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Giving back the lost voices of Russian women @Dedalusbooks

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Slav Sisters (The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature)
Edited by Natasha Perova

Surprisingly for someone who reads a reasonable amount (ahem!) of Russian literature, it’s only struck me relatively recently that much of what I read has been written by men. Particularly in the era before the revolution, the big names are male – Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al – and the women’s voices seem to be either non-existent, or possibly just not translated. I think the tide is starting to turn a little nowadays; the translations of the Columbia University Press’s Russian Library (Sofia Khvoshchinskaya already issued, and Karolina Pavlova forthcoming) are doing much to redress the balance when it comes to authors from the 19th century. The 20th is perhaps a little better represented, though mainly with poets; so I was pleased to be alerted by a post on translator Boris Dralyuk’s excellent blog to the existence of “Slav Sisters”, which had somehow slipped underneath my radar.

Dedalus Books are a publisher of literary fiction with an impressive backlist, which includes much translated literature. Laudably, Dedalus has declared it will celebrate women’s literature from 2018-2028 by publishing six titles a year for the decade to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK in 1918. Apparently most of these will be translated from other European languages, and “Slav Sisters” is a fine entry into that list of books.

This anthology focuses on Russian women’s writing in the 20th century, and the range of writers featured is impressive – in fact, let’s have a list of the contents and translators and celebrate them all:

1. Kishmish and Solovki by Nadezhda Teffi, translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler.
2. My Jobs by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
3. Autobiographical Sketches by Anna Akhmatova,translated by Andrew Bromfield.
4. Delusion of the Will by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Boris Dralyuk.
5. The Lady with the Dog and The Death of an Official by Galina Scherbakova, translated by Ilona Chavasse.
6. What a Girl by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
7. The Stone Guest by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
8. The Gift Not Made by Human Hand by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait.
9. Philemon and Baucis by Irina Muravyova, translated by John Dewey.
10. Landscape of Loneliness : Three Voices by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by, Joanne Turnbull.
11. The Jewess’s Farewell by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Arch Tait.

That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors *and* the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading.

People of my generation are in no danger of being saddened by returning to the scenes of our past – we have nowhere to return to…. (Akhmatova)

The content ranges from the factual (Alexievich’s heartbreaking interviews with Soviet women about their lives and loves; Tsvetaeva’s humorous yet dark memories of her attempts to work and survive in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War) to the fictional (Scherbakova’s cynical and realistic take on Chekhov; Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sardonic tale of idealism meeting with reality). Slavnikova’s story brings us into the world of Russian gangsters before veering off into allegory; Muravyova cleverly opens her tale with an old couple’s mutual hatred and co-dependence, which is eventually revealed to result from a dark and truly horrific past. Teffi, of course, is as dry as ever, yet once again there is sadness and human suffering at the heart of her stories. Ginzburg’s genre-defying piece on the psychological landscape of guilt lingers in the mind. And Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova should need no introduction to readers of the Ramblings…

Teffi by Pierre Choumoff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova (who has an impressive pedigree, including starting the small press Glas) has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”.These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet.

The human memory is constructed like a searchlight, so that it illuminates separate moments while leaving all around in impenetrable darkness. Even a person with a magnificent memory may and should forget some things. (Akhmatova)

Interestingly, I was reminded when I set out to write this post about the women authors who *were* published during the 20th century; I refer of course to those writing in the science fiction field. I’ve read a number of these authors in recent years and maybe that was one genre women could tell a story in, although many of these works were in coded form, with the actual meaning hidden under the narrative to avoid the censor’s eye.

Has anyone ever seen the place that love goes when it’s run its course? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe love dissipates into molecules and atoms inside one’s own body, and the most searing of the passions turns into a horny toenail? Or maybe it all scatters like ashes, so there’s no use looking for any trace of those hungering, searching hands, or the ardent lips that kissed yours until pleasure mingled with pain. Scattered, like the white bloom of apple trees. (Scherbakova)

I could go on and on about how good these pieces are; how heartbreaking in many places; and how it’s a crime that all of these women have not been better known before. I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. The works are presented in what I assume is roughly chronological order; I *would* have liked to see a little more information included about original publication date and location for the pieces just to provide context. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.

Review copy kindly provided by Dedalus Books, for which many thanks!

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The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

“We command reverence for the rights of poets” – #mayakovsky #borisdralyuk @InsertBlanc

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Slap in the Face – Four Russian Futurist Manifestos
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

I got very squeally and excited last month when I finally treated myself to a copy of a lovely little book/chapbook/pamphlet/whatever you call it which brought together several pieces of writing involving my beloved Mayakovsky! “A Slap in The Face of Public Taste” was the manifesto of the Russian Futurist movement, first published in 1912; and it’s from that piece of writing that this collection takes its title.

The Russian Futurists were a group of poets and artists who adopted the Futurist movement of Marinetti which “espoused the rejection of the past, and a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry; it also advocated the modernization and cultural rejuvenation.” There were a number of sub-groups and one called Hylaea issued “Slap”, which was signed by David Burlyuk, Aleksandr Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Viktor Khlebnikov. I’d come across “Slap” before in my readings of Mayakovsky, but never the three following manifestos, with the final one “A Drop of Tar” being from December 1915 and signed by Mayakovsky alone.

“Slap” is a fascinating collection of words, showing the gradual development of the Futurist artists over the years, and Dralyuk translates the manifestos with the verve and originality with which Mayakovsky and co wrote them. They were determined to break down the constraints surrounding their art, jettisoning all that had gone before, and declared that Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky should be tossed overboard “from the steamship of modernity”. That kind of thinking was symptomatic of the Futurist movement, although some (Mayakovsky in particular) introduced a political element which might well have been missing from the work of some of those poets and artists more interested in formal experimentation.

Entertaining as the manifestos are, much of the appeal of this book comes from the extra material included. For a start, it’s a lovely thing in its own right; printed in colour on quality paper, “Slap” is heavily illustrated with images by Mayakovsky, Goncharova, Larianov, Burlyuk and others, as well as reproductions of the covers of the original journals in which the works appeared. Innovation was at hand everywhere, with one journal even having a wallpaper cover!

The icing on the cake, however, is the conversation reproduced in the back of the book between translator Boris Dralyuk and Saul Alpert-Abrams. The discussion is fascinating and erudite, throwing much light on the futurists’ poetry as well as giving useful context if the reader isn’t familiar with the period. Interestingly, they draw comparisons between translation and issuing a manifesto, and it’s fair to say that both are optimistic acts!

I haven’t come across the publisher Insert Blanc Press before but laudably they seem to focus very much on experimental literature. Here, they’ve produced a fascinating, beautiful and instructive object which I’m so pleased to at last have on my Mayakovsky shelf!

P.S. Did I mention it’s bilingual?? I can’t read Russian but I love looking at the cyrillic! 😀

The richness of a poet’s vocabulary is his justification

“Follow your own path.” #WITmonth @OWC_Oxford

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Selected Letters of Catherine the Great
Translated by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

History as a concept can be problematic linguistically from the start, Just look at the word – an amalgam of his and story – and you can see where the focus is going to be. There is still perhaps a belief that great deeds are done by great men, and women are often marginalised to the sidelines. However, thinking of, for example, the great monarchs of the past just shows how that isn’t necessarily the case. Elizabeth I in this country is unforgettable; and the Russian monarch Catherine the Great is just as legendary.

Oxford World Classics have just brought out a brilliant book of her Selected Letters and I thought it would be fascinating to take a look at this during WIT Month; particularly after having spent some time with another great Russian, Marina Tsvetaeva. The two women couldn’t be further apart, really, but both had equally fascinating lives, and I’m enjoying very much dipping into Catherine’s correspondence.

The introduction is excellent, providing background to Catherine’s reign, her vast achievements and just what an educated woman she was. This was the real Golden Age of letter writing which was an art in itself, and she excelled in using the form for personal and diplomatic purposes. The book is divided into sections that follow her career chronologically, focusing on the main aspects which informed her writings at those points. So we see the young queen finding her way when new in the role; fostering cultural connections with European countries and philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot; dealing with war and conflict; expanding the Russian empire; and also more personal contacts with her various lovers. Catherine’s reign was a long one and she was in many ways a self-made woman. Born a German princess, she embraced Russianness wholeheartedly, becoming synonymous with her country and determined to drag it forward culturally and in terms of conquest. And this was no mean feat, for a country the size of Russia contained so many different elements, people and cultures that to set out a set of laws and regulations that applied to all was nigh on impossible.

In the end, the laws that people are talking so much about have not been made yet, and who can say whether they will be good or not? Truly, it is posterity, and not we, who will be in a position to settle this question. Just think, I beg you: the laws must work for Asia and for Europe. What differences of climate, peoples, habits, even ideas!

The “Selected Letters” is an exemplary book, and demonstrates exactly how you should produce a scholarly yet readable volume. The introduction is detailed enough to give you perfect context, there’s a chronology, notes are indicated in the text by an asterisk, and crucially, each letter has its own short paragraph to introduce it and explain context. So it’s perfect for dipping into, which I think is how I shall carry on with it, because each letter is so beautifully written that it deserves to be savoured and not rushed. I confess the print size of the intro paragraphs is quite small for my ageing eyes, so dipping will help with this too, but I’m intrigued by this woman and shall enjoy making my way through her letters.

Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Attribution], from Wikimedia Commons

I’m finding so much to be fascinated by in this book: for example, the fact that she was responsible for the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Catherine was determined to create and emphasise a connection between herself and Peter, most crucially because she was of course not actually Russian. The correspondence with the sculptor is so interesting, and her skill at a combination of flattery and insisting on her own way is so clever. I’ve also been struck again by the general interconnectedness (well, inbreeding….) of the European monarchs which continued until 20th century and perhaps reached its zenith with the strangeness around the time of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution; the family tree of Victoria caused a fair amount of havoc at that time…

Catherine the Great c. 1845 by Georg Cristoph Grooth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Selected Letters” is proving to be the perfect book for #WITmonth, and is shaping up to encapsulate brilliantly the breadth of Catherine’s achievements and her reign. As the introduction reminds us, the male bias of history often tries to diminish what she did with gossip about horses and lovers in a judgemental way which would never be applied to a king or Tsar. I’m not a fan of monarchy in general; however, accepting that this was the mode of rule at the time, what Catherine aimed to do with her country was laudable. I hope this volume will help to ensure that we remember Catherine the Great for her intelligence, wit and triumphs rather that trying to relegate her rule to one of novelty.

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

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… 😁

 

“Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow….” @poetrycandle @PushkinPress

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Ten Poems from Russia
Selected and Introduced by Boris Dralyuk
Published by Candlestick Press in association with Pushkin Press

You might have seen me expressing great excitement recently all over social media about the arrival of this slim but gorgeous collection of Russian verse. That’s going to be no surprise to any passer-by of the Ramblings; I love Russian literature in all its shapes and forms, and it’s a country with a long and deep tradition of verse. You only have to look at the number of books of Russian poetry on my shelves to realise just how many great poets the country’s produced, and my collection only scratches the surface…

Candlestick Press are known for producing beautiful little themed booklets which are designed to send instead of a card; indeed, I’m pretty sure I have one based on “Mothers” which was gifted to me one Mothers’ Day (by Middle Child, if my memory doesn’t fail me). Candlestick have been championed by Dove Grey Reader, and she’s right to do so – personally, I think that anything which gets people reading more poetry is a Good Thing! Pushkin Press, of course, need no introducing – they publish the most wonderful books in translation, and are responsible for bringing some brilliant works to us; including all the wonderful Gazdanovs rendered by Bryan Karetnyk, as well as Boris Dralyuk’s excellent Babel translations and his “1917” anthology (one of my favourite reads of last year).

Any road up, that’s enough rambling – what do you actually *get* here? Well, you get a beautifully produced, A5 booklet with a stunning cover design, on quality paper and with a matching bookmark (for you to write a message on if you so wish) plus envelope. And the contents are equally stunning; ten poems from the Russians, expertly chosen, in some cases translated, and introduced by Boris Dralyuk. The authors range from Pushkin (of course!) through Akhmatova Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak et al up to Julia Nemirovskaya, a living poet. And each poem is a little gem. What particularly pleased me was the fact that there were poets new to me, including Nemirovskaya and Georgy Ivanov; and I was also pleased to see Nikolay Gumilyov featured, as I’m keen to read more of his work. Half of the works are translated by Dralyuk, the rest by Robert Chandler and Peter France; and some appear here translated for the first time, which is fab!

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to pick favourites in any collection of works, so I won’t. But I *will* say that the Akhmatova is as stunning as she always is, with her poem on the fate of Russian poets, always menaced by “the shaggy paw of voiceless terror” (what imagery!) And I’m finding that the more I read of Tsvetaeva, the more I’m appreciating her writing; the poem featured here, “To Alya”, addressed to her daughter, is particularly stunning. But I’m not going to quote any of the poems because I want you all to go out a buy a copy of this… 🙂

Editor and translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk has themed his collection to capture the range of the Russian soul; from myth through terror, taking in art, love and life, the selection really does cover all the bases. In his introduction, he uses a rather beautiful image to describe what he’s trying to do with this anthology, that of leading you into a corridor with multiple enticing doors leading off; each one of which opens into a room full of wonders, and more doors… I was already in that corridor, having opened some of those doors; but what this marvellous little collection has done is offered me new doors to open, new poets to explore and more wonderful Russian verse which is always balm to the soul. If, like me, you love Russian poetry you should still buy this booklet because it’s such an illuminating collection; but if you’ve never read the Russians, it’s the perfect place to enter the corridor and begin your journey of exploration – you won’t be disappointed!

“Art is a mask that covers the face of nature” – a journey back to twenties Moscow with Curzio Malaparte @nyrbclassics

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The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

Sometimes I find that I read a book that’s so involving, so thought-provoking and which worms its way into my brain so deeply that I actually find it hard to know where to start writing about it. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those books; I’d never heard of it but I knew I wanted to read it the minute I saw the blurb in the NYRB catalogue; and now I’ve finished it, I’m struggling to know where to begin. But let’s try….

Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front, but this work is an unfinished gem which has only just been made available in English, thanks to the sterling work of translator Jenny McPhee. Left unfinished on Malaparte’s death in 1957, it was put together from material abandoned in 1950 and never returned to, and it’s unique and utterly fascinating.

Set in Moscow in 1929, the book is narrated by Malaparte himself – whether a fictionalised version of the author, or meant as kind of autobiography is not clear. Malaparte states in his foreword “everything is true” but whether it is, or whether events and people are filtered through the author’s memory, beliefs and sensibility is, in the end, unimportant. What matters is the message the book is trying to get across.

So we are introduced to Malaparte the narrator, in Russia to research books on Lenin (which he did indeed publish) In Moscow he encounters Society (with a very definite capital S) in a post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia. And despite that revolution, things don’t seem to have changed much for the better; because the rich strata of boyars, nobles and Tsars have been replaced by Soviet boyars, high-ranking functionaries with all the privileges available and Stalin. Malaparte ranges between shocked and amused, watching the nouveau riche of Soviet times disporting themselves at parties and functions, while they dream of a lavish Parisian lifestyle, and noting how little changes in any country after a revolution has taken place and then things settle down again.

I spoke to her of Paris. Of the city’s gray and turquoise colors, of the autumnal pinks, the golden leaves of the maronniers, the horse chestnuts along the Seine, of the mist that rises in the evenings along the river, of the leaves crackling beneath the feet of the passersby, of the Tuileries Gardens.

Often accompanied by a juvenile side-kick, Marika, Malaparte roams Moscow, watching as the city is demolished and rebuilt. He wanders the streets with Bulgakov, ruminating on the lack of religion in the Soviet land; visits Mayakovsky’s room shortly after the poet’s suicide, and laments his loss; drops in on Litvinov and ponders the lack of miracles in Moscow; and always has a cynical eye on the fact that one group of the rich has been replaced by a new group of the rich. He’s unsparing when it comes to his portraits of the elite, pinning them down in beautiful but cruel prose.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multishaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

The star of the book, however, is the constantly changing Moscow, being rebuilt around him.The cover image, detail from “New Moscow” by Pimenov, is particularly apt, as it shows a modern, skyscrapered city with shiny new cars and fashions; a new world being dragged out of the old timbered city. Malaparte bemoans this wanton, wholesale destruction, particularly whilst ambling with Bulgakov, but I expect the people who had been dealing with the Moscow housing crisis and living through the privations of the 1920s would have been very, very happy indeed to have a roof over their heads. The vivid descriptions bring to life the changing landscape and Malaparte’s wonderful writing really captures the atmosphere of transition.

The complete Pimenov image

However, underlying all this is his meditation on the state of the revolution and how the communist dream has gone sour. There is a constant sense of doom; a feeling that the revolutionary ideals are in peril and it’s worth bearing in mind that the Great Terror was just around the corner (and in fact there are indications of this starting during the book). Malaparte’s narrator-self is looking back at 1929 from a decade and a half later with the knowledge of what came later, and can see that the executions which have begun are only a hint of what will happen during the 1930s. There is a thread which runs through the book concerning the rotting, mummified corpse of Lenin – indeed the final chapter deals specifically with death under Communist rule – and it’s impossible not to see Lenin’s remains as analogous to the rotting heart of Communism.

All of us in Moscow were united in praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways, but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire: He was master, dictator…

Particularly striking for me (bearing in mind my current sphere of interest….!) were the constant parallels Malaparte drew with the French Revolution. This was another conflict which ended up replacing one elite with another, and also descended into wholesale bloodshed. Malaparte almost seems to imply that any revolution is doomed, and that may well simply be because of greed and human nature. The French conflicts are forever lurking in the background, present in references as wide-ranging as the poetry of Andre Chenier or the prose of Proust.

Malaparte

I have to confess that I found the sections which featured Bulgakov and Mayakovsky (two of my great literary loves) particularly affecting. I’ve no idea whether Malaparte actually met them and whether his encounters are based on anything like fact, but there’s an underlying sadness emanating from both men. Bulgakov looks for Christ in Moscow, while Mayakovsky wrestles with his demons and eventually is defeated. Malaparte is moved to defend him against charges of corruption by his visit to America, lamenting the loss of a great man.

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

“The Kremlin Ball” is a fascinating and unique work. The narrative is fragmentary, although how much of this is because of the unfinished nature of the work is not clear. Characters come and go, their names undergoing subtle variations; there are repetitions of descriptions; and all of this reflects Moscow itself, undergoing changes of its own and in as much of a state of flux as the narrative itself. The writing is often beautiful and evocative, and whether the book is fiction masquerading as memoir, or memoir which has been fictionalised is unclear; but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. Malaparte paints a vivid and compelling portrait of a city and its denizens at a point of change, capturing figures who would go on to be statistics in the history books, while pondering on life, revolution and religion. It’s a heady and intoxicating mix, and I think a second reading would bring out many more resonances. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those haunting books which changes your perspective on a time, a place, a thought, a belief; it’s a shame it was never finished, but how lucky we are to have what remains of it.

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers by Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

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