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Little Black Classics – The Russian Edition!

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

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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!)

Recent Reads: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov

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My recent reading of Chekhov’s “The Shooting Party”, and consideration of the state of women in Russia (and Russian literature) reminded me of a shorter piece I hadn’t read for some time – Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” – so I thought this would be a good time for a revisit.mtsensk

This work, which should more accurately be titled “A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, is a surprisingly dark and dramatic work, packing an awful lot into less than 100 pages. The Lady Macbeth of the title is Katerina Lvovna, married to an old, dull, provincial landowner. She is stifled at home and unable to produce a child (which is blamed on her, but transpires not to be her fault, as is revealed during the story).

“Katerina Lvovna would pass to and from through the empty rooms, start to yawn from boredom and then climb the stairs to the conjugal bedroom… She would steal an hour or two’s nap, but awake from it once again to that peculiarly Russian boredom, the boredom which reigns inside the houses of merchants, and which, it is said, makes even the thought of hanging oneself seem a cheerful prospect… no-one paid the slightest attention to the boredom that was weighing her down.”

Naturally, the moment a handsome young worker called Sergei appears on the scene, all is lost… Katerina’s young man is shiftless and disloyal, and she is forced to take desperate action to keep hold of him as her lover. Dark deed follows dark deed until we come to the blackest of all – a crime so shocking that it even shakes Katerina herself. She is not a hard woman, but desperate, and she lets her needs overcome her scruples and her knowledge of the evil she is undertaking.

Natalia Andreychenko as Katerina

Natalia Andreychenko as Katerina in the Roman Balayan film adaptation

But this evil does not go unpunished, and Katerina and Sergei are caught. There is a brutal reckoning, they are shipped off to Siberia, and soon it is clear that Sergei no longer has any interest in his old lover as she no longer has money and status. His cruelty, however, will be repaid in kind.

This is a harsh but lyrical story. It paints a vivid picture of the lengths a woman in love will go to in order to keep hold of her lover. The physical side of the relationship is obviously important to Katerina, and presumably she found no pleasure or satisfaction with her husband. The issue of the status of women comes to the fore again, as Katerina marries the first man who asks her in order to find a “good husband”. But she is trapped in an unhappy situation and so vulnerable to manipulation by the first man who gains her love. And certainly Sergei soon learns he only has to plant a seed in her mind for it to take root and the action he desires will follow, however drastic, to ensure he is kept in comfort.

Aleksandr Abdulov as Sergei

Aleksandr Abdulov as Sergei in the Roman Balayan film adaptation

I was impressed again on my re-reading of this powerful work. It is highly regarded in Russia, so much so that Shostakovich turned it into an opera, and there have been several filmed versions. I only wish that more of Leskov’s work was available in English!

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