It begins and ends with a letter… #gogol #thegovernmentinspector @almaclassics


The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Roger Cockrell

When I was pondering on the wonderful books I’d read for the 1930 Club recently, I commented that the blog was suffering from a bit of RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency). Luckily it’s a condition which is easily treated, particularly when you have as many Russian books lurking in the stacks as I do! However, a recent arrival at the Ramblings, in the form of a sparkling new translation of Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector”, turned out to be the perfect cure… 😀

This lovely new copy is from Alma Classics, who also publish editions of his great novel “Dead Souls” and two lovely volumes which feature some of his shorter works. “The Government Inspector” is a comic work (as is so much of Gogol’s work) and holds an important place in the history of Russian drama. It’s been newly translated by Roger Cockrell (who rendered so beautifully their edition of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, which I reviewed here); and it certainly was a joy to read.

The play is set in a small provincial town, and opens with the local officials in uproar; a corrupt collection of Mayor, Judge, Inspector of Schools, Charities Commissioner, and so on. The Postmaster has intercepted a letter, warning that a Government Inspector is going to make a visit to the town, incognito, to check up on the officials; and as the town is filthy and neglected, dependent on bribery and generally chaotic, all hell is set to let loose. The uproar gets worse when it’s discovered that a man from St. Petersburg has been lodging at the local inn, one Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov. It’s instantly made clear to the audience that he’s a charlatan, out to blag what he can from the locals and then move on. However, the officials decide that he must be the visiting Inspector, and that mistaken identity leads to a hilarious comedy of errors.

Traitors in a provincial town! It’s hardly a border town, is it? You could gallop for three years in any direction and still be miles away from any other country.

Khlestakov is accompanied by a slovenly manservant, Osip; and both are happy to play along with the local officials and their fawning behaviour, even though they don’t know why it’s happening. So they’re well-fed, bribed with ‘loans’ and Khlestakov even starts to make up to both the Mayor’s wife *and* his daughter. The officials are in a state of fear and trembling, the townspeople are wondering if this important man from St. Petersburg can deal with the corrupt officials for them, and the Mayor’s daughter spies a potential husband. Will the truth out; will Khlestakov get out of the town in time; and what does the future hold for the people of the little town?

The first thing to say about “The Government Inspector” is that of course it is very, very funny. As the misunderstandings build up one on top of the other, the action degenerates into frantic farce where the townspeople vie for favours from the spurious Inspector and denounce each other left right and centre. There is a wonderful running joke in the existence of two indistinguishable local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who both have the same name and patronymic – Pyotr Ivanovich! As I read the play I was visualising how it would look onstage, and thinking that it would probably reduce the audience to hysterics.

… sometimes having an idea can do more harm than having no ideas at all.

However, there’s a little more to this play than just farce, as Gogol very cleverly and successfully mixes broad slapstick humour with satirical comment on the state of the Civil Service in Russia, and the corruption amongst officials. Russia was controlled by its strict bureaucratic hierarchy, but the dishonesty of the system and its officials was well known. By using the small town setting, Gogol probably hoped to get away with hiding his critique in the action; had he directed his commentary at the higher ranks in the cities it probably wouldn’t have been so easy.

God help anyone who goes into education! You’re always liable to be criticised. Everyone is always interfering, wanting to show they’re as clever as you are.

It also occurred to me that this play really sets the template for Russian satire to come: with the provincial setting and the focus on small town corruption, he was definitely a forerunner of Saltykov-Shchedrin (and I believe the latter has been referred to as the artistic ‘heir’ of Gogol). However, Gogol also foreshadows his own later work, as it’s quite possible to see Khlestakov as an early version of the protagonist of “Dead Souls”, Chichikov – almost a Chichikov in miniature! Both men are fly-by-night chancers, rushing from town to town trying to scam what they can from what they regard as simple provincial people. Of course, Chichikov is much more sophisticated, with complex plans to cheat the rural landowners; but it’s hard not to see the seeds of his character in Khlestakov, an early version without the plans and the cunning.

I think I’ve read “The Government Inspector” once before – and we’re talking *decades* ago here – so reading it in this wonderful new translation was such a treat. I found myself laughing like a drain throughout, whilst marvelling at the ability of human beings to deceive themselves. The play comes with useful notes which are just at the right level; not too many, and just what you need to enjoy reading it. Interestingly, Cockrell discusses briefly one of the many complex decisions translators have to make when working, and that was the rendering of the names in English. In the original, the names have a comic meaning (e.g. the name of the Mayor could be translated literally as Windbag). Should the translator render the names in comic form or simply transliterate? Cockrell sensibly (to my mind) transliterates – so the Mayor is Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky – but gives a key at the start of the notes which lets the reader know what the humorous version would be. I prefer this myself – and it’s something I’ve come across with my reading of various translations of “The Master and Margarita”; Ivan Bezdomny is sometimes rendered as Ivan Homeless, which is what his last name (a pseudonym) means. I prefer the Russian with a note somewhere as in the Gogol; I got a bit heated when reading “War and Peace” and coming across Prince Andrei given as Prince Andrew, as I want my Russians to sound Russian!!

Anyway – at least the RRD on the Ramblings has been remedied, and in a wonderful way. “The Government Inspector” was a treat from start to finish, and I’m now kind of thinking of it as a prequel to “Dead Souls”! Even if you don’t normally read plays, I’d recommend this one; it’s entertaining, hilarious and with a fascinating subtext. What more could you want? 😀

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

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!


After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀


The “lost book” authors


Reading a book about books is a dangerous exercise for any bibliophile, but “In Search of Lost Books” creates its own issues as it’s about books that don’t actually exist any more – or which may indeed have never existed. However, that book *did* send me off down the trail of wanting to dig out the volumes I own by the authors featured in it, and it turned out that I have a surprising amount of works by these particular writers – which may be why the book spoke to me so strongly. So, as someone who’s never averse to pictures of other people’s books, I thought I would share a few of mine here.

However, gathering all of these together *wasn’t* an easy exercise, as my ‘library’ seems to have become more randomly scattered around the house recently. I haven’t been able to locate everything I think I own, and I found that, as I suspected, any shelf-rummaging exercise throws up a huge number of queries, problems and exclamations – along the lines of:

Why is Joan Didion double-shelved behind Aldous Huxley?
Did I *really* buy all those books in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series and read hardly any of them?
Where *is* my copy of “A Moveable Feast”?
Oooooh, look – I have a book called “The Faber book of Utopias”!! I wonder if I ever read it…?
Why have I got two copies of “Under the Volcano”?
Where *is* my copy of “Ulysses”?
Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t anything else available by Bruno Schulz.
Hurrah! There’s my lovely Allan Ramsay book which I haven’t been able to find for ages.
Why have I got so many copies of “Anna Karenina”?

And so on…

The serious difficulty in laying hands on a specific book shows how things have got out of hand with my ‘library’ and I can see I’ll need to take some serious action soon, maybe over the summer holidays, to just try and get things into a sensible order where I can locate titles with ease – and possibly even catalogue them sensibly. However, for now, here are some photographs of lovely, lovely books!

So – in no particular order – here is a selection of my books by and about Sylvia Plath. Yes, there are a lot…

I actually did a longer post a while back with more pictures. The pile has expanded since then, as I now have the enormously huge volume 1 of her letters too…

In contrast, we have Bruno Schulz. All that survives of his work is these shorter fictions, here all collected in one volume and I’ve reviewed and loved them.  As I grumbled above, it’s such a shame that nothing else of his written work survives.


Then we have Malcolm Lowry. I think my Lowry reading is all pre-blog, but I recall being entranced by “Under the Volcano”. His other work is good, though nothing lives up to his major novel.

Ah, Papa Hemingway. Source of much frustration in rummaging through the stacks, as I *know* I have a copy of “A Moveable Feast” because I’ve read and reviewed it and wouldn’t have got rid of it. It wasn’t with these two, wasn’t with my Gertrude Steins and wasn’t with my Fitzgeralds. Who knows where it is in the house – probably with the copy of “Fiesta” I suspect I still have (there were two in the house at one point….)

Let’s get serious now, with the Russians – or at least Gogol, who often *isn’t* serious! I have quite a pile of Gogols, surprising perhaps as there isn’t a lot available in English. This one is probably the prettiest.

I am ashamed that there is P/V translation in this pile, but it was 10p from the library discards and I think it has stories I couldn’t get anywhere else – well, non-Russian speaking beggars can’t be choosers. And yes – I’m afraid there are three copies of “Dead Souls”.

Last but not least Walter Benjamin. I’ve only read a little of his work (“Unpacking My Library” definitely) and I want to read more but never get round to it. I’d rather like his Arcades Project but I think I should read these before getting any more.

So there you have it – a little book p*rn to liven your day up. Although works by these authors have gone missing at least in most cases we have a reasonable amount of surviving work with which to console ourselves – and let’s face it, a good book can solve most ills… 😉

Manuscripts *do* burn…


In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

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

Adrift in Provincial Rus


Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Translated by Robert A. Maguire

(There’s probably enough discussion of the plot details here to warrant a SPOILER ALERT!)

Sometimes, no matter what you’re currently reading, or what you feel you should read, a book calls to you and you really can’t resist. That’s what happened to me recently, for no apparent reason, with Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. I first read it back in the 1980s during my first phase of heavy Russian reading and absolutely loved it. It’s a book I’ve often thought of re-reading and the itch got me so I picked it up. Back in the day, it was the Penguin Modern Classics Magarshack translations I went for (there wasn’t much choice about then, and I wasn’t thinking so deeply about versions); it was a good read, but I thought I would try the more recent Robert Maguire version, also from Penguin, which seems to be much lauded.

dead souls

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was something of a complex character. Of Ukrainian and Polish descent, he nevertheless wrote in Russian and expressed a deep attachment to the country. He regarded Pushkin as a mentor (he knew the great author briefly) and wrote plays, novels and short stories. “Dead Souls” is often regarded as his masterpiece and it seems to be ingrained into Russian culture. Described in the subtitle as “a poem”, it relates the adventures of one Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, and indeed at one point the title was “The Wanderings of Chichikov” which the censor deemed as less offensive than the title by which we now know it.

We meet Chichikov as he rolls up in the provincial town of N., with his servant Petrushka and coachman Selifan. A middle-aged, middle-class man, somewhat obsessed with his appearance and his personal hygiene, Pavel Ivanovich soon begins to ingratiate himself with the local landowners, paying them visits, flattering them and becoming something of a local celebrity. However, it gradually becomes clear that Chichikov is on a strange mission – he wants to purchase from all the local landowners their ‘dead souls’. A little explanation is needed here – under the social structure of the time, the landowners owned the serfs body and soul (they were not emancipated until later in the century) and paid taxes on each one. If a serf died between two censuses the landowner still had to pay the taxes. Chichikov’s plan is to buy up these ‘deal souls’ for next to nothing, set himself up as a landowner with many (fake) serfs for a small cost, and establish himself with a position and status and money. By sweet-talking the locals, promising to relieve them of unnecessary taxes, he manages to convince several to sell. However, all does not go quite as planned; the landowners become suspicious, fanciful rumours start to spread about Chichikov’s motivations, and he’s ostracised. Flight seems the only sensible solution – but what will Pavel Ivanovich’s next adventure be?

That’s a brief outline of plot, but it doesn’t give a hint of the wonders of this book. Gogol might have come up with a clever idea and an original plot, but they would have been nothing without the wonderful characterisations and the brilliant writing. And “Dead Souls” is nothing if not a vivid and lively portrait of provincial Russia of the time. The small-mindedness of the characters; the trivial and parochial nature of their gatherings; the lack of occupation which leads to endless silly gossip; all of these facets are captured quite brilliantly.

In general we have somehow not been created for representative bodies. In all our gatherings, from the peasants’ village commune to scholarly committees and every other conceivable kind, a pretty fair degree of chaos reigns, unless one head is present to run everything. It is really difficult to say why this is so: evidently our people are so constituted that the only assemblies that have a chance of success are those organized for the purpose of carousing or dining well, as with clubs and all sorts of pleasure gardens in the German style.

And then there’s the sketches of the various landowners: each represents a different aspect of the Russian character as Gogol saw it, all with flaws and all causing problems in the countryside. There’s Manilov, a sentimentalist; Nozdryov, who comes across as friendly and cheery, but is in fact a bully and a cheat; the widow Korobochka, suspicious and insecure, and cause of much of the rumour; and Plyushkin the miser. None of these characters are really happy, none really capable of running their estates properly and none able to make the lives of their serfs better.

And what I sometimes think, really, or so it seems to me, is that the Russian is a lost individual. He wants to accomplish everything and he can’t do anything. You keep on thinking that beginning tomorrow you’ll start a new life. Beginning tomorrow you’ll go on a diet, but no such thing: by the evening of the same day you’ll have gorged yourself to the point where you can only blink your eyes , and your tongue won’t move; there you sit like an owl, staring at everyone, really. And that’s the way we all are.

But central to everything is the magnificent portrayal of Chichikov: a complex man, clever but flawed, characterised by his love of elegant clothing and creature comforts. He dreams of a beautiful house, a beautiful wife and a family, but seems incapable of having the emotions that are needed for such things. He’s motivated by a need to acquire (and the reason for this is explained late in the story by the narrator). A round man with a round face, I couldn’t help visualising him as looking like the portrait of Gogol himself. And despite the fact that he’s a crook, despite the fact he’s trying to cheat the system, you can’t help but love him (well, I couldn’t). You watch helplessly as he digs himself into an impossible hole, knowing he can’t get out of it, and just wish all would go well for him, even though he’s committing a criminal act. Gogol refers to him as the novel’s hero, and he very much is – because despite his trickery, he exposes the hypocrisies and the faults of the provincial landowners who are certainly no better than him (if not worse!)

Image from the Daily Telegraph

Image from the Daily Telegraph

“Dead Souls” is very, very funny in places (I remember laughing out loud during my first reading) but it also has tragic elements. The account of Chichikov’s upbringing explains much; the lives of the serfs are drudgery and bondage; and the Russian Civil Service is crippling in its rigid caste system. Gogol wrote the book when he was living in Rome and the passion of an exile infuses his prose. He often spirals off into passages praising his native land, which oddly enough sit well enough alongside the more humorous observations of its denizens. There is a constant sense of movement in the book, with Chichikov unable to rest in one place for very long, and his carriage rushes through Russia, taking him on his adventures while the landscape flashes past.

What a strange, and alluring, and uplifting, and wonderful something lies lodged in the word ‘road’! And how wonderous it is in itself, this road: a clear day, autumn leaves, cold air… wrapped snug in your travelling coat, hat pulled down over your ears, you will press yourself into a corner as tightly, as cosily as you can! For the last time a shivery chill has run through your limbs, before being replaced by a pleasant warmth. The horses dash on… how seductively drowsiness steals over you and your eyes close fast, and now through your sleep you hear: “Not white the snows”, and the snorting of the horses and the rattling of the wheels, and by now you are snoring…

On this second reading of Gogol’s masterwork, I picked up on a number of themes I probably missed the first time round. There is the humorous use of names (helpfully explained in the notes); constant references to noses (and let’s not forget the author’s great short story, “The Nose”); Chichikov’s obsessions with eau de cologne and a “tail-coat of whortleberry red shot through with a lighter weave”. One of the elements I loved was the way the author/narrator constantly broke off to address the reader; and the wonderful dialogue between two unnamed ladies of the town, known only as Lady Pleasant in All Respects and the Merely Pleasant Lady is not only very, very funny, but surprisingly modern.

The arrival of the visitor woke the little dogs who were sleeping in the sun: shaggy Adele, who was constantly getting entangled in her own coat, and the darling little Potpourri with his delicate and slender legs. Both dogs were barking, and carried the ringlets of their curled-up tails into the hall, where the visitor was divesting herself of her cloak, whereupon she proved to be wearing a dress of fashionable design and colour, with the long tails of some animal round her neck. The scent of jasmine wafted through the entire room. No sooner had the Lady Pleasant in All Respects learned of the arrival of the Merely Pleasant Lady than she ran out into the hall. The ladies clasped each other’s hands, kissed and screamed the way institute girls scream when they meet soon after their graduation, before their mammas have had occasion to explain to them that the father of one is poorer and of lower rank than the other’s.

Gogol, of course, famously burned part 2 of “Dead Souls” and what’s published here is part 1 plus some surviving fragments of part 2. The author underwent troubling changes later in life, dealing with ill-health and personal religious conflicts. He intended to take Chichikov on a very different journey from that of the first book, in something of an attempt to save Russia from itself, and it has to be said that our hero is a much weaker and less prominent character in the remaining chapters of part 2. It’s frustrating as a reader not to have the whole story, and I know some have thought it best to ignore the fragments and just read part 1, which certainly stands on its own as a wonderful work of art. An argument could be made for simply leaving Chichikov at the end of part 1, riding off into the vastness of Russia to fulfil his destiny, as this is a particularly strong and moving ending. For myself, I’m glad I’ve read the fragments, but I think that it is part 1 that is the work of genius.


Reading “Dead Souls” now, with so much more experience of Russian literature, it’s impossible not to see Gogol’s influence on so many later writers. Dostoevsky, of course, is an obvious example, but there are also elements in Bulgakov, and the constant references to the Devil (which also turn up in “The Master and Margarita”) just show how much of a vital force and important link between the past and modern writers Gogol was. His life was a difficult one, cut short too early, and I wish he’d lived longer to write more of this calibre. But at least we still have the short stories and “Dead Souls” and I can see that this is a book I’ll return to again.

Shiny New Evergreens!


Shiny New Books issue 6 is now live! (Yay!) And what an achievement it is – a wonderful collection of reviews and bookish pieces which should happily occupy any avid reader for ages!

I have provided a few items this time round, the first of which concerns a lovely new range of classics from Alma Books, the Evergreens. I go into more detail about the imprint on SNB, together with an interview with one of Alma’s publishers, Alessandro Gallenzi – you can read this here.

Alma kindly provided two books for review which I cover briefly on SNB, but I thought I’d expand a little more here.


Petersburg Tales by Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was one of the first classic Russian authors I read in my youth (once I had got over the joy of discovering Solzhenitsyn). “Petersburg Tales” presents four of Gogol’s best-known short stories: “Nevsky Prospect”, “The Nose”, “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” in fresh new translations by Dora O’Brien. I re-read “The Nose” recently, but coming to it alongside the others gives it much more depth and draws out the themes I found in it this time round. Superficially, these are nonsense tales, full of larger-than-life characters, strange goings-on, noses that detach themselves from their owners, ghosts and illusions.

When I first read them a long, long time ago, I saw them as humorous and quirky; this reading, however, opened my eyes to Gogol’s great artistry and sympathy for human beings. Despite the surreal elements, Gogol’s tales have a serious intent and he was obviously angry about the way Russian society was structured. All of these stories speak for the lowly people in Russia’s great grinding Civil Service machine; the struggling clerks who can’t afford a coat, can’t afford to fall in love with someone above their station, and to whom status is all. This is the thread running through these marvellous tales, and they’re still relevant today in a word where the divide between rich and poor is getting ever larger.


The Sorrows of Young Wether by Goethe

Goethe is probably best known nowadays for his Faust, but this book is the one that first brought him to fame. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is presented in an updated version of a translation from 1957, previously published by John Calder (whose range is now under the Alma umbrella). The book is a highly emotive sturm und drang drama told in the form of letters from Werther to his friend, telling the tale of his intense love for Lotte, and her marriage to another. Werther is a young man with no direction; sensitive and something of a loner, he is sent away to stay in a picturesque village where he encounters Lotte, a beautiful young woman living with her widower father, and taking care of her many siblings. It’s love at first sight for Werther, but his love is doomed because of society’s restrictions and because Lotte is promised to another.

Even after her wedding, he never stops worshipping his beloved, becoming a friend of the family and trying to deal with the fact his love is doomed. In fact, it struck me reading this that Werther is probably quite an early unreliable narrator, as we see everything through his very emotional filter, and I wasn’t quite convinced that everyone surrounding him could tolerate his passion and moods as much as they seemed to!

“The Sorrows of Young Werther” is a florid and intense and extremely impassioned book, but nevertheless utterly absorbing – it’s not surprising it was so popular in its time, spawning a huge following and a whole cult of Werther followers even going so far as to dress like him (and worse…) A lovely book and a lovely way to lose yourself in romanticism for a few hours!


So, the Alma Evergreens (and indeed all their books – they have a very nice range of Bulgakovs!) are highly recommended. Check out their website here, and don’t forget to take your wish list over to Shiny New Books – there will be plenty of recommendations to add to it… 🙂



Little Black Classics – The Russian Edition!


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.

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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.

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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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