The Love of a Superfluous Man


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” 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.


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…


Getting Past Gatsby


F. Scott Fitzgerald was in the news at the end of last year owing to the discovery of a batch of “lost” stories which are apparently due to be published this year. He was an astonishingly prolific writer, producing stories for magazines on a regular basis, but it’s very much for “The Great Gatsby” that he’s remembered. I first read the book in my teens, after having been seduced by the Mia Farrow/Robert Redford film, and I’ve returned to it several times. And as you can see, I already own several copies…


However, I dipped back into GG recently courtesy of this beautiful review copy of the new Alma Evergreen edition and I’ve really been enjoying re-engaging with the story.


Like most of their Evergreens, this has a gorgeous cover, and comes with excellent supporting material on the author’s life and work, as well as a section on film adaptations of his books, plus some photos. It was reading about Fitzgerald’s other works that made me wonder why I’ve got so stuck on Gatsby and never managed to move onto any of his other novels (I have read some of his short stories). I have a huge shelf of his works, many volumes of which I’ve owned since my teens, so there’s absolutely no reason not to pick up another Fitzgerald and get reading. But I found myself wondering if it’s because Gatsby is such a perfect book that I’ve found myself unable to get past it and immerse myself in his other works.

The trouble is, when an author has written a book that’s regarded as iconic, there’s a danger that everything else they wrote will be judged against it. “Gatsby” stands so high in the pantheon of American literature that a reader might think there’s no need to read anything else written by Fitzgerald, and that’s a great shame.

I do, however, have an awful lot of Fitzgeralds on my shelves which are begging to be read:


And I had forgotten that I own one of the beautiful editions produced by Alma that’s available in their Fitzgerald Collection:


So there is no excuse for me not to read more Fitzgerald in 2017! However, in the meantime I shall continue to enjoy my Alma Evergreen edition of Gatsby, with its tale of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby and his great love for Daisy Buchanan, and I thought I would share a few favourite quotes with you.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.


There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.


And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

Exploring the rather wonderful Bulgakov Collection!


It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I’m a huge fan of small publishers and there are several whose books I love to read and write about on a regular basis. One of my favourites is Alma Classics, who are always bringing out delicious editions of excellent books (particularly the Russians I’m so fond of) in new translations and with extra material. The publisher has rather wonderfully become something of a champion of the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, producing absolutely lovely versions of his works, and I was very excited to hear that Alma has put together collections themed by author or genre which you can get at very reduced prices! Of course, the Bulgakov Complete Fiction Collection was the one that appealed to me, and it really is a great selection of books:


As you can see there is a wonderful array of titles featured, and the covers are stunning. Alma were kind enough to provide a copy of “The Fatal Eggs” for me to read in the translation by Roger Cockrell (who’s rendered several of the versions here) and I loved getting reacquainted with it! The last time I read the book, I commented on what a strong presence in the book was the city of Moscow:

Moscow was the adopted city of Bulgakov’s heart, and this is very clear from all his fictions. IN FE he captures brilliantly the effect of the events on the populace, utilising all the modern trappings of the city, from newspapers to neon signs. FE is funny, pithy, thought-provoking and unforgettable – highly recommended.

I felt the same again reading this wonderful book, and it really is a treat, painting a vivid picture of the Soviet Union in times of change, with science coming to the fore and the media out of control (somewhat familiar, that last thing….) But all of Bulgakov’s writings are worth reading, and the Alma Collection is a great way to get hold of them, and includes his most famous title, “The Master and Margarita”. The price is pretty good too – although the banner I’ve put in above says £50, when I last looked at the Alma website the price had been slashed so check this out to see if you can snag a real Bulgakov bargain.

The Collections also feature children’s classics, opera, gothic and horror titles, as well as one which appeals to me very strongly – The Complete F. Scott Fitzgerald Collection in absolutely gorgeous covers. It’s so tempting – if only I wasn’t supposed to be buying too many books at the moment… 🙂

Not exactly your regular travelogue….


Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Kyril FitzLyon

As we head on into January of the new year, a month I always find a little bleak, I’ve been happy to spend some time with one of my favourite authors – Fyodor Dostoevsky. Alma Classics have released one of his lesser-known works, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and were kind enough to provide a copy for review. The book is translated by Kyril FitzLyon, who also provides an excellent introduction, and as he points out this is one of Dostoevsky’s works that’s been unaccountably overlooked.


FD’s work is usually divided into two halves; those written before his conviction, death sentence, appearance in front of a firing squad, last-minute reprieve and exile in Siberia; and those written after it. Obviously the experiences dividing these two parts of his life were ones which affected him profoundly, and although his later career is usually reckoned to begin with “Notes from Underground” (1864), the first book to outline his mature thoughts and beliefs. However, “Winter Impressions….” was published a year earlier and contains many of the themes which would inform his later great novels.

In June 1862, Dostoevsky travelled to Western Europe for the first time, visiting Berlin, Paris, London, Florence, Milan and Vienna amongst others. The trop was supposedly for him to consult Western doctors concerning his epilepsy. However, it sounds as if this might have been a bit of a front, as in fact FD spent much of his time studying the Europeans peoples, their beliefs and their customs. Western ideas were starting to creep into Russian, and Dostoevsky was concerned about the effect these were having on his homeland and its people.

Oh when, my God, will I learn to be orderly?…

Rest assured, this is no light travelogue with amusing anecdotes about the various nations that Dostoevsky passed through on his travels; instead he takes us to the heart of the human condition, relating his experiences and sharing his thoughts on the differences between his home country and Europe. In his usual digressive, rather rambling style, FD tells us of being observed by police spies on a train; encounters with the masses partying in the London streets to celebrate receiving their weekly pay; and his thoughts on the peoples of various nations. He clearly thinks very little of the French as a nation, preferring instead his time spent in London. Although the latter city has the same great divide between rich and poor as Paris, London is more honest about the situation, not trying to hide away and deny its poor like the French capital does. He also doesn’t mince his words when it comes to religion; as a strong believer in Russian Orthodoxy, he’s no fan of the Catholic and Anglican faiths. Whilst acknowledging the ills of Russia, including the dreadful condition of the serfs (who had only just been emancipated), he is angered by the West’s refusal to admit that their poor are slaves as well.

… before long (the French bourgeois) will take to quoting texts to defend the slave trade like American from the southern states of the USA.

Despite his unhappiness about the poverty he sees, Dostoevsky is much more taken with London than the other cities he visits, providing a wonderfully vivid paragraph describing it:

…what an overwhelming spectacle it presents, painted on a vast canvas. Even superficially, how different it is to Paris! The immense town, forever bustling by night and by day, as vast as an ocean, the screech and howl of machinery, the railways built above the houses (and soon to be built under them) the daring of enterprise, the apparent disorder, which in actual fact is the highest form of bourgeois order, the polluted Thames, the coal-saturated air, the magnificent squares and parks, the town’s terrifying districts such as Whitechapel with its half-naked, savage and hungry population, the City with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the World Exhibition…

But despite being impressed by the city, he is saddened by the sight of women of the street selling their own daughter for money. In fact, FD spends much of the book discussing the possibility of humans really being free, and whether a brotherhood of man is actually possible; certainly, he feels strongly that the French revolution has achieved nothing, and the people of that country come in for some of his strongest criticism.


“Winter Notes…” is obviously not a perfect book; there is a sense that some of the countries have been very much ignored, and apparently this was because Dostoevsky travelled about so much in a short time that he barely had time to take in some of the places he went to. Nevertheless, it’s possible to see the early formation of some of the ideas he would develop more fully in his later great novels; and also to have visions of this erratic but brilliant man whizzing round Europe on a train, observing all, finding much food for thought and coming back to Russia even more convinced of its superiority. Alma have done us a great favour by bringing out such a lovely new edition of “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and if you fancy reading him, this is a very good way to get an introduction in to some of Dostoevsky’s beliefs and thoughts!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!)

Seriously funny!


After Supper Ghost Stories by Jerome K. Jerome

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read, a title that makes me laugh every time I read it and which I’d take with me to a desert island, is Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. It’s the title for which he’s best known, and I’ve read it several times; but although I’ve tried several other books by him (including “Three Men on the Bummel” and “Diary of a Pilgrimage”), I’ve never found that any match up to “Three Men…” However, one thing I didn’t know he wrote was ghost stories and so when I heard that Alma Classics were issuing a new edition of “After Supper Ghost Stories”, I was very keen to read it.


A slim volume with a beautiful cover design (in that almost plasticky texture that so many paperbacks have nowadays), the book contains a number of short pieces. The first group is the titular collection, and the introduction was enough to have me smirking as the narrator explains the habits of English ghosts and how they only work on Christmas Eve. Set in his Uncle’s house, there is plenty of alcohol flowing as the guests relate their scary stories, trying to outdo each other. But our narrator is somewhat unreliable, gradually getting more and more confused as the alcohol takes hold, until the final story has him behaving very badly and blaming on a local spook!

Whenever give or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfied us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.

Jerome is obviously poking fun at the whole genre of Christmas fireside ghost stories and it’s great fun: not really scary, but very funny and enjoyable and full of Jerome’s trademark wit. You won’t get the shivers from reading these tales, but you will get a laugh!

The rest of the volume is made up of miscellaneous pieces which make fascinating reading. It’s difficult often to pin down what they’re actually about as they’re wonderfully random pieces that are all over the place! “Evergreen”, for example, which begins with Jerome lauding those ordinary, regular, stolid everyday people, ends with a screamingly funny sequence about a woman with a bulldog under her crinoline which had me laughing like a drain! “The New Utopia”, a strange tale which visualises an impersonal and regimented future, celebrates human life with all its ups and downs, its good and bad.

Similarly, in “Dreams”, Jerome looks forward and foresees his unhappy grandchildren growing to “loathe electricity. Electricity is going to light them, warm them, carry them, doctor them, cook for them, execute them if necessary. They are going to be weaned on electricity, ruled and regulated and guided by electricity, buried by electricity. I may be wrong, but I rather think they are going to be hatched by electricity.” Now, while I wouldn’t want to be without electricity, when I think of how dependent people are nowadays on their electrically powered gadgets, I think he may have a point…


I often feel that JKJ was fighting his natural tendency towards humour in an attempt to produce serious works, and often struggled to decide quite what he wanted to do with his writing. Sometimes he seemed to be finding it difficult in his works to get in the right levels of humour and serious material, and although I like his funny writing he certainly has some more weighty points to make about humans and the world they live in which are still relevant today.

Truth and fact are old-fashioned and out of date, my friends, fit only for the dull and vulgar to live by. Appearance, not reality, is what the clever dog grasps at in these clever days. We spurn the dull-brown solid earth; we build our lives and homes in the fair-seeming rainbow land of shadow and chimera.

With “Three Men and a Boat” Jerome got the balance right, and in many of the pieces here too his words of wisdom are tempered with some wonderful humour. “After Supper Ghost Stories” is a lovely little collection, ideal reading for the long winter nights when you want something to lift the spirits and make you think. So kudos to Alma for reissuing the book which goes a long way towards proving that Jerome K. Jerome had more to him than just his most famous title!

Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!

The Final Shininess of the Year!


SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Today is the publication day for the final issue of Shiny New Books for 2016- number 13! It’s also, I believe, going to be the final one in this format, so do go and enjoy all the lovely content there.


I’ve been pleased to provide a few reviews this time round and I thought I would first of all point you to my thoughts on a beautiful new edition of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” from Alma Classics. Aimed at a younger audience, and featuring black and white illustrations plus a plethora of extra material, it really is a lovely thing. You can read my full review here, and of course there will be much in the way of fascinating reading to be found in the whole of Shiny New Books! 🙂

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream…


Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

Image from plusquotes.com

Image from plusquotes.com

Today, as even someone barely conscious would realise, is Hallowe’en; that time of the year when we fall victim to rampant commercialism, encourage our children to dress up as the most gruesome creatures and go off to terrify local old people into giving them treats. I often think that the fact they give the little dears things that will rot their teeth and give them diabetes is a subtle form of revenge… But I digress. Behind all this commercial mayhem is a much older celebration, All Hallow’s Eve, when a three-day festival remembered the dead. So what more fitting to read than something a little spooky and gruesome!


I’ve been lucky enough to be have been provided with a review copy of the ideal book, “Tales of Horror” by Edgar Allan Poe, kindly sent by Alma Classics and I’ve been dipping into it over the past few days. The volume is a new addition to their excellent Evergreen range of reasonably price classics, all in lovely jackets, and this is no exception – the striking cover features suitably sombre design and of course Poe’s famous bird!

Short story collections are notoriously hard to review in a short blog post, so I thought instead I would pick out some favourites to share with you. And this really is an excellent selection, with all the stories you’d expect to see (“The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”) as well as some lesser known titles which are just as good. In fact, trying to choose the best from here is really difficult, so I’ll just mention a few that really stood out for me.

First up are two of his stories featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” (there is a third, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, which doesn’t feature here). The two stories were published in 1841 and 1844, predating Holmes by several decades, and it’s fascinating to see the template being set by Poe of the simple sidekick narrator and the enigmatic genius of a detective. Some of the exchanges, particularly one where Dupin explains how he’s followed the thought processes of his Watson and been able to come out with a comment that answers the question in his head, could have come straight out of Conan Doyle. And the mysteries are clever and satisfying. Interestingly, there is a quote from the creator of Holmes on the back of this book pretty much acknowledging his debt to Poe!

Then there’s one of the spooky ones I remember most from my initial reading of Poe, “Berenice”; this features many of Poe’s regular tropes, including catalepsy and epilepsy, premature burial and highly strung narrators. The latter in this case is prey to monomania; as a book obsessive, I can identify with that, though not with the man’s obsession with his beloved’s teeth, and the consequences…. “Eleanora” is set in the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grasses, and is full of highly wrought emotions and beautiful descriptions of the fantasy landscape. “The Man of the Crowd” is most unusual, with the narrator following a man making his way through an urban landscape but unable to fathom what motivates his movements; the conclusion is unexpected, to say the least. And “William Wilson” finds a narrator struggling with a doppelgänger who pursues him throughout his life.


These are just some of the riches, and in fact calling the book “Tales of Horror” perhaps does it a slight disservice, as there’s such a wide variety of stories on view here, covering ghosts, mesmerism, crime, love, death, the supernatural in general and even reincarnation. Poe has a reputation for being a bit grim and dark and melodramatic, and certainly these are elements in many of the stories. However, what’s not often realised is that he can be quite funny, and in several of the tales seems to be sending up the whole genre. The wonderfully fantastical “The Devil in the Belfry”, set in the strange village of Vondervotteimittiss (try pronouncing it out loud carefully….) with its residents who are obsessed with cabbages and clocks is pure joy. It took me a second read to pick up all the clever little elements Poe had built into the story and it was an unexpected highlight of the book. Likewise, “Some Words with a Mummy” is very tongue-in-cheek, as is “Never Bet the Devil in your Head”.

Poe’s imagination knows no bounds, taking us all over the world to real places in Europe and America as well as fantastic landscapes that never existed, and this collection really showcases what a wonderful storyteller he was. “Tales of Horror” is a fabulous read, particularly for this time of year when the nights draw in, full of shivers, laughs and wild fancy. You could do not better than pick up this lovely Evergreen edition for a perfect Hallowe’en experience; me, I’m off to the Internet to listen to Basil Rathbone’s wonderful rendition of “The Raven”!

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