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Dispatches from Under the Iron Fist

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Diaries and Selected Letters by Bulgakov

Russia in the 1930s was not a comfortable place for writers to be. The Soviet authorities spent much of the decade purging and cracking down, and being in the arts was no guarantee of safety. Many great writers (Babel, Mandelstam, Pilnyak) and other luminaries of the art world (including the director Meyerhold) were victims of the terror, and one of the surprises is that the magnificent author Bulgakov survived the purges, to die of natural causes in 1940.

What’s also amazing is that so much of his work survived; and his novels, novellas and plays are now widely available. Additionally, a lovely recent volume from Alma Classics (which my brother kindly presented me with on my birthday) brings together some surviving diary entries and a selection of letters – all of which are a great joy to any lover of Bulgakov’s work.

MB was never from the working class; a qualified doctor with decided upper class tendencies, he was thrown into the hell of the revolution and civil war, surviving by treating whoever needed treating and eventually making his way to Moscow where he tried to carve out a new life for himself. The diary entries run from 1921 to December 1925; nothing exists after this point as his apartment was raided in May 1926 and his diaries confiscated. Thereafter, up until the time of his untimely death in 1940, we see inside Bulgakov’s head via his letters, to everyone from his wife and his brother, to Stalin and the authorities.

And these writings certainly enable us to follow Bulgakov’s emotional journey through life; the ups and downs of his psyche, his attempts to become a writer, to make a living out of this art, and his terrible frustrations at the restrictions he faced. For under Soviet rule Bulgakov became in his own words “unthinkable”. His plays were going to be staged, and then were cancelled. Nobody would publish his work. He burned the first draft of his great novel “The Master and Margarita”. He tried writing biographies. But nothing worked – he could barely scrape along, he was not allowed to travel abroad and frankly it’s surprising he found the strength to produce so many wonderful works.

mikhail_bulgakov

Some of the writing here is heart-rending and intense. In one of several impassioned letters to the Soviet authorities (this one addressed to Stalin himself) Bulgakov does not try to hide his views and is quite frank about his beliefs, while desperately appealing to be able to continue his work as a writer or to make a visit abroad (a wish he never fulfilled, alas):

I would scarcely be presenting myself to the government of the USSR in a favourable light, were I to write a mendacious letter which was nothing more that an unsavoury and, what’s more, a naive political about-face. And I have not even made any attempt to write a communist play, fully aware that I would never be able to do such a thing.

In the same letter he bravely goes on to declare:

It is my duty as a writer to fight against censorship, whatever form it may take, and whatever authority it may represent, just as it is to call for freedom of the press. I am fervent believer in such a freedom and I maintain that if any writer were to think of showing that he didn’t need it, then he would be like a fish declaring publicly that it doesn’t need water.

Reading remarks like this, you might be forgiven for wondering how Bulgakov survived the repression of the 1930s whilst many other authors didn’t, and it’s often said that it’s because Stalin enjoyed Bulgakov’s play “The Days of the Turbins” so much. Or maybe it was just that he liked to have a live victim to torment…

The later letters give a fascinating insight into the final genesis of the second version of “The Master and Margarita”. We read about the long and tortuous process of reconstructing manuscript, typed out by his sister-in-law:

About 327 pages of typescript are lying in front of me (about 22 chapters). If I stay fit and healthy the typing will soon be finished. Then the most important thing will remain: the author’s correction of the manuscript – important, complicated and painstaking work, including possibly retyping some pages.

“What’s going to happen to it?” you ask. I don’t know. You’ll probably put it away in your desk or in the cupboard, together with all the rejected plays, and you’ll think about it from time to time. However, we don’t know the future.

Bulgakov was clear-eyed enough to know that his work was unlikely to be read in his lifetime; and indeed many Russian authors wrote “for the drawer (i.e. posterity). Bulgakov certainly didn’t *know* the future, but at least he had enough faith in it to get his works down on paper for us to read nowadays.

This is a truly wonderful collection from Alma, translated by Roger Cockrell. The notes are copious and informative, there is a lovely plate section, and “Diaries and Selected Letters” gives a real insight into Bulgakov’s life, work and struggles. It’s sad to read of his frustrations and difficulties during his life, but the insight gained from this collection certainly will add to my future readings of Bulgakov – and I think a re-reading of “The Master and Margarita” is definitely overdue.

Blurring the Lines

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I’m always really pleased to discover an unknown-to-me author and being involved with Shiny New Books has given me a chance to encounter some wonderful writers. A new name I reviewed in the current issue is Leonard Michaels, better known I think in his native USA than here.

Watercolor by Leonard Michaels of his first wife, Sylvia Bloch, 1964

Watercolour by Leonard Michaels of his first wife, Sylvia Bloch, 1964

His novel “Sylvia” has been reprinted by the excellent Daunt Books, and I was intrigued by the premise:

The blurring of the lines between fiction and fact is an artistic trope which is very much in vogue in current writing. Novels abound featuring real people, from Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson in fictionalised retellings of their lives, through to Oscar Wilde and Josephine Tey in completely made up crime-fighting adventures. This tendency somewhat obscures the fact that much fiction has its basis in fact; and so how is the reader meant to deal with a book like this which is billed as a fictionalised memoir?

To read the rest of my review you can pop over to Shiny New Books here. “Sylvia” is a thought-provoking read and it’s clear Michaels never really got over his first wife. Highly recommended – and don’t forget to check out the other wonderful bookish content on SNB!

Pinning down those moments of being…

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Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is best known for her novels, the writing of which often caused a huge amount of strain to her already fragile health. Her short stories were often written as a kind of relaxation, during or after a novel, and she often seemed to dismiss them, unsure of their quality. However, my memories of reading them (many moons ago) is that they were anything but minor works, and a chance stumble upon a copy of “Selected Short Stories” made me determined to return to her shorter writings.

I first read Woolf’s short stories in a collected volume “A Haunted House and other Stories”, collected by Leonard Woof after Virginia’s death (my edition was a small Triad Panther copy – in fact, most of my first Woolfs were from this publisher). This collected together many of the stories which are in the Penguin Selected Short Stories volume I have, but as I can remember so little about my early readings I thought in some ways this might be like a fresh reading.

woolf stories

And fresh is the word! The Selected volume is a lovely one, with an excellent introduction by Sandra Kemp setting out the background to the stories. The book reproduces Woolf’s 1921 collection “Monday or Tuesday”, complete with original woodcuts by Vanessa Bell; and in addition there are 7 extra stories, in order of publication. The notes are informative, giving original publication dates, background and context plus specifics about each piece.

But what of the stories themselves? Well, some are short experimental pieces, no longer than a page; others are more substantial works; all are dazzling and brilliant. Woolf used her shorter fiction to make early experiments in writing, using techniques she would later incorporate into her novels as she became more adventurous. The short prose pieces are the results of a writer playing with words, seeing how she can stretch sentences into different shapes to catch those moments of being, those everyday pieces of life that seem more vivid that the quotidian.

And Woolf could play with words like no other, using them to draw out thought processes and tease meaning out of the seemingly banal. Some of the stories have plot (“Lapin and Lappinova”, still one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read; “The Duchess and the Jeweller”, something of a parable about how we deceive ourselves and each other). Some are meditations, capturing the way mind flits around from subject to subject, musing randomly (“The Mark on the Wall”). Each is a joy to read, and it’s wonderful to see Bell’s woodcuts complementing her sister’s words, and also to encounter the quite beautiful prose of word paintings like “Blue and Green”.

Virginia Woolf

I was spellbound by this collection and came out of it stunned once again by the genius of Woolf’s writing; her way with words, her spiralling flight of fancy, is truly unique and I don’t think there’s another writer to touch her. Picking out quotes would defeat the object and spoil the effect of reading her pieces, where every word is considered and perfectly placed. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the many books you read, to forget how truly great some authors’ works can be; but going back to Virginia Woolf’s shorter fictions was a revelation, and I’m certainly not going to leave it so long before re-reading more of her writing.

Thank you…

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… to everyone who left such kind comments on my post about the loss of my father. All your lovely words were so much appreciated.

It *has* been a hard week, supporting mum and trying to come to terms with things. The offspring and OH have of course been wonderful and although there is much grief, there is also a sense of relief that he’s no longer suffering. Dad had had several small strokes over the years, becoming ever more frail, and seeing someone you love lose their faculties is painful. Mum had taken on the burden of caring for him, and although she’s lost her life partner, she has memories of an amazing life of travelling, living, bringing up her children, all with my dad.

journey-clip-art-99451

Dad always had a great love of travel and rambling, and we’ll be seeing him off on his final voyage next week. Meantime, we’re trying to get back as close to normal as possible as he’d want that. So thanks once again for your kind words, all.

Golden Age High-Jinks from Masters (and Mistresses!) of the Genre

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Ask a Policeman by members of The Detection Club

Many moons ago, back in my teenage years, I discovered Agatha Christie; in those days pre-Young Adult books, she was an ideal author when making the transition to adult books. I gradually collected all of her works over the years – from jumble sales (happy memories), charity shops and second-hand bookshops. It was lovely to get a complete set, but even more exciting was the appearance in the early 1980s of “The Scoop” and “Behind the Screen” – two short stories written by members of the famous Detection Club, including Christie, Sayers and many others. I still have my trusty paperback (and I did have another of their works, “The Floating Admiral”, which I’m sure should be somewhere on the shelves…)

ask a policeman

However, a recent hunt in one of the local charity shops revealed this volume – “Ask A Policemen”, another group effort, by John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley. Dorothy L. Sayers and Milward Kennedy. As a bonus, the book features a rare essay by Agatha Christie where she discusses her fellow writers and an excellent introduction by the doyen of vintage crime (and current chair of the Detection Club) Martin Edwards.

The plot of “Ask A Policeman” is a dramatic one: unpleasant newspaper tycoon Lord Comstock has many enemies, owing to his papers’ constant attacks on religion and the police force. He’s found murdered in his country home and surprisingly enough has just been visited by a government Chief Whip, an Archbishop and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard! All have motives and all are therefore suspects, as is Comstock’s slightly dodgy secretary, Mills. Then there is the gardener, the manservant and a mysterious woman seen on the lawn…

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club -  from http://margaretperry.org/

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club – from http://margaretperry.org/

Because of the suspicions around Scotland Yard, the Home Secretary takes the unusual step of asking four amateurs to investigate: Mrs Adela Bradley, Sir John Saumarez, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Mr Roger Sheringham – of course nobody dares to ask a policeman! All have a wonderful pedigree as detectives, but the storytelling waters become somewhat muddy, as the Detection Club members swap sleuths! Thus Helen Simpson tells her tale through Mrs. Bradley, Gladys Mitchell tackles Sir John Saumarez, Dorothy L. Sayers writes of Roger Sheringham and Anthony Berkeley provides Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigations. Milward Kennedy and John Rhode set the scene and round up the story at the end, while the poor addled reader tries to work out whodunnit!

AAP is a wonderfully enjoyable read; cleverly conceived and written, full of red herrings, with plenty of humour and sly little digs at the various detectives and their foibles. The four central writers have great fun playing with each others’ characters and I felt that they brilliantly caught the voice of the original authors (although I can’t tell about Sir John as I haven’t read any of Helen Simpson’s work). The sleuths all have their usual milieu and sidekicks (barrister son Ferdinand for Mrs. Bradley; Inspector Parker and Bunter for Wimsey) and all their little quirks are present, but perhaps exaggerated a little. The mystery was complex and each detective came up with a different and entirely credible solution! Milward Kennedy revealed the real answer to the puzzle, and admitted that he really didn’t play fair with the reader!

As for Christie’s essay, it’s quite a revealing piece of work. Initially written to be translated into Russian to introduce British crime writers to that country, the fact that it was never likely to be read by any of the other writers allowed Christie to be unguarded in her comments about her peers. It’s nice to know she rates Sayers so highly!

All in all, AAP was an excellent read, and I’m starting to think that Martin Edwards deserves a knighthood for services rendered to Golden Age crime, what with his British Library Crime Classics involvement and this. And I believe there is another volume, “Six Against The Yard”, lurking out there somewhere – I really *must* track down a copy…. :)

Nightmare Landscapes

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Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn is yet another of those authors whose books have lurked on my shelves for decades, following me faithfully from house to house in the hope of being read. I finally did pick up one of her volumes last year, but ironically enough it wasn’t the two that had been with me for years (“The Honeyed Peace” and “The Weather in Africa”), but a Virago I’d come across, “The Stricken Field”. I was absolutely knocked out by her writing and determined to read more, though I was drawn to her travel writing.

I’d lucked out on finding any of this (even Foyles didn’t stock any) until I stumbled across Eland Books via a picture on Simon’s blog here; intrigued by the picture I investigated and got a copy of their catalogue. I rather wish I hadn’t, as it’s terribly tempting, but they publish a couple of Gellhorn titles, including this one, which is subtitled “Five Journeys From Hell”. I confess – I just couldn’t resist…

travels

Gellhorn published this book in 1978, looking back on journeys from the past and drawing on her memories and journals. She’s always honest about what she can and can’t recall, and the longest section is the African one, where she kept extensive records of events. All are journeys with difficulties and I have to say that I wouldn’t want to have been travelling with her on any of them… Framed by chapters containing Gellhorn’s meditations on why we travel, how we travel and the changes that have come about, the book covers four trips to far-flung places that you actually might not want to visit.

The first section covers a journey by Gellhorn and an Unwilling Companion (UC) through China, during WW2. The UC is, of course, Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was briefly married. The journey is truly a difficult one – they encounter disease, poverty, degradation and out-and-out stupidity. The travelling conditions are appalling and you wonder why Gellhorn, a self-confessed cleanliness freak, would subject herself to filth, insects, lack of sanitation et al. But she does, and she’s always amusing despite the horrors; and has plenty to say about the awful conditions in which the Chinese poor live. Hemingway, despite his not wanting to travel, steps up to the bar and actually enjoys himself, drinking with whoever he can find to accompany him, while Gellhorn suffers from the lack of sanitation.

Then there is “Messing About In Boats”, a quite jaw-dropping account of floating about in the Caribbean sea during WW2 trying to track down U-boats – yes, U-boats! Quite what Gellhorn would have done with them had she found them is anybody’s guess, but it’s not a journey you’d want to repeat yourself. But there are still moments when things go her way – a recurrent theme in the book is Martha’s love of swimming, in beautiful, deserted coves, away from the world. She finds one on this journey and it’s wonderful; but the modern Gellhorn rues the changes that have come over the land since she was there:

The last time I saw that beautiful cove on Virgin Gorda it was full of suntanned bodies and ringed by boats, from swan yachts to rubber Zodiacs, and there were bottles and plastic debris on the sea-bed and picnic litter on the sand, because the rich are as disgusting as the poor in their carelessness of the natural world.

This is followed by the African section, the longest; Gellhorn is in search of huge landscape and wide open skies (the ‘natural world’ mentioned in the quote above; instead she encounters prejudice, races living alongside, but not understanding, one another, inequality and ignorance. She’s always clear-eyed about what she sees and honest about what she encounters.

gellhorn

As Gellhorn travels through Africa, she eventually washes up in Nairobi, where she takes Joshua, who must be the worst guide *ever*: a driver who can’t drive, has no interest in the bush or animals, and is frankly a liar, a fraud and a waste of space. How Gellhorn tolerated him, I don’t know – I would have killed him after a day! Finally, however, she manages to find the experiences she’s looking for – sightings of great animals; the landscape she desires; a sense of the big country.

I have a sudden notion of why history is such a mess: humans do not live long enough. We only learn from experience and have not time to use it in a continuous and sensible way. Thus I knew the thirties and forties of this century, but have only been peeking at the fifties and sixties… It is as if the human race was constantly making new road maps, unable to guide itself due to changing directions.

The final journey is the one I admit attracted me most; Gellhorn has struck up a pen-pal style relationship with Nadhezda Mandelstam, writer and widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam. Despite her better judgement, Gellhorn travels to Soviet Russia to visit her friend, a journey fraught with frustrations, Soviet double-speak, misunderstanding with Mandelstam and a lack of real rapport between those living either side of the Iron Curtain. It’s a fascinating tale, and one that really captures the *greyness* of life living in the USSR in the latter days of Soviet rule.

Russians take literature far more seriously than we do, the proof being that Stalin thought it advisable to kill so many writers, while his successors send writers to concentration camps or insane asylums or deport them. Total censorship also shows how the state fears the independent power of words.

These journeys really *are* hellish and Gellhorn makes no bones about how awful the experiences are. However, she’s writing at enough of a distance to stand back and mock herself a little, which is refreshing. The prose is atmospheric and evocative; Gellhorn’s indignation at the sufferings of ordinary people is never fake; and the book is a surprising joy to read, opening one’s eyes to the horrors that can be found when travelling the world and never glossing over the realities. The book is always entertaining, gasp-inducing and fascinating. Gellhorn was an intrepid traveller and a powerful writer, and although I’m so glad I didn’t share her travels in reality, reading about them was a real experience!

A Snapshot of Post-War England

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One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

A blindingly obvious fact to any reader of the Ramblings is that there is simply no rhyme nor reason to my reading. I’m like a straw in the wind; easily deflected from my course, subject to all sorts of influences, and my bookish whims are terrible. More often than not, I can’t actually recall what it was that pointed me in the direction of a particular volume; however, with “One Fine Day”, things are a little more clear!

One fine day

The book was on my wish list as it was published by Virago. However, my copy is a lovely old hardback I picked up in the Bloomsbury Oxfam a while back (thanks to Simon, who pointed it out to me). It’s very appealing, with an embossed signature on the cover and a picture of Mollie inside. But it had sat on my shelves for over a year, till Caroline reviewed it recently and I thought that I really should pick it up.

Mollie Panter-Downes’ name is familiar to all lovers of a certain type of 20th century literature: as a columnist for the New Yorker, she was particularly noted for her column “Letter from London”, which was published during WW2 and later collected in the volume “London War Notes” – a much desired title which has just been reissued by Persephone (hurrah!). She wrote many short stories (also published by Persephone) but only a few novels – including “One Fine Day”.

The time is 1946 and the place a small English village by the coast, with the very archetypal name of Wealding. Our protagonists are Laura and Stephen Marshall, plus their 10-year-old daughter Victoria, and the action ostensibly takes place over the course of one hot summer post-War day. Stephen goes off to his commute by train to London; Victoria catches the bus to school in the local town; and Laura wrestles with the household chores, searches for Stuffy the lost family dog, and contemplates life and the future. Because this book is about so much more than just a day in the life of an English village…

As the day unfolds, we learn from Laura’s musings all about the post-War landscape in England; the losses that have taken place; the rationing which is still going on; and the struggles that the middle classes are going through. Quite brilliantly, and in beautiful prose, the book lays bare the incredible losses which have been caused by WW2, and also the seismic shift in class relations which has taken place. Laura is born of a class which had everything done for them (and her hideous mother still reflects this) – maids and nannies and cooks meant that she had beautiful, aristocratic hands and never had to cope with the complexities of shopping, washing, cooking and cleaning. But now the people who would have been servants in the old days have been freed by the way they had lived in the War, no longer a lower class working for others, but working in factories; and having tasted freedom they have no wish to go back to the old ways.

“Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where you knew where you were, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin.”

So Laura and many other formerly upper-middle class families are struggling; big old houses are being sold off to the National Trust; there is very little help for Laura and Stephen in the house and garden; and while the old families symbolically die off, the vital, energetic working class families expand.

mollie

Throughout the day, while her thoughts range back and forth, we learn about Laura’s past and her struggles and how she’s got to this point in her life. Although she is almost at the end of her tether, with the strain on her marriage obvious, a chance encounter with a gypsy in the wood, while searching for Stuffy, sends her to the top of Barrow Down; and as she surveys the landscape in front of her, Laura comes to the conclusion that none of the superficial issues she’s dealing with are important. The Romans have come and gone, the Germans have come and gone, and although humans are transient the land will endure. In this aspect, the book is a love-letter to the English countryside and it captures magnificently the still of a hot summer’s day by the coast.

I can’t praise Panter-Downes’ book enough. Caroline drew a comparison with “A Month in the Country”, and I see exactly what she means; in their portraits of the English countryside, and in their elegiac qualities, evoking a lost world, they have similarities. Panter-Downes’ prose is remarkable; delicious and poetic, with a rhythm all of its own, often taking on the dialect of whoever it’s related to, it’s quite entrancing and draws you right into its world.

The end of the book is an uplifting one: Laura clears her mind on the Downs, putting life into perspective and realising that what matters is her family and her future. Meanwhile, Stephen gets a chance to bond a little with the daughter who is something of a stranger (owing to the time away fighting). There is a feeling that the Marshalls will survive along with England, and whatever the post-War structure is, people will adjust.

“One Fine Day” was a wonderful read; I’m not sure what I expected, but I don’t think it was such complexity and such wonderful writing. Now I just have to restrain myself from rushing off to order every book of hers from Persephone…. !

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