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“….we have to live and not dream about anything.” @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K #WITMonth @ReadWIT @Biblibio

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Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg

… and as we limp towards the end of the summer and #WITMonth (well, at least I do!), I have read the final book I planned to for this month – which is actually something of an achievement. Go, me! 😀 The book is “Isolde” by Irina Odoevtseva, and it was recently published by the lovely Pushkin Press (who seem to be specialising in translations of Russian emigre writers – more of which later…) I’ve encountered the author before, as pieces by she and her husband, poet Georgy ivanov, were featured in “Russian Emigre Short Stories”, masterminded by translator Bryan Karetnyk. Her story “The Life of Madame Duclos” was one I found to be particularly memorable, and so I was very keen to read her novel – which has very shockingly never been translated into English before.

“Isolde” was published in 1929 and is set in the France of the 1920s. The book opens in Biarritz where fourteen year old Russian exile Liza is staying with her brother Nikolai and mother Natalia Vladimirovna. However, it’s clear from the start that this is something of a disfunctional family; the father was killed in the Revolution, and mother Natasha is in pursuit of lovers and money (no doubt the only practical way for her to survive in exile). She refuses to publicly acknowledge that she’s the children’s mother, instead pretending they’re cousins; and while she follows her own inclinations, Liza and Nikolai are very much left to their own devices, with devastating results… On the beach, Liza encounters the slightly older English boy, Cromwell; the latter is dazzled by Liza, christening her Isolde, and pursuing her. As he has money and a car, the neglected siblings are happy to hang around with him (even though Liza claims to be in love with a fellow Russian, Andrei, who’s back in Paris); and the three have a fine time with restaurants, jazz bars and plenty of champagne. And back in Paris the three Russians continue to sponge off Cromwell, until his mother cuts off the funding. At the same time, the distant and disinterested Natasha takes off, leaving her children with little money and no support; and dark forces begin to tempt the Russians towards dramatic acts, exacerbated by drink and lack of cash. The consequences are explosive…

Co-translator Bryan Karetnyk provides an excellent introduction which puts “Isolde” firmly into context, and it’s not hard to understand how controversial it was when it was issued. As he points out, it inhabits the same milieu as Coctea’s “Les Enfants Terribles” (which I love), a book that was published the same year and which features another pair of isolated siblings. Underlying both stories is the stress of adolescence and the effects of the changes the characters are going through; what perhaps makes “Isolde” stand apart is its frank acknowledgement of the burgeoning sexuality of Liza in particular. I can’t help thinking there’s a tendency nowadays to forget that teenagers are beset by all sorts of new desires and needs that they don’t quite understand and which they don’t know how to deal with; cotton wooling them isn’t going to help… Odoevtseva captures the undercurrents brilliantly in her portraits of the youngsters, driven by forces they can’t really control and without anyone there to guide them. And that is I think one of the most important points in the book; these are teenagers, in effect abandoned and left without guardians or help, and exiled from their country of birth. They’re susceptible to all sorts of influences, which at one point allows what is perhaps a little dig at Dostoevsky and his effect on young and impressionable minds. The young people have no moral compass and what happens to them, the actions they take, are tragic but inevitable.

Liza went through to her room and sat down on the light blue divan. Outside, wet auburn leaves spun silently down – like wet dead butterflies. The trees’ thin, dark branches quivered pitifully. Rain hit the windows at an angle and ran down the panes in thin streams. The wet, shiny glass made this familiar scene appear strange – cruel and hopeless.

It’s particularly clear from Odoevtseva’s wonderful writing that Liza suffers dreadfully from the lack of maternal love, and there are passages of genuine anguish where she shows how the girl has been damaged by the indifference of her mother-who-would-be-her-cousin. The unsettled state she finds herself in, the lack of a sense of belonging, and her failure to grasp what’s going on around her, lead her to build up the idea of Russia and returning there in her mind in very naive ways which allows her to be persuaded into foolish actions. Her youth and vulnerability are made clear at several points; she is in danger of becoming prey of men like her mother’s lover Boris, or Cromwell’s older cousin. However, in the end her naivety is exploited in a different way bringing tragedy to all. The end of the book is heartbreaking, and it reminds you that these are in the end just children who have been set adrift and lost.

Irina Odoevtseva – via Wikimedia Commons

“Isolde” is a marvellous and moving read, and a wonderful addition to the range of new emigre translations Pushkin have been bringing out. The blurb for the book describes it as a portrait of “a lost generation of Russian exiles”; it certainly does seem that there is a whole range of authors who wrote whilst banished from their country of birth and whose work has been lost since. I have to applaud the translators, and particularly Bryan Karetnyk who seems to be on a one man crusade to bring us the cream of Russian emigre literature – well done that man! 😀 I have to confess to ending my read of “Isolde” very emotionally affected by the story, and I hope more of Odoevtseva’s works make it into English!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! Kudos to both translators for their work on the book; I’ve mentioned Bryan Karetnyk’s contributions above, but want to acknowledge too Irina Steinberg, who also co-translated two wonderful Teffi volumes from Pushkin Press! 😀

August – a month where I *actually* undertake some challenges??? ;D @Read_WIT #AllViragoAllAugust @kitcaless @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K @FitzcarraldoEds

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I’m breathing little sigh of relief as I’ve actually managed to make it to the summer break from work – phew! Life has been pretty manic lately so I could do with a bit of space to regroup – and catch up with the reading. I’ve failed, of course, to make it through any kind of challenge floating around in the book blogsphere, but I don’t mind really – I tend to plough my own furrow when it comes to reading! However, August does bring a couple of reading events in which I always like to take part, and I’m hoping this year will be no different.

I’m also painfully aware that I’ve been reading a *lot* of books by men recently and that’s perhaps unusual as I *have* tended to read a lot more women authors in the past – perhaps it’s just the way the books have fallen. However, I’d like to redress that this month and to be specific I hope to read at least these four lovelies if nothing else!

All four are by women authors and all sound fascinating, although they don’t all fall into the challenge categories – nevertheless, I want to read them all this month! 😀

Let’s start with “Plastic Emotions”:

which is a very pretty looking book (sorry to be superficial there…) It’s neither a Virago nor a translated work; but it’s by a woman author and about a pioneering woman architect, so I’m going to count it in for getting back to reading more women. The subject of the book is Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, an inspirational woman who I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of before. So I’m looking forward to finding out more about her via Shiromi Pinto’s intriguing-sounding book.

Next up is a book for All Virago/All August (which I never stick to – I couldn’t restrict myself to one publisher for a month!)

Although not a Virago edition, it’s a Virago author in the shape of Vita Sackville-West. I’ve read and loved her work (though much of it pre-blog), and when Simon wrote about “The Death of Noble Godavary” recently and mentioned it was reminiscent of Vita’s book “The Heir” I was sold. Looking forward to this one!

There are two books in translation by women in the pile above, and first up is this from Fizcarraldo Editions:

Again, I’m intrigued and excited about this one. The Vivian of the title is the American photographer, Vivian Maier (who oddly enough featured in the wonderful “Selfies” which I reviewed a while back); and the author is from Denmark and apparently regarded as one of the country’s most inventive and radical novelists. Sounds fab! 😀

Finally, where would we be on the Ramblings without a Russian?!

There has been a flood of wonderful translations of Russian emigré literature recently, much of it from the lovely Pushkin Press; and this one has just recently been issued. It’s the first time this author’s been translated into English (thank you Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg!) and it’s described as a disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles. Sounds amazing, frankly!

So. I have plans for August. Modest ones, I think, as I shall be on a break from work and also going off on my travels to visit the Aging Parent and the Offspring; which gives extra time for reading, especially whilst on trains… The question is, will I *actually* read the books planned?? I have to say that the hardest thing at the moment, looking at these four lovelies, is making a decision as to which one to pick up first…. =:o

Émigré Dreams… @Bryan_S_K @PushkinPress

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The Beggar and other Stories by Gaito Gazdanov
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Careful or casual readers of the Ramblings will know of my love for the work of Gaito Gazdanov; I’ve covered the three wonderful novels published by Pushkin Press, as well as “An Evening with Claire”, and I think his writing is outstanding. So I was more than excited to find out that Pushkin were issuing a collection of his shorter works, entitled “The Beggar and other Stories”; particularly as I’d enjoyed those which had featured in the exemplary collection “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

“Beggar…” collects six works, and one fascinating thing is the date range they cover: the first, “Maitre Rueil”, dates from 1931, whereas the final tale, “Ivanov’s Letters” is from 1963. The selection is by translator Karetnyk, who points out in his informative and interesting introduction that Gazdanov seemed to feel that a collection of his short works was unnecessary; Karetnyk obviously disagrees, and having now read a number of Gazdanov’s stories I can only concur – this is an essential collection.

As with any volume of short works, it’s hard to know how much detail to go into about the individual pieces that make it up; but I will give a little information about each of the six stories featured here, as they are all quite remarkable in their own way (and that’s down to Gazdanov’s wonderful writing I think). Maitre Rueil is the evocative little tale of the titular agent, who suffers an existential crisis of sorts whilst making a melancholy journey back to Moscow on a mission; Happiness is the story of a émigré whose delicate relationship with his son is disturbed by the arrival of a beautiful stepmother; and Deliverance tells of a man who has come into money but finds the riches bring him no happiness, leaving him detached from life. Then there is The Mistake, somewhat groundbreaking I felt, which tells of the affair of a Russian woman in Paris, presenting the story from her point of view and acknowledging her needs but also identifying her inability to recognise love. The titular character of The Beggar is an ageing tramp who is suddenly triggered into remembering his former life and understanding how the freedom of total poverty, an almost non-existence, is better than the restrictions and restraints of a comfortable but controlled life. And finally Ivanov’s Letters paints a portrait of Nikolai Franzevich, on the surface a calm, educated and cultured man, about whom his friends actually know very little – until all is unexpectedly revealed.

Time marches on by itself; we live until some mechanical force restores the calendar’s truth. But really, time does not exist. We have memories, imagination, we can delve into the past, fear the future, but we term it thus – past, present, future – I think, only because we do not make for ourselves the trouble of contemplating this and understanding that all this is mere sensation.

Each of these stories is a little gem on its own; however, I can see that they’ve been carefully selected by Karetnyk as there are recurring threads which run through the stories and bind them together. Each story distills an aspect of the émigré experience in a way that is never explicitly stated; but there is almost the sense that the lives the characters are leading are not quite real, as if they have left their proper existence behind them in their home country and are half ghosts in their adopted land. The characters all suffer from ennui, or physical ailments which characterise their suffering in exile, and there is a constant feeling that everything is a sham. Money brings no comfort and is often rejected, as is love – rejected, or not understood – and the stories have the same surreal, hallucinatory feeling as do Gazdanov’s novels. The dream-like prose often causes a blurring of lines between reality and imagination and the vividly beautiful descriptions brilliantly evoke a kind of drifting atmosphere which haunts you.

It was as if her senses were a long sword, whose tip, after the blow had already been delivered, still quivered and trembled, fluttering like a banner in the wind, or the white trim of a sail over the rippling sea; or the wings of a bird sitting on the water.

In fact, I keep returning to the word atmosphere, and certainly Gazdanov’s writing and the world he conjures has a distinct and unique character all of its own: dreamlike, contemplative and often achingly beautiful, the sensation and the sadness reading the stories created stayed with me for ages after finishing the book – they really have quite an emotional wallop.

Sometimes I feel ready to laugh at myself, for I have always held a naive and idyllic dream, a utopian vision of a world in which there is no poverty, no suffering, no envy, a world that is built on a great and complex system of harmonious and happy equilibrium. But I digress. If life be movement, then until very recently I would have been well within my right to consider myself dead.

Author and translator

“Beggar…” is an extraordinarily rich collection and while I was reading it I couldn’t help thinking what a wonderful job Pushkin are doing bringing Gazdanov to us. Also, and most importantly, it struck me that some authors are lucky enough to get the perfect translator: Calvino and William Weaver seemed a match made in heaven, as do Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Joanne Turnbull, Platonov and Robert Chandler. And that’s definitely the case here, as Bryan Karetnyk’s elegant translations have been pivotal in Pushkin’s spearheading of the Gazdanov revival; I can only hope he keeps on translating this wonderful author’s works for us. Thanks to his efforts there is so much Gazdanov available for Anglophone readers now – the three novels and this collection from Pushkin, as well as the four stories in “Russian Emigre Short Stories…” – and if you haven’t read any of Gazdanov’s works yet, it might be worth risking £1 on Penguin Modern 21 to get a flavour of his writing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “The Beggar and other stories” is published today so you can all rush out and buy a copy….. :)))

A little taster… #penguinmodern @Bryan_S_K @classicpenguins

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Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and Others
Penguin Modern: 21 – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

OK, time for a little confession… Before I received the lovely Penguin Moderns box set, and when I wasn’t sure when it was coming out and if I’d actually get it, I may just have picked up a few of them in my local Waterstones (who did a lovely display of them – I got inordinately excited about spotting Penguin Moderns ‘In the Wild’!!!) – and here they are:

All of these are titles I wanted to read anyway, and I don’t mind having extra copies. But in advance of a review I have going live on Thursday, I thought I would dip into the Four Russian Short Stories volume. These are all works by émigré writers and it’s interesting that of the four featured, it’s the name of Gaito Gazdanov that appears on the cover; testament, I suppose, to the success of Pushkin Press’s rediscovery of his work over recent years.

The stories are translated by the ever-industrious Bryan Karetnyk, who was responsible for the marvellous “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books. Three of the stories featured here are also in that book, but very excitingly this little volume features a newly translated gem in the form of “A Miracle” by Yury Felsen. First published in 1934, this evocative story is set in a clinic where the narrator is bored whilst recuperating. Forced into the company of a rather troubling nurse, he is initially relieved to have a room-mate, although the latter turns out to be taciturn and no company at all. However, on the room-mate’s day of discharge a few home truths are told and the final denouement is perhaps unexpected.

My rule is to agree, not to argue, not to object. That way, the outside world remains somehow acceptable: I haven’t the energy to fight. Sometimes, with no good cause, I hope that everything will clear up…

I read this story after finishing my Thursday book and interestingly found that it resonated strongly with the feelings I had about that particular volume. Specifically, I keep returning to the drifting quality of émigré life, the detachment of the protagonists, and their sense of ennui as well as often despair.

There will be more on this subject in Thursday’s post, but if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split. As well as Gazdanov and Felsen, the other stories are by Nina Berberova and Galina Kuznetsova, and all are excellent.

I’ll leave you a quote from Gazdanov which will give you an idea of the quality of the writing here – more émigré writing to come later this week!

The February dusk fell, plunging Paris into the icy darkness typical of this time of year, and night shrouded everything that had just taken place. Afterwards, it began to seem as if none of this had ever happened, as if it had all been an apparition, eternity’s brief intrusion into the historical reality in which we just happened to live, uttering foreign words in a foreign tongue, not knowing where we were headed, having forgotten whence we came.

 

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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