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“What’s the difference between a word and a sigh?” #marcchagall

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My Life by Marc Chagall
Translated by Dorothy Williams

When I was rushing through St. Pancras station in the summer, en route to the Midlands and a visit to the Aged Parent and the Offspring, I made time to pop into their little branch of Hatchards. It’s a small but perfectly formed shop which always has interestingly-themed tables, and I rarely come out empty-handed. This occasion was no different, and I was tempted specifically by this lovely Penguin Modern Classics version of Marc Chagall’s “My Life”. It called to me particularly as I was heavily absorbed in Victor Serge’s Notebooks; and Chagall’s book deals also with exile from Russia. So of course I picked up a copy… To be honest, though, you couldn’t really get two more dissimilar books than the Notebooks and this one. In size, writing style and subject Chagall and Serge are complete opposites; though both are very entertaining and enjoyable writers!

Chagall grew up ina a close-knit Russian-Jewish community, and much of the book covers his childhood; his beloved family; his struggles at school; and his growing desire to become an artist. He writes in short, impressionistic and vivid sentences, conjuring small-town life and the warmth of the people around him (as well as a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere which eventually becomes too much). The book is illustrated with some lovely sketches of his life and surroundings, which are a real treat; and we follow Chagall as he takes tentative steps outside the realm of his childhood into the wider world. The artist came from a poor family and is in some ways out of his depth to start with. But he’s driven to make art, and manages to find contacts in St. Petersburg to help him along.

The essential thing is art, painting, a painting different from the painting everyone else does.

Eventually he escapes to Paris, and the chapters set here are particularly evocative. Again, there is the struggle and lack of money, but he mixes with other artists who help. Blaise Cendrars is a kind and constant presence; Apollinaire makes appearances. Chagall gradually starts to make a kind of name for himself but returns to Russia and here we’re treated to a different view of the Revolution; an elliptical one, from a man who does his best to support what’s happening but really only wants to make art.

Can we help it if we can only see world events through canvas, paint, and painting materials, thickening and vibrating like poisonous gases?

Again, there are glimpses; figures like Meyerhold, Lunacharsky, Trotsky and Mayakovsky pass through Chagall’s pages. However, he never hides the harshness of living through these times and dark actions creep into the narrative. The book ends in 1922 when, in a bid for essential stability, Chagall left his homeland for good, living almost exclusively in France until his death in 1985.

Marc Chagall – The Birthday – 1915 (public domain via Wikimedia
Commons)

“My Life” is a striking book; the prose initially perhaps seems a little brief, stacatto, but as your reading ear attunes to this type of writing it becomes very compelling. And the line drawings complement the story beautifully, their economy of line matching that of the narrative; both nevertheless draw you into Chagall’s world, creating a very moving experience.

So my impulse purchase at St. Pancras station turned out to be one that I’m very glad I made. It gives a privileged glimpse into the life and art of a great artist (some of whose works I’ve seen in the flesh in recent years), as well as revealing the artistic view of the Russian Revolution. Highly recommended!

“An eternal vagabond of life and the idea” #victorserge @nyrbclassics

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Notebooks 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
Translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman

As I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings (and on any kind of social media I happen to be near!), I’ve been rather absorbed in the Notebooks of Victor Serge over the past couple of weeks. The very wonderful NYRB Classics seem to fly the flag for him; several of his novels and his “Memoirs of Revolutionary” are available in their imprint (and I’ve read most of them…) However, this volume really is something special, and I’ll share some thoughts on it below – though I fear these will not really do the book justice. I’m sorry – this is going to be a long post!

The Notebooks

Serge’s real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich and he was born in Brussels to Russian parents. His life was a peripatetic one, moving from place to place – France, Spain, Russia to join the Bolsheviks, prison, exile and eventually emigration. He finally went into exile in Mexico during the Second World War, and died there in 1947. Described as an anarchist, Bolshevik and Left Oppositionist, it seems to me that he was concerned overall with justice, equality and freedom; but more than anything else he was an exceptionally gifted author and a witness to his times.

All we know of ourselves is a kind of waking dream, finely worked by the will, enlightened by consciousness – but a dream all the same.

The diaries cover the period from 1936-1947, and this is in fact a landmark publication which gathers material from a number of sources. Serge’s notebooks have only partially been published in the past, and the note on the text sets out the various sources from which this material has been brought together to give the most complete edition, and the first one to be rendered in this form in English. Again, bouquets and kudos to NYRB for bringing this volume to us; because it’s an absolutely incredible and absorbing read.

The Notebooks on their travels, already a bit festooned…

The notebooks open in 1936 with Serge in Paris treating us to his thoughts on Andre Gide. The entries between 1936 and 1940 form a chapter on their own as they’re more fragmentary, but after that each year has a section of its own until Serge’s death. The years in transit and then exile perhaps afforded more opportunity for writing, and certainly the Mexico days saw Serge taking stock of the past, noting and commenting on world events, theorising about the future, and recording, vividly, his impressions of the world around him. So Serge fills his notebooks with all manner of things: impressions of those he knows or encounters, thoughts on his beliefs and what may come of socialism and indeed the world; drafts of letters to friends and colleagues; meditations on the history of the Revolution and the fate of Trotsky; his own emotions and his longing for his partner Laurette; and beautiful prose which relates his travels in exile and records the natural world around him (for which he obviously has a profound affection). It’s a heady and wonderful mix, and a privileged glimpse into the unique mind of a great revolutionary and writer.

At that time I decided, given the growing reaction, to dedicate myself to history and literature, novels, to work at defending and ripening, my ideas. Duty of a witness, conclusion that intellectual activity remained the only one possible.

Serge’s life was not an easy one; persecuted for much of it because of his beliefs and his refusal to toe the party line, things became particularly difficult in exile as he was constantly under attack for his association with Trotsky (even though he disagreed with the latter’s outlook towards the end of his life). He was under constant threat of assassination, and indeed there are still theories around that his death from a heart attack in a Mexico taxi was in fact murder. However, the notebooks reveal that his health was suffering a little and he records consulting a doctor, shortness of breath etc, which tends to lend support to a natural death.

One thing that’s stunning is the sheer variety of subjects upon which Serge touches in his narrative; from political philosophy through memoir and personal recollection to quite beautiful passages of description. And what’s quite incredible is the range of players you encounter in these pages – from Trotsky to Leonora Carrington to Andre Breton to Blaise Cendrars to Levi-Strauss, Serge knew an incredible array of people and his pen portraits are vibrant and memorable; you do find yourself wondering if there was anyone Serge didn’t know, and I didn’t quite expect to meet so many names I already knew within these pages. He seems generally clear-sighted about those he comes into contact with, and is quite critical of some; Anna Seghers does not get off lightly for aligning herself with the Stalinist regime, and he considers Diego Rivera to be very fluid in his choices of who to follow… Breton reappears at several points in the narrative; it seems that he and Serge were quite friends, although there is falling out but eventual much more understanding on Serge’s part of the man that Breton was.

One sees, one lives intensely, but not everything, for the poem changes from moment to moment, and it is so immense that it can’t all be taken in.

However, there are some extremely poignant pieces: Serge mourns the suicides of Walter Benjamin and Stefan Zweig in particular, penning a desperately moving piece on the latter. He also writes most touchingly about Mandelstam, a fragile man with nevertheless enough courage to write poetry against Stalin. Chagall makes an appearance, which has a lovely synchronicity with the fact that I picked up the latter’s “My Life” whilst reading Serge. Inevitably, there are times when the book reads somewhat like a litany of deaths, becoming a kind of memorial as Serge sees and records so many of his contemporaries fall by the wayside, either by natural causes, suicide or by assassination.

Public Domain – Via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, he had no illusions about the forces that were ranged against him, and he offers a pithy analysis of Trotsky, Hitler and Stalin. His discourse about the horrors of the Nazi regime and the mentality of those who take part in atrocities seemed very astute to me; and his discussion of, and awareness of, concentration camps in more than one nation is somewhat ahead of his time. It’s worth remembering that Serge was in a very difficult position; he had spoken (and continued to speak) out in opposition to Stalin’s terror, and this was at a time when Russia was an ally against Germany. Therefore, he was under constant threat from all sides for continuing to say what he saw as the truth. He was probably also feared as a survivor of the Russian Revolution, uniquely placed to record the many historical events he’d lived through; of particular interest were his memoirs of his times working with Trotsky, as well as the sadness of his encounters with the latter’s widow after the assassination.

All my Serges (I have one e-book but must get a tree version…)

The Notebooks are a wonderful mix of the personal and the political, then. The sections recording his journey into exile via Marseilles, then by circuitous route by boat eventually to Mexico, are particularly powerful. As they passed the various countries on their way, Serge recorded his impressions of the landscapes in vivid and evocative prose.

The coast is low and mountainous, gullied in all directions by the rains, in places well cultivated. Reddish rocks and green slopes, sandy banks to the sea, the backdrop rounded like the backs of beasts. The land is violet and blue in the morning mist. Around noon it’s illuminated, even though the sky is cloudy, and it gathers together a mass of pink, rust, ochre, dark green, light green tones, somber touches of distant rocks, all of it full of life, almost carnal, sculpted by the waters. One can see that the Earth is alive. It’s astonishing that men haven’t sufficiently realized this obvious fact and constructed a religion out of it.

However, his thoughts are often on ethical matters, and as the ship passes by Oran, in Algeria, the setting for Camus’ “The Plague”, this is the first of many occasions when Serge reflects upon the horror and stupidity of racism. Serge is accompanied by his son Vlady, having had to leave his partner Laurette and daughter Jeannine in France. There is such power and poignancy in the writing of these sections that they’ve kind of burnt themselves into my brain. It was some time until his partner and daughter were able to join them in Mexico, when Serge was able to take joy and comfort from having his family on hand, and the notebooks reflect this in places.

I refuse to think about how far away it is, because you are near, you are coming, and I must, I want, to be able to feel you close in your absence, and all our memories must be present in the separation in order to enrich and find our strength. Our memories are us. You are every bit as real to me as everything I see, as everything I touch, I want to be yours at every moment. We are moving towards each other, united by our momentum and our communion. I am in you. You are in me.

The travel writing is quite stunning in places; Serge was always a great writer and he brought his talents to capturing the landscape around him:

More than two hundred kilometers by road, towards the Pacific, across a vast landscape of mountains under a hot sun. This volcanic earth, violently convulsed, constantly opens onto new horizons of sharp-edged ridges against mild, lustrous skies. The rocks here shattered in all directions in the era of geological revolutions. Aridity, little cultivation, the impression of a land without people, given over to plants armed with prickly thorns, splendid magueys with enormous, drooping, vase shaped leaves, organos rising straight up to a height of five meters or more, terrifying perpendicular cactus bushes of so intense a green that they seem almost black. There are areas of stony desert with silver tones. Near Taxco a semicircular hole in the wall of mountains cuts the horizon.

He seems to have moved frequently around Mexico, and there were some wonderful passages in particular about his visits to active volcanoes:

We are all squatting outside on a mat facing a crater that breathes, sings, and exhales subterranean fire. It’s cold out. The purple flames are rising without letup and falling in a rain of incandescent stones that we can see streaming to the bottom of the crater, hundreds of metres off. When the volcano catches its breath, its outline dulls, then blackens. We followed the rising of the meteors and their fall. Some of them reach as far as the green stars and float among them for a long moment. The Milky Way falls on the volcano so that it seems to have two infinite extensions: the dark, heavy, threatening extension of its clouds and the aerial, glacial, softly luminous one of the Milky Way. In contrast with the terrestrial blaze, the stars are a shimmering steel blue tending towards green. We hear the hissing descent of the lava to our right. And we see red slides flaming down the crevices of the hills.

So much of what he said rang true, so many of his descriptions took my breath away, that I ended up with a book positively festooned with a forest of post-it notes. Serge seems always so clear-sighted about the world around him, and was a great (and often prescient) thinker – this particular comment struck home at the moment:

This is the time of falsified – that is, betrayed – values. Anyone even slightly well informed has the sensation of breathing lies of such low quality that they don’t even contain the involuntary homage to truth proper to useful and, in a way, decent, lies, which only aim at misleading moderately.

I was struck too by a scary dream Serge had in 1943 which almost seemed to foresee the atomic bomb… There are also some wonderful thoughts and reflections on literature and writing; on specific authors in places, and also on the eternal problem faced by Russian writers of his time which Serge recognises in himself. Because of the hostility from all sides, Serge found it almost impossible to publish anything (and therefore to make any kind of living) and was stuck with a situation familiar to any reader of Russian literature from the Soviet period:

To write only for the desk drawer, past age fifty, facing unknown future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result?

And one of the things which makes the Notebooks such a wonderful reading experience is that the writer in Serge is always to the fore – his prose is excellent.

The final reckoning – all those post-its!!!

Well, I could go on and on, but this post is long enough as it is and I’ve really only scratched the surface. As I mentioned, towards the end of the book the entries thin out until late in 1957 they just stop… I must admit I found myself a bit emotional at this point, having immersed myself in Serge and his world for nearly two weeks. It felt kind of like losing a personal friend… 😦 I’ve had something of an obsession with Serge since first reading his fiction; reading the Notebooks has only made that much worse. Make no mistake, this is a big book and a commitment to read. At just under 600 pages (and NYRB do pack a lot onto each page!) it’s a work that you need to submerge yourself in, but it’s brimming with riches and the rewards are immense. Notebooks is a groundbreaking, vital and important work which stands, perhaps, as Victor Serge’s final testament and commentary on the times he lived through; it really is a magnificent book which I can’t recommend highly enough.

*****

A special vote of thanks needs to go to the translators for their work on the Notebooks. Both Abidor and Greeman have worked on Serge’s books before (Abidor editing and translating an anthology of Serge’s Anarchist writings; and Greeman having translated and written introductions for five of Serge’s novels). So both are well-placed to work on the Notebooks. The supporting notes appear usefully at the bottom of each page and were at just the right level for me (as I know a reasonable amount about the history and the period!); and there was an extremely helpful – nay, essential! – glossary of names at the end of the book. Inevitably, there are a *lot* of people mentioned in the book and the glossary gives a little info if you’re not sure who they are. An exemplary edition, and an essential read. Marvellous!

A city on the cusp of change @glagoslav #iconoclasm #moscow #russia

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We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

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

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…

“Life is scary…” @nyrbclassics #borisdralyuk @xelafleming @ani_goes_tweet

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Rock, Paper, Scissors and other stories by Maxim Osipov
Translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson

There are certain publishers whose catalogues I always watch with interest to see what gems they’ll be issuing next; likewise, there are translators whose work I trust and who I always know will be bringing into English something worth reading. So when the two coincide it’s like a perfect storm, and the resulting book is one I’m desperately keen to read. That was the case with “Rock, Paper, Scissors”: the publisher is NYRB, and the translators are Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson; so it was a no-brainer that I was going to want to read this!

The world doesn’t break, no matter what you throw at it. That’s just how it’s built.

As well as being a fine author (more of which later…!), Maxim Osipov is a doctor, a cardiologist in fact; so someone who comes from that fine tradition of Russian writing doctors (Chekhov and Bulgakov instantly springing to mind, and indeed the publicity makes great play with this). However, the Russia which Osipov writes about in this collection of short works might initially seem to be a very different one from the earlier authors… or maybe not.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors” collects together 12 short works of varying lengths, and I might as well come straight out with it and say that every single one of them is a gem. Osipov himself lives in the provinces (Tarusa, a small town 90 miles from Moscow) and the provinces do indeed feature regularly in his works (a factor which can’t help but make me think of Chekhov again). That distance from the centre informs much modern Russian writing I’ve read (Solovyov and Larionov, again a recent Russian read, was set away from things); and it’s very relevant to Osipov’s work – as Svetlana Alexievich comments in her preface, “Out in the provinces, everything is in full view, more exposed – both human nature and the times beyond the window.”

In subject matter the stories range far and wide: some tackle medical situations directly (“Moscow-Petrozavodsk“, “The Mill“, “The Gypsy“); in some stories, the medical element is almost incidental (“The Waves of the Sea“); and in some an encounter with a doctor is a jumping off point for something very different (“After Eternity“). The stories are peopled with actors, writers, criminals (of the lower and higher order), teachers, musicians – a fascinating array of human beings, all trying to make their way in what is an often disorientating world. This is a modern Russia, although often the stories reach back into Soviet times, and many of the characters seem to feel a lack of identity, sometimes struggling to negotiate a complex modern world. There is harshness and brutality, there are unexpected twists and there is a strong sense of melancholy running through many of the stories. I could say that’s down to the eternal “Russian Soul”, although Alexievich claims that’s a myth in her preface!

Day in, day out, she sees the cool sky, the river, the sunset, and suddenly she understands: life is such a simple and austere thing. And all of these little decorations, this tinsel we wrap our lives in – music, philosophy, literature – are completely unnecessary. There is some form of truth to them, in parts, but they themselves are not the truth. The truth can be put very simply.

Osipov’s writing is beautifully atmospheric, and whether’s he’s writing about a settlement in the far North or a clinic in the suburbs, each place and its characters are wonderfully evoked. As I read on I felt the author had a deep sense of compassion for fellow humans, struggling to negotiate new and uncertain terrain whilst keeping hold of their past to give them some kind of context. There are references to past leaders and past artists, and a feeling of continuity with those who’ve come before.

Maxim Osipov by Divot [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading short story collections can be a tricky thing; there’s the danger of the stories running into one, of not being differentiated enough, of becoming a blur when you get to the end. However, Osipov’s stories were all distinct and marvellous, and so good that I found myself taking a pause between each to simply let it settle in my soul. They’re stories that will affect you, that’s for sure, and in some cases break your heart. I really don’t know that I want to pick favourites, because when I read this collection again my reactions may change; however, I want to particularly mention “After Eternity“. Almost a novella in length, it tells the story of a theatre group in the frozen North through the notebooks of their Literary Director, and it’s one of those pieces of writing that you finish and then immediately go back to the start of, to re-read and rediscover meanings you didn’t quite get the significance of first time round – a wonderful piece of writing. And “Good People” was an incredibly moving and poignant piece, capturing quite brilliantly a woman whose mind is clouding with age. “Objects in Mirror” shows how the fear of those in authority continues, whatever the regime in charge. And the title piece is a complex story with many layers, looking at provincial politics and powerplay as well as the treatment of those from other countries.

… Bella was also emotional although she didn’t quite know why. There were more and more gaps in her mind, and the pathways and partitions between them were steadily narrowing, shrinking. She feared that the gaps would soon merge into one, and there’d be nothing left in her head but… what do you call that whitish liquid that swims up when milk goes sour? Ah, yes, that’s it: whey.

As you might have gathered, I think this is an absolutely stunning collection of stories, and one that has any number of layers which I want to go back and explore. This is the kind of writing that gets into your heart *and* your mind, the sort that changes the way you look at life and I do hope more of his work will be translated into English. As I mentioned, much has been made of the fact that Osipov draws on the Russian doctor-author tradition (and certainly Chekhov and Bulgakov are both authors whom I love). In the end, whether that comparison is relevant or not I don’t know; however, what is clear is that Opisov is a great observer of human life in all its light and shade, as well as a powerful author in his own right. So kudos to NYRB, Dralyuk, Fleming and Jackson – “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is a standout book, and will definitely be one of my reads of the year.

Clearing the shelves – it’s time for a giveaway or two! :D

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The parlous state of my TBR (and in fact my shelves in general!) is probably notorious by now; and the pictures I’ve posted of new arrivals on social media recently probably hint that even more books have made their way into the house. In mitigation, I have sent some off to friends, sold one or two and I have three large boxes in the hall awaiting collection by the Samaritans Book Cave! Nevertheless, I have half a dozen or so lovely titles that I really don’t need (owing to having duplicate copies in the main) and so I thought I would offer them to readers of the blog in a giveaway – it’s a little while since I’ve done one of these! 😀

And these are the books concerned:

Eight in total, now that I count them… Here’s a closer look at some:

These are all lovely Alma Classics editions which I’ve read but are duplicated or I won’t read again; so it makes sense for them to go to someone who would! The Jerome K. Jerome is great fun; Poe and Gatsby need no introduction from me!

Next up some Russians:

A pair of Turgenevs, which I have duplicated somehow; plus Fardwor, Russia! which was a great read!

And finally a Virago and a fragile Picador:

The Virago is a new style cover. As for the second book, much as it pains me to get rid of a Calvino, I already have the exact same edition from back in the day, so it’s a bit silly to hold onto it. Apart from this one, all of the other books are brand new.

So if you think you’d like to read one of these, give me a shout in the comments and let me know what book or books you might be interested in. I will have to restrict to the UK and possibly Europe, as postage costs anywhere else are going to be a bit awful. But speak up if you’re interested – if I can donate these to new, happy homes I won’t feel quite so bad about the books that keep sneaking their way into the house… ;D

The compromises of love… #ninaberberova @mbs51

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The Revolt by Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz

There’s been quite a buzz on blogs and bookish Twitter about author Nina Berberova, and I suspect there might have been a bit of a run on some of her books via online booksellers because of it. Berberova was a Russian-born author who left her country in 1922 with her husband, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich; they lived in Berlin, then Paris (where Khodasevich died in 1939) and she eventually emigrated to the USA in 1950 where she spent the rest of her life. I came across her work in the book “Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” which I read and reviewed here (and her short story was also included in Penguin Modern 21). I found her writing particularly interesting, and so when I read Max Cairnduff’s review of “The Revolt” I really felt I needed to track down a copy.

I was ahead of the game a little, I think, as I snagged a first edition hardback with dj from an online reseller for a minimal price; sadly, much of her work seems to be out of print, and that’s a great shame. However, New Directions in the USA publish a number of works, and there are a few editions in this country; but it does seem she needs to be properly rediscovered and give a bit of a promote by someone like Pushkin Press. That’s by the by; when I was casting round recently for the next book to read, Max reminded me that Berberova was calling, and this slim novella was indeed the ideal read. At 61 pages it’s in that grey area between short story and novella; however, what it might lack in length it certainly makes up in intensity!

I feel sorry for people who are alone only in the bathroom, never anywhere else.

“The Revolt” opens in Paris, 2nd September 1939; the narrator, a young Russian emigre called Olga, is seeing off her Swedish lover Einar. The latter is returning to his home country as war breaks out, and neither know if they will ever meet again. They talk of visiting each other, of meeting up in other places, other countries and promise never to forget each other. Needless to say, war keeps them apart and life goes on; Olga survives the conflict and the occupation (although her uncle does not). However, she never forgets Einar, despite the fact her letters had been returned unopened; so when she has the chance to travel to Stockholm in order to collect an inheritance she takes it. Is Einar still alive, and will she find him? How will their circumstances have changed? Well, the blurb doesn’t hide much, and Einar is alive and well and married to Emma. The latter is described as “voluptuous”, as physically unlike Olga as she could be; and although Emma outwardly is all smiles and loveliness, underneath she’s a manipulative piece of work. Olga is eventually faced with the opportunity of a second chance – but there is a cost attached, and the crux of the matter is whether she’s willing to accept this.

It seemed to me that he and I had never had a past, and there was nothing to say about the future – a spectre ahead, spectre behind, we were both spectres, and all around us was spectral, and of it all the only thing real was that force tearing us asunder: right now you’re here, with me, right now we’re together, but in an hour you won’t be here; you’re alone, I’m alone, and there’s nothing whatsoever to keep us together other than an idea – yours about me and mine about you.

“The Revolt” is a beautifully written work and on the surface seems a fairly straightforward story of love and the compromises we make for it. Are we prepared to sacrifice all for it, or are there times when we have to back away. Repeatedly, Olga has Berberova emphasise the importance of personal space and control over your life, and it seems that she’s a woman who will take love on her own terms or not at all – perhaps a more modern concept than we might expect. There is much that’s under the surface with Berberova’s writing; she tells Olga’s backstory of exile from Russia with economy, and the wartime years are sketched in just enough for us to be aware of them but not allow them to dominate the narrative. All of this is enough to paint a portrait of Olga’s character so that her actions in the end (in Venice, of all places) are entirely understandable. In fact, the choice of Venice for the final sequences is probably significant as there are any number of masks, illusions and deceptions surrounding Einar, Olga and Emma.

Berberova and Khodasevich (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Berberova’s novella is a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind. For such a short work of art to evoke so many places, sensations and emotions seems to me a real achievement; and though I’m surprised this book isn’t better known, I’m very grateful to the bloggers promoting her work and pointing us in its direction. “The Revolt” really is a little treasure and I have to confess to now having other Berberova stories nestling on the TBR waiting for me…

*****

“The Revolt” has also been reviewed by Guy Savage here, and if the buzz around the author on Twitter is anything to go by there will be more to follow!

And a quick word about the translator (they’re some of my favourite people!) Berberova’s work is translated by Marian Schwartz and a quick look at the latter’s website reveals that’s she’s translated a dizzyingly impressive array of books. She’s also regarded as the pre-eminant translator of Berberova’s works, having actually known and worked with the latter during the 1980s and 1990s – there is a fascinating interview with Schwartz here, and she’s obviously done a marvellous job of bringing Berberova’s work into English!

#1965Club – a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy…

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My final read for the#1965Club is, somewhat inevitably for me, a Russian book – Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by David Floyd. It’s a book that’s been nestling on Mount TBR for five years, if the grocery receipt tucked in the front is any guide, and that in itself is fairly alarming. Really, I wish I’d pulled this one down to read before now, as it really is an excellent book. Although it was initially published in 1965, “Sofia…” was actually written in the 1930s and this fact is crucial; the book has a ring of authenticity which comes from being written in effect as an eye-witness account of what it was like to live in those times; and it isn’t necessarily pretty.

Chukovskaya herself is a fascinating figure; born in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, her father was Kornei Chukovsky, a poet and children’s writer. She mixed regularly with just about everyone involved in the arts, from Blok to Chaliapin, and was not particularly welcoming to the Bolshevik regime, earning herself an early period in exile. Yet she managed to survive all of the upheavals of Soviet Russia and lived until 1996, even winning at one point the Andrei Sakharov Prize For Writer’s Civic Courage, presumably for her work supporting dissidents in her country. “Sofia Petrovna” was originally published in 1965 under a completely different (and inappropriate) title, after having circulated via samizdat, and my Harvill edition is from 1989.

“Sofia…” tells the ostensibly simple story of a woman living through the 1930s in Russia. The titular character is a widow with a young son, and she takes up work typing in a Leningrad publishing house to make ends meet. As she’s an efficient worker she soon ends up in charge of the typing pool, trusted with responsible jobs and highly regarded by her employers. She works hard, brings up a good Soviet son and all seems well. However, subtle little cracks appear; there is mention of the Kirov assassination; of Stakhanovite workers, doctors’ plots and sabotage. Anyone with knowledge of Soviet history of the period will immediately pick up on these hints; but of course Sofia is living her ordinary, straightforward life through these times, involved in trying to keep food on the table and get on with her neighbours in their communal housing (ah, the housing shortage and primus stoves – consistent features in any Russian literature of the time!)

As the decade rolls on, things continue to get worse for Sofia; the director of the publishing house is arrested, as is the family doctor, and hostile elements start to take control. Sofia’s engineering son and his friend are sent off to work elsewhere in the country and then rumours start to reach Leningrad of arrests and wreckers, till finally the unthinkable happens – Sofia’s son is accused and she must try to prove his innocence. Yet how can you do that in a country where you can’t even find out where a person is held, what they’re accused of or who you should speak to?

Sofia Petrovna’s days and nights were now no longer spent at home or at her work but in a new world, the world of the queue. She queued on the Neva embankment or she queued on Chaikovsky Street – where there were benches to sit on – or she queued in the vast hall of the Great House, or on the staircase of the Prosecutor’s office. She would go home to have something to eat or to sleep only when Natasha or Alik came to take her place in the queue.

“Sofia…” is a marvellously written and chilling book; barely longer than a novella at 128 pages, it nevertheless manages to convey brilliantly the horror and uncertainty of living through times when you don’t know who to trust, you daren’t speak out or speak to certain people and you never know from day to day who will still be free. As Sofia pursues her quest to search out the truth about her son, it’s terrifying to watch her being sucked into the Kafkaesque nightmare of soviet bureaucracy. And of course, Sofia herself becomes tainted by association, and her health suffers from lack of food as well as endlessly standing in queues whilst trying to get news about her son. It’s a world which is captured in a completely convincing way, and of course reading with hindsight there are little hints in the narrative to which we now attach importance but which to Sofia at the time seem of no import; while I was reading I found myself wanting to scream at her to be careful what she said to this or that person, or to watch her back.

My Chukovskaya books

Chukovskaya lived through those days, losing her husband when he was executed on a false charge, and also being at risk herself – in fact, reading details of her life I can see where she obviously draws on her experience to paint her portrait of Sofia Petrovna. Somehow, she made it through the Purges and went on to have a long career as a writer, poet, memoirist and dissident (although of course “Sofia Petrovna” could never be published in Soviet times – another book written ‘for the drawer’). In speaking out in support of Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, she lost the right to publish inside the USSR, and in the notes to the book Chukovskaya reveals her strong desire for “Sofia Petrovna” to be published in Russia – which it eventually was, and happily within her lifetime. She was also a lifelong friend of Anna Akhmatova, and I have her book “The Akhmatova Diaries” on Mount TBR, which is something to look forward to….

Chukovskaya on the back cover of the Akhmatova Diaries

So my final read for the #1965Club was an excellent one; a moving, wonderfully written, chilling and frightening book which brings to life vividly the terrible times through which Chukovskaya (and so many other Russians) lived. It’s a fitting memorial to someone who was obviously a strong and moral force, prepared to stand up for others, and I’m so glad that it finally came off my shelves. Truly, I *do* need to read more from the TBR!

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