Edited by T. M. Devine and David Hesse.
I found this collection of essays very interesting – but mainly the first half, which covered the Scottish migration to Poland in the late 16th and 17th century. It seems there were very distinct communities formed and these existed until the late 17th after which they were assimilated into the general populous. Gdansk, as a centre with defined routes has neighbourhoods that are named in a Scottish fashion – from ‘Old Scots’ to ‘New Scots’. There are also other villages named Szkocja (Scotland) in other parts of Poland. This migration has been largely forgotten and the editors do say that further research needs to be done. The story of William Bruce was also engaging, as a roving diplomatic agent in Poland in the 16th early 17th century, and there’s plenty scope for a movie script there. There would need to be a fair amount of literary licence as many details of his life are sketchy. I enjoyed these essays and wouldn’t mind reading a detailed study in future should it become available.
By Alexandr Kuprin.
Finally, I have got to the end of the duelling novels. This, by Kuprin, was the most modern of them all. It beats Chekhov’s Duel by about ten years and it was the one I liked best. The novella was longer than the others in the series and the suspense builds slowly as you, the reader, wonder how this duel is to come about. Kuprin wrote about what he knew and it is likely that he witnessed duels when he was the army and that a good part of the character Romashov is actually the young Kuprin. Romashov is painted so brilliantly, you get right inside his young head as he searches for meaning, vacillates, over-analyses and generally carries on the established type of ‘The Superfluous Man’ in Russian Literature. Except in Kuprin’s novel it seems somehow more personal. We are not viewing just a superfluous literary motif. In the other Duel novellas it seemed there was more of a filter between you and the duelists. In Kuprin’s duel you view military life with all its hardship and pettiness – there isn’t much honour in it, so how can a duel, which is ultimately a matter of honour, take root here?
This isn’t all about Romashov – there is an excellent supporting cast. The words that come out of Nazanski’s mouth could be the elder Kuprin advising the younger, possibly. Rafaelsky is a brilliant creation too, he is not in it for long, but the idea of a military man with a zoo and menagerie that he transports from camp to camp adds a colour and richness to the story. He is a sympathetic character, which, like all the others, doesn’t reach perfection as Nazanski shows with his anecdote at the end. Surochka is an enigma, Romashov thinks he is in love, but the reader on the outside isn’t quite sure what to make of her . It is this greyness that leaves you wondering at the end whether Romashov has been trapped by his basic good nature. There’s so much detail in this novel that it is a joy to read. Everything has the potential to be important to the outcome as the reader and Romashov are led towards the duel that will close the story.
Soundtrack: Grant McLennan – Comet Scar.
By Honoré de Balzac.
On New Year’s Eve after a couple of wines I regaled a friend with the opinion that Balzac has everything, so why bother reading anything modern? It’s all right there – in Balzac’s characters, their intrigues and the truths that come out of their mouths. In the cold light of day, I have to say, this still holds. Although, instead of saying ‘just’ Balzac, I would add a legion of old writers. Modern stuff has no interest – not because it is ‘modern’ but because I don’t think it is very good. In our ‘Late Capitalist Realism‘ all that matters is plot and for something to be written in a snappy way, because units have to be shifted and that’s what the ‘real’ world demands, isn’t it?
In Balzac’s Gobseck there is plot, hinted at back-stories, intrigue, fantastic characterisation and real psychological insights brought about by all these elements. There is a truth in the words – not just craft and a desire to sell books. This truth is sometimes not altogether clear – it is equivocal. But, when something is not stated plainly then you start to consider it and the questions become internalised. I have spent the days after reading Gobseck thinking about Gobseck himself. It is true he had a desire for wealth, but he was also an adventurer and lived against the grain and he had an integrity about him, a purity of purpose. So, why then do we find his actions distasteful at the end? It’s a short novel and in the public domain so it should be read and I won’t give anything else away. I believe Gobseck to have had many positive attributes, as the early relationship between he and Derville shows. But, then, is there one small action that changes his path? Is this moment even in the novel? There are so many quotable lines from this story – here is one:
“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”
By Nikolai Leskov.
This a a perfect short novel: it grabs you by the throat and carries you along in a violent fashion towards the shocking conclusion. Even 150 years later this novel is still incredibly powerful and, apparently, Leskov scared even himself when writing it. Morality, love, murder and meaning are all analysed and one of the real strengths is that you are left with so many questions at the conclusion. Who is the most culpable? Sergei or Katerina herself? Was the boredom of bourgeois respectability instrumental in creating these monstrous acts? They follow the familiar motif of adherence to passion or supposed ‘true love’ – but what if this becomes subjugation and requires terrible actions? An incredibly interesting and moving novel. Leskov, it seems, was an outsider – not accepted by the conservatives or the radicals – maybe because of his equivocal nature, which can be seen in the unresolved questioning in this book. Absolutely an intense and thought provoking read. As a reader, you come out the other side very affected and it is as though the world is silent in the last few lines as everyone holds their breath, and then it finishes suddenly.
By Joseph Conrad.
What I liked about this Duel episode was that a point of honour arose out of nothing. Following this, the reason for the bad blood became shrouded in mystery and neither participant was able to set the record straight without losing face. The public could only guess at the reasons and let their imaginations run wild while each man remained silent. This story was based on two officers in Napoleon’s army who carried out a series of Duels over fourteen years while traipsing all over Europe. Also of interest is the army’s attitude to dueling – it was frowned on to an extent but it was almost part and parcel of a military man’s life and at least one duel was a rite of passage. Though, your prospects for promotion could be damaged. Both the duelists in question did still manage to make the rank of General despite the dueling handicap. I liked this novella more than the Von Kleist ‘Duel’.