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“…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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