While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
I was going to dedicate a whole post to the Russians, but I don’t actually have many obscure ones in that pile, merely the obvious suspects (Dostoevsky being one of my favourites), so I have added the Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, Serbs – all the Slavic languages that I have on my shelves. I will do a separate category for the Romanians, and have perhaps far too few Greeks and Hungarians to create a separate category for them (other than a wishlist).
Kieslowski on Kieslowski (edited and translated by Danusia Stok)
Nowadays Kieslowski is best known for the films he made in France- The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours trilogy (Blue with Juliette Binoche is my favourite of the three, in case you are wondering). However, to those of us who lived in Eastern Europe during Communist times, he is above all the director of the TV series The Decalogue and his quasi-documentary films about life under an oppressive and uncaring regime, like Personnel, The Scar and No End. The films were banned in Poland after martial law was imposed in 1980, and they were difficult but not impossible to find on video in Romania in the late 1980s, as long as you knew a pilot, cabin crew or truck driver who could smuggle them into the country.
He was notoriously reticent in interviews (perhaps unsurprising, considering how he was hounded by the Polish authorities for a while), but in this book published in 1993 he muses at length about his life, his creative process, his country and censorship. I bought this when I first came to England and there are whole passages heavily underlined. They ring even truer today.
Communism is like AIDS. That is, you have to die with it. You can’t be cured. And that applies to anyone who’s had anything to do with Communism, regardless of what side they were on… If they’ve been exposed to the system as long as they have been in Poland… then Communism, its way of thinking, its way of life, its hierarchy of values, remains with them and there’s no way of expelling it from their system. They can expel it from their minds, of course, they can say they’re no longer sick. They can even say they’ve been cured. But it’s not true. It stays inside…. It doesn’t particularly trouble me. I just know I’ve got it and know that I’ll die with it, that’s all. Not die of it, die with it. It only disappears when you disappear.
He also has excellent insights into the differences in film-making in Eastern and Western Europe:
The fact that we had censorship in Poland didn’t necessarily entail tremendous restrictions of freedom since, all in all, it was easier to make films there then it is under the economic censorship here in the West. Economic censorship means censorship imposed by people who think that they know what the audience wants.
Tamara Karsavina: Theatre Street
Tamara Karsavina was one of the leading ballerinas at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. In 1918 she moved to England, danced with Diaghilev’s company and the Ballet Rambert, and became a famous teacher and Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dancing. This is her charming autobiography, recreating the tough training regime at the Imperial Ballet School on Theatre Street, the pranks she and her fellow students would get up to, her debut at the Marinsky, the relentless pace of touring, escaping from Russia during the revolution, but above all the many charismatic legendary dance figures she encountered: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Lydia Lopokova (who later married the economist John Maynard Keynes), Isadora Duncan and many more. A book recommended to me by my favourite primary school teacher, Miss Mason, who introduced me to opera and ballet.
Olga Slavnikova: La Tête légère (transl. Raphaëlle Pache) – Lightheaded
This is a recent acquisition from this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon – it hasn’t been translated into English yet. I was captivated by the absurdist premise: Maxime Ermakov is a talented publicist but has a very strange head. Secret service agents show up at the door of his Moscow apartment to tell him that his head is upsetting the harmony of the world, so he should commit suicide and thereby save millions of lives. But Maxime has no intention of doing that, and so he becomes public enemy no. 1 and the villainous star of a video game about killing Ermakov. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to reading it – perhaps this month for WIT?