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Clashing ideologies and emotions

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The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Translated by Jamie Bulloch

In the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve developed a real passion for smaller, independent presses. So many of my favourite books in recent years have been published by people like Pushkin and Alma; but a more recently discovery, and a publisher bringing out some real gems, is Peirene Press. As I mentioned in my review of “Sea of Ink” (my first Peirene) the books are designed to be read in one sitting, which is a great idea. Also, each year’s releases are themed and those for 2017 have the title “East and West”. The first release of the year is one that could have been chosen for me, as it was published in 1910, and deals with the lives of Russians during the early part of the 20th century; so I was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers!

9781908670342Ricarda Huch is an author new to me, but it seems that she was a bit of a trail blazer. A historian, novelist and philosopher, she was one of the first women to study at the University of Zürich and was the first female writer to become a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Apparently there’s even an asteroid named after her.

“TLS” is a purely epistolary novel, telling its story entirely in letter form. These missives are written by various members of the family involved and gradually tell the tale brilliantly. It is summer; the family of Yegor von Rasimkara are in the country, having left St. Petersburg for the summer. Yegor is the Governor of Petersburg and has caused controversy by closing the city’s university and putting some revolutionary students on trial. His wife Lusinya fears for his life, and a bodyguard has been hired in the form of a young man, Lyu. However, as we learn from the very start, Lyu is on the side of the students and has been planted on the family to carry out an assassination.

Yegor and Lyu bond over new technology, in the form of a typewriter...

Yegor and Lyu bond over new technology, in the form of a typewriter…

Things are complicated by the presence of the two daughters of the family, Katya and Jessika, as well as the son of the house, Velya. Correspondence takes place between Lyu and his outside contact, as well as the children and their cousin Peter, and Peter’s mother Tatyana. Gradually a picture builds up of the people concerned and the events taking place and it is clear that Lyu is not going to find it easy to carry out the killing; despite disagreeing with Yegor’s views, he likes the man, and indeed the whole family. Things get more difficult as both daughters are attracted to Lyu, and Velya likes him as well. As the summer wears on, time is running out before the students are brought to trial and Lyu will have to act soon if he is going to act at all…

The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the tension as the story develops is palpable! Huch’s writing is superb and she gradually builds up a picture of all the main protagonists from the letters; whether their own, where they reveal themselves, or seeing them from the viewpoint of their family members in other letters. Each personality is fully realised and believable and this has to be one of the most effective uses of this format I’ve ever read.

One of the most chilling elements is seeing how ideology can divide people; Lyu and the family all like each other very much, but all of their viewpoints are very different. The children of the family actually disagree with their father and sympathise with the students, so much so that the adults consider sending them abroad to study and travel and widen their outlook, and also to avoid familial conflict. Lyu gets on well with both Yegor and his wife, yet his belief in, and commitment to, revolution and assassination is more important than a human connection. In some ways, the book reminded me a little of Conrad’s “Secret Agent” in that not all of the characters allowed ideology to completely get in the way of their humanity, although the ones that do are completely committed. And although initially it might seem that this is just a minor matter of student dissent, later on in the book it becomes clear that those protesting students will be executed; the contrast between Yegor the family man, and Yegor the unquestioning functionary is quite startling.

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The book builds to a tense and shocking climax, and it left me a little breathless. Certainly a book dealing with the terrorist impulse is a timely one, and it just goes to show that not much has changed. People will still do anything for a cause they believe in, humanity goes out of the window when belief becomes more important that real life humans, and we all need to stand back and remember we are all people, all living together on this little planet and we need to have more tolerance and learn to get on. “The Last Summer” is a gripping and chilling work, an excellent addition to the Peirene stable and very highly recommended.

(“The Last Summer” is published today. Review copy kindly provided by Peirene Press, for which many thanks)

Trial by Inquest: The Charles Bravo poisoning case

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How Charles Bravo Died by Yseult Bridges

There’s been a recent bookish trend for popular volumes covering real life crimes; “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” is the most obvious one, and that title could be regarded as having kick-started the whole fashion. However, it’s interesting to find that this *isn’t* in fact something modern, as a chance find in a charity shop revealed. I picked up “How Charles Bravo Died”, published in 1956, on a whim some time back in one of the local charity shops; I knew that the Bravo case was a famous one from the past, but apart from that I wasn’t familiar with anything about it, so I came to this with no preconceptions – and what a great read it turned out to be!

Alas, my book club edition does not have this pretty dustjacket

Alas, my book club edition does not have this pretty dustjacket

The case was a notorious one, also known as the Balham Poisoning, and one that was never solved. Charles Bravo was a young barrister; he met and married Florence Ricardo, a beautiful widow, in 1875 and the two settled in The Priory, Balham. Both partners had something of a chequered past: Charles had a long-term liaison with another woman by whom he had a child. As for Florence, her first marriage had been an unhappy one as Captain Ricardo was a drinker; she had taken the unusual (in those days) step of seeking a legal separation before he drank himself to death. She then had an off-on relationship with an older man, Dr. Gully, which resulted in at one point the latter having to undertake an abortion for Florence. However, she craved respectability and allowed herself to be rushed into marriage with Bravo, a mistake she would come to regret.

Charles Bravo

Charles Bravo

Charles Bravo was a queer fish; doted upon obsessively by his mother, and controlled through the purse strings of his stepfather, it’s hard not to conclude that he married Florence for her money. However, Florence was no pushover, keeping control of her funds, and this caused clashes within the marriage. And despite the fact that she’d been open about her relationship with Gully before the marriage, and Charles had promised never to mention it, he in fact constantly berated her about Gully, causing further tensions.

In April 1876, Charles Bravo suddenly became ill. He called for his wife but instead her companion/housekeeper Jane Cox initially attended. Numerous doctors were called; various treatments were tried; but owing to a combination of stupidity and the drug taking hold too quickly, Charles Bravo died three days later from antimony poisoning. He was lucid enough to know he was dying but he declared on several occasions that he’d only taken laudanum for pain, nothing else, and no-one was able to find out how the antimony got into his system.

What followed was a farce: two inquests, both badly run and badly controlled by the coroner, which concluded little and simply served to throw suspicion on Florence and Mrs. Cox. Their lives and their reputations were dragged through the mud in the most appalling way (especially bearing in mind these were only inquests and not court proceedings) and Florence in particular was judged and condemned by the public for her relationship with Gully (and how hypocritical that Charles Bravo’s affair and illegitimate child were brushed over).

florence-bravo

Florence Bravo

Yseult Bridges’ book is a fascinating investigation of the case, complete with illustrations and maps of the house. She covers the background to the family; both inquests in depth; and draws conclusions at the end, presenting a very plausible solution of her own. Because fascinatingly, the case was never solved; despite the second inquest jury finding that Charles Bravo was murdered, they stated that there was not enough evidence to say by whom, and although the implication was that either Florence or Mrs. Cox or both were guilty, neither woman was ever prosecuted. However, the reputation of Florence was in tatters and she did not survive her husband long.

Bridges is systematic and thorough with her presentation of the case, drawing on a number of sources, and it’s clear that she thinks Florence was unjustly maligned and unfairly treated by the inquest. The marriage had not been easy for Florence; Charles was demanding, unreasonable and unsympathetic when she was unwell. In the short marriage they had, Florence suffered two miscarriages, one not long before the poisoning, and Bravo’s attitude was not always kind.

As for the solution – well, I’m not going to reveal what it is but Bridges makes a good case for her hypothesis. I looked up the case online after I’d finished the book and her resolution is still given credence. I don’t suppose the truth will ever be known but I’d like to believe that Bridges’ deduction is the right one as it means there’s a certain poetic justice involved. The book is a gripping read; a little old-fashioned in the writing occasionally, but still just as exciting as a crime fiction novel. I was going to say that it’s a good thing that the Victorian hypocrisy of judging women’s sexual behaviour differently to that of men has gone, but I’m not actually convinced it has. I wonder if a modern-day Florence Bravo would meet with the same judgemental attitudes – I rather fear she would…

(As an aside, I’ve been able to find out nothing about Yseult Bridges, which is a shame. She seems to have specialised in writing about real life crimes and on the evidence of this book she certainly had a talent for such things!)

Rediscovering Gormenghast: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

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One of the pivotal reads of my life, and one which I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently in guest posts, was my first encounter at the age of 19 with the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake. I devoured them over a dull Christmas, and became totally absorbed in the strange and wonderful world the author had created. They had such an effect on me that I later ended up becoming involved with the running of the Mervyn Peake Society for some years, and I’ve always thought that Peake’s polymath talents have been underappreciated. Painter, illustrator, poet, playwright and author, he really was a multi-talented man.

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Over the years I’ve returned to the books several times, and they would most definitely be on my desert island list. However, writing about them brought them back into my mind and I’ve been circling a re-read. A chance stumble upon a lovely, readable omnibus edition in a charity shop clinched it – now was the time to make a return journey to Gormenghast castle and its inhabitants. I actually read the book over a week where both myself and OH were unwell with some nasty undefined bug that was doing the rounds, and it’s a tribute to Peake’s genius that I was completely absorbed – I spent the week *living* through the events in Gormenghast once more. I’ll confess up front that I’m not going to be able to give an objective, coherent review – I’m too close to the book, it means too much to me and so I’ll just try to capture some impressions and thoughts.

The action is set in the castle of Gormenghast, home to the ancient family of Groan, and opens with the birth of an heir, Titus, to Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th earl, and his wife Gertrude. This is a world ruled by the iron hand of ritual; every day defined by a prescribed set of actions that Sepulchrave and the denizens have to undertake, under the hand of the ancient and bad-tempered master of ritual, Sourdust. In rapid succession we meet all the main characters: Flay, stick-like and monosyllabic manservant to Lord Sepulchrave; Fuchsia, 15-year-old daughter of the house of Groan; Dr. Bernard Prunesquallor and his sister Irma, not quite part of the higher echelons but above the servants; Nannie Slagg, ancient nurse to the children of Groan; Swelter, the monumentally huge chef; and Steerpike, the high-shouldered, sly kitchen lad who comes to play a pivotal part in the story.

Fuchsia and Steerpike on a page of the ms - from mervynpeake.org

Fuchsia and Steerpike on a page of the ms – from mervynpeake.org

Those are just a few of the characters in this rich and wonderful book, all vividly alive, in fact larger than life; but there are many more who pass through its pages. To be honest, the castle itself, a rambling, sprawling, undefined structure with architectural oddities and marvels all over it, is very much a character itself. And as the castle’s denizens reacts to the birth of Titus, Steerpike makes an escape from the kitchens and into the upper life of the Groans; Flay and Swelter clash in a way that will eventually seal their fates; Fuchsia responds badly to the changes coming in the castle; and the story follows the events of the first year of Titus’s life which will bring dramatic events to a cataclysmic head. More I am not going to say, because if you’ve never read Peake you have the biggest treat in the world awaiting you.

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To attempt to give a summary of the plot would be impossible in a blog post, and also I want to avoid any kind of spoiler; so instead I’ll just focus on a few of the strands which gave me the most pleasure. Of course, watching Steerpike’s inexorable rise through the ranks, as he twists every situation to his own advantage, is fascinating – like watching a poisonous animal in action; the development of Prunesquallor, who initially appears to be all hysteria and puff but gradually reveals himself to have a hidden intelligence and subtle understanding of what’s going on around him, is wonderful to see; and the late-flowering relationship between Fuchsia and her father Sepulchrave is particularly poignant and heartbreaking. The Flay-Swelter rivalry and conflict is gripping, and has you on the edge of your seat at several points; and the manipulation of the Groan twins Cora and Clarice is clever and vicious. As for the melancholy Sepulchrave and his library – let’s not go there…..

The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused his illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.

Even though I know this story better than I had remembered, the joy of revisiting it was immense. The first time reading it I was stunned by the writing and the characterisation, reading obsessively to follow the story. However, on re-reads you can wallow in the wonder of the prose and the sheer brilliance of the imagery. Wherever Gormenghast is meant to be (in my mind it sits apart in some kind of parallel world!), it is truly alive in its own right and it’s a creation of genius. “Titus Groan” contains vivid and wonderful writing, the prose of an artist bringing to life his creation with word paintings. The pictures it creates, of corridors and roofscapes, attics and kitchens, faded ceremonial rooms and bedrooms full of ivy, birds and white cats, are unique and stamped in my brain. Peake’s writing summons a chiaroscuro world where light and dark are in constant contrast and although the book contains a scattering of his pen and ink drawings of characters, you don’t need them – the writing provides the pictures for you.

    As Fuchsia climbed into the winding darkness her body was impregnated and made faint by a qualm as of green April. Her heart beat painfully.
    This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame… The love of the painted standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. Standing with him in the room the rearing canvas stares back with tentative shapes halted in their growth, moving in a new rhythm from floor to ceiling… The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. he is in love. … the painted mutters, ‘I am me’ on his lone raft of floorboards, so… dark Fuchsia (says) on her twisting staircase, ‘I am home’.
(Fuchsia’s love for her secret attic)

And revisiting these characters, with all their quirks and individual traits, was a wonderful experience. From Prunesquallor’s hyena laugh to Irma’s obsession with her long white neck; Steerpike’s cold mechanical calculation to Swelter’s almost sensual greed and hatred; Fuchsia’s petulance and need for affection to Sepulchrave’s melancholia and love of his books; all the characters leap off the page, alive and vivid, and they’re ones you don’t forget. The wonderful Flay is one of my favourites, but each strange but compelling character is necessary to the story. I’ve pondered in the past about a sub-strand of the plot, involving Keda; one of the Bright Carvers, people who live outside the walls of the castle, she’s brought in as a wet-nurse for Titus, and her life and fate is related alongside that of the castle. The passion she and her people feel is in direct contrast to the sterility of the dying line inside the castle, and I think is a necessary counterpoint to that story.

Mr. Flay (from mervynpeake.org)

Mr. Flay (from mervynpeake.org)

What I had either forgotten or perhaps never appreciated is quite how Dickensian Peake’s writing is. His wonderful use of names, of course, echoes the great Victorian writer, and he demonstrates the same kind of dry wit at times. The sprawling world of Gormenghast in many ways echoes Dickens’ London, and the use of evil, melodrama and dark themes was common to both writers.

I accept that “Titus Groan” and Peake’s writing will not be for everyone. The events and characters are often grotesque, the subject matter grim and the sense of ennui and destruction noticeable. The books were influenced by Peake’s experiences as a child living in Tientsin, but also by his life experiences. As a war artist, he was one of the first civilians to see inside Belsen and witness the prisoners dying as their liberators arrived; therefore it’s hard not to read significance into something as simple as Steerpike’s kitchen uniform having a striped jacket… (“Titus Groan” was published in 1946). The book contains darkness, yes, but a necessary darkness; it’s also shot through with brilliance and often great beauty.

I did wonder, after all these years and several reads, what I would feel approaching the Gormenghast books again. Although I’ll never be able to recreate the thrill of that first read, this re-read stunned me in many places with the brilliance of the writing and plotting, completely involved me emotionally and left me drained at the end. It’s one of those books, a select few, that you inhabit rather than just read. The main problem I have now is in restraining myself from simply picking up the next book and carrying on with the re-read – I want to give myself time to recover a little, but the temptation is immense!

More wonderful fiction from Lem – at Shiny New Books!

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No doubt you’ll all have been exploring the lovely new revamped Shiny New Books with its wonderful array of reviews and recommendations! I have a few reviews coming up on the site, and one is published today – my thoughts on the latest reissued Stanislaw Lem book from Penguin, “Mortal Engines”.

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Like the other Lem books I’ve read from Penguin, this one contains a collection of shorter works. However, in this volume they’re selected by translator Michael Kandel, and they’re an intriguing bunch with some longer stories moving away from the kind I’ve read so far.

My review of this fabulous collection is here – do go and have a look! 🙂

The Books That Built the Blogger with Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings!

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I was delighted to be asked by Cathy at 746books.com to take part in her “The Books That Built the Blogger” series – my post is up now so do go and check out her blog!

746 Books

built-bloggersThis week on The Books That Built the Blogger, I’m delighted to welcome Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings! Her blog has long been one of my favourites, with a fantastic mix of classics, poetry and works in translation. I was so intrigued to hear about the books that made her the reader, and blogger, she is today!

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If you’ve been reading books as long as I have, and you think of yourself as a voracious reader (I certainly am!) then it can be hard to pick out favourites. However, when Cathy asked me to contribute to her ‘Books That Built the Blogger’ series, I thought I would have a go at pinpointing some books that are particularly significant.

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As a child I was always reading, more often than not Enid Blytons, or basically anything I could get my hands on. We didn’t have much money for books, so the…

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…in which I discover that I own an awful lot of Turgenev books…

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As I mentioned in my review of “A Nest of the Gentry”, I have a *lot* of Turgenev books on Mount TBR, few of which I’d actually read, and I thought I’d dig them out to find out what I actually own(!) This was actually something of an eye-opener, particularly in the amount of duplication there is – which kind of shows how unsystematic I often am about buying books!

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So here is the Turgenev pile – and there’s a lot of it, but as you can see several multiple copies. For example:

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Why do I own two Penguin Classics versions of “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”? I have no idea, but I need to do some checking to see if there are any differences between the two and if not, donate one!

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“Fathers and Sons”/”Fathers and Children” – one of Turgenev’s best-known works (possible *the* best-known). I’ve had the ancient Penguin for as long as I can remember, whereas the shiny new Alma edition was part of a competition prize. Different translations, obviously, and I really should get onto reading this one soon.

collection

The volume with five short novels contains “Rudin” and “Superfluous”, but also “Spring Torrents” and “First Love” which I have in separate editions. *Sigh* – yet more duplication…

nest

And finally, “Home of the Gentry”, “A Nest of the Gentry” or indeed, as the little red book is titled, “Liza”… These are, of course, all the same story – apparently early translations of Turgenev’s second novel were sometimes given the name of the central female character, which is a bit misleading really as the book is about much more than just her (though I suppose you could argue that as she comes to embody Russia she’s fairly pivotal…) However, I can’t have realised this when I picked up the book ages ago, obviously just thinking it was a different work. Ho hum.

So – there is an awful lot of Turgenev in my collection and it does need a little judicious pruning. And I shall have to learn to pay attention when I’m picking up books in second-hand stores, because it’s obviously very easy to end up with superfluous copies….!

The Love of a Superfluous Man

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A Nest of the Gentry by Ivan Turgenev
Translated by Michael Pursglove

Russian author Turgenev was a very prolific man (as can be witnessed by the amount of his books I have lurking on Mount TBR – but that’s for another post….) However, despite owning all these works, I don’t seem to have read many of them; just “Smoke”, “Faust” and the short story “Mumu” that I can be sure of. So the arrival of a lovely shiny new translation in the form of a pretty edition of “A Nest of the Gentry” seemed like a good way to get on with reading more of his work.

nest-gentry

“Nest” has been translated under a number of titles, most often it seems “Home of the Gentry”,”A Nest of the Gentlefolk” and even “Liza” after one of the main characters (more on that in that forthcoming post). This new version from Alma Classics comes with a lovely cover and the usual excellent notes and supporting material. And the book itself is an interesting read.

“Nest” was Turgenev’s second novel, published in 1859, and it focuses primarily on Fyodor Lavretsky, a minor landowner. The epitome of the Russian superfluous man, he’s had a fragmented, incomplete education, a fractured upbringing and no real experience of life. So when he comes across the beautiful Varvara, he’s instantly smitten and the two soon marry. However, Varvara is more interested in the money and status she gets from the marriage rather than the somewhat provincial man who’s her spouse, and so the pair rattle around the capitals of Europe with Fedya rarely coming out of his shell; and it isn’t long until he discovers his wife’s infidelity and separates from her completely.

All of this is told in flashback, after Fedya has returned to his “nest”, the family home in the province of O-. Here he encounters a number of relatives, including Liza. During his absence she has grown from the child he knew to a beautiful young woman – pious, artistic and kind-natured, she already has suitors including the self-centred Panshin; she’s also adored from afar by her old German music teacher Lemm.

News reaches Fedya via the gossip columns that his wife is dead, and he desperately sends off for proof. Meanwhile, he and Liza have been growing closer and the inevitable happens. However, there will be several twists in the plot that will prevent a happy ending and it seems that Fedya is destined to be superfluous in more ways than one.

So on the surface this is a fairly straightforward, one might say predictable love story and it was no difficulty to anticipate the twists and turns the story took. However, I think there *is* a subtext here, and that relates to the character of Fedya and his lack of purpose in life. The Superfluous Man was a regular trope in Russian fiction of the time, and it was applied to someone with no real focus or purpose, a loafer or a drifter, obviously with enough money to support him in his chosen lifestyle! At one point, Fedya meets up with his old school friend Mikhalevich, who berates him for having a life lacking in meaning, and it’s true that he *does* seem to drift around in a bit of a fog.

…you’re a loafer, a nasty loafer, and you know it. You’re not just a plain and simple loafer – they lie on the stove and do nothing, because they’re incapable of doing anything. They don’t even think about anything, but you’ve got an active mind – and yet you just lie there. You could be doing something – and you do nothing. You lie on your back with a full stomach and say: this is the life, lying like this, because whatever people do, it’s all rubbish and pointless nonsense.

However, there seems to be an underlying strand dealing with the conflict between Western life and the more traditional Russian ways. Fedya’s return to his ancestral home, his “nest”, brings him back into contact with tradition and the land, and Liza comes to personify this for him. There are pastoral scenes where the two fish and spend time with nature, and perhaps Turgenev is saying that the solution to the problem of superfluity is to live a good life as an honest, hardworking landowner and not to seek meaning in Western culture.

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There is some beautiful writing in the book, particularly when Turgenev describes the landscape and the rural settings. And the symbolic return of the prodigal to the house of his late aunt, where he opens the windows to let in the light, cleans and refurbishes and reconnects with the servants is well handled. And yet… I hesitate to be critical, but I found the book to be a little underwhelming, and I can’t put my finger on why. There’s nothing bad I can say about it; the characters were well-drawn and amusing; the story entertaining; and the denouement moving. Perhaps it’s that I found that the love story, which was a little predictable, dominated too much and clouded whatever else Turgenev was trying to say. Certainly, I didn’t engage as strongly with the book as I hoped to and at times found my interest drifting.

Nevertheless, “A Nest of the Gentry” is an evocative book, capturing bucolic rural Russia and its inhabitants well; and it may be that if I read the book again I would respond differently. Certainly, if you want to read this particular Turgenev work the Alma edition is a good one to have as the translation read smoothly and well, and the supporting material is particularly useful. As for the other Turgenev books I have on the shelves – well, I’m off to take some pictures for my next post…

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