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It begins and ends with a letter… #gogol #thegovernmentinspector @almaclassics

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The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Roger Cockrell

When I was pondering on the wonderful books I’d read for the 1930 Club recently, I commented that the blog was suffering from a bit of RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency). Luckily it’s a condition which is easily treated, particularly when you have as many Russian books lurking in the stacks as I do! However, a recent arrival at the Ramblings, in the form of a sparkling new translation of Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector”, turned out to be the perfect cure… 😀

This lovely new copy is from Alma Classics, who also publish editions of his great novel “Dead Souls” and two lovely volumes which feature some of his shorter works. “The Government Inspector” is a comic work (as is so much of Gogol’s work) and holds an important place in the history of Russian drama. It’s been newly translated by Roger Cockrell (who rendered so beautifully their edition of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, which I reviewed here); and it certainly was a joy to read.

The play is set in a small provincial town, and opens with the local officials in uproar; a corrupt collection of Mayor, Judge, Inspector of Schools, Charities Commissioner, and so on. The Postmaster has intercepted a letter, warning that a Government Inspector is going to make a visit to the town, incognito, to check up on the officials; and as the town is filthy and neglected, dependent on bribery and generally chaotic, all hell is set to let loose. The uproar gets worse when it’s discovered that a man from St. Petersburg has been lodging at the local inn, one Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov. It’s instantly made clear to the audience that he’s a charlatan, out to blag what he can from the locals and then move on. However, the officials decide that he must be the visiting Inspector, and that mistaken identity leads to a hilarious comedy of errors.

Traitors in a provincial town! It’s hardly a border town, is it? You could gallop for three years in any direction and still be miles away from any other country.

Khlestakov is accompanied by a slovenly manservant, Osip; and both are happy to play along with the local officials and their fawning behaviour, even though they don’t know why it’s happening. So they’re well-fed, bribed with ‘loans’ and Khlestakov even starts to make up to both the Mayor’s wife *and* his daughter. The officials are in a state of fear and trembling, the townspeople are wondering if this important man from St. Petersburg can deal with the corrupt officials for them, and the Mayor’s daughter spies a potential husband. Will the truth out; will Khlestakov get out of the town in time; and what does the future hold for the people of the little town?

The first thing to say about “The Government Inspector” is that of course it is very, very funny. As the misunderstandings build up one on top of the other, the action degenerates into frantic farce where the townspeople vie for favours from the spurious Inspector and denounce each other left right and centre. There is a wonderful running joke in the existence of two indistinguishable local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who both have the same name and patronymic – Pyotr Ivanovich! As I read the play I was visualising how it would look onstage, and thinking that it would probably reduce the audience to hysterics.

… sometimes having an idea can do more harm than having no ideas at all.

However, there’s a little more to this play than just farce, as Gogol very cleverly and successfully mixes broad slapstick humour with satirical comment on the state of the Civil Service in Russia, and the corruption amongst officials. Russia was controlled by its strict bureaucratic hierarchy, but the dishonesty of the system and its officials was well known. By using the small town setting, Gogol probably hoped to get away with hiding his critique in the action; had he directed his commentary at the higher ranks in the cities it probably wouldn’t have been so easy.

God help anyone who goes into education! You’re always liable to be criticised. Everyone is always interfering, wanting to show they’re as clever as you are.

It also occurred to me that this play really sets the template for Russian satire to come: with the provincial setting and the focus on small town corruption, he was definitely a forerunner of Saltykov-Shchedrin (and I believe the latter has been referred to as the artistic ‘heir’ of Gogol). However, Gogol also foreshadows his own later work, as it’s quite possible to see Khlestakov as an early version of the protagonist of “Dead Souls”, Chichikov – almost a Chichikov in miniature! Both men are fly-by-night chancers, rushing from town to town trying to scam what they can from what they regard as simple provincial people. Of course, Chichikov is much more sophisticated, with complex plans to cheat the rural landowners; but it’s hard not to see the seeds of his character in Khlestakov, an early version without the plans and the cunning.

I think I’ve read “The Government Inspector” once before – and we’re talking *decades* ago here – so reading it in this wonderful new translation was such a treat. I found myself laughing like a drain throughout, whilst marvelling at the ability of human beings to deceive themselves. The play comes with useful notes which are just at the right level; not too many, and just what you need to enjoy reading it. Interestingly, Cockrell discusses briefly one of the many complex decisions translators have to make when working, and that was the rendering of the names in English. In the original, the names have a comic meaning (e.g. the name of the Mayor could be translated literally as Windbag). Should the translator render the names in comic form or simply transliterate? Cockrell sensibly (to my mind) transliterates – so the Mayor is Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky – but gives a key at the start of the notes which lets the reader know what the humorous version would be. I prefer this myself – and it’s something I’ve come across with my reading of various translations of “The Master and Margarita”; Ivan Bezdomny is sometimes rendered as Ivan Homeless, which is what his last name (a pseudonym) means. I prefer the Russian with a note somewhere as in the Gogol; I got a bit heated when reading “War and Peace” and coming across Prince Andrei given as Prince Andrew, as I want my Russians to sound Russian!!

Anyway – at least the RRD on the Ramblings has been remedied, and in a wonderful way. “The Government Inspector” was a treat from start to finish, and I’m now kind of thinking of it as a prequel to “Dead Souls”! Even if you don’t normally read plays, I’d recommend this one; it’s entertaining, hilarious and with a fascinating subtext. What more could you want? 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!

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After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀

 

Tackling Tolstoy… again! @almaclassics

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You would think, wouldn’t you, that after my last run-in with Tolstoy over “The Kreutzer Sonata” I would want to give a little time and space before returning to his work. However, I have been determined to read more of his shorter works (although they’re not really anthologised in a logical way) and in particular to finish the collection Mr. Kaggsy gave me, as well as two pretty review copies from the lovely people at Alma Classics. And here is a picture of what is going to feature in this post:

I was reading some of these whilst suffering with a major sinus infection, so perhaps they weren’t the most obvious choice. Nevertheless I enjoyed these a lot more than Kreutzer (although they aren’t without their problems); and frankly, as I commented on Twitter, *any* Tolstoy other than Kreutzer is going to be a doddle.

I’m going to tackle “The Forged Coupon” first, as it kind of stands to one side in its subject matter and is an intriguing piece of Tolstoy’s short work. Published in 1911, after the author’s death, it was actually written in the period of 1880 to 1904 – so quite a long time for a short book. Structurally, and in its content, it’s in some ways unlike anything else I’ve read by the author, as it tackles a kind of butterfly effect of events that are all triggered by a young student falsifying a bank bond (the coupon of the title) and cashing it in. This has a catastrophic knock-on effect, as we follow a chain reaction which impacts on any number of peasants who lose jobs, turn to crime, commit murders and in many cases end up jail – all because of one seemingly small crime. The narrative is economic and cleverly follows each person affected, showing how their lives intertwine and are disrupted by the one immoral act. The book is split into two parts, and the second (shorter) of these two shows some of the protagonists in prison, attempting to come to terms with their crimes and in many cases finding God.

The story does, of course, have a didactic point as by this time in his life Tolstoy was limbering up to be the towering moralist he eventually became. But despite this, the book is entertaining and clever, showing how our lives *do* intertwine and how what we do affects others. There isn’t the hysteria directed at women in some of his other works, there is dry humour and the book is more Dostoevksian or Gogolian in its effect than what you might describe as typically Tolstoyan. I can’t quite explain that any more than to say that at points I felt as if I was reading Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy!

While lying in the ditch, Stepan could see continually before him the meek, thin, frightened face of Marya Semyonovna and hear her words – “You can’t do that “– in her own peculiar, lisping, piteous voice. And again Stepan would go through all he had done to her. And he would become terrified and close his eyes, and rock his hairy head to shake these thoughts and memories out of it. And for a moment he would be free of the memories, but in their place would come to him first one, then a second black figure, and after the second would follow still more black figures with red eyes, pulling faces and all saying the same thing: “You did away with her – do away with yourself as well, or else we’ll give you no rest. “And he would open his eyes, and again he could see her and hear her voice, and he would start feeling pity for her, and revulsion and terror at himself. And again he would close his eyes, and again… the black figures.

“The Forged Coupon” is published by Alma, and so has all the nice extras that so often come with their books (photographs, supporting material, notes). It’s translated and introduced by Hugh Aplin (whose work I always find reliable), and so this one is definitely recommended as a great way to read Tolstoy’s shorter works and see where his thinking was going later in life.

The other two Tolstoy works I tackled actually feature in two volumes, and there’s a reason for that…. The last story in the Wordsworth Classics collection is “The Devil”, and this is also one of the “Three Novellas” volume from Alma. However, the Wordworth has the title character as Eugene, whereas the Alma has him as Yevgeny. Pedant that I am, I am very uncomfortable with a Russian called Eugene (I had the same problem with character name translation during “War and Peace” – Andrey as Andrew!); so I switched to reading the Alma version, and was very happy with the translations featured here by Kyril Zinovieff (“A Landowner’s Morning”) and April FitzLyon (“The Devil”). The third story, “Family Happiness”, is one I’ve already covered here.

“A Landowner’s Morning” is from 1852, so early in Tolstoy’s career and a time when serfdom in Russia had not yet been abolished. And indeed, the plight of the serfs is the subject of the story, with the central young landowner (based apparently on the author himself) doing the rounds of many of his peasants to see about helping, educating and improving them and their lot. Alas, it doesn’t quite work out for young Nekhylyudov, who meets obstacles wherever he goes, and it seems the serfs do not want his help but only to be left along to go about their lives. Apparently Tolstoy was not in favour of educating the peasants, instead being of the opinion that all they needed was to be kept in thrall and given a bit more help. As serfdom was basically slavery, that’s not a comfortable message… 😦

The final story I’m going to write about here is a very different kind of work: “The Devil” was again published in 1911 and belongs to the later period of works like Kreutzer. And once again, Tolstoy draws on his life for his fiction, telling the story of a young landowner who takes over the family estate to try to rebuild it and save it from financial collapse. Yevgeny has his *needs* (i.e. he has a sex drive); and it’s harder to satisfy these needs out in the country where everything is more noticeable. An enforced period of continence sends him a bit crazy, so he arranges for a local peasant woman, Stepanida, to be sent to him. The latter is willing, and their meetings become more of a liaison, although the impression is that Stepanida is not desperately bothered, although Yevgeny is well and truly hooked. However, he needs to marry and settle down, and does so to the pale and beautiful Liza who brings money to the marriage. Liza is a lot more fragile than a peasant woman; she loses their first child, and the second is touch and go. However, Stepanida is still there in the background and when their paths cross, she still exerts a strong and magetic force which Yevgeny seems unable to resist. Tolstoy gives two alternative endings, neither of which I would have chosen – and it seems he is *still* struggling to cope with the concept of the animal passions…

Although “The Devil” is much less inflammatory than Kreutzer, it still has its problems. The devil of the title is Stepanida, and she’s portrayed as a constant temptation. Well, excuse me, but I think it takes two to tango, and if Yevgeny can’t control himself it’s his problem and not Stepanida’s. We are supposed to sympathise with the poor man, a slave to his urges, entrapped by a woman and unable to break free. Oh really – so it’s all the woman’s fault, is it? (sounds like victim blaming if I ever heard it…) The women in “The Devils unfortunately exemplify that old ‘Madonna/Whore’ cliche – apparently we all have to be either amoral, highly sexed and healthy like Stepanida or pale, frail and spiritual like Liza – there’s no middle ground. This is of course ridiculous…

It’s difficult for me, morally bruised as I am by Kreutzer, to approach Tolstoy’s shorter works entirely objectively; perhaps shouldn’t be reading these with such a sharp feminist eye, but if he’s going to come the moral high horse I don’t see there’s an alternative. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy these works, because I did – the writing was evocative and interesting, and he conjured up rural Russian quite brilliantly. The difficulty is that he so often lets the moraliser in him become more important than the storyteller, which is a shame, because when you’re reading a book with the epic sweep of “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina” the story takes centre stage and that’s how it should be.

Nevertheless, this *was* a particularly fascinating selection of stories to read and think about. I’ve previous read other shorts by Tolstoy (he was one of the Penguin Little Black Classics) and part of me really wishes there was some kind of collected Tolstoy in English – perhaps volumes with all of his non-fiction works and one with his short stories in some kind of chronological order (the pedant in me is winning out here). Despite my problems and caveats, he *is* an important writer and I still have some of the longer works unread. I reckon, however, I *will* need to be morally strong and tolerant when I tackle even more Tolstoy! ;D

Many thanks to Alma Classics for providing review copies of “The Forged Coupon” and “Three Novellas” – much appreciated!

Who was changed and who was dead – some thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Devils” – @almaclassics

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The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Roger Cockrell

Okaaaaaaaayyyyy… I’ve reached the end of my marathon read of Dostoevsky’s masterly book, “The Devils”, and I have the book hangover to end all book hangovers! My marathon served me well, but I had to sprint at the end because I couldn’t stand the suspense and *needed* to find out what happened; I’d become so invested in the characters that they were at times more real than the reality around me – always the sign of a good book. I’ll try to string some coherent thoughts together, but forgive me if I babble a bit occasionally…

First up, it’s worth remembering that this is a BIG book; not only in size (my edition is 698 pages plus notes and extras) but also in its epic narrative sweep and in the range of events and ideas it takes in. It’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating characters, and I’ll only be able to touch on the main ones – so here goes with my impressions of “The Devils”.

Absolute freedom will come only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the whole aim.

The story is set in a provincial town and in simple terms tells of the dramatic events that take place when two prodigal sons return to the fold, bringing with them some very modern and disruptive ideas. The sons are Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, men who have been associating abroad and whose parents are scions of the local social circle. Verkhovensky senior is Stepan Trofimovich, an educated gentleman and sometime tutor who in effect has been living off his dear friend, the separated and wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, mother of the other returning son. Stepan Trofimovich had in fact been tutor to young Pyotr so the whole motley crew are deeply interwoven. Stepan considers himself a man of learning, having spent his twenty years sponging off of Varvara supposedly working; and Varvara herself enjoys being the local society queen bee. However, prior to the return of the prodigals, rumours starting seeping into town about events in Switzerland; romances are hinted at between Nikolai and Lizaveta Tushina, a local beauty also returning to the fold from Switzerland. And what of the mysterious revolutionary pamphlets which keep appearing? Add into the mix personalities such as the Lebyadkins, brother and sister; the mysterious Shatov; several other characters who make up the nebulous “our group”; the violent and wilful Fedka the convict; plus the local governor von Lembke and his status-conscious wife Yulia Mikhailovna, and you have the recipe for a brilliant and involved novel which follows the disruptive effect of a mix of revolutionary and personal politics on a provincial town.

People were in a strange state of mind at the time. A certain light-headedness became apparent, particularly among the ladies, and it would be wrong to say that this emerged only gradually. Several extraordinarily free-and-easy ideas were blowing about everywhere, as if carried on the wind. There was a light-hearted merriment in the air, which I wouldn’t say was always particularly pleasant. A certain mental derangement had become fashionable.

I’ve commented before, I think, that Dostoevsky tends to write very much in set pieces and “The Devils” is no different – which is not a criticism! The book is narrated in the main by one Anton Lavrentyevich G—v; a close friend of Stepan’s, he’s in many ways a minor character, yet he’s a thread running through much of the story, until the rush of the narrative kind of takes over from him at the end of the book. And the plot is a long and complex one, with many different strands and many different issues; there is critique of social-climbing and status; discussion of new ideas and the ‘women question’; debates on the existence or not of God; moral dilemmas; and of course, revolution, mayhem and murder. Nikolai and Pyotr are contrasting studies in evil – because both *are* evil, though in very different ways – and the development of their characters is chilling to watch.

… As a rule, the Russian people are never more entertained than by some uproarious social scandal.

As Cockrell’s foreword explains, Dostoevsky was initially inspired to start writing a short pamphlet after the real case of the murder of a student by a group of radicals. However, what started as a short work expanded, and ended up as what is really Dostoevsky’s discussion of the ‘Russian question’, the politics of his day, the way forward and the larger questions of what man should actually believe in. As so often, he chose a provincial setting to discuss his major issues; I suppose the shocking effect of the outsiders on a place away from the centre of things can be more spectacular, and he did love his drama. In fact, there are always elements of dramatic farce in Dostoevsky’s work (“The Gambler” springs to mind particularly, with its manic qualities); and he loves to create a story which inexorably builds to an explosive climax!

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And that kind of narrative is definitely on show here. Dostoevsky is masterfully in control of his material: after he’s established his protagonists (with some vivid – and often very funny – character sketches), hinted at events gone by and introduced the ideas of revolutionary goings on, he hits the reader with a number of dramatic revelations about what’s actually happened abroad. Of course, all of this is building up to a spectacular and marvellous set-piece; this is Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete in aid of governesses, which turns from farce to tragedy and takes up much of the start of part three of the book. However, as well as set-pieces, Dostoevsky is exceptional on characterisation, and his skill at gradually revealing the reality behind the masks of some of his protagonists was stunning. Verkhovensky in particular starts the book coming across as just a slimeball, but as the narrative goes on his real fanaticism is revealed and it’s frightening. Make no mistake, despite the wonderful humour (and I’ve never read a Dostoevsky without any) this is a very dark book that deals with dark topics.

A particular chapter springs to mind, entitled here simply “At Tikhon’s”. It was censored at the original point of publication and never saw the light of day in Dostoevsky’s time; and it *is* distressing, dealing as it does with abusive behaviour by Nicolai Stavrogin (although never in graphic detail). This edition reinstates the chapter at the point in the narrative where Dostoevsky originally placed it, and to my mind it’s essential to the plot, revealing as it does the real character of Nikolai – a debauched, degraded and dissolute person who has nothing to offer the world.

Of course, central to much of the book *is* moral discussion; that of the older generation like Stepan, and the younger group of revolutionaries. Dostoevsky’s aim seems to be to try to get to heart of both group’s beliefs and he in fact seems to find both wanting. It all boils down, I think, to the generational conflict which was such a topic in Russian literature; Turgenev, of course, springs to mind, and in fact Dostoevsky provides a funny, merciless and heavily satirical lampoon of his literary rival in the form of the famous novelist Karmazinov. However, the conflict is also that between the Superfluous Man (exemplified by Stepan) and the new generation of destructive, active men who want to change everything; the latter, however, have no more to offer than the older generation, and simply degenerate into evil wherever they go. And age is no barrier, as by his rejection of the revolutionaries, Nikolai in effect transforms himself into a superfluous man. Yes, “The Devils” is a clash of generations a la Turgenev, but with so much added fire, venom and disaster! The older generation are portrayed as blustering, out of touch idiots, convinced of their status in Russia and blindly believing they’re universally worshipped. The young are seen as mad or dangerous or deluded or simply hooligans. The generational divide never seems to change much, does it??

It is difficult to change gods.

This being Dostoevsky there is, of course, discussion of God and faith; and many of the characters are suffering from the loss of the latter. That disillusionment is what the author seems to think leads to the madness and depravity of many of the characters, although frankly the religious figures are not free from ridicule if Dostoevsky thinks they deserve it. No-one escapes from his relentless pen, neither the old fools nor the young madmen. Where Dostoevsky really excels, however, is in how he captures the mind of the extremist; there was passage after passage that struck a chord with me, and made me realise that little changes under the surface of progress; humans are much the same as they always were. I’ve already quoted one piece which stood out in an earlier post, but I could have pulled out so many – well, here are just a few:

He’s got this system of spying, in which all members of society watch one another and are obliged to inform on each other. Each belongs to all, and all belong to each. All men are slaves, and are equal in this slavery.

You see what happens when you slip in the reins for just a tiny little bit! No, this democratic rabble with their groups of five is of little use as a support; what we need is a single, magnificent, monumental, despotic will that relies on something external and premeditated then the groups of five will gently put their tails between their legs, and the subservience will come in useful when the occasion arises.

This’ll make you laugh: the first thing that everyone finds terribly impressive is a uniform. There’s nothing more powerful than uniform. I purposefully invent ranks and positions: I have a secretary, secret spies, treasurers, chairmen, registrars, their assistants – all much appreciated and splendidly endorsed.

I’ve found my own data confusing, and my conclusion directly contradicts my original idea, my starting point. Beginning with the idea of absolute freedom, I end with the idea of unlimited despotism. I should add, however, that there can be no solution to the social problem other than mine.

Talk about doublespeak and rampant cynicism; Dostoevsky knows human nature well and could recognise where things might end up. As Cockrell states in his foreword: “Dostoevsky went further than any of his predecessors and contemporaries with his insights into the psychology of terrorism, his depiction of what he saw as the catastrophic consequences of atheism and his prescient vision of a society driven to the brink of anarchy, with the spectre of totalitarianism waiting in the wings.” Prescient indeed! And if that doesn’t convince you, just read the chapter depicting the chaotically funny and shambolic meeting of revolutionaries who are all at odds and all with different beliefs and very probably couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. It’s hilarious and chilling at the same time; however, as always, when the general mass of people have had enough and start to take action, things begin to go awry. Stepan’s belief in art and beauty seems very naive when faced with the mob…

Don’t you know, do you really not know, that mankind can survive without the English, without Germany, most certainly without the Russian people, without science, without bread, but that without beauty it won’t be able to survive, for then there’d be nothing left to do on earth…

Well, I could go on and on about this wonderfully immersive reading experience but I’d end up risking doing a post almost as long as the book…. 😉 There are so many moments to enjoy in “The Devils”, from the narrator’s breathless and sometimes disingenuous take on events to Stepan’s petulant quarrels with Varvara to the marvellously worded puncturing of the pomposity of Russian society; particularly memorable is Dostoevsky’s fabulously worded description of Karmazinov’s writings (i.e. Turgenev) through the voice of the narrator, which I can’t reproduce here because it’s too long. However, suffice to say he simply dismantles the character’s writing and takes it to pieces in a cleverly done “Brutus is an honourable man” sequence! I got quite attached to the loquacious narrator (even though he can’t possibly have witnessed everything he relates) and on occasion, when discussing “our town”, his voice was very reminiscent of that of the narrator of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (which Dostoevsky slyly references at one point…) But there are tragic consequences for some participants that will break your heart, and I confess to becoming quite emotional at one small family’s fate. “The Devils” is most definitely a book of light and shade, deftly and expertly contrasting comedy and tragedy, and it’s quite obvious to see why it’s regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

So that’s my response to “The Devils” and I know it’s a book that’s going to continue resonating with me for a long time. It’s a complex, immersive, rambling, thought-provoking, deep, funny and dark book which gets under your skin and inside your soul. My choice of heading for this post was deliberate, as the dramatic sequence of events in the book either changes or destroys pretty much all of the participants; no-one really gets out unscathed at all. Having lived in this book and alongside these characters for a month, the devastating end left *me* emotionally drained and exhausted; although reading “The Devils” didn’t kill me, it’s certainly changed me….

*****

A word on the edition I read; this was a lovely new translation by Roger Cockrell, published by Alma Classics (who kindly provided a review copy – thank you). As usual, there was extra material, extensive notes and supporting information so an ideal version to pick. I have to applaud the translator for his epic undertaking and the narrative read wonderfully, as far as I was concerned; it felt authentically Dostoevskian to me! 😀

An unexpected sympathy for women @almaclassics #101pages

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Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant
Translated by Anthony Brown

I posted a little while ago about a new range of bite-sized classics from lovely Alma Books under the 101 Pages imprint; the publisher had kindly provided a review copy of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” and I had honestly expected to get to it sooner. You know how it is, though – so many books and they keep jostling for attention… However, these little books are designed to be eaten up in one gulp and I did indeed swallow this one down in a single setting one quiet Sunday morning – and an unexpected and interesting read it was…

OK, OK – I’m sorry about all the eating references in that first paragraph, but it’s kind of relevant to the title story of this collection! “Boule de Suif” is one of Maupassant’s best known works, and I’ve seen it translated as “Butterball” before. However, in his fascinating introduction, translator Anthony Brown goes into detail about the linguistic issues behind rendering the French title in English, and in the end opts to retain the original. But as he makes clear, the story itself is ridden with the imagery of food, and even in the description of the heroine, a prostitute of generous physical form.

Anyway. The book itself contains six stories, mostly set in and around Rouen, and the events in “Boule…” take place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Rouen is lost to the Germans and occupied; the citizens adapt to the situation; and eventually a group of ten are given permission to flee to Le Havre by coach. Unfortunately, bad weather causes issues and the travellers are stranded in Totes, Prussian-held territory. Despite their passes, an officer refuses to let them leave; and eventually the travellers realise that unless Elisabeth Rousset (the titular butterball) agrees to sleep with him, they will be stranded indefinitely. The attitude of the travellers to the woman of the night amongst them has been complex throughout; initially they shunned her, until they realised she had enough food for them to eat while they were delayed during the journey. An uneasy tolerance is established, but when it becomes clear that Elisabeth has principles and patriotism, refusing to sully herself with the enemy, they turn against her and bully, cajole and persuade her to give in to the officer so they can leave. Once she has finally capitulated, they shun her.

The author – with a fairly alarming ‘tache!
(Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

So not a pleasant bunch, and Maupassant is scathing in his descriptions of all of the characters in the story, dissecting them mercilessly; the rich, of course, are beyond the pale, but a pair of nuns who should show kindness certainly do not. And the democrat Cornudet is just as unpleasant, only interested in Elisabeth for her body. The one character who comes out of the story with any kind of dignity is Elisabeth herself; she is the one who is kind and shares her food, she is the one who is patriotic and refuses to collaborate with the enemy; and she is the one with the courage to want to stand up to the Prussians.

And this tendency to empathise with the women characters is a thread that runs through this excellent collection of stories. In “The Confession”, the poverty of a country girl’s life contributes to the ease with which she’s seduced by an unscrupulous carter; “First Snow” is a moving story of a woman married to a cold husband in a cold climate; “Rose” is a humorous tale of a very unusual lady’s maid; “The Dowry” is a cautionary tale for the rich bride; and “Bed 29” returns to the 1870 war, dealing with men and women’s different methods of fighting the enemy, and the differing attitudes to both sexes.

“Boule de Suif” is a real gem of a book. These stories are moving, humorous, tough and tragic, and I really wasn’t expecting Maupassant’s sympathies to be so much with his women characters. The only Maupassant story I can be sure I’ve read is “Like Death” (although I do have “Bel-Ami” on the shelves somewhere) and these short works are quite different to that. The 101 Pages books are obviously a great initiative and if the rest are anything like as good as this collection I may have to be adding yet more books to the shelves…. =:o

“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” #KatherineMansfield @almaclassics

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I spent some time over the summer revisiting the work of Katherine Mansfield, which was pure joy and came about because of two unrelated sources! Firstly, my OH rather cleverly presented me with the DVD which you can see in the picture: a wonderful 6-part BBC series on KM from 1973. With Vanessa Redgrave perfectly cast as Mansfield and the gorgeous Jeremy Brett as a very buttoned-up and intense John Middleton Murry, it made for compelling viewing. Now as you might have picked up, I’m not one for TV, especially not modern rubbish (!) – although I adore a decent documentary as I’ve often made plain. But this is TV from when I was growing up, which often looked more like filmed plays and had what I would call Proper Acting, and it was just brilliant and moving. Annette Crosbie was perfect as Mansfield’s BFF, LM, and the series featured episodes from her life interspersed with dramatizations of her work.

The show was a real treat, and made even better by the fact I had a lovely copy of a new selection of her stories which has just been brought out by Alma Classics. “The Garden Party and Selected Short Stories” is a handsome little volume, and contains some classic KM. The title story is possibly her most famous, but it also contains myriad treats from her other collections too. There’s “Je ne parle pas francais”, where Mansfield slips into the voice of a young French roué; “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, a sharp dissection of two maiden sisters who’ve wasted their life looking after their bullying father; and several stories from “In a German Pension”, which cast a cynical eye on the snobbery and pettiness of boarding house life. And that’s just a few of the treats – the Alma book is a really nice collection and a good way to start to explore her work if you’re interested.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mansfield only ever wrote short stories (and poems and letters and journals, of course!) and that format seems so perfectly suited to her. I’ve seen her stories compared to Chekhov (another master of the form) and I don’t think that’s such a wild pairing. Many of the stories in the book draw on Mansfield’s childhood in New Zealand and they’re moving and evocative; she has a particular talent for capturing the child’s eye view, and revisiting her prose reminded me of why Virginia Woolf stated KM’s was the only writing she had even been jealous of.

My Mansfield shelf…

I finished both book and TV series in a fairly emotional state. I had quite an obsession with Mansfield in my early 20s but hadn’t read her for ages; and of course her life was such a short and tragic one, dying at an early age from TB. The end of the TV show was desperately moving, although it did send me off to check the facts, as I had forgotten that her husband Murry had been present when she died. I dug out my old Alpers biography and found that the TV show had been remarkably faithful to the truth, which set me off again. I have volumes of Mansfield’s letters and diaries on the shelf and I may have to make some return visits to those, as well as exploring the ones I’ve not read yet. Mansfield was a brilliant writer; both Redgrave and Brett are/were fine actors; and all of this added up to a marvellously emotional experience over the summer break.

However, despite him having bought me the DVD, I did actually have to explain to OH who Katherine Mansfield was…. 😀

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

Skinny Book Therapy! @almaclassics @almabooks

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What on earth is she wittering on about, I hear you cry! Well, simply that in our modern crazy-busy world it’s often impossible to find the time to read a classic because, frankly, some of them are just *soooo* big! Dickens, Dostoevsky, Trollope, Tolstoy – all produced some amazing books, many of which are my favourites; but they are, honestly, doorsteps. Now I love a brick of a book as much as the next reader, but sometimes I struggle to engage mentally with one, particularly when I’m going through a busy phase at work. However, a useful solution is at hand…. 🙂

I review books from the lovely publisher Alma regularly on the Ramblings, and their Evergreens series of affordable classics is a joy. These feature some truly great authors, from Woolf through Mansfield and back to Austen and the Brontes and so on. The books are always beautiful and often have extra supporting material. Plus they publish pretty new editions of my beloved Dostoevsky on a regular basis so that has to be good…. (note the editions in that *large* TBR pile!)

However, Alma have come up with an interesting new series entitled “101-page Classics” which features books of, you’ve guessed it, 101 pages in length! Now 101 pages is a very manageable size – I can read something that long in one go usually – and so I think this is a fabulous idea! There are 12 titles on the list so far, and the authors are a very nice selection, including Chekhov, Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson and Italo Svevo – so plenty of variety. Alma have been kind enough to provide a review copy of Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” which I plan to read and review very soon, and there’s a serious risk of me wanting to start a special shelf for the 101 books…

Here are a few cover images of some of the forthcoming books – do check these out, especially if you’re nervous of a big fat chunky classic, or embarking on 800 pages from an author new to you – a 101-page Classic could be just the thing to help out…

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