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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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A life fully lived

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to newly written novels coming out, preferring mostly to check out reprints or fresh translations of lost gems. However, one title which kept slipping into my line of vision and demanded attention was “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. I was a little uncertain about this, wondering if it would be a case of emperor’s new clothes and whether the author could capture properly the setting of Soviet Russia. However, I read so many good things about the book that I finally succumbed; and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

The UK dustjacket - isn't it gorgeous??

The UK dustjacket – isn’t it gorgeous??

The book opens with the gentleman of the title, one Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, appearing before a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922. Normally, an ex-member of the aristocracy would be up against the wall and shot before you could say Lenin, but in this case Rostov’s life is spared, owing to a pre-revolutionary poem he wrote in support of the cause. Instead, the Count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel where he’d been staying until summoned. Escorted back to the building, he finds that instead of returning to his luxurious suite, he’s instead moved to a tiny garret room with as many of his belongings as he can squeeze in. Thus begins the new life of Sasha Rostov.

The Count tends to treat everything that comes at him with equanimity, and so he initially attempts to make the best of things by reading his father’s volume of Montaigne essays and settling into his new dwellings. And he finds a novel way to extend his room to give a little more space and comfort, as well as continuing with many of his routines – as he has a secret stash of gold to enable him to send out for whatever he wants, he can continue to dine in the restaurant, visit the bar and have his hair seen to at the barbers. It is the shaving off of his moustache after an encounter with a worker waiting at the barbers which in turn causes a pivotal meeting in his life – with Nina, a 9-year-old also confined to the hotel while her parents are in Moscow. Nina opens up the secrets of the hotel to the Count, showing him the below-stairs view, and his life will never be the same again.

   … we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance … until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.
    But, of course, a thing is just a thing.

The book spans several decades from the time that Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, becoming a Former Person, and cleverly Towles doesn’t attempt to cover each and every part of that period in one continuous narrative. Instead, he drops us into the Count’s life at strategic points where we can find out how his life has changed and developed, as well as observing what has been happening in the wider world and how it impinges on life in the Metropol. Each section of the book brilliantly captures the flavour of the times whilst never losing sight of the fact that the main focus is on Rostov’s story. I don’t want to give away specifics, but suffice to say that the Count manages to have a love life, a kind of family life, friends and a career, all within the confines of the Metropol Hotel. Rostov may be confined, but the hotel is a microcosm of the world, and life comes to him.

If it sounds like the plot has the potential to be a little restricted be assured it isn’t, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Towles’ writing is elegant and absorbing, drawing you into the story and keeping you firmly involved from the start. Secondly, the Count himself is a wonderfully realised character about whom you can’t help but care. Then there’s the constant changes taking place around him – despite his confinement he has numerous experiences and adventures proving that you can lead a rich and full life even if you are stuck in a hotel forever. He encounters during his life two small female children and, interestingly, his response is different in both cases owing to the circumstances in which he finds himself and the changes in the world around him. He also develops strong friendships with fellow hotel workers, as well as an unexpected romantic attachment, all of which are a joy to behold.

As the story develops, the Count’s past is gradually revealed, most often through encounters with his old pre-revolutionary friend Mishka; the latter is also a poet and has embraced the revolution with fervour, worshipping the quartet of Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Bulgakov. There is also the story of Sasha’s beloved lost sister Helena, and her story shows that the aristocracy had plenty to feel guilty about.

Yes, those were Elysian days, thought Mishka. But like Elysium they belonged to the past. They belonged with waistcoats and corsets, with quadrilles and bezique, with the ownership of souls, the payment of tribute, and the stacking of icons in the corner. They belonged in an age of elaborate artifice and base superstition – when a lucky few dined on cutlets of veal and the majority endured in ignorance.

Of course there is an undercurrent of threat at all times – despite the apparent flippancy of the Count and the seemingly lightness of the story, Towles never lets us forget that there is a totalitarian regime in control and that life hangs by a slender thread. KGB agents stalk the city, Communist leaders attend banquets in private rooms, one functionary relies on Rostov to educate him on the ways of other countries, people are shipped off to Siberia (or worse) and when a particular dramatic event occurs it becomes clear how closely the Count is being watched. The story builds to an exciting and perhaps unexpected climax, with the author and the Count saving plenty of twists until the end.

amor-towles

“A Gentleman in Moscow” turned out to be a wonderfully rich and involving novel; Towles’ writing is just excellent, full of clever touches and metafictional aspects. He often breaks the fourth wall with digressions and footnotes and occasional direct dialogue with the reader, all of which is entertaining and adds to the joy of the book. I found myself constantly appreciating the skill of the author with such little details as the fact that each chapter title consists of a word, or a number of words, that start with the letter A. And his description of the Count trying to read the worthy Montaigne and being unable to stay focused on it struck many chords with me! Towles also very convincingly stirs into the mix real historical figures, from the Communist leaders through to legendary American foreign correspondent Harrison Salisbury, which adds further to the authenticity of the narrative.

However, there *is* much more to the book than just high jinks and adventures in a hotel. There is a regular dialogue on the pros and cons of the revolution, the role of the aristocracy and whether the revolution was a good thing. Although many of the new people in power are seen to be insensitive and unintelligent, so are many of the aristocracy. The book is surprisingly even-handed and the Count is not condemnatory or judgemental of the regime; much like Yuri Zhivago, he accepts that the change is for the best and although he rues his lost way of life, he’s clear-eyed enough to see its flaws, and Towles allows one character to give an interesting viewpoint on the changes the revolution brought:

The Bolsheviks are not Visigoths, Alexander. We are not the barbarian hordes descending upon Rome and destroying all that is fine out of ignorance and envy. It is the opposite. In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate state in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden ploughs, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons. That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?

In fact, Rostov goes through a series of symbolic transformations, most significantly the shedding of his moustache early in the book, and the radical shift from aristocrat to worker halfway through. A late statement in the book that he has not had to access his gold hoard for some time is significant, and it seems that the Count has found life, work and fulfilment all within the confines of a hotel, which is obviously intended as a metaphor for the wider world. No doubt Towles intends that we should reflect on the adaptability of human beings, and certainly we can learn to survive in most situations.

It is a well-known face that of all the species on earth Homo sapiens is among the most adaptable. Settle a tribe of them in a desert and they will wrap themselves in cotton, sleep in tents, and travel on the backs of camels; settle them in the Arctic and they will wrap themselves in sealskin, sleep in igloos, and travel by dog-drawn sled. And if you settle them in a Soviet climate? They will learn to make friendly conversation with strangers while waiting in line; they will learn to neatly stack their clothing in their half of the bureau drawer; and they will learn to draw imaginary buildings in their sketchbooks. That is, they will adapt.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved this book. Ideal for reading in the anniversary year of the 1917 revolution, it’s a winning combination of good writing, clever plotting, wonderful characterisation and a fascinating subtext – would that more modern novels aspired to such quality. The blurb on the dustjacket states “He can’t leave. You won’t want to”, and while I try to resist most advertising, I have to say that I didn’t want this book to end and I was really sad to leave the company of the Count and his friends!

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

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