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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ by Sasha Sokolov **

First published in Russia in 1980, Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf has been recently translated from its original Russian by Alexander Boguslawski, and the novel forms part of the Russian Library at Columbia University Press.  Sokolov began to write this novel, his second, before he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975.  What inspired him was his work as a game warden in the Volga, where he spent almost a full year living in a wooden cabin with no electricity.  In true Russian style, Sokolov’s chosen title comes from a quatrain in Pushkin’s wonderful Eugene Onegin. 9780231181464

On its publication, Between Dog and Wolf was greeted ‘with almost complete silence’, the antithesis to his Nabokov-endorsed first effort, A School for Fools.  The Western world ‘failed to review the novel, while their Russian emigre colleagues produced only a small number of rather general responses, without detailed discussion of its structure, language, or importance for Russian or world literature’.  Perhaps a valid reason for this omission is that the structure is so complex; it is comprised of the ‘uneducated, often dialectical, colloquial narrative of Ilya Petrikeich Zynzyrela’, as well as a poetic, impersonal style designed to reflect Russian literary tradition from the nineteenth century, and a series of poems ‘authored by Yakov’.

The introduction is, without a doubt, informative, and busies itself with allowing the reader the best inroad into this seemingly confusing novel.  Its style is academic; it is intelligent and useful, but reader beware, as it does tend to give away a lot of the later plot details.  In the main body of text, Ilya’s voice takes on a stream-of-consciousness style; Sokolov’s handling of dialect works well, and successfully puts across the kind of character his protagonist is.

It does take much determination to get through Between Dog and Wolf at times, but if you do reach the end, it is a book which is sure to stick with you for quite some time afterwards.  For me, it was a little too all over the place, and whilst it may be a book which I would have enjoyed had I had more patience, it is one which I have given up on for the time being.  It must be said that I did not abandon it because it was poor; I simply wasn’t in the mood for something so heavy going which I would have to work at considerably to enjoy.

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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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‘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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One From the Archive: ‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Ginzburg ****

‘Journey Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

First published in April 2014.

Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is a ‘highly detailed first-hand account of one woman’s life and imprisonment in the Soviet Union during the rule of Stalin in the 1930s’.  It is the first of her two volumes of memoirs, which was smuggled out of Russia, and was ‘later sold in many different languages’.  It was not published in Ginzburg’s native Russia until 1990, and is about to be reprinted by Persephone, with a translation by Paul Stevenson and Manya Hararit.

Ginzburg was a history teacher, and belonged to the Communist Party. However, she was expelled from its membership in 1937, and was sent to a gulag in the far east of Russia, where she consequently lived as a prisoner for eighteen years.  In writing her memoirs, she felt that ‘it was her duty to bear witness and trained her extraordinary memory to record everything…  What comes across in reading Into the Whirlwind is not merely the senseless brutality and waste of the regime, but the overwhelming strength of the human spirit’.

Into the Whirlwind has been split into two parts and fifty seven chapters in all.  Ginzburg has opened her account with the murder of early Bolshevik leader Kirov.  She is summoned, along with around forty other workers, to go to factories around Russia and inform them of what has happened.  She is told that ‘the murderer was a communist’, which filled her with a ‘presentiment of terrible misfortune’.  It provides a foreshadowing of awful events to come for Ginzburg.  When a man whom she worked with, Elvov, is arrested by the party, a whirlwind of events begins to spiral for her: ‘I had not denounced Elvov as a purveyor of Trotskyist contraband…  I had not, even once, attacked him at a public meeting’.  She says: ‘1935 was a frightful year for me.  My nerves were at breaking point, and I was obsessed with thoughts of suicide’.  As their investigations into her progressed, Ginzburg writes: ‘The snowball was rolling downhill, growing disastrously and threatening to smother me’.

Throughout, Ginzburg presents herself as such a strong woman, writing that ‘in those days no power on earth could have made me join in the orgy of ‘confessions’ and ‘penitence’ which was just beginning’.  She writes, quite matter-of-factly, that ‘human beings can get used to anything, even the most frightful evils’.  From the very first page, her account is fascinating.  It is astonishing to think that this entire book was memorised, which is such an incredible feat.  Into the Whirlwind is such a brave book to have written, and reliving some of the things within it must have been nothing short of horrific – leaving her family for the last time, for example, after being arrested under the guise of the party wanting to question her about Elvov.  The entirety has such an honest feel to it, and it is certainly another fitting addition to the Persephone list.

Quite an extensive section of notes which explain who some of those affiliated with the party were, as well as political terms and party details, has been included, along with an informative afterword written by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.  Into the Whirlwind is such an important book, and one which should be read by everyone.

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