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The blurred lens of history… #solovyovandlarionov #eugenevodolazkin @LizoksBooks @OneworldNews

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Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

One of last year’s outstanding books for me was a title I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books – “The Aviator” by Eugene Vodolazkin. That book was the Kiev-born author’s third novel; however, his works have not been translated in the order of publication. His second work, “Laurus” came out in 2016 and “The Aviator” a year ago. However, his debut, “Solovyov and Larionov”, came out via Oneworld last November. Again rendered most wonderfully into English by Lisa C. Hayden (who translated his other books), I was *very* keen to read  “S&L”; and Oneworld were kind enough to provide a review copy.

The premise of the book is fascinating; Solovyov is a Russian historian with a focus on a general of the White Army, Larionov. The latter is something of a mystery; having fought to defend the Crimea in the post-revolutionary Civil War, somehow the General not only survived the carnage meted out by the Red Army, he also made it through the Soviet years, living his life out in Yalta and dying finally in 1976. The mystery of how and why the General avoided execution absorbs not only Solovyov, but also any number of scholars (some of who feature in the book). Solovyov himself is perhaps an unlikely protagonist; a somewhat diffident man, he was born by a railroad halt in the middle of nowhere which only has a number, not a name. Absorbed by books from a young age, he has an intense friendship with a local girl which blossoms into something more, before finally escaping to Petersburg to study. Whilst following the trail of the General’s life, he travels to Yalta to attend a Larionov conference, encountering the remaining associates/relatives of Larionov and also entering an intense relationship with the daughter of one of the General’s assistants. There are searches for lost manuscripts; a wonderfully satirical and often screamingly funny rendition of the events of the conference and the awfulness of a collection of academics in one place; and gradual discoveries of lost parts of the General’s life which bring Solovyov closer to home than he might have expected.

That’s a somewhat simplistic summary of what is a very complex, clever, multi-layered and thought-provoking book, and to describe it as a literary detective story as the blurb does is perhaps underselling it. The construction of the novel itself is quite remarkable; Vodolazkin manages a brilliant interweaving of the title characters’ stories where the narrative switches between the two without even a pause, yet it’s never anything less than clear as to what’s happening. Although ostensibly about Solovyov’s search to find out the truth about the General, the book is also actually the story of Solovyov finding himself, of his reckoning with his own past as well as Russia’s, and of his coming to terms with his journey to the current point of his life. On the evidence of the two of his works that I’ve read, Vodolazkin is always totally in control of his narrative, here brilliantly bringing all the strands of his tale together to an ending which reveals just how entwined the two lives have been.

We could approach the explanation from another angle. There exist people who possess the gift of contemplation. They are not inclined to interfere with the course life takes and do not create new events, because they believe there are already enough events in the world. They see their role as comprehending what has already taken place. Might that attitude toward the world be what begets genuine historians?

His writing is beautiful too; although he often seems to deliberately adopt the detached tone of a historian (taking on an authorial “we” when it suits), the description of place and atmosphere is stunning, and at times I felt I was in Yalta with either Solovyov or Larionov. The narrative is studded with references to Russian history and literature, a lot of which I got but many of course I probably missed, and the spell of Chekhov hangs over the Yalta sections in particular (the great writer spent his final days there). Petersburg and its surrounding waters are brilliantly conjured too (both Solovyov and Larionov are drawn to the sea). As well as beauty, however, there is of course conflict; there are details of the General’s battles and the horrors of the Civil War are clearly shown; as well as the sheer exhaustion of the Russian people, unable after so much fighting to even understand what they were battling for and why they were on a particular side.

This is how strange the war was – Russians against Russians – when solders taken prisoner could fight the very next day for the other side. They did so just as selflessly as before. There were quite a few people for whom shifts of this sort became a habit. For some, it was the only possible work under war conditions. For some, it was a way of life at a time when, by and large, people were indifferent about whom they fought for… Essentially, there were not many choices.

That this is a book about a historian is particularly relevant, because the more satirical and humorous elements certainly poke fun at the absurdity of some academics, with their own particular focus on a section of the past, their skewed reading of it and indeed their own particularly odd theories (including one that the General was actually a woman…!) It becomes clear as Solovyov continues with his endeavours to find out the truth that an accurate rendering of the past, and indeed an understanding of it, may never be possible; the historian’s researches are like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing and it’s only if particular things can be found out, by the person with the knowledge to interpret them correctly, that all will fall into place. Like “The Aviator”, “Solovyov and Larionov” ends with a certain ambiguity in place, leaving behind it a book of characters and events and places that linger beautifully in the mind.

Yalta: View from the Tsar’s Path via Wikimedia Commons

“Solovyov and Larionov” was nominated for a number of Russian awards and I can understand why; it’s hard to accept that this was a first novel, particularly as it’s such a wide-ranging work which takes in so many themes. However, the major thread I sense running through Vodolazkin’s works is that of memory, whether individual or collective. There is a fascinating conversation with Vodolazkin and Lisa Hayden at the LA Review of Books, and the former states:

Memory … What do we have except memory? Nothing. Memory is the consciousness of a person, whereas history is the consciousness of the people.

I think that may well sum up what Vodolazkin is trying to capture in his books, particularly in a country where memory and history have been so twisted and warped over the years. The author is himself a historian, which lends further authenticity to his account of the vagaries of research, the complexities of tracking down sources and the frank impossibility of ever really knowing the truth – either about history, or one’s own memories, which are of course human and therefore fallible.

As is probably obvious, I found “Solovyov and Larionov” to be just as good a book as “The Aviator” in its beautiful writing, its thought-provoking narrative and its wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. I can see that I’m going to be pondering on it for quite some time to come, and although his second novel “Laurus” has a very different setting (mediaeval Russia) I may just have to seek it out…

Back to books! Plus a little bookish eye-candy…😉

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Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to rename the blog Kaggsy’s Iconoclastic Ramblings or Kaggsy’s Documentary Ramblings, given that I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent recently! I thoroughly enjoyed my time in “Viral” land, as well as running the interview with Richard Clay, and as this is my space in the InterWeb, I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it! But the focus on the Ramblings will always be on the written word and so it’s probably about time we had some more gratuitous pictures of books!

And I had thought that I was being good, until I looked back over my spreadsheet of arrivals and realised that actually quite a number had managed to sneak their way into the house. In mitigation, a *lot* of these are review copies (which I’m very happy about) – but nevertheless they are here, taking up space! =:o So I’ve divvied them up into categories, and here goes…

The Waterstones Wobble

Sounds like a dance, doesn’t it? I shared on Instagram, but not here I think, the fact that I got slightly carried away in Waterstones recently and bought some full-priced books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and it felt amazing! And these are they:

The lovely little Macfarlane book is one I’ve already read and reviewed on the blog and it was worth every penny. The Dawkins is because I wanted a Dawkins and I couldn’t decide which one and ended up buying this one and I want to read everything he’s written NOW except there are so many books competing for space. Arrrggghhh! As for the Brodsky, it caught my eye; I have a collection of his essays and also a poetry one, but this is an essay on Venice and I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to some other Venice books I have (and one which I’ve already covered). I’ve dipped and I want to read it straight away too.

Charity Shop Finds

The logical thing to do, really, would be to stop going into the charity shops, wouldn’t it? And I try to avoid most of them nowadays, but there are a couple I pop into regularly – the Samaritans Book Cave and the Oxfam, both of which are dedicated book areas. I’m trying to be really selective, particularly as the Oxfam’s prices are sneaking up again. But these ones slipped through the net and I think each purchase is justified.

The Saramagos were, of course, essential. I loved my first encounter with him so much that I want to collect and read everything, and I’ve amassed quite a little pile thanks to the charity shops and Simon (who kindly passed on a Saramago he’d read!)

As for the Larkin and Eliot poetry collections – yes, I have all of their poems in other big volumes but these were small and nice and cheap and I’m finding myself more likely to pick up slim volumes than chunky collected ones. We shall see – I need to read more of the poetry books I have already.

eliot larkin

Pretty, ain’t they? Next up was this:

Fleur Jaeggy is a name that’s cropped up on all manner of blogs I read and respect, and this one sounds great; I was always going to pick up anything by her that I came across in the charity shops really…

Finally Simone Weil – an oddity in that it’s a hardback Virago from back in the day, and I did hum and hah a bit about buying it because I have more books than I can ever read in my lifetime if I’m honest. However, in the end I decided to get it – because it *is* an unusual Virago and Patti Smith rates Weil and so I’m prepared to give the book a go!

Bits and Bobs

Just a couple of books here which have crept into the Ramblings from various sources.

First up, the lovely Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write kindly passed on to me “The Death of the Perfect Sentence“, which she’d read herself. I love the sound of it and it’s from the Estonian, a language I think I haven’t read from before, so that’s a plus too. And secondly, an online purchase (I’ve been trying to resist those…) in the form of an intriguing-sounding book “The Trouble with Tom” which is all about Thomas Paine (which slightly ties in with the French Revolution Reading List thingy I came up with and haven’t forgotten about despite being deeply sunk in 19th century Russian nihilist circles). I read about this one recently and have forgotten instantly whose blog it was on – but thank you, whoever it was!

Review Books

There are certain publishers whose books I love to read and cover, and a little chunk of review copies have arrived recently (well – a big chunk, really…) – as you can see:

The British Library really have spoiled me, with more of their marvellous Crime Classics and another two Sci Fi Classics. I adore both of these ranges, so I can see some happy reading hours coming up over the Easter break!

Oneworld have also been very kind; I was really keen to read “Solovyov and Larionov” after loving Eugene Vodolazkin’s book “The Aviator” last year and can’t wait to get stuck in. Additionally, they offered an intriguing new work called “How We Disappeared” by Jing-Jing Lee; set in Singapore and spanning decades, it sounds fascinating.

Pushkin Press always have an amazing array of books, but it’s a little while since I read one of their Pushkin Vertigo titles. “Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is set just before the first French Revolution – so ideal for me, no? 😀

And last, but definitely not least, the wonderfully titled “The Office of Gardens and Ponds” from MacLehose Press – it looks just gorgeous and sounds wonderful.

Thank you *so* much, lovely publishers. And yes –  I’m definitely going to be abandoning sleep some time soon…

Current Reading

Needless to say, I’m still pacing myself through the marathon that is Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”… As you can see from the festoons of post-it notes, I’m getting on quite well.

TBH it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice of book for what is probably my busiest time of the year (budgeting and financial year-end against a very tight deadline, anyone?) One of those lovely BL books might have been slightly more wise, but I’m loving the Russian chunkster so I shall keep going – though it’s entirely possible I might try to slip in something slim as light relief when the dark action of Dostoevsky gets too much!

So – what from the above takes *your* fancy????? 😁

An exploration of memory – @OneworldNews @shinynewbooks

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Well, you know me – I can’t resist a chunky piece of Russian fiction, old or new; so when I had the chance to review a new volume for Shiny New Books I really couldn’t resist!

The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin, translated by Lisa Hayden and published by Oneworld, is a marvellous new book that is eminently readable and utterly memorable whilst taking on big topics like the tricks of memory, survival in the harshest conditions and the compromises we make in order to make life bearable. It also has much to say about the endurance of love as well as humankind’s cruelty to itself, and it’s a stunning read.

So this is another new book I can’t recommend highly enough – check out my review on Shiny here, and if you’re going to read this (and I really urge you to do so), try not to find out too much about the plot in advance… 😁

 

A Short (Russian) Diversion for World Book Day

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Having finished my reading of the second Anthony Powell, I decided to spend World Book Day in the company of a short Russian. By this, I don’t necessarily mean his height(!) but instead a little tale by Dostoevsky, in a lovely little hardback gift edition from Oneworld Classics – “The Crocodile”.

As an aside, I have to say how much I *love* Oneworld/Alma Classics – they publish masses of my favourite authors (including many Russians) and their books are so beautifully produced, with extra material and notes etc. They sent me a catalogue with this volume and frankly if I was rich I would buy the lot – but I’m not, so I’ll have to make do with one here or there!

crocodile
Anyway – on to “The Crocodile”, a short tale which I’d not heard of before but which was very enjoyable and easy to read in a couple of sittings. It tells the story of Ivan Matveich, a civil servant in Tsarist Russian, who is persuaded by his wife Yelena Ivanovna to take her to see the latest St. Petersburg spectacle – a large crocodile on display in The Passage (an elite department store). They are accompanied by our narrator, Semyon Semyonych who refers to himself several times as “friend of the family”. However, disaster strikes when Ivan Matveich is swallowed whole by the crocodile, after which things get very surreal…

The German owners of the crocodile will not countenance any action which will harm the beast and rescue Ivan, instead insisting on the “economic principle” i.e. the crocodile is their livelihood and they either want compensation or will keep raking in the roubles as people flock to see the man inside the beast. For in fact Ivan is alive, and can talk from inside the reptile and even seems quite comfortable! He begins to reflect on life and his situation while his beautiful wife starts to regard herself as a ‘widow’ and revel in the attention she is receiving from a number of gentlemen (including Semyon himself!)

Things take another bizarre turn as Ivan decides he is quite comfortable inside the crocodile and with the time to reflect on life, away from his pressing duties as a civil servant, he thinks he will become a philosopher with a following, while Yelena holds salons for him in the evenings. However, his descriptions of the inside of the crocodile as like rubber, and his account of how he is going to sustain himself, do lead us to think he might be losing his mind a little.

dostoevsky.2

This is a wonderful, inventive little tale that takes sideswipes at many things: the Tsarist civil service and its labyrinthine bureaucracy; the fickleness of beautiful women; the inaccuracy and bias of newspapers (two papers take completely opposite views when reporting the story: one takes the side of the crocodile and the other gets the story completely reversed and reports that a man has swallowed a crocodile!). It has a fabulous Gogolian feel about it, it’s funny, a delight to read and confirms what another of my favourite Russian authors had to say about Dostoevsky:

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

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