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Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

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The Vexations of Varying Translations

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Yes, yes, I know I do tend to ramble on about the vagaries of different translations of some of my favourite books; but at the risk of being a bore, this came back into to my mind recently thanks, oddly enough, to OH’s film-watching tendencies!

OH is a real movie buff (proper films, as I would call them, not modern blockbusters that look like computer games…) and he was watching a film called “The Gambler” from 1974, starring James Caan. It seems to loosely draw on Dostoevsky’s book of that name (which is one of my favourite of the great Russian’s works), and in fact the author himself features in a university teaching session Caan’s hosting. OH was intrigued by a quotation given, apparently from “Notes from Underground”, which was rendered as:

Reason only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, encompasses everything. Desire is life.

He asked me about it and to be honest, I was a little dubious as it didn’t ring any immediate bells and sounded perhaps a bit too straightforward to me for Dosty. The credits gave the version as being the Signet edition, translation by one Andrew MacAndrew and despite the fact that I own several editions of “Notes..” already (as you can see from above) I felt compelled to send for this one. I also dug about in my current versions and came up with some fascinating variations!

The MacAndrew version

The MacAndrew version:

Reason is only reason, and it only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, is the manifestation of life itself – of all of life – and it encompasses everything from reason down to scratching oneself.

A David Magarshack translated collection

David Magarshack:

But reason is only reason, and it can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man, whereas volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean of the whole of human life, including reason with all its concomitant head-scratchings.

Two lots of Zinovieff and Hughes

Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes:

You see gentlemen, rational judgement is a good thing – there can be no argument about that – but rational judgement is just rational judgement and satisfies nothing but man’s rational faculties, while desire is the manifestation of the whole of life, that is of the whole of human life including rational judgement and all the head-scratching.

Hugh Aplin version from Hesperus

Hugh Aplin:

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a good thing, that is indisputable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while desire is a manifestation of the whole of life, that is, the whole of human life, with both reason and all its funny itches too.

******

Well – that gave me plenty of food for thought and after cogitating for a while I concluded the following before my head started hurting too much:

1. The movie obviously took MacAndrew and truncated him to suit the script.

2. Even the split of sentences is not consistent in translation as some extracts I’ve given have to be longer because some of the translators run the previous sentence into this one (or else it’s not split in the original but some translators split it).

3. I’ve read Magarshack’s translations in the past with no problem, but I don’t fancy his rendering here…

4. I quite like Aplin’s funny itches, although what strikes me is that each translator has interpreted the itching and its cause and location rather individually!

So – basically I’m just going to have to live with the fact that pretty much every translated rendering of a book is going to be very different and I’ll just have to choose the one which speaks to me the most and get on with it. And I now have four versions of “Notes from Underground” which is possibly a little excessive…

Not exactly your regular travelogue….

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Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Kyril FitzLyon

As we head on into January of the new year, a month I always find a little bleak, I’ve been happy to spend some time with one of my favourite authors – Fyodor Dostoevsky. Alma Classics have released one of his lesser-known works, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and were kind enough to provide a copy for review. The book is translated by Kyril FitzLyon, who also provides an excellent introduction, and as he points out this is one of Dostoevsky’s works that’s been unaccountably overlooked.

winter-notes

FD’s work is usually divided into two halves; those written before his conviction, death sentence, appearance in front of a firing squad, last-minute reprieve and exile in Siberia; and those written after it. Obviously the experiences dividing these two parts of his life were ones which affected him profoundly, and although his later career is usually reckoned to begin with “Notes from Underground” (1864), the first book to outline his mature thoughts and beliefs. However, “Winter Impressions….” was published a year earlier and contains many of the themes which would inform his later great novels.

In June 1862, Dostoevsky travelled to Western Europe for the first time, visiting Berlin, Paris, London, Florence, Milan and Vienna amongst others. The trop was supposedly for him to consult Western doctors concerning his epilepsy. However, it sounds as if this might have been a bit of a front, as in fact FD spent much of his time studying the Europeans peoples, their beliefs and their customs. Western ideas were starting to creep into Russian, and Dostoevsky was concerned about the effect these were having on his homeland and its people.

Oh when, my God, will I learn to be orderly?…

Rest assured, this is no light travelogue with amusing anecdotes about the various nations that Dostoevsky passed through on his travels; instead he takes us to the heart of the human condition, relating his experiences and sharing his thoughts on the differences between his home country and Europe. In his usual digressive, rather rambling style, FD tells us of being observed by police spies on a train; encounters with the masses partying in the London streets to celebrate receiving their weekly pay; and his thoughts on the peoples of various nations. He clearly thinks very little of the French as a nation, preferring instead his time spent in London. Although the latter city has the same great divide between rich and poor as Paris, London is more honest about the situation, not trying to hide away and deny its poor like the French capital does. He also doesn’t mince his words when it comes to religion; as a strong believer in Russian Orthodoxy, he’s no fan of the Catholic and Anglican faiths. Whilst acknowledging the ills of Russia, including the dreadful condition of the serfs (who had only just been emancipated), he is angered by the West’s refusal to admit that their poor are slaves as well.

… before long (the French bourgeois) will take to quoting texts to defend the slave trade like American from the southern states of the USA.

Despite his unhappiness about the poverty he sees, Dostoevsky is much more taken with London than the other cities he visits, providing a wonderfully vivid paragraph describing it:

…what an overwhelming spectacle it presents, painted on a vast canvas. Even superficially, how different it is to Paris! The immense town, forever bustling by night and by day, as vast as an ocean, the screech and howl of machinery, the railways built above the houses (and soon to be built under them) the daring of enterprise, the apparent disorder, which in actual fact is the highest form of bourgeois order, the polluted Thames, the coal-saturated air, the magnificent squares and parks, the town’s terrifying districts such as Whitechapel with its half-naked, savage and hungry population, the City with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the World Exhibition…

But despite being impressed by the city, he is saddened by the sight of women of the street selling their own daughter for money. In fact, FD spends much of the book discussing the possibility of humans really being free, and whether a brotherhood of man is actually possible; certainly, he feels strongly that the French revolution has achieved nothing, and the people of that country come in for some of his strongest criticism.

dostoyevsky

“Winter Notes…” is obviously not a perfect book; there is a sense that some of the countries have been very much ignored, and apparently this was because Dostoevsky travelled about so much in a short time that he barely had time to take in some of the places he went to. Nevertheless, it’s possible to see the early formation of some of the ideas he would develop more fully in his later great novels; and also to have visions of this erratic but brilliant man whizzing round Europe on a train, observing all, finding much food for thought and coming back to Russia even more convinced of its superiority. Alma have done us a great favour by bringing out such a lovely new edition of “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and if you fancy reading him, this is a very good way to get an introduction in to some of Dostoevsky’s beliefs and thoughts!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!)

Reading updates – plus a very special arrival!

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You might have noticed the sparsity of reviews on the Ramblings lately, as I am still in the depths of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” although reaching the end – it’s a fascinating and neglected book, and I’m looking forward to covering it for the next “Shiny New Books”.

I took a little detour back into Soviet sci-fi earlier in the week with Kirill Bulychev, and the fascinating introduction by Vladimir Gakov ran through the history of Russian science fiction writing and highlighted a book I’d often thought of reading. “Aelita” is probably best known as a pioneering 1920s Soviet film, featuring striking and beautiful sets and costumes by the Constructivist artist Aleksandra Ekster, but Alexei Tolstoy’s novel came first, in 1923. A quick search online revealed that the book was mainly available in a fairly ugly modern edition – until I popped onto Abe and found mention of a Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow version. I own a few books from this publisher, and the listing mentioned a fairly good dustjacket; the cost was more than I would usually pay, but I took a deep breath and sent for it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

aelita cover

As you can see, the small but remarkably well-preserved hardback has a really beautiful cover and it’s in better condition than I expected. The inside is equally lovely too – here’s the title page:

aelita title page

And here’s the first page of the book:

aelita opening

So I’m happy that this was money well spent, and I’d rather have an old and lovely version of a book than a new but modern and dull one – and hopefully this will get to the top of the reading pile soon!

As for any more new arrivals – only one this week! In the Oxfam I spotted this:

riverside villas

If I remember correctly (and that’s always debatable nowadays!) the only Amis I’ve read so far is his poetry, and I liked the sound of this (and also the chapter I read over lunch in Nero) – so this may be a bit of suitable light relief after being absorbed in Fyodor for so long!

Some newbies hit the shelves…

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It’s a busy time of year for me at work, and I’ve been struggling a little to keep up with the reading; and so I’ve tried to stem the amount of books coming into the house. But that usually fails a bit, and there *are* a few new arrivals I’d like to share with you! 🙂

I’m still taking donations to the local charity stores and doing quite well at not bringing replacements home. However, these two slipped into my bag somehow – well, they really couldn’t be left behind…

simenon st exupery

The Saint-Exupery is a title I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and such a beautiful Penguin edition in lovely condition couldn’t be ignored. As for the Simenon, well I’m intrigued – it’s one of his non-Maigret titles and is set in a Soviet port in the 1930s, where the new Turkish Consul has an affair with a local woman and has to deal with the consequences. I’m really keen to read this one soon!

The other arrivals are all new books, which is rather fab! First up, a prize in a giveaway from the lovely Pushkin Press:

Affections

Again, this one sounds really good and I can’t wait to read it. The other books are all review ones, planned for forthcoming editions of Shiny New Books:

PMP new

New Penguin Modern Poets – what more can I say????

Grand

Grand Hotel – very excited about this one too, as it’s being raved about.

And finally, the reason I’m not reading much else at the moment:

adolesc

600 pages of Dostoevskian loveliness! So if my reviews are not so frequent for a while, you’ll know why! 🙂

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! 🙂

Little Black Classics – The Russian Edition!

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It’s been common knowledge round the Ramblings that I’ve been suffering from a bit of a reader’s block – not a thing that happens often, but nevertheless very painful when it strikes. For days I was unable to settle to reading *anything* at all and began to wonder if I would ever be able to get through another volume. Fortunately, salvation came in part from the Penguin Little Black Classics! Commendably enough (in my view, anyway) the series features number of classic Russian authors, all of whom I’ve read and all of whom I love. So these were the perfect way to revisit them in small bites and ease back into reading! I tackled them in the order below and I’ll share just a few thoughts on each.

ruskies 1

The Nose – Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809 – 1852) is one of Russia’s most important authors, and generally regarded as the country’s first realist writer. He wrote on classic novel, “Dead Souls”, and some brilliant short works; this volume contains “The Nose” and “The Carriage”. The first is one of his most famous tales, in which a Collegiate Assessor wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared and taken on a life of its own. Of course, without a nose of his own, it’s quite impossible that he should appear in his normal circles, and the story follows his attempts to track down his nose, which makes appearances here and there wearing a uniform and attempts to establish its existence in its own right. This is wonderfully absurdist nonsense which shows up the prejudices of the class system and civil service in Russia as well as being very, very funny. “The Carriage” is a cautionary tale about what happens when you get drunk and boast too much. The protagonist, Chertokutsky, lives in a small town which goes from dull to lively when the army is posted nearby, and is foolish enough to brag about the wonderful carriage he possesses; unfortunately, owing to imbibing just a little too much he oversleeps and forgets to warn his wife that there will be officers calling on them the next day to have a look! Gogol was a satirical genius and these tales display his talents brilliantly!

Gooseberries – Anton Chekhov

Chekhov needs no introduction on the Ramblings, and this volume collects three tales, “The Kiss”, “The Two Volodyas” and “Gooseberries”. Basically, the man could write short stories like no-one else… “The Kiss” is a poignant tale of a man haunted by a mistaken embrace; “The Two Volodyas” about the choices we make in love; and “Gooseberries” about the choices we make in life. Read Chekhov – just read him! 🙂

Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands – Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is possibly best known for his novels (and his famous dispute with Dostoyevsky) but he was also great at the shorter form. There are two stories in this volume, the title one and “District Doctor”. The latter is very moving, the tale of a provincial doctor and a lost love. The title story portrays serfs living on the land, the hardships they endured and the strangeness of some of their beliefs. Turgenev’s tales apparently helped with the campaign to abolish serfdom, and they’re also excellent reading.

ruskies 2

How Much Land Does A Man Need? – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy also needs no introduction; the giant of Russian literature produces works that were as short as “War and Peace” were long! The two stories here (the title one and “What Men Live By” are suffused by Tolstoy’s faith and “How Much Land….” (a parable of a peasant’s bargain with the Devil) is apparently considered by James Joyce to be the world’s greatest story. I don’t know about that, but it’s very powerful and thought-provoking!

The Steel Flea – Nikolay Leskov

I was particularly delighted that Leskov was included in the LBCs, as he’s a Russian author that often doesn’t get as much attention as the others. Also, he’s suffered a lot at the hands of translators as his particular style of vernacular speech and punning is apparently very hard to translate. The version of one of his most famous stories (also known as “Lefty”) is in the translation by William Edgerton, which comes highly recommended by ace translator Robert Chandler (for his thoughts about working on Leskov, see here). This is a fabulous and fantastic little story about the rivalry between craftsmen of different nations (and thus the nations themselves), rendered with verve and lots of punning!

The Meek One – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Last, but most definitely not least – the wonderful Dostoevsky. I’ve read many of his longer works but less of his short ones. This is a magnificent piece of writing, 57 pages of pure genius. The style recalls that of “Notes from Underground” in that it’s in the form of a monologue by an unreliable narrator. He’s a pawnbroker and he’s telling us the story of marriage, leading up to his wife’s story. Initially we’re unsure of the facts, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the pawnbroker has a somewhat disreputable past and much of what happens is due to his obsessive love of his wife, his inability to express his emotions and his stifling of any natural relations with his wife. As the story builds to a climax, the tension is almost unbearable and the powerful narrative is totally absorbing. At the end it’s not even clear which of the two is the meek one of the title, but the tragic story is brilliantly told. Dostoyevsky is a writer of genius and if you were only going to read one of the Russian LBCs then I would really say that this is the one!

So a wonderful reading experience with these little books. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading the Russians and fortunately there are still plenty I haven’t tackled yet!

(As an aside, I’ve reproduced the author names exactly as they are on the books – and isn’t it interesting how the names can be transliterated with different spellings depending on the translator – languages are fascinating!)

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