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The Book Trail: The Russian Edition

I am beginning this episode of the Book Trail with a novel I read recently and very much enjoyed; my detailed review will be up in the next week or two, once I get around to typing it up!  As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to compose this list.

1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov 226378
In its adventurous happenings, its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues, A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin, the archetypal Russian antihero, Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

 

2. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Queen of Spades has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest short stories, in which Pushkin explores the nature of obsession. The Tales of Belkin are witty parodies of sentimentalism, while Peter the Great’s Blackamoor is an early experiment with recreating the past. The Captain’s Daughter is a novel-length masterpiece which combines historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott with the devices of the Russian fairy-tale. The Introduction provides close readings of the stories and places them in their European literary context.

 

580433. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
In this powerful and brutal short story, Leskov demonstrates the enduring truth of the Shakespearean archetype joltingly displaced to the heartland of Russia. Chastened and stifled by her marriage of convenience to a man twice her age, the young Katerina Lvovna goes yawning about the house, missing the barefoot freedom of her childhood, until she meets the feckless steward Sergei Filipych. Sergei proceeds to seduce Katerina, as he has done half the women in the town, not realizing that her passion, once freed, will attach to him so fiercely that Katerina will do anything to keep hold of him. Journalist and prose writer Nikolai Leskov is known for his powerful characterizations and the quintessentially Russian atmosphere of his stories.

 

4. The Golovlyov Family by M.E. Saltykov-Shchredin
Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family-until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Porphyry.   One of the great books of Russian literature, The Golovlyov Family is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

5. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin 2376088
Vladimir Sorokin’s first published novel, The Queue, is a sly comedy about the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for . . . nobody knows quite what, but the rumors are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter–if anything is on sale, you better line up to buy it. Sorokin’s tour de force of ventriloquism and formal daring tells the whole story in snatches of unattributed dialogue, adding up to nothing less than the real voice of the people, overheard on the street as they joke and curse, fall in and out of love, slurp down ice cream or vodka, fill out crossword puzzles, even go to sleep and line up again in the morning as the queue drags on.

 

6. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories — with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair — established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.  White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.

 

5892577. Soul by Andrei Platonov
The Soviet writer Andrey Platonov saw much of his work suppressed or censored in his lifetime. In recent decades, however, these lost works have reemerged, and the eerie poetry and poignant humanity of Platonov’s vision have become ever more clear. For Nadezhda Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Platonov was the writer who most profoundly registered the spiritual shock of revolution. For a new generation of innovative post-Soviet Russian writers he figures as a daring explorer of word and world, the master of what has been called “alternative realism.” Depicting a devastated world that is both terrifying and sublime, Platonov is, without doubt, a universal writer who is as solitary and haunting as Kafka.  This volume gathers eight works that show Platonov at his tenderest, warmest, and subtlest. Among them are “The Return,” about an officer’s difficult homecoming at the end of World War II, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”; “The River Potudan,” a moving account of a troubled marriage; and the title novella, the extraordinary tale of a young man unexpectedly transformed by his return to his Asian birthplace, where he finds his people deprived not only of food and dwelling, but of memory and speech.

 

8. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
The Road brings together short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, providing new insight into the life and work of this extraordinary writer. The stories range from Grossman’s first success, “In the Town of Berdichev,” a piercing reckoning with the cost of war, to such haunting later works as “Mama,” based on the life of a girl who was adopted at the height of the Great Terror by the head of the NKVD and packed off to an orphanage after her father’s downfall. The girl grows up struggling with the discovery that the parents she cherishes in memory are part of a collective nightmare that everyone else wishes to forget. The Road also includes the complete text of Grossman’s harrowing report from Treblinka, one of the first anatomies of the workings of a death camp; “The Sistine Madonna,” a reflection on art and atrocity; as well as two heartbreaking letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death at the hands of the Nazis and carried with him for the rest of his life.

 

Which of these books pique your interest?  Have you read any of them before?

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‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Mikhail Lermontov ****

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which was first published in 1839, was my choice for the Georgia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  According to its translator Paul Foote, it ranks as ‘one of the earliest of the great Russian novels.’  It was written towards the end of Lermontov’s very short literary career, killed as he was in a duel at the age of 26, and was published just two years before his death.

Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the tongue-in-cheek ‘hero’ of the novel ‘was offered to the public not as a model but as a condemnation of the period.  Restless, cynical, disillusioned, sometimes cruel, he shares with many nineteenth-century Russian heroes a sense of superfluousness.’  Foote goes on to give some historical context to Pechorin’s – and Lermontov’s – world: ‘The period in which he wrote – the 1830s – was an important transitional step in Russian literature, when verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began.’  Interestingly, Lermontov’s career ‘ran parallel’ to Pushkin’s, with both poets turning to prose towards the end of their writing lives.9780140447958

A Hero of Our Time is made up of five separate short stories, which have not been chronologically ordered; they give a series of episodes, essentially, in which elements of Pechorin’s life are shown to the reader.  Three of these are journal entries of Pechorin’s, but we learn more of his character from those which are narrated by others, and tell of his exploits.  Of Lermontov’s protagonist, Foote believes: ‘The only comfort Pechorin has is his conviction of his own perfect knowledge and mastery of life.  He despises emotions and prides himself on the supremacy of his intellect over his feelings.’  He is, however, Foote goes on to say, ‘more than a mere social type.  He is also a psychological type, the dual character, in conflict with himself, torn between good and evil, between idealism and cynicism, between a full-blooded desire to live and a negation of all that life has to offer.’  Foote also believes that Pechorin is a highly autobiographical portrait of Lermontov himself, who exhibited many of the same traits as his ‘hero’.

Lermontov’s descriptions are as dramatic as they are resplendent; when he writes about Georgia, for instance: ‘What a glorious place that valley is!  Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva – linked with some nameless torrent that roams out of a black, mist-filled gorge – stretches glistening like a scaly snake.’

A Hero of Our Time is the first example of the psychological novel in Russia; whilst it is perhaps not ‘psychological’ in the same extent as we would expect nowadays, there are many examples to be found in which Pechorin deliberately manipulates those around him, largely for his own gain.  At the time in which he was writing, there was no established tradition of Russian prose; rather, this was one of the first books of its kind, and as Lermontov had no rules to follow, he can be credited as one of the first masters of the Russian novel.  There is much here to admire.  The translation feels seamless, and reads fluidly.  Pechorin is a complex, mysterious, and deplorable character, who feels markedly realistic.  A Hero of Our Time is rather a quick read, particularly when compared to other Russian classics, but is both interesting and memorable.

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Translation Database: Day Three

We have reached the third day of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.

 

1. The Sea by Blai Bonet (translated from the Catalan by Cathy Sweeney; Dalkey Archive 16284823Press)
A profoundly touching contribution to the tradition of the metaphysical novel as exemplified by Dostoyevsky and Bernanos, and likewise a worthy counterpart to the vibrant and polyphonic work of fellow Iberians Camilo Jose Cela and Juan Goytisolo, The Sea is a cornerstone of postwar Catalan literature. Set in a tubercular sanatorium in Mallorca after the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of three children sharing a gruesome secret who are brought together again by chance and illness–two patients and one nurse. A love triangle, a story of retribution, and an exploration of evil, The Sea is “a profound and radical descent into the depths of the human soul.” (Gerard de Cortanze).

 

363344402. Tomas Jonsson, Bestseller by Gudberger Bergsson (translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith; Open Letter)
‘A retired, senile bank clerk confined to his basement apartment, Tómas Jónsson decides that, since memoirs are all the rage, he’s going to write his own—a sure bestseller—that will also right the wrongs of contemporary Icelandic society. Egoistic, cranky, and digressive, Tómas blasts away while relating pick-up techniques, meditations on chamber pot use, ways to assign monetary value to noise pollution, and much more. His rants parody and subvert the idea of the memoir—something that’s as relevant today in our memoir-obsessed society as it was when the novel was first published.  Considered by many to be the ‘Icelandic Ulysses‘ for its wordplay, neologisms, structural upheaval, and reinvention of what’s possible in Icelandic writing, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller was a bestseller, heralding a new age of Icelandic literature.’

 

3. Zoo in Winter by Polina Barskova  (translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk; 10051654Melville House)
Opulent, playful, and sensual, Polina Barskova’s poems have earned her a reputation as the finest Russian poet under forty. While steeped in Russian and classical culture, Barskova’s work remains unmistakably contemporary, at once classic and edgy–always fresh, new and even startling. A major English-language event, The Zoo in Winter collects poems from seven earlier books as well as from her more recent work. It is a remarkable menagerie of poems, of a strange and intoxicating beauty.

 

271808124. I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali (translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman; Garnet Publishing)
Iraqi Kurdistan at the turn of the twenty-first century is a territory ruled by strongmen, revolutionaries, fixers, bureaucrats, and the “Barons” who control everything from livestock and land to Kurdish cultural life.  Defying the absolute power wielded by the Barons, a band of friends led by an enigmatic poet embark on an odyssey to find the bodies of two lovers killed unjustly by the authorities. The Barons respond by attempting to crush these would-be avengers—but their real war is waged against the imagination itself, a prized, elusive commodity to which intellectuals, merchants, political elites, and humble workers all seek access in one way or another.  I Stared at the Night of the City is a tale of extraordinary people travelling great distances, in their minds or with their feet. It is a lyrical interpretation of contemporary Kurdistan, so much in the news, but so little understood. Told by several unreliable narrators in a kaleidoscope of fragments that all eventually cohere, the novel immerses readers in the fantastic just long enough, before wrenching them back to hard, cold “real life.”

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5. Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies; Parthian Books)
Bound together by blood ties, Martha, Jack, and Shanco live on a farm in Wales, where their lives unfold in the eerie half-presence of their dead parents.

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Reading the World: ‘Poor People’ (‘Poor Folk’) by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

Poor People, more commonly printed with the title Poor Folk, is the debut novel of Russian literary heavyweight Fyodor Dostoevsky, and was first published in Russia in 1846.  I read it in the beautiful Alma Classics edition, which has been wonderfully and fluidly translated by Hugh Aplin.

9781847493125Told in an epistolary manner, it follows two characters who live upon the fringes of society in St Petersburg, struggling with poverty rather acutely.  Devushkin Alexievich is a copywriter working in an office, and Barbara Alexievna a seamstress.   ‘These are people,’ Dostoevsky tells us, who are ‘respected by no one, not even by themselves’.  They are infatuated with one another, but are too poor to marry.  Rather, they live in small apartments opposite one another.  We are witness to their back and forth of letters, and the unfolding correspondence which lets us learn about both protagonists.  We are party to the workings of their minds, and their deepest thoughts and questions about one another.  Barbara writes the following to Devushkin, for instance: ‘… what has made you go and take the room which you have done, where you will be worried and disturbed, and where you have neither elbow-space nor comfort – you who love solitude, and never like to have any one near you?’

Poor People begins on April the 8th, and continues in different letters by both characters, until ending in the September of the same year.  When the novella starts, Devushkin has just moved into a new apartment – the one which faces Barbara’s – and devises a cunning plan with her curtains; when she loops them up, he knows that she is thinking of him, and when they are closed, he knows that it is time to go to bed.  Certainly, Devushkin is a more dreamy, whimsical character than Barbara; she seems to have enough sensibility for the both of them, and thinks practically throughout.  She despairs particularly about her future: ‘Ah, what is going to become of me?  What will be my fate?  To have to be so uncertain as to the future, to have to be unable to foretell what is going to happen, distresses me deeply.  Even to look back at the past is horrible, as it contains sorrow that breaks my heart at the very thought of it.’

Dostoevsky’s use of nature is sublime, and is present from the very first letter, used as a device to lift Devushkin’s spirits: ‘This morning, too, I arose (joyous and full of love) at cockcrow.  How good seemed everything at that hour, my darling!  When I opened my window I could see the sun shining, and hear the birds singing, and smell the air laden with scents of spring.  In short, all nature was awaking to life again.  Everything was in consonance with my mood; everything seemed fair and spring-like.’

The letters are variant in length, and are all suffused with differing levels of love and despair, as well as the emergence of hope at intervals.  Dostoevsky’s prose is gorgeously rich, and has a very modern feel to it.  The characters alter as their circumstances do; they have been so well built, and their shifting relationship too feels true to life.

As with all of Dostoevsky’s work, Poor People is filled with beauty and passion; realistic characters are at its heart.  Dostoevsky is one of my favourite authors, and I am always immediately captivated by his thoughts and stories.  My experience was no different here; for those who already love Russian literature it is a must-read, and it would also serve as a fantastic introduction to the myriad of wonderful works published within the fascinating country.

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Reading the World: ‘The Suitcase’ by Sergei Dovlatov ***

Translated from its original Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase fits wonderfully within my Reading the World Project.  I had never read any Dovlatov before picking this novella up in the Books for Amnesty shop in Cambridge, but was intrigued by its premise: ‘Several years after emigrating from the USSR, the author discovers the battered suitcase he had brought with him gathering dust at the back of a wardrobe. As he opens the suitcase, the seemingly undistinguished items he finds inside take on a riotously funny life of their own as Dovlatov inventories the circumstances under which he acquired them’.

9781847492791Dovlatov’s books were banned in Russia, and he was forced into a life of exile in the United States.  The Suitcase, published for the first time in 1986 in Russia, and in English translation in 1990, is perhaps one of the most modern male-written Russian books which I have read, as I tend to plump for the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  The Suitcase is a comic work, ‘overlaid with Dovlatov’s characteristically dark-edged humour’.  On the book’s blurb, in fact, he is deemed ‘one of the finest satirists of the twentieth century’.

The Suitcase has been simply but effectively split into sections which detail all of the things found in the suitcase, from ‘The Finnish Crepe Socks’ to ‘The Winter Hat’.  This essentially forms a series of interconnected short stories.  The narrator of the piece is named Sergei Dovlatov too, but it is not entirely certain whether this is a work with autobiographical echoes in terms of the existence of such a suitcase and its contents.

We learn quite a lot about Dovlatov the character from the stories which we are told.  After he has been released from prison at the outset of the work, he gives a short appraisal of his life, and where he finds himself: ‘I almost wept with self-pity.  After all, I was thirty-six years old.  Had worked eighteen of them.  I earned money, bought things with it.  I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me.  And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that’.

Dovlatov is amusing and sardonic throughout, although some of the chapters are certainly funnier than others.  He mocks the Communist regime, and the way of life which had to be adhered to when he was young and living in Russia: ‘As a schoolboy I liked to draw the leaders of the world proletariat – especially Marx.  Just start smearing an ordinary splotch of ink around and you’ve already got a resemblance…’.

The Suitcase has been written and translated well, but I did not enjoy it as much as others seem to.  The writing is more matter of fact than pretty, and the descriptions are cursory when talking about anything other than the items within the suitcase.  Dovlatov seems to subscribe to the ‘tell rather than show’ method of prose writing.  It is rather a quick read, and a thoughtful one at times, but whilst there is a social commentary and historical details – black marketeering, politics, figureheads, industry, Communism and Capitalism, and propaganda, to name just a few – running throughout the book, there is not the depth to it which I was expecting there to be.  There is profundity at times, but I feel that this could have been used to better effect had the writing sparkled more.

There is not much of a geographical sense of place within the pages of The Suitcase, which would have added depth and context to the whole.  It is also quite dialogue heavy, something which I’m not that keen on in stories unless it’s done incredibly well.  Whilst it does hold interest for those fascinated by Russian history, I have discovered that I am far more a fan of the descriptive variety of Russian literature, by the likes of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Bulgakov.  The Suitcase does present a series of stories which circle around a clever central idea, but I found that I liked the idea of it more than its execution.

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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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Flash Reviews: ‘Alix & Nicky’, ‘On the Golden Porch’, and ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’

Just a few collected thoughts about some of my recent reads.

Alix & Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding **** 9780312381004
Alix and Nicky remained on my TBR shelf for over two years, and after reading, I have no idea why that was. Well, perhaps the fact that my copy is rather a large hardback which was incredibly difficult to juggle whilst in bed…

I am a self-confessed Russian history nerd. I studied Russian history, from Peter the Great to the modern day, throughout my A Level History course and as part of my undergraduate degree. There’s something about it which is both mysterious and compelling. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that I picked this up when I was on a trip to Oxford.

Alix and Nicky is both rich and thorough, and I thought that the non-reliance upon a rigid chronological structure worked incredibly well. The writing is strong, the vocabulary varied, and the chapters wonderfully structured. I feel as though I learnt a lot whilst reading, which is always a bonus. Virginia Rounding is an author whom I haven’t read before, but based upon this, I have added the rest of her bibliography to my to-read list, and have a feeling that there will be some gems in store for me.

 

9780679728436On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya *****
A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important.  More Tolstaya, please.

 

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue 9780571314959 Hitchcock ***
Whilst this intrigued, both in terms of plot and setting, and whilst I very much enjoyed the opening chapter, this just didn’t sit right for me. I had no issues with the writing, but predictability soon seeped in, and I did not even feel as though Hitchcock had made any effort to conceal such elements.

I was more interested in the stories of Ruth and Dumpling than those of the other characters, and the male narrative voice used for Hank just didn’t feel realistic. There were also distinct similarities in the narrative voices of other characters too, which I think let the book down somewhat.

 

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Classics Club #77: ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ by Leo Tolstoy ****

First published in 1889, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata is the 77th entry upon my Classics Club list.  Censored by Russian authorities upon its publication, the novella is a fascinating insight into the jealousy which love and passion can create.9780141032849

Not wanting to give too much away here, I shall copy the official blurb of the piece, which gives a nice overview but does not go into too much detail: “Pozdnyshev and his wife have a turbulent relationship. When her beauty blossoms after the birth of their children, men begin to flock around her, and he becomes increasingly jealous. Convinced his wife is betraying him with a young musician, his overpowering suspicion drives him to ever more dangerous lengths.”

Some interesting and rather complex ideas manifest themselves within the story, and despite its relative shortness, it is nevertheless an incredibly rich, thought-provoking and memorable read.  The first person narrator is a wonderful touch, adding a sense of immediacy to the whole, rather than the distancing effect which the use of a third person perspective would surely have brought to proceedings.

The Kreutzer Sonata is perhaps most interesting when viewed as a gender study.  Tolstoy rather bravely goes against the norm in terms of themes and the standpoint of females within Russian society as a whole.  As in many of his works, Tolstoy is rather profound at times, and certainly provides intrigue with regard to such ideas as generational gaps, the notion of parenthood (particularly with regard to maternal feelings), and with relationships forged between its adult characters.

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