The Cossacks

By Leo Tolstoy.

A very early book by Tolstoy and it shows, parts are a little stilted and cliched. But, there’s enough here to make it worth reading – the study of Cossack life in the Steppes. I listened to this book as an audio-book while doing other things and it transported me into another world for a few minutes at a time. It is interesting to analyse Tolstoy’s superfluous man – Olenin, who he treats with sympathy, but the main element that you take away is the atmosphere of the Caucasus.

 

 

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Dukla

By Andrzej Stasiuk.

Another fantastic book by Stasiuk. I think he perhaps is the most interesting contemporary writer writing today. His voice is unique and even though it seems that he writes about straightforward things there is such an atmosphere attached to these along with an undercurrent of thought and ideas. This is a novel about light and the town of Dukla in South-Eastern Poland – except that it isn’t really a novel and it isn’t really about these things either. It seems to me he has gone further than Gombrowicz in that form is present but it is very definitely broken down and that different layers are present underneath each structure and these peep through and take precedence at different times. But the book isn’t slavishly in thrall to these forms, it all happens quite naturally. Stasiuk really is masterful.

“There’ll be no plot, with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end.  A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of the day.  Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.”

 

 

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Trips to the Moon

By Lucian of Samosata.

I loved this little book. Very Rabelaisian – or perhaps ‘Rabelaisian’ should be renamed ‘Samosatian’. What an imagination. There’s much that we lose here as many of the references that Lucian makes are to works that have not survived from his heyday – around AD125. Still, well worth reading. This made me chuckle:

The campaign thus happily finished, they made an entertainment to celebrate the victory, which, as is usual amongst them, was a bean- feast. Pythagoras alone absented himself on that day, and fasted, holding in abomination the wicked custom of eating beans.

 

 

 

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Russian Fairy Tales

By Ivan Bilibin and Alexandr Afanasev.

Great fairy tales with fantastic illustrations by Bilibin. Digitally, only a couple of pounds from iBooks or Amazon. I did see this on eBay for £400. Tempting. Some of these tales I have read before and very interesting are those which are variations.

 

 

 

 

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A Happy Boy

By Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

I decided to follow up the last post with another Norwegian writer. This story was written 150 years earlier though, in 1860. Quite a pleasant tale. There’s nothing great or meaningful here, just good writing, some well constructed scenes and absorbing attention to detail. I read Bjørnson years ago after first encountering Hamsun because I heard he had been quite a formative influence on him. You can see the the love of nature and a recognition of its eternal aspect in both writers. Hamsun obviously took things further and entered a more psychological realm. This book is in the public domain. It’s quite short and well worth reading over a couple of days.

 

 

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Russian Sketches, Chiefly of Peasant Life

By Leskov, Grigorvich, Nekrasov, Lermontov.

The Leskov story ‘The Sealed Angel’ is the longest story here and it really is very intriguing. It follows the tribulations of a group of old believers and their dealings with the religous orthodoxy. There is much description of the iconography and the story is well told. I have been considering reading some Leskov for a while – I did once see the Shostakovitch opera ‘Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District’ which was brilliant. Grigorovich also had a few stories here and they didn’t really do much for me. A little too heavy on the description and not enough substance.

The poem by Lermontov was excellent as were the ‘poems’ by Nekrasov. I put ‘poems’ in quotes because they seemed prose to me – but that may have been the translation. I had wanted to read something by Nekrasov previously, due to his associations with both Belinsky and Dostoevsky, but he is known more as a publisher than a poet and works were difficult to find. Again this collection was read on kindle and downloaded from openlibrary.org – the advent of ebooks have opened up millions of novels and collections which were difficult to source and read previously. The ease of access means things can be read on a whim due to some random association – that has to be good.

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The Devil’s Pool

By George Sand.

I almost gave up on this novella due to George Sand’s preface. She seemed too eager to try and justify the telling of a simple story that didn’t mean anything big and profound. There was no need – the story was good and it was well written, and i’m glad I persevered. The end also grated with more authorial instruction and intrusion into the story. So, I am of two minds about George Sand based on this short novel. She could tell a story very well and the story was interesting and perspicacious – but there was a lack of judgement (or some ego) with her framing. It seems I will have to read more by her  because it was good and hopefully her artifice was just a one-off. This was free from the kindle store – definitely worth it.

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Tales By Polish Authors

By Various.

The writers in this collection include: Adam Szymański, Stefan Żeromski, Wacław Sieroszewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz. All the stories were good – particularly the short one from Żeromski – ‘Twilight Tempation’. The common theme throughout was the study of rural life and the sufferings of the peasants and the poor. Szymański’s story was excellent as well: the participants were exiled to Siberia – but rather than focus on the physical hardships it looked at the homesickness and memories of the two characters. As I said – all the stories are well worth reading – it’s a window into a different world. The book is free from Amazon.

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Growth of the Soil

hamsunBy Knut Hamson.

I really don’t know what to think about this novel. It was written in a masterful way but something didn’t connect with me. Part of the frustration was with the characters – the narrator is like a God and the foibles of the characters are plain to see as he categorises them – except with Isak for the most part. He is stable, and is stable because work and the land keep him this way. It is a moral tale and one with a pretty simplistic view of humanity. People can be many things and even someone who is vain and is puffed up by their learning can still be positive and good and act well towards others. Not so in this novel. The only people that have any worth are Isak and his son Silvert. Everyone else harbours evil thoughts, motives and is unfulfilled. All of pettiness and sensational negatives of the characters are shown. True, Geissler is a little different. He is like the narrator but in the novel.

In Growth of the Soil you can see not only a contempt for society but also, unfortunately, humanity. People and characters and whole families are drawn in such broad brush strokes with the negatives highlighted. A person is a certain way and can’t change. Hence they can be written off and devalued

I loved Hunger and several other novels by Hamsun and have always been confused as to how the writer of these books could have supported the Nazis, but after reading this I can see how fascism would have been attractive to him. Strength is valued greatly, attributes are simplified into such generalisations, and I really got the feeling that the narrator had a real contempt for humanity – seeing only negatives rather than the possibilities.

The attachment to nature and treatment of animals is however a different thing. The book creates a wonderful atmosphere and desire for nature in the reader. I enjoyed that aspect. Hamsun is still or was a fantastic writer. One must be careful not to draw him in broad brushstrokes either. I guess the fact I have thought about it so much over the last couple of days makes it worth reading.

Soundtrack: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – People Ain’t no Good.

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