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‘Russian Magic Tales: From Pushkin to Platonov’, edited by Robert Chandler ****

9780141442235Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, which presents ‘a unique collection of Russian folktales from the last 200 years’, is edited by Robert Chandler. Chandler informs us that in Russia, ‘where the oral tradition remained much stronger for a longer period, these magic tales retained their cultural importance’.

The informative introduction embraces not just Russian fairytales, but those from around the world. Chandler sets out the cultural differences between them and marvels at how the stories differ from one country to the next, as well as spanning the history and progress of such tales. A useful appendix has been included which gives explanations of all of the Russian words which find themselves within the text, and in this way the cultural understanding of the reader is broadened. An essay by Sibelan Forrester regarding the Baba Yaga interpretations in Russian folklore and literature has also been included, and this provides a lovely addition to the volume.

The volume’s blurb alone is inviting and intriguing in equal measure: ‘young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds’. Half of the stories presented here have been collected by folklorists over the past two centuries, whilst the others are reworkings of oral tales by famous Russian authors, who include Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.

The collection has been split into seven different sections, all of which pertain to tales written by a single author, or which come under the categories of ‘The First Folktale Collections’, ‘Early Twentieth-Century Collections’ and ‘Folktale Collections from the Soviet Period’. A biography has been included for each separate author before the story or stories of theirs which are featured in Russian Magic Tales, and the majority of these talk, in some detail, about the fascinations with folklore and fairytales which have been present since many of the authors’ childhoods.

The tales themselves range from the well-known – ‘Jack Frost’ and the portrayal of the witch ‘Baba Yaga’ – to those which are firmly set within the realms of Russian culture and geography and are not so well known outside it – ‘The Tsarevna Who Would Not Laugh’, ‘The Pike’s Command’ and ‘The Stone Flower’. In this way, the sense of place created is strong from the start. Each provides a variety of different styles, from the narrative and prose techniques used to the information which they include. Pushkin’s stories are told in verse, Onchukov’s in a traditional ‘once upon a time’ format, Ozarovskaya’s in rather a matter-of-fact style and Zelenin’s sole story in the collection takes the format of a numerical list.

Magical elements of many different kinds are woven throughout the collection. From the first page we meet talking fish and birds, witches and wizards, and magical spells. All of the classic fairytale elements can be found within the book’s pages – poverty and wealth, unfairness, cruelty, death, orphans, royalty and commonfolk, the discrepancies between the young and the elderly, incest, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. There are retellings of ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘Cinderella’, and although we in the English-speaking world know some of the tales relatively well, the stories are incredibly clever and provide many unexpected twists and turns.

In a story entitled ‘Vasilisa the Fair’, the darker elements of magical tales are ever present: ‘Late in the evening she came to baba yaga’s hut. Round the hut was a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth’.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov is a wonderful read for anyone interested in fairytales and folklore, or who merely wants to broaden their horizons with regard to Russian authors. A great introduction to a wealth of Russian authors is provided here, and there is sure to be a tale which will delight everyone in this collection. The stories have been ordered incredibly well, and the collection is easy to dip in and out of. Reading the volume feels both nostalgic and fresh at the same time, and Chandler has achieved just the right balance of both.

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Short Story Series: Part Two

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
‘In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt Aimee Bender has created a world where nothing is quite as it seems. From a man suffering from reverse evolution to a lonely wife who waits for her husband to return from war; to a small town where one girl has a hand made of fire and another has one made of ice. These stories of men and women whose lives are shaped and sometimes twisted by the power of extraordinary desires take us to a place far beyond the imagination.’

2. Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres
”Welcome to the village of Notwithstanding, where a lady dresses in plus fours and shoots squirrels, a retired general gives up wearing clothes altogether, a spiritualist lives in a cottage with the ghost of her husband, and people think it quite natural to confide in a spider that lives in a potting shed. Based on de Bernieres’ recollections of the village he grew up in, Notwithstanding is a funny and moving depiction of a charming vanished England.

3. Collected Short Stories by Truman Capote
My reviews can be found here and here.

4. Black Venus by Angela Carter
‘Extraordinary and diverse people inhabit this rich, ripe, occasionally raucous collection of short stories. Some are based on real people – Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s handsome and reluctant muse who never asked to be called the Black Venus, trapped in the terminal ennui of the poet’s passion, snatching at a little lifesaving respectability against all odds…Edgar Allen Poe, with his face of a actor, demonstrating in every thought and deed how right his friends were when they said ‘No man is safe who drinks before breakfast.’ And some of these people are totally imaginary. Such as the seventeenth century whore, transported to Virginia for thieving, who turns into a good woman in spite of herself among the Indians, who have nothing worth stealing. And a girl, suckled by wolves, strange and indifferent as nature, who will not tolerate returning to humanity. Angela Carter wonderfully mingles history, fiction, invention, literary criticism, high drama and low comedy in a glorious collection of stories as full of contradictions and surprises as life itself.’

5. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler
‘In these tales, young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds. Half the tales here are true oral tales, collected by folklorists during the last two centuries, while the others are reworkings of oral tales by four great Russian writers: Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov. In his introduction to these new translations, Robert Chandler writes about the primitive magic inherent in these tales and the taboos around them, while in the afterword, Sibelan Forrester discusses the witch Baba Yaga.’

6. The Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
‘Anton Chekhov’s short fiction is admired and cherished by readers the world over. This stunning boxed set brings together the largest, most comprehensive selection of his stories, all full of humor, truth, and vast insight. Included are the familiar masterpieces-“The Kiss,” “The Darling,” and “The Lady with the Dog”–as well as several brilliant but lesser-known tales such as “A Blunder,” “Hush!,” and “Champagne.” The entire collection is introduced by Richard Ford’s perceptive essay “Why We Like Chekhov. while each individual volume includes a brief reminiscence on the meaning of Chekhov from a celebrated author, among them Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey, Cynthia Ozick, and Russell Banks. Amidst a sea of Chekhov translations, Constance Garnett, who brought Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev to the English-speaking world, has a style particularly suited to Chekhov’s prose. Her benchmark translations enable readers to immerse themselves in his world, experiencing the breadth of his talent in one voice.’

7. Paris Tales, edited by Helen Constantine
Paris Tales is a highly evocative collection of stories by French and Francophone writers who have been inspired by specific locations in this most visited of capital cities. The twenty-two stories – by well-known writers including Nerval, Maupassant, Colette, and Echenoz – provide a captivating glimpse into Parisian life from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The stories take us on an atmospheric tour of the arrondissements and quartiers of Paris, charting the changing nature of the city and its inhabitants, and viewing it through the eyes of characters such as the provincial lawyer’s wife seeking excitement, a runaway schoolboy sleeping rough, and a lottery-winning policeman. From the artists’ haunts of Montmartre to the glamorous cafes of Saint-Germain, from the shouts of demonstrators on Boul Mich’ to the tranquillity of Parc Monceau, Paris Tales offers a fascinating literary panorama of Paris. Illustrated with maps and striking photographs, the book will appeal to all those who wish to uncover the true heart of this seductive city.’

8. Astray by Emma Donoghue
‘With the turn of each page, the characters that roam across these pages go astray. They are emigrants, runaways, drifters; gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross borders of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, under duress or incognito. A sequence of fourteen fact-inspired fictions about travels to, in and from North America, Astray offers a past in scattered pieces, a surprising and moving history for restless times.’

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