Russians in the Snow: Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Children, transl. Michael Pursglove, Alma Classics, 2015.

There seems to be a bit of revisionism going on with the titles of Turgenev’s work, and I wonder if this is because he was translated so early on, even during his own lifetime, since he lived abroad for much of his life, became good friends with Flaubert, and met all sorts of luminaries of the English literary establishment on his visits to Britain. For example, this novel was originally translated as ‘Fathers and Sons’ (which is largely accurate in terms of the characters portrayed), but the Russian original would be closer to Fathers and Offspring/Children – or so I am told. Another of his novels has been translated as ‘Home of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of Gentlefolk’.

Because Turgenev was quite concerned with the plight of the Russian peasant and was often satirical about the inertia of the noble classes in Tsarist Russia, even after land reforms, he was perceived as one of the acceptable Russian classics even during Communist times. Needless to say, that kind of praise was enough to put me off him, although I enjoyed his play A Month in the Country (which I seem to remember seeing performed in Bucharest at some point) and many of his short stories or novellas. I was very moved at the ti,e by ‘Mumu’ – the story about a young serf who sacrifices his dog, the only creature he has ever cared for and the only one who ever shows him some affection – although the interpretation of it from the dialectical materialist point of view left much to be desired.

Nowadays, I quite like a bit of social critique with my reading, but I wasn’t expecting Turgenev’s description of the conflicting points of view of the different generations to hit me personally. As a parent who is now older than the ‘forty-something’ Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, one of the fathers in the story, I found myself more often than not siding with the older generation, understanding their eagerness to not displease their sons when they (infrequently) come home to visit, eager to keep up with their thoughts and vocabulary, even if privately thinking them a bit pretentious or exaggerated.

Nikolai is waiting for his son Arkady to come home after graduating from university. He is the owner of a modest estate in the provinces, which is not doing too well since the liberation of the serfs, probably because Nikolai is too kindly and weak as a landowner. Arkady brings his friend Bazarov, who is a self-proclaimed nihilist (the first time such a figure appears in literature, it is believed), and whose radical views have clearly influenced young Arkady very much. Arkady’s uncle Pavel, although normally a strong proponent of Western values and culture, poo-poohs Bazarov’s philosophy, but Nikolai is unsettled by it.

‘At the present time the most useful thing is rejection – and we reject.’

‘Everything?’

‘Everything.’

‘What? Not only art, poetry… but also… I’m afraid to say it.’

‘Everything,’ Bazarov repeated with ineffable calmness.

‘However, allow me,’ Nikolai Petrovich began. ‘You reject everything or, to put it more precisely, you destroy eveything… But one must build as well, mustn’t one?’

‘That’s none of our business… First of all we must clear the ground.’

Hmmm, I can see why the Communists liked this aspect of Turgenev! Although the author was clearly sympathetic to nihilists, seeing them as being of a scientific turn of mind, who will not accept anything without seriously questioning it, the term ‘nihilism’ soon acquired negative connotations following the publication of this book. You can see why, because Bazarov is not an easy character to like at first. He is smug and arrogant, delights in putting other people down and is often manipulative. While he might be justified in mocking the ‘all talk no action’ conservatism of Pavel, he is unnecessarily cruel and distant to others around him, including his own parents.

‘My dear [this is Bazarov’s father talking to his wife], on Yevgeni’s first visit we were a little bit of a nuisance to him: now we need to be a little wiser.’

Arina Vlasyevna agreed with her husband, but did not gain much from this because she only saw her son at the table and finally became frightened of talking to him at all.

‘Yevgeny, darling,’ she kept saying, and he would scarcely have time to glance in her direction, when, starting to finger the laces of her reticule, she would babble: ‘Never mind, never mind, I’m all right’ but would turn to Vasily Ivanovich and say to him…:’How can we find out, my dear, what darling Yevgeny wants for dinner today, cabbage soup or borsch?’ ‘Why haven’t you asked him yourself?’ ‘But I’ll bore him!’

In the constant battle between the old and the new, Turgenev does a great job of showing that both sides have their flaws. He allows Pavel, for instance, to land a few satirical punches as well, even if he is a typical representative of what Turgenev elsewhere called the ‘superfluous man’ – a well-educated dandy who does not use his position of power in society for any reform, but instead engages in all sorts of vices to allay his existential boredom. Blind to his own shortcomings, Pavel describes the nihilists in similar terms:

Young people used to have to study; they did not want to have the reputation of ignoramuses, so they worked hard willy-nilly. But now all they have to do is say “Everything in the world is rubbish” and the thing is in the bag. Young people are delighted. Before, they were simply dolts; now they’ve all suddenly become nihilists.

Yet it is Pavel who stands up for his brother’s honour by protecting his lower-class mistress, although his motives are not entirely pure. Incidentally, the father’s relationship with the daughter of the housekeeper, Fenechka, mirrors Turgenev’s own life: both he and his brother had affairs (in his brother’s case, even a marriage) across class boundaries.

Pride comes before a fall, and Bazarov finds out the limits of his philosophy and how deluded he was when he falls in love with the wealthy young widow Anna Sergeyevna. She invites him and Arkady to her home, enjoys their verbal sparring, but rejects him when he somewhat shame-facedly breaks down and admits his love for her. Anna is perhaps the personification of the philosophical stance he has tried to adopt: ‘having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong convictions even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life’. She either does not recognise the depth of her feeling for Bazarov or else does not confuse temporary fascination with love. ‘Was there the truth, the absolute truth, in their words? They did not know themselves, and the author even less. But they had a conversation as if they completely believed one another.’

An attempted seduction, an almost farcical duel, a marriage proposal, an eavesdropped conversation and a death later, some of the sympathetic characters in the novel reconcile and have a happy end, while others are left to nurse their disappointment, or sorrow — or else embark upon new adventures. Arkady no longer is the eager disciple, but Bazarov himself (whom we have grown fond of once we realise his bark is worse than his bite)… well, let’s just say we can either describe him as a man whose dreams have been shattered, or else a young man who has suddenly become mature. Sadly, the author does not give him many years to redeem himself, but instead lambasts the Russian students abroad once more:

… the young Russian physics and chemistry students, who flock to Heidelberg, and who at first astonish their naive German professors with their sober outlook on things, and later on astonish the same professors by their complete inactivity and total laziness.

Throughout his life, Turgenev was both praised and criticised for his often scathing depiction of Russian society. To some, he showed no respect for traditions and had an irreverent attitude towards religion, while for others he was not intransigent enough. In this novel, in which he is critical but also sympathetic towards both sides, we can see that his chosen path was moderation, and that he tried to reconcile these extremes within his own life and his work. But it would always be difficult to write about the homeland when you are accused of living too long abroad!

I also found him much easier to read than I expected and was amused to discover that Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert and Nabokov all rated him higher than Dostoevsky (and even Tolstoy for some). I did get a little weary of the author giving us the full back story of every single character we are introduced to, certainly a writing technique that is not recommended nowadays. The translation does read a little old-fashioned in parts, but no more so than reading a Victorian novel, which is probably exactly the kind of effect that the translator was aiming for. After provoking a lot of excitement about Turgenev on Twitter, I decided to ignore all recommendations (which tended to favour ‘Nest of the Gentry’) and got myself the novel Smoke instead. I will certainly be reading more of him in the future but I don’t think he will topple Dostoevsky and Chekhov in my heart any time soon.

Best of the Year: This Year’s Releases

I’ve read 160 books this year, so it’s impossible to stick to a list of a mere ten top favourites. So instead I’ve organised things by categories. Don’t worry, I won’t quite name 160 books! After a stint of rereading and a look at modern classics from the first half of the 20th century, I am now becoming more contemporary and looking at this year’s releases. This used to form the bulk of my reading back in 2013-2016 when I was doing a lot of crime fiction reviewing, but I have been much slower to read them these past 2-3 years. I now much prefer for the buzz to die down. The buzz for the titles below is more than justified, though!

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions

This book meant so much to me personally, both as a budding translator and as someone who studied Japanese, lived briefly in Japan and worked for Japanese organisations in the past. It is also written in such an interesting way: not just a memoir, not just an essay about translation or cultural encounters, and also a Bildungsroman, cutting a young person’s ego and certainties down to size (in painful ways, occasionally). Unashamedly subjective and yet universal.

…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water, Penguin.

I was utterly smitten with the beautiful, sensous, rhythmic prose of this one, a real prose poem, and for once the use of the second person felt completely justified. It also made me feel about nineteen-twenty again!

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful.

Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies, Faber & Faber.

The author captures the humdrum of the everyday but also the numinous moments of awareness, of things that occasionally make us change (but most frequently don’t). Understated yet so powerful – a voice that grows and grows on you at each reading.

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments. I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger, transl. Philip Boehm, Pushkin Press.

No other book conveys the plight of refugees so accurately, without being about refugees explicitly. In this portrayal of a privileged German Jew who suddenly finds himself on the run after Kristallnacht, the sense of hopelessness, of feeling hunted and unwanted, of casual and deliberate racism, the bureaucratic hurdles that make it nearly impossible to escape still feel extremely topical.

The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.

Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, transl. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Pushkin Vertigo.

The first book in a very promising new series featuring retro-detective Zaitsev, set in 1930s St Petersburg, with the Stalinist oppression never far from the surface. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace, and a complicated story featuring serial killers, political machinations and priceless stolen treasure. In equal measure entertaining and educational, but we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were.

If you haven’t found your favourite book of 2021 in the brief list above, there is still a chance they made my ‘Sheer Entertainment’ category, which will follow shortly, or else in my New Discoveries and Deeper Dives section.

Russians in the Snow: Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield, Faber, 1996 (original version first published in 1992)

This is my first acquaintance with Victor Pelevin, but I will certainly be reading more by him. From all I hear, he seems to be a somewhat enigmatic character, a writer who stays firmly out of the limelight, yet has won numerous literary prizes for his esoteric, multi-layered work, which nevertheless often mimics genre fiction. He has translated Castaneda’s work and has admitted to a fascination with Buddhism, travelling often to China, Japan and Nepal, but he is not a self-publicising hipster.

He appears to live according to his beliefs and has made much of his older work freely available on the internet. He is incredibly prolific, publishing a book a year on average (maybe because he shuns interviews and public appearances). Under the mantle of science-fiction or fantasy, he is often highly critical and political – not just of the Soviet system, but perhaps of any ideological construct, which he perceives as an illusion, a sop to the masses. He is often compared to Bulgakov, but I detect a much greater similarity (at least in this novel) to the Strugatsky Brothers.

What I find most revealing in the scant biographical detail available about him is that he studied mechanical engineering, which might explain the link to his main protagonist Omon in his debut novel Omon Ra. The young man has always dreamt of becoming a cosmonaut, one of the ultimate aspirations for a boy growing up under the Soviet system, with Yuri Gagarin constantly being presented as a role model. A poor provincial boy, with an indifferent, practically non-existent family, the dream of space travel provides an escape from the drabness of everyday Soviet existence.

I suddenly felt disgusted to think that I was sitting in this lousy little closet that smelt like a garbage dump, disgusted by the fact… that the entire immense country in which I lived was made up of lots and lots of these lousy little closets… and most important of all – it was painful to think that these very same stinking little closets were the settings for those multi-coloured arrays of lights that made me catch my breath in the evenings when I happened to look out of some window set high above the twilit capital. And it all seemed particularly painful in comparison with the beautiful American flying machine in the magazine.

He befriends Mitiok, another ‘outsider’ at his school, who has the same dream as him, and they both join the gruelling training regime of the space cadet academy in Zaraisk. And this is where the disillusionment starts.

The character seems predestined to be made a fool of, with a name like Omon Krivomazov (a pun: Omon is an acronym for a branch of the secret police service, the surname bears similarities to Karamazov, which means ‘black face’, and krivo and maz are Russian words for ‘crooked/wrong’ and ‘unguent/smear’). Sure enough, Omon and Mitiok soon discover that the Soviet space programme is based on lies and deceit, that the cosmonauts are simply disposable and interchangeable tools for the glorification of the Soviet empire, to cover up the lack of advanced computing or technological power.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the narrator digs into layer after layer of deception, some of it hilariously farcical, yet with an undercurrent of tragedy too. There are some utterly surreal moments, not all of them related to space flight. The scene of Henry Kissinger going to hunt bears (although the hunting of wild animals was forbidden by law) is unforgettable. Absurd (and untrue) though that story is, it is very close to a lot of the patently obvious and ridiculous deceptions that happen all over the world in the attempt to appease political tyrants.

I don’t think it would be too much of a reach to say that this novel is also very much about the collapse of certainties, the disappearance of a society that – flawed though it was – provided some sort of values that people could cling to. You long for freedom all your life, and then when freedom comes, it proves to be too much of an unruly beast. You start craving the rules and order you knew before, some commonly accepted values system.

… all my life I’ve been journeying towards the moment when I would soar up over the crowds of what the slogans called the workers and the peasants, the soldiers and the intelligentsia, and now here I am hanging in brilliant blackness on the invisible threads of fate and trajectory – and now I see that becoming a heavenly body is not much different from serving a life sentence in a prison carriage that travels round and round a circular railway line without ever stopping.

A short but powerful novel, which is both a satire of the Soviet society, but also reveals the anxieties and fears of the 1990s in the newly ‘free’ Russian society.

Russians in the Snow: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family, transl. Anna Summers

I had heard of Petrushevskaya and her bleak, almost allegorical tales of striving and surviving against all odds, with no hope of redemption, no greater purpose. My Russian friend, who often has a similarly dark and cynical outlook on life, does not like her – perhaps because she cannot come to terms with the way Petrushevskaya pokes fun at the sacred subject of motherhood. Additionally, there is also perhaps a certain ‘tough love’ approach in Russia to the down-and-outs of society – why have they not helped themselves, why are they not resilient enough? – and it’s precisely these people that the author chooses to feature in her stories. The ones that Soviet society refused to acknowledge even existed (and Petrushevskaya’s work was banned for most of the Soviet period), the ones that have now been forgotten or abandoned by the new Russia. The author has often described herself as simply ‘taking down the stories’, a ‘documentary writer’, capturing the essence of everyday life, particularly for women, in Russia.

This collection features a longer novella The Time Is Night and two shorter ones, Chocolates with Liqueur and Among Friends. They are all not just acidic portrayals of domestic violence, betrayals and dysfunctional families, but also an indictment of social services (or lack thereof) and the housing situation, for example, in cities like Moscow, which give rise to such unbearable situations.

In Chocolates with Liqueur, Nikita abandons his wife Lelia and their two children, but they all have to continue to live together in their two-room apartment, because they have nowhere else to go. No wonder that Nikita starts harbouring murderous intentions so he can free up the space for himself and his new lover, or else his own mother and sister. The poisoned chocolates are merely the culmination of years of abuse, which the neighbours all knew about but refused to get involved. The story was deliberately written as an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, but there is something jarringly off-hand, even jaunty, in the way the poisoned chocolates are discussed.

The friends in Among Friends have been meeting for years and years every Friday in the flat of one couple whom they all admire. They deliberately try to stay away from discussing politics, because they know that one of them is an informer. As the years go by, people fail to achieve their initial promise, while relationships between couples are dissolved and new couples are formed, sometimes, awkwardly, from within the same circle of friends. The narrator spares no one with her acerbic comments, especially not her good-for-nothing husband, who has finally divorced her. She is convinced she will die soon, everyone in her family has died young, and she is afraid that no one will look after her son.

My parents had raised him [her son], surrounded him with love and care. And how he is to remain completely alone, for I am going to leave soon, too, and as for Kolya, I can’t rely on him to take care of our son. Kolya, so generous and kind to the otehrs, quickly gets bored and irritable at home and yells at Alesha, especially at mealtimes. In addition, Kolya was preparing to leave us…

Despite her criticism of all of her friends, in the end she has no one else to turn to when it comes to deciding her son’s future, although the action she takes may strike most readers as rather extreme.

The novella that relies less on sudden shocking scenes but more on a steady drip-drip-drip of grimness is The Time Is Night and it is also the one that speaks most to me, describing the constant struggle and contradiction between art and life. Anna is the heroine of the story, but we are reading the diaries she left behind after her death. She is caught in that horrible bind of middle-aged carers – between her senile mother, her young grandson, her grown-up but demanding and parasitic children. She does all sorts of hack jobs to make ends meet, a poet who struggles to turn the rotten straw of her daily life into the gold of poetry, and whose family despises her writing. She is not a likable person, at times she brings her bad fortune upon herself, is often bitter and cruel, has no doubts that she is always right and the others are weak sops.

Only at night could I experience the joy of motherhood. I’d creep over to their beds and listen to their breathing, inhale their scent, adore the in silence.

The misery is not quite unrelenting: there are extracts from the daughter’s old diaries with the typical teenage whingeing; there is a ridiculous conversation with a ‘bard’ when Anna gets invited to give a poetry reading at a children’s winter camp. But the monologue gets more and more frenzied, following a mad dash to stop the schizophrenic grandmother from being shipped off to an asylum out of town. Finally unable to keep the various strands of her life together, we assist in Anna’s comprehensive, spectacular unravelling. There is no safety net other than family and friends, but they are also the ones most likely to let you down.

I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ these tales of everyday suffering, but I respected what the author was trying to achieve. It is high time these stories are made visible, the stories we usually tell ourselves in whispers, horrified that they can happen to anyone we know well. There is an extreme, almost performative element to these stories, the very opposite of the restraint we typically associate with English literature. The style of storytelling is imbued with Russian fatalism and vicious exchanges of dialogue, yet I am sure that many of these tales are as universal as folk tales… and just as dark and scary.

Russians in the Snow: Tales from Petersburg

I am dedicating most of my December reading to Russians in the snow (other seasons also acceptable) and started with two very entertaining reads set in one of my dream cities.

St Petersburg ranks very highly indeed in my wishlist of places to go – and has done since I was about 12 and read my first Dostoevsky. In the meantime, I have read so many more Russian writers who were in equal parts fascinated and repelled with the city, in love with its beauty but satirising its pretentiousness. My son was due to go on a school trip to St Petersburg (taking the night train from Moscow – how romantic!) in 2020, and I was green with envy that he would get there before me. But now it looks like both of us will have to be patient a little longer. So I console myself with two books that have Petersburg as a setting, but one hundred years apart.

Nikolai Gogol: Petersburg Tales, trans. Dora O’Brien

Back in the 1830s, St Petersburg was the capital city of the Russian Empire, a nest of bureaucracy and a hotbed of political advancement and intrigue. Gogol felt an outsider when he came to the city in pursuit of literary fame – and no doubt was made to feel an outsider, derided for his Ukrainian roots, thwarted in his academic ambitions, ridiculed for his physical appearance (he apparently had quite an inferiority complex about his nose and lack of height). He has the sharp eye and merciless satire of the outsider when he describes Petersburg and its inhabitants.

The first story, ‘Nevsky Prospect’, spends a good nine of its 52 pages simply describing a day in the life of the famous main street in St Petersburg, from dawn to dusk, and the people who either go about their business quietly or else parade there ostentatiously. Gogol has a style as a chatty omniscient narrator who takes you into his confidence, shares jokes, mocks affectionately (and sometimes sharply), expects you to agree with him. He makes sweeping generalisations at times, which will nevertheless have you nodding your head in stunned recognition as if ‘why did I not think of this before?’ Take for example his description of the shy, idealistic young artist Piskarev:

A St Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snow, an artist in the land of the Finns, where all is wet, plain, level, pale, grey and misty. These artists have nothing in common with Italian artists – proud, passionate, like Italy itself and its sky – on the contrary, these are mostly kind, meek folk, timid, easy-going, quietly enjoying their art, drinking tea with a couple of friends in small rooms, modestly discussing their favourite topic and shoring no interest at all in anything else.

Piskarev espies a classical beauty on Nevsky Prospect and follows her home, only to discover that she works in a brothel. He is determined to rescue her from her terrible, fallen ways through marriage, but discovers that not everybody is as keen on his artistic vows of poverty.

‘The Nose’ is probably the best-known story by Gogol, an enchanting concoction of equal parts social critique and surrealism, a mantle taken up later in literature by Bulgakov. A placid barber, who ‘like any decent Russian skilled worker was a dreadful drunkard’, finds a human nose in his bread roll one morning and panics, believes he recognises it as belonging to one of his clients, and tries to get rid of it before he is accused of a crime. Meanwhile, social climber Major Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose missing – there is no visible wound on his face, simply a flat surface where his nose should have been. This gives him a tremendous inferiority complex, and all his plans for advancement in the labyrinthine Tsarist civil service Table of Ranks seem doomed to failure. As he chases around the city to try and find his truant nose, he discovers it wearing a military uniform of superior rank and not at all disposed to return to its rightful place. In despair, he accuses the mother of a girl he refused to marry of witchcraft, but then realises that he has no choice but to resign himself to his ignoble fate even after his nose is returned to him – for it will not stick to his anatomy!

The story really is laugh-out-loud funny, even if you are familiar with its broad outlines – there is always a line or observation that will strike you afresh upon each rereading. This time it was the witty swipe at police corruption that got me:

The Superintendent was a great promoter of all the arts and manufactured goods [his whole house is packed with sugar loaves brought to him by merchants as tokens of friendship], but he loved a banknote best of all. ‘That really is something,’ he would say, ‘and there’s nothing to beat it: it doesn’t require food, takes little room, always fits in a pocket and if you drop it, it doesn’t break.’

‘The Overcoat’ is somewhat more sentimental because both the author and the readers have a lot of sympathy for the pitiful little clerk Akaky Akakievich, who has worn his coat threadbare and has to scrimp and save desperately to get himself a new one to survive the harsh winter months, only to have it stolen from him.

Aside from his absurdist touches, which baffled his contemporaries, Gogol has been revered (mostly after his death) for being the first realist writer, his biting satire of bureaucracy became a model for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Yet it is his description of the lives of the ‘little people’ which seem particularly poignant and which form the link to the next book I read:

… in those hours when the grey St Petersburg sky completely fades away and all the civil-service folk have eaten their fill and finished dinner… when rest has come to all and everything after the departmental scratching of quills, the running around, the performance of your own as well as others’ necessary tasks… when clerks hurry off to devote the time that is left to pleasure… or… this happens most often, simply to go to visit their fellow clerk who lives on the fourth or third floor, in two small rooms with either a hall or a kitchen and some fashionable pretentious objects… Akaky Akakievich did not indulge in any form of relaxation.

Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Having two rooms and a kitchen of one’s own would seem like an unimaginable luxury to the working classes in Yakovleva’s Leningrad of 1930. The author sprinkles the crime story with lots of details of daily life in the Soviet Union. The grand old houses have been split up into communal apartments with shared kitchens, with ten Primus stoves and tables of all different shapes and sizes, queues for the bathroom, the heavy stench of other people’s cooking, the constant noise from other rooms, the neighbours trying to spread gossip about you in the hope that they would be allocated your living quarters if you got ‘purged’.

This book is not just a ‘retro’ piece of historical crime, to provide some cosy relief and differentiation from all the present-day police procedurals that are starting to look a bit samey. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace. Like Abir Mukherjee’s series set in India in the last decades of the British Empire, it is in equal measure entertaining and educational. But we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were: Zaitsev, the main investigator, is snatched by the OGPU (secret police, forerunner of the KGB) and imprisoned for several months right in the midst of the story. He knows that he is in danger of being purged for good at the slightest misstep.

He believes he might be on the tracks of a serial killer, who seems to like posing his victims in a very theatrical fashion. Yet there is nothing to connect the victims, there is no clear motive for the murders. His superiors are less interested in the complications of a serial killing theory – they only want to rapidly resolve the crime that occurred on Yelagin Island, which is earmarked for development, to create a leisure park for the masses.

There is a lot of love for the city, despite its recent decay: at some point, Zaitsev wonders how anyone should want to think about committing crimes in such beautiful surroundings, and his deputy quickly counters that some of the buildings could do with a lick of paint. The city appears as a provincial backwater when compared to Moscow, where Zaitsev heads briefly during his investigation, but in such heavily political times, perhaps being less at the ‘heart of things’ is a good strategy. Yet the author also pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Leningrad’s inhabitants, who believe they are superior to anyone else in the Soviet Union, especially the cultured elite who despise the ignorant working classes. The sense of place is excellent throughout, even if slightly less satirical than in Gogol. And of course, I cannot resist a description of winter, after all, it is about Russians in the snow, right?

Outside, there had been a sudden thaw. His shoes squelched in the icy slush. The sky was reflected in the dove-grey puddles, with crumbs of ice… He crossed Nevsky under the very nose of a tram, narrowly missed a black Ford, a horse and cart. Leningrad was the former capital of the empire… but pedestrians behaved like it was a village, crossing the street wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, cutting straight across, diagonally, or even wandering along the carriageway, listlessly dodging the few cars. Most of them had recently been villagers, after all, who poured into the city in search of work. They still had their provincial havits, never mind that they were lethal with the city traffic.

There is such a lot of potential with this setting, this time period, the quirky characters who form Zaitsev’s team, as well as all the crimes that occurred during that period, that I hope this leads to a long-running and successful series of crime novels – and maybe even a TV adaptation. I can see Babylon Berlin parallels there!

Now of course I am tempted to continue with something set in contemporary Petersburg, nearly a hundred years after the setting for Yakovleva’s book. But contemporary Russian authors seem to set their stories more in Moscow or other places. However, for a glimpse of Petersburg in the 1980s and 1990s, I would recommend two films: Leto, depicting the underground rock scene of the early 1980s with its charismatic rock star Viktor Tsoi, and Brat directed by Aleksei Balabanov, about a young man released from the Soviet army in the mid-1990s and discovering capitalism thanks to his older brother, who is involved in the criminal gangs of Petersburg.

But let’s end on a more romantic note for the city…

Reading Plans for the Rest of 2021

I am really enjoying my aimless September wanderings of reading without a purpose and often with no intention to review. It provides a much-needed break and gives me the time and leisure to immerse myself in the rapidly-changing world of 1930s and 40s Britain, the world of the Cazalets. Although I will be wary of overburdening myself with obligations in the future, I do like to have a bit of a plan for my autumn and winter reading. So here are my current plans (as always, they are subject to change, depending on internal whims and external events).

October: Romanian Fun Reads

Family sagas have not been my cup of tea, generally, but now that I’ve succumbed to the charm of the Cazalets, I was thinking of rereading one of my favourite series of books when I was growing up – the three volume (sometimes published as four volumes) saga At Medeleni (that being the name of a country home in the Moldova region of Romania). I might not have time to sink completely into it, but I could try the first volume, when the main protagonists are children, and compare it with the Cazalets or with the Palace Walk trilogy by Mahfouz, which I also need to finish at some point.

Then I thought I might as well make it a fun month of reading Romanian literature – as in, reading without a professional editorial eye, wondering whether it would be worth translating or not, whether for Corylus or someone else. Here are the books I’ll be contemplating:

  • Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni, Vol. 1 – The Unsteady Border.
  • Doina Ruști: Mâța Vinerii (The Book of Perilous Dishes) – YA novel set in 1798 Bucharest, a fantastical tale about a magic recipe book. The blurb says: ‘Merchants, sorcerers, spiritists, cooks of the Princely Court, lovers, haughty young ladies, ambassadors from diverse lands, mercenaries, officials of the Sublime Porte, princes in exile and princes newly enthroned, schemers of all sorts, revolutionaries, Bonapartists, tricksters, and envoys of Sator populate the carnivalesque space of this novel of fantasy, whose deeper levels lead far into the distance, towards worlds we could scarcely imagine.’ The book has received a translation grant and will be published by Book Island in the near future.
  • Ioana Pârvulescu: Life Begins on Friday – this historical time-travelling crime but literary novel won the European Union Literature Prize in 2013 and has been translated into English.
  • Bogdan Suceavă: Grandpa Returns to French (my own translation of the title – untranslated collection of short stories). I know the author slightly, worked with him briefly on the same literary journal, plus he was born in the town where my parents live now in Romania. He is a Mathematics Professor at a university in California, but is a highly skilled prose writer.
  • Radu Pavel Gheo: Good Night, Children! The story of four childhood friends, growing up in Communist Romania, who all dreamt of emigrating to the ‘promised land’ and return to their home country and their friendship in their thirties; older but are they any the wiser? The story of my generation, I suppose.

November: German Literature Month and Novella in November

I’ve always taken part in the German Lit Month and want to take part in the Novellas in November one too this year, since both of these initiatives are hosted by some of my favourite bookish bloggers. (Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck and I believe their definition of novella is any work under 200 pages). So I’ve found a way to combine these two themes by choosing to read German-language novellas. Or, very short novels in some but not all cases. If you’ve read the original announcements for German Lit Month on Lizzy’s and Caroline’s blogs, you’ll have seen that the plan is to read:

  • Books from Austria 1-7 Nov: I have a collection of short stories by Marlen Haushofer, which includes the novella-length We Kill Stella.
  • Books from Germany 9-14 Nov: Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hoffmann (almost a novella, only 180 pages long)
  • Books from Switzerland 15-21 Nov: Friedrich Glauser: The Spoke (again, novella-length – only 130 pages)
  • Books from Elsewhere 22-28 Nov: Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, a crime novel set in Krakow in 1893, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, written by a dynamic Polish writing duo publishing under the pen-name Maryla Szymiczkowa, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
  • Here, There and Everywhere 29-30: Dana Grigorcea: The Undying. This sounds like an utter wild card, a vampire crime novel that isn’t really about vampires by a Romanian author writing in German and living in Switzerland.

December: Russians in the Snow

Under Karen’s (aka Kaggsy59) nefarious influence, I have been steadily adding to my pile of Russian books, and it always feels most suitable to read them when curled up inside with the wind blowing a blizzard outdoors. Even if they are set during the hot summer months spent in the countryside. Last year I managed to read The Karamazovs and was planning to reread The Idiot this year, but the book (in the translation I really like from the Raduga Publishing House in Moscow) is at my parents’ house in Romania, and I am not sure I will get a chance to pick it up before then. Therefore, I am wisely selecting quite short works this time, allowing myself room for sudden lurches in mood.

  • Bulgakov: Diaboliad, transl. Hugh Aplin – satire about Soviet bureaucracy
  • Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield – a satire about Soviet space race
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, transl. Anna Summers – There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In – well, it will be the month when my older son comes back from his first term at university!
  • Marina Tsvetaeva: Poems (maybe comparing different translations, although of course I can’t read the original Russian)

How to Finish The Brothers Karamazov on Your nth Attempt

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 Khokhlaġova 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.

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die TapetentĂźr (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den KurfĂźrstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!

#WITMonth and #20BooksofSummer: Teffi

Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)

Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.

Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.

The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.

‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’

Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nĂ´tres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.

Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:

… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’

Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.

This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…

This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.

This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.

 

 

Reading & Events Summary July 2019

Not a lot of summer holidays for me this year, so my reading hasn’t been copious this month. [This may change over the next 3 weeks, when the boys are with their father in Greece.] Only 9 books completed, but most of them have been quite outstanding – and that is all thanks to the Russians. Their political leaders may be problematic, but boy, can their authors write!

I started off with a short, sharp satire Envy by Yuri (Yury?) Olesha. Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories were a rambunctious delight, but with a disquieting undercurrent running throughout. The Strugatskys were in top form with Roadside Picnic, while Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov captured a moment of tremendous change in recent history with great poignancy and lyricism. I haven’t yet reviewed Light-Headed by Olga Slavnikova (which I read in the French translation), but it’s another great piece of satire, although perhaps it could have been a bit shorter without losing any of its punch.

The Russians were excellent company. I will miss them and, yes, there were some communalities to all these authors (or perhaps I sub-consciously chose works that were of similar nature). Their humour is always rather dark and biting, their stories a mix of laugh-out-loud absurdity and profound sadness. The big questions of life are addressed, even though mostly in a roundabout way that decades if not centuries of censorship have cultivated to perfection. And I find their dash of surrealism not just tolerable but necessary and fun, unlike some works in the magical realism tradition.

In-between these hard-hitting books, I found my brain craved less demanding fare. I was either rereading either old favourites like the second book in the Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith (the one with the art forgeries) or else Adrian Mole (however, the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Mole made me shudder rather than laugh). I also read two contemporary books focused on friendships, marriages, gender expectations and growing older.

I will probably compare and contrast Anna Hope’s Expectation with William Nicholson’s Adventures in Modern Marriage at some point, but although they were fun and easy to read (I deliberately avoided making too many comparisons with my own marriage or ageing), they were rather underwhelming. In any other month of reading, they might have scored higher, but when I put them up against the Russians, they seemed rather anemic.

5 women authors, 4 books in translation (Olga Grushin wrote her book directly in English). Next month will be all about women in translation and I am heading off to Brazil. My selection includes: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, Patricia Melo’s tale of revenge Lost World, Fernanda Torres’ account of old macho beach bums The End and, to balance things out, The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli.

If I get a chance to read any other women in translation, it will be Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (set in my beloved Japan but written in German) and History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (the latest Asymptote Book Club title, from Iceland). I might also read some Brazilian men, for balance. And, of course, I should read the books I borrowed from the library: Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, as well as dip in and out of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Diaries.

Beyond the reading, this month has been quite tiring: a lot of deadlines at work, both boys doing their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, plus a lot of visiting of universities (which has its fun moments but involves a lot of driving and organising). I’ve done three things that go beyond the routine: went to the opera, attended an immersive theatre experience of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Oxford and sat in the public gallery at a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

How has your month been? Do tell me about your holiday plans! I’m not going anywhere on holiday just yet, but this song always puts me in a holiday mood. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your flash fiction based on this song with me. Do check it out here.