Russian Thinkers

berlin-russian-thinkersBy Isaiah Berlin.

This collection of essay and lectures was a revelation. Absolutely brilliant. I am inspired to read more Turgenev, Herzen and Belinsky. I identified with all three writers, who, while they respected the goals of socialism found themselves wavering in terms of achieving this through violent insurrection. Herzen particularly was very interesting as he didn’t see socialism as an end in itself – the goal for him was to live well and creatively, which is what he saw socialism as engendering. It is a paradox that by making everyone equal then people are happier, generally, and therefore uniqueness and individuality can be fostered as people don’t have to struggle as much. I agree to an extent – however sometimes struggle can bring about uniqueness and positive outcomes, so I don’t think there is one norm. Herzen also had a hatred of abstractions and generalisations which again I identified with.

Berlins analysis is very readable it kept me hooked all the way through. The book did take a while longer to read but I was reading it carefully as a work of non-fiction rather than as a novel so this was to be expected.

Belinsky also piqued my interest – he can be seen as the father of modern criticism. He wasn’t able to separate a writer from the writer’s life. Obviously a laudable aim when you frame this as part of Belinsky’s overpowering search for honesty and truth. However when you look at this in a modern context we now see every writer and personality has a persona either real or imagined that cannot be separated from their work and is possibly more important than the creative activity they are known for. In this respect he has a lot to answer for – but I doubt he could have imagined the extremes his passionate honesty would have led to.

There was so much food for thought in this book and it discusses issues that are of great interest at the moment. Fabulous.

Soundtrack: Built to Spill – Car.

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The Magic Ring and Other Russian Folktales

ringRetold by Robert Chandler.

A great little book. I really enjoyed all the stories as retold by Robert Chandler. The last story of Ivan the Old Soldier is excellent. It ends:

There was just one thing – if he began a story before supper no one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. He had to always ask for a bowl of soup first. It was better like that. After all, you can’t just live on stories without any food.

The folk-tales are amazingly surreal, creative and amusing. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen and really highlights that something has been lost in the modern popular stories on TV, in movies or pulp fiction.

Soundtrack: The Byrds – Eight Miles High.

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Lord Jim

Lord-JimBy Joseph Conrad.

Quite a good story. Unfortunately some of the language seemed dated – a problem which I don’t notice when reading novels in translation from this era as the translation is usually reasonably modern. Or, it could be that the Conrad’s descriptions are particularly of their time, long and suffused with colour, a hint of hyperbole similar to turning your gaze towards an exotic island noting every crevice, nook and cranny and paying equal attention to each specific detail as all is important in order to give the overall panorama the breadth of vision the written word can lack. Writing is a lot more sparse now, maybe to its detriment, but perhaps Conrad was more extreme with his detail and vocabulary as English wasn’t his first language (Polish was) and he had something to prove.

Various sentiments in this book are of their time. There are no positive female characters: only the one character in the entire novel – Jim’s ‘woman’. His treatment of the local population too is ambiguous, but this could be the point as the white men are not viewed in a terribly good light either. Given the fact Conrad was a reactionary conservative who didn’t believe in democracy, I think maybe you need to assume the worst. However this doesn’t mean as readers that we can’t take something of interest out of the novel.

I listened to this an an audiobook from Librivox and I really had to grit my teeth to get through the novel. The narrator did the voices. They were awful. In future, if an audiobook grates after the first few minutes I will have to stop. This is eminently preferrable to cursing the narrator, who is probably a very nice chap, for the hour and a half it takes me to get to work each morning. Just don’t do the voices.

Soundtrack: Guided By Voices – A Salty Salute.

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A Modest Proposal

swift_modest_proposal-173x300By Jonathan Swift.

A genius work of satire. I can’t believe Swift was writing this stuff in 1729. Reading it, you can’t help think think of the current crop of politicians and their attitude to the poor which doesn’t seem to have changed much. The best line of the piece would be:

“I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

This is essential reading. I can feel a re-read of Gulliver’s Travels coming on.

Soundtrack: Motorhead – Eat the Rich.


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