Lost and Found in Russia

By Susan Richards.

This book just  ambles along and somehow keeps your interest all the way through. Some reviews seemed to dismiss it because of this – but for me the lack or traditional plot arc was part of the attraction. The importance lay in the gaze and not the object – as Gide said – or probably paraphrased from someone else. The characters, who are actually real people, are very engaging and the encounters always illuminating. I wouldn’t call them ‘ordinary’ Russians as for the most part they are part of the new intelligentsia. I enjoyed the process of reading this book and learnt a lot along the way.

Yeltsin seemed to really mess things up for a Russia hoping to have a meaningful democracy. I’m part way through ‘the Shock Doctrine’ as I write and this seems to be borne out by many commentators. After reading, I am interested to find out more about the nineties and what actually went on in not just Russia, but the rest of the ex-soviet bloc. I already know a fair bit of what has happened  in Poland with the rise of the neoliberals, but to see things in a broader context would be good. At any rate, this is the best modern book I have read for a while – I wouldn’t call it fiction but still there are bound to be embellishments along the way. In addition to the political, the adventures relating to Russian spiritualism were intriguing as well.

The characters and people that make up the book ground it and give it focus, though if there is one criticism it is that they are framed too often from the writer’s perspective in quite an obvious way. Perhaps it wasn’t needed, because as the reader, you will have formed an impression and opinion of the people involved rather than being told how the narrator views them and the changes between each meeting. But this is a minor distraction. Well worth reading.

Soundtrack: Elena Kamburova – Pesnya Klouna.

 

 

 

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Happy Moscow

By Andrey Platonov.

It is the second time I have read Happy Moscow; though, this is a new translation. The novel really does have the most unique and unusual atmosphere – in the same vein as ‘Soul’. This was  unfinished and so it is likely that there would have been a substantial amount of changes.

Platonov moves his prose about as though it is a socialist realist movie camera. He follows minor characters for a while, who often never reappear, and then latches on to another character as they come in contact. I really wonder where the novel would have ended up had it been finished.

Reading this book made want to learn Russian. I want to see how exactly how the strange atmosphere is invoked and compare this to Pushkin with his French sentence structure, and Lermontov. The linear way the novel moves from one character to another is similar to reading habits: one writer leads to another and you follow them for a while until you catch another, sometimes they lead back to the original author but you were changed by the writers you followed in-between – and then you follow another. ‘Soul’ remains my favourite Platonov followed by the stories in ‘The Return’. I have a new translation of ‘The Foundation Pit’ and so will re-read that in the next while.

I really need to understand exactly how Platonov creates such an atmosphere in his strange world. In the mean-time here is a picture by Malevich which is a window into Platonov’s ‘Soul’ novel.

 

 

 

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The Duel [Kuprin]

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.

 

 

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Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

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.

 

 

 

 

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The Duel [Chekhov]

By Anton Chekhov.

This is the first ‘The Duel’ in a series of duel novellas that I recently purchased from Melville House Publishing. It’s a great idea to collate a series of linked novels in this way. What is also very good about this set is that each book has additional materials added, which either relate to duels or is biographical – there are even newspaper reports from the dueling heyday. This extra material makes these well worth getting. Too often it seems publishers simply republish old novels with just a new introduction – there often isn’t even a new translation. Someone has taken the time to collate all this extra information and this set really is the stronger because of it.

Chekhov’s Duel is an interesting novella. As I read it, I couldn’t help but keep comparing Laevsky (Chekhov’s superflous man – not to be confused with Pushkin’s, Lermontov’s, Turgenev’s and Goncharov’s) with Lermontov’s Pechorin specifically. It seems that Pechorin was railing against nothing specific – just existence, whereas in Chekhov’s Duel the the opponent was Von Koren. Von Koren was an exponent of Nietsche and Darwinism and is the mouthpiece for several of the ideas that were prevalent at this time, Laevsky, as the supposed superfluous man, is anathema to him. The strange thing is that Chekhov’s novel (written 50 years after Lermontov) feels more dated than ‘A Hero of our Time’. The structure is more traditional and you have these very clear opposing forces with a redemptive aspect at the end. The Tsar who hated Lermontov’s novel would have been much more pleased with Chekhov’s. Lermontov’s lack of traditional structure and Pechorin’s general dissatisfaction, with unseen forces and himself, seems much more current. Included in the additional materials in Melville House’s edition is an excerpt from Lermontov and it even includes Pushkin’s short story ‘The Queen of Spades’ which is also a gripping yarn and gets better with every reread. Contemplating Chekhov’s ‘The Duel’ novella, materials, and their links was very worthwhile and it really highlighted to me the greatness of Lermontov, and his only novel, whose life was cut short by a duel.

 

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The Possessed

[Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them]

By Elif Batuman.

Excellent. Finally, a contemporary novel (of sorts) that is immensely entertaining and well written. Except that it is a modern book about old books – so this could be cheating. One of the things I liked was how writers and their works are incorporated into a modern exposition of parts of Batuman’s life. It is chock full of anecdotes and interesting bits and pieces. For example, Isaac Babel interrogates a captured American airman in July 1921 fighting with the Polish Kosciuszko squadron against the red army of which Babel was a part. This airman was Merian Cooper – creater of King Kong. On Cooper, Babel notes he finds the Piłsudski 4th of July proclamation (also mentioned in Babel’s Red Cavalry) and goes over aspects of his conversation with Cooper: Coffee, Conan Doyle and a Major named Fauntelroy are mentioned. Babel also notes in his diary the airman left a ‘sad heart-warming impression’. Cooper in a memoir makes mention of a Bolshevik who tried to have him join them as an aviation instructor nothing more. In this way a great deal of information is given and Batuman lays them out, sometimes finds links – other times she just leaves them as they are. As an aside, I decided I wouldn’t mind having a go at translating this proclamation by Piłsidski from the Polish, unfortunately I only finished a paragraph and it was all over the place. Firstly, my Polish isn’t good enough, and secondly, the language used was difficult. I then decided I would try and translate some Irzykowski – again difficult but for a different reason: the sentences went on and on and trying the get thread of what was being said was nigh impossible. Maybe attempting a modern writer may be a good interim measure while my Polish improves: shorter sentences and simpler words.

Batuman’s prose is entertaining and having seen her on a panel at an event prior to London Book Fair earlier this year, she writes the way she talks. She mentions a contemporary of Pushkin’s who I had never heard of before – Ivan Lazhechnikov. Batuman becomes interested in a novel of his, which doesn’t appear to have been translated ‘The House of Ice’. She then goes to St Petersburg to stay overnight in a modern model of the house of ice, which was originally built by the empress Anna for the wedding night of two of her diminutive court performers. Numerous happenings occur along the way and there are historical anecdotes galore. All good stuff.

This book is great for people who have read a bit of Russian literature. Those who haven’t may not find it interesting at all. Now I need to read more Babel and try and track down Lazhechnikov.

Soundtrack: Lloyd Cole – Writer’s Retreat.

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The Defence

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Another great book. I must admit to a similar sensation when I first started reading Hemingway: every novel is just so good and unique and you want there to be an inexhaustable supply to last until the end of your days. Sadly, the Hemingway experience was over all too quick, but I can take some comfort from the fact that Nabokov wrote more. Obviously they will eventually run out, so, I need to pace myself and read a new Nabokov as a sublime escape every few months.

I really wish I hadn’t seen the movie of The Defence beforehand, it would have made the drive towards the novel’s resoultion even more intense. So, I will not give the ending away, but it doesn’t end as cleanly, in terms of action, as it should and this is a great device, you are on tenterhooks.

It is a very strange book, Nabokov gives us vivid scenes and then lets us fill in the gaps between these. The importance of a good back story and unresolved issues is often overlooked and I find myself still thinking about Luzhin’s mother, the auntie and the personal effects left by his father. Also, Valentinov and his activities. As with all of Nabokov’s books you really feel that he knows exactly what he is doing as a writer and that this comes effortlessly and intuitively – he is the literary Picasso of the twentieth century.

Form plays an important part in this novel; the creative nature of form along with the negative are finally brought to fruition with the way conclusion manifests itself. Even the stuttering less-than-clean act at the end brings out the contradictions. What a work of art.

 

 

 

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Pnin

By Vladimir Nabokov.

The character Timofey Pnin is right up there with the greatest characters in Russian literature: Chichikov, Raskolnikov, Oblomov, Anna Karenina etc…

I spent some time trying to work out what I liked so much about this eccentric Russian emigre that Nabokov had created. Pnin is eccentric, clumsy and is seen as an absurd figure by most of his colleagues and they regard him with some derision. What is so admirable about Pnin is his strength of being. He is Pnin and he lives and acts against the grain, he has a strength of character that his detractors do not.

The novel is written brilliantly as you would expect from Nabokov. The chapters are mostly separate vignettes that present a certain scene or period in Pnin’s life and all of these snapshots create a moving and whimsical picture of the man. Pale Fire was very complex and contained many ideas but Pnin, which is still part of the loose trilogy of Pale Fire, Pnin and Lolita, is focused primarily on Pnin. This is similar to Luzhin in ‘The Defence’ – maybe Nabokov was again attempting to build a character that had foibles but could still command our respect and admiration through their uncompromising behaviour.

I thought this was a fantastic book and it was, so far, the novel I enjoyed the most from Nabokov. Pale Fire was maybe more of a triumph in its ideas and complexity but Pnin really was pure enjoyment. The same pure enjoyment I got from reading Dead Souls or The Twelve Chairs.

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Oblomov

By Ivan Goncharov.

When searching for an image to go with this post I found the website of Anastasia Simes. There are some interesting pieces of work.

As for Oblomov – what a great novel. There are quite a few separate parts to it, which makes me think it was written over time and each part of Oblomov’s life was approached as quite distinct. Probably my favourite ‘Act’ is the beginning where Oblomov lounges around, waxes philosophical, takes visitors and is quite unable to move and motivate himself to do anything. This is masterful writing and while I really enjoyed the book it doesn’t quite live up to the promise shown at the start. Or, maybe it does – but it just becomes something different. So, another writer to read more of and he is Russian of course. The Precipice, another of his novels, looks interesting also.

I wasn’t sure about Goncharov as he was referred to as being quite conservative and middle-class by some commentators. Oblomov, however, is a fantastic character and maybe Goncharov’s greatest creation and this book deserves to be read and re-read as a result. Turgenev said: “As long as there is even just one Russian alive, Oblomov will be remembered!”

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A Guide to Russian Literature (1820-1917)

By Moissaye Joseph Olgin.

This book was excellent primarily because it highlighted a whole host of lesser-known Russian writers. As a result, I’ve made a list of all those that seem interesting and a good many are available in the public domain. This analysis was published in 1920 and you can tell. There is much revisionism of certain writers to be consistent with the communist perspective. Olgin was a life-long communist living in the US until his death in 1939. This was well worth my time reading – even if the tone and way of writing seemed a little dated and partial. What is strange is that I didn’t detect anything like this in Mirsky who I read recently and was writing non-fiction at about the same time. Apparently Mirsky’s analysis of Russian Literature is the one to read.

 

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