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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! 🙂

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! 🙂

С Днем Рождения Антон Чехов

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“The world perishes not from bandits and fires, but from hatred, hostility, and all these petty squabbles.”

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904)

“Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

Happy birthday to one of my favourite Russian authors!

Recent Reads: About Love and other stories by Chekhov

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I’ve got a little behind with my reviews here – life has definitely been getting in the way of blogging 😦 – but I have managed to keep up with the reading and so will try to round things up! I’ve been going for shorter works, although after Hotel du Lac I did feel the need of something with depth, and so turned to the Russians again – this time Chekhov’s “About Love and other stories”. My volume is an Oxford Classics one, fairly recently translated by Rosamund Bartlett (who I believe is also a biographer of Chekhov). The selection of tales stretches from “The Huntsman” (1885) to “The Bishop” (1902) and takes in some of his most famous works, including “The Lady with the Little Dog” and the title story.

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In some ways, I find reading short stories difficult: I’m quite a fast reader and to leap from one story to the next, without allowing time for each to really settle in the brain, somehow seems wrong. So I tried to space these out a little around Brookner – and the fact that Real Life has been hectic helped a little!

First off, the mechanics of the book. There is an excellent introduction by Bartlett that gives excellent background and context for the stories, looking at them from a number of angles including literary and biographical. The notes are also useful, not obtrusive and get the balance just right. As for the translation – well, the stories read beautifully and have a consistency of tone and an elegiac quality.

Chekhov is often satirised as a fin-de-siecle man, with his characters moping around in a mood of ennui bemoaning the state of things. This is a cliché which seems to have grown up from his plays, which I don’t know well enough to comment on. However, the stories are not like that. Bartlett makes a strong case in her introduction for viewing Chekhov as a modernist, which I hadn’t really thought of before, but she seems to have hit the nail on the head. There *is* a start and a finish to these stories, but not necessarily a beginning and an end. We often get thrown into a story which appears to be halfway through the action, with no real introduction, but the writing is so beautiful, the characters so alive, that we are happy to just follow them on the short part of their journey we join them in. As Bartlett points out, the stories often raise questions but leave the reader to answer them, which was a very modern way of writing.

Do I have favourites? Difficult to say! Some of them are desperately tragic, like “Rothschild’s Violin” which touches on anti-Semitism; some are achingly sad and evocative, like “About Love”. “The House with the Mezzanine” tells a story of love’s lost opportunity, while also considering the opposing viewpoints of activity vs. idleness. Chekhov gets very quickly to the heart of the matter in what he is trying to say, and deals with the huge topics of life, death and existence, peeling back the layers we put between ourselves and reality.

“And he judged them to be like himself, not believing what he saw, and always supposing that each person’s real and most interesting life took place beneath a shroud of secrecy, as  if under the veil of night. Every individual existence is a mystery, and it is maybe partly for this reason that cultured people take such pains for their secrets to be respected.”
                            (The Lady with the Little Dog)

But this doesn’t stop him telling a funny story like “Fish Love”; or a very creepy one like “The Black Monk” which has some very profound things to say about art and madness, while also being very scary – truly the man was talented!

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If I had to pick just one story out, it would probably be the atmospheric “The House with the Mezzanine”. But all of these stories will stay with me, and this is an excellent selection of Chekhov’s work – highly recommended, particularly if you are coming to him for the first time.

Recent Reads: The Shooting Party by Chekhov

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I’ve slipped back into Russian reading mode, as I wanted to explore Chekhov’s longer works a little more, having had mixed reactions to my two other recent reads. I think “The Shooting Party” might be his longest work, but it’s not often talked about compared with his short stories. I picked up a Penguin Classics version, nicely translated by Ronald Wilks, and dipped in!

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The book begins with an editor (AC) receiving a visitor who wants to leave him a manuscript to read. The editor is reluctant, but finds his visitor an honest-seeming, handsome man and so takes the manuscript and after a couple of months picks it up to read – and finds he cannot put it down! It is the core story of the “The Shooting Party”, which the visitor, a country magistrate, has subtitled “From the Memoirs of an Investigating Magistrate”. He informs the editor that it is based on true events, but the name he gives himself as teller of the tale is different from the one which he uses to announce himself in person. Already we can sense we are in the presence of an unreliable narrator.

The story is set in a small provincial town. Zinovyev is a young magistrate, and spends his life swinging from one extreme to another: at times, he does nothing but work diligently, leading a quiet life; but when his friend, the dissolute Count Karneyev, visits his local crumbling estate, Zinovyev is instantly drawn into a world of debauchery – drinking, orgying with gypsies and even assaulting local people. At the beginning of our tale, the Count has returned, bringing a strange and taciturn Pole with him, and the two friends begin an instant round of bad behaviour. During the Count’s stay, they encounter the heroine of the story, Olga. She is the young and beautiful daughter of a drunken forester and both the Count and Zinovyev are instantly captivated, as is the Estate Manager Urbenin.

The three men pursue Olga in their different ways, but she shocks them all by announcing she will marry Urbenin, and does so. However, on her wedding day she reveals that she loves Zinovyev and in fact instantly becomes his lover. Passions continue to rise and fall, and then Olga runs off to live with the Count. Things continue to deteriorate until a shocking attempt is made on Olga’s life – the central puzzle of this story – but who was responsible? All the various mysteries are revealed by the end of the tale, but I won’t say too much about the plot strands so as to avoid spoilers.

“The air was saturated with the exhalations of vernal greenery and caressed my healthy lungs with its softness. I breathed it in, and as I surveyed the open prospect with my enraptured eyes, I sensed the presence of spring, of youth – and it seemed that those young birches, the grass by the wayside and the incessantly humming cockchafers were sharing my feelings.

‘But why is it back there, in the world,’ I reflected, ‘that men herd themselves together in wretched, cramped hovels, confine themselves to narrow, constricting ideals, while there’s such freedom and scope for life and thought here? Why don’t they come out here?’

And my imagination that had waxed so poetic had no desire to encumber itself with thoughts of winter and earning a living – those two afflictions that drive poets into cold, prosaic St. Petersburg and filthy Moscow, where they pay fees for poetry, but provide no inspiration.”

“The Shooting Party” is often touted as no more than an early detective novel, and therefore unusual because it is a Russian one. However, it seemed to me a lot more than that and I feel it’s rather unjustly neglected. Certainly, it’s not often listed among Chekhov’s major works but it has many merits.

For a start, the writing is lovely, particularly some of the descriptions of nature and the countryside. The reader really gets a feel for the location, and nature itself seems to be taking quite a part in the plot!

“It was a fine day in August. The sun shone with all the warmth of summer, the blue sky fondly beckoned one into the distance, but there was already a feeling of autumn in the air. Leaves that had come to the end of their lives were turning gold in the green foliage of the pensive forest, while the darkening fields had a wistful, melancholic look.

Presentiments of inescapable, oppressive autumn took hold of us too and it was not difficult to foresee that things would very soon come to a head. At some time the thunder had to rumble and the rain start pouring to freshen the humid air! It is usually close and sultry before a thunderstorm, when dark, leaden clouds approach, but we were already being stifled morally: this was evident in everything – in our movements, our smiles, in whatever we said.”

The characterisation is excellent too, and the various players in this drama are wonderfully portrayed: the dissolute Count, the stolid Urbenin, the local dignitaries, Zinovyev himself. Olga is intriguing, because despite being the ostensible heroine, she is not really a very sympathetic character. Capricious, self-centre and vain, her main interests seem to be dresses and status. She is foolish and coquettish and I could not even take seriously her protestations that she loved Zinovyev, because despite giving herself to him, her desire for marriage to a Count, status and dresses seemed stronger than that love.

Although this book was written in Chekhov’s early years, perhaps intended as a pot-boiler to earn a quick rouble, it does address some serious issues. The status of women in Russia was very low at the time, as can be seen in any number of works of literature, and they were often married off to much older men where they were little more than slaves; beating and domestic violence was the norm. More liberal Russians were starting to find this state of affairs unacceptable and there is a very famous painting by Pukirev, referred to in the notes, known as “Misalliance” or “The Unequal Marriage” which sums this up.

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So despite Olga’s character flaws, we can sympathise with her desire to escape from poverty and servitude, and just wish she had made better choices. Interestingly, despite our narrator’s contempt for her affairs, she married the first man who offered her a formal union and so obviously neither he nor the Count were prepared to commit to Olga but simply wanted to seduce her. As he is an unreliable narrator, she may not be as fickle as she is portrayed.

Another astonishing element to this book is how explicit the content is. The Count and Zinovyev are smacking their lips (metaphorically) at various points at the thought of new girls (presumably virgins) and there is plenty of booze and orgying with the gypsies. Zinovyev carries Olga off and has his way with her before her husband, and there is much general debauchery going on. Compared with what was happening in Victorian literature at the time, this is quite an eye-opener!

The format of a novel within a novel is effective, and also allows AC to present himself in the role of narrator and even detective! I’m not going to say too much about the solution, but personally I found it so obvious that I was actually expecting another twist that did not come! AC flags it up quite early and any seasoned crime novel reader should guess quite early on. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the identity of the murderer was probably quite shocking. Interestingly, Chekhov has his narrator self state at the end of the book “There is no villain” but equally it seems there is no hero in this story. Our flawed, unreliable narrator ends up being quite a different character from that presented at the start of the novel, and the character development is well handled.

Chekhov himself somewhat disowned this early work, but I think it deserves better treatment. The writing is excellent, the plotting and characterisation vivid, and it’s a very readable, clever book. Although Chekhov focused very much on shorter works, on the evidence of this novel he certainly was able to put together a coherent, longer work that’s a very satisfying read! Despite its flaws, this is a complex and intriguing book with some startlingly beautiful descriptions of the Russian landscape and some wonderfully memorable characters. It’s a shame that AC never took his excursion into detective fiction any further (apart from the odd short story) as if this volume is anything to judge by, further works could have been very readable!

Recent Reads: Three Years by Chekhov

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And it’s back to Russia again, with Hesperus’s other Chekhov novella, once more translated by Hugh Aplin. As always with their books, it’s beautifully produced with a foreword by William Fiennes and introduction and helpful notes by Aplin.

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“Three Years” is a short work, under 100 pages, telling the story of three years in the life of Laptev and his family, his marriage to Yulia and the changes that follow. The book begins with Alexei Laptev visiting his sister Nina in the country. She is ill with cancer, and lives in a strange menage with her two daughters, while her husband lives with his second family and children elsewhere, visiting now and again when there is a crisis! Laptev is unexpectedly in love with Yulia, daughter of a strange and ineffective local doctor, and although she does not love him, she agrees to marry him after he abruptly finds the courage to declare his feelings.

Laptev is aware Yulia does not care for him and so in many ways the union is ill-fated from the start. The couple move back to his home in Moscow where we meet his brother Fyodor, his bullying father, plus a large collection of friends and employees. There is also his ex-lover, Polina, a strange, spiky independent woman whom Laptev feels he might have been better off marrying. A series of incidents, some dramatic and some trivial take place, and Chekhov explores Laptev’s past a little and speculates on his future. The book ends with Yulia developing a love for her husband, whereas his ardour has cooled, and  with Laptev in philosophical mood waiting to see what life will bring him. As his brother-in-law predicts:

“Yes, everything under the sun comes to an end… You’ll fall in love and you’ll suffer, you’ll fall out of love and you’ll be deceived, because there isn’t a woman that wouldn’t deceive you, you’ll suffer, fall into despair and you yourself will deceive. But the time will come, when all of this will be just a memory and  you’ll reason coldly and consider it utterly trivial…”

If this all sounds a little unspecific – well, the book is just that! As the excellent introduction points out, Chekhov initially intended to write a big, sweeping Russian novel and certainly there are enough characters and material in basic form to have been expanded into something of Tolstoyan length. However, Chekhov never managed that and what remains is something of a hybrid. The story is neither one thing or another: too wide in scope for a short story or even, really, a novella, but not developed enough to be a proper novel. Too many of the characters are underdeveloped sketches more than living and breathing people, and too many important events are told off-camera in a few lines (the deaths of Yulia’s daughter and niece being one striking example). In the hands of a novelist used to larger-scale narratives the material could have been turned into an involving story with an excellent set of characters, but here we don’t even get any real sense of who they are and why they are even in the novel.

This ends up being frustrating, because I kept thinking about what could have been. There is an underlying theme of madness and cruelty within Laptev’s family; his father is a sadistic bully, who has dominated and beaten his children and his workforce over the years, so that they have all been warped by it. Laptev himself is ineffectual and his brother descends into madness, while his sister’s unfortunate marriage and the results of her childhood abuse finish her off. But I found myself thinking that it needed a Dostoevsky to do justice to the people and events here and it could have been so much more. I actually wondered what point Chekhov was trying to make and what the novella was really about – at the core of it is the love story of Laptev and Yulia, but even this is not strong enough to sustain events.

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Looking at the introduction and foreword, I sense that I’m not the only one who has had this response to the book. Chekhov never completed a really long work and is tempting to conclude that, however brilliant he is with the short story and play format, he didn’t have the capacity for the epic. He certainly is capable of the novella form, as I found “The Story of a Nobody” much more coherent, and I intend to try “The Shooting Party” also, which I think may be Chekhov’s longest work. But the effect of “Three Years” is a little like seeing a miniaturist attempting a mural. It’s not a book I hated, far from it – this being Chekhov, there is some beautiful writing of course, and certain scenes, vignettes, images stand out strongly; perhaps that thought actually crystallises my feelings about the novella, that it was more a sequence of events than a whole, coherent work. A lost opportunity.

Recent Reads: The Story of a Nobody by Chekhov

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And we sail along with Russian Season, this time a slim novella by Chekhov! “The Story of a Nobody” is a little Hesperus Book I have and it’s translated by Hugh Aplin. I must admit it surprised me a bit to find that Chekhov had written these longer pieces, because I always associated him with either plays or shorter short stories. However, it seems he has done some of these longer works and this came with good reviews for both the stories and Hugh Aplin’s excellent translation, so what more could I ask?

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The novella is narrated by the Nobody, known to us initially as Stepan. He has taken employment as a manservant with a gentleman called Orlov, though his real reason is to try to get access to Orlov’s father. The latter is an important minister and Stepan is a revolutionary of sorts, determined to assassinate him. However, from this simple premise, things develop very differently to the way Stepan had planned. Complications arise in the form of Zinaida Fyodorovna, a married woman who is Orlov’s lover. She leaves her husband, determined to be a modern, free woman and live with Orlov. He, however, had not expected anything like this, being a man detached from sensation and emotion, regarding love as simply a need to be satisfied, and resenting Zinaida’s taking her life into her own hands and visiting herself upon him. Things get worse when Stepan becomes fascinated by Zinaida, longing for a normal life instead of the revolutionary one. He is fighting against consumption and losing his rebellious fire, just as Zinaida is gaining hers. They flee St. Petersburg together but what will become of them?

This is a fascinating little story, beautifully written and with vivid character sketches. I haven’t read enough of Chekhov’s short stories to make definitive statements, but this does seem to me to have more depth that some of his works I’ve read. Stepan is an intriguing person, steeled in revolution but tired of it – desperate for what he considers a normal life, home and hearth; in fact, everything that Orlov, the conventional gentleman, could have but rejects, preferring to present an ironic persona and keep himself to himself. Both men in many ways could be said to have adopted a pose which is not really their own nature, but Orlov will not give up his way of life – he accepts that there is wrong in both the upper and lower strata of society, but will stick with the upper as it is closer to his nature and he is lazy and used to his way of life. Stepan, on the other hand, is burnt out from years of zeal, and simply seems to wish for peace. He has become disillusioned with the possibility of changing the world for the better by violence, and when he is given the opportunity to actually carry out his mission, he has become unable to do so.

“Why are we exhausted? Why do we, at first so passionate, bold, noble, full of belief, why do we become, by the age of thirty or thirty-five, completely bankrupt? Why does one fade away with consumption, a second put a bullet through his forehead, a third seek oblivion in vodka and cards, a fourth, to deaden his fear and anguish, cynically trample underfoot the portrait of his pure, fine youth? Why do we, once fallen, no longer attempt to rise, and, when we lose one thing, why do we not seek another? Why?”

The book’s other main character, Zinaida, is a complex figure, a mixture of emotion and intellect who seems to be desperately searching for something. When she learns the truth about how Orlov has been deceiving her, she throws herself at Stepan’s cause, as it seems she needs something to fill the void. Women revolutionaries and free thinkers were not unusual in Russia at the time, and she has once again read too many books for her own good! References are made particularly to Turgenev and Dostoevsky, and I found myself thinking about how differently Russian writers from different ages would have treated this particular subject and plot. Gogol might well have ignored the political and simply gone for the human side of the story, looking for the grotesque. Dostoevsky would have toned down the grotesque a bit but had the characters behaving much more intensely and dramatically and the work would have been several times the length! But Chekhov’s prose is lucid, vivid and clear; he makes the points he wishes to make about humanity and tells a compelling story at the same time. We are shown the inequality, injustice and waste, but subtly; few of the characters are stereotypes and all have dimensions that are not obvious from the start; and Chekhov is not judgemental as an author, allowing us to decide what we feel about the characters and their views on life.

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This is an excellent little novella, very thought-provoking and one I would like to read again soon – I’m still ruminating on some of the points it raises. If you’re thinking of reading it, I would really recommend the Hesperus Press edition with the foreword by Louis de Bernieres. The book *has* been republished by Alma Classics (like several Hesperus titles) but in many cases they seem to have dropped the forewords and sometimes the introductions – which is a shame! A highly recommended work, which has made me very keen to pick up more Chekhov.

A Happy Weekend with Books!

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As if to compensate for the fact that there was a vast lack of green Viragos on my jaunt to Chelmsford last week, I stumbled on two bargains in the first charity shop I stepped into on Saturday!

I’ve left the price sticker on the first for this photo, as it has to be seen to be believed:

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Yes, 50p for a lovely old green copy of “The Brontes Shopped at Woolworths” – truly surprising, but I’m not complaining!

Eagle-eyed Youngest Child spotted the other one:

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This Willa Cather isn’t a title I know anything about, but it sounded intriguing and at the grand sum of £1, definitely worth a punt, as they say!

I’m not quite sure why my local charity shops should be quite so blessed with Virago volumes – but I’m not complaining…. 😉

I did grab a third book in another store:

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I’ve read about this Murdoch on a few blogs and I think it will be a case of either  love or hate!

(I also picked up a couple of Russian – real Russian! – vinyl records on the Melodiya label from the Oxfam – but that’s another story!)

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On Sunday, I lost my lie-in, as Youngest Child insisted on trekking off to Norwich to attend a book signing by her favourite author, Derek Landy (Skulduggery Pleasant). It’s not as if she hasn’t been to three other signings/events already…. However, I didn’t mind a day out, even though it was a Sunday and I wasn’t sure what bookshops/charity shops might be open.

As it turned out, YC spent most of the day in the very nice Waterstones branch (lovely cafe and extremely helpful staff plus good stock!), met her author twice and also some other fans she knows. Meantime, I ambled off round Norwich a bit and found one open charity shop, which had this Virago:

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Then, on exploring a little further, I found the City Bookshop which housed *lots* of nice goodies – including green and orange Penguin titles which I managed to resist. However, I did pick up an Oxford Classics volume of Chekhov’s early short stories which I’d heard recommended – only £1.99 and appeared like new:

chekhov

The most fabby place I stumbled on, though, was the very amazing Book Hive, an absolutely lovely independent bookshop over three rickety floors in an old building. The variety of stock was amazing, and when I got up to the first floor, I was knocked out to find that they had a shelf of Persephones, one of Alma/Oneworld Classics, one of NYRB books, one of Capuchin Classics, and one of Hesperus Press volumes, as well as numerous other smaller publishers like Daunt and Pushkin Press scattered generally through the fiction. I hummed and hawed for ages and finally settled on buying a Brand New Book (as I feel places like this should be supported):

bunin

It was a difficult decision as to which one it would be, but this collection of Ivan Bunin’s short stories has been on my wish list for an age, so it won out! If you’re ever in Norwich, make sure you pop into The Book Hive – it’s one of the best bookstores I’ve seen in a long time…

Russian Reading Month – And some thoughts about translation

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The very lovely Tuesday in Silhouette blog, which I just stumbled across via Alex in Leeds‘ excellent pages, is running a Russian Reading Month which I have decided to tag onto – partly because I happen to have just read “Conquered City” but mainly because I have an abiding love of Russian Literature. TIS has provided an interesting little meme re Russian Lit so here are my thoughts below.

What has your relationship with Russian literature been like thus far? What are your expectations for the following month – and perhaps your expectations towards the novel/writer you’ve chosen to read?

My first real encounter with Russia came when I was in my teens at Grammar School and we studied the Revolution in History lessons. I was fascinated by the period and started to explore further, and the next influence was the film of “Dr. Zhivago” which was re-running at our local cinema. I then began to read Solzhenitsyn, who was very much in the public eye when I was growing up, and was knocked out by “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Luckily, my lovely old-fashioned school library was stuffed with glass panelled bookcases full of purple jacketed Russian classics so I was able to indulge.

I’ve continued to love and read the Russians ever since – everything from the classics to modern volumes like “Novel with Cocaine”. I was particularly taken with “Crime and Punishment” when I first read it, and also Gogol’s “Dead Souls” which I found amazingly funny. A more recent discovery was the wonderful Andrey Platonov who is unusual and strange and quite unique. I finally got round to reading “The Master and Margarita” a few years ago and was hooked, moving on to read everything by Bulgakov. I confess I still struggle with Tolstoy and there may be an issue with my attempts which I’ll get onto later.

My favourite Russian poet is Mayakovsky – he’s often dismissed as just a revolutionary hack, but this is so untrue – check out this heartbreaking final poem by him:

Past One O’Clock

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

I also love to read books about Russia and its history so I guess you could call me a real Slavophile!

The first book I read for the Russian month was “Conquered City” which I reviewed below. I had high hopes for this from what I had heard about it and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m currently re-reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” which I’m enjoying even more than the first time. I hope to read Nabokov’s Gogol biog which I have on order, and I also want to re-read “The Master and Margarita” – for reasons I’ll expand on below!

Thanks so much to TIS for prompting my re-engagement with Russian literature – one of my long-term loves!

*************

So – a slight digression here, on the subject of translation. After reading TIS and some other reviews of Bulgakov I picked up on the fact that some reviewers were commenting on problems and differences with translations. It seems that particular MAM has had a chequered history owing to the censorship and translations of various partial versions etc. There have been several attempts and the one I read was a 1997 translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I didn’t know a lot about them, except that their names seemed to be turning up on a lot of newer translations of Russian classics and they were working on a new version of “Dr. Zhivago”. A little more research revealed that they seem to polarize opinions dramatically, people either singing their praises or condemning their work. I was particularly intrigued to read one piece by a Russian writer saying that their translations were terrible. There were quite a few blogs doing comparisons of some passages from MAM and I have to say that I didn’t find the P/V sections compared that well. I dug about in my collection and found that I had a volume of P/V translated Gogol stories and also some older versions by different translators. On doing a quick comparison of some opening paragraphs, I definitely DO NOT like the P/V versions – they seemed flat, literal and dull. I asked Youngest Child to give me an impartial opinion and she said, without knowing anything about anything, that the P/V paragraphs had “no flair”. So I have now sent off for two other versions of MAM (thank goodness for Amazon penny books!!!!) and a highly regarded translation of “Dead Souls” – apparently, the new NYRB one which I have been coveting may not be the be-all and end-all of translations either 😦

This set me off thinking about the whole nature of translation generally. With one of my favourite writers, Italo Calvino, it’s fortunate that there have only been a few scholars involved. The bulk of his work during his lifetime was skilfully handled by William Weaver who gave the books a consistency and a voice. Tim Parks did some translating after Calvino’s death and since then, Martin McLaughlin has taken over the mantle of presenting Calvino’s works for the English-speaking world – all the time he is careful to respect what has been done before and improve on it discreetly when he can.

With the Russian authors there are numerous different translations. The first, much maligned, translator of many volumes was Constance Garnett. It is fashionable nowadays to condemn her work as inaccurate and faulty, but I think it’s too easy to criticise. She was trying to present huge numbers of long works in a format that the English-speaking reader could deal with in the early 20th century and as a one-woman translating machine she did very well. However, I pulled out a number of my Russian novels last night and found there was a wide array of translators represented. Many of my older Penguin Classics were dealt with by David Magarshack and David Duff, and I never had any issues with reading them although Magarshack in particular gets bad press nowadays. But looking through my more recent volumes, I realised that there were two translators whose skills I really trust. The first is Robert Chandler, who is probably best known for bringing Platonov to us in English but has also produced an exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”. To translate a writer as complex and subtle as Platonov takes real talent and love of the language, and Chandler has certainly served literature well. The other scholar, who seems to have been beavering away quietly in the background, is Hugh Aplin. Aplin has produced numerous translations for Hesperus Press of Chekhov, Lermontov and Turgenev – and is the name behind my current NFU as mentioned above. His work is elegant and consistently readable – there is no hype or fuss, just well presented and enjoyable volumes. Well done gentlemen!

Anyway, this exercise has made me realise that I need to think more about the translated literature I’m reading. This subject surfaced a little while back when I was considering Proust, and the advice I’ve come across then and now is to compare as many different versions as you can and choose the one you respond to best. So I think I shall try to ignore hype and publicity claims, and let my reading mojo respond to the prose!

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