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“Can any man remain in Moscow without softening of the brain…” #woefromwit # alexandergriboedov @RusLibrary

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Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov
Translated by Betsy Hulick

Back in 2018, I reviewed a fascinating book for Shiny New Books called Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Yuri Tynianov. That book was a fictionalised retelling of the life of an intriguing Russian author Alexander Griboedov; a friend and contemporary of Pushkin, he’s probably best known for his play, “Woe from Wit”. So when I heard the that Columbia University Press were bringing out a shiny new translation in their wonderful Russian Library imprint, I was very keen to explore it! Reading plays is not something I do on a regular basis; however, this is the second in a fairly short space of time (as I loved my re-encounter with The Government Inspector back in November). Must be something to do with the Russians… ;D

Griboedov had a fascinating and ultimately dramatic life; as well as being an author and composer, he was also a diplomat. And it was in that role that he met an unpleasant end when the Russian Embassy in Persia (now Iran) was stormed and he (plus many others) were slaughtered. It’s his play he’s remembered for nowadays, and it’s about as far away from the story of his life as you can get!

She must be mad.
You’d better warn her she can lose her sight.
What good is there in books? The French ones keep
you up, the Russians make you sleep.
(Famusov on his daughter’s apparent wish to read all night)

Subtitled “A Verse Comedy in Four Acts”, “Woe from Wit” was written in 1823 but subject to all manner of censorship (as was common in Russia at the time) and not published in full until 1861, long after the author’s death. It’s a humorous and satirical work, taking a wry look at Moscow society of the period; and as it was such fun to read, I imagine it would be a joy to see on stage!

The central character is one Alexander Andreyevich Chatsky, an idealistic young man who has been away travelling in foreign climes and is now returning to visit the house of Pavel Famusov; here, he hopes to re-encounter his childhood sweetheart, the latter’s daughter, Sophia Pavlovna. An understanding of sorts had existed between the two young people and Chatsky looks forward to seeing his beloved Sophia again. However, from the very start of the play, it is clear that Sophia has been allowing her affections to wander elsewhere; she spends all night billing and cooing with Molchalin, her father’s live-in secretary, as well as having all manner of admirers. Sophia’s maid Liza spends much of her time covering her mistress’s back so that her father is not aware of what’s going on – so the arrival back of the prodigal Chatsky makes things even more complicated. Add in a ball, where all manner of very individual guests turn up, a rumour of Chatsky’s madness which takes hold rapidly, and Liza’s need to juggle the fact that Molchalin is making a play for her while planning on Sophia as a wife for the sake of duty, and you end up with a wonderful and entertaining comedy of manners.

And who is “everyone”? I ask you.
Decrepit brains, deplorable antiquities.
The enemies of free expression,
unearthing their ideas from an old stock of
faded headlines…
(Chatsky, about to go off on his major speech attacking the old regime…)

However, what makes “Woe from Wit” stand out is the subtext; which actually isn’t as sub as you might think! One of the reasons that it was hard to publish the play at the time is was written is because of the strong element of social critique; Chatsky is an ‘angry young man’, looking for change, and he views what he sees of Moscow society at the Famusov’s ball with horror. He cannot attempt to fit in, criticises the guests and the whole of society, and indeed expresses such strong views that the rumour of his madness is easily spread. Will Sophia want Chatsky back? Will she find out the truth about Molchalin? Does Chatsky actually want to *be* with Sophia and in her milieu? Well, you’ll have to read the play to find out.

Portrait of Griboedov via Wikimedia Commons (IILE / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

“Woe from Wit” is a wonderfully entertaining read, with laugh-out-loud lines and memorable set pieces; and as I said above, I’d love to see it performed. The Moscow of the period, after the Napoleonic Wars, was a place hidebound by social restrictions and niceties; and someone with the views of a Chatsky would never fit in with it. The translation reads wonderfully, and the book comes with an excellent introduction by Angela Brintlinger which puts the play and Griboedov himself into context. I have to say, too, that I think Betsy Hulick has done a wonderful job, as rendering a verse play into another language must be extremely tricky (although I couldn’t tell you how freely she’s had to treat the original!) Interestingly, it seems that many of the phrases used in the play have become everyday expressions in Russia, so Griboedov’s influence is obviously a long one. Reading his play was hugely entertaining but also very thought-provoking; its window into Russia’s past and the society of the time was a real eye-opener; and it just goes to prove that comedy is a marvellous vehicle to get your message across!

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

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

An elegy for Russian poets – Khodasevich at @ShinyNewBooks @CoumbiaUP @Ruslibrary

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s of another book in the marvellous Russian Library series from Columbia University Press. “Necropolis” is by Vladislav Khodasevich, whom I’ve touched upon briefly on the Ramblings before. I have a collection of his poetry I picked up at Judd Books in London, and of course he was married to the wonderful author Nina Berberova.

Necropolis

“Necropolis”, however, is a prose work from a poet; a memoir of the authors and artists Khodasevich had known, it’s a compelling piece of work which memorialises many Silver Age poets (and others) who were lost during the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. It also inadvertantly reveals much about Khodasevich himself and it really is an excellent book. You can read my full review over at Shiny New Books! 😀

True confessions… @PimpernelPress @BacklistedPod @RichardDawkins @OWC_Oxford @RusLibrary

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… of the bookish kind, of course…

Yes, there have been more arrivals at the Ramblings (although I have squeezed several volumes out in Happy Mail and donations). Mainly these have been review copies (as anyone who follows me on social media might have spotted), but I have to admit to a few little purchases…

So let’s share those first… And entirely to blame is the Backlisted Podcast which recently focused on Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year“. I’d been considering reading this for a while – it somehow kept slipping onto my radar – and the podcast finished me off. After a Twitter discussion of which version was best to get, I somehow ended up with two…. Which will I read first? Who know, but I now own *two* Norton Critical Editions (my first was the Adrienne Rich collection I bought a while back)! 😀

Journal of the Plague Year

The next incomings are from charity shop and local Waterstones (who were having a sale).

Dawkins and Fellinesque…

A Dawkins for £1 is not going to stay in the charity shop when I’m about. And I have no idea what Fellinesque is (except I have a nagging feeling I might have read about it somewhere – if it was on your blog please tell me in the comments!) It sounds a bit weird, has the French Revolution in it (obvs with a guillotine on the front…) and was also £1. Worth a punt, methinks…

As for review books, the first arrived during the week and I was *so* excited about it, as I’ve been waiting to cover it for Shiny New Books:

Necropolis

I’ve read several of the titles put out in Columbia University Press’s Russian Library imprint, but I was particularly keen on reading this. Khodasevich is a poet I discovered fairly recently, and this book is about Russian writers from the early part of the 20th century. Can’t wait!!

And yesterday two more lovelies popped through the letterbox (well, actually, were handed to me by the postie, who is probably getting a bit fed up with carting large heavy book packages to the door – these were particularly weighty…)

Woolf and Carlyle

The one on the left is just gorgeous – a glossy colour picture illustrated book all about Virginia Woolf‘s houses. I’ve had a quick flick and it looks amazing! And interestingly on the right (because of Woolf’s interest in the Carlyles) is Thomas’s French Revolution history. A bit of a chunkster, but I’m desperate to read that too. I went to Carlyle’s house with my BFF J and it was surprisingly dark and small…

As I was grumping on Twitter this morning, it’s a little alarming when your review books form their own, separate Mount TBR. Self-inflicted wound I know, first world problem and all that.

Mount (Review) TBR…

However, I shall hopefully spend some time later on today sitting surrounded by a pile of books, flicking through them, reading bits and seeing which one hooks me the most. Yes, spoiled for choice…. 😉

Exploring Zoshchenko’s wonderful Russian satire @ColumbiaUP @shinynewbooks #zoshchenko #borisdralyuk

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I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to review some wonderful volumes in the Columbia University Press Russian Library over the past year or so for Shiny New Books; and I’m delighted that my review of a very special book is up today over at Shiny!

Mikhail Zoshchenko is one of Russia’s best-loved satirists; his “Scenes from a Bathhouse” is probably the title most known in English (and I do have a copy somewhere in the stacks…). “Sentimental Tales” is a newly selected and translated collection of linked tales, rendered beautifully in English by Boris Dralyuk, and it’s a real treat.

The Russian Library books are beautiful to look at and contain some marvellous gems – although I think this might be the jewel in the crown so far! You can read my review on Shiny here, and I can’t recommend this one enough! 🙂

A Russian Bronte? @shinynewbooks @ColumbiaUP

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As my love of Russian literature is no secret, I guess I’m the obvious candidate to be reviewing another excellent book from Columbia University Press in their Russian Library series. Their latest one is a real treat, too, in the form of a comedy of manners from a neglected 19th century woman author – and it set me thinking about the lack of female representation in the canon of Russian writing from that century.

The author of “City Folk and Country Folk”, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, was one of three Russian writer sisters and her book features wonderfully feisty female characters at the centre of the story. It’s a witty, sparkling and yet pithy read and I wonder how many other women writers we’re missing accessing in our Anglophone world because of a lack of translation.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya has been tagged as a Russian Bronte by the publisher, although in many ways she could be said to more resemble Austen. However, she’s a wonderfully fresh voice coming to us from the Russian past – you can read my full review here at Shiny New Books, and I recommend this one highly!

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