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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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“The darker the night, the brighter the stars…”

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by David McDuff

My re-read of Dostoevsky’s great novel seems in some ways to have taken me a disproportionate amount of time; at 656 pages, it’s considerably shorter than “War and Peace” and yet has taken me several weeks to read. I’m not sure why; I absolutely *love* the book and *love* Dostoevsky, yet I’ve found myself having to pause between chapters just to catch my breath and absorb the brilliance of it. Whether I can convey that brilliance is another matter; trying to corral my thoughts is often difficult when it’s a big and important book I’ve read, but I shall share my feelings anyway.

An apt cover image, as Raskolnikov is described as being good-looking – which he certainly isn’t in some of the adaptations I’ve seen about…

The plot of the book is pretty well-known and appears fairly simplistic: Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student, murders a money-lender and her sister with an axe. His motives are perhaps unclear; does he undertake the act for money, or because he considers himself a Napoleon, someone apart from the ordinary run of the mill person, who is above the law and normal morality? However, he’s pursued by a dogged detective and more importantly, by his conscience, and the reader follows his emotional and spiritual journey to its final resolution.

Into this premise, Dostoyevsky introduces a rich tapestry of characters and a deep exploration of humanity and its motivations. Raskolnikov’s mother and his sister Dunya make an early appearance; the Marmeladov family, including Sonya the daughter, are pivotal to the story; then there is Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin, a solid and reliable, if slightly over-excitable fellow student. More sinister is Svidrigailov, a lecherous sensualist from the Raskolnikov family past, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of his wife Marfa Petrovna. Also on the nasty side is Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a rather stuffy man in pursuit of Dunya as a wife, so that he can have a poor and grateful woman attending to his every whim. And then there is the remarkable Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in charge of investigating the murder; an unsettling and unpredictable character, there’s most definitely a touch of the Columbo about him.

Have you ever watched a moth near a candle-flame? Well, that’s the way he’ll be with me, hovering, circling around me like a moth at a lighted candle; he’ll lose his taste for freedom, he’ll start to think, get tangled in his thoughts, ensnare himself all round as though in some net or other, worry himself to death!

All of these characters are on journeys of their own and bring their own issues to the story as a counterpoint to what is happening to Raskolnikov. And the whole structure gives Dostoevsky the opportunity to explore sophisticated moral issues: is the life of a nasty old money-lender worth anything when the money she grasps and hoards could help those in extreme poverty? Is it morally wrong for someone to take the decision as to who should live and who should die? Is Sonya any less of a person for having to prostitute herself to try and feed her family? Are the nihilistic philosophies circulating St. Petersburg helpful or damaging? And is the only route to redemption through suffering?

That’s just a snapshot of the kind of issues Dostoevsky’s looking at in “Crime and Punishment”, which might seem off putting. However, no-one can discuss a moral quandary in such an entertaining and absorbing way as Dosty does. His subjects are serious and yet his book is filled with those wonderful characters, humour, philosophy, tragedy and pathos, as well as a particularly clear-eyed view of the lot of many Russians of his time. In particular, he seems to have quite a sophisticated understanding of the difficulties women faced; Sonya, because of her particular caste, has no option but to become a prostitute; Dunya’s only way out of poverty is a suitable marriage, and she is vulnerable to lechers like Svidrigailov – the latter attempts to compromise her reputation on more than one occasion, and the last time he does is a critical point in the book.

In fact, the book is not just about one crime – it’s actually littered with them. Svidrigailov’s behaviour towards Marfa Petrovna and Dunya is vile; the plight of Marmeladov and the evils of drink are a constant theme; Sonya’s being reduced to prostitution to avoid starvation is equally criminal; and Dunya’s constant harassment is yet another aspect of the messed up structure of Russian society. Money and poverty seem to be at the root of everything, and there are scenes of the suffering of animals and children which would slot comfortably into a Dickens novel; Dostoevsky seems to have share a sense of outrage with the latter over the plight of the vulnerable.

The blood that’s on everyone’s hands …that flows and has always flowed through the world like a waterfall, that is poured like champagne and for the sake of which men are crowned in the Capitol and then called the benefactors of mankind. Well just take a look and see what’s really what! I wanted to do good to people and I’d have done hundreds, thousands of good deeds, instead of this one stupid action, which wasn’t even stupid, really, but just clumsy…

Central to the book, though, is Raskolnikov’s battle: not only with Porfiry Petrovich, but more importantly with himself. Although it’s sometimes surprising how much of the book is *not* about Raskolnikov – there are whole sequences in which he doesn’t appear or is on the sidelines – we always return to his dilemma. He seems often in a state of feverishness, trance, illness; and it’s often unclear how much his alienation from society in general has contributed to the actions he took. There is regular reference to an article he’s had published where he argued that a Napoleon among men is not bound by the same restrictions as others and is allowed to act in ways that ordinary men cannot; and whether his illness has pushed him into taking the actions he does is perhaps ambiguous. The murder becomes almost incidental – it is Raskolnikov’s mental and spiritual state which takes centre stage. The journey into his soul and his psyche is a dark one, but there is redemption in the end.

A Genius

Despite having taken so long to read “Crime and Punishment”, I finished the last hundred pages or so in a breathless burst of reading which had a really strong emotional impact on me. I first read the book decades ago and I have to say that I most definitely got more out of this time round. For a start, I appreciate the structure his work more deeply; there’s a staginess about Dostoevsky’s books which is very appealing, as the events unfold almost as a series of set pieces. There’s a surprising amount of dark humour and the slapstick quality of a manic black comedy as Raskolnikov staggers from one dramatic situation to another, the pressures on him from outside and within gradually building up.

I also saw parallels with Dostoevsky’s other work which I wouldn’t have picked up back then, as C&P was my first read of his work. In particular, there is a strong bond between Raskolnikov and the Underground Man from “Notes from the Underground”, not least in the constant reference both of them make to their spite. One particular section, where Raskolnikov is venting his spleen to Sonya about the awfulness of his life and how he crawled away to his dark little room like a spider, could have been lifted straight from “Notes…” and there were many other parts which resonated in the same way.

‘Sonya, I have a spiteful heart, take note of that: that may explain a lot of things. I came here because I’m full of spite. There are some that would not have. But I’m a coward and…. a villain!’

Lest this should all sound too dark and gloomy – let’s face it, deep arguments about the value of a single life are not for everyone – I should say that though the book is complex I found it eminently readable and absolutely gripping. Even in the depths of despair and depravity, there is an exuberance about Dostoevsky’s characters which makes you love them and want to follow them. The chapters towards the end of the book which dealt with the final fate of Svidrigailov were completely involving and moving, and I felt were some of Dostoevsky’s best writing.

My version of “Crime and Punishment” is the Penguin Classics edition translated by David McDuff (who also translated “The Brothers Karamazov” which I read in 2013) and I found it to be an excellent rendition. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was struggling with a different rendering but this one was perfect for me and it ‘sounds’ like I expect a Dostoevsky book to read. McDuff also provides excellent notes and introduction, and he perceptively opines in the latter that critical reaction to “Crime and Punishment” says as much about the commentator as the book itself. Certainly, a quick look online reveals any number of theories about this work, but for my money it’s a brilliant, multi-layered novel which tells a gripping story while providing social comment, exploring morality and shining a strong light on the Russian society of the time. I imagine I’ll be thinking about the issues “Crime and Punishment” raises for some time and I’m so glad I chose to revisit this book with this particular translation.

Reading – an update… plus that T-word again….

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You might have notice a slight thinning out of reviews recently, and I confess that I’ve slightly been in the doldrums with regards to reading.  Partly I put this down to busyness at work, the change of seasons, the first cold of the winter (and it was a stinker) and tired eyes! But I did approach a revisit to “Crime and Punishment” via the lovely OWC hardback with great anticipation, and was a bit fed up when it went pear-shaped…

I knew I already had two copies of C&P – the original ancient Penguin I read decades ago, translated by David Magarshack, and a more recent Penguin rendered by David McDuff, of which I’d heard good things. I picked up the latter specifically for a re-read, but I couldn’t resist starting the lovely Oxford version, translated by Nicholas Slater Pasternak, and I did indeed get several chapters in…

However, for some reason I found myself struggling to engage. I’m still not sure why, but I ended up putting this version down and picking up the McDuff, and I’m currently sailing through that and absolutely loving it. It obviously has nothing to do with the physical book, because the Oxford is lovely with clear type and nice big white pages; the McDuff Penguin is a larger format and also quite readable but probably less so than the Oxford.

It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I wasn’t gelling with the Oxford, but the best I can say is that it read too smoothly. I expect to anticipate a kind of nervous energy in Dostoevsky, and I didn’t feel that here. McDuff also translated the version of Brothers Karamazov I read, and I found that version resonated with me too. So obviously, as I’m continuing with the version that speaks to me I shall keep on reading the Penguin McDuff – though having two sets of notes and supporting material to refer to is quite a bonus!

I confess I’m a little disappointed that the Oxford version didn’t work for me, though it will no doubt be ideal for other readers. And I’m keen to read one of these lovely books, so maybe I should step out of Russia for a read soon, and try to read one of Austen’s great works during the centenary year of her death.

“Sense and Sensibility” is one of her titles I know I haven’t read – so perhaps that should be a near-future read. Onward and upward! :))))

Happiness is…

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finding a copy of the David McDuff translation of “Crime and Punishment” in a charity shop for 95p….

….. particularly when you’ve been putting off sending for a copy for ages!!

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