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Sneaking behind the Iron Curtain

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Journey Into Russia by Laurens van der Post

I’m a great believer in the right book at the right time, and this volume turned out to be very much a case in point. Knowing of my love of all things Russian and all things travel-related, OH tracked down a lovely first edition of JIR for last Christmas – it’s a wonderful object in its own right, complete with fold out map in the back and on lovely quality paper which has stood the test of time. Bearing in mind it’s 50 years old it really is looking good!

I hadn’t found the right time for reading it, but watching Michael Portillo travelling about Russia on a train recently on the BBC made me very jealous and so I decided to assuage the travel itch with Laurens van der Post!

The author himself was quite a fascinating character! The potted version from Wikipedia is: “Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, CBE (13 December 1906 – 16 December 1996) was a 20th-century Afrikaner author, farmer, war hero, political adviser to British heads of government, close friend of Prince Charles, godfather of Prince William, educator, journalist, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer and conservationist.” However, if you read the whole entry, he was friends with Leonard and Virginia Woolf (my book is a Hogarth Press edition), lived a pretty wild and sometimes controversial life, wrote the books on which the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” were based, and apparently wasn’t averse to embellishing his life story a little!

A llittle fragile, but a lovely first edition!

A llittle fragile, but a lovely first edition!

What’s so fascinating about this book for me, of course, is that it’s travel writing behind the Iron Curtain – much like the wonderful “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey” by Fred Basnett, which I reviewed here. However, there is a difference in perspective, as van der Post was much more high-profile visitor to the USSR, whereas Basnett’s approach is much more low-key and down to earth. Both books are excellent, and actually reading them fairly close together is quite useful because you end up having quite different impressions from both writers.

Van der Post, it should be said from the start, was obviously a complex character and it’s clear from his writing that he has no sympathy for totalitarian regimes of any sort. Nevertheless, he has a deep wish to *know* Russia and its people and he tries hard to do so, despite being hampered (of course!) by the authorities in various shapes and forms. He manages to travel to a remarkable number of places including Siberia, the Black Sea, Kharkov, Yalta plus of course Moscow and St. Petersburg. Van der Post mixes with as many people as he can, from his guides to local writers, poets, farmers, scientists and as many of the young people as he can make contact with. And he finds, despite their different political viewpoints, that the people of Soviet Russia share many of the same concerns as those outside it, as well as wishing to co-exists peacefully with the West.

The lovely foldy out map

The lovely foldy out map

However, despite the apparent openness of the world he encounters, there are reminders of the State which controls everything. One particular encounter with a group of young people ends with somewhat worrying supervision and van der Post being unable to track down the young people again. Throughout the book, he is careful not to name names so as to avoid getting anyone into trouble with the authorities, which is understandable (although I would like to be able to read an annotated modern version in which the people where actually identified now that the Soviet era is over.) What shows up very clearly here is the isolation of the Russian people, from any kind of contact with the West, its culture, music, politics and people.

Initially, it was a little hard to get going with JIR, as van der Post’s tone can be a little pompous at times. He often seems to be taking a slightly detached, anthropological view of things and sometimes wanders off into pontificating and list of facts, where I found my interest drifting slightly. However, his writing *can* be very evocative, particularly when he feels passionate about a subject:

Cypresses have always gleamed in my imagination like light at the end of a long tunnel perhaps because they may have been the first tree chosen by men to accompany them on their long and enigmatic journey through time. The scent of cypresses after rain is a smell translated and made aromatic in a way that not even the frankincense, myrrh and arboussiers of the antique world can excel. No matter where they grow, in Southern Africa, on the hills behind Golgotha, in Greece or Etruria, cypresses bring with them a sense of dedication out of the earth.

He responds particularly to the landscape of Russia, and his descriptions of travelling through the Siberian steppe are stunning.

One of the most memorable sections of the book is that where van der Post attends a May Day celebration at Kharkov. Here he witnesses Soviet bombast in all its splendour, with endless military parades and trumpeting of the superiority of the Soviet regime. Yet there is no joy coming from the people during the parades, and the whole thing is a cold, mechanical exercise serving only as a propaganda exercise. Van der Post emerges from the experience in a claustrophobic state, desperate for peace and quiet, needing the reassurance of free art and culture.

A little fragile, but a lovely first edition!

A little fragile, but a lovely first edition!

And culture is very much the keyword here. In 1964, although some thawing had begun under Khrushchev, art and literature and culture generally were still very much controlled. Years and years of Soviet realism had taken its toll on the Soviet citizen’s mindset and van der Post comes to realise that the people were limited mentally because of it, appreciating all the more the Western outlook:

All this made me realize another thing about Soviet Russia: how barren the Soviet mind and scene is of fantasy of any kind. Suddenly I felt sad that I had not brought Carroll, Edward Lear and the others with me for them to read. Those are the medicines too that the traveller in the Soviet Union needs to kill proliferation of the insect within himself. I longed now not only for fantasy of thought but the live human fantasies which one still encounters daily in the eccentrics of Britain. I realised again the natural wisdom of this deep instinctive respect and love that the English have for genuine eccentricity. And I realized how starved these young people themselves were for some fantasy in their own lives.

As van der Post leaves Russia at the end of the book, he seems to breathe more easily, physically and mentally, as the weight of the Soviet system lifts from his back. Nevertheless, he seems to have gained much from his journey – a better understanding of the place and its people, and the knowledge that things are changing and that as the thaw continues the Soviet people may come to enjoy more freedom.

This was in many ways a great read – it left me with some vivid impressions of the places van der Post travelled through and the people he met. On occasions, his views and his personality slightly got in the way for me and I did find myself a little bogged down occasionally with some of the longer passages about industry and agriculture (and bemused by one particular statement: Siberia could supply the whole of the world with coal for two thousand years and still have some to spare! – really? Then why are we having an energy crisis!) Fred Basnett’s book will probably be more of a long-term favourite of mind, but “Journey into Russia” makes a valuable companion to it!

German Literature Month: A Multi-Layered Tale

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The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Alas, I haven’t managed to read as many books as I wished for German Reading Month, thanks to coming down with the dreaded lurgy (i.e. the worst head cold I’ve had in years followed by sinusitis and a chest infection).  It goes without saying, also, that the book I ended up reading wasn’t the one I planned…. :) But I *have* wanted to read Christa Wolf for a long time, and so this seemed the perfect time to pull “The Quest for Christa T.” out from my Virago shelves.

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Wolf was an East German writer about whom Wikipedia says: “Christa Wolf (née Ihlenfeld; 18 March 1929, Landsberg an der Warthe – 1 December 2011, Berlin) was a German literary critic, novelist, and essayist. She was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany. Wolf received the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1963, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1980, and the Schiller Memorial Prize in 1983, the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 1987, as well as other national and international awards. After the German reunification, Wolf received further awards: in 1999 she was awarded the Elisabeth Langgässer Prize and the Nelly Sachs Literature Prize, and Wolf became the first recipient of the Deutscher Bücherpreis (German Book Prize) in 2002 for her lifetime achievement. In 2010, Wolf was awarded the Großer Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste.”

That’s an awful lot of awards; but Wolf was also the subject of controversy, for her left-wing views after German reunification, and also during the Cold War for her criticism of the GDR ruling regime. I’ve tried to start her books before, and struggled – maybe a case of the right book at the wrong time, because this time reading Christa Wolf was a joy.

On the surface, and from the blurb, the tale is a simple one: Christa T.’s friend tells the story of their friendship, her life and her death. They met in school at the tail-end of the Second World War, both ended up in the portion of Germany which ended up under Soviet control, met again, went to University, worked, married, had families, and then Christa died young. That in itself is movingly told, but is a complete simplification, because there is layer upon layer of meaning in “The Quest for Christa T.” and it’s wonderfully constructed.

Firstly, there is the way of telling. The narrator, Christa T.’s friend, is elliptical and elusive, much as is Christa herself. She tells the tale at her own pace, often slipping backwards and forwards in time; and there are encounters with other friends and colleagues which you’re never quite sure have actually taken place. She has access to her friend’s papers, handed over by her widower, Justus, and these reveal much about Christa as well as throwing up more questions. This leads the narrator to constantly question what is reality and what is the real Christa, so much so that by the end we seem to be slipping from reality to imagination without even noticing it.

The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke.

What is pertinent here is the era in which the girls grew up to become women. They experienced the end of the War, fleeing the oncoming Russian soldiers, and we never really find out how they survived. But they grow up in an increasingly totalitarian regime and reading between the lines, studying the sometimes a little obscure narrative, you realise that they have to be careful what they say or do as every action can be misinterpreted. And even the narrator has to be careful telling her tale here – the book was first published in 1968, behind the Iron Curtain and during the Cold War – and so her criticisms of the regime have to be carefully made.

For the new world that we were making and making unassailable – even if it meant building ourselves into the foundations of it – that world really did exist. It exists, and not only in our heads; and that period was for us the beginning of it. But whatever happened or will happen to that new world is and remains our affair. Among the alternatives offered there isn’t a single one that’s worth a nod in its direction…

Initially, the girls are committed and enthusiastic about the new way of life; even rejecting the values of the West on a rare visit to Justus’s cousin on the Other Side, despite the obvious differences in their material standards. And even late on in the book, when it has become obvious that the girls’ Utopian dreams have failed, they are uncomfortable with the concept of actually owning a house of their own – “all property is theft?” You could almost dig deeper and say that Christa T. herself represents the new regime and that it’s the failure of this world that causes her death – I wouldn’t be surprised if a writer as complex as Wolf intended that level of meaning.

Sometimes they travel far, sometimes ‘druben’ – over there. The trip there is unusual enough to make your heart beat faster: over there is where the opposite ideas for living are produced, where everything is the reverse – people, things, and thoughts; that’s the real reason why you feel uneasy when you turn the next corner, full of weird expectations, to find always only the same smiling traffic policeman. But one might just as easily catch oneself napping: this is a twofold country and, what’s more, everyone in it is twofold, one part possibility and the other its refutal. One gets rid of the feeling of confusion at times by doing something violent. She spits on the memorial to ‘the stolen territories in the East.’ Memory’s colour is greenish-gold, it mustn’t go black, mustn’t go dry: black is the colour of guilt. She spits on this black stone.

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All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully. The language is beautifully poetic and evocative, bringing alive vividly the lives of Christa T. and her friend, so that even if the narrator is unsure if she has really caught and portrayed her friend’s character, the reader can see them both quite clearly – and it is a tale of two people, not just the one named in the title.

The translator, Christopher Middleton, is a poet himself and his wonderful work here shines.

At night she has dreams. She glides into sleep as if descending in a cage to the sea floor, only the water becomes brighter, not darker, and finally bright as day, like liquid air. One gives a kick and is floating. It’s too beautiful to be sleep. She decides, while still asleep: I’m not sleeping. To float like this isn’t surprising if one has wanted it for so long.

The quest for Christa T. is in the end a quest for truth, full of phrases and sentences that pull you up with their brilliance. The narrator questions her memories, reminding us what fragile things they are, easily confused and falsified. Whilst trying to pin down the life of her friend, fix her for future generations to understand, in many ways she tells the story of the life of any woman living through those times. Wolf’s compelling book is a beautiful, lyrical exploration of existence which in many ways defies description; it would simply be better if you went and read it yourself! Christa Wolf was a remarkable and individual writer and I really can’t wait to explore more of her work.

A Christiean early birthday treat!

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I must admit that after the recent bout of poorliness I’ve felt in need of treats recently, and OH (who is always so good at surprising me with unexpected gifts) came up trumps with an early birthday present in the form of tickets for the 60th anniversary tour of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”!

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As such a huge Christie fan, it seems a little odd that I’ve never seen her most famous play. However, OH was clever enough to notice that the tour had its last night at the local big town and got us tickets in the third row – how cool is that! The offspring were sworn to secrecy so this was a wonderful, wonderful treat and really gave me a lift when I needed it!

The Mousetrap

I shan’t say much about the plot except that it’s classic golden age crime – set in a snowbound manor house-cum-guesthouse in the 1950s with murder and mayhem and a killer in their midst. The cast were absolutely wonderful and the whole experience was grand! If you haven’t seen “The Mousetrap” and you love Christie – well, what are you waiting for? :)

Return of an Architectural Maverick

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Nairn’s Towns by Ian Nairn

Ian Nairn was a vague TV presence when I was growing up; he faded out of view after his death but recent reappraisals plus the acclamation of his work by such luminaries as Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have awoken interest in his writings. He was most definitely something of a maverick and Wikipedia says: “Ian Douglas Nairn (24 August 1930 – 14 August 1983) was a British architectural critic and topographer. In 1955, Nairn established his reputation with a special issue of the Architectural Review called “Outrage” (later as a book in 1956), in which he coined the term “Subtopia” for the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place.In addition to his journalism, Nairn became for a time a familiar face on television, producing various series called for the BBC, starting with Nairn’s North in 1967 and concluding with Nairn’s Journeys in 1978. He died on 14 August 1983, aged 52, from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism. Consumed with a sense of failure, he sought refuge in drink and in his later years wrote almost nothing.”

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Most of his books are long out of print, but fortunately Notting Hill Editions saw fit to reprint his classic “Britain’s Changing Towns” under the title “Nairn’s Towns” with foreword and updates by Owen Hatherley – so it was kind of a no brainer that I would be picking up a copy. Like all NHE books, it’s a gorgeous little clothbound hardback, with lovely thick creamy pages and also a number of photographic illustrations within the text – so, a thing of great beauty, then, before you even start to read. The original book evolved from a series of articles Nairn produced for the “Listener” magazine in 1960-1 and 1964. When they were gathered together in book form in 1967, Nairn provided updates to his earlier thoughts. This lovely version is introduced by Owen Hatherley, one of my favourite architectural writers, who also provides 2013 Postscripts which are fascinating in themselves.

The original version

The original version

Nairn was a passionate man; you only have to watch one of his TV shows to see how he wore his heart on his sleeve, and wasn’t afraid to shows how much he cared about a particular place or building. Wonderfully, his writing voice is just the same as speaking voice, and equally as engaging. Nairn didn’t start in architecture – he was a maths graduate and spent time in the RAF – but he discovered a niche saying what he felt about buildings, celebrating those he loved and verbally damning those he despised.

The big Perpendicular churches of England are a fascinating and utterly neglected psychological study. Then as now, some designers must have felt at odds with their society while some revelled in it. Chipping Campden, in particular, must have been built by a man unhappy to the edge of hysteria.

“Nairn’s Towns” takes us on a journey round the country to a variety of locations, some predictable and some rather unusual! He finds Newcastle-upon-Tyne superlative; that Sheffield has many possibilities, poised as it is on the brink of some dramatic modernist development which has since, alas, become much decried in certain quarters. Norwich, Liverpool, Derry, Brighton and many more get the Nairn treatment. Llandiloes in Wales, perhaps an unexpected choice, gets much praise from Nairn.

… there are plenty of people who would dismiss it as just sentiment or untidiness. They probably can’t see the point of cuddling their wives either.

The essays are little time capsules; views of a country still breaking away from the ways of the past, struggling to rebuild after the Second World War and trying to decide the best way to do it. And the process is erratic, piecemeal and down to the local planners, with little guidance from elsewhere. Owen Hatherley’s 2013 updates highlight the successes and failures and add the perfect coda to each piece.

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Ian Nairn’s tone throughout is wonderful – chatty, opinionated, funny and immensely readable, he’s the eternal optimist, always looking for the best in a place and hoping that the planners and developers will get it right. And his writing is so refreshing as he’s very much guided by the heart and not the head, refusing to subscribe to any particular ism but instead going in open-minded and open-hearted, as he puts it, ready to judge a place and its buildings by their merits. If only everyone could approach things like this! And you have to love someone who can describe a building as “the longest boardroom speech in the world made visible.”

This was such a delightful, stirring and satisfying read. In an alternative universe, Britain would have a Department of Planning controlling everything that was built in the country, and Ian Nairn would be in charge of it. Alas, we are instead subject to the maniac whims of architects wanting to leave their mark on a town or city without any thought for those living there (and Nairn always has the people who have to live in a place in the centre of his vision). But at least we can revisit the invigorating writings of this maverick and dream of the architecture we might have had.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, very excitingly Penguin have now republished the classic work “Nairn’s London” – it looks absolutely lovely and I’m so pleased to have this to look forward to. How about “Nairn’s Paris” as well, please, Penguin! :)

The best laid plans…..

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Well, I *had* plans for today’s post, as a rather important (in my mind, anyway) book is being published today and I had hoped to review it…

cuff

However, I have been in the grip of the grippe (or at least the worst head cold I’ve had for years) for the past week and frankly reading is virtually impossible. So alas, all I can do here is highlight the fact that the very wonderful Alma Classics are publishing today a newly-translated collection of Mikhail Bulgakov’s work under the title of “Notes on a Cuff”.

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The title story has been available before, but the most exiting part of this volume is the fact it contains works not previously translated – so Anglophones like me are getting access to new Bulgakov!!

More will follow here when I am well enough to read and review – in the meantime, it’s back to the decongestants and the box of tissues – groan!

More words from “The North”

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Inevitably, when reading Paul Morley’s “The North” recently, I ended up with a sheaf of bits of paper sticking out of the book, marking quotes and passages I loved. I couldn’t really stuff them all into the review, so here are few more of my favourite bits from the book!

Halifax Mill Chimneys

On the traditional images of the north:

“The north all wrapped up and firmly in its place as a combination of nostalgia and obedience to the notion that the north is summed up by a cloth cap, an Eccles cake, a bangin’ tune, a witty catchphrase, a no-nonsense hard man, a once-vital political struggle, a stick of rock, a vast ocean of coal under the ground, a stagnant canal, meandering backstreets, clinging on to a narrow layout first established in mediaeval times, the careful brick detailing on an everyday railway tunnel, a comedy double act, an outside toilet, a deep gorge, a rags-to-riches story, a situation comedy, ghosts forever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole, a smoking chimney in a pre-clean-air-act sky.”

 

Greengate

On the wonder of the world seen through a child’s eye:

“A matter-of-fact zebra crossing and a metal garden gate in a certain shade of green can for a while introduce a young mind to the spiralling miracle of existence; and the zebra crossing can give you a certain amount of power, stopping cars in their tracks, and the gate can be opened, leading to the creation of a brand-new moment where something unexpected could happen. There were plenty of corners to turn, and places to visit at a later date, and high brick walls, fences and hedges that hid from view what might be nothing special, but what might be astonishing. The hidden remained astonishing, until I knew for sure that it wasn’t. I learned from an early age to relish being lost, because then I would find new areas that I had not yet surveyed.”

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His fertile imagination can just throw out brilliant ideas here, there and everywhere:

“For Priestley, the idea that people’s actions are dictated solely by their conscious selves was akin to the equally fallacious assumption that ‘what can be seen of an iceberg is all there is of it’. Priestley of Bradford thus becomes the missing link between Charles Dickens and J.G. Ballard”

Alan Garner

Morley is aware of the power of books over the young, developing mind and of his discovery of author Alan Garner he says, “He wrote enticingly about the areas around where I lived as though they were next door to the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, where unicorns roamed through a warren of pasty, rayless streets, as if they were wonderful hidden places you might reach using a time machine that was all in the mind, where a shadowy line between reality and fantasy could be crossed using nothing but words and will and the maps his books became, describing a dying land that needed to be saved.

 

A great writer in transition

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In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov

As I rambled on in an earlier post, I was very excited to find out that Alma Classics were releasing a lovely new translation of a collection of Chekhov’s works, “In The Twilight”. Although Chekhov is possibly best known for his plays like “Cherry Orchard”, he’s also the acknowledged master of the short story form. His life was tragically short (he died in 1904 age 44 of TB) but despite this he was a remarkably prolific writer, producing literally hundreds of works. Numerous collections have been released over the years, containing the compiler’s favourite stories, the ones they feel best represent him. However, the Alma Classics volume is a fresh translation of that rarest of things – a collection put together by the author himself!

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Chekhov was a doctor of medicine and practiced as such. However, he was also an inveterate scribbler and his early stories were mainly humorous pieces published under a pseudonym to make money and help support his family. However, when he was 26 he reached a turning point in his life, when critical appreciation made him realise that he was capable of serious work; and despite his failing health, he turned to stories with more substance.

“In the Twilight” catches him at this point, at the cusp of the transition, and it’s a wonderful collection. Alongside such well-known tales as “On The Road”, “Agafya” and “Misfortune”, there are lesser-known stories like “Dreams” and “In Court” which are just as powerful and a delight for the reader to discover.

It’s sometimes hard to pin down quite what makes Chekhov’s works regarded as the definitive short stories. The form itself is not as straightforward as it might seem – the author risks trying to pack too much in and smothering the tale, or not giving enough to the story and producing a thin, undernourished piece of literature. With Chekhov, there is never the risk of either of these states. His stories are perfectly formed pieces of art which the reader comes out of feeling satisfied with having read something complete, even though in many ways they’re not.

Chekhov’s short stories drop us into action and events which are already taking place in many cases, and leave them at a point which is not necessarily the final ending of the tale. We get a snapshot, a short part of a person or group of people’s lives, but because of the skill of the author, this is enough to tell a complete story.

chekhov

“In the Twilight” contains 15 works, and none is set in a large city. Instead, we get glimpses of people travelling, living in small towns, struggling to make a living and existing in the twilight margins of life. And Chekhov’s brilliance is in capturing the essence of people’s being in just a short tale that brings them to life completely.

“In the autumnal quiet, when a cold, stern mist from the earth lies upon your soul, when it stands like a prison wall before your eyes and bears testament to a man of the limitations of his will, it can be sweet to think about wide, fast rivers with free, steep banks, about impassable forests, boundless steppes. Slowly and calmly the imagination draws the little patch of a man stealing along an unpeopled, steep bank in the early morning, when the blush of dawn has yet to leave the sky; age-old, mast-like pines, towering in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and grumble gloomily; roots, huge rocks and prickly bushes bar his way, but he is strong in flesh and hale in spirit, he does not fear the pines, or the rocks, or his solitude, or the rolling echo that repeats his every step.” (from “Dreams”)

My favourites were probably the classic “On the Road”, one of his earliest serious stories which tells of a random meeting while travelling between a nobleman fallen on hard times and a noblewoman on the way to her family estates, and how they briefly connect to the point that the womanising man thinks he has almost the power to persuade her to leave her everyday life and follow him; “Verochka”, a sad little tale of missed love and how emotions can be misread and then change forever the way you see things; and “A Nightmare” which in a short, intense few pages conveys the misery and difficulty of surviving in feudal Russia. But there are no duds here and whether relating the story of an unfaithful wife being accused of witchcraft, or a tale of the importance of the arrival of puppies in the lives of two children, Chekhov is always compelling reading. The stories are full of atmosphere, full of snow, wind, big landscapes, woods, storms and cottages; and always with the feeling of small human beings battling against circumstances.

Alma have produced a lovely little volume here, fluidly presented by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin, along with his sensible and unobtrusive notes. As always, their books have extra material in the form of a picture section at the beginning, as well as a useful biography and additional information at the end. I found it fascinating being able to read a selection of Chekhov’s works as he had collected them and as he wanted them read, and kudos to Alma for bringing out this volume, allowing us to watch the early development of the world’s greatest writer of short stories – highly recommended!

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