Autumn Shininess!


Issue 7 of Shiny New Books is out today and you can read it in all its wonderfulness here!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245As usual, it’s packed to the rafters with bookish news and reviews, all of which is guaranteed to enlarge your wish list in a big way!


I’ve been very happy to contribute a review of “The Prank”, a new collection of Chekhov’s early work from NYRB, which you can read here. It’s a wonderful collection and well worth your time! So what are  you waiting for? Head over to Shiny New Books and enjoy!


It’s a Dog’s Life!


Five Russian Dog Stories
Translated by Anthony Briggs

When I visited the lovely Kew Gardens last summer, I dropped into the Kew Bookshop on my way and picked up this little volume of canine tales (or tails – ha!) from a selection of Russian authors. Published by Hesperus and translated by Anthony Briggs, it seemed ideal to turn to during my book hangover following “Dead Souls”!

5 russian dogs

The book does indeed contain five dog stories: “Mumu” by Turgenev; “Good old Trezor” by Saltykov; “Chestnut Girl” by Chekhov; “Arthur, the White Poodle” by Kuprin; and “Ich Bin from Head to Foot” by Ilf and Petrov. The stories are interspersed with little verses and rounded off by a postscript by Turgenev. First off, I should give a TRIGGER WARNING – these dogs don’t in the main have happy lives and as my Middle and Youngest Child used to cryptically say to each other, “End well it will not”.

“Mumu” and “Good Old Trezor” tell tales of long-suffering dogs and it’s immediately clear that you should read these as allegories, with the sufferings of the dog standing in for the suffering of the peasants – and in fact the peasants in the stories don’t have a particularly nice life either. “Chestnut Girl” is less bleak, with the title dog running away from home and meeting up with a circus performer and becoming part of his act. But the call of home, however much worse it is than the new life, is always there….


“Arthur…” also features a performing dog, but here the range of the story is a little wider as the canine and his owners travel the Russian coast performing and trying to make a living. Their encounter with a rich family and an unbelievably spoiled brat makes for a very entertaining tale. And the final piece by Ilf and Petrov is a wonderful satirical story of a poor dog attempting to fit into the restricting requirements of Soviet realism and failing miserably…

ilf_PetrovThis volume was a lovely collection, very enjoyable to read and despite the sadness, very thought-provoking. It’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to be either a peasant or a dog in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia! The translations read well in the main, although I did have some quibbles with the Chekhov… As I read, I realised I’d already encountered this story, in the “Moscow Tales” book I read a while back. There, it was titled “Kashtanka” (the animal’s actual name); the dog was described as “rust-coloured” which I rather felt captured the dog’s nature and circumstances better than “chestnut”; and the other circus animal all had their original names (proper Russian forename and patronymic) which again conveyed the quirkiness of the whole situation better. The way the names had been Anglicised somehow smoothed the story out, made it less Russian and less comic and for me, I prefer the version in “Moscow Tales” by a long chalk.

However, that caveat aside, I liked my peep into the world of Russian dogs – the only question is now, what to read next!

Adrift in Provincial Rus


Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Translated by Robert A. Maguire

(There’s probably enough discussion of the plot details here to warrant a SPOILER ALERT!)

Sometimes, no matter what you’re currently reading, or what you feel you should read, a book calls to you and you really can’t resist. That’s what happened to me recently, for no apparent reason, with Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. I first read it back in the 1980s during my first phase of heavy Russian reading and absolutely loved it. It’s a book I’ve often thought of re-reading and the itch got me so I picked it up. Back in the day, it was the Penguin Modern Classics Magarshack translations I went for (there wasn’t much choice about then, and I wasn’t thinking so deeply about versions); it was a good read, but I thought I would try the more recent Robert Maguire version, also from Penguin, which seems to be much lauded.

dead souls

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was something of a complex character. Of Ukrainian and Polish descent, he nevertheless wrote in Russian and expressed a deep attachment to the country. He regarded Pushkin as a mentor (he knew the great author briefly) and wrote plays, novels and short stories. “Dead Souls” is often regarded as his masterpiece and it seems to be ingrained into Russian culture. Described in the subtitle as “a poem”, it relates the adventures of one Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, and indeed at one point the title was “The Wanderings of Chichikov” which the censor deemed as less offensive than the title by which we now know it.

We meet Chichikov as he rolls up in the provincial town of N., with his servant Petrushka and coachman Selifan. A middle-aged, middle-class man, somewhat obsessed with his appearance and his personal hygiene, Pavel Ivanovich soon begins to ingratiate himself with the local landowners, paying them visits, flattering them and becoming something of a local celebrity. However, it gradually becomes clear that Chichikov is on a strange mission – he wants to purchase from all the local landowners their ‘dead souls’. A little explanation is needed here – under the social structure of the time, the landowners owned the serfs body and soul (they were not emancipated until later in the century) and paid taxes on each one. If a serf died between two censuses the landowner still had to pay the taxes. Chichikov’s plan is to buy up these ‘deal souls’ for next to nothing, set himself up as a landowner with many (fake) serfs for a small cost, and establish himself with a position and status and money. By sweet-talking the locals, promising to relieve them of unnecessary taxes, he manages to convince several to sell. However, all does not go quite as planned; the landowners become suspicious, fanciful rumours start to spread about Chichikov’s motivations, and he’s ostracised. Flight seems the only sensible solution – but what will Pavel Ivanovich’s next adventure be?

That’s a brief outline of plot, but it doesn’t give a hint of the wonders of this book. Gogol might have come up with a clever idea and an original plot, but they would have been nothing without the wonderful characterisations and the brilliant writing. And “Dead Souls” is nothing if not a vivid and lively portrait of provincial Russia of the time. The small-mindedness of the characters; the trivial and parochial nature of their gatherings; the lack of occupation which leads to endless silly gossip; all of these facets are captured quite brilliantly.

In general we have somehow not been created for representative bodies. In all our gatherings, from the peasants’ village commune to scholarly committees and every other conceivable kind, a pretty fair degree of chaos reigns, unless one head is present to run everything. It is really difficult to say why this is so: evidently our people are so constituted that the only assemblies that have a chance of success are those organized for the purpose of carousing or dining well, as with clubs and all sorts of pleasure gardens in the German style.

And then there’s the sketches of the various landowners: each represents a different aspect of the Russian character as Gogol saw it, all with flaws and all causing problems in the countryside. There’s Manilov, a sentimentalist; Nozdryov, who comes across as friendly and cheery, but is in fact a bully and a cheat; the widow Korobochka, suspicious and insecure, and cause of much of the rumour; and Plyushkin the miser. None of these characters are really happy, none really capable of running their estates properly and none able to make the lives of their serfs better.

And what I sometimes think, really, or so it seems to me, is that the Russian is a lost individual. He wants to accomplish everything and he can’t do anything. You keep on thinking that beginning tomorrow you’ll start a new life. Beginning tomorrow you’ll go on a diet, but no such thing: by the evening of the same day you’ll have gorged yourself to the point where you can only blink your eyes , and your tongue won’t move; there you sit like an owl, staring at everyone, really. And that’s the way we all are.

But central to everything is the magnificent portrayal of Chichikov: a complex man, clever but flawed, characterised by his love of elegant clothing and creature comforts. He dreams of a beautiful house, a beautiful wife and a family, but seems incapable of having the emotions that are needed for such things. He’s motivated by a need to acquire (and the reason for this is explained late in the story by the narrator). A round man with a round face, I couldn’t help visualising him as looking like the portrait of Gogol himself. And despite the fact that he’s a crook, despite the fact he’s trying to cheat the system, you can’t help but love him (well, I couldn’t). You watch helplessly as he digs himself into an impossible hole, knowing he can’t get out of it, and just wish all would go well for him, even though he’s committing a criminal act. Gogol refers to him as the novel’s hero, and he very much is – because despite his trickery, he exposes the hypocrisies and the faults of the provincial landowners who are certainly no better than him (if not worse!)

Image from the Daily Telegraph

Image from the Daily Telegraph

“Dead Souls” is very, very funny in places (I remember laughing out loud during my first reading) but it also has tragic elements. The account of Chichikov’s upbringing explains much; the lives of the serfs are drudgery and bondage; and the Russian Civil Service is crippling in its rigid caste system. Gogol wrote the book when he was living in Rome and the passion of an exile infuses his prose. He often spirals off into passages praising his native land, which oddly enough sit well enough alongside the more humorous observations of its denizens. There is a constant sense of movement in the book, with Chichikov unable to rest in one place for very long, and his carriage rushes through Russia, taking him on his adventures while the landscape flashes past.

What a strange, and alluring, and uplifting, and wonderful something lies lodged in the word ‘road’! And how wonderous it is in itself, this road: a clear day, autumn leaves, cold air… wrapped snug in your travelling coat, hat pulled down over your ears, you will press yourself into a corner as tightly, as cosily as you can! For the last time a shivery chill has run through your limbs, before being replaced by a pleasant warmth. The horses dash on… how seductively drowsiness steals over you and your eyes close fast, and now through your sleep you hear: “Not white the snows”, and the snorting of the horses and the rattling of the wheels, and by now you are snoring…

On this second reading of Gogol’s masterwork, I picked up on a number of themes I probably missed the first time round. There is the humorous use of names (helpfully explained in the notes); constant references to noses (and let’s not forget the author’s great short story, “The Nose”); Chichikov’s obsessions with eau de cologne and a “tail-coat of whortleberry red shot through with a lighter weave”. One of the elements I loved was the way the author/narrator constantly broke off to address the reader; and the wonderful dialogue between two unnamed ladies of the town, known only as Lady Pleasant in All Respects and the Merely Pleasant Lady is not only very, very funny, but surprisingly modern.

The arrival of the visitor woke the little dogs who were sleeping in the sun: shaggy Adele, who was constantly getting entangled in her own coat, and the darling little Potpourri with his delicate and slender legs. Both dogs were barking, and carried the ringlets of their curled-up tails into the hall, where the visitor was divesting herself of her cloak, whereupon she proved to be wearing a dress of fashionable design and colour, with the long tails of some animal round her neck. The scent of jasmine wafted through the entire room. No sooner had the Lady Pleasant in All Respects learned of the arrival of the Merely Pleasant Lady than she ran out into the hall. The ladies clasped each other’s hands, kissed and screamed the way institute girls scream when they meet soon after their graduation, before their mammas have had occasion to explain to them that the father of one is poorer and of lower rank than the other’s.

Gogol, of course, famously burned part 2 of “Dead Souls” and what’s published here is part 1 plus some surviving fragments of part 2. The author underwent troubling changes later in life, dealing with ill-health and personal religious conflicts. He intended to take Chichikov on a very different journey from that of the first book, in something of an attempt to save Russia from itself, and it has to be said that our hero is a much weaker and less prominent character in the remaining chapters of part 2. It’s frustrating as a reader not to have the whole story, and I know some have thought it best to ignore the fragments and just read part 1, which certainly stands on its own as a wonderful work of art. An argument could be made for simply leaving Chichikov at the end of part 1, riding off into the vastness of Russia to fulfil his destiny, as this is a particularly strong and moving ending. For myself, I’m glad I’ve read the fragments, but I think that it is part 1 that is the work of genius.


Reading “Dead Souls” now, with so much more experience of Russian literature, it’s impossible not to see Gogol’s influence on so many later writers. Dostoevsky, of course, is an obvious example, but there are also elements in Bulgakov, and the constant references to the Devil (which also turn up in “The Master and Margarita”) just show how much of a vital force and important link between the past and modern writers Gogol was. His life was a difficult one, cut short too early, and I wish he’d lived longer to write more of this calibre. But at least we still have the short stories and “Dead Souls” and I can see that this is a book I’ll return to again.

The Bards of Bloomsbury


Bloomsbury and the Poets by Nicholas Murray

It’s at times like this that I get really frustrated by my scatty brain because for the life of me I can’t recall where it was that I stumbled across mention of this little book/let. However, I obviously did and sent off for it, because I’ve read and am about to write about it!

bloomsb poets

Front and back covers

“Bloomsbury and the Poets” obviously attracted me by its title; it’s published by Rack Press Editions and contains 40-odd pages packed with info about the places that famous writers lived in and around the Bloomsbury area in London. So we hear about rugged South African poet Roy Campbell sharing a house with the geeky Aldous Huxley; Rimbaud and his sister Vitalie staying near King’s Cross (and her account of their visit sounds very much like it would be worth reading); and touchingly about Charlotte Mew and the family parrot Wek.

The book touches on the wedding of Ted and Sylvia; the death of Andrew Marvell; and T.S. Eliot’s workplace. Really, it’s amazing that so many facts are packed into one small volume, and you could make yourself several itineraries to visit the places where the great and not-so-great have hung out. Author Nicholas Murray has written a number of books, including a very well-regarded Huxley biog which looks intriguing, so I guess he has quite an interest in the area.

If I had one quibble, it would be that I would have loved to have a little map with all the locations marked on it because my geography is abysmal! But Murray certainly knows his stuff and I may well be seen staggering around Bloomsbury in future with a map in one hand and a small green book in the other….. :)

Introducing The 1924 Club!


As a reader and book blogger, it’s easy to get a little bogged down in all the lovely books that surround you; and a new project is sometimes just what you need to focus the reading. So when Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book asked if I’d like to be involved in a new idea of his, I was delighted! The project is called “The 1924 Club” (as you can see from the rather snazzy button that Simon’s designed) and basically the idea is to focus on books published in that year.

1924 Club

I think Simon’s chosen a rather wonderful year, as there appears to be a wide range of fascinating books published in 1924. Basically, we’ll be asking other readers/bloggers to read, review, suggest and discuss books from the year in question, and thereby build up an overview of the literature of the day. It would be great if as many of you as possible can join in, and the fun will come from discovering the new and the unusual, books we haven’t heard of or hadn’t realised were written in 1924, and also revisiting some classics!

Michael Arlen's The Green Hat - one possibility

Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat – one possibility

There’s a list on Wikipedia that Simon found here which gives a starting point, and Goodreads also has a useful “Most Popular Books Published in 1924” entry (though do check your actual books, as there are plenty of volumes incorrectly labelled!) These lists give plenty to choose from – Agatha Christie published two of her early classics “Poirot Investigates” and “The Man in the Brown Suit”; Russian writer Zamyatin’s “We” appeared, prefiguring much of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four”; Forster’s “A Passage to India” came out; plus there are *lots* of Viragos from the year. And that’s just scratching the surface!

Two of my battered but beloved old Agatha books

Two of my battered but beloved old Agatha books

Personally, I’m toying with Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, a classic Bright-Young-Things novel; and I’d like to re-read one of the Christies. In fact, when I started looking through the lists, I realised that the first book I ever reviewed on the Ramblings was from 1924 – not the most brilliant of write-ups, but it was my first post!!

So if you want to join in, do put the button on your blog and get reading and researching! We’ll be posting from October 19-31st and we’d love to hear from you! Simon’s introductory post is here for more info – so let’s get reading! :)

A Melancholy Finale


Moominvalley in November – Tove Jansson

And so I come to another ending. “Moominvalley in November” is the last, and possibly oddest, Moomin book and I’ve been kind of putting off reading it – I’ve grown so attached to the strange little creatures and all their friends. In the previous book, “Moominpappa at Sea”, Moominpappa was indeed all at sea – having a mid-life crisis, he dragged the family off to live on an unsettling and often hostile lighthouse, with only Little My in tow; the rest of their friends were left at home, and many of them turn up in the last book.


As the story beings, autumn is coming to Moominvalley, and many of the creatures feel drawn to visit the Moomins. There is the faithful Snufkin, breaking camp and heading off to visit his friend Moomintroll; the orphan Toft, who lives in the Hemulen boat, and is obviously in need of a family; the Hemulen himself, who seems unsettled and acting out of character; Fillyjonk, who has a cleaning crisis with a near-miss accident and decides she needs to see Moominmamma straight away; and Mymble, come to search for her sister Little My. Add in some newbies like Grandpa-Grumble and you end up with a whole lot of creatures converging on Moominvalley.

However, when they arrive they’re met by an absence. The Moomins’ house is empty and unlived in; there’s no note and no indication of where the family are; and all of the characters are unsettled by this. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that they’ll await the family’s return for winter hibernation, and while they’re at the house they try to take on the best characteristics of the family. So the Hemulen tries to emulate Moominpappa by buildings things, which he really can’t do, and going out in his boat, which he hates; the Fillyjonk attempts Moominmamma’s role, but really doesn’t have the temperament, despite her best intentions, and Toft rejects her attempts to mother him. Snufkin tries to avoid everyone while searching for missing music and Grandpa-Grumble grumbles a lot and tries to track down and make friends with the Ancestor. The end is suitable nebulous, although everyone seems to decide they’re better off just being themselves.

The Ill-Assorted Group

There’s a strange darkness lurking in this book, which is really quite odd in a story intended for children. The Fillyjonk in particular seems incredibly highly strung, having what seem like several nervous breakdowns during the book and coping very badly with the concept of dust, dirt and insects; the Hemulen’s behavior is erratic and he seems uncertain of who or what he is. Most worrying is the orphan Toft; on his own, ungoverned and uncared for, he escapes into a world of imagination, summoning up a strange, dark creature out of nothing. Subject to strange rages, he seems desperate to find the family, idealising them and thinking that Moominmamma will solve everything. Fortunately, he comes to realise that even the Moomin family are human (so to speak!) and not perfect, but it takes him several crises to get to this point.



It’s hard not to see the book in autobiographical terms, as Jansson’s mother died during the year she was writing the book. Certainly there are themes of loss and absence, and the orphan child is central to the plot and action. It’s a strangely sombre piece, and although the ending carries a note of optimism, there is a sense that the Moomins and their world have had to grow up and will never be the same.

So – the end of my Moomin journey. I’ve loved reading about the family and their quirky friends, following them on their travels and through their adventures, seeing Jansson’s wonderful drawings of them; but I think I’m glad I didn’t read them as a child. I don’t quite know what I would have made of them, and the darkness in them might have been too much for me then if I’d grasped it. In many ways, I don’t think this is a book really written for children as its themes of madness, loss and compromise would be lost on them. A melancholy yet lyrical end to a fascinating series of books.

Vintage Crime Shorts – The End is Nigh!


dead witness

Yes, I’ve *finally*, after much reading spread out over quite a time, come to the end of the “Dead Witness” collection of Victorian detective stories. It’s been great fun reading them, and certainly some of the best have been kept until the end!

Robert Stephens as Max Carrados

Robert Stephens as Max Carrados

The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage by Ernest Bramah

Bramah’s story features a classic sleuth who I believe is still loved by connoisseurs, but whom I’ve only recently come across – the blind detective, Max Carrados. In fact, I found that I had a collection of tales of the latter knocking about in an old green Penguin I’ve never read, and on the evidence of this one, I’d like to read it soon! Carrados, because of his lack of sight, has other heightened senses – smell, hearing, etc – and he’s assisted by a loyal manservant, Parkinson, and his friend Carlyle, an ex-solicitor. The mystery here is in fact an attempt to stop a murder – the sister of a Lt. Hollyer has married a man older than herself, and Hollyer suspects him to have designs on the sister’s life so as to inherit her cash. The trio investigate what appears to be an ingenious plot, but tragedy ensues in a way they could not have predicted! This was an excellent, pre-Golden Age story: the central characters are engaging, the plotting clever and the story very atmospheric. Off to track down my green Penguin…

The Case of Padages Palmer by Harvey O’Higgins

A different type of adventure here, in that the story is more a hard-boiled tale, told from the point of view of a teenage detective, one Barney Cook. Barney, whose later father was a policeman, is a streetwise youngster in New York who manages to get taken on by a detective agency, run by Walter Babbing. A con-man has been rooking innocent people out of their cash and is thought to have headed for New York, and through Barney’s eyes we watch Babbing and his team tracking down and setting up the con-man. It’s an unusual and engaging way to tell the story; and Barney is a convincing and entertaining character. This is a more down-to-earth type of detection, rooted more in reality, but nonetheless very readable and great fun – I’d definitely like to track down more of O’Higgins’ tales.

Author Anna Katherine Green

Author Anna Katherine Green

An Intangible Clue by Anna Katherine Green

Last but not least, one of the big hitters in the world of detective fiction – Anna Katherine Green, author of “The Leavenworth Case”, the first proper detective novel by a woman (and one which I shamefully haven’t yet read….) “An Intangible Clue” features Green’s detective Violet Strange, a society lady dabbling in detective work to support a disinherited sister. There has been murder, of an old lady who lived in solitude in a non-residential area; no witnesses, no evidence and no apparent way to track down the perpetrator. Violet is sniffy and uninterested, thinking this kind of sordid murder beneath her, but her boss Mr. Driscoll manages to pique her curiosity enough to get her to look into the murder. Her guise as a frivolous socialite stands her in good stead when looking round the premises and she comes up with an ingenious solution – but will it help the police to track down the killer?

Green is obviously an excellent writer, and I never would have guessed the solution she came up with. And having an upper-class, fussy woman detective is great fun – it’s amusing to see her manipulating people’s expectations of her to get the information she wants. Obviously “The Leavenworth Case” is going to be worth tracking down.


So – I’ve finally got to the end of “The Dead Witness”. Reading it has been a really rewarding experience, as I’ve discovered a lot of wonderful writers I was unaware of, revisited some I knew and loved, and watched the development of the art of the detective story from its inception to its glory days. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who adores reading mysteries, and I shall miss having it to pick up and dip into.

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