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July reading and August plans! #AllViragoAllAugust #WITMonth #TDiRS22

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Without wanting to turn into a moany old bat, I have to say that July was not without its issues… The heat, for one thing, was phenomenal in my part of the UK, and I don’t deal with it well. There was ongoing stuff to do with the Aged Parent, work was screamingly busy and I was so tired all the time that I often strugged to read. What I did read was marvellous, though, and here it is – things picked up a little towards the end of the month, though I can only show here one of the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press (the other was a digital copy), both of which were wonderfully unsettling! No duds as such, although I *was* slightly underwhelmed by one title!

I’m now on the summer break from work (hurrah!) and have found that my reading speed has picked up a little. Looking forward to this month’s plans, again I’ll be keeping things simple.

August has traditionally been a month which is designated by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group as ‘All Virago/All August‘, where we try to focus on reading as many Virago and related books as possible (so Persephone, Furrowed Middlebrow etc). There is also our monthly Virago prompt, which for August is a book about a journey, whether factual or fictional. I have had a dig and have the following options, though it will very much depend on my mood!

Two of those are possibles also for the following event… 😊

August is also, of course, Women in Translation month. Now, I do read a fair amount of translated women already, but I shall definitely look to be reading some of those unread volumes on the stacks – here’s my initial heap of potentials!

There are some lovely titles there, though the risk is as always that I try to take on too much!!

Another August event is a Twitter readalong of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, which is very tempting… I have these two physical copies in the TBR:

and I think there’s a digital copy of the controversial Nabokov translation lurking somewhere too. Knowing me I will run out of time, especially as there’s also an Alkmatova readalong, and I just can’t decide. We shall see…

2022 has, of course, been a bit of a year of re-reading for me, and I think that tendency may be continuing! Annabel announced a few days ago that she’s hosting a monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, running from August to December;  and I’m most keen to join in!

I’ve meant to revisit these books so many times in recent years as there are often readalongs around Christmas time, usually spurred on by the enthusiasm of Robert Macfarlane! I always run out of time, but one book a month worked for me with the Narnia books and I’m sure it will with these! Here are my fragile old editions, dusted off and ready to go!

Apart from these, there’s one book I’m pretty sure I shall be picking up. I hope to be off on my travels for the first time since the pandemic began, visiting my Aged Parent and the Offspring, and I plan to take this one with me:

“Only one book???” I hear you cry? Well, it’s a chunky one (as are most of Victor Serge‘s books) and I suspect it will keep me company for most of my travels. And if I finish it – well, there are bookshops in Leicester, and I *will* have some e-books on the tablet if things get desperate!!

So simple plans for August, and I suspect there may be some incoming titles too! What reading plans do *you* have for the month??

“The versifier’s bitterest, most unbearable affliction is his title…” #Pushkin #RobertChandler #ElizabethChandler @borisdralyuk

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A quick look at the Russian section of my bookshelves (which is pretty large…) reveals that I possess a good number of books by, and about, Alexander Pushkin. Known as the father of Russian poetry, and often indeed as the founder of modern Russian Literature, I’ve read a reasonable amount of his works; the poems mostly in anthologies, and also a lovely little collection of short prose works translated as “Belkin’s Stories” by Roger Clarke and published by Alma Classics. It’s interesting that, although Pushkin is most known as a poet, he actually produced many prose works, finished and unfinished. So I was very excited when I heard that NYRB Classics were releasing a new collection entitled “Peter The Great’s African: Experiments in Prose”, edited by Robert Chandler, and translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Boris Dralyuk; let’s face it, I was obviously going to want to read it!

The book collects together four pieces: Peter the Great’s African, The History of the Village of Goriukhino, Dubrovsky and The Egyptian Nights. Each of these, which vary in length from short fragment to almost novella, is an unfinished work, but they’re all remarkable pieces in their own right, and the book makes fascinating reading.

In the title story, Pushkin draws on his own heritage, as his maternal great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was an African who had been kidnapped and enslaved, but ended up as a favourite and godson of Peter the Great. Cleverly, Pushkin uses the backdrop of his kinsman’s story to contrast the lifestyles of Russia, with its boyars and old traditions, and Paris, with its modernity and new ways. As we follow Ibrahim, the protagonist, on his journey through French then Russian society, we can see how Peter’s reforms were making inroads into the traditional lifestyle in his country, and that this was not always welcome. As well as the modernisations, the story also tackles the reactions of the Russians to the African man; despite his virtues, there is an underlying sense that if he had not had the protection of the Tsar, attitudes might well have been different. As the story breaks off, Ibrahim has had his heart broken and is preparing to make a society marriage to cement his status; alas we will never know how Pushkin would have resolved that plot strand.

“The History of the Village…” is a short, punchy and satirical piece. The narrator and author of the history is one Belkin (who also featured in the stories I mentioned above) an impoverished nobleman. Bored while staying in the countryside, he decideds that he has the making of a man of letters and sets out to explore a number of genres. Eventually, after finding all of them unsatisfactory, he settles on writing history, but even this seems problematic. His sources are random and partial; he senses bias everywhere; and he cannot even recognise the requirements of history as opposed to fiction. As well as satirising history and historians, there’s also the sense that Pushkin is parodying himself as Belkin has many traits and life events in common with his creator; altogether, it’s a clever and entertaining piece.

“Dubrovsky” is the longest work in the book, an unfinished novel in which Pushkin explores the situation in Russia and finds it wanting. Two landowners, Troyekurov and Dubrovsky, fall out and the former determines to dispossess the latter. The local legal systems can be easily bought and Troyekurov (a nasty, vicious and obnoxious tyrant if there ever was one) has the money to do so. His actions bring about the demise of Dubrovsky the father; however, his son returns to the village to avenge his father and becomes a notorious outlaw, assisted by a group of loyal serfs who join his gang of brigands. Events come to one dramatic head, although there is much action and drama in the story, and we will never know the end of Dubrovsky’s story; but what we do have is fascinating.

Again, Pushkin is definitely critiquing the system here; the serfs are nothing more than slaves, the law belongs to whoever has most money or sway in a locality, and there is the sense that good has no power against the corrupt systems of Russian law. There is a feeling in the first three stories that the old Russian traditions are so embedded that it will be impossible to drag the country and its population screaming and kicking into any kind of modernity. Certainly, Dubrovsky’s serfs are fiercely loyal to him and want to stay with him; there’s not much of a hint that they can envisage any kind of independence or freedom, and indeed the country is not structured in a way to give them opportunities.

Charsky made every possible effort to escape the insufferable soubriquet. He avoided his fellow men of letters, preferring the company of even the most vacuous members of high society. His conversation was exceedingly banal and never touched on literature. In his dress he always followed the latest fashion with the diffidence and superstition of a young Muscovite visiting Petersburg for the very first time. His study, furnished like a lady’s bedroom, did not in any respect call to mind that of a writer; no books were piled on or under the tables; the sofa was not stained with ink; there was none of the disorder that reveals the presence of the Muse and the absence of dustpan and brush. Charsky despaired if one of his society friends discovered him pen in hand. It is hard to believe that a man endowed with talent and a soul could stoop to such petty dissimulation.

The final piece in the book explores a different aspect to the changes in Russian society. “The Egyptian Nights” tells the story of the poet Charsky, a man with a complicated relationship to his art. The obvious thing, of course, is to see Charsky as a cipher for Pushkin himself, and Robert Chandler, in his excellent afterword, feels that the fictional poet does represent something of the real one. Charsky encounters an improvvisatore who composes and performs his works on the spot, after selling tickets to his recitals and getting the audience to choose his subject. That in itself is a great talent, but Charsky is uncomfortable with the commercial element of the performance. Artists of the period depended on rich patrons and the selling of one’s services, but in the story it is clear that Charsky is finding it hard to separate the demands of patrons and society with the need for purity of his writing. I guess not much has changed over the centuries, as the conflict between the commercial and the artistic still exists today.

A particularly fascinating element of “Egyptian…” is that it features two poetic sequences, and I can’t help wondering how much more of his verse Pushkin would have worked in had he finished it. As with all four pieces in this volume, there’s great joy in reading what the great writer left behind, but a sadness in knowing that he never finished them. He may have considered his prose to be “experiments” but it’s quite clear he had singular talents in all of the various kinds of writing he chose.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an excellent and informative afterword by Robert Chandler, plus useful notes to the texts, and this really is an exemplary collection. Chandler has also produced a brilliant “Short Life” of Pushkin, which I reviewed here and can highly recommend if you want to explore the poet’s life further. “Peter the Great…” is of course wonderfully translated by the reliable team I credited above – they’re all translators I trust – and this volume is a brilliant way to bring Pushkin’s prose to a new and wider audience; I loved it! As you can see from the image above, I really *do* own a lot of Pushkin, and after the joy of reading this one I shall definitely have to read more. I think someone on Twitter might just have mentioned a “Eugene Onegin” readalong later in the year…. ;D

Many thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy; the book is out today!

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Babel

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

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

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

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

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

698 pages…

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

 

A poet encapsulated

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A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler

As an antidote to all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I felt drawn to picking up something more factual; and coincidentally a lovely review copy arrived that fitted the bill! Pushkin Press have just reprinted a slim biographical volume about the father of Russian poetry, Alexander Pushkin, by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, so it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it.

Pushkin, of course, is an author I’ve read before, mostly notably in poetry anthologies (I have a lot of Russian collections…) and also when I reviewed a nice edition of “Belkin’s Stories” for Shiny New Books. I had a vague idea of the outline of his life, but was keen to fill in the gaps – which this does in exemplary fashion.

The book divides Pushkin’s life up into short, readable chapters and takes us through the various stages. Chandler focuses on the events of Pushkin’s life, but also his poetic responses to it, and the book is laced with excellent quotations from Pushkin’s work which reflect what was happening to him. And certainly the poet did indeed have a colourful life; his heritage was fascinating, as his matrilineal great-grandfather was a Black African Page (Abram Petrovich Gannibal) brought over to Russia as a slave. He was a serial duellist (a fact that would eventually lead to his downfall), associated with the outlawed political group The Decembrists, spent time in exile, met the young Gogol and had a very complex relationship with the Tsar and the authorities. And then there’s the womanising… Pushkin was nothing if not erratic and Byronic in his outlook, and in fact Lord Byron was something of an idol!

Reading about the disordered nature of his life you wonder how the man managed to write any poetry, but he did, and the extracts that Chandler includes are excellent choices which stick in the mind and show just how much Pushkin’s emotional natural found its way into his work. Like many an artist he struggled financially, and the fact that his wife was required to participate in society (ah! Russian society – how much more I know about that after War and Peace!) meant that he was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and died in much debt.

As for his death – well, that’s still somewhat controversial, but it certainly affected me emotionally and made me wish Pushkin hadn’t been so hot-headed when it came to duelling. Chandler hints also that by that point of his life Pushkin was in a rather fatalistic mental state, which didn’t help, and part of me wishes he had had less terrible ups and downs in his life – but I suppose if he’d lived a quiet and sedate existence, then he wouldn’t have written the works he did! And it often seems that Pushkin spent much of his time restricted in different ways – exiled, confined to an area by the plague – and in each of these settings he responded by producing substantial amounts of work.

Author and subject

Chandler’s book is a brilliant introduction to Russia’s national poet; lucid, readable, erudite and scholarly, yet it has a light touch which conveys much information in an easily absorbed format. The verse quotations are powerful and moving, and Chandler regularly points out the influence Pushkin’s work has had on a diverse range of later works – “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer and operas by Mussorgsky being just two examples. He also brings out in more detail the links with Gogol and the influence on Dostoevsky, and covers in detail the complexities of censorship and Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I.

One aspect that fascinated me in particular was the fact that Pushkin had something of a sideline as a historian; many of his works drew on Russia’s past and one of the reasons he needed to keep in with society and the Tsar was so that he could gain access to the state archives for his research. We take for granted nowadays the access we have to the Internet and so many archives and records that it seems unimaginable that a man would have to make so many compromises to be able to carry out his work.

Chandler is always even-handed in his treatment of the protagonists in Pushkin’s story (I *love* an unbiased biography!!!) and his refusal to condemn Pushkin’s young wife, Natalya Goncharova, is refreshing. I was interested to learn that she was a relative of one of my favourite Constructivist artists who bore the same name; the book is scattered with such interesting facts which I’ve not come across before.

At the end of the book, Chandler looks at Pushkin’s legacy down the years from Gogol shortly after his death and eventually reaching into Soviet times; and the attempts by various people and regimes to claim the poet for themselves. However, Chandler reminds us of Pushkin’s universal appeal and how he was popular with each level of society; his poetry is still alive and vital today, and the poet’s legacy is assured regardless of who tries to claim it.

I can’t recommend this excellent little book enough if you want to discover more about Pushkin’s life and work. There are bigger and longer volumes out there, but this distills all you need to know into 150 pages or so and gives a flavour of the poet’s writing too. For me, I gained a much wider understanding of Pushkin and his place in Russian literature, as well as thoroughly enjoying the journey through the poet’s life. I’ve read many of Robert Chandler’s translations with great pleasure, but I think this is the first book I’ve read which he’s written and it was a great joy – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

Shiny New Pushkin!

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Given my love of Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to review a new translation of their national poet’s short story collection, “Belkin’s Stories”. Beautifully done by Alma Classics, it shows that the poet was a master of other literary forms, too!

belkin

I was also pleased to provide Five Interesting Facts about the great man – you can read both of these, plus much, much more at Shiny New Books – go read, what are you waiting for?! 🙂

Shiny New Books

Belkin’s Stories

Five Interesting Facts

Happy Birthday Alexander Pushkin!

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220px-A.S.Pushkin
It’s 215 years since the birth of Russia’s National Poet – and his words are still so beautiful today:

“I’ve lived to bury my desires
and see my dreams corrode with rust
now all that’s left are fruitless fires
that burn my empty heart to dust.

Struck by the clouds of cruel fate
My crown of Summer bloom is sere
Alone and sad, I watch and wait
And wonder if the end is near.

As conquered by the last cold air
When Winter whistles in the wind
Alone upon a branch that’s bare
A trembling leaf is left behind.”

― Alexander Pushkin

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