It’s been a busy month, although it started with a delicious little respite in my old ‘stomping ground’ on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I have 17 books listed on Goodreads for the past month, although two of them were abandoned at the 40% mark. Seven of the books fitted into my #FrenchFebruary personal reading challenge – and in fact, all of them ended up being French from France, as the only Swiss author I attempted (Joel Dicker) ended up being one of the abandoned books. Eleven of the books were written by women writers (and none of them were in the DNF category), 12 were written in another language. Three I read for (Corylus) ‘work’, one was non-fiction, one will be reviewed for #ReadIreland in March, two were Book Club reads (Blood Sugar for the Virtual Crime Book Club, Embers for London Reads the World), and seven can be approximately put into the crime fiction category (although two of those I did not finish). Six of the books I read were from independent publishers, although I didn’t review all of them for the #ReadIndies challenge.
Here’s a quick recap of the books I reviewed (most of which also fell into the #ReadIndies category)
Balzac’s Lost Illusions I read in December and January but reviewed this month
My favourite reads this month were probably Romain Gary and Violette Leduc, but Audrey Magee’s The Colonywas very, very good as well. I’m still not quite sure about Embersby Márai Sándor – on the one hand, I interpret it as a beautiful example of self-delusion, yearning for a mythical past which never existed and the damage caused by bearing pointless grudges (and I can see historical/political parallels in that). It reminded me a lot of Browning’s My Last Duchess. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that Márai intended it to be read in this way: he may have actually shared some of Henrik’s beliefs and regrets for the old order. Anyway, I intend to review it together with two other novels about old mansions that I am currently reading.
I watched a few TV series this month: Wednesday with my younger son (which was entertaining enough, but rather predictable and forgettable), Borgen (watched Season 4 with oil in Greenland, then rewatched the first season, which reminded me why I stopped watching it back in 2013, because it was getting a little too close to the problems in my own marriage, despite my distinct lack of prime ministerial qualities and being considerably less busy than Birgitte Nyborg). It was quite eye-opening watching the documentary Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, with many political and social details which were either before my time or which I had forgotten.
For most of February, I barely watched any films, but then my older son came back for the last week and we more than made up for it. I thought Tár and Whiplash complemented each other well in their portrayal of bullying behaviour, problematic geniuses and the idea that art has to come from a place of suffering (it takes great pressure to create a diamond etc.). I can never resist films about artists and creators – and they also worked together well with the novel about ballet (and a lot else) that I read by Meg Abbott: The Turnout, which I really enjoyed. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a fascinating rare example of toxic masculinity but also the beauty of the male body perceived by the female gaze – with a breathtaking performance by the always watchable and enigmatic Denis Lavant. I also saw Barry Lyndon (one of my older son’s favourite films) in the cinema at the BFI, which is a very different experience from seeing it on a TV screen.
I don’t want to praise either myself or him, but I just wanted to say how delightful it is to have a grown-up child with whom you can spend a lovely day in London, having lunch in Chinatown, discussing drugs, political philosophy and film music while walking down to the Embankment, trawling the second-hand book stands on the South Bank, going to the Poetry Library mini-exhibition on clothes of women poets, watching Barry Lyndon at the BFI and then reading on the train on the way home in companionable silence.
March is going to be Nordic Reading Month for me, with a fairly broad definition of Nordic: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Canada. Of course, if I can fit any more into the #ReadIreland tag, I will, but it promises to be an extremely busy and tiring month at work.
I missed last month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, since I was away on holiday, but it is one of my favourites and a good way to ease myself back into blogging after quite a hiatus. Here’s how it works: hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. No need to have an overarching theme, although some do, or connect the book to all of the titles on the list, just let your mind have a wander and see where it take you.
This month is Wildcard month, no set starting point, but Kate suggests we start with the last in the chain that we last completed or else with the last book we read. Well, the last chain I completed in July ended with the rather depressing Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and I’ve had enough of illness and death, so I will opt for the second version.
The last book I read was Jennie by Paul Gallico, a children’s story about an eight-year-old boy, feeling rather lonely and unloved by his upper-class ‘colonial style’ parents, who suddenly turns into a cat. It was the only book I could read during the last few days with my beloved Zoe, and it is clearly written by someone who loved and completely understood cats. Full of adventures but also gentle moments, not at all preachy, simply a beautiful tribute to friendship and love.
Another book written by a cat connoisseur is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, which shows that the very cerebral and earnest poet also had a humorous and tender side. Famously turned into a musical (and a rather horrid film). I love this edition illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
I don’t think T. S. Eliot’s book is necessarily aimed at children, but it relies heavily on wordplay and subverting expectations, which is certainly the MO for Dr Seuss and his famous (or should that be infamous) Cat in the Hat. I certainly could have done with a cat or other pet to blame (I was an only child) when there was mess in the house after one of my ‘pretend’ games.
I will stick to the cat theme and move to Japan, where of course cats are much loved and often feature in their literature, art, anime and manga. The classic book is Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, which is most certainly NOT aimed at children, but a satire about a rapidly changing Japanese society during the Meiji and Taisho period (turn of the 19th to 20th century), seen from the no-nonsense point of view of a cat.
Another Japanese novel where the cat is a pretext for the examination of adult themes, in this case a relationship turned sour, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which once again is all about loneliness, tenderness and love in the most unexpected places.
When it comes to love triangles, of course the French could teach the world a thing or two, even when one of the corners of the triangle is a cat. My go-to book in that respect is Colette’s La Chatte (The Female Cat), about a marriage founded on jealousy of a cat, and although it features some deliberate cruelty towards the cat, you know that Colette would never allow a beautiful Chartreux to die (she herself had a succession of them, who followed her around everywhere).
My final cat-themed link is to that most formidable, shape-shifting, ill-mannered, incorrigible and evil cat of them all, Behemoth, the Devil’s sidekick, from The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Who can resist the immortal line, which always makes me burst into laughter, as the troublesome duo try to enter the literary club:
“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev. “Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied. “Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently. “I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”
I have a T-shirt with Behemoth looming above the city (see picture), which I love to bits.
So my cat-shaped travels have taken us to London and Glasgow, the United States, Japan, Paris and Moscow. Let me know where your Six Degrees take you!
I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.
Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.
I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.
Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.
Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.
The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.
A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:
Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.
How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.
Last Six Degrees chain of the year, so let’s make it a memorable one. This is my favourite bookish meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and this month it starts with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. A book I have read, but such a long time ago (when I was about 16), that I would need to reread it to be able to say anything intelligent about it.
So my first link is to another book that I read a very, very long time ago, loved back then but haven’t reread since, namely The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. I found my teenage diary and this is what I had to say about it when I was 15: ‘He so calms me, this man. He is quiet, takes such small steps, little by little he lets us advance into the story. To fully appreciate him, you must read slowly, tasting every word, chewing, swallowing, and then digesting his ideas as well. Although he moves so slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, you are never bored.’ 😂
The book is about a rich but ill heiress, who is treated rather badly by a self-interested couple. My next link is to a rich heir with a disability (rather than a terminal illness) who is loved by someone who is not interested in his huge wealth: the huge bestseller Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.
I haven’t read the book, merely seen the film, and that is my next link: Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I am currently watching the Swedish language version of the three films on BBC4 (half a film every week), but I gave up reading the books after finishing the first one The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I thought them violent, overlong and quite frankly dull at times, could have done with some stringent editing. The films are pretty violent too, it has to be said.
Lisbeth Salander is a pretty enigmatic sort of character, so for my next link I have chosen another young woman who is so enigmatic that she gives the book its title: Enigma Otiliei (The Enigma/Riddle of Otilia) by George Calinescu. It is a classic Romanian novel about the young Felix Sima who comes to Bucharest to study medicine and falls in love with his tutor’s daughter, Otilia, who seems to behave in a rather capricious way. In fact, it might be that Felix never actually gets to see the real Otilia, that he develops this ideal image of her, or makes her into what he would like a girl to be. As a not exactly flattering portrait of the early 20th century bourgeois society in Bucharest, and as an attempt for Romanian literature to catch up with the great 19th century Balzac-style novels, it is quite a landmark achievement.
I will next turn to another author whose name was George (or at least her pseudonym was): the first book by George Sand I ever read was A Winter in Majorca, which I bought when visiting Valdemosssa on a summer holiday with my father on the island (I must have been in my very early teens and was quite a Chopin fan at the time). It is a sort of memoir and travel journal, describing their stay on the island in the forlorn hope that Chopin’s health would improve.
My final book is simply called An Island by Karen Jennings, a recent book which was a surprise apparition on the Booker Prize longlist. I am always glad to see a South African writer there (and of course a South African won it this year), and this is the kind of quiet, low-profile novel that might have gone unnoticed. I haven’t read it yet, but I have bought it and stored it safely on my shelves.
So my journey this month has taken us from London to Venice, from small-town Britain to Sweden, from Bucharest in the early 1900s, to Majorca in the late 1830s and, finally, a timeless unnamed place. I wonder where 2022 will take me – hopefully on some real journeys, not just imaginary ones!
I should in theory wait until tomorrow or the 1st of December to write my monthly summary, but I have other plans for this week, so will wrap up a little earlier. It has felt like a very long month, with the exception of my 4-5 days in Yorkshire, which simply flew by. With the exception of those few days of real holiday, my first in two years, I have been mostly ill (in fact, I had a headache for two of my days in Yorkshire too). I don’t know if my tussle with Covid in October left my body drained and my immune system struggling, but I seem to have caught every single one of the bugs from school and university, with at most a day or two of feeling fine in-between.
So, for anyone wondering where I got all my energy from – wonder no more, for my batteries have well and truly gone this month! I have just about managed to keep the day job going, spent most of my weekends in bed, and have resigned myself that I will be missing out on various projects I wanted to be involved in that have a 30th November deadline.
The only event I was able to attend (on one of the few days when I felt fine) was the Corylus event at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London on the 16th of November, where I got to speak together with the two Bogdans that I’ve been translating: Bogdan Teodorescu and Bogdan Hrib in a debate about BalkanNoir: Is Romania the Wild Wild East of Crime Fiction. The discussion was recorded and I hope we can share the link with you very soon.
Enforced bed rest and a wet mush of a brain might not be conducive to writing or translating, but it worked fine for reading, although admittedly some books were chosed for ease of reading – rather like porridge with honey to soothe a sore throat. I read no less than 18 books, helped by the fact that many of them were novellas. I have even reviewed quite a few of them.
My German Literature Month reads were all novellas, with one exception, so I managed to participate in #NovNov as well.
Alan Johnson: The Late Train to Gipsy Hill – imagine a fun spy novel, more goofy than seriously chilling, despite the rather serious subject matter
Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned – which did not live up to the blurb and premise – Venice in winter, an author suffering from writers’ block and waning popularity, a creepy old palazzo, an over-eager young fan. Let’s just say that it was verbose rather than truly atmospheric, neither Death in Venice nor The Talented Mr Ripley.
Margaret Kennedy: The Feast – review to come, hopefully
Surprisingly, only a third of the books I read this month were foreign language books – all of them German. Ten of the eighteen were by women writers and five were in the crime genre (a very low percentage by my standards).
Reading plans for December will be all about snow and frozen climes: Russians and Scandinavians will have pride of place, so that I can snuggle indoors under many blankets while the blizzard rages outside.
Can’t resist joining in again this month because: a) this is one of my favourite bookish memes of random (or not) literary association, organised monthly by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best; b) I love Carrie Fisher, so the book we are starting with this month appeals to me.
I think Carrie Fisher was even better as a writer than as an actress. I know she is part of many a childhood fantasy, but I honestly appreciate her more for her wit and candour, which is perfectly displayed in the semi-autobiographical book Postcards from the Edge, which is our starting point this month. She adapted it for the screen herself and the film starred Meryl Streep as the ‘narrator’ and Shirley MacLaine as her mother.
My first book in the chain is another book adapted for film and starring Meryl Streep, namely Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), which is also autobiographical. Although the author’s struggles to keep her farm going all by herself sounds quite admirable, I found the book itself somewhat problematic, with its rose-tinted portrayal of Kenya as a white settler’s paradise. Nevertheless, she was ahead of her time in treating the workers on her farm in a respectful way and being genuinely curious about their backgrounds and cultural differences.
Of course I have to sneak in an anthropological book as the next in the chain – a really formative one that I used extensively when preparing my Ph.D. Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process examines the rituals of the Ndembu in Zambia. He is the one who identified the concepts of ‘communitas’ and ‘liminality’ (that in-between space, when rites of passage transition you from one state to another, to take up your place in society).
Airports and airplanes are of course perfect liminal spaces, and one of the books that best describes the thrill but also the dangers of flight is Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Night Flight (Vol de nuit). The author was famously a pilot himself, so certainly knew what he was writing about.
The fourth link is to another book written by an author who had a different day job, which may have influenced his writing, namely Mikhail Bulgakov, who was a doctor. It’s no secret that I am a big fan of his masterpiece The Master and Margarita, but to change things up I will link here to his first book The White Guard, which I have still to read.
I’ve found a double link to the next book: the word ‘white’ in the title, and another book that I only know by reputation rather than through reading. A third link, even: written by another ‘Michael’. Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a saga about the social climbing of a prostitute in Victorian London.
Any social climbing literature has to make way for the most ‘hustling’ novel of them all: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Becky Sharp is ruthless and manipulative, far too intelligent and restless for her time and place in society. Above all, she is brutally honest with herself: was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman.”I have a gentleman for my husband … But am I much better now than when I wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar?’
It’s this puncturing of hypocrisy and pretentions that Becky Sharp seems to have in common with Carrie Fisher, so that provides the perfect endpoint for my links this month. I’ve travelled to Kenya, Zambia, Argentina (via France), Russia, Victorian and pre-Victorian London this time. Where will your travels take you?
I was planning to write the second part of ‘What is indie on my bookshelf’, with a focus on poetry presses, but I saw this bookish tag on Eleanor Franzen’s blog and thought it looked like too much fun to miss out. I’ve long since stopped tagging people, like I used to do in my early days of blogging, because I know so many people hate it. But if you would like to join in, I would love to read your posts!
Last Book I Gave Up On: I feel a bit mean saying this, as it wasn’t bad, but it was Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule. I suppose it’s because I was reading it as a respite from The Brothers Karamazov in December, and it just felt too long and like too much of a trudge to be a real respite.
Last Book I Re-Read: Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human in a new translation, but also reread big chunks of the old translation for comparison. It was great to reconnect with an old favourite – remind me to reread things more often!
Last Book I Bought: Just yesterday I ordered Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan, because someone on Twitter recommended it after I said I’d finished reading Bear by Marian Engel. It’s about a woman who adopts and raises an orang-utan as a human baby. I didn’t read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it came out a few years back and was the subject of avid debates, but this seems in a similar (albeit earlier) vein.
Last Book I Said I Read But Didn’t: I don’t usually do this, as I feel no shame in not having read something (after all, I read so much already, and have other things to do as well). But if I would do it, it would probably be one of those latest bestsellers like The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. (I do have it on my Kindle though, and I will be reading it for our Virtual Crime Book Club this month.)
Last Book I Wrote In The Margins Of: I haven’t done that in years – I use little post-it flags or highlight text on my Kindle. But a lot of my anthropology textbooks feature my scribbles and underlinings, including Ritual, Politics and Power by David Kertzer, which I still remember fondly.
Last Book That I Had Signed: I’m not sure, but I can remember one book which I failed to get signed at the last live event I attended on the 27th of February 2020, a literary event organised by the LRB Review and Bookshop in London: Anne Enright talking about her latest novel Actress. It was a really fun evening – Enright is hugely entertaining and acerbic in public – but there was too much of a queue for the signing and I was with a friend, so we decided to leave.
Last Book I Lost: You can imagine that with so many international moves and having personal libraries in at least 5 different locations across three different countries at one point, things have got lost. I’m trying to resist the temptation to replace all of my Japanese authors library, which I so painstakingly brought over from Japan in my luggage, because I still believe that my parents will have kept them. However, I do know that they gave away a whole chunk of my Japanese language courses, dictionaries and other materials a few years back.
Last Book I Had To Replace: See above about what the dangers of having left behind an entire library in a different country does to you. I finally decided that I couldn’t wait until my parents found and shipped over To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf to me (I had her complete works and diaries, and most of them have followed me wherever I went in my adult life, but somehow this one stayed behind). In fact, I missed it so much that I bought it twice, so now I have two handsome editions of it on my bedside table where my favourite authors live.
Last Book I Argued Over: I wouldn’t exactly call it an argument, because I enjoy hearing what other people think about books, whether they disagree with me or not. One book that seemed to divide opinion among our Shadow Young Writer of the Year panel was Marina Kemp’s Nightingale. Several of my fellow judges loved the French village setting, while I was a bit harsher and found it quite superficially done.
Last Book You Couldn’t Find: I have heard there is an old, out of print Anthology of Romanian Short Fiction, and I have submitted it as a ‘Want’ on Abebooks, but without any luck so far. I wanted to see what short stories were available in English, so that I could share them and finally contribute to Jonathan Gibbs’ lovely personal anthology project.
Time once more for my favourite set of bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Redhead by the Side of the Road, the latest Anne Tyler book. I have read Anne Tyler previously and, although I generally admire her understated style, close observation and ability to show us the depths in even the most average-seeming of people, she has not stuck in my mind or become one of my favourite writers.
The link to the first book in my chain today is ‘redhead’ and one of the most famous literary redheads of them all Edna O’Brien. Thanks to my customised monthly book subscription at a very nearly local bookshop, my good Twitter and blogging friend Jacqui has sent me this author’s Selected Stories. It’s been a long time since I read the Country Girls trilogy, but I remember loving that Irish firebrand.
It would be too easy to use Ireland as the link to my next book, so instead I will use the word ‘Country’ in the title. And, since my recent trip to Japan via reading was so enjoyable, I will stick to a famous Japanese novel by their first Nobel Prize winner, Yukiguni – Snow Country by Kawabata. While it is wistful and yearning and poetic, I did find the (at least latent) misogyny and class distinctions a bit hard to stomach, and it is not my favourite novel by him.
Another novel that is considered the most famous by a certain author but which is not my favourite of theirs is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. It is, of course, iconic and I’ve always enjoyed it a lot, but there was something slightly too Gothic about it and the more day-time, claustrophobic setting of Villette always appealed to me more.
Both Villette and Jane Eyre are at least partially set in a school, so that is the link to my next choice. After the death of John le Carré, I felt compelled to read some of his novels that I hadn’t come across before and his second one A Murder of Quality is set in a snobbish public boys’ boarding-school probably modelled on Eton and the author’s own much-hated school Sherborne.
Famously, John le Carré was a pseudonym, so the next link is to another author who uses a pseudonym, although she manages to keep her anonymity rather more successfully hidden. I am referring of course to Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan Novels have been such a resounding success worldwide. I enjoyed them well enough (although perhaps not as deeply impressed as some others have been), and am also keen to catch up with the second part the TV series, which thus far has been excellent in both acting and period detail.
My final link is to another book (or series of books) which has had a recent TV adaptation that I quite enjoyed (although I think I like the books more than the adaptation): Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I remember at the time when all of my colleagues at work were talking about Harry Potter, I was far more entranced by this trilogy.
So my literary travels this month have included Ireland, Japan, Yorkshire and Dorset, Naples and Oxford (plus a few parallel worlds). Where will your six links take you?
This is not a review of one of the best-known books in the literary canon. Instead, it’s my reaction to it, how I finally tamed the monster.
We all have at least one of the great classics lurking in our subconscious, taunting us with its impregnable unread status. My Achilles heel has been The Brothers Karamazov and I considered myself beaten after abandoning it no less than five times in three decades. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like Dostoevsky – he is, in fact, one of my favourite Russian authors and I lapped up all of his other work, even the gloomiest ones. Nor was it the length that put me off. I managed to get through Remembrance of Things Past (where far less exciting stuff happens) and War and Peace (although the war scenes did not enthrall me) relatively unscathed, while Genji Monogatari is one of my favourite books of all time.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in December to read straight after the hugely enjoyable Sakhalin Island by Chekhov. To my astonishment, I not only managed to finish it in less than a month, but I actually enjoyed it this time! What made it different this time? Here are some top tips for vanquishing the beast (some of them tongue-in-cheek, some of them perfectly serious).
Clear your schedule:
I knew I had the Christmas holidays coming up, and that I wasn’t likely to go anywhere very soon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to lie in bed for an hour or two in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening. I’d often find myself gravitating towards it during the day as well for a few pages.
Pick a good translation:
I had tried reading the book in Romanian, German and English translations, but none of them stuck. This one by Ignat Avsey (Oxford University Press World’s Classics) felt very fresh natural, really conveyed the feel of the spoken language of rural Russia, without sounding old-fashioned or ‘too exotic’.
Alternate with lighter reads:
When the going got tough, when bad news was forthcoming and I just couldn’t stomach any more Russian gloom and drama, I would switch to something lighter and more escapist, for example crime fiction like Ruth Ware’s skiing holiday from hell One by One, or John le Carre’s A Murder of Quality or the cosier puzzle mystery of The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood. I also watched plenty of lighter films over the holidays, and they too helped to lift the mood.
Skim read the bits that bore you rigid:
This will not be a popular piece of advice with the purists, but it’s what got me through. Classic though he is, Dostoevsky does tend to go on and on upon the slightest provocation. Alyosha and Ivan go to a tavern together and Ivan launches into several chapters’ worth of lengthy explanations about his world view and doubts and metaphorical tales. It sometimes feels like every single character has far too much of a back story, and that the unnamed narrator has to share all the gossip. As for the scenes in the monastery – that’s where I abandoned the book in the past. Father Zosima’s life and sayings were just a step too far for me – especially since he then disappears from the book without too much of an impact on the actions of any of the other characters (other than Alyosha). Even the sub-plot with the schoolboys befriended by Alyosha was not really all that necessary to the main story, although I personally quite liked it.
So yes, Dostoevsky tries to bring pretty much everything into this story: all of human philosophy, faith, psychology, as well as a good deal of discussion about the unique Russian traits (if those exist). At times it is simply too much, and he could have done with a good editor, but if you find some bits less enthralling than the others, read them a bit diagonally instead of giving up, because there will be plenty of good bits to follow.
Make notes as you go along:
I half-filled the book with post-it flags. There were so many interesting quotes and paragraphs that I wanted to reread, to remember, to return to. Perhaps, with so much currently going on in the news, and so much anger and sadness at the state of the world, the quotes that particularly struck me were the ones that seemed to show that human nature has not really changed over the years and has certainly not kept pace with any technological improvements.
Everyone says they hate wickedness but deep down they all love it.
Miracles never bother a realist. A true realist, if he is a non-believer, will always find within himself the strength and the ability not to believe in miracles. And if he believes, it’s because he wants to believe.
He prided himself on his ability to judge by appearances, a pardonable weakness in one who was 50, an age when an intelligent, well-to-do man starts to take himself seriously, sometimes even against his better judgement.
He who is false to himself is also the most likely to get offended. After all, it is sometimes very gratifying to feel offended… blow it out of all proportion so as to attract attention.
One can love one’s neighbour in the abstract and sometimes even at a distance, but close up almost never.
What is horrifying is that such dreadful crimes have ceased to shock us. What should horrify us is not that a certain individual commits an atrocity, but that we take these atrocities for granted.
We can be enthused by the noblest of ideals, only on condition that we don’t have to expend any effort, make any sacrifices, above all, that we needn’t pay anything. Paying is something we really resent…receiving, that’s really up our street.
The real world not only bestows rights but itself imposes enormous obligations… if we want to behave like civilised human beings… we must act rationally… not to harm our fellow man.
Additionally, I shared my enthusiasm by tweeting the shorter quotes, which sometimes led to people commenting. This helped to create a sense of community, even though I wasn’t reading it at the same time as anyone else.
Don’t expect to like the characters or identify with them:
Let’s be honest: the Karamazov family is pretty vile, as are many of the people around them. Dostoevsky seems to be playing with animal stereotypes there. The father is a greedy, selfish pig. Dmitry is a vain, flighty, spendthrift peacock. Ivan is a self-absorbed, supercilious fox. Smerdyakov is a secretive, nasty, double-crossing rat, while Grushenka and Katya are both volatile, extravagant and catty. Even my dear Alyosha is too much of an idealist, a bit of a rabbit or deer caught in the headlights and often used by those who are bolder than him. What struck me most is how operatic and over the top the whole story is, with lots of melodramatic set-pieces.
There was perhaps only one character in the whole book that I could somewhat identify with, and she is a very minor one: the mother of one of the schoolboys, Kolya Krasotkin, a single mother with a gentle but cheerful character, who does so much for her only son that he gets teased about it at school.
It always seemed to her that Kolya was aloof towards her, and on occasion she would weep hysterically and begin to reproach him for his aloofness. The boy did not like this, and the more anyone tried to elicit expressions of sentiment from him the more stubborn he became, as if on purpose. However he behaved thus not deliverately but involuntarily – such was his nature. His mother was mistaken; he loved her dearly, what he hated was ‘all this soppiness’…
These little observations, the psychological depth and understanding the author often shows for even his secondary characters, the subtleties of language or rich hidden meanings make this book feel both hugely specific and yet truly universal. What to make of that strange narrator, for instance, who seems to know far more than he really should, but is not an objective omniscient point of view at all, and even claims he cannot remember details from the trial.
Appreciate the humour:
Amid all the serious philosophical debate about the presence or absence of God, about the flaws of mankind and the absurdity of existence, I had forgotten that Dostoevsky can also be very funny. There are several scenes that have great comic potential, for example the clash between the Poles and the Russians, the misunderstanding between Dmitry and Mrs Khokhlaķova when it comes to her giving him money (and how she insists she is giving him far more than that, she is offering him the possibility to get involved in mining). But my favourite is the scene when the devil appears at Ivan’s side in the guise of a fairly polite, former serf-owner who has now become a mere hanger-on, and mocks all of his assumptions and beliefs. I could imagine him as a rather ridiculous looking Jacob Rees-Mogg, apparently all reasonable and cultured, but actually deeply vicious and immoral.
I’m a much maligned person… I’m blessed with a kind and cheerful disposition; I’ve turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing. You seem determined to cast me as a grey-haired Khlestakov, but I’m destined for far greater things. I was singled out by some sort of prehistoric decree, which I’ve never been able to understand, as epitomising ‘negation’, but in fact I am genuinely kind and just not suited for negation. But no, I have to go forth and negate; without negation there would be no staire, and what’s the good of a magazine without a critics’ section… they made me the scapegoat and forced me to contribute to the critics’ section.
What torments? Oh, don’t ask, we used to have all sorts, but now we’ve gone over to moral torments, ‘pangs of conscience’ and all that rubbish. We owe that to you too, to your ‘relaxation of moral standards’. And who has benefited? Only the unscrupulous, because what are pangs of conscience to those who have no conscience?
I’m very sensitive and impressionable when it comes to artistic effects. But common sense… kept me within the proper bounds… purely out of a sense of duty and because of my social position, I felt bound to repress my virtuous impulse and to stick to nefarious deeds. All the credit for virtue goes to someone else, and I’m left with just a handful of dirty tricks.
Yes, if I were Dostoevsky’s editor in the present-day, I would advise him to start with the crime and the trial instead of the long lectures in the first half of the book, which made me abandon ship so many times. Nevertheless, I am not only glad I persevered with it, but I truly liked it this time round. There is a reason why some books are classics, why they still have so much to say even hundreds of years after they were first published. I have no idea how Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Stendhal or Flaubert or Chekhov managed to gain such deep insights into human psychology, but their characters are unforgettable, and both modern and timeless.
I am honoured and delighted to be part of the Shadow Panel for the Young Writer of the Year Award for 2020. Several of my blogging friends have been involved in this in the past, and I was always curious just how easy it is to come to an agreement about the winner.
However you may feel about age limitations on prizes (as someone who is *slightly* over the age of 35, I do feel the pain, I can assure you!), it is nevertheless one of the most exciting annual prizes for British and Irish writing, because it looks across a breadth of genres. It is an annual award of £5,000, co-sponsored by the Sunday Times and the University of Warwick, for an outstanding work of fiction, poetry, non fiction or anything else published in the previous year by a writer under 35. The list of previous winners is spectacular – from Raymond Antrobus with his poetry collection last year (a personal favourite, who’s just going from strength to strength), Sally Rooney and Max Porter in recent years (after a hiatus between 2010-2015), and Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Helen Simpson and Robert MacFarlane in the past.
You can find more information about the prize and this year’s judges (which include Kit de Waal and Tessa Hadley) on this website. The shortlist will be announced on the 1st of November and I cannot wait to start reading, debating and choosing a winner with my fellow shadow panelists.
And what an exciting bunch of people they are! I think you can take it as a given that we are all obsessed with books and reading, but here are some more details about my fellow panellists.
(I think you can tell who is the dunce here, since I don’t have an active Instagram account).
Over the course of November, you can expect a review of each shortlisted title and I will link where possible to reviews from my fellow shadow judges. We will announce the Shadow Panel Winner on the 3rd of December and the Awards Ceremony and Final Winner will be announced (in an online event) on the 10th of December. Well, if that doesn’t brighten up your late autumn days…