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“…to immerse yourself, to become possessed…” #elifbatuman #dostoevsky @bananakarenina

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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them by Elif Batuman

There have been any number of fascinating books arriving at the Ramblings recently, and some of the most inspired were the two lovely Valentine’s Day gifts from Mr. Kaggsy. I reviewed the first of the pair, “To the River”, here and it was a most wonderful reading experience. The second book was perhaps a surprise – a book on the Russians which I don’t already have and which looked very intriguing. So it was a given that it would come off the shelves soon – I can’t resist the Russians….

Batuman is a new author to me; a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2010, “The Possessed” was her first book and also came out that year. Since then she’s also written a novel “The Idiot” (hmmmm – I sense a theme here…) and she describes herself as “A six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey”. “The Possessed” itself probably falls comfortably into that genre of what you might call ‘enhanced or themed memoir’ which seems to be so prevalent nowadays (you could perhaps put the Laing in there with it) and is none the worse for it – especially, from my point of view, when it turns out that the focus is on Batuman’s encounters with classic Russian literature and how it impacts on her. The result is a heady mix of memoir and experience with tales of how reading Russians has been a thread influencing important parts of her life – something with which I’d obviously empathise, though I don’t think mine has been quite so exciting!

Central to the book is a summer Batuman spent in Samarkand, studying the Uzbek language in the company of her then boyfriend Eric. Three chapters on their adventures are dotted throughout the book, and like all of the narrative it’s entertaining, funny and yet often very moving. Batuman’s encounters with other cultures can be quite eye-opening, and there are often near disasters as she stumbles through situations not quite knowing what to expect. In fact, the subtitle would have more accurately started with the word “Misadventures”!

Isaac Babel

Inevitably, as the book deals very much with Batuman’s experiences in the university sector, there are tales of boredom and bad temper at academic conferences and these are often hilarious; her dry humour captures the silliness and the rivalries and the tensions of these events wonderfully – although there are many uncomfortable conversations which are funny to read about but would be less so to experience… There are encounters with Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky biographer and scholar; and with Isaac Babel’s daughters at a high-profile Babel conference, an event that sounds extraordinarily stressful! Her visit to the Tolstoy Conference at his estate was fascinating, ending with some fascinating musings on Tolstoy and Chekhov; interestingly, she finds less of Chekhov’s presence in her visit to his house than she does of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. Dostoevsky features in the book towards the end, in perhaps a rather low-key way, given that the title is from one of his books, and there is the inevitable comparison between the two authors. Batuman is definitely a woman who prefers Tolstoy and although I’d choose Dostoevsky in the debate, I had to smile at her analysis of his style!

“Like much of Dostoevsky’s work, Demons consists primarily of scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence.”

“The Possessed” is an unusual book in many ways; choosing to define your life by your experiences in the sphere of Russian literature is not your everyday approach. But a book that discovers the connections between “King Kong” and Babel has got to be special, and Batuman is always an engaging, witty and self-deprecating narrator. As well as telling of her fascinating (mis)adventures, which are entertaining enough on their own, she brings much insight to the Russian authors she discusses. Dangerously, she gives a list of books and sources at the end which set me off researching; frustratingly, some seem to be untranslated, but the core chapters in Samarkand drew on a piece of writing by Pushkin I hadn’t encountered and have unfortunately led to me having to invest in this:

Yes, I’ve already read the “Tales of Belkin” and have at least two translations of them on the shelves; however, this collection contained the only non-P/V version I could find of his travelogue “Journey to Arzrum” and so inevitably I need to read this after the Batuman.

“The Possessed” was really a marvellous read, a wonderful mixture of funny and entertaining memoir alongside some beautiful discussions of, and insights into, many of my favourite authors. I came out of it not only even more impressed with Mr. Kaggsy’s Book Choosing Skills, but also with a very strong need to read a book that’s been languishing on my TBR for too long and which has had a number of versions of its title in translation – yes, “The Possessed” or “The Demons” or in the version I’m embarking on, “The Devils”.

698 pages…

I’m really in the mood for FMD’s revelations and mass violence, and in the immortal words of Captain Oates, I May Be Some Time….. ;D

 

…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… 😉

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. 🙂

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… 🙂

Some Russian book winners!

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So I’ve closed the giveaway, and thanks to all who entered and offered interesting recommendations!

I printed out the names of the entrants and popped them into a decorative mini pail I had knocking about, then drew out two winners and they are:

Laura from Reading in Bed – In the Twilight

Melissa from  The Bookbinder’s Daughter – Five Russian Dog stories

Congrats to both ladies and thanks to all entrants for taking part. I’ll be in touch with the two winners and the books will be winging their way off round the globe soon! 🙂

A little Russian giveaway…

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As you may have picked up, I’ve been trying to downsize the book piles a little chez Ramblings, as things have really been getting out of control. I’ve not been buying much, and I’ve been hauling piles off to the charity shops as well as throwing spare volumes at people I think might enjoy them. And whilst shuffling books, I came across a couple of lovely Russian books that I don’t need/want, but which I’d like to send off to a good home.

“In the Twilight” is a beautiful collection of Chekhov short stories from Alma Classics, and I have a spare copy as I won a prize last year.  The Russian doggie tales book is from Hesperus Press and this came from the Kew Bookshop when I visited the gardens. I’ve read and loved it, but I doubt I’ll return to it, so it’s also looking for a new home.

So if you’d like to win one of these books leave a comment below saying which one you’d like, and suggesting a book you think I might enjoy. I’ll leave the giveaway open for a week or so, and winners will be drawn at random. This is open worldwide, so I’ll look forward to hearing your recommendation! 🙂

Visiting the Russians at the NPG – plus some bookshop thoughts

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With my well-known love of all cultural things Russian, it was a given that I’d want to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London when they held their exhibition of portraits from the Tretyakov Gallery in Russia. And I was lucky enough to win a couple of tickets (plus some wonderful Russian books!) thanks to a Twitter competition – thanks to both the NPG and Alma Books for this! 🙂

I chose yesterday for the visit as I was hoping the trains would be in sensible mode – for several months at the beginning of the year there were no direct weekend trains to London without hideous bus journeys – and they were pretty much well-behaved, if a little delayed. I could have done with the Central Line being open, though!

I spent the day in the company of my dear friend J. and we met up in the lovely Foyles cafe for a catch up. It’s rather alarming to think that we’ve been visiting the Charing Cross Road bookshops for over 30 years, but nice that we can still do so! J. had very kindly brought me along some Beverley Nichols books she had procured for me, which was exciting:

beveerleys

I was so pleased with these, particularly “Yours sincerely” which still has a dustjacket of sorts. The others are two of his children’s books which will be in their original unedited form – apart from a slight issue in that each has had a page removed! J. is investigating possibilities to find the missing pages…

Of course, I couldn’t resist a look around Foyles, and picked up this:

midnight

I am having a bit of a Victor Serge thing at the moment, as I’m in the middle of “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” which is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read – so there may be more Serge below…

exhibition

After Foyles, we wandered down to the NPG and the exhibition – and it really was quite magical. I was keenest, of course, to see the famous Dostoevsky portrait in real life. It’s the only one of him painted from life, and it’s quite remarkable – you can see the sufferings of his life in his eyes.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery

Who else was there? Well, amongst others Tolstoy, Turgenev, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky – and Chekhov! The latter’s portrait was also quite amazing – the best portraiture really does make you feel as if you’re in the presence of the subject.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

We went back to the Dostoevsky and Chekhov portraits a lot, but there was also this very striking image that drew us to it:

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
© State Tretyakov Gallery

All in all, this was a remarkable exhibition – some wonderful and evocative portraits and a rare chance to see them in real life without having to travel to Russia. It runs until 26th June and I really recommend visiting it!

After the culture, we decided to head to Piccadilly, as I had a yen to visit the Waterstones there, and J. wanted to pop into Fortnum and Mason! Waterstones Piccadilly is touted as the biggest bookshop in Europe, sited in a beautiful art deco shop, and it certainly is lovely. Stretching over five floors it even has a Russian language bookshop within it, with some very pretty looking books that I couldn’t read! We decided to lunch on the top floor restaurant, which was a treat:

SDC13905

The bookshop itself is gorgeous, with an excellent selection, some shelves devoted to small publishers and lots of chairs to sit in while you consider what to purchase. I spent a *looong* time browsing while J. sat and finished this book which she then donated to me – how kind!

reader for hire

It was unlikely I would get out of the shop without purchases, and that was the case. As well as finding the perfect birthday present for my brother, I chose these for myself:

graveyard unforgiving

J. picked up a lovely little hardback collection of Akhmatova’s poetry but was much more restrained than I was today.

On to Fortnum and Mason – well, let’s just say it’s the poshest place I’ve ever been! I bought a little something for OH, and certainly thought that this was a glimpse of how the other half live…

After Piccadilly, we decided to head back to the Bloomsbury end of town, and fortunately J. spotted a useful bus! A quick visit to the Bloomsbury Oxfam revealed not a lot, and some very over-priced volumes – this is obviously a current trend on Oxfam shops which is a bit of a shame. So we decided to end the day with a cuppa in the LRB Bookshop cafe (they do *lovely* tea) and of course had a bit of a browse. I was particularly keen on looking for this title, which hadn’t been in either Foyles or Waterstones – but the wonderful LRB shop did have it!

zoo

So, another fab day out in London, with good company, artistic stimulation and books! It was interesting to range a little further with the book shopping and I got to thinking about the differences between the type of shops I visited (I’m thinking new books here, as I didn’t do any second-hand shopping). Despite its hugeness, and the loveliness of its architecture, I didn’t think the Waterstones was particularly superior to Foyles. The selection at the latter is just as good – in fact, they had titles that Waterstones didn’t – and I got the feeling that there is more in the way of mainstream fiction in Waterstones than the more out of the way books I like. Certainly the Waterstones biography section was remarkably good, and I imagine that they carry more stock of different genres, non fiction and the like. But interestingly it took the LRB Bookshop to come up with the Shklovsky I was looking for – so I guess it goes to show that there is room for a large number of bookshops, and I’m all in favour of that! 🙂

Autumn Shininess!

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Issue 7 of Shiny New Books is out today and you can read it in all its wonderfulness here!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245As usual, it’s packed to the rafters with bookish news and reviews, all of which is guaranteed to enlarge your wish list in a big way!

prank

I’ve been very happy to contribute a review of “The Prank”, a new collection of Chekhov’s early work from NYRB, which you can read here. It’s a wonderful collection and well worth your time! So what are  you waiting for? Head over to Shiny New Books and enjoy!

 

It’s a Dog’s Life!

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Five Russian Dog Stories
Translated by Anthony Briggs

When I visited the lovely Kew Gardens last summer, I dropped into the Kew Bookshop on my way and picked up this little volume of canine tales (or tails – ha!) from a selection of Russian authors. Published by Hesperus and translated by Anthony Briggs, it seemed ideal to turn to during my book hangover following “Dead Souls”!

5 russian dogs

The book does indeed contain five dog stories: “Mumu” by Turgenev; “Good old Trezor” by Saltykov; “Chestnut Girl” by Chekhov; “Arthur, the White Poodle” by Kuprin; and “Ich Bin from Head to Foot” by Ilf and Petrov. The stories are interspersed with little verses and rounded off by a postscript by Turgenev. First off, I should give a TRIGGER WARNING – these dogs don’t in the main have happy lives and as my Middle and Youngest Child used to cryptically say to each other, “End well it will not”.

“Mumu” and “Good Old Trezor” tell tales of long-suffering dogs and it’s immediately clear that you should read these as allegories, with the sufferings of the dog standing in for the suffering of the peasants – and in fact the peasants in the stories don’t have a particularly nice life either. “Chestnut Girl” is less bleak, with the title dog running away from home and meeting up with a circus performer and becoming part of his act. But the call of home, however much worse it is than the new life, is always there….

Anton-Chekhov-510x274

“Arthur…” also features a performing dog, but here the range of the story is a little wider as the canine and his owners travel the Russian coast performing and trying to make a living. Their encounter with a rich family and an unbelievably spoiled brat makes for a very entertaining tale. And the final piece by Ilf and Petrov is a wonderful satirical story of a poor dog attempting to fit into the restricting requirements of Soviet realism and failing miserably…

ilf_PetrovThis volume was a lovely collection, very enjoyable to read and despite the sadness, very thought-provoking. It’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to be either a peasant or a dog in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia! The translations read well in the main, although I did have some quibbles with the Chekhov… As I read, I realised I’d already encountered this story, in the “Moscow Tales” book I read a while back. There, it was titled “Kashtanka” (the animal’s actual name); the dog was described as “rust-coloured” which I rather felt captured the dog’s nature and circumstances better than “chestnut”; and the other circus animal all had their original names (proper Russian forename and patronymic) which again conveyed the quirkiness of the whole situation better. The way the names had been Anglicised somehow smoothed the story out, made it less Russian and less comic and for me, I prefer the version in “Moscow Tales” by a long chalk.

However, that caveat aside, I liked my peep into the world of Russian dogs – the only question is now, what to read next!

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