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Shiny New Evergreens!

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Shiny New Books issue 6 is now live! (Yay!) And what an achievement it is – a wonderful collection of reviews and bookish pieces which should happily occupy any avid reader for ages!

I have provided a few items this time round, the first of which concerns a lovely new range of classics from Alma Books, the Evergreens. I go into more detail about the imprint on SNB, together with an interview with one of Alma’s publishers, Alessandro Gallenzi – you can read this here.

Alma kindly provided two books for review which I cover briefly on SNB, but I thought I’d expand a little more here.

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Petersburg Tales by Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was one of the first classic Russian authors I read in my youth (once I had got over the joy of discovering Solzhenitsyn). “Petersburg Tales” presents four of Gogol’s best-known short stories: “Nevsky Prospect”, “The Nose”, “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” in fresh new translations by Dora O’Brien. I re-read “The Nose” recently, but coming to it alongside the others gives it much more depth and draws out the themes I found in it this time round. Superficially, these are nonsense tales, full of larger-than-life characters, strange goings-on, noses that detach themselves from their owners, ghosts and illusions.

When I first read them a long, long time ago, I saw them as humorous and quirky; this reading, however, opened my eyes to Gogol’s great artistry and sympathy for human beings. Despite the surreal elements, Gogol’s tales have a serious intent and he was obviously angry about the way Russian society was structured. All of these stories speak for the lowly people in Russia’s great grinding Civil Service machine; the struggling clerks who can’t afford a coat, can’t afford to fall in love with someone above their station, and to whom status is all. This is the thread running through these marvellous tales, and they’re still relevant today in a word where the divide between rich and poor is getting ever larger.

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The Sorrows of Young Wether by Goethe

Goethe is probably best known nowadays for his Faust, but this book is the one that first brought him to fame. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is presented in an updated version of a translation from 1957, previously published by John Calder (whose range is now under the Alma umbrella). The book is a highly emotive sturm und drang drama told in the form of letters from Werther to his friend, telling the tale of his intense love for Lotte, and her marriage to another. Werther is a young man with no direction; sensitive and something of a loner, he is sent away to stay in a picturesque village where he encounters Lotte, a beautiful young woman living with her widower father, and taking care of her many siblings. It’s love at first sight for Werther, but his love is doomed because of society’s restrictions and because Lotte is promised to another.

Even after her wedding, he never stops worshipping his beloved, becoming a friend of the family and trying to deal with the fact his love is doomed. In fact, it struck me reading this that Werther is probably quite an early unreliable narrator, as we see everything through his very emotional filter, and I wasn’t quite convinced that everyone surrounding him could tolerate his passion and moods as much as they seemed to!

“The Sorrows of Young Werther” is a florid and intense and extremely impassioned book, but nevertheless utterly absorbing – it’s not surprising it was so popular in its time, spawning a huge following and a whole cult of Werther followers even going so far as to dress like him (and worse…) A lovely book and a lovely way to lose yourself in romanticism for a few hours!

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So, the Alma Evergreens (and indeed all their books – they have a very nice range of Bulgakovs!) are highly recommended. Check out their website here, and don’t forget to take your wish list over to Shiny New Books – there will be plenty of recommendations to add to it… 🙂

 

 

Shiny New Loveliness!

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Issue 4 of the wonderful Shiny New Books online reviews mag is live today!

SNB is always stuffed full of fascinating reviews, and the latest issue is no exception – prepare to have your wish lists expand! 🙂

I have been happy to provide a few reviews and I’ll point to you a couple of lovelies from Alma Classics which I covered here, and also on SNB:

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

cuffI reviewed this book towards the end of last year:

“My favourite Russian author (probably!) for quite a while has been Mikhail Bulgakov, and as an Anglophone reader I figured I’d tracked down just about everything of his that was in a form I could read. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that the lovely Alma Classics were bringing out a new collection entitled “Notes on a Cuff” – particularly as the publicity for the book trumpeted the fact that it contained previously untranslated works! ”

I’ve expanded my thoughts on SNB and  you can read them here!

In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov

chekhov-twilight-197x300This was another title I came to at the end of last year, and one I think is particularly exciting as it’s a collection of stories Chekhov assembled himself.

“Numerous collections have been released over the years, containing the compiler’s favourite stories, the ones they feel best represent him. However, the Alma Classics volume is a fresh translation of that rarest of things – a collection put together by the author himself!”

My updated thoughts on SNB here

So what are you waiting for? Off you go to get some great book recommendations! 🙂

Dodging bureaucracy in post-revolutionary Russia

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“Notes on a Cuff” by Mikhail Bulgakov

My favourite Russian author (probably!) for quite a while has been Mikhail Bulgakov, and as an Anglophone reader I figured I’d tracked down just about everything of his that was in a form I could read. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that the lovely Alma Classics were bringing out a new collection entitled “Notes on a Cuff” – particularly as the publicity for the book trumpeted the fact that it contained previously untranslated works! The nice folks at Alma have kindly provided a review copy, and I was very frustrated that it arrived while I was ill – needless to say, it was the first book I picked up as I began to recover!

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I already have a book by Bulgakov entitled “Notes on the Cuff” which I covered here; however, it’s only the title story that the two volumes share, and the new Alma volume contains an additional 11 pieces I’ve never read before. These vary in length from pithy four-pagers like “A Scurvy Character” to more substantial works like “The Fire of the Khans”. All, whether short or long, have great depth and much to say.

Is there a common thread? Possibly. Apart from Bulgakov’s singular voice and mode of story-telling (particularly evident in the title piece which features the breathless, almost staccato method of his early works), these works are often satirical, a form in which he excelled. There’s also an autobiographical element in many of the stories: “Notes on A Cuff”, in particular, and I looked back at my earlier review and see that I said:

NOTC is autobiographical, covering similar ground to the later novel “Black Snow”, telling the tale of the narrator recovering from typhus and making his first steps into the world of literature. It contains the almost staccato rhythms to Bulgakov’s early prose and some parts of it are missing – but the fragmentary nature of what survives is presumably inevitable because of censorship.

Interestingly, and I don’t know if this is because of the new translation, I found the current Alma version much less fragmented and I felt it read much better. The glimpse it gives of the disorganisation and chaos of Russia during the civil war following the revolution is revealing, and we see people in a constant state of flux, trying to survive and make their way through a life that seems to be falling apart around them. It also, of course, contains a foreshadowing of one of Bulgakov’s best-known statements which would resurface in “The Master and Margarita”:

Because suddenly, in a flash of uncharacteristically miraculous lucidity, I realized that people who say you must never destroy what has been written are right! You can tear it up, you can burn it…. You can hide it from other people. But from yourself – never! It is finished! It’s been done. You can’t get rid of it. I had written that astonishing piece. It had been done!…

Bulgakov was, of course, a doctor and several of the tales feature medics in difficult situations: “The Unusual Adventures of a Doctor” takes diary form and follows the fate of a medic who’s forced to treat the wounded during the civil war fighting and is whisked off by Cossacks as well as others; all he wants to do is stay at home and write his thesis. “The Murderer” features another medical man with a story about his fighting past, although it’s probably not best to read these as autobiography, rather as stories informed by Bulgakov’s experiences but not limited to them.

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Then there is the madness of the new regime: “A Week of Enlightenment” mocks the attempts to educate the masses; “A Scurvy Character” is dismissive of a scrounger attempting to cheat the system; “A Dissolute Man” reveals the implacable face of authority; “Moonshine Lake” bemoans the communal housing and the constant drinking of hooch; and “Makar Devushkin’s Story” gives a countryman’s view of eternal, unending speeches and meetings. “The Cockroach” deals with gambling and once again the demon drink, where a workman is rooked out of his money with dramatic consequences. “The Crimson Island” is something of an oddity, being a short story which the author later turned into a more successful play. The piece is allegorical, disguising the story of the revolution in a pseudo Jules Verne tale with strangely named characters, battles between natives and lots of picturesque description.

But not all the stories fall into the obvious categories. “Psalm” is a very moving story, narrated by a man (MB?) living in a communal house in Moscow who befriends the small son of a neighbour whose husband has left. Much of the story is dialogue and although we are never told who’s talking at any one time, it’s clear that the man wants to make a new life with the woman and her child. It’s beautifully written and says so much in so few pages.

And then there is possibly my favourite. “The Fire of the Khans” is a powerful story, set in a palace outside Moscow which has survived the revolution and become a museum. The old retainers are now the museum keepers and face a daily influx of tourists from Moscow. On the day in question, the usual selection arrive, led by a loud-mouthed, half-dressed, uncouth man of the new regime. There is also a mysterious foreigner. As the visitors tour the museum, and Iona the old retainer reflects on the illustrious past of the previous owners and his own absent master, there are surprises and drama in store. I don’t want to say too much because the events pack an emotional punch, but it’s a powerful and moving piece of work and it strikes me as one of Bulgakov’s best pieces. Such a powerful and emotive piece reads as if Bulgakov was writing from the heart here, with a lament for what Russia had lost.

In fact, there is an elegiac quality running through much of Bulgakov’s work; he was obviously someone who preferred the old regime, but you get the impression he smiled grimly and tried to get on under the new system, accepting that some things were fairer. However, he soon came to tussle with the ridiculous complexities of Soviet life and his work is just brilliant at reflecting this: nobody, but *nobody*, can capture the absurdity of trying to cope under early Soviet rule like Bulgakov can!

Needless to say, I absolutely loved this book. As the first new Bulgakov of any substance that I’ve come across for a while, it was a real treat; the pieces chosen are all very strong, in fact some of the best of MB’s short works I’ve read. As usual with Alma, there are pictures at the beginning and extra material at the back, and I found Roger Cockrell’s translations to be excellent, to the extent that I prefer his version of the title story to the other one I’ve read. This is a wonderful addition to the Bulgakov canon and also to Alma’s excellent range of Russian works – if you like Russian satire, or just excellent short stories, I highly recommend exploring this collection!

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

A great writer in transition

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In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov

As I rambled on in an earlier post, I was very excited to find out that Alma Classics were releasing a lovely new translation of a collection of Chekhov’s works, “In The Twilight”. Although Chekhov is possibly best known for his plays like “Cherry Orchard”, he’s also the acknowledged master of the short story form. His life was tragically short (he died in 1904 age 44 of TB) but despite this he was a remarkably prolific writer, producing literally hundreds of works. Numerous collections have been released over the years, containing the compiler’s favourite stories, the ones they feel best represent him. However, the Alma Classics volume is a fresh translation of that rarest of things – a collection put together by the author himself!

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Chekhov was a doctor of medicine and practiced as such. However, he was also an inveterate scribbler and his early stories were mainly humorous pieces published under a pseudonym to make money and help support his family. However, when he was 26 he reached a turning point in his life, when critical appreciation made him realise that he was capable of serious work; and despite his failing health, he turned to stories with more substance.

“In the Twilight” catches him at this point, at the cusp of the transition, and it’s a wonderful collection. Alongside such well-known tales as “On The Road”, “Agafya” and “Misfortune”, there are lesser-known stories like “Dreams” and “In Court” which are just as powerful and a delight for the reader to discover.

It’s sometimes hard to pin down quite what makes Chekhov’s works regarded as the definitive short stories. The form itself is not as straightforward as it might seem – the author risks trying to pack too much in and smothering the tale, or not giving enough to the story and producing a thin, undernourished piece of literature. With Chekhov, there is never the risk of either of these states. His stories are perfectly formed pieces of art which the reader comes out of feeling satisfied with having read something complete, even though in many ways they’re not.

Chekhov’s short stories drop us into action and events which are already taking place in many cases, and leave them at a point which is not necessarily the final ending of the tale. We get a snapshot, a short part of a person or group of people’s lives, but because of the skill of the author, this is enough to tell a complete story.

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“In the Twilight” contains 15 works, and none is set in a large city. Instead, we get glimpses of people travelling, living in small towns, struggling to make a living and existing in the twilight margins of life. And Chekhov’s brilliance is in capturing the essence of people’s being in just a short tale that brings them to life completely.

“In the autumnal quiet, when a cold, stern mist from the earth lies upon your soul, when it stands like a prison wall before your eyes and bears testament to a man of the limitations of his will, it can be sweet to think about wide, fast rivers with free, steep banks, about impassable forests, boundless steppes. Slowly and calmly the imagination draws the little patch of a man stealing along an unpeopled, steep bank in the early morning, when the blush of dawn has yet to leave the sky; age-old, mast-like pines, towering in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and grumble gloomily; roots, huge rocks and prickly bushes bar his way, but he is strong in flesh and hale in spirit, he does not fear the pines, or the rocks, or his solitude, or the rolling echo that repeats his every step.” (from “Dreams”)

My favourites were probably the classic “On the Road”, one of his earliest serious stories which tells of a random meeting while travelling between a nobleman fallen on hard times and a noblewoman on the way to her family estates, and how they briefly connect to the point that the womanising man thinks he has almost the power to persuade her to leave her everyday life and follow him; “Verochka”, a sad little tale of missed love and how emotions can be misread and then change forever the way you see things; and “A Nightmare” which in a short, intense few pages conveys the misery and difficulty of surviving in feudal Russia. But there are no duds here and whether relating the story of an unfaithful wife being accused of witchcraft, or a tale of the importance of the arrival of puppies in the lives of two children, Chekhov is always compelling reading. The stories are full of atmosphere, full of snow, wind, big landscapes, woods, storms and cottages; and always with the feeling of small human beings battling against circumstances.

Alma have produced a lovely little volume here, fluidly presented by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin, along with his sensible and unobtrusive notes. As always, their books have extra material in the form of a picture section at the beginning, as well as a useful biography and additional information at the end. I found it fascinating being able to read a selection of Chekhov’s works as he had collected them and as he wanted them read, and kudos to Alma for bringing out this volume, allowing us to watch the early development of the world’s greatest writer of short stories – highly recommended!

More Russian Lovelies from the Wonderful Alma Classics!

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Alma Books has long been one of my favourite publishers (you can find plenty of my praise on this site) and I was very pleased to hear that they’re issuing more wonderful Russians!

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Just published is a lovely collection of Chekhov’s short stories “In the Twilight”, which has been rendered readable for us Anglophones by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin. As well as being in a sparkly new translation, the book features the usual excellent Alma extra material in the form of photos and biographical material.

This is a particularly interesting collection of Chekhov’s work as it was the third collection of his work published, and it was put together by the author himself (unlike many modern collections which are selected by publishers and translators). So we have the advantage of reading a work in the form in which Chekhov wanted us to see it.

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Chekhov’s Dacha in Yalta, courtesy Cornucopia magazine

Additionally, as Aplin points out in his interesting introduction, this set of stories catches Chekhov at an intriguing point in his development; here the author is making the transition from his earlier, more humorous pieces, written very much with a view to making a living, to the more serious works for which he would become known.

I’m looking forward to reading this very much, and a review will follow! Kudos to Alma, though, for bringing out this work in a lovely new edition.

Evergreen version of The Gambler - isn't it lovely?

Evergreen version of The Gambler – isn’t it lovely?

If you haven’t explored many Russian classics before, Alma’s Evergreen imprint is a good way to start, as this budget price set of books includes several titles from that country’s great authors. Gogol’s “Petersburg Tales”, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and “Notes from Underground” and “The Gambler” (my favourite!), plus Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” are some of the titles available, and at £4.99 you can’t go wrong.

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Finally, I was so excited to find out that Alma are issuing a new collection of some of Bulgakov’s stories under the title “Notes from a Cuff”. These are primarily early pieces, composed when the author was working as a doctor during the Russian civil war; and the best bit is that the book also contains some new works translated into English for the first time!

“Notes on a Cuff” is due out in November – and I’m very much looking forward to reading it! 🙂

Recent Reads: Smoke by Turgenev

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Despite my love of Russian literature, it actually was only last year that I first read a book by Ivan Turgenev (see here),  regarded as one of that country’s masters (and actually one of the masters generally – Hemingway says about him.’Turgenev to me is the greatest writer there ever was.’) Wikipedia has this:

“Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, November 9 [O.S. October 28] 1818 – September 3, 1883, was a Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His first major publication, a short story collection entitled A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), was a milestone of Russian Realism, and his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is regarded as one of the major works of 19th-century fiction.”

Alma Classics, one of my favourite publishers, produce four of his works, and “Smoke”, a recent volume translated by Michael Pursglove, sounded very enticing so when I was given a Waterstones gift card recently, it made its way onto Mount TBR!

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“Smoke”, published in 1867, tells the tale of Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov, the son of a retired merchant official, who has spent some time living in the west and is travelling back to his homeland. He stops off in Baden-Baden, a well-known gambling town and haunt of Russian ex-pats where he is to meet up with his fiance, Tatyana, before they continue their journey. However, in Baden he encounters an old flame, Irina, who jilted him in his youth and his passions are once more inflamed. But Irina is now married and a highly regarded society woman and it is not clear how events will turn out; will Litvinov be seduced once again by his old love, or will he remain loyal to his fiance?

If this sounds a little like a simplistic love story, “Smoke” is emphatically much more than that. For Turgenev was writing against a background of intense debate about the future of Russia, where a huge schism had grown up between the Slavophiles, who deified the simple Russian peasant life above all, and the Westernisers, who thought that traditional Russian life had produced no intrinsic culture and that the Slavs needed to absorb western ideas to progress.

Turgenev is dealing with large topics here, but he has such a light touch that the book never gets bogged down by this. He has an odd, appealing and somewhat discursive narrative style, where he will break off from the main plot to fill the reader in with a piece of back story which we don’t even know if the characters even know! There is much discussion of the rights and wrongs of Russia and in fact Litvinov is a kind of everyman, caught between two different worlds and two different loves. The worlds are extreme opposites but that is what Turgenev intends to show. Set against this backdrop, our ordinary man tries to cope with conflicting emotions and the draw of passion matched against a sensible outlook.

And there is a wonderful array of characters in “Smoke”, from the outwardly solid but inwardly passionate Litvinov, to the manipulative and intense Irina, the loyal Tatyana, the officers and society people who mix with Irina and the group of Slavophiles trying to draw Litvinov into their circle. But there is one character who stands out and that is Potugin (who seems to be intended to represent Turgenev in the novel.) He is the bridge between the two worlds portrayed, having regular contact with both, and he is also the book’s conscience and voice of reason. It is Potugin who tries to talk sense to Litvinov and Potugin who is the sane, sober person trying to point out the dangers of his position.

“It’s a fact – there’s no avoiding falling into someone’s hands… There’s no avoiding it. Men are weak, women are strong. Fate is omnipotent. It’s difficult to reconcile oneself to a colourless life; it’s impossible to forget oneself completely. There lies beauty and affection; there lies warmth and light. How can one resist?… And it ends with your losing the taste for everything and ceasing to understand anything. First, you won’t understand how it’s possible to love, then you won’t understand how it’s possible to live.”

This is a very readable, well written book and whilst reading I sensed echoes of Anna Karenina, particularly in the concept of the debate of peasant vs. nobleman and the best way for Russia to progress. However, interestingly enough Smoke was published several years before Tolstoy’s masterpiece. However, both books capture the same zeitgeist but from different perspectives: Turgenev was writing in effect from outside Russia and was something of a Westerniser, whereas Tolstoy was very much a Slavophile. The books share themes and there are superficial similarities between Litvinov and Kostya Levin; but Turgenev stops short of the religious aspect of Tolstoy’s work.

Turgenev in many ways takes the middle ground, lambasting both groups equally – this is his view of the Slavophiles:

“Take the Slavophiles…. everything is in the future, they say. There is nothing substantive at all, and in the course of ten whole centuries old Russia has produced nothing of its own, in government, the judicial system, science, art, or event in crafts… But wait, be patient. Everything will happen. But, pardon my curiosity, why will it happen? Because, so they say, we educated people are rubbish, but the people… oh, they are a great people! Do you see this peasant coat? That will be the source of everything. All other idols are destroyed; let us believe in the peasant coat. But if the peasant coat betrays you? No, it won’t betray you.”

But when it comes to the ex-pat aristos he is quite sarcastically scathing:

“… three carriages appeared, from which there emerged a fairly large group of ladies and their escorts. Litvinov immediately recognised them as Russians, although they were all speaking French, or rather because they were all speaking French. The ladies’ outfits were notable for their stylishness; their escorts were wearing frock coats, brand-new, but tight-fitting and waisted, which is somewhat unusual nowadays, grey-striped trousers and extremely shiny town hats. A black cravat, tied low, constricted the neck of each of these gentlemen and there was something martial in their whole deportment. They were indeed military men….their importance was everywhere manifest: in their restrained casualness, in their affably lordly smiles, in their tense, distracted looks, in the effeminate twitching of the shoulders, swaying of the waist and bending of the knees. It was manifest in the very sound of their voices, which appeared to be thanking a crowd of subordinates with affection and loathing.”

Irina is foolish enough to expose Litvinov to the society she has bought into by in effect selling her beauty in exchange for luxury; she is not strong enough to break away from it (unlike Anna K) and so gives Litvinov the chance to be her lover, following her and her husband round slavishly – a demeaning offer which fortunately he has the strength to reject.

“Would that there had been even a drop of living water beneath all this discarded rubbish. What outmoded, useless nonsense, what miserable trivia occupied all these heads and hearts on that evening, not just in high society, but also at home, every hour and every day, throughout the length and breadth of their being! And what ignorance, when all’s said and done! What failure to understand everything on which human life is built and which with it is adorned.”

The book ends on a positive note with the possibility of a reconciliation between Litvinov and Tatyana; although Turgenev does not let up on the society dandies or the Slavophiles. At the end of the stories, many of the ex-pat Russians have returned to their estates and instead of finding salvation in the land are seen tyrannising the peasants and each other, their lives wasted. Turgenev certainly knew how to mock the cult of the peasant.

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Much of what takes place in the story is seen as just smoke and mirrors, illusions; the glossy, glamorous image of Irina; that of the Slavophiles, with their pie-in-the-sky notions; the officer class with their posing, their idiocy and their mad beliefs. Very little separates them under the skin in real terms, both groups following chimeras and having no grounding in reality. Litvinov, the ordinary man, is the only one with a chance at survival.

“Smoke, smoke,” he repeated several times, and suddenly everything appeared to him to be smoke, everything: his own life, Russian life, everything human and especially Russian. “Everything is smoke and steam,” he thought.”

Part of what drew me to this book initially was the Baden-Baden connection – I loved Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler” when I recently re-read it, and it’s fascinating to see what a different focus each writer has. Dostoevsky’s is determinedly personal, dealing with the effects of gambling on the soul and telling a rollicking good tale; whereas Turgenev, although again telling a great tale, has much to say about the state of the Russian soul. As always with Alma Classics, there is excellent material at the back giving an outline of the author’s life and work. The detailed introduction also send me off in search of the cult book “Summer in Baden-Baden” which I’ve never read and which presumably features the stand up row between FD and IT in that very town! This was a great and very enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward now to exploring more Turgenev.

Recent Reads: The Gambler by Dostoevsky

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“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed heatedly, “Dostoevsky is immortal!”
   (The Master and Margarita)

“The Gambler” is not one of Dostoevsky’s best known novels, but I felt the need to (re)read it recently for several reasons:

1. I found a nice, shiny new Hugh Aplin translation from Alma Press at a bargain price
2. I’ve been (trying) to watch online the late, great Aleksandr Abdulov in the title/Alexei role of a theatrical adaptation called “Barbarian and Heretic” – which, as it’s not subtitled and as I’m not a Russian-speaker is a tiny bit hard to follow. So I have just been gazing awestruck at the acting (and the rapidity and apparent unintelligibility of the language), but I figured if I re-read the book it might make more sense…
3. I haven’t read “The Gambler” for probably over 20 years
4. I just fancied some Dostoevsky!

So there!

Aleksandr Abdulov as Alexei in the 2005 Lenkom production of "Barbarian and Heretic"

Aleksandr Abdulov as Alexei in the 2005 Lenkom production of “Barbarian and Heretic”

“The Gambler”, as Aplin points out in his useful introduction, is just as famous for the circumstances of its composition as for the content itself, as Dostoevsky wrote it in a frenzy to meet a deadline laid down by a dodgy publishing deal he’d entered into – and all credit to him, he succeeded in meeting the deadline and also produced a wonderful book. Much of it was based on Dostoevsky’s own gambling experiences and also his love for a Polina in his own life, immortalised here in the story.

The book tells the tale of Alexei Ivanovich, a young tutor who is employed by a widowed General. With the General are his two young children (who are somewhat incidental to the story),  plus his step-daughter Polina. The group are washed up in Roulettenburg, a German spa town with a sideline in gambling, full of a wonderful array of characters of all nationalities. In the General’s party are also Mademoiselle Blanche and her mother, plus a sneaky Frenchman known as de Grieux. Another major character is a mysterious, rich Englishman, Mr. Astley, and “Grandmamma”, the General’s mother, makes a memorable appearance too.

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Alexei is absolutely besotted with Polina, and they have an intense, almost sadomasochistic relationship. Alexei regularly throws himself at her feet, professing intense undying love, and half the time she rejects him, at other times confiding slightly in him and ordering him to do strange pranks to prove his love.

“You overwhelm me. Don’t be angry with my chatter. You understand why you mustn’t get angry with me. I’m simply mad. But it’s all the same to me, even if you do get angry. Upstairs in my tiny room, all I have to do is remember and imagine just the sound of your dress, and I’m ready to cover my hand with bites. And what are you getting angry with me over? Over my calling myself a slave? Exploit it, exploit my slavery, exploit it! Do you know that I’ll kill you some day? And I shan’t kill you because I’ve stopped loving you, or because I’m jealous, but for no reason – I’ll simply kill you because I’m sometimes drawn to eat you up.”

The party and its members have a complex set of relationships – the General adores the much-younger Mademoiselle Blanche and wants to marry her, although she is obviously only interested in him for his money and is not what she seems; de Grieux is also pursuing Polina (as, it transpires, is Mr. Astley). The General is in debt up to his neck, mortgaged to de Grieux, and they are all desperately waiting for Grandmamma to die, sending telegrams to Moscow to find out the state of her health.

But Grandmamma does not die, and instead turns up dramatically in Roulettenburg, to the amazement of all, and the delight of Alexei, who is something of a wild card. She instantly drags Alexei off to be her guide around the roulette tables, firstly winning vastly, but then getting the gambling bug and losing everything, finally returning to Moscow broke. This has a knock-on effect for the rest of the group – the General is dropped by Blanche; Polina is threatened by destitution, abandoned by de Grieux and has a breakdown; Alexei is overtaken by a kind of frenzy and goes to bet wildly to try to get money to rescue Polina but in her madness she rejects him and is whisked away by Astley. In a haze, after his rejection, Alexei takes off for Paris with Blanche, sets her up with his fortune so that she can marry the General, and ends up back in the betting world, completely hooked. The book ends a little ambiguously, with the news that Polina is in Switzerland and loves Alexei – but is the lure of love stronger than the lure of gambling?

“I remember you at a heated and potent moment in your life; but I’m certain you’ve forgotten all your best impressions of that time; your dreams, your present most urgent desires go no further than pair and impair, rouge, noir, the twelve middle numbers and so on and so forth, I’m certain!”

I have to say that I found myself absolutely gripped by this story! I hadn’t remember the book as being so compelling, so readable or so unputdownable, and maybe this is something to do with Aplin’s exemplary translation. Even the physical presentation of Alma Classics is lovely, with photos at the beginning, helpful introduction, notes, biography and synopses of Dostoevsky’s other work. But the story itself is great! The characters are alive and real, the events funny and exciting and the whole package very involving. On top of this, there is the underlying theme of obsession and its effect on human nature. There are two kinds of addiction on show in this novel – that of obsessive love (Alexei for Polina; the General for Blanche) and that of an obsession with money, power and gambling (the three are really rolled into one here). The need for money was essential in this kind of high-class, ex-pat society as it gave status and power, and the terrible temptation of gambling to gain it takes hold of many of the characters in the book. This obsession impacts with love in that a women like Blanche is motivated by a need for money to give her a comfortable, respectable position in society; whatever her emotions, if an older man like the General can give her that status she will marry him. Likewise, Polina knows and accepts that Alexei loves her more truly than the others but he is a poor tutor; when he wins vast sums of money to try to in effect give her a life, it is too late for her to be convinced that he is not trying to buy her.

“Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, to all appearances the most impossible idea, becomes so firmly fixed in your head that you finally take it for something that can be realised…”

The book’s narrator, Alexei himself, is an appealing and unforgettable character – impetuous, unpredictable, often unaware of the subtler relationships going on around him, and often relying on his friend Mr. Astley to interpret events for him. He is something of a prototype for many of Dostoevsky’s characters – dragged from pillar to post by fate and circumstance, not able to control his whims and in the end unable really to control his life. Despite all this, he’s a very likeable character and I reached the end of the book wishing for a happy resolution for him… It’s a testament to Dostoevsky’s writing that he emerges so strongly, because all of the characters in this book are wonderfully drawn and very alive.

Feodor-Dostoevsky

This story also paints a very strong picture of hold that gambling can get of a human being, so that all reason goes out of the window and a person ends up behaving wildly and uncharacteristically – the effect of the roulette table on both Alexei and Grandmamma is dramatic:

“…I remember distinctly that I really was suddenly possessed, without any call of vanity, by a dreadful thirst for risk. Perhaps, having gone through so many sensations, one’s soul is not sated, but only inflamed by them, and demands yet more sensations, more and more vigorously until it is finally exhausted.”

I actually can’t praise this book highly enough – for the quality of the writing, the liveliness of the characters, the storyline, everything. This is definitely one the author’s most accessible works, a rattling good yarn peopled with memorable types. If anyone tells you Dostoevsky is difficult, just point them at this particular edition of “The Gambler” and tell them to get engrossed!

Meanwhile, back to “Barbarian… ” to see if I can now follow the plot….

A Short (Russian) Diversion for World Book Day

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Having finished my reading of the second Anthony Powell, I decided to spend World Book Day in the company of a short Russian. By this, I don’t necessarily mean his height(!) but instead a little tale by Dostoevsky, in a lovely little hardback gift edition from Oneworld Classics – “The Crocodile”.

As an aside, I have to say how much I *love* Oneworld/Alma Classics – they publish masses of my favourite authors (including many Russians) and their books are so beautifully produced, with extra material and notes etc. They sent me a catalogue with this volume and frankly if I was rich I would buy the lot – but I’m not, so I’ll have to make do with one here or there!

crocodile
Anyway – on to “The Crocodile”, a short tale which I’d not heard of before but which was very enjoyable and easy to read in a couple of sittings. It tells the story of Ivan Matveich, a civil servant in Tsarist Russian, who is persuaded by his wife Yelena Ivanovna to take her to see the latest St. Petersburg spectacle – a large crocodile on display in The Passage (an elite department store). They are accompanied by our narrator, Semyon Semyonych who refers to himself several times as “friend of the family”. However, disaster strikes when Ivan Matveich is swallowed whole by the crocodile, after which things get very surreal…

The German owners of the crocodile will not countenance any action which will harm the beast and rescue Ivan, instead insisting on the “economic principle” i.e. the crocodile is their livelihood and they either want compensation or will keep raking in the roubles as people flock to see the man inside the beast. For in fact Ivan is alive, and can talk from inside the reptile and even seems quite comfortable! He begins to reflect on life and his situation while his beautiful wife starts to regard herself as a ‘widow’ and revel in the attention she is receiving from a number of gentlemen (including Semyon himself!)

Things take another bizarre turn as Ivan decides he is quite comfortable inside the crocodile and with the time to reflect on life, away from his pressing duties as a civil servant, he thinks he will become a philosopher with a following, while Yelena holds salons for him in the evenings. However, his descriptions of the inside of the crocodile as like rubber, and his account of how he is going to sustain himself, do lead us to think he might be losing his mind a little.

dostoevsky.2

This is a wonderful, inventive little tale that takes sideswipes at many things: the Tsarist civil service and its labyrinthine bureaucracy; the fickleness of beautiful women; the inaccuracy and bias of newspapers (two papers take completely opposite views when reporting the story: one takes the side of the crocodile and the other gets the story completely reversed and reports that a man has swallowed a crocodile!). It has a fabulous Gogolian feel about it, it’s funny, a delight to read and confirms what another of my favourite Russian authors had to say about Dostoevsky:

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

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