Russian Reading Month: Final Day and Update!


Well, it’s the last day of November and so Russian Reading Month draws to a close!  I have enjoyed taking part in this and I certainly won’t be stopping reading the Russians just because it will soon be December – especially as I still have to complete “In The First Circle”, which will run on well into the next month!


But I’m very pleased with the books I have read for this challenge which have been:

The Conquered City by Victor Serge

Nicolai Gogol by Nabokov

Faust by Turgenev

Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky

and over half of In The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn!

The month has also been fascinating because it’s made me think much more about the volumes I’ve read in the past, the translators and their translations and what it is I really enjoy about Russian books.  I’m also keen to re-read many of my old favourites like Ilf and Petrov. So thanks to Tuesday in Silhouette for setting this up – it’s been great fun!

As for the chunkster – it’s turning out to be a great joy. Everything I read by Solzhenitsyn raises his status as a writer in my eyes, and “In The First Circle” is no exception.  It’s a complex, well constructed and many layered work, but surprisingly easy to read and I shall look forward to reviewing it soon!



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“…you are strong only as long as you don’t deprive people of everything. For a person you’ve taken everything from is no longer in your power. He’s free all over again.”

― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, In The First Circle

Some Recent Finds – including a Russian treat!

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I’ve been trying to rein myself in a little bit recently, as I had a bit of a binge in London, and also been succumbing to online purchases because of my current hobbyhorse of comparing translations of Russian books! However, I did pick up a few bargains at the weekend from the charity shops – though not, alas, from Claude Cox Books which was unaccountably shut when we went past in the rain on Saturday. I do hope this isn’t a permanent thing…

(As an aside, I *hate* bookshopping in the rain – I’m always terrified that the precious finds are going to get damp on the way home – which wasn’t helped this weekend as I left Youngest Child’s umbrella on the bus – she was *not* amused….)

Anyway – the few treats:

First up, a Molly Keane I don’t have for my Virago collection – brand new and £1.50 in the Saint Elizabeth Hospice shop, and apparently reckoned to be one of Keane’s best – yay!

Secondly, a rather lovely hardback by Jerome K. Jerome which I’ve never hear of (though I have of course read “Three Men in a Boat”). But it looked lovely and I read the first page and laughed out loud in the Oxfam Bookshop, so that was a good sign!

Finally, a pleasing find – I have been reading up on any 20th century Russian authors I might have missed, and this volume came up on a number of lists so it was must-have. Translation is by Michael Glenny who did a lot of Bulgakov (in fact, most of the old Harvill editions I have are done by him). Was most pleased to discover this book!

And another Virago which arrived in the post on Saturday:

I confess to having got a little behind with the Elizabeth Taylor read-along, having been distracted by Slavs, but I shall catch up as soon as I’ve dealt with the chunkster!

Russian Reading Month: …in which I take on a chunkster!


I’ve noticed a tendency in myself recently to read only shorter works. This isn’t something that’s always been my reading mode – I’ve happily sunk myself into massively long volumes in the past with no issue at all and with great enjoyment. But on thinking about it, I think that embarking on this blog is something to do with it. I’ve been reading shorter works so I can get a review out every day or two, and small volumes are therefore more manageable. This is Not Necessarily A Good Thing – so I have given myself a bit of a talking to and reminded myself that at the end of the day, I read for pleasure and I read what I feel like reading, and that it doesn’t matter if I don’t post for a week!

So – I take on a chunkster! The book in question is one that’s been on my TBR mountain for a couple of years in its present form and for about 35 in its original form! In case that statement causes any confusion I’ll explain – in my teens I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and after reading “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich” I got hold of all of his books that I could – most of them in Penguins from the 1970s or thereabouts. One such was “The First Circle” and I confess to never having got very far into it.

However, a couple of years ago I discovered that this volume had been severely truncated by the author in the 1960s in an attempt to get it published by the Soviet authorities, following the success of “Ivan”. Needless to say, they wouldn’t have anything to do with it, but it was this shortened version that had been published in the West, somewhat out of Solzhenitsyn’s control. After he defected to the West, he restored the work to its original form and this version was published shortly after his death, in a version by his approved translator, Henry Willetts (under the title “In The First Circle”). I demanded a copy from family for Christmas 2010 but didn’t get very far into it – at 700+ pages I was a bit daunted.

By Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

But – 700-odd pages or not, I am determined to read this. Solzhenitsyn seems to be in some ways a forgotten author which is a great shame. When I was growing up he was ubiquitous because of his political stand and his defection to the West, and his books were very highly regarded. However, I think his public persona and his politics have got in the way of perception of him as an author. I read “Cancer Ward” within the last few years and was blown away. I think he’s a remarkably good writer and I’m looking forward very much to getting sunk into “In The First Circle”.

Recent Reads/Russian Reading Month – Faust by Turgenev: Pt 2 (Yakob Pasynkov)

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Following on from my first read of Turgenev with the title story in this volume, the second tale was equally rewarding. “Yacob Pasynkov” has a simpler plot, involving once again a first person narrator. Yakob of the title does not make his appearance straight away, but he is a great friend of the narrator, as well as the N family, with whom both are intimately involved. There are two daughters, Sofia and Varvara, plus the complication of another acquaintance, Asanov. Yakob is a pure soul, an orphan brought up by his school teacher, poor but educated and basically the nicest and most poetic person you would wish to meet. He befriends the narrator while they are at school together and they become inseparable bosom buddies, united by their love of literature. But as so often with classic tales of male friendship, it is a woman who causes a kind of friction. Although their paths drift apart, they will meet again towards the end of the tale, but under different circumstances.

(cover of the Hesperus version)

There are similarities between the two works, most notably the influence of German literature on the sensibilities of Russian intellects – this time in the form of the poetry of Schiller. There are also overbearing parents, and a sequence of romantic misunderstandings. The wrong people are in love, those who are loved do not love back, there is a fair dollop of tragedy and a rather moving end. As this work is so short, it’s hard to say too much without giving a lot of the story away. But the characters are as beautifully drawn as in “Faust” and Turgenev is obviously the master of the short form.

I have read a little about the concept of the “superfluous man” which was prevalent in the 1840s/50s in Russia, and in fact Turgenev did write a story entitled “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”. He is a kind of Byronic hero, outside of the normal everyday lift, a little detached and cynical, with no real purpose in life and no outlet for his intellect. Certainly both of the protagonists of these stories would fall into that category and this book is an elegant portrayal of the lack of purpose of mid 19th century Russian man!

The story did not quite gel in a couple of places for me. I didn’t see the point of Maria Petrovna, a peasant woman who loved Yakob and whose introduction seemed to serve no real purpose. There were a couple of scenes with Sofia’s daughter which again were a little obscure, and unclear references to Sofa’s absent husband.  This tale also packed a little less punch than the first story – there was more drama, a little more about nature and the setting in “Faust” which gave it a stronger atmosphere and an edge – with “Yakob” the story was more firmly focused on the human relationships. However, these are minor quibbles and in so short a work perhaps it is hard to tie everything together.

I suspect with Turgenev that a little might be a lot. I enjoyed these stories and found them moving and engrossing, but I don’t feel the instant need to go out and read more. I’m sure I will return to his work – but not for a little while!

Recent Reads/Russian Reading Month – Faust by Turgenev: Pt 1

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I’m really starting to enjoy this month of discovering and rediscovering Russian writers. Some of the pivotal books in my life have been from that great nation (“One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “Dead Souls”, “The Master and Margarita”, anything by Platonov) but what I’m also enjoying is reading some of those authors I’ve meant to for year but haven’t got round to.

One such is Turgenev – I have several volumes on my TBR mountain, but the one I have just actually read is a new one. I’m afraid my purchase of this was very much motivated by two factors – it is a lovely little book published by Alma/Oneworld Classics, and it’s translated by Hugh Aplin, whose work I’m starting to trust a lot!

There are actually two short pieces in this book and the first is entitled “Faust” (after the Goethe story and of course because it reflects the strong impact a piece of literature like this work can have upon a person’s sensibility). The story takes the form of a series of 9 letters, written by the main protagonist Pavel Alexandrovich to his friend Semyon Nikolayevich. Pavel has moved away from St. Petersburg to the country, to an old estate. He obviously has not visited for some time as the servants have all become older, the house more dusty and neglected, and there is a sense of much time having passed. We are not clear why Pavel has retreated here, but he seems in need of quiet and rest, enjoying his solitude, reconnecting with his books and generally happy to be on his own. The state of his emotions is made clear by the fact that he dissolves into tears for no particular reason and seems somewhat emotional.

However, his calm retreat is disturbed by the discovery that he has as neighbours a rather dull old school friend Priyimkov, who is married to another old acquaintance – Vera Nikolayevna. Pavel knew Vera when she was young, growing up under the strict rule of her mother, Mrs.Yeltsova, who would only let her read factual books and kept her on the straight and narrow. Pavel at one point had asked for Vera’s hand in marriage but was refused, and then left for Berlin.

As Vera’s mother has now passed away, and she is living close by with husband and daughter, Pavel decides this is the time to acquaint her with the classics and begins reading the Faust of the title to Vera, Priyimkov and a local German scholar Schimmel. As readers, we can probably anticipate some of the events that follow, but nevertheless the denouement is moving and a little shocking.

I enjoyed my first exposure to Turgenev a lot, and I put a lot of that down to the very beautiful and readable translation. I’ve seen Turgenev described as one of the most European Russian authors and certainly the prose and descriptions here are lovely. The character of Pavel is revealed very cleverly by the moods portrayed in his letters and events unfold gradually. The epistolary device is a good one, allowing time to pass between messages and the action to move on just enough for us not to feel rushed.

Turgenev covers a number of themes here and one strong aspect is the effect of great literature and poetry on the deep sensibility of a woman who has never encountered them before. Much is made of Vera’s heritage and her rather lively grandmother, as if there are tendencies in Vera which are a throwback to an earlier generation. It is hinted that Vera’s mother recognised and controlled these tendencies to keep her on the straight and narrow.

And then there’s the so-called supernatural aspect. From the foreword, it would seem that Turgenev was criticised for introducing something like this into his fiction, but I have to agree with Aplin’s assessment that this element is not necessarily to be taken literally. Instead, we can view it as an illusion that the protagonist concerned was labouring under, a psychological effect and not a real one. Nevertheless, I felt this part of the story was very well-handled and didn’t detract at all from the drama of the story and the writing.

So my first encounter with Turgenev was a very positive one. I love the format of the book and the quality of his writing very much and I’m looking forward to the next story in this little volume.

Recent Reads/Russian Reading Month – Nicolai Gogol by Nabokov


I should confess up front that I’ve never heard of this book until I came across Tuesday in Silhouette‘s Russian Reading Month. This is one of the featured books and as it has the wonderful Nabokov writing about the equally wonderful Gogol, it definitely was a must! I’ve read a fair amount of both authors and I was interested to see what Nabokov’s take would be on the writer behind “Dead Souls”.

Of course, with Nabokov it would be foolish to expect a traditional biography or literary study – this book is very definitely not that. It’s highly subjective, opinionated and sharp – and also very funny in places. The first chapter starts with the death of Gogol and then goes on to discuss his early years. Nabokov opts to discuss Gogol in the light of what he considers his three major works – the play “The Government Inspector, the novel “Dead Souls” and the short story “The Overcoat”. He dismisses a lot of Gogol’s other work as trivial, but rates GI as “the greatest play ever written in Russian (and never surpassed since)”. The book ends up with a somewhat humourous section entitled “Commentaries” in which Nabokov discusses with his publisher whether he should provide a more traditional section with summaries of the stories and biographical detail. Clever, this section does provide the necessary details about plot (which is cross referenced in the body of the book) and there is a chronology for those in need of this kind of information.

Gogol – Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

However, this book is a joy to read, not only because we have a classic Russian writer giving us his thoughts on another, but because Nabokov’s writing is just so good (and it’s one of the easiest to read volumes of his I’ve come across). It’s full of insight as to general reading habits, why we read, what we get from a work:

“Gogol’s play is poetry in action, and by poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words. True poetry of that kind provokes – not laughter and not tears – but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude – and a writer may well be proud of himself if he can make his readers, or more exactly some of his readers, smile and purr that way.”

There is also sarcasm and plenty of biting wit – Nabokov is refreshingly opinionated:

“The old translations of Dead Souls into English are absolutely worthless and should be expelled from all public and university libraries.”

(It is worth bearing in mind that this book was first published in 1944 since when there has been, amongst others, the acclaimed Robert Maguire translation)

By Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The book is littered with gems like this totally unrelated aside – “(beautiful word, stratagem – a treasure in a cave)” and I found myself smiling and purring all the way through it. What comes out is not only the achievement of Gogol, but also Nabokov’s deep understanding and love of books and the written word. I can’t sum up better than this wonderful quote:

“…literature… appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.”

Even if you know nothing about Gogol, for the quality of writing alone I would highly recommend this book.

Recent Reads/Russian Reading Month: Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky


“I am angry, I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin….”
     Song from Under the Floorboards – Howard Devoto (Magazine)

For some reason, Dostoevsky seems to be regarded as “difficult” (or so someone said to me last week). I will confess to having more of his work unread than read on my shelves, but the volumes I have read didn’t give me any real trouble – truth be told, I was thoroughly absorbed in “Crime and Punishment” when I read it (in the David Magarshack translation).

“Notes from the Underground” is considered one of his pivotal books, and I read this a couple of years ago – a library copy. So when I chanced upon a Hesperus Press edition, I snapped up a copy for myself. Luckily it turns out to be translated by my linguist of the moment, Hugh Aplin, and has a foreword by Will Self – both plus points as far as I’m concerned…

NFTU is not an easy book to describe. Although it’s only 140-odd pages long, it packs a lot into those pages. The work is split into two parts – the first, simply titled “The Underground”, takes the form of a monologue by the protagonist who is usually known simply as The Underground Man. UM is apparently addressing two other unnamed and unspecified “gentlemen” and he rails and rants against society, morals, the beautiful and the sublime, pain, suffering and life itself. The second section, “Apropos of the Sleet”, takes us back to when UG was in his twenties and still just about a functioning member of society. It relates events in his life that have effectively caused him to go ‘underground’ and in this part of the book much more is revealed of his character. However, the opening words really tell you all you need to know about the UM:
“I’m a sick man….. I’m a malicious man. An unattractive man, I am. I think I’ve got something wrong with my liver. Still, I know damn all about my  sickness and don’t know for sure what it is I’ve got something wrong with.
The first thing that you have to get to grips with in this short novel is the singular voice of the narrator – discursive and very individual, it is obvious that he has a highly subjective viewpoint. We see everything through the prism of his sensibility and there is no denying it – he rambles. UM identifies himself as being 40 years old and having been living “like this” for 20 years now – thus during the events of the second half of the book he is obviously a young man of 20. Formerly a Collegiate Assessor, he now seems to cower in the corner of a dark cellar, seeing no-one and railing against the world. The flow of his thoughts is hard to follow at first but I found it suddenly clicked in – the excellent translation here by Aplin gives a rhythm and an identity to the voice. UM seems to think that the world has done him many wrongs, and his major grievance seems to be with the concept of “the beautiful and the sublime”, a philosophical outlook that was very prevalent at the time Dostoevsky was writing. UM refuses to accept that Russians can have any real appreciation of this and condemns those who ‘fit in’ and accept the “two and two make four” (i.e. the everyday). There are several sections to this first part and they each deal with a different aspect – suffering, reason and logic, intertia and so on.

“Apropos of the Sleet” is a completely different kettle of fish, however. UM takes us back to his early days, and we learn that he has no real family (presumably an orphan?) and is sent off to a school he hates by distant relatives. From the start he is a misfit, unable to deal with normal social situations or make friends with other pupils. His regular pattern of behaviour is displayed here – he is either convinced he is superior to others and looks down on them; or is convinced he cannot do anything and is paralysed by his inability. Throughout the book his behaviour oscillates between these two extremes and he finds it impossible to relate to anyone in a normal fashion.

UM tells us of his relationship with his servant Apollon; he gatecrashes a private dinner of some old school acquaintances and behaves appallingly; the evening ends with UM in a brothel where he encounters Liza, a young prostitute. Her curiosity about him prompts him into a long, involved and in places very cruel diatribe where he tries to persuade her that her life is not normal and she will end up ill and neglected and die young. Having reduced her to near hysterics, then gives her his address and tells her to call on him, holding out a glimpse of hope to her which we know will never come to anything. After days during which UM torments himself, Liza finally calls and he breaks down and reveals himself for the flawed mess that he is. Oddly enough, Liza seems able to deal with his weaknesses being revealed to her, and leaves in a state of relative sanity – while the UM presumably begins the downward spiral that ends in his state at the start of the book.

Whew! NFTU certainly packs a punch! There’s a lot to get your head round as a reader but it is very rewarding. In some way the form of the novel is very modern, the first section being almost a stream of consciousness reflecting the addled state of UM’s mind. It’s fascinating to see how the structure of the highly formal, extremely status conscious St. Petersburg society of the 1800s would have affected a man who nowadays we would probably call unstable. But in many ways he can be seen as a rebel, refusing to accept most people’s definition of normal behaviour, becoming obsessed with people and things, retiring from his job and withdrawing rather than participating in the real world. There is much in the book about his dreams – his fantasies serving as a substitute for real life as he can control them in a way that he cannot control reality. And the UM has very little faith in humanity and its ability to progress or be satisfied.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery

So, Dostoevsky – a difficult read or not? Yes and no. This isn’t a straightforward book and it can be hard to follow the UM’s streams of reasoning at times. But if you want more than a simple story, something thought-provoking which will send you off investigating theories and philosophies – yes, this book could be one for you.

Russian Reading Month – Some More Thoughts on Translation

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It’s amazing how my reading and book thoughts have gone off on such a tangent with the Russian Reading Month. I felt obliged to dig out all my classics to see who they are translated by; I’m researching online, seeing what other people think; sending off for other editions with new translations. Yesterday found me particularly focusing on Tolstoy who I confess I’ve never made much headway with.

I own a few Tolstoy volumes – “The Kreutzer Sonata” which I attempted and gave up on recently (translated by David Duff); “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, a Wordsworth edition with no translator credited that I can see; and the two big books as follows:

My War and Peace is a lovely old hardback OUP World Classics which even has a fold out map!

My Anna Karenina, however, is a strange Pilot Press 2 volume edition.

On reading up about Tolstoy, it became clear that the translations by Aylmer and Louise Maude are something to be reckoned with as they knew Tolstoy personally and he approved their work. My W&P is the Maude translation and so I’m happy to go with that! My AK however, doesn’t state a translator and so I felt I really must have a Maude version. After a bit of research, I found that the current Wordsworth Classics version is the Maude one and it looks like this:

So a quick trip to my local branch of The Works was in order yesterday – at £1.99 there’s not a lot to complain about. A quick comparison with the first few paragraphs of my Pilot version shows differences, so I’m happy to have both and when there’s a spare day or two may actually get round to reading them!

However, the point I’m getting to is one which came up during my researches. It seems that in 2010 Oxford University Press published War and Peace in a version which contained the Maude translation revised by Amy Mandelker. This was apparently felt necessary to update the language to be more in keeping with modern speech, and that’s an argument I’ve seen given for the current slew of Pevear/Volokhonsky translations. I can’t say how much this offends me! The Maude translations were written in an English that was contemporary with Tolstoy’s Russian and so surely should be left in that version! Do we say we should re-write Dickens to update him because modern readers can’t cope with decent length sentences, slightly archaic words, richer vocabulary? I think not! We need to stop treating readers as idiots, spoon-feeding them as if they don’t have any wider experience or knowledge of history, literature etc. Some volumes I’ve read recently have had a ridiculous amount of footnotes, over-explaining everything – with the World Wide Web available to us, if there’s a word or an allusion we don’t get, it’s quite easy to look it up!

Enough ranting – my favourite translator of the moment is definitely turning out to be the discreetly prolific Hugh Aplin – having just finished his “Notes from the Underground” I’m very impressed and shall review soon. Russian Reading Month continues!

(As a footnote, many of the Wordsworth Classics versions of Russian authors are the much-criticised Constance Garnett versions – an inexpensive way for anyone that wants them to track them down).

Russian Reading Month – Gogol

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Very excited today as my copy of Nabokov’s book on Gogol has arrived and gone straight to the top of the TBR!




“A word aptly uttered or written cannot be cut away by an axe.”
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

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