Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Slavs

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I was going to dedicate a whole post to the Russians, but I don’t actually have many obscure ones in that pile, merely the obvious suspects (Dostoevsky being one of my favourites), so I have added the Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, Serbs – all the Slavic languages that I have on my shelves. I will do a separate category for the Romanians, and have perhaps far too few Greeks and Hungarians to create a separate category for them (other than a wishlist).

Kieslowski on Kieslowski (edited and translated by Danusia Stok)

Nowadays Kieslowski is best known for the films he made in France- The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours trilogy (Blue  with Juliette Binoche is my favourite of the three, in case you are wondering). However, to those of us who lived in Eastern Europe during Communist times, he is above all the director of the TV series The Decalogue and his quasi-documentary films about life under an oppressive and uncaring regime, like Personnel, The Scar and No End. The films were banned in Poland after martial law was imposed in 1980, and they were difficult but not impossible to find on video in Romania in the late 1980s, as long as you knew a pilot, cabin crew or truck driver who could smuggle them into the country.

He was notoriously reticent in interviews (perhaps unsurprising, considering how he was hounded by the Polish authorities for a while), but in this book published in 1993 he muses at length about his life, his creative process, his country and censorship. I bought this when I first came to England and there are whole passages heavily underlined. They ring even truer today.

Communism is like AIDS. That is, you have to die with it. You can’t be cured. And that applies to anyone who’s had anything to do with Communism, regardless of what side they were on… If they’ve been exposed to the system as long as they have been in Poland… then Communism, its way of thinking, its way of life, its hierarchy of values, remains with them and there’s no way of expelling it from their system. They can expel it from their minds, of course, they can say they’re no longer sick. They can even say they’ve been cured. But it’s not true. It stays inside…. It doesn’t particularly trouble me. I just know I’ve got it and know that I’ll die with it, that’s all. Not die of it, die with it. It only disappears when you disappear.

He also has excellent insights into the differences in film-making in Eastern and Western Europe:

The fact that we had censorship in Poland didn’t necessarily entail tremendous restrictions of freedom since, all in all, it was easier to make films there then it is under the economic censorship here in the West. Economic censorship means censorship imposed by people who think that they know what the audience wants.

Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird, one of her pivotal roles

Tamara Karsavina: Theatre Street

Tamara Karsavina was one of the leading ballerinas at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. In 1918 she moved to England, danced with Diaghilev’s company and the Ballet Rambert, and became a famous teacher and Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dancing. This is her charming autobiography, recreating the tough training regime at the Imperial Ballet School on Theatre Street, the pranks she and her fellow students would get up to, her debut at the Marinsky, the relentless pace of touring, escaping from Russia during the revolution, but above all the many charismatic legendary dance figures she encountered: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Lydia Lopokova (who later married the economist John Maynard Keynes), Isadora Duncan and many more. A book recommended to me by my favourite primary school teacher, Miss Mason, who introduced me to opera and ballet.

Olga Slavnikova: La Tête légère (transl. Raphaëlle Pache) – Lightheaded

This is a recent acquisition from this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon – it hasn’t been translated into English yet. I was captivated by the absurdist premise: Maxime Ermakov is a talented publicist but has a very strange head. Secret service agents show up at the door of his Moscow apartment to tell him that his head is upsetting the harmony of the world, so he should commit suicide and thereby save millions of lives. But Maxime has no intention of doing that, and so he becomes public enemy no. 1 and the villainous star of a video game about killing Ermakov. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to reading it – perhaps this month for WIT?


29 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Slavs”

  1. I’m one of those who knows Kieslowski’s name from the films you mention which I loved but knows nothing about his other works. Were you able to watch them at the time?

    1. He was banned in Romania at the time, so we watched bootlegged copies on video, with the same bored female voice translating (I think she was the mother of one of our fellow students in the Russian department, and did all the Tarkovsky, Wajda and Kiselowski translations).

  2. Except some Russians (Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn) no experience at all. Seems like a default. But then again Haven’t any experience with African or Arab literature either. So many books, so little time

  3. These sound interesting, Marina Sofia. I like the idea of learning more about Kieslowski than just the films. And Theatre Street sounds fascinating. I enjoy those ‘inside looks’ you get when people do retrospectives, memoirs and the like, so long as they’re not too self-absorbed, if that makes sense.

    1. Not self-absorbed at all, she talks more about others and love for dance and life in Russia at the time. A fascinating historical document, even for those who care nothing about ballet!

  4. I went through a phase where I watched a lot of Kieslowski and then went through it again about 10 years ago. I still have my box-set of The Decalogue; maybe it’s time to watch them again.

    The Tête légère book sounds like my kind of book.

    1. It does have a cool premise, doesn’t it? And lucky you with your box set of Decalogue. I watched it ages ago, in bootlegged fashion, and then after 1990 it was shown on Romanian TV – what a triumph!

  5. Have you noticed that the body types of those vintage ballerinas are quite different from today (a bit like today’s film stars vs film stars of the 30s)

  6. Oh, thank you for writing about Kieslowski. I love his films, especially The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy (Blue and Red are my favourites). The Decalogue series sounds incredibly powerful – to my shame, I’ve never been able to pluck up the courage to watch it…

    1. No, no, the Decalogue is not that grim at all – well, if you can bear the grey tower blocks and drab lives which were par for the course back then.

  7. Oh, the third one sounds delightfully strange. But I LURVE Kieslowski’s movies, so I will try to acquire a copy of that one. Thank you for this!

    1. There are apparently other good ones in the series: on Herzog and Cronenberg, for instance. I’d have loved to have one with Tarkovsky, but he was so notoriously grumpy and monosyllabic, that there probably isn’t one.

  8. I just love this. I thought the books you mentioned sounded interesting, despite having no clue what any of it was, but I also just love the idea of trying to find the most obscure books on your bookshelf. Pulling out and highlighting those hidden gems that you so often overlook because everyone else are talking about everything else. Looking forward to reading the other instalments. 🙂

    1. I’ve been going through my bookshelves systematically, from right to left (Japanese style) and only have a couple of instalments to go. It sounds from your username like you like highlighting lesser known books as well!

      1. I do. I mostly focus on the hidden classical gems that shouldn’t be forgotten 😉 Or at least should get another try in the public XD Very often we as a society end up reading the same books (even diverse books) just because that’s the books we know of. I think it’s so interesting to hear about books I haven’t heard about before. 🙂

        1. Very good idea. You hear about books when they come out and perhaps (if they are lucky) when they get to paperback or if there is a film adaptation, but then they disappear. And there are so many that never get all the buzz and deserve it!

        2. Exactly. And some classics might be lucky to be re-printed in a new line or set, but most often these are the same classical books over and over again. As much as I can enjoy her books, how many versions of Jane Austen do we need? Why not spend that energy on bringing a lesser known author out into the light? I’m sorry, I’m venting now XD

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