Invitation to a Beheading and Despair

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Two very different novels. Despair has plot and psychology and it feels more like Nabokov even though Invitation to a Beheading was written later and has what can be described with the benefit of hindsight ‘Kafkaesque’ elements. Both are strong and excellent reads with much to think about. Nabokov was well in his stride in these mid-thirties novels (both in age and decade).

 

 

 

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The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

By Gaito Gazdanov.

Thoroughly enjoyable. I was going to say that nothing else has been translated – but there do seem to be more novels recently translated and some scheduled for release. They will be read.

“You are beginning to live. Taking part in what is called the struggle for life lies ahead of you. Roughly speaking, there are three types: the struggle for victory, the struggle for annihilation, and the struggle for consensus. You are all young and full of vigour, and so, naturally, you are drawn to the first type. But always remember that the most humane and most advantageous is the struggle for consensus. If you make of this a principle throughout your life, it will mean that the culture we have tried to bestow on you will not have been for nothing, that you have become true citizens of the world, and, consequently, we shall not have lived in this world in vain. Because, if it be otherwise, it will mean that we have merely wasted our time. We are old, we have no more strength to build a new life. We have one hope left, and that is you.”

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Quiet Flows the Don

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By Mikhail Sholokhov.

I can’t recommend this book enough. A timeless story and detailed interesting characters in four separate volumes that took 15 years to complete. Read this rather than War and Peace. I finished this a year ago and I still think about it regularly.

“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.”

 

 

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Kolyma Tales

 

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By Varlam Shalamov.

This a powerful collection of stories. Part of the intensity is given by the seemingly objective and non-involved narration. Shalamov did this on purpose – there is no moralising by the writer – he lays everything out. The message that good can come from hardship is not present. There is just hardship.

“Friendship is not born in conditions of need or trouble. Literary fairy tales tell of ‘difficult’ conditions which are an essential element in forming any friendship, but such conditions are simply not difficult enough. If tragedy and need brought people together and gave birth to their friendship, then the need was not extreme and the tragedy not great. Tragedy is not deep and sharp if it can be shared with friends.”

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Dark Avenues

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By Ivan Bunin.

This is an absolute masterpiece. Dark Avenues is a collection of stories written in the late 30s and early 40s but they read as one. The themes of love and loss are consistent across them all and there is a strong poetic sensibility in the prose and the way the subjects are treated.

 

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The Jean Christophe Cycle

By Romain Rolland.

Comprising ten novels:

L’Aube (“Dawn”, 1904)
Le Matin (“Morning”, 1904)
L’Adolescent (“Youth”, 1904)
La Révolte (“Revolt”, 1905)
La Foire sur la place (“The Marketplace”, 1908)
Antoinette (1908)
Dans la maison (“The House”, 1908)
Les Amies (“Love and Friendship”, 1910)
Le Buisson ardent (“The Burning Bush”, 1911)
La Nouvelle Journée (“The New Dawn”, 1912)

This is a very impressive work. It feels slightly dated – though this could be the translation. I don’t understand how Rolland could have been marginalised as much as he has, being a Novel Prize winner. Perhaps because his preoccupations with pre-WW1 Europe have been forgotten to an extent. There’s a great amount here about creativity and art – the novel(s) are really an excuse for his musings on these.

 

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