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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The Brilliance of Non-Fiction: Five New Releases

I am a self-confessed fan of non-fiction books, and often find myself gravitating towards them in bookshops.  I have spent several hours of late in Waterstone’s and London’s excellent Skoob, browsing the history shelves for something which will both captivate and educate me.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you five non-fiction books which I am currently coveting.  For each, I have copied the official blurb to whet your appetite as well as my own.

1. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson 
“Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain. Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas. Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.”

2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
“Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.”

3. The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook 
“Britain’s empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture. It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J K Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain’s modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst toThe X Factor.”

4. The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
“In the spring of 1993, Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake. It was her ‘soul place’, she said – a sanctuary she had been forced to leave when the Nazis swept to power. The trip was a chance to see the house one last time, to remember it as it was. But the house had changed. Twenty years later Thomas returned to Berlin. The house now stood empty, derelict, soon to be demolished. A concrete footpath cut through the garden, marking where the Berlin Wall had stood for nearly three decades. Elsewhere were signs of what the house had once been – blue tiles showing behind wallpaper, photographs fallen between floorboards, flagstones covered in dirt. Evidence of five families who had made the house their home over a tumultuous century. The House by the Lake is a ground breaking work of history, revealing the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present day, from the devastation of two world wars to the dividing and reuniting of a nation, it is a story of domestic joy and contentment, of terrible grief and tragedy, and of a hatred handed down through the generations. It is the long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of Hanns and Rudolf.”

5. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers 
“An epic tale of Vladimir Putin’s path to power, as he emerged from obscurity to become one of the world’s most conflicted and important leaders. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers has followed Putin since well before the recent events in the Ukraine, and gives us the fullest and most engaging account available of his rise to power. A gripping, page-turning narrative about Russian power and prestige, the book depicts a cool and calculating leader with enormous ambition and few scruples. As the world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Putin has never been greater. Vladimir Putin rose out of Soviet deprivation to the pinnacle of influence in the new Russian nation. He came to office in 2000 as a reformer, cutting taxes and expanding property rights, bringing a measure of order and eventually prosperity to millions whose only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse was instability, poverty and criminality. But soon Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism, consolidating power, reasserting his country’s might, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters, even as he retained the support of many.”

Which are your favourite non-fiction books, and which newer releases do you hope to read soon?

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘War and Peace’ (Volume One) by Leo Tolstoy **** (Classics Club #13)

Classics Club #13; 20 Books of Summer

Belinda and I bravely challenged ourselves to read War and Peace as part of our wonderful Gregory Peck-a-long.  Belinda was ambitious and read the whole volume; I cheated, and purchased a beautiful old hardback edition of the first volume (albeit by mistake; I was under the illusion that it was the entire book).  Whilst I was most looking forward to our project – I have wanted to read the book for at least a decade, and very much enjoy Tolstoy’s shorter fiction – I must admit that I was rather daunted by the prospect, and it took me rather a long while (and a lot of spurring on!) to finally get around to adding the epic to my read list.

I have an absolute adoration for Russian fiction and literature and, quite as I predicted, I was soon absorbed within War and Peace – so much so that I managed to finish the first volume in just over a day whilst travelling and on holiday in June.  (One of my friends called me ‘ridiculous’ for doing this, but I think that deep down, he was actually really very impressed).  

The introduction to my volume was written by the edition’s translator, Rosemary Edmonds.  I found the reading experience of it lovely; she brings into play a lot of Tolstoy’s quotes about his craft and why he so adored it, as well as setting out the context of his life, and his inspiration for War and Peace.  In a letter to his cousin in 1863 which Edmond includes, Tolstoy writes the following of War and Peace: ‘Never before have I felt my intellectual and even all my moral faculties so unimpeded, so fit for work.  And I have work – a novel of the period 1810-1820, which has completely absorbed me since the beginning of the autumn…  I am an author with all the powers of my soul, and I write and reflect as I have never written or reflected before’.  He goes on to say, in rather a marvellous fashion: ‘If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years fro, now by those who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then I would dedicate all my existence and all my powers to it’.

War and Peace took Tolstoy five years to write, and first appeared in serial form, before being published in six volumes in 1869.  His subject within the novel is humanity; ‘people moving in the strange delirium of war and war’s chaos’.  The interest within it, writes Edmonds, ‘is concentrated in two households’ – the relatively impoverished Rostovs, and the Bolkonskys, who are ‘standing outside the higher than “high” society’.  Edmonds believes that, ‘Nothing could be simpler than the mass of incidents described in War and Peace.  All the everyday happenings of family life… are threaded onto the necklace with as much care as the account of the battle of Borodino.  Each incident is vividly portrayed, each circumstance is real, as seen through the eyes of the various protagonists’.

War and Peace is immediately and wonderfully set within its historical background; the whole opens with Prince Vasili speaking to Anna Pavlovna: ‘It has been decided that Bonaparte has burnt his boats, and it’s my opinion that we are in the act of burning ours’.  As one would expect, the novel is rather politically minded in places, an element which I found absolutely fascinating.  The world of the characters seeps into the reader’s consciousness, and scenes are so vivid that they come to life without pause.  The reader has essentially been given an elevated position by Tolstoy we see absolutely everything in the manner in which his protagonists do, and nothing whatsoever is concealed from us.

Tolstoy has filled portions of War and Peace with quite profound ideas: ‘If everyone would only fight for his own convictions, there would be no wars’.  His scene construction abilities are marvellous.  Of a character in childbirth, for instance, he writes the following: ‘The most solemn mystery in the world was in process of consummation.  Evening passed, night wore on.  And the feeling of suspense and softening of heart in the presence of the unfathomable did not wane but was heightened.  No one slept’.

I found Edmonds’ translation incredibly easy to read, and found that the whole has a wonderful flow to it, almost to the extent that it does not feel like a work which was not originally written in English.  The structure of War and Peace is marvellous, and the way in which it is comprised of relatively short chapters makes it all the more accessible.  An aspect which I particularly loved was the feel of Russian life which it gives, from the entirely different perspectives of two families.  With regard to the character constructs, I certainly found Natasha the most interesting.

War and Peace is a soaring epic; there is love and heartbreak in swathes, and the characters are so realistic.  Whilst I did not adore it, it held my interest throughout, and I believe that I am just about ready to move onto Volume Two.

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Classics Club #76: ‘The Cossacks’ by Leo Tolstoy **

The 76th entry on my Classics Club list is The Cossacks: A Caucasus Tale of 1852 by Leo Tolstoy, a novella-length story which took the Russian author ten years to write: ‘In 1831, at the age of twenty-two, Tolstoy travelled to the Caucasus and joined the army there as a cadet.  The four years that followed were among the most significant in his life, and provided the material’ which he wrote about here.

Translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, and with an introduction also penned by the latter, The Cossacks is printed in its Penguin edition alongside another novella, entitled Hadji Murat, and three short Sevastopol tales.  The Cossacks, Foote writes, is ‘part ethnographic study, part morality tale’.  He goes on to write of the concept of Cossacks within Imperial Russia: ‘The young Cossacks exemplify the freedom of life lived according only to natural instincts’.  Whilst Foote’s introduction is undoubtedly intelligent and informative, it does give away a lot of plot details, so it is perhaps worth reading it once you are familiar with the titular story.

The central character of the piece, ‘the hero’ Dmitry Olenin – ‘a young man of the Russian cultivated class who detaches himself from the conventions of society and undertakes some venture which will satisfy his own moral aspirations’ – is based upon Tolstoy himself.  We learn rather a lot about him rather early on in the story; he is ‘a young man who had never graduated, never served anywhere (apart from an obscure position in some office), squandered half his fortune, and reached the age of twenty-four without having chosen any career or ever having done anything much at all’.  He was orphaned at an early age, something which has had what he believes to be a positive impact upon his life: ‘For him there were no fetters, neither physical nor moral; he could do anything he pleased, he lacked nothing and was bound by nothing.  He had neither family, nor fatherland, nor faith, nor want.  He believed in nothing and acknowledged nothing’.

As with all Russian fiction, I was struck immediately by the well-realised scenes depicting the good and evil of city life; here, Tolstoy first focuses upon wintry Moscow: ‘Everything has grown quiet…  At rare, rare intervals the squeak of wheels is heard somewhere along the winter street…  From the churches float bell sounds which, as they sway above the sleeping city, remember the morning in prayer’.  He then goes on to show Olenin’s place within the wider scope of the city: ‘Olenin felt that only people who were setting out on long journeys ever travelled through these streets.  All around it was dark, silent and dreary, but inside he was so full of memories, love, regret and pleasantly choking tears…’.

The Cossacks is rather profound in places; a lot of ideas have been woven in, particularly with regard to the conversations which unfold between different characters and Olenin.  Whilst The Cossacks does have strengths, and a lot of care has been given to its translation, however, Tolstoy’s use of the overarching third person perspective causes it to feel rather detached.  Consequently, it failed to hold my attention throughout.  I had expected it to be far more compelling, and was rather disappointed by it.  The Cossacks felt, to me, like the least competent and least enjoyable Tolstoy which I have read to date.  I can only hope that I have more luck with War and Peace and Anna Karenina..

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Classics Club #40: ‘Eugene Onegin’ by Alexander Pushkin ****

I had wanted to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin since before I went to Russia on a school trip, but have, for some reason, only just got around to picking up a copy.  Eugene Onegin, a sweeping story told in the form of an epic poem, is widely considered to be a ‘Russian masterpiece’, and I was so excited to begin it.

The preface and introduction, written by John Bayley and Michael Basker respectively, in the Penguin Classics edition of Eugene Onegin are fascinating, both in terms of assessing the context of the whole, and talking about Pushkin’s life.  The introduction speaks of the way in which the whole unfolds ‘with dream-like inevitability and dazzling energy’.  Pushkin himself called this a ‘free novel’, ‘a work of art which did not conform to the rules of a single genre’, but instead ‘offered ‘a collection of parti-coloured chapters, half-funny, half-sad, ideal and folk-simple’. 

The premise of Eugene Onegin is absorbing, and rather typically Russian in its plotlines and characters: ‘Tired of the glitter and glamour of St Petersburg society, aristocratic dandy Eugene Onegin retreats to the country estate that he has recently inherited.  There he begins an unlikely friendship with the idealistic young poet Vladimir Lensky, who welcomes this urbane addition to his small social circle and introduces Onegin to his fiancee Olga’s family.  But when her sister Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, his cold rejection of her love brings about a tragedy that encompasses them all’.

The omniscient narrator in Eugene Onegin addresses the reader directly, and this makes the whole feel immediate.  Pushkin demonstrates feelings so well, particularly with regard to Tatyana’s: ‘Seeing herself as a creation – / Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine, – / by writers of her admiration, / Tatyana, lovely heroine, / roamed the still forest like a ranger, / sought in her book, that text of danger, / and found her dreams, her secret fire, / the full fruit of her heart’s desire; / she sighed, and in a trance coopted / another’s joy, another’s breast, / whispered by heart a note addressed / to the hero that she’d adopted…’.

Each stanza throughout, almost all of which are comprised of fourteen lines, is so well drawn: ‘Idle again by dedication, / oppressed by emptiness of soul, / he strove to achieve the appropriation / of other’s thought – a splendid goal; / with shelves of books deployed for action, / he read, and read – no satisfaction; / here’s boredom, madness or pretence / here there’s no conscience, here no sense; / they’re all chained up in different fetters, / the ancients have gone stiff and cold, / the moderns rage against the old. / He’d given up girls – now gave up letters, / and hid the bookshelf’s dusty stack / in taffeta of mourning black’.  The descriptive phrasing is often sublime: ‘The sky breathed autumn’, for example, was a particular favourite of mine.

Charles Johnston’s marvellous 1977 translation was the one which I read.  The whole was so meticulously changed into English, even down to a taut and constant rhyme scheme.  It felt, in many ways, as though I was reading Eugene Onegin in its original language.  Johnston’s use of vocabulary is pitch perfect, and the whole is rendered both absorbing and fascinating to read.

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