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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!

“….justice, such a rare commodity these days….” @glagoslav

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Alpine Ballad by Vasil Bykau
Translated by Mikalai Khilo

I like to think that I read reasonably widely here on the Ramblings, but I’m well aware that there are many gaps. Interestingly, a recent read made me realise that I have probably never read anything from Belarus; however, thanks to Glagoslav Publications, that’s now been rectified! Vasil Bykau is an author new to me; although he’s apparently a household name in his native Belarus, I’ve not come across him before and so I was very keen to read “Alpine Ballad”, an early work by an author who was at one point touted for the Nobel Prize. Bykau often drew on his experiences as a young man during the Second World War, and this book reflects that.

“Alpine Ballad” opens with a dramatic escape from a German Prisoner of War Concentration Camp following an explosion. Ivan, our protagonist, is fleeing literally for his life; chased by German soldiers and Alsatian dogs, it’s touch and go as to whether he will make it. Things become complicated as he encounters a fellow prisoner attempting to make her own escape – a young Italian woman called Giulia. Initially, Ivan is reluctant to take her along with him, fearing that she’ll slow him down. However, she’s not so easy to shake off, and after she helps him they fall in to travelling together. As they make their way, planning to go through the Alps to Trieste, the tormented Belarusian comes to trust the Italian woman and they manage a kind of communication in several languages. The narrative flashes back to events leading up to the explosion, as well as previous acts of betrayal, and inevitably the two fellow travellers are drawn closer, to the point where a delicately portrayed relationship develops. But pursuit is always at hand, and the struggle to stay ahead of the guards and the dogs becomes a matter of life and death.

We saw it all. Old things were broken and rebuilt – we paid heavily for it. With blood. And the difficulties are quickly forgotten, good things are remembered. Sometimes it seems that none of this happened. Our life was hard, troublesome, maybe unfair at times. But peaceful. And that’s the most important thing. I sometimes think: let it all come back, both the difficulties and the hunger, but without the war. We would cope with everything. We certainly would, after so much blood.

“Ballad” is a powerful read, bringing home a number of harsh truths; the portrayal of life under the Nazis is not pleasant, and touched a nerve with me during a time when we’re seeing right wingers on the rise again. However, there is a subtext with the book (I love a subtext!); first published in 1964, Bykau seems to have used his characters as something of a vehicle for his views. At that time, speaking out against the Soviet regime was a dangerous thing, and the author regularly clashed with the authorities. Giulia has a naive trust in the Russian regime but Ivan informs her of some truths about the Soviet world; and by drawing comparisons between the Fascist and Communist regimes, Bykau uses Ivan to obliquely critique the Soviets. It’s a brave stance to take, and the author should applauded for it.

But putting the message aside, “Ballad” stands on its own as an excellent piece of writing. The tension of pursuit is nerve-wracking; the romantic element moving and beautifully drawn; and the ending (and coda) very emotional. The story is a reminder of how humanity can flourish in the most extreme situations, and how differences between people can be overcome. Glagoslav state that the book is being brought out “as a gesture of peace and a reminder to all of the human cost of wars that ransack our planet to this day” and it’s a laudable aim. The book is newly translated directly from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (as the Soviet Russian version was heavily censored) and comes with a useful introduction by Arnold McMillin from UCL. Apparently, Bykau’s writing is generally very hard-hitting and “Ballad” is unusual for its gentler elements. However, it’s a gripping and wonderful read, and probably a very good way to be introduced to the work of a fascinating author – highly recommended!

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

The author (http://evitebsk.com/w/images/0/0e/Bykaw.jpg [Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons])

Summer’s End…

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To be honest, I’m not exactly sure which months constitute summer nowadays in our damaged climate; but I always consider the end of that season to be the time when I go back to work after the long mid-year break, and despite having to do that, I am fond of autumn… I generally try to fit in more reading during August while I don’t have the daily distraction of the paying job, traditionally including at least one chunkster, and I’m pleased that this year was no different.

For once, I actually made (modest!) reading plans and actually stuck to them! Admittedly, I was pretty sure I wanted to read the books in question, and they fitted in with a couple of reading challenges. So in the spirit of Andy Miller (!) here is an image of what I read during August (and bear in mind that there still may be reviews to follow as I’m always a bit behind):

I was particularly pleased (as I made fairly obvious!) to read Victor Serge’s Notebooks – strongly tipped for my read of the year. But there wasn’t really a dud amongst them; even the one that made me pause a bit (“The Marquise of O-“) was strange and interesting, and very cleverly written. And I was really happy about getting back to reading so many women writers, especially Women in Translation; this is a wonderful initiative, set up and championed by Meytal Radzinski, and I hope to keep taking part.

So – onward into September and autumn. Do I have plans? Maybe – above are some possibles…  I’m continuing to make a dent in the review pile (all of which are books I actually *want* to read); and I have amassed quite a selection of non-fiction works I hope to get to soon-ish as well (including all the pretty Fitzcarraldo editions which may have made their way into the house after their recent sale – here they are…)

Plus there’s an awful lot of classic crime lurking and any number of charity shop finds, as well as some interesting Russians from Glagoslav. I’m not going to make any specific plans, however, because with work pressures I want to leave myself as free as possible to follow the reading muse. I’m currently in the middle of the wonderful book below by Ian Penman from Fitzcarraldo Editions, but after that who knows? Watch this space!! 😀

A city on the cusp of change @glagoslav #iconoclasm #moscow #russia

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We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

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

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…

An enterprising trip on the Trans-Siberian @Glagoslav

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I’ve often wondered whether I should create a bucket list, and pondered what I’d put on it; travel would probably come high up, and there are any number of places I’d like to see (Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin – the obvious ones!!). One trip I’d consider, but might bottle out of it unless I was travelling in a very supportive group, would be making a journey on the Trans Siberian Express; I’ve read a number of books on the subject (Eric Newby’s is a favourite) but I’m not sure it would be the best thing for a woman travelling alone! So I was obviously very interested in a book on the subject from the lovely Glagoslav Publications“A Brown Man in Russia” by Vijay Menon.

The book is subtitled “Lessons Learned on the Trans-Siberian” and it follows Menon’s journey with two friends on that railway in December 2013. Afflicted with wanderlust at a young age, the author decided in the summer of that year that he wanted to spent Christmas Day in Mongolia; so what better way to get there than by taking the Trans-Siberian from Moscow? He recruits two willing accomplices, Avi and Jeremy, and the three arrive in Moscow towards the end of the December. However, in many ways the little group are ill-equipped for the journey; as Americans used to Californian temperatures, the cold they encounter is a major issue. Additionally, none of them speaks any Russian, and they can barely make out the cyrillic characters they encounter. To complicate things, Menon and Avi are persons of colour with Indian ancestry, and therefore unsure of the reception they’ll receive in the country. All of these ingredients create a fascinating mix in a very individual book!

The structure of the book is in fact a little unusual, and it’s important to understand that this grew out of Menon’s TED talk on the subject. Therefore, each short chapter of the trio’s journey is followed by a lesson that Menon drew from the experience. And it’s heartening to note that the group encountered friendliness, helpfulness and kindness in just about every place they visited; this is especially noteworthy as often they were the first people of colour encountered by the Russians they met. From youngsters to army recruits to old babushkas, every Russian seemed welcoming and keen to make contact with the travellers; a fact that makes me very happy in this day and age when there is so much distrust and suspicion between countries and peoples.

User: (WT-shared) Gorilla Jones at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I loved watching the group making their way to Mongolia (and SPOILER ALERT they do get there in time for Christmas Day!) Their encounters with the Mongolian people were particularly touching, with the latter making every accommodation they could for their guests. And the book is enhanced with a section of photos from the trip which brought to life the experiences and the different cultures; Menon was very taken with the beauty of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and that really came across in the book.

I fixated on its beauty, silently chiding the thousands of pedestrians walking by who lacked my palpable sense of entrancement while purposely ignoring the reality that they had probably seen thousands of times prior. Seconds turned to minutes, and it became exceedingly difficult to pry my eyes away from the ornately crafted towers that rose to the sky, symbolizing a bonfire with its mysterious embers rising upwards to the heavens.

If I was to be completely honest, I think I would have liked the sections of the book on the journey to be a little longer; the slightly mismatched trio were entertaining fellow travellers and I did love accompanying them on their adventures. Menon appears to have taken much from his trip, and the points he was trying to make about what he’d learned – acceptance, pushing and stretching yourself, being true to yourself etc – are just as well made, if not better, by show rather than tell.

Nevertheless, “A Brown Man in Russia” was a fascinating book to read, showing an enterprising journey from a perhaps more unusual viewpoint, and I was happy to make the acquaintance of Vijay, Avi and Jeremy. It just goes to show that humans can interact despite the differences of language and culture, finding connections in the most unexpected places; this book certainly proves that, and kudos to Glagoslav for publishing yet another book that breaks the mould!

(Review copy kindly provided by Glagoslav Publications, for which many thanks!)

Postcards from the Past @glagoslav

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Children’s Fashion of the Russian Empire by Alexander Vasiliev
Translated by James Womack

I found myself musing the other day on photography; specifically on the impact it must have had in its early days when suddenly human beings found their images being recorded without the aid of a painter. In these days of social media, cameras in every phone and millions of images appearing around us constantly, it’s hard to realise just how *strange* this must have seemed to the public of the time. Photos have an immediacy that paintings often don’t, allowing their subjects to transcend time differences; and that’s certainly the case with this perhaps unexpected but absolutely fascinating book which popped through my door recently from the lovely people at Glagoslav Publications.

“Children’s Fashions of the Russian Empire” is a large format, soft cover book which features just that – images of children from the past (though in global terms, not that distant a past). There are over 400 photos, taken from the collection of Alexander Vasiliev, and a remarkable group of pictures it is. Vasiliev is something of a polymath: a playwright, collector and fashion historian, he’s also a lecturer as well as being responsible for more than thirty books, often featuring his collections of images. If that wasn’t enough, he’s staged productions all over the world and won a number of awards. So Vasiliev is ideally placed to share these images as well as providing some commentary and context.

The book starts in the 1860s, which as Vasiliev explains was when photographic visiting cards first appeared in Russia; and he makes the decision to end the book in 1917 when the revolution swept away the imperial way of life forever. In the interim, the pages of photographs here provide fascinating witness to the changing fashions for youngsters which developed over the decades in Russia.

What strikes the modern reader/viewer immediately is the formality of the clothing and the poses: the children and young people look to my eyes like small adults, or children dressed up for some kind of occasion. The dresses and hair are often elaborate; the pose controlled; and there isn’t a lot of smiling going on. As the decades go on, the clothes simplify a little, no doubt reflecting the change in dress for adults; yet still the smiles are missing. In fact, I was reminded very much of an old image I have of my mother as a child, where she stares straight-faced at the camera with a sullen, almost mutinous look on her face (she was obviously stubborn even then….) I guess it took a long time for fashions in photography to change and get to the point where we now demand smiles from our offspring almost as soon as they’re born!

The photos are beautifully presented, with commentary provided and names of the children given where they’re known. There are shots in national dress (some of which is quite lovely); shots with beloved toys and pets; and family groups with siblings and parents. As we get into the 20th century, the shots become a little more relaxed; the clothing looser and less formal; and smiles start to creep in. The last photographs in the book are from 1913 and 1914, a time when the major cataclysm of the First World War was about to hit Europe, and one picture of two brothers in overcoats and caps made me wonder about their eventual fate…

In fact, there’s a poignancy throughout the book, no doubt brought about by seeing these images taken by loving parents of their children, as a way of remembering their youth. They’re a reminder of the transience of life; we’re all on this planet for a short time and these snapshots (like all the ways we record our lives nowadays) give us a kind of immortality, as long as the media survive. Vasiliev has certainly given these children a kind of after-life, as well as tracing the history of children’s clothing during that period (or at least children of a certain social status, as I imagine the peasantry dressed very differently). The images from the 1900s onwards were particularly affecting as I found myself looking into the eyes of the subjects, wondering how the War and Revolution affected them and what became of them; we just can’t imagine I guess…

So “Children’s Fashion…” was an unexpectedly interesting and moving book to browse through. It’s a beautifully produced volume, with excellent quality reproduction of the photographs, and If you’re interested in the history of clothing it would be just up your street. However, it worked on an extra level for me: as a snapshot of the past, a doorway into a time gone by, and a reminder that we are *all* human beings the world over, with our lives, our loves and our families. If we could remember that, maybe we could stop fighting amongst ourselves and concentrate on looking after our beautiful little planet a bit more…

Review book kindly provided by Glagoslav Publications, for which many thanks.

“Pillars of fire floated in the air…” #nikolaigumilev @Glagoslav

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Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa
Translated by Slava I. Yastremski, Michael M. Naydan and Maria Badanova

I was very happy to be contacted towards the end of 2018 by Glagoslav Publications; an independent publisher dedicated to widening knowledge, understanding of and access to writing from the Slavic regions, they issue a fascinating array of books and I’ve been intending to read some of their works for a while now. They were kind enough to offer me review copies, and I was particularly keen to explore “Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa”, especially as he’s a poet I’ve only circled around up to this point.

Gumilev is probably remember more nowadays for having been the husband of the great Anna Akhmatova, and yet his achievements and importance in his own right shouldn’t be ignored. As well as co-founding the Acmeist movement, which sought for clarity and compactness in poetry, he was an influential literary critic and traveller. And it’s his travels which are the focus in this fascinating book; Gumilev journeyed to, wrote about and photographed extensively the Africa of the early 20th century, and all of those materials are gathered in this exemplary collection.

The bulk of this material comes from a 1913 trip to Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was called at the time) which Gumilev made on behalf of the St. Petersburg Imperial Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. He collected folk tales and objects, transcribed folk songs and took numerous photos – more of which later. The volume seems to have been the brainchild of the late Slava Yastremski, and it draws together initially all of Gumilev’s poetry from his various collections which focus on Africa. The lyrics are beautiful and haunting, drawing on mythology and magic, as well as some of the terrors of the jungle. Reading the verse works has made me very keen to explore Gumilev’s poetry further…

…a door opened in my heart,
And when the heart whispers to us,
We don’t struggle, we don’t wait.

The prose pieces which follow are a mixture of short fictions, essays and diaries of his journeys through the various countries. The writing is beautifully descriptive, bringing the landscape and its peoples vividly to life and creating haunting imagery. The diaries in particular are fascinating reading, as the conditions which these early explorers had to endure were harsh and all without our modern conveniences and aids. This makes it even more remarkable that Gumilev and his assistant (his nephew Nikolai Sverchkov) managed to take and develop more than 200 photographs of the places and peoples they encountered on the way, and a number of these feature at the end of the book.

The various elements combine to build up a quite captivating picture of the country at the time; and it was fascinating to learn of the multitude of cultures living in the country at the time. Gumilev mentions all manner of indigenous peoples encountered in the area he travelled through, including Egyptians, Abyssinians, Somalis, Greeks, French, English… You name it, they seemed to be present in the area at the time. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of the area to do more than guess that there were a number of colonial influences involved, but it’s fascinating to see photographs of Emperor Haile Selassie before he bore that name; I’m old enough to remember his presence in the world, and I felt a weird kind of link back to Gumilev’s journey because of that.

The pages in the book of destinies have been tangled long ago, and no one knows in what remarkable way he will come to his ruin.

Gumilev’s life was tragically cut short in 1921 when he was shot by the Russian Cheka after being falsely accused of involvement in a monarchist conspiracy; he was only rehabilitated in 1992, and it’s been said that his execution negatively affected the life of Akhmatova and their son, despite the two poets having divorced in 1918. However, bearing in mind his views and his lack of sympathies with the Soviet regime, I suspect it’s unlikely he would have survived the Great Purge of the 1930s.

Gumilev by Karl Bulla [Public domain] – via Wikipedia Commons

“Africa…” is a really fascinating piece of work, despite the fact that the kind of cultural anthropology undertaken by this kind of expedition would most likely not be considered appropriate nowadays. There is, inevitably, some unfortunate terminology and as Michael Naydan explains in his short note to the book, the decision was taken to translate words and phrases into the equivalent English of the time. Nowadays we would hopefully approach different cultures in a more sensitive way than explorers of the past did. Putting this aside, however, this is a valuable, absorbing and intriguing volume. It comes with useful notes, an introduction and fascinating essay on Gumilev’s photographs by Yastremski, and the aforementioned note by Naydan. From the latter it would appear that Yastremski sadly passed away before the work on the book could be finished, and this was completed by Naydan alongside Badanova; I can’t imagine a greater tribute to a colleague. “Nikolai Gumilev’s Africa” is not only an excellent introduction to Gumilev’s work, but also a little time machine which will take you travelling back to the Ethiopia of the early 20th century – highly recommended!

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