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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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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Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida

Edited by Robert Chandler.

This collection was an absolute pleasure; I was really struck by the strength of ideas throughout. How could one country, Russia, have produced so many fantastic writers that are unique but seem to share similar preoccupations? Perhaps that is testament to Robert Chandler’s editing (as well as his translation of most of the stories). There are a few omissions (Victor Serge, Venedikt Erofeev, Vassily Grossman and the ‘Russian Decadents‘) but maybe those writers and stories wouldn’t have worked within the overall collection. I really am filled with awe at the achievement of these writers both individually and collectively.

Many of these stories I had read before but it was good to revisit them sometimes in a more modern, considered translation. However, there were several writers I had not been aware of previously, and this collection is excellent as a taster for future reading.

It is impossible to canvas all the stories as they deserve. However, writers who sparked my interest were Bunin (who I had never heard of), Buida, Dovlatov, Shuksin and Zinovyeva-Annibal (who was related to Pushkin). There were others too, but I will begin with Bunin as the two stories ‘In Paris’ and ‘The Gentleman From San Fransisco’ left a strong impression on me. Buida too – his ‘Prussian Bride’ novel was published by Dedalus a few years ago. What else should I say? This is a great starting point for Russian literature, and even if you have read a moderate amount there are still discoveries here.

(as this is a collection the soundtrack should be a collection as well)

Soundtrack: Flying Nun Records – In Love With These Times/Pink Flying Saucers Over The Southern Alps.

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The Magic Ring and Other Russian Folktales

ringRetold by Robert Chandler.

A great little book. I really enjoyed all the stories as retold by Robert Chandler. The last story of Ivan the Old Soldier is excellent. It ends:

There was just one thing – if he began a story before supper no one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. He had to always ask for a bowl of soup first. It was better like that. After all, you can’t just live on stories without any food.

The folk-tales are amazingly surreal, creative and amusing. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen and really highlights that something has been lost in the modern popular stories on TV, in movies or pulp fiction.

Soundtrack: The Byrds – Eight Miles High.

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The Railway

railwayBy Hamid Ismailov

Both frustrating and brilliant. I don’t quite know what I feel about this book overall. It was worth reading as it exposed me to a new atmosphere and a different way of living. There were fantastic passages where you got caught up in the enthusiasm but then it seemed to dip and you didn’t really care about the next few pages. Maybe it was written over a long period of time – some parts – particularly the end felt like they had been tacked on. The end was quite strong though. This is experimental in that the plot and narrative are almost invisible but that being the case the form needs to hold it together and it didn’t quite.

I laughed out loud at several episodes or turns. Maybe a loose collection of associated short stories would have been better – or perhaps that is what it really is under the guise of a novel. All very confusing – which is a good thing. A book shouldn’t always leave you nodding in a self satisfied way, sometimes there has to be head-scratching and incomprehension.

The author definitely communicates the life of the town of Gilas and the surrounding area very well. There is a large dose of imaginative interaction and at the books end I did have the sensation of having experienced some new, along with the frustration. The assimilation of Communism and Islam was very interesting – and there didn’t seem to be the clash you would expect. Perhaps the novel shouldn’t be called ‘The Railway’ as the railway doesn’t play a great part – it is more of an aside. ‘The town of Gilas’ would have been better. The town, families, history and local characters are what this novel is about. The inhabitants travel and indulge in improbable picaresque escapades but it is always to Gilas and Uzbekstan they return.

I think it was worth my time reading this. Someone else may disagree.

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Brief Lives Alexander Pushkin

pushBy Robert Chandler

A very good ‘brief’ summary of Pushkin’s life and work, which coming in at 150 pages is not so brief really. It gives quite a detailed account of the major milestones of his life and excellent critical analysis of some of his work. It also manages to link the two (life and work) in a natural way and give some complex opinions on his themes. Definitely more than what you would expect from a brief work. After reading I want to read more Pushkin and also read some analysis of his work as well. Nabokov did some work in this area and I think it would be quite interesting to hear what he had to say. This has effectively given me some context within which to place the works I have read recently. You can only guess as to what would have happened to Pushkin if he hadn’t been killed in the duel. His debts were spiralling out of control and it may be that if he didn’t die in this duel he may have died in another. But it’s all conjecture, Robert Chandler who wrote this biography puts across some convincing evidence that he didn’t have a death wish. However, when a person is under pressure they may take risks or act in erratic manner so,while he may not have wanted to die, if his situation didn’t improve it’s very possible something else would have occurred. At the book’s conclusion you are left with the consciousness of Pushkin’s utter genius and sadness that it was not fully expressed. This, in the same way as Blok or Mayakovsky.

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Everything Flows

flowsBy Vassily Grossman

This novel is completely imbued with melancholy. It tries to make some sort of sense out of the lives lost to Stalinism but fails to do so. At different times there is a glimmer of hope but the reality of the world in which it is set extinguishes this. The novel was unfinished and I think it could have become a major twentieth century work alongside Life and Fate. As it stands it changes two thirds of the way through to Ivan’s meditation on Stalinism which we can accurately surmise is actually Grossman’s voice. Books like this need to be read because they are not a trite summary of something past, they are a complex unyielding document of man’s inhumanity within the context of a greater cause. I can’t say that it was an enjoyable read but it was a thought provoking read and an important read. There are structural problems with the book because it was unfinished. Ivan becomes Grossman. If Grossman had been given more time I am certain that the ideas in the meditation would have been given a fictional voice within the novel As it stands though, the last part of the novel is very powerful and you feel that Grossman has done away with all this fictional artifice and is stating his views clearly and with power. The subject relates to Stalinism but it has a wider political context. The episode relating to the famine in the Ukraine where millions are believed to have died through Uncle Joe’s determined inactivity is particularly distressing. The novel achieves its purpose without sentiment which is its strength. Events and ideas are told as they are and we ourselves imbue them with sadness.

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