By Maxim Gorky.
This was not a great book. It held my interest and there were less obvious political connotations than I thought there would be. A nice snapshot of the merchant class after the abolition of serfdom.
By Feodor Sologub.
This was very enjoyable. It reminds of Deal Souls and other novels in the Russian literary canon. Dead Souls is more amusing, possibly. The novel feels more random and fragmented and dispassionate.
“Indeed a lie is often more plausible than the truth. “Almost” always. The truth, of course, is never very plausible.”
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.”
By Ivan Turgenev.
This was a reread and I liked it as much second time around almost twenty years after the first time.
I couldn’t remember the ending but I think it ended well – from a novelistic point of view (not necessarily for the characters). You find yourself drawn into the machinations and the characters, Turgenev is a master of the insular within a context.
There was much to consider. I like this paragraph:
‘Have you noticed,’ began Bersenyev, eking out his words with gesticulations, ‘what a strange feeling nature produces in us? Everything in nature is so complete, so defined, I mean to say, so content with itself, and we understand that and admire it, and at the same time, in me at least, it always excites a kind of restlessness, a kind of uneasiness, even melancholy. What is the meaning of it? Is it that in the face of nature we are more vividly conscious of all our incompleteness, our indefiniteness, or have we little of that content with which nature is satisfied, but something else–I mean to say, what we need, nature has not?’
By Leo Tolstoy.
This was worth reading. And, it was a good tale – Tolstoy can tell a story. It doesn’t draw you in the same way as a Dostoevsky or Turgenev – it all seems a little too planned. Each scene has been mapped out, considered and fulfills its purpose precisely. I don’t believe great (important) works of literature work in this way: the random disordered elements and the frenzied activity of the writer as he or she throws what they have out on the page makes something unique. This is a novel by numbers, and it is well done but nothing special.
The themes are well worth considering – the inhumanity of the prison system, the lot of the working people and the different universe that the privileged inhabit. Finally, of course, ‘where is meaning to be found?’ – which is the major tenet of the book.
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.
By Vladimir Nabokov.
Of course a Nabokov autobiography would have Memory in the title. Nabokov is all about memories and explores the richness of these. You could argue he didn’t need to write this as there is much of his life in his novels. But, this is a different autobiography. This is Nabokov capturing episodes and experiencing pleasure in the process. This book is by Nabokov for Nabokov and we are lucky enough to be invited to participate and listen. The framework is very loose; written over a period of years and some parts were never intended to be in a larger work. The passage when he describes burping his baby son Dmitri is great – it becomes a philosophical experience while amusing at the same time. There’s so much warmth contained within precise fantastic prose.
“I think bourgeois fathers – wing-collar workers in pencil-striped pants, dignified, office-tied fathers, so different from young American veterans of today or from a happy, jobless Russian-born expatriate of fifteen years ago – will not understand my attitude toward our child. Whenever you held him up, replete with his warm formula and grave as an idol, and waited for the postlactic all-clear signal before making a horizontal baby of the vertical one, I used to take part both in your wait and in the tightness of his surfeit, which I exaggerated, therefore rather resenting your cheerful faith in the speedy dissipation of what I felt to be a painful oppression; and when, at last, the blunt little bubble did rise and burst in his solemn mouth, I used to experience a lovely relief as you, with a congratulatory murmur, bent low to deposit him in the white-rimmed twilight of his crib.”
By Rachel Polonsky.
An intriguing book filled with anecdotes, images and factual detail. The narration hit the perfect balance by providing a framework but not making the work ‘about’ the author. There were many images here that were incredibly rich – particularly the visits to Archangel and Murmansk. This was a really well written and conceived book – one subject leads to a place and another fact then a quick drop into an obscure historical detail. I may have to read this again on kindle – so I can highlight the parts that interested me and which could lead to further reading. I enjoyed this passage:In ‘The Eye and the Sun’, Sergei Vavilov related a story told by Gorky that illustrates how human beings try to materialise light: ‘I saw Chekhov, sitting in his garden, trying to catch a ray of sunlight and put in on his head.’
What a great anecdote and image. I like the the fact that we may never have heard about this if Gorky or Vavilov had not decided to pass it on.