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#1930Club – some previous reads!

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to take a look back at books I’ve read previously from the year in question. 1930 turns out to be a bit of a bumper year; not only do I own a good number of books from that year, but I’ve read a lot too! So here’s just a few of them…

Just a few of my previous 1930 reads…

Some of these, of course are pre-blog: there’s two of my favourite crime writers lurking in the pile, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The Sayers is “Strong Poison”, a book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane. I adore all Sayers and I would have liked to revisit this during our weekly read. Christie’s “The Murder at the Vicarage” also saw a debut, that of Miss Marple (in novel form anyway – she’d already appeared in short stories). Again, I was so tempted to pick this one up, but I went for “Mr. Quin” instead as I know “Vicarage” so well. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is detecting of a different kind, hard-boiled American. I love Hammett’s writing (although not everyone has enjoyed him recently…) and again was very tempted.

Katherine Manfield’s “The Aloe” is also a pre-blog read; it’s a slim and lovely Virago I’ve owned for decades and the story is a longer version of her short work “The Prelude”. A revisit to this one would have been lovely too, as her prose is gorgeous. “The Foundation Pit” by Platonov is most likely the first of his books which I read; it’s an unusual, allusive book and his writing is very distinctive. Yet another writer I’d love to go back to.

As for titles I’ve reviewed on the blog, there’s the very wonderful Jean Rhys. I wrote about “After Leaving Mr. McKenzie” relatively recently (well – 2016 actually…), and so I didn’t re-read. Yet another excellent woman prose stylist, with a haunting main character, compelling prose and a bleak outlook for women of her time and kind.

Nabokov’s “The Eye” was also a 2016 read; it’s a fascinating, tricksy and clever novella, with wonderful writing and a marvellously unreliable narrator. I love Nabokov’s prose and since I have many, many of his books unread on the shelves I should get back to reading him soon! 😀

Gaito Gazdanov is a relatively recent discovery; a marvellous emigre Russian author, many of his works have been brought out in beautiful Pushkin Press editions. “An Evening with Claire”, however, is his first novel which was brought out in the USA by Overlook Press/Ardis, and it features his beautiful, often elegiac prose in a work often described as Proustian. I believe more Gazdanov is on the horizon from Pushkin – hurrah! 😀

Not pictured in the pile above is “Le Bal” by Irene Nemirovsky. I came a little late to the party with her books; I failed in my first attempt to read “Suite Francaise” but after reading a collection of her shorter early works I came to love her writing, and “Le Bal” was one of those titles. It’s a powerful little story, portraying the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship in all its horror and proves she was such a good writer.

So those are just a few of my previous reads, on and off the blog, from 1930. Really, it was *such* a bumper year for books, wasn’t it? So glad we chose it! Have you read any of the above? 😀

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

Recent Reads: Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov

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Although it’s now February, I’m going to count this book as one of my January re-reads, as I did finish the main story before the end of the month. But this is another book that could be considered a new read and a re-read since the last time I came across this volume was in the original translation, and this is a brand-spanking-new NYRB version by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler – so there’s something to look forward to!

happy mosc

I should say up-front that this is the first book, since I began blogging, that I’ve felt a kind of trepidation about reviewing – I’m really concerned that I’m not going to be able to do it justice. However, as it’s such a remarkable book I will have a go – but would recommend any interested readers to look no further than Robert Chandler’s excellent notes and commentary within the book itself. These are exceptionally informative and illuminating.

A few words about Platonov first.

 “Andrei Platonov (1899–1951) was the pen name of Andrei Platonovich Klimentov, a Soviet author whose works anticipate existentialism. Although Platonov was a Communist, his works were banned in his own lifetime for their sceptical attitude toward collectivization and other Stalinist policies. His famous works include the novels The Foundation Pit and Chevengur .” (Wikipedia)

A key here is the use of the word existentialism, as Platonov’s works are certainly concerned with existence and the best way to live. “Happy Moscow” was unfinished and unpublished during his lifetime, and it begins with the eponymous heroine, Moscow Chestnova, coming into consciousness with her first childhood memory: that of a dark man with a flaming torch running through the streets of the city, and the noise and clamour of the start of revolution. Immediately the girl is linked to the city, and the image from her childhood returns at intervals throughout the book to haunt her.

Chestnova grows up an orphan and becomes a good, hardworking Communist, believing in the socialist future. She is a large-hearted, large-bodied girl, full of life, initially becoming a parachutist. She encounters many fellow citizens who come to love her, the main ones being:

Sambikin the surgeon

Sartorius the engineer

Bozhko the Esperantist

Komyagin the reservist

All of these men are struggling to find a way of life under the new order, and Chestnova in many ways seems to symbolise the city and the future for them.

But the book does not progress in a predictable way. As Christiane Craig puts it in her excellent review:

“Happy Moscow is an experimental novel. It has no calculated plot and develops rather like a dream wherein ideas, as characters, are repurposed and their functions regenerated as they are made to relate to other figurative elements. Three quarters of the way through the book, its heroine Moscow Chestnova disappears completely, and Sartorius the engineer, her one-time lover, emerges as a central character. Inexplicably, he then changes his identity, becoming “Grunyakin,” and goes to work in the kitchen of a small factory in Sokolniki”

She also points out:

“From its first image, Happy Moscow reads like an allegory, the meaning of which remains, as in a dream, uncertain, changeable.”

Here, dream is the pivotal word, and the book does have this quality. The characters are constantly moving, physically and emotionally, reflecting the constant change of the world around them. The story starts positively, with Moscow embracing life and the developing Soviet world around her. However, after a parachuting accident where she plunges to the ground in flames, her existence changes and loses focus.

moscow 1930s

Obviously, we are meant to conflate the characters and the city – Chestnova represents Moscow the city which was being dramatically reconstructed at the time of this book – so much so that, as Chandler points out in his introduction, Moscow was undergoing such change that there was no accurate map of the city at the time, only old maps of how it used to be, and plans of the metropolis of the future.

I was struck on this reading of Platonov by his extraordinarily unique use of language. In the same way as he has given Moscow the city an existence and a personality through the eponymous heroine, he is constantly imbuing inanimate objects with feelings and sensations:

“It seemed to him that the office had the same smell as places of prolonged confinement – the lifeless smell of a pining human body that consciously acts modestly and thriftily, so as not to awaken within it the facing attraction toward a now distant life and then vainly torture itself with the ache of despair.”

 and

“Sambikin set off through Moscow. It was strange and even sad to see the empty tram stops and the deserted black route numbers on their white signs – along with the pavements, the tramway poles, and the electric clock on the square, they were yearning for crowds of people.”

and again

“The large table had been laid for fifty people. Every half meter there were flowers, looking pensive because of their delayed death and giving off a posthumous fragrance.”

However, he also pinpoints the rejuvenating properties of the city, reflecting its current growth and regeneration, so that the city becomes almost organic:

“Outside the open door, on the balcony, a small Komsomol orchestra was playing short pieces. The night’s spacious air was coming through the balcony door and into the hall, and the flowers on the long table breathed and gave off a stronger smell, feeling they were alive in the earth they had lost. The ancient city was full of clamor and light, like a construction site; now and again the voice and laughter of a transient passer by would be carried up from the street, and Moscow Chestnova would feel like going outside and inviting everybody to join them for supper: after all, socialism was setting in.”

Often, however, I just marvelled at the beauty of the language:

“The capital was going to sleep. There was only the far-off tapping of a typewriter in some late office and the sound of steam being let off from the chimneys of the Central Power Station. Most people were now lying down, in rest or in someone’s arms; or else, in the darkness of their rooms, they were feeding on the secrets and secretions of their hidden souls, on the dark ideas of egotism and false bliss.”

 and

 “Muldbauer saw in the music a representation of the distant and weightless countries of the air, where the black sky is located and amid it hangs an unflickering sun with a dead incandescence of light, and where, far from the warm and dimly green earth, the real, serious cosmos starts: mute space, lit up now and again by stars signaling that the path to them has long been open and free. Yes, better to put an end straightaway to the bothersome conflicts of the earth….”

 One of the recurring motifs of the book is height – Chestnova is up in the heavens parachuting; the city is thrusting skywards with its new buildings; we see the city and the stars and the skies from above. Conversely things begin to go wrong with downward motion – it is in the construction of the Moscow underground that Chestnova suffers the accident that changes her forever. Her complex series of relationships with the men in her life is altered after this, and the focus of the story slips away from her to Sartorius. While Bozhko converses around the world with other Esperantists in an attempt to spread the socialist word, Sambikin operates and tries to find the essence of life in dying and dead patients and Komyagin the reservist struggles to complete – well, anything at all that he has started.

Andrey Platonov

Andrey Platonov

So we are left with Sartorius during the closing chapters, and his constant movement and state of change. He has abandoned his scientific work in the field of weighing and moves on, almost Buddha like, to take on the personality and responsibilities of whoever or whatever comes his way.

“His heart seemed to turn dark but he comforted it with an ordinary understanding that came to his mind: that it was necessary to research the entire extent of current life through transformation of himself into others.”

This complete abnegation of his own personality could be seen as an extreme parody of service to the state, or maybe simply a reflection of the transformation of Russia which was going on around him.

Initially when reading “Happy Moscow” it’s hard to see why Platonov couldn’t publish it in his lifetime, as on the surface level it ticks all the boxes for Soviet Realism – rebuilding of Moscow, construction of the underground, scientific process, the great and glorious Stalin. However, the careful and detailed notes by Chandler remind us of how subversive this book actually is, and when things begin to go askew for the protagonists it is quite clear that we are dealing with no ordinary author here.

This is a remarkably complex book and I think I would need several reads of it to really come to grips with it. Platonov reflects many elements of Soviet society of the 1930s – the scientific attempts to solve the problem of the human soul, the search for immortality, the thrusting towards the future and the trampling of humanity beneath the instrument of state. The language is beautiful and dream-like, and this is one of those books that gets inside you, so you’re still thinking about it for ages afterwards. Very much recommended for anyone who loves Russian fiction and also wants to read something that is different, thought-provoking and memorable.

***********

As a footnote, this volume not only comes with the novel itself plus notes and commentary from Robert Chandler. There is also the inclusion of other pieces peripheral to and related to “Happy Moscow” including the short story “Moscow Violin” which repeats sections of HM and gives a fascinating insight into Platonov’s construction of his work. Really, there could be no better presentation and Robert and Elizabeth Chandler plus NYRB should be commented on this exemplary work!

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