Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida

Edited by Robert Chandler.

This collection was an absolute pleasure; I was really struck by the strength of ideas throughout. How could one country, Russia, have produced so many fantastic writers that are unique but seem to share similar preoccupations? Perhaps that is testament to Robert Chandler’s editing (as well as his translation of most of the stories). There are a few omissions (Victor Serge, Venedikt Erofeev, Vassily Grossman and the ‘Russian Decadents‘) but maybe those writers and stories wouldn’t have worked within the overall collection. I really am filled with awe at the achievement of these writers both individually and collectively.

Many of these stories I had read before but it was good to revisit them sometimes in a more modern, considered translation. However, there were several writers I had not been aware of previously, and this collection is excellent as a taster for future reading.

It is impossible to canvas all the stories as they deserve. However, writers who sparked my interest were Bunin (who I had never heard of), Buida, Dovlatov, Shuksin and Zinovyeva-Annibal (who was related to Pushkin). There were others too, but I will begin with Bunin as the two stories ‘In Paris’ and ‘The Gentleman From San Fransisco’ left a strong impression on me. Buida too – his ‘Prussian Bride’ novel was published by Dedalus a few years ago. What else should I say? This is a great starting point for Russian literature, and even if you have read a moderate amount there are still discoveries here.

(as this is a collection the soundtrack should be a collection as well)

Soundtrack: Flying Nun Records – In Love With These Times/Pink Flying Saucers Over The Southern Alps.

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Childhood

By Leo Tolstoy.

This was an interesting short piece but not a work of genius or even close. I guess Tolstoy was still flexing his literary muscles. The autobiographies are probably a reasonable entry point into his work. I read Anna Karenina previously and thought it was good. I do intend reading War and Peace, but I have always struggled to justify the time it would take to read with the many great shorter novels I could finish in that time. I  should take the plunge, probably with a more modern translation.

As for ‘Childhood’ – I am not sure it is worth a look unless you are really interested in Tolstoy. He is very frank throughout but I didn’t think his childhood was interesting enough to be immortalised in an autobiography – unlike Gorky of course.

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Marble Snows & The Study

By Michael Heller.

Leaving the 19th Century (and the French and Russians) behind for a little while, here are two novellas by Michael Heller who is a contemporary writer, poet and critic. When I saw this book on an independent publisher website (ahadada), I was attracted to the fact that Paul Valery and Ryunosuke Akutagawa were referenced in relation to it. These two were fantastic writers and I thought it would be interesting to see how they were interpreted, or at least given a nod to, by a contemporary author. I wasn’t disappointed – usually there are simply not enough ideas in modern writing – the disciplines of plot and form are slavishly followed. In this case, I spent a very pleasant afternoon reading both novellas and there were plenty of ideas and Akutagawa and Valery were vaguely brought to mind at times.

You can tell Heller is a poet – there are a great many images and scenes in the work, all of which are invoked with ease and simplicity – there is nothing awkward anywhere. Each novella draws you in and entertains. Marble Snows, particularly, leaves you wanting more.

Both novellas are concerned with memories. In Marble Snows each episode is lightly connected and limited structure is imposed on them. In The Study – which is a study of the memories, and thoughts, of a patient ‘M’ – the doctor attempts to impose form on these experiences and is concerned with their objective nature. This book contained much food for thought. I may read it again over the weekend and post an update if anything more comes to mind.

Soundtrack: Damon & Naomi – Memories.

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The Girl With The Golden Eyes

By Honoré de Balzac.

This novel must have been shocking in its day. It can be seen as an absolute indictment of the dissolute Parisian life of the upper classes in the 19th century. I say ‘absolute’ as there are no positive characters apart from apects of Paquita and she is not Parisian. The first chapter doesn’t gives any plot, it is a monologue by the narrator about the corruption of Paris and how all the various classes are grappling with each other for social advancement at any price. At the time I wondered what was going on, but by the novel’s  end I thought it had set the things up nicely.

This is a free text which is in the public domain and can be listened to as an audiobook at Librivox.org or at Open Library. The translated language did seem a little dated which combined with some overly passionate reading on the audiobook did make me cringe at times. Still, it was entertaining and the twist is great. The themes of vice and love foiled by chance are timeless.

Soundtrack: Cinerama – Comedienne.

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