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… the desperation that washes through me.” @FitzcarraldoEds

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Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper

*(Trigger warning – this post, and indeed this book, discuss themes of breakdown and suicide)*

One of this year’s issues from the lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions, this is an intriguing piece of writing, and one which to a certain extend defies classification. Published in their blue livery, indicating fiction, it takes on the form of a diary or journal and follows the life of an unnamed male narrator. The solitary man lives in a cottage on a solitary Somerset estate which is in the process of being renovated, both by him and other locals. The narrator records the natural life around him, from the changing seasons to the trees and plants, the birds and wild creatures to the moths and butterflies. Initially, it’s hard to place the journal entries in a particular era, as simply the date without a year is given; but as the narrative progresses, references to external world events such as 9/11 are slipped in so that the reader realises this is the early part of the 21st century.

So we share our narrator’s days, as he observes moles tunnelling under his lawn, tries to tackle the cottage’s mouse problem in a humane way and interacts with his neighbours – particularly a woman called Beth, 20 years his junior. The observations of nature are beautiful and the narrative hypnotic and compelling; however, as we read it becomes clear that not all is quite right with our narrator. Cracks in the descriptions of flora and fauna allow comments to slip through which are almost asides but which reveal that the mental state of the narrator is a fragile one, and we begin to realise that he is isolated in the country for a reason, that he has been through or is going through some kind of mental trauma, and that our view of this is only going to be partial.

With neat observations I make myself seem rational and urbane.
Far from true.

As the book moves on, parts of the narrator’s past slip into the writing; his past work; his marriage, over for 20 years; his complex relationship with his family. Beth also appears regularly in the journal and we start to realise that she is more than just a neighbour, and something of a crutch to the man as he works through his issues. There are visits to a therapist; fragments of memory about his parents and the experiences of his youth; and the sense grows that the narrators is damaged by his past. However, off camera events take a dramatic turn; we see the aftermath of an attempt at self-murder; and it is touch and go as to whether our narrator will regain any kind of equilibrium.

I don’t want to say too much more which is specific about this extraordinary book because it would deaden the impact of reading it; that process is vital to the understanding of the narrator, his place in the world and what he’s going through. The gradual revealing of past and current events, the careful building up of the tapestry of his life, is done in a masterly fashion and “Ash…” needs to be read mindfully so as to pick up the nuances stitched into the narrative. It’s also a consciously literary book; it’s laced with telling references to other works and writers, such as Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Virginia Woolf, amongst many others; and these are all discreet hints as to the narrator’s state of mind.

Accept the solitude, I tell myself, if that’s how things currently must be. It’s enough this moment to enjoy the sight of the candle-like blooms on the weeping bird cherry tree, released this year by my cuttings and clearings to flourish near the bench.

“Ash before Oak” is a remarkable and immersive piece of storytelling, and it’s a book in which the gaps are as important as the actual narrative itself. Bravely, the publisher has made use of the white space on page; each new day has a separate page of its own, and some of these only have a single line entry. This emphasises the bleakness of the days when the narrator cannot write, and if the entries had run continuously on from page to page the effect would have been severely diminished.

Although “Ash…” is a book which is extremely beautiful in places, in others it can be excruciatingly sad, charting as it does the complex mental state of a man clearly suffering a breakdown. Nevertheless, there is hope of redemption and a more positive future, with the narrator seeing chinks of light at the end of the tunnel and the ending is upbeat rather than downbeat. More than that I will not say!

I have the feeling that purpose is a spectre of man’s delusion, that it does not, did not, never will exist, that we’ve invented purpose in the hope of easing our burden while, in fact, torturing each other with the prospect. We may, quite soon, impale ourselves on purpose, extinguish the human race in our attempt to conquer meaning.

I mentioned at the start of this post that the book defies classification, and I’m going to have to explain this by delving into the knotty issue of autofiction. I’d not really thought very deeply about this as a genre before; after all, doesn’t every piece of fiction drawn to some extent on the author’s life and thoughts and actions and the events they’ve experienced? “Ash…” is described as Cooper’s first novel in over a decade, which suggests it should be read simply as fiction. It is, however, impossible to read this as anything other than autofiction, since the narrative is peppered with real people, real books and real facts; the narrator is a writer; he shares the same career trajectory as the author, such as spending many years appearing on Antiques Roadshow and having a large collection of art postcards. The narrator’s friends are real people; for example, one who wrote a book mentioned in the journals, which is actually real and available on Amazon; and the curator Jeremy Compston, who appears in the book as the narrator’s friend – Cooper has actually written a biography of him. So, much as I try not to conflate and author and their characters, by the end of this I clearly had.

This did set me thinking a little bit about autofiction in general; and in a weird kind of synchronicity, I read an article by Tim Parks on the subject just after finishing “Ash”. It was a very illuminating piece, pointing out that autofiction has existed back to the time of Dante, and quoting also Tolstoy’s use of his life in his fictions. I ended up thinking that in the past an author would use real life sources but change names, places and probably facts to make the fiction. Nowadays, the reality isn’t cloaked; instead, the *real* events, people and places feature, but still filtered through the novelist’s lens.

And at the end of that, I came to the conclusion that it actually doesn’t matter. Cooper chose to tell his story (and I’m assuming, possibly incorrectly, that it’s a story of *his* breakdown) in a fictionalised way, and that’s fine. It’s a book I found myself reading compulsively, drawn in by the imagery of the natural world around the narrator and the wish to follow his journey to whatever end it reached. In many ways, the book reads as an act of catharsis, of writing out of one’s pain, and the result is really stunning. I think it might be a good time to stop worrying about what’s fact and fiction, and just accept that there is very little written that’s actually true (I reckon most autobiographies are probably very fictionalised, for example!) Because however you want to classify it, “Ash before Oak” is a profound, moving and beautifully written work blending nature and humanity, and another winner from Fitzcarraldo.

(Just in case you’re wondering, the title is taken from a traditional country rhyme predicting the amount of rain we’re likely to have depending on which of the two trees produces leaves first! Yes, we really are obsessed with the weather in this country…!)

A twisty tale – and is murder *ever* justified??? @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

There are times when only a comfort read will do, and I had a period like that at the end of May when I was suffering from a pretty vicious sinus infection. I managed to push through some Tolstoy short stories, but the Virginia Woolf houses book was a relaxing joy to read, and it seemed the logical thing after that to move on to some Golden Age crime (yes, I’m *that* behind with my reviewing….) I have a number of lovely British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read, and I was vaguely shocked to find that this one came out a year ago. Frankly, I wish I’d read it sooner; it’s an original and very wonderful take on a courtroom drama and I absolutely loved it!

Richard Hull is another of those unfairly neglected authors that BLCC are so good at bringing back into print; and Martin Edwards gives an outline of his life in his informative foreword. Hull wrote eleven crime novels, of which this is his sixth, and fascinatingly Edwards quotes a favourable review of the book by one Jorge Luis Borges. So another very good reason to read it…

Fenby felt already a strong dislike for rich men who inconsiderately purchased poison by which they themselves met their own end. It could only be called downright careless.

“Excellent Intentions” follows a trial taking place after the murder of Henry Cargate. The latter is the newly arrived ‘lord of the manor’ in the village of Scotney End, but unfortunately has not turned out to be a popular arrival. A man who’s made money by dubious methods, he shuns the locals, has his staff and all his requirements sent from London and even falls out with the local vicar. It’s hardly surprising he has no friends and family, and when he dies on the local train to Great Barwick the natural assumption is that his weak heart has given out. However, the local doctor has a suspicion which he passes on to the police; and Scotland Yard send in the unassuming but drily witty Inspector Fenby to investigate.

The mystery sounds straightforward enough (although the method is very nifty), but as well as being cleverly plotted it’s a real winner because of its rather unusual structure. Instead of a traditional linear narrative, the book opens with the beginning of the trial for Cargate’s murder and the opening speech of the prosecution. The story is then told in a series of interwoven flashbacks and scenes of investigation, which is intriguing to read and ramps up the suspense – especially as we aren’t told who the person in the dock is until very late in the book! It’s certainly a novel way to tell a story, and it really is brilliantly constructed. Everybody in the tale gets their little piece of input into the case – from the ruminations of the judge to the thoughts of the jurors, the deliberations of the various counsels as well as the opinons of Cargate’s staff and the village locals, we get to peek inside their minds and see the story from every angle.

You won’t, by the way, be able to contest the will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.

Throughout the story, the character of the deceased is in sharp focus, and he’s a strange, somewhat unpleasant man who nobody really cares about and nobody will really miss. There’s much discussion of altruistic murder, about whether somebody got Cargate out of the way for the good of everyone, which is of course a dubious moral stand to take. This even brings in a nod to the French Revolution, via a mention of Charlotte Corday! Another prominent element, oddly enough, is stamp collecting! Cargate was a philatelist and his trading with a leading stamp dealer from London throws up some suspicious behaviour and discussions of various gradings of stamps which oddly enough is never dull (mind you, I was a stamp collector for a little while in my teens… The phases we go through!)

“Excellent Intentions” is a twisty and entertaining little tale, and many of the characters do indeed have excellent intentions in the way the behave. There are, in the end, four possible suspects for the murder; though if I’m honest, the one in the dock really turns out to be the only option. The denouement is entertaining, clever and satisfying, and I ended the book with a huge smile on my face as well as being convinced that Hull is an author I want to read more of. Fortunately, the BL have put out his first novel “The Murder of My Aunt” and even more fortunately I have a copy lurking. I really could do no better than go on a BLCC binge, could I?

The Houses of her Life #virginiawoolf @pimpernelpress

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Virginia Woolf at Home by Hilary Macaskill

Looking back over the Ramblings I realise that my recent posts have featured a *lot* of Russian books… Which is no bad thing, as I do love my Russian literature. However, I figured it was time for variety and bearing in mind the number of review books I have lurking (ahem) I decided it was time to spend a little time with another of my great literary loves – Virginia Woolf.

I’ve written about Woolf on the Ramblings before, and she’s one of the authors who’s been a constant in my reading life since my early 20s. At the time I immersed myself in Bloomsburiana, reading everything I could find by and about the various arty people attached to the label; and this generated a huge love of their writings, their artworks, their lives and fates. I’ve returned to Woolf in particular many times over the years, and so you might think that there wouldn’t be a lot left for me to discover about her. However, a beautiful new book which was sent to me by the lovely Pimpernel Press takes a look at Virginia from a perhaps surprising perspective – that of the houses she lived in during her life – and it certainly made me view Woolf in a new and interesting light.

It should first be stated that “Virginia Woolf at Home” is a very pretty book indeed! It’s a hardback edition, what I would call perhaps small coffee table size, and it’s stuffed to the gills with the most beautiful illustrations; of Woolf and her family and associates, her houses then and now, book jackets, paintings – well, it’s just lovely. There are seven chapters devoted to the main houses or areas in which Woolf lived, and each explores Woolf’s life whilst living there – from her thoughts on the places, their use in her work, even their eventual fate. By seeing Woolf placed firmly in situ like this, I found she really came to life for me; there are extracts from her fiction and non-fiction writings, memories from those who knew her and context – the latter so important, particularly when considering things like the potential scandal caused by a single woman moving into a flat in a block only populated by male tenants. Yes, times have changed, but it’s fascinating to see Woolf moving through those changes.

Macaskill really has done her research, and reading her wonderfully constructed narrative of Woolf’s life alongside the gorgeous illustrations was such a treat. Obviously, that narrative is not always completely linear, as there were often overlaps in time; the Woolfs would own a particular London house as well as a country house and the changeover between houses was not always at the same time. Macaskill provides a helpful timeline in the back with the country and London homes set next to each other which makes everything clear. It was intriguing to see quite how much Woolf’s houses and flats had seeped into her writing, and this was a particularly interesting aspect.

In fact, so many of the elements Macaskill teased out were fascinating; for example, I either never knew (or had completely forgotten!) that Woolf loved house hunting so much. I was also unaware that the Stephen house in Hyde Park Gate is the only house in London with *three* blue plaques: for Virgina, Vanessa and their father Leslie. All of the major events of Woolf’s life feature, and the picture of the Ouse at the end of the book was of course heartbreaking. There is a lovely final chapter  called “The Legacy” which covers just that; and I was particularly interested (and in some cases saddened) to find out what had happened to the various houses. I’m glad that the Woolfs’ last home, “Monk’s House”, still survives (I follow them on Instagram!) and one day I must visit. “…at Home” comes with a foreword by Cecil Woolf, Leonard’s nephew, and it’s sobering to think, as he states, that he’s “the last person alive who actually knew Virginia.” She steps so vividly from the pages of this book that it’s hard to believe that it’s approaching 80 years since she took her final walk.

I can’t really recommend “Virginia Woolf at Home” highly enough for its excellent combination of the visual and the written. There were a couple of places where I felt the text was very slightly repeating itself, but that’s a minor quibble. I would, too, have liked more notes on sources; I recognised many of the quotes and references, but someone less immersed in Woolf and her world might want a little more information. However, that’s by the by; if you want a look into the life of Virginia Woolf, both the women and the writer, this is a great place to start. It’s informative, evocative, readable and very lovely to look at. When I tweeted about its arrival, Simon at Stuck in a Book mentioned a book about Woolf and her gardens; if it’s anything like as good as this, I may have to search it out!

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!

Tackling Tolstoy… again! @almaclassics

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You would think, wouldn’t you, that after my last run-in with Tolstoy over “The Kreutzer Sonata” I would want to give a little time and space before returning to his work. However, I have been determined to read more of his shorter works (although they’re not really anthologised in a logical way) and in particular to finish the collection Mr. Kaggsy gave me, as well as two pretty review copies from the lovely people at Alma Classics. And here is a picture of what is going to feature in this post:

I was reading some of these whilst suffering with a major sinus infection, so perhaps they weren’t the most obvious choice. Nevertheless I enjoyed these a lot more than Kreutzer (although they aren’t without their problems); and frankly, as I commented on Twitter, *any* Tolstoy other than Kreutzer is going to be a doddle.

I’m going to tackle “The Forged Coupon” first, as it kind of stands to one side in its subject matter and is an intriguing piece of Tolstoy’s short work. Published in 1911, after the author’s death, it was actually written in the period of 1880 to 1904 – so quite a long time for a short book. Structurally, and in its content, it’s in some ways unlike anything else I’ve read by the author, as it tackles a kind of butterfly effect of events that are all triggered by a young student falsifying a bank bond (the coupon of the title) and cashing it in. This has a catastrophic knock-on effect, as we follow a chain reaction which impacts on any number of peasants who lose jobs, turn to crime, commit murders and in many cases end up jail – all because of one seemingly small crime. The narrative is economic and cleverly follows each person affected, showing how their lives intertwine and are disrupted by the one immoral act. The book is split into two parts, and the second (shorter) of these two shows some of the protagonists in prison, attempting to come to terms with their crimes and in many cases finding God.

The story does, of course, have a didactic point as by this time in his life Tolstoy was limbering up to be the towering moralist he eventually became. But despite this, the book is entertaining and clever, showing how our lives *do* intertwine and how what we do affects others. There isn’t the hysteria directed at women in some of his other works, there is dry humour and the book is more Dostoevksian or Gogolian in its effect than what you might describe as typically Tolstoyan. I can’t quite explain that any more than to say that at points I felt as if I was reading Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy!

While lying in the ditch, Stepan could see continually before him the meek, thin, frightened face of Marya Semyonovna and hear her words – “You can’t do that “– in her own peculiar, lisping, piteous voice. And again Stepan would go through all he had done to her. And he would become terrified and close his eyes, and rock his hairy head to shake these thoughts and memories out of it. And for a moment he would be free of the memories, but in their place would come to him first one, then a second black figure, and after the second would follow still more black figures with red eyes, pulling faces and all saying the same thing: “You did away with her – do away with yourself as well, or else we’ll give you no rest. “And he would open his eyes, and again he could see her and hear her voice, and he would start feeling pity for her, and revulsion and terror at himself. And again he would close his eyes, and again… the black figures.

“The Forged Coupon” is published by Alma, and so has all the nice extras that so often come with their books (photographs, supporting material, notes). It’s translated and introduced by Hugh Aplin (whose work I always find reliable), and so this one is definitely recommended as a great way to read Tolstoy’s shorter works and see where his thinking was going later in life.

The other two Tolstoy works I tackled actually feature in two volumes, and there’s a reason for that…. The last story in the Wordsworth Classics collection is “The Devil”, and this is also one of the “Three Novellas” volume from Alma. However, the Wordworth has the title character as Eugene, whereas the Alma has him as Yevgeny. Pedant that I am, I am very uncomfortable with a Russian called Eugene (I had the same problem with character name translation during “War and Peace” – Andrey as Andrew!); so I switched to reading the Alma version, and was very happy with the translations featured here by Kyril Zinovieff (“A Landowner’s Morning”) and April FitzLyon (“The Devil”). The third story, “Family Happiness”, is one I’ve already covered here.

“A Landowner’s Morning” is from 1852, so early in Tolstoy’s career and a time when serfdom in Russia had not yet been abolished. And indeed, the plight of the serfs is the subject of the story, with the central young landowner (based apparently on the author himself) doing the rounds of many of his peasants to see about helping, educating and improving them and their lot. Alas, it doesn’t quite work out for young Nekhylyudov, who meets obstacles wherever he goes, and it seems the serfs do not want his help but only to be left along to go about their lives. Apparently Tolstoy was not in favour of educating the peasants, instead being of the opinion that all they needed was to be kept in thrall and given a bit more help. As serfdom was basically slavery, that’s not a comfortable message… 😦

The final story I’m going to write about here is a very different kind of work: “The Devil” was again published in 1911 and belongs to the later period of works like Kreutzer. And once again, Tolstoy draws on his life for his fiction, telling the story of a young landowner who takes over the family estate to try to rebuild it and save it from financial collapse. Yevgeny has his *needs* (i.e. he has a sex drive); and it’s harder to satisfy these needs out in the country where everything is more noticeable. An enforced period of continence sends him a bit crazy, so he arranges for a local peasant woman, Stepanida, to be sent to him. The latter is willing, and their meetings become more of a liaison, although the impression is that Stepanida is not desperately bothered, although Yevgeny is well and truly hooked. However, he needs to marry and settle down, and does so to the pale and beautiful Liza who brings money to the marriage. Liza is a lot more fragile than a peasant woman; she loses their first child, and the second is touch and go. However, Stepanida is still there in the background and when their paths cross, she still exerts a strong and magetic force which Yevgeny seems unable to resist. Tolstoy gives two alternative endings, neither of which I would have chosen – and it seems he is *still* struggling to cope with the concept of the animal passions…

Although “The Devil” is much less inflammatory than Kreutzer, it still has its problems. The devil of the title is Stepanida, and she’s portrayed as a constant temptation. Well, excuse me, but I think it takes two to tango, and if Yevgeny can’t control himself it’s his problem and not Stepanida’s. We are supposed to sympathise with the poor man, a slave to his urges, entrapped by a woman and unable to break free. Oh really – so it’s all the woman’s fault, is it? (sounds like victim blaming if I ever heard it…) The women in “The Devils unfortunately exemplify that old ‘Madonna/Whore’ cliche – apparently we all have to be either amoral, highly sexed and healthy like Stepanida or pale, frail and spiritual like Liza – there’s no middle ground. This is of course ridiculous…

It’s difficult for me, morally bruised as I am by Kreutzer, to approach Tolstoy’s shorter works entirely objectively; perhaps shouldn’t be reading these with such a sharp feminist eye, but if he’s going to come the moral high horse I don’t see there’s an alternative. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy these works, because I did – the writing was evocative and interesting, and he conjured up rural Russian quite brilliantly. The difficulty is that he so often lets the moraliser in him become more important than the storyteller, which is a shame, because when you’re reading a book with the epic sweep of “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina” the story takes centre stage and that’s how it should be.

Nevertheless, this *was* a particularly fascinating selection of stories to read and think about. I’ve previous read other shorts by Tolstoy (he was one of the Penguin Little Black Classics) and part of me really wishes there was some kind of collected Tolstoy in English – perhaps volumes with all of his non-fiction works and one with his short stories in some kind of chronological order (the pedant in me is winning out here). Despite my problems and caveats, he *is* an important writer and I still have some of the longer works unread. I reckon, however, I *will* need to be morally strong and tolerant when I tackle even more Tolstoy! ;D

Many thanks to Alma Classics for providing review copies of “The Forged Coupon” and “Three Novellas” – much appreciated!

“Life is scary…” @nyrbclassics #borisdralyuk @xelafleming @ani_goes_tweet

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Rock, Paper, Scissors and other stories by Maxim Osipov
Translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson

There are certain publishers whose catalogues I always watch with interest to see what gems they’ll be issuing next; likewise, there are translators whose work I trust and who I always know will be bringing into English something worth reading. So when the two coincide it’s like a perfect storm, and the resulting book is one I’m desperately keen to read. That was the case with “Rock, Paper, Scissors”: the publisher is NYRB, and the translators are Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson; so it was a no-brainer that I was going to want to read this!

The world doesn’t break, no matter what you throw at it. That’s just how it’s built.

As well as being a fine author (more of which later…!), Maxim Osipov is a doctor, a cardiologist in fact; so someone who comes from that fine tradition of Russian writing doctors (Chekhov and Bulgakov instantly springing to mind, and indeed the publicity makes great play with this). However, the Russia which Osipov writes about in this collection of short works might initially seem to be a very different one from the earlier authors… or maybe not.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors” collects together 12 short works of varying lengths, and I might as well come straight out with it and say that every single one of them is a gem. Osipov himself lives in the provinces (Tarusa, a small town 90 miles from Moscow) and the provinces do indeed feature regularly in his works (a factor which can’t help but make me think of Chekhov again). That distance from the centre informs much modern Russian writing I’ve read (Solovyov and Larionov, again a recent Russian read, was set away from things); and it’s very relevant to Osipov’s work – as Svetlana Alexievich comments in her preface, “Out in the provinces, everything is in full view, more exposed – both human nature and the times beyond the window.”

In subject matter the stories range far and wide: some tackle medical situations directly (“Moscow-Petrozavodsk“, “The Mill“, “The Gypsy“); in some stories, the medical element is almost incidental (“The Waves of the Sea“); and in some an encounter with a doctor is a jumping off point for something very different (“After Eternity“). The stories are peopled with actors, writers, criminals (of the lower and higher order), teachers, musicians – a fascinating array of human beings, all trying to make their way in what is an often disorientating world. This is a modern Russia, although often the stories reach back into Soviet times, and many of the characters seem to feel a lack of identity, sometimes struggling to negotiate a complex modern world. There is harshness and brutality, there are unexpected twists and there is a strong sense of melancholy running through many of the stories. I could say that’s down to the eternal “Russian Soul”, although Alexievich claims that’s a myth in her preface!

Day in, day out, she sees the cool sky, the river, the sunset, and suddenly she understands: life is such a simple and austere thing. And all of these little decorations, this tinsel we wrap our lives in – music, philosophy, literature – are completely unnecessary. There is some form of truth to them, in parts, but they themselves are not the truth. The truth can be put very simply.

Osipov’s writing is beautifully atmospheric, and whether’s he’s writing about a settlement in the far North or a clinic in the suburbs, each place and its characters are wonderfully evoked. As I read on I felt the author had a deep sense of compassion for fellow humans, struggling to negotiate new and uncertain terrain whilst keeping hold of their past to give them some kind of context. There are references to past leaders and past artists, and a feeling of continuity with those who’ve come before.

Maxim Osipov by Divot [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading short story collections can be a tricky thing; there’s the danger of the stories running into one, of not being differentiated enough, of becoming a blur when you get to the end. However, Osipov’s stories were all distinct and marvellous, and so good that I found myself taking a pause between each to simply let it settle in my soul. They’re stories that will affect you, that’s for sure, and in some cases break your heart. I really don’t know that I want to pick favourites, because when I read this collection again my reactions may change; however, I want to particularly mention “After Eternity“. Almost a novella in length, it tells the story of a theatre group in the frozen North through the notebooks of their Literary Director, and it’s one of those pieces of writing that you finish and then immediately go back to the start of, to re-read and rediscover meanings you didn’t quite get the significance of first time round – a wonderful piece of writing. And “Good People” was an incredibly moving and poignant piece, capturing quite brilliantly a woman whose mind is clouding with age. “Objects in Mirror” shows how the fear of those in authority continues, whatever the regime in charge. And the title piece is a complex story with many layers, looking at provincial politics and powerplay as well as the treatment of those from other countries.

… Bella was also emotional although she didn’t quite know why. There were more and more gaps in her mind, and the pathways and partitions between them were steadily narrowing, shrinking. She feared that the gaps would soon merge into one, and there’d be nothing left in her head but… what do you call that whitish liquid that swims up when milk goes sour? Ah, yes, that’s it: whey.

As you might have gathered, I think this is an absolutely stunning collection of stories, and one that has any number of layers which I want to go back and explore. This is the kind of writing that gets into your heart *and* your mind, the sort that changes the way you look at life and I do hope more of his work will be translated into English. As I mentioned, much has been made of the fact that Osipov draws on the Russian doctor-author tradition (and certainly Chekhov and Bulgakov are both authors whom I love). In the end, whether that comparison is relevant or not I don’t know; however, what is clear is that Opisov is a great observer of human life in all its light and shade, as well as a powerful author in his own right. So kudos to NYRB, Dralyuk, Fleming and Jackson – “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is a standout book, and will definitely be one of my reads of the year.

Clearing the shelves – it’s time for a giveaway or two! :D

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The parlous state of my TBR (and in fact my shelves in general!) is probably notorious by now; and the pictures I’ve posted of new arrivals on social media recently probably hint that even more books have made their way into the house. In mitigation, I have sent some off to friends, sold one or two and I have three large boxes in the hall awaiting collection by the Samaritans Book Cave! Nevertheless, I have half a dozen or so lovely titles that I really don’t need (owing to having duplicate copies in the main) and so I thought I would offer them to readers of the blog in a giveaway – it’s a little while since I’ve done one of these! 😀

And these are the books concerned:

Eight in total, now that I count them… Here’s a closer look at some:

These are all lovely Alma Classics editions which I’ve read but are duplicated or I won’t read again; so it makes sense for them to go to someone who would! The Jerome K. Jerome is great fun; Poe and Gatsby need no introduction from me!

Next up some Russians:

A pair of Turgenevs, which I have duplicated somehow; plus Fardwor, Russia! which was a great read!

And finally a Virago and a fragile Picador:

The Virago is a new style cover. As for the second book, much as it pains me to get rid of a Calvino, I already have the exact same edition from back in the day, so it’s a bit silly to hold onto it. Apart from this one, all of the other books are brand new.

So if you think you’d like to read one of these, give me a shout in the comments and let me know what book or books you might be interested in. I will have to restrict to the UK and possibly Europe, as postage costs anywhere else are going to be a bit awful. But speak up if you’re interested – if I can donate these to new, happy homes I won’t feel quite so bad about the books that keep sneaking their way into the house… ;D

The compromises of love… #ninaberberova @mbs51

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The Revolt by Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz

There’s been quite a buzz on blogs and bookish Twitter about author Nina Berberova, and I suspect there might have been a bit of a run on some of her books via online booksellers because of it. Berberova was a Russian-born author who left her country in 1922 with her husband, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich; they lived in Berlin, then Paris (where Khodasevich died in 1939) and she eventually emigrated to the USA in 1950 where she spent the rest of her life. I came across her work in the book “Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” which I read and reviewed here (and her short story was also included in Penguin Modern 21). I found her writing particularly interesting, and so when I read Max Cairnduff’s review of “The Revolt” I really felt I needed to track down a copy.

I was ahead of the game a little, I think, as I snagged a first edition hardback with dj from an online reseller for a minimal price; sadly, much of her work seems to be out of print, and that’s a great shame. However, New Directions in the USA publish a number of works, and there are a few editions in this country; but it does seem she needs to be properly rediscovered and give a bit of a promote by someone like Pushkin Press. That’s by the by; when I was casting round recently for the next book to read, Max reminded me that Berberova was calling, and this slim novella was indeed the ideal read. At 61 pages it’s in that grey area between short story and novella; however, what it might lack in length it certainly makes up in intensity!

I feel sorry for people who are alone only in the bathroom, never anywhere else.

“The Revolt” opens in Paris, 2nd September 1939; the narrator, a young Russian emigre called Olga, is seeing off her Swedish lover Einar. The latter is returning to his home country as war breaks out, and neither know if they will ever meet again. They talk of visiting each other, of meeting up in other places, other countries and promise never to forget each other. Needless to say, war keeps them apart and life goes on; Olga survives the conflict and the occupation (although her uncle does not). However, she never forgets Einar, despite the fact her letters had been returned unopened; so when she has the chance to travel to Stockholm in order to collect an inheritance she takes it. Is Einar still alive, and will she find him? How will their circumstances have changed? Well, the blurb doesn’t hide much, and Einar is alive and well and married to Emma. The latter is described as “voluptuous”, as physically unlike Olga as she could be; and although Emma outwardly is all smiles and loveliness, underneath she’s a manipulative piece of work. Olga is eventually faced with the opportunity of a second chance – but there is a cost attached, and the crux of the matter is whether she’s willing to accept this.

It seemed to me that he and I had never had a past, and there was nothing to say about the future – a spectre ahead, spectre behind, we were both spectres, and all around us was spectral, and of it all the only thing real was that force tearing us asunder: right now you’re here, with me, right now we’re together, but in an hour you won’t be here; you’re alone, I’m alone, and there’s nothing whatsoever to keep us together other than an idea – yours about me and mine about you.

“The Revolt” is a beautifully written work and on the surface seems a fairly straightforward story of love and the compromises we make for it. Are we prepared to sacrifice all for it, or are there times when we have to back away. Repeatedly, Olga has Berberova emphasise the importance of personal space and control over your life, and it seems that she’s a woman who will take love on her own terms or not at all – perhaps a more modern concept than we might expect. There is much that’s under the surface with Berberova’s writing; she tells Olga’s backstory of exile from Russia with economy, and the wartime years are sketched in just enough for us to be aware of them but not allow them to dominate the narrative. All of this is enough to paint a portrait of Olga’s character so that her actions in the end (in Venice, of all places) are entirely understandable. In fact, the choice of Venice for the final sequences is probably significant as there are any number of masks, illusions and deceptions surrounding Einar, Olga and Emma.

Berberova and Khodasevich (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Berberova’s novella is a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind. For such a short work of art to evoke so many places, sensations and emotions seems to me a real achievement; and though I’m surprised this book isn’t better known, I’m very grateful to the bloggers promoting her work and pointing us in its direction. “The Revolt” really is a little treasure and I have to confess to now having other Berberova stories nestling on the TBR waiting for me…

*****

“The Revolt” has also been reviewed by Guy Savage here, and if the buzz around the author on Twitter is anything to go by there will be more to follow!

And a quick word about the translator (they’re some of my favourite people!) Berberova’s work is translated by Marian Schwartz and a quick look at the latter’s website reveals that’s she’s translated a dizzyingly impressive array of books. She’s also regarded as the pre-eminant translator of Berberova’s works, having actually known and worked with the latter during the 1980s and 1990s – there is a fascinating interview with Schwartz here, and she’s obviously done a marvellous job of bringing Berberova’s work into English!

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