Back in 2015, when I was on the hunt for every bit of Bulgakov writing in translation that I could find, I stumbled across (and was presented with as Christmas gift!) the marvellous collection of short stories, “Red Spectres”. Translated from the Russian by Muireann Maguire, it’s a wonderful anthology which I loved to bits; so when I found out that she had a new collection out, entitled “White Magic”, I was, needless to say, very interested. Muireann very kindly arranged for a review copy for me, which was absolutely lovely of her, and I’m pleased to report that the new book is just as great as her first anthology!

“Red Spectres” focused on ‘Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century’, as the subtitle stated; however, “White Magic” takes as its basis writing by émigré authors, and the consistent thread running through the stories is that of ‘mystery and terror’. That term can encompass a fascinatingly wide range of writing, and the tales featured here really are are wonderfully varied.

You were shown a phantom future, and by striving towards it you crush in your heart all desires and passions for your present reality as well as any memory of your past. In this ill-defined, wistful striving, you will seize on things instinctively, without knowing why; but your ignorance of your final aim will not stop you, only spur you on all the more, set you on fire and ultimately, little by little, rip you away from your life, in stubborn pursuit of the dream. (‘He’)

“White Magic” contains, appropriately enough, thirteen stories, and they’re arranged alphabetically by author. If I remember correctly, only four of these are names I already know, and so that’s an additional bonus – it’s always a treat to discover new authors! As I said earlier, the stories are very diverse: some, like “He” and “The Cimmerian Disease” by Alexander Amfiteatrov, are frankly supernatural; and that kind of element sneaks into others, like “Hermann’s Card” and “The Bells” by Ivan Lukash, which both have a very vivid St. Petersburg setting and heritage, as well as “The Venetian Mirror” and “The Companion” by Pavel Muratov. Others, like Irina Odoyevtseva‘s “By The Sea” and Teffi‘s “The Mother” deal with more human passions. And Zamyatin‘s “The Watch” and “The Encounter” have mysteries and twists in them, but set against a very satirised Soviet background.

Then there’s “Kum” by Georgy Peskov (who was actually Yelena Deisha); this is a very dark tale of vengeance which leaves shivers running down the spine; and revenge is at the root of Pyotr Krasnov‘s bloody story “The Eightieth”, which doesn’t shy away from the real horrors of the Revolution and Civil War. And last, but certainly not least, is the marvellous Gaito Gazdanov; his story, “An Adventurer”, is just wonderful and perhaps different from most the other work of his I’ve read. Set in 19th century St. Petersburg, it features a glamorous society woman who is bored with her lot encountering a freezing foreigner on her way home. Taking him in she discovers he’s actually Edgar Allan Poe – although his presence in Russia does seem somewhat chimerical…

On white nights Petersburg quietly shimmers from within, like a pale icon lamp. On white nights, everything is smoke and mirrors, half-heard, half-phantom, silver visions and sorrows. On white nights, everything quivers gently, everything floats lightly and dimly along in a pale current of houses, palaces, colonnades, avenues, and railings vanishing into obscurity. In this silvery, glimmering gloom, Petersburg slips its moorings. Petersburg stirs silently. On white nights, Petersburg dies – quietly and tenderly, without noise or palpitations, like a pale icon lamp burning all the way down. (Hermann’s Card)

As you can see, the book is a real box of delights! The scary stories really *are* scary, whether vampiric tales or hauntings or possessions. However, the tales which step away from that form are equally chilling; Teffi’s portrayal of the blindness of mother-love, for example, is unforgettable and disturbing. “The Companion”, which is a kind of morality tale really, has a very unsettling title character who I wouldn’t want by my side.. The Zamyatin stories are a particular treat, too, as they’re set firmly in the Soviet period yet hearken back to earlier times, as well as bringing a welcome twist of humour. And the Gazdanov is as mesmerising as ever. Making the acquaintance of the new authors was a joy too, and I shall have to dig through all of my Russian short story collections to see if I have any more by these writers. Having reshuffled the Russian shelves recently, I’m painfully aware of how many unread short story anthologies I have from that country…

So I’m pleased to report that “White Magic” more than lives up to its predecessor! The writing in these stories is often stunning, as you can see from the quotes above – wonderfully poetic and atmospheric, and very evocative. Maguire provides an erudite introduction as well as textual notes throughout the book, and it has some lovely black and white illustrations, one for each tale, by Asya Lisina (who also provides the cover illustration, a colour version of one of the inner ones). As Muireann points out, although these stories are all written from a place of exile, there’s so much variety; trying to pin down émigré writing to just one type or with one theme is pointless, as these wonderful stories demonstrate. What is clear, however, is the sheer quality of work which was produced by Russian émigré authors and hopefully this is a seam which translators will continue to mine deeply. Needless to say, I can’t recommend this collection highly enough; whether you’re a fan of the short story form, or love translated literature, like to be spooked, or simply want to read brilliant and thought-provoking writing, “White Magic” is the book for you!

Review copy kindly provided by the author and publisher, for which many thanks! 🙂 As there are some translated works by women in the collection, I shall count this as a read for #WITMonth!