Virgin Soil

By Ivan Turgenev.

One thing I like about Turgenev is that it is like renewing an acquaintance or conversation whenever you return him. With most of his work he never clearly comes down on one side something he was criticised for regularly. I think this is a real strength, he presents ideas, characters and situations and leaves it to the reader. This novel directly deals with the revolutionary networks in Russia in the 1870s. He presents the young revolutionaries in a sympathetic light but also brings to light contradictions, namely that most of them are of the middle class and as such they can’t relate to the working people. There are exceptions though in every case – but Turgenev poses the question. He is unsparing in his criticism of the right-wing reactionaries however – Kollomietzev is exposed warts and all but the obviously right-wing mayor is shown as a decent man. Turgenev is equivocal. This old saying was quite apt: “Moscow lies at the foot of Russia and everything rolls down to her” – you could substitute it with London and Britain, possibly.

 

 

 

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The Letter Killers Club

By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

This was an intense and intelligent read. I can’t help but wonder if Gombrowicz, with his obsession with form, read Krhizhanovsky even though this is unlikely as Krzhizhanovsky was largely unpublished. There are I believe many more novels and stories that are waiting in the wings to be translated. So many unusual images and great ideas, and imaginative ways of illustrating ideas and concepts are contained here. I also wonder about Krzhizhanovsky’s name as he was born to Polish parents in Kiev – and both his first name and surname have been made into a Russian derivation. Did he change these to fit into a Moscow society where being of Polish origin rendered you suspect? There are some great passages in this book. I enjoyed it much more than the previous collection I read – due mostly to the fact I prefer an immersive novel. Or,  there was a connection with his voice here for some reason or other.

 

 

 

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The Rendezvous

By Ivan Turgenev.

A very nice little study. This, in the scheme of things, is a song rather than an album. The characters are well drawn as you would expect from Turgenev – but the possible back-story (and future) makes this even more engaging. Downloadable from Gutenberg and Openlibrary.org.

 

 

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Rudin

By Ivan Turgenev.

This is thought one of Turgenev’s lesser works but I found it very engaging. The Characters were all very well drawn and there were some great lines:

A man who has lived and has not grown tolerant towards others does not deserve to meet with tolerance himself. And who can say he does not need tolerance?

The figure of Rudin should be much more well-known in lierature – a man of intellect and potential with the inability to act. Maybe not exactly the type of the ‘superfluous man’ but similar.

 

 

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The Village

By Ivan Bunin.

This novel had a real atmosphere to it and I was really reminded of Platonov. The characters just drift along and many details are given which don’t seem to add up to anything in the long run but you enjoy them because they are rich, and also interesting in what they mean and how they interact with all the other events and detail. Like a tapestry – though I could be over-egging things with the metaphor. This type of novel seems to mirror life much more so than the traditional narrative arc which we take for granted in our films, TV and books. This novel was still very satisfying but the goal wasn’t the end point, it was the narrative and your attention to it. The mood and the characters developed were quite something. Bunin was a master who you hardly hear about in the Russian literary canon (probably due to his exile in the west). So, canons should be ignored.

 

 

 

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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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The Created Legend

Reading this novel is an example of the usefulness of the Kindle. This book hasn’t been republished in English it seems and the translation I downloaded from openlibrary.org was a hundred years old. It was quite engaging but seemed a little dated. I’m not sure if this was the translation or that if decadent symbolism was very much of its time. Maybe a combination of both. The novel was part magical, part pastoral and also political. The fact it was three quite dissimilar things was one of the reasons I liked it and carried on reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Glory

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another immensely enjoyable novel. This one had a very strange atmosphere about it. The other books I have experienced something similar are those by Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse – almost like whimsical folk-tales. It’s a good story, well written and it transports you. You can see the beginnings of the precocious imagination of some of his later works – Pale Fire in particular. John Updike described it as ‘… far from the least of this happy man’s Russian novels.’  I haven’t really touched the surface of these yet but this observation could be correct.

 

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Mary

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Definitely not a work of genius but still good – it was a début novel. Some themes can be found here that occur in his other novels: notably dream and its relationship to the larger-than-life reality Nabokov creates. Also, the unreality of the traditional romantic ideal. Memories and reminiscences punctuate the narrative – this is the strongest connection with his other novels. Memories play such an important role for Nabokov whether they are true to life or imagined. I think this is one of the reasons I like him so much. The only thing missing is humour but this starts later. It will be interesting to find the novel in his oeuvre where humour starts to make more of an appearance.

 

 

 

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Look at the Harlequins!

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another very strong novel by Nabokov. It is not his best work – though I can’t exactly say why: possibly the reader may not be as affected or overcome by his genius as in other novels. There’s still a fair few to read – in my case. Of course his prose, and the sense of voice or character that he engenders is absolutely impressive. Take this fantastic long sentence for example:

“She wore elaborate make-up  and spoke in  simpering accents, reducing nouns  and adjectives  to over-affectionate  forms  which even  the Russian language, a recognized giant of diminutives, would only condone  on  the wet lips of  an infant  or  tender  nurse  (“Here,” said Mrs.  Blagovo “is  your  chaishko s molochishkom   [teeny  tea  with   weeny  milk]”).

Autobiographical elements are obviously going to be present here – though you would need to be a Nabokovian scholar to really analyse this. In the same way that Nabokov himself was an authority on Pushkin. That is one of the things I am attracted to in Nabokov’s work: he is modern and aware but he is also linked to the past – he is a successor to Gogol and you can sense his character behind the words in the same way as Pushkin. Nabokov cannot be considered in isolation, it has to be in his Russian context. There was one joke that I got where Vadim (the main character and first-person narrator) chastises his wife for mixing up and creating a spoonerism out of third-rate journalists (Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky from the 1860s). I’m not sure why Nabokov would create such an obscure reference, in Western eyes, perhaps it was a little dig at the Russian Communist establishment who would remember those Russian Populist predecessors of the nineteenth century.

There is so much detail and humour in ‘Look at the Harlequins!’ and it is a novel to go back to, but it probably shouldn’t be the first Nabokov novel you should read. Immeasurably enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

 

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