a series of posts, as I have done with Scandinavia, I have chosen six of what I believe to be the best books set within Russia.  (NB. I am painfully aware that no Tolstoy makes the cut, but that is solely because I have read very little of his work to date.)

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 9780099540946
‘In Soviet Moscow, God is dead, but the devil – to say nothing of his retinue of demons, from a loudmouthed, gun-toting tomcat, to the fanged fallen angel Koroviev – is very much alive. As death and destruction spread through the city like wildfire, condemning Moscow’s cultural elite to prison cells and body bags, only a madman, the Master and Margarita, his beautiful, courageous lover, can hope to end the chaos. Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign and circulated in samizdat form for decades, when The Master and Margarita was finally published it became an overnight literary phenomenon, signalling artistic freedom for Russians everywhere.’

2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
‘Banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, Doctor Zhivago is the epic story of the life and loves of a poet-physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Yuri Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds, and in love with the tender and beautiful nurse Lara.’

97803757190113. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘Constantly rebuffed from the social circles he aspires to frequent, the timid clerk Golyadkin is confronted by the sudden appearance of his double, a more brazen, confident and socially successful version of himself, who abuses and victimizes the original. As he is increasingly persecuted, Golyadkin finds his social, romantic and professional life unravelling, in a spiral that leads to a catastrophic denouement.’

4. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
‘Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…”The Siege” is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.’

5. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘The twenty-six-year-old Prince Myshkin, following a stay of several years in a Swiss sanatorium, returns to Russia to collect an inheritance and “be among people.” Even before he reaches home he meets the dark Rogozhin, a rich merchant’s son whose obsession with the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna eventually draws all three of them into a tragic denouement. In Petersburg the prince finds himself a stranger in a society obsessed with money, power, and manipulation. Scandal escalates to murder as Dostoevsky traces the surprising effect of this “positively beautiful man” on the people around him, leading to a final scene that is one of the most powerful in all of world literature.’

6. Gulag by Anne Applebaum9780140283105
‘This landmark book uncovers for the first time in detail one of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: the vast system of Soviet camps that were responsible for the deaths of countless millions. “Gulag” is the only major history in any language to draw together the mass of memoirs and writings on the Soviet camps that have been published in Russia and the West. Using these, as well as her own original research in NKVD archives and interviews with survivors, Anne Applebaum has written a fully documented history of the camp system: from its origins under the tsars, to its colossal expansion under Stalin’s reign of terror, its zenith in the late 1940s and eventual collapse in the era of glasnost. It is a gigantic feat of investigation, synthesis and moral reckoning.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

Having so enjoyed The Double last year, I was very much looking forward to reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, particularly to see what his longer fiction was like.  The novel, which was first published in 1869, centres upon Prince Myshkin, who has returned to Russia from an asylum in Switzerland; he ’emerges as a unique combination of the Christian ideal of perfection and Dostoevsky’s own views, afflictions and manners’.

The translation in the Wordsworth Classics edition which I read was pleasingly Constance Garnett’s; from what I have read thus far, and with my knowledge of Russian literature, I believe that she is about the best.  Instead of reading the introduction before beginning the book, I decided to leave it until afterwards, so that I could make my own mind up about Dostoevsky’s plot, themes and messages.  Agnes Cardinal, the author of the introduction, throws up something rather interesting about the whole: ‘The fundamental tension at the heart of this novel, therefore, is also its triumph…  We know that The Idiot was the favourite [of Dostoevsky’s] among his fictions, and it is certainly his most intellectually daring as well as his most modern creation’.

The first sentence of The Idiot sets the scene immediately: ‘At nine o’clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed’.  Throughout, Dostoevsky’s descriptions are a real strength; of the first character whom he introduces, even before his name is given, he says the following: ‘What was particularly striking about the young man’s face was its deathlike pallor, which gave him a look of exhaustion in spite of his sturdy figure, and at the same time an almost painfully passionate expression, out of keeping with his coarse and insolent smile and the hard and conceited look in his eyes’.  One immediately gets the sense that Dostoevsky is a very perceptive and knowing author.  Such attention has been paid to even the smallest of details throughout.

Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin was sent to Switzerland ‘on account of a strange nervous disease, something of the nature of epilepsy or St. Vitus’s dance, attacks of twitching and trembling’.  Myshkin believs himself to be ‘an invalid [who has] not had a systematic education’.  He has travelled back to St. Petersburg in order to search out his cousin, Madame Epanchin, whom he believes to be his only living relative: ‘The lady was particularly delighted with this dry subject [of familial history], for she scarcely had a chance of indulging her tastes by discussing her pedigree’.

The structure of The Idiot is clever in that each subsequent chapter follows a different character whom Prince Myshkin meets along the way; in consequence, we definitely get a feel for the whole cast.  The characters are all so different, and each one is wholly memorable long after the final page has been read.  Dostoevsky really gets inside the minds of his creations, particularly with regard to Prince Myshkin and the consciousness which he has of his place in the world: ‘”At such moments I was sometimes overcome with great restlessness; sometimes too at midday I wandered on the mountains, and stood alone halfway up a mountain surrounded by great resinous pine trees; on the crest of the rock an old medieval castle in ruins; our little village far, far below, scarcely visible; bright sunshine, blue sky, and the terrible stillness.”‘

Stories within stories manifest themselves here, and many ideas are at play.  The politics which Dostoevsky weaves in, along with his interesting take upon Russian society and the problems which its citizens faced, are fascinating.  The only downside for me was the slight predictability of some of the plot points and the rather peculiar ending, but in the grand scheme of things, it worked marvellously.

The Wordsworth Classics edition contains a list of primary characters, as well as a list of suggested further reading and some notes on the text, all of which are nice additions in a very inexpensive format.  The whole has been so well written, and Garnett’s translation is a fine one.  So much thought has clearly been put into her every turn of phrase, there is a marvellous flow to the whole, and no words have been wasted.  The backstories of each of Dostoevsky’s characters are well-crafted and believable, and we learn about them as the novel progresses; it is almost as though we are drip-fed information about them and their pasts.  It is fair to say that he is a master at crafting a compelling story which pulls the reader in.  So far, he is my favourite Russian author, and I cannot wait to delve into his other works.

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