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A belated round up of some short Christmas reads! 🎄🎄📚📚

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Christmas 2021 seemed to come and go very quickly, although it was lovely while it lasted; and I did manage to squeeze in a few festive titles which I thought I would round up briefly in one post. One was an old favourite book, one a favourite author making a polemical point, and one a lovely gift I received – let’s take a look!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I might as well come straight out with it and say that this is one of my favourite, desert island books. I’ve read it so many times it’s ridiculous, and I’ll watch pretty much any adaptation of it (I’m even convinced by the Muppet Christmas Carol!) So during a particularly trying time over the festive period, I picked it up and re-read it in one sitting and loved it all over again. Unforgettable characters, wonderfully creepy ghosts, such a clever narrative and completely unputdownable. A nasty protagonist who gets redemption and a second chance – what’s not to love? I think I need to re-read this every Christmas!!

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding by Fyodor Dostoevsky (with spoilers!)

Still in the mood for something Christmassy, I saw this get a mention on Brona’s Books, and discovered that I have a copy in the nice chunky collection translated by Constance Garnett which I picked up recently. Truth be told, it’s not really that warm and cuddly (well, you wouldn’t expect that from Dostoevsky, would you?) The story opens with the narrator attending a Christmas party; something of an observer rather than a participant, he particularly notices a beautiful 11 year old girl who eschews the boisterous play of the rest of the children and goes off quietly to another room to play with her doll. However, she’s attracted the attention of an older business man (particularly as her family are rich) and in a toe-curling scene he follows her to the other room and attempts a mild kind of flirting. My skin crawled, I must admit, and even more so when five years later the narrator sees the young girl being married off to the same man in a society wedding. This is something which has come up before in Russian literature, and the famous painting “Unequal Marriage” by Vasili Pukirev (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) exemplifies the issue. An uncomfortable and unsettling read, and evidence of Dostoevsky’s social concerns.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

My final Christmassy read was a real treat in the form of a lovely gift from my blogging pal HeavenAli. A Christmas Memory is a beautiful little hardback collection of five stories by the great Truman Capote, none of which I’d read before, and they made the perfect companion to New Year’s Eve!

The five titles are A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor, One Christmas, Master Misery and Jug of Silver. The first three stories are autobiographical tales based on Capote’s childhood, with the young boy Buddy standing in for the author. Basically abandoned by his parents to live with relatives in the country, he had a strong bond with a much older cousin who he calls Miss Sook. Despite the vast difference in their ages, the two are mentally sympatico and very close; and two of the stories explore their Christmas rituals, the comfort she provides when he’s bullied and the deep love which exists between them. The third Christmas story tells of Buddy’s reaction to spending one holiday season with his father in New Orleans; the stark contrast to his normal life unsettles him, as do the glimpses of the adult world, but the book still ends on a moving note. All three stories are beautifully written, capturing so vividly Buddy’s life in the country which although hard, still seems idyllic to him, spending his time making and flying kites, and going off on adventures with Sook and their dog Queenie. The title story in particular is an American classic, and I can see why – it’s beautiful and poignant, and a reminder (if I needed it) of what a very great author Capote was.

The other two stories in the book are standalones; Master Misery is a strange and disturbing little tale of a young woman struggling to make a living in winter-time New York, who ends up selling her dreams to a mysterious man; it’s dark and intriguing with a very unsettling end. And Jug of Silver is set in the country again, where a kind of Christmas miracle takes place, and again Capote brilliantly captures his setting and characters. I loved the whole book – thank you Ali! 😊

So that’s it for Christmas reading for a while (or at least until December this year!) Three very different but all very interesting books, and I enjoyed them all in different ways. Now, it’s onward into the new year and some non-seasonal reading! 😀

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

More #Dostoevsky – over @ShinyNewBooks :D

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2021 has been another very odd year, full of pandemic and politics and a world gone crazy. However, it’s also been a year which has seen celebrations of the 200th birthday of the wonderful Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. There have inevitably been New Books about the great man, and I was happy to review a stunning one, “Dostoevsky in Love” by Alex Christofi, for Shiny New Books back in June. However, November saw the release of another intriguing title focused on Dostoevsky’s life and influences, and that is “The Sinner and the Saint” by Kevin Birmingham, which I’ve again covered for Shiny.

“Sinner…” is an intriguing work which looks at the genesis of Dostoevsky’s great work, “Crime and Punishment”, in particular through the lens of the influence of a real-life criminal, Pierre Lacenaire, a French murderer from the early part of the 1800s. The book is a fascinating read, and you can find my full review here!

The passions of a great Russian author – over @ShinyNewBooks #dostoevskyinlove

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I’ve been lucky enough to read some wonderful non-fiction titles for Shiny New Books recently, including Friday’s “Monica Jones…” and the recent look at Paris during the 1900-1950 period. Today I want to share another marvellous book which knocked my socks off – “Dostoevsky in Love” by Alex Christofi.

Dostoevsky is, of course, one of my favourite authors (Russian or otherwise) and so I was intrigued to see what this book would have to say about him. It turned out to be a brilliantly constructed, totally engrossing and very moving take on the great author’s life, and particularly his loves, using many of Dostoevsky’s own writings. I absolutely loved it – check out my full review here! 😀

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Who was changed and who was dead – some thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Devils” – @almaclassics

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The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Roger Cockrell

Okaaaaaaaayyyyy… I’ve reached the end of my marathon read of Dostoevsky’s masterly book, “The Devils”, and I have the book hangover to end all book hangovers! My marathon served me well, but I had to sprint at the end because I couldn’t stand the suspense and *needed* to find out what happened; I’d become so invested in the characters that they were at times more real than the reality around me – always the sign of a good book. I’ll try to string some coherent thoughts together, but forgive me if I babble a bit occasionally…

First up, it’s worth remembering that this is a BIG book; not only in size (my edition is 698 pages plus notes and extras) but also in its epic narrative sweep and in the range of events and ideas it takes in. It’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating characters, and I’ll only be able to touch on the main ones – so here goes with my impressions of “The Devils”.

Absolute freedom will come only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the whole aim.

The story is set in a provincial town and in simple terms tells of the dramatic events that take place when two prodigal sons return to the fold, bringing with them some very modern and disruptive ideas. The sons are Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, men who have been associating abroad and whose parents are scions of the local social circle. Verkhovensky senior is Stepan Trofimovich, an educated gentleman and sometime tutor who in effect has been living off his dear friend, the separated and wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, mother of the other returning son. Stepan Trofimovich had in fact been tutor to young Nikolai so the whole motley crew are deeply interwoven. Stepan considers himself a man of learning, having spent his twenty years sponging off of Varvara supposedly working; and Varvara herself enjoys being the local society queen bee. However, prior to the return of the prodigals, rumours starting seeping into town about events in Switzerland; romances are hinted at between Nikolai and Lizaveta Tushina, a local beauty also returning to the fold from Switzerland. And what of the mysterious revolutionary pamphlets which keep appearing? Add into the mix personalities such as the Lebyadkins, brother and sister; the mysterious Shatov; several other characters who make up the nebulous “our group”; the violent and wilful Fedka the convict; plus the local governor von Lembke and his status-conscious wife Yulia Mikhailovna, and you have the recipe for a brilliant and involved novel which follows the disruptive effect of a mix of revolutionary and personal politics on a provincial town.

People were in a strange state of mind at the time. A certain light-headedness became apparent, particularly among the ladies, and it would be wrong to say that this emerged only gradually. Several extraordinarily free-and-easy ideas were blowing about everywhere, as if carried on the wind. There was a light-hearted merriment in the air, which I wouldn’t say was always particularly pleasant. A certain mental derangement had become fashionable.

I’ve commented before, I think, that Dostoevsky tends to write very much in set pieces and “The Devils” is no different – which is not a criticism! The book is narrated in the main by one Anton Lavrentyevich G—v; a close friend of Stepan’s, he’s in many ways a minor character, yet he’s a thread running through much of the story, until the rush of the narrative kind of takes over from him at the end of the book. And the plot is a long and complex one, with many different strands and many different issues; there is critique of social-climbing and status; discussion of new ideas and the ‘women question’; debates on the existence or not of God; moral dilemmas; and of course, revolution, mayhem and murder. Nikolai and Pyotr are contrasting studies in evil – because both *are* evil, though in very different ways – and the development of their characters is chilling to watch.

… As a rule, the Russian people are never more entertained than by some uproarious social scandal.

As Cockrell’s foreword explains, Dostoevsky was initially inspired to start writing a short pamphlet after the real case of the murder of a student by a group of radicals. However, what started as a short work expanded, and ended up as what is really Dostoevsky’s discussion of the ‘Russian question’, the politics of his day, the way forward and the larger questions of what man should actually believe in. As so often, he chose a provincial setting to discuss his major issues; I suppose the shocking effect of the outsiders on a place away from the centre of things can be more spectacular, and he did love his drama. In fact, there are always elements of dramatic farce in Dostoevsky’s work (“The Gambler” springs to mind particularly, with its manic qualities); and he loves to create a story which inexorably builds to an explosive climax!

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And that kind of narrative is definitely on show here. Dostoevsky is masterfully in control of his material: after he’s established his protagonists (with some vivid – and often very funny – character sketches), hinted at events gone by and introduced the ideas of revolutionary goings on, he hits the reader with a number of dramatic revelations about what’s actually happened abroad. Of course, all of this is building up to a spectacular and marvellous set-piece; this is Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete in aid of governesses, which turns from farce to tragedy and takes up much of the start of part three of the book. However, as well as set-pieces, Dostoevsky is exceptional on characterisation, and his skill at gradually revealing the reality behind the masks of some of his protagonists was stunning. Verkhovensky in particular starts the book coming across as just a slimeball, but as the narrative goes on his real fanaticism is revealed and it’s frightening. Make no mistake, despite the wonderful humour (and I’ve never read a Dostoevsky without any) this is a very dark book that deals with dark topics.

A particular chapter springs to mind, entitled here simply “At Tikhon’s”. It was censored at the original point of publication and never saw the light of day in Dostoevsky’s time; and it *is* distressing, dealing as it does with abusive behaviour by Nicolai Stavrogin (although never in graphic detail). This edition reinstates the chapter at the point in the narrative where Dostoevsky originally placed it, and to my mind it’s essential to the plot, revealing as it does the real character of Nikolai – a debauched, degraded and dissolute person who has nothing to offer the world.

Of course, central to much of the book *is* moral discussion; that of the older generation like Stepan, and the younger group of revolutionaries. Dostoevsky’s aim seems to be to try to get to heart of both group’s beliefs and he in fact seems to find both wanting. It all boils down, I think, to the generational conflict which was such a topic in Russian literature; Turgenev, of course, springs to mind, and in fact Dostoevsky provides a funny, merciless and heavily satirical lampoon of his literary rival in the form of the famous novelist Karmazinov. However, the conflict is also that between the Superfluous Man (exemplified by Stepan) and the new generation of destructive, active men who want to change everything; the latter, however, have no more to offer than the older generation, and simply degenerate into evil wherever they go. And age is no barrier, as by his rejection of the revolutionaries, Nikolai in effect transforms himself into a superfluous man. Yes, “The Devils” is a clash of generations a la Turgenev, but with so much added fire, venom and disaster! The older generation are portrayed as blustering, out of touch idiots, convinced of their status in Russia and blindly believing they’re universally worshipped. The young are seen as mad or dangerous or deluded or simply hooligans. The generational divide never seems to change much, does it??

It is difficult to change gods.

This being Dostoevsky there is, of course, discussion of God and faith; and many of the characters are suffering from the loss of the latter. That disillusionment is what the author seems to think leads to the madness and depravity of many of the characters, although frankly the religious figures are not free from ridicule if Dostoevsky thinks they deserve it. No-one escapes from his relentless pen, neither the old fools nor the young madmen. Where Dostoevsky really excels, however, is in how he captures the mind of the extremist; there was passage after passage that struck a chord with me, and made me realise that little changes under the surface of progress; humans are much the same as they always were. I’ve already quoted one piece which stood out in an earlier post, but I could have pulled out so many – well, here are just a few:

He’s got this system of spying, in which all members of society watch one another and are obliged to inform on each other. Each belongs to all, and all belong to each. All men are slaves, and are equal in this slavery.

You see what happens when you slip in the reins for just a tiny little bit! No, this democratic rabble with their groups of five is of little use as a support; what we need is a single, magnificent, monumental, despotic will that relies on something external and premeditated then the groups of five will gently put their tails between their legs, and the subservience will come in useful when the occasion arises.

This’ll make you laugh: the first thing that everyone finds terribly impressive is a uniform. There’s nothing more powerful than uniform. I purposefully invent ranks and positions: I have a secretary, secret spies, treasurers, chairmen, registrars, their assistants – all much appreciated and splendidly endorsed.

I’ve found my own data confusing, and my conclusion directly contradicts my original idea, my starting point. Beginning with the idea of absolute freedom, I end with the idea of unlimited despotism. I should add, however, that there can be no solution to the social problem other than mine.

Talk about doublespeak and rampant cynicism; Dostoevsky knows human nature well and could recognise where things might end up. As Cockrell states in his foreword: “Dostoevsky went further than any of his predecessors and contemporaries with his insights into the psychology of terrorism, his depiction of what he saw as the catastrophic consequences of atheism and his prescient vision of a society driven to the brink of anarchy, with the spectre of totalitarianism waiting in the wings.” Prescient indeed! And if that doesn’t convince you, just read the chapter depicting the chaotically funny and shambolic meeting of revolutionaries who are all at odds and all with different beliefs and very probably couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. It’s hilarious and chilling at the same time; however, as always, when the general mass of people have had enough and start to take action, things begin to go awry. Stepan’s belief in art and beauty seems very naive when faced with the mob…

Don’t you know, do you really not know, that mankind can survive without the English, without Germany, most certainly without the Russian people, without science, without bread, but that without beauty it won’t be able to survive, for then there’d be nothing left to do on earth…

Well, I could go on and on about this wonderfully immersive reading experience but I’d end up risking doing a post almost as long as the book…. 😉 There are so many moments to enjoy in “The Devils”, from the narrator’s breathless and sometimes disingenuous take on events to Stepan’s petulant quarrels with Varvara to the marvellously worded puncturing of the pomposity of Russian society; particularly memorable is Dostoevsky’s fabulously worded description of Karmazinov’s writings (i.e. Turgenev) through the voice of the narrator, which I can’t reproduce here because it’s too long. However, suffice to say he simply dismantles the character’s writing and takes it to pieces in a cleverly done “Brutus is an honourable man” sequence! I got quite attached to the loquacious narrator (even though he can’t possibly have witnessed everything he relates) and on occasion, when discussing “our town”, his voice was very reminiscent of that of the narrator of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (which Dostoevsky slyly references at one point…) But there are tragic consequences for some participants that will break your heart, and I confess to becoming quite emotional at one small family’s fate. “The Devils” is most definitely a book of light and shade, deftly and expertly contrasting comedy and tragedy, and it’s quite obvious to see why it’s regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

So that’s my response to “The Devils” and I know it’s a book that’s going to continue resonating with me for a long time. It’s a complex, immersive, rambling, thought-provoking, deep, funny and dark book which gets under your skin and inside your soul. My choice of heading for this post was deliberate, as the dramatic sequence of events in the book either changes or destroys pretty much all of the participants; no-one really gets out unscathed at all. Having lived in this book and alongside these characters for a month, the devastating end left *me* emotionally drained and exhausted; although reading “The Devils” didn’t kill me, it’s certainly changed me….

*****

A word on the edition I read; this was a lovely new translation by Roger Cockrell, published by Alma Classics (who kindly provided a review copy – thank you). As usual, there was extra material, extensive notes and supporting information so an ideal version to pick. I have to applaud the translator for his epic undertaking and the narrative read wonderfully, as far as I was concerned; it felt authentically Dostoevskian to me! 😀

“The Search for God” – #Devils #Dostoevsky

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As I make my way through “The Devils” I do keep finding myself thinking how strikingly relevant Dostoevsky still is. This particular passage stood out, as one of his characters tries to sum up the issues of nationalism and the conflict of religions:

The aim of every national movement, in the case of every nation and at every stage of its existence, is nothing but the search for God, for its own God, unfailingly its own God, and belief in him as the only true God. God is the synthesis of all the people of an entire nation, from its beginning to its end. It has never been the case when all or many nations have possessed a single common God, but each nation has always had its own separate one. The signal for a nation’s extinction comes when it begins to share its God with other nations. Whenever there are gods that are shared between nations, then the gods die, together with people’s faith in them and with the nations themselves. The more powerful a nation, the more particular is its God. There has never been a nation without religion…

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Dostoevsky’s Nihilists are a dark bunch, and their behaviour gets darker as the book goes on. It’s worth recalling what a life he’d had by the time he wrote “The Devils”, in particular his narrow escape from execution and his exile as well as a rackety life and the loss of his first child. I’ll be writing more about this remarkable book, as I think I’m approaching the home straight of my marathon. It’s been a long journey, but very rewarding…

Stepping into Spring – dare we consider reading plans…? :D

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You might have noticed that not only am I bit rubbish at doing monthly round ups, I’m also notoriously bad for not following reading plans (when I’m silly enough to make them). However, I realised over the weekend that I’ve actually read very little during March – so little it was actually shocking. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s my busiest time of year at work (with financial year ends and budgeting and the like) and admittedly I’ve been fairly worn out at the end of the day and haven’t had the energy to do much at all; even the Dostoevsky marathon has slowed down a little…

But with spring approaching, as well as the Easter hols, I’m hoping for a bit of a resurgence of reading energy; and on that basis, here *are* some very loose plans of what I hope will happen on the Ramblings in the next month!

Finishing Dostoevsky

The Russian Chunkster…

First up, I *will* finish “The Devils” – of that I am sure! It’s a wonderfully involving, very dark and very funny and yes, very Dostoevskian read and I’m loving his characters and situations. It’s a long book that needs stamina and I think I’m about to get my second wind! 😀

More Thoughts on Venice

When I haven’t had the gumption to pick up the Russian Chunkster, I’ve been enjoying some slimline books about the City of Bridges (or Masks or Water or Canals, depending who you consult) – Venice! It’s a place that seems to polarise opinions, and it’s been fascinating and bracing to read what people think of it. There’s one more book to be covered and that will hopefully be soon.

The 1965 Club

Most important of all (hah!) in April is of course the next of our reading week Clubs. Simon at Stuck in a Book and I are looking forward to co-hosting this and the year in question will be 1965 (so hopefully you’ve all been planning and reading up in advance). The Club will take place from 22nd to 28th April, and I’ll have a page where you can post links as well as coverage of what I’ve read, what I recommend and what I loved in the past from that year. The Clubs are always great fun so I do hope you’ll all join in with the #1965Club – we’d love to have you take part!

*****

So that’s what I potentially have lined up for April. I’m particularly excited to see what people discover for the #1965Club, and am looking forward to some interesting reads myself – watch this space! 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Babel

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

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

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

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

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

698 pages…

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

 

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

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