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#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!

Who was changed and who was dead – some thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Devils” – @almaclassics

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The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Roger Cockrell

Okaaaaaaaayyyyy… I’ve reached the end of my marathon read of Dostoevsky’s masterly book, “The Devils”, and I have the book hangover to end all book hangovers! My marathon served me well, but I had to sprint at the end because I couldn’t stand the suspense and *needed* to find out what happened; I’d become so invested in the characters that they were at times more real than the reality around me – always the sign of a good book. I’ll try to string some coherent thoughts together, but forgive me if I babble a bit occasionally…

First up, it’s worth remembering that this is a BIG book; not only in size (my edition is 698 pages plus notes and extras) but also in its epic narrative sweep and in the range of events and ideas it takes in. It’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating characters, and I’ll only be able to touch on the main ones – so here goes with my impressions of “The Devils”.

Absolute freedom will come only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the whole aim.

The story is set in a provincial town and in simple terms tells of the dramatic events that take place when two prodigal sons return to the fold, bringing with them some very modern and disruptive ideas. The sons are Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, men who have been associating abroad and whose parents are scions of the local social circle. Verkhovensky senior is Stepan Trofimovich, an educated gentleman and sometime tutor who in effect has been living off his dear friend, the separated and wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, mother of the other returning son. Stepan Trofimovich had in fact been tutor to young Pyotr so the whole motley crew are deeply interwoven. Stepan considers himself a man of learning, having spent his twenty years sponging off of Varvara supposedly working; and Varvara herself enjoys being the local society queen bee. However, prior to the return of the prodigals, rumours starting seeping into town about events in Switzerland; romances are hinted at between Nikolai and Lizaveta Tushina, a local beauty also returning to the fold from Switzerland. And what of the mysterious revolutionary pamphlets which keep appearing? Add into the mix personalities such as the Lebyadkins, brother and sister; the mysterious Shatov; several other characters who make up the nebulous “our group”; the violent and wilful Fedka the convict; plus the local governor von Lembke and his status-conscious wife Yulia Mikhailovna, and you have the recipe for a brilliant and involved novel which follows the disruptive effect of a mix of revolutionary and personal politics on a provincial town.

People were in a strange state of mind at the time. A certain light-headedness became apparent, particularly among the ladies, and it would be wrong to say that this emerged only gradually. Several extraordinarily free-and-easy ideas were blowing about everywhere, as if carried on the wind. There was a light-hearted merriment in the air, which I wouldn’t say was always particularly pleasant. A certain mental derangement had become fashionable.

I’ve commented before, I think, that Dostoevsky tends to write very much in set pieces and “The Devils” is no different – which is not a criticism! The book is narrated in the main by one Anton Lavrentyevich G—v; a close friend of Stepan’s, he’s in many ways a minor character, yet he’s a thread running through much of the story, until the rush of the narrative kind of takes over from him at the end of the book. And the plot is a long and complex one, with many different strands and many different issues; there is critique of social-climbing and status; discussion of new ideas and the ‘women question’; debates on the existence or not of God; moral dilemmas; and of course, revolution, mayhem and murder. Nikolai and Pyotr are contrasting studies in evil – because both *are* evil, though in very different ways – and the development of their characters is chilling to watch.

… As a rule, the Russian people are never more entertained than by some uproarious social scandal.

As Cockrell’s foreword explains, Dostoevsky was initially inspired to start writing a short pamphlet after the real case of the murder of a student by a group of radicals. However, what started as a short work expanded, and ended up as what is really Dostoevsky’s discussion of the ‘Russian question’, the politics of his day, the way forward and the larger questions of what man should actually believe in. As so often, he chose a provincial setting to discuss his major issues; I suppose the shocking effect of the outsiders on a place away from the centre of things can be more spectacular, and he did love his drama. In fact, there are always elements of dramatic farce in Dostoevsky’s work (“The Gambler” springs to mind particularly, with its manic qualities); and he loves to create a story which inexorably builds to an explosive climax!

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And that kind of narrative is definitely on show here. Dostoevsky is masterfully in control of his material: after he’s established his protagonists (with some vivid – and often very funny – character sketches), hinted at events gone by and introduced the ideas of revolutionary goings on, he hits the reader with a number of dramatic revelations about what’s actually happened abroad. Of course, all of this is building up to a spectacular and marvellous set-piece; this is Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete in aid of governesses, which turns from farce to tragedy and takes up much of the start of part three of the book. However, as well as set-pieces, Dostoevsky is exceptional on characterisation, and his skill at gradually revealing the reality behind the masks of some of his protagonists was stunning. Verkhovensky in particular starts the book coming across as just a slimeball, but as the narrative goes on his real fanaticism is revealed and it’s frightening. Make no mistake, despite the wonderful humour (and I’ve never read a Dostoevsky without any) this is a very dark book that deals with dark topics.

A particular chapter springs to mind, entitled here simply “At Tikhon’s”. It was censored at the original point of publication and never saw the light of day in Dostoevsky’s time; and it *is* distressing, dealing as it does with abusive behaviour by Nicolai Stavrogin (although never in graphic detail). This edition reinstates the chapter at the point in the narrative where Dostoevsky originally placed it, and to my mind it’s essential to the plot, revealing as it does the real character of Nikolai – a debauched, degraded and dissolute person who has nothing to offer the world.

Of course, central to much of the book *is* moral discussion; that of the older generation like Stepan, and the younger group of revolutionaries. Dostoevsky’s aim seems to be to try to get to heart of both group’s beliefs and he in fact seems to find both wanting. It all boils down, I think, to the generational conflict which was such a topic in Russian literature; Turgenev, of course, springs to mind, and in fact Dostoevsky provides a funny, merciless and heavily satirical lampoon of his literary rival in the form of the famous novelist Karmazinov. However, the conflict is also that between the Superfluous Man (exemplified by Stepan) and the new generation of destructive, active men who want to change everything; the latter, however, have no more to offer than the older generation, and simply degenerate into evil wherever they go. And age is no barrier, as by his rejection of the revolutionaries, Nikolai in effect transforms himself into a superfluous man. Yes, “The Devils” is a clash of generations a la Turgenev, but with so much added fire, venom and disaster! The older generation are portrayed as blustering, out of touch idiots, convinced of their status in Russia and blindly believing they’re universally worshipped. The young are seen as mad or dangerous or deluded or simply hooligans. The generational divide never seems to change much, does it??

It is difficult to change gods.

This being Dostoevsky there is, of course, discussion of God and faith; and many of the characters are suffering from the loss of the latter. That disillusionment is what the author seems to think leads to the madness and depravity of many of the characters, although frankly the religious figures are not free from ridicule if Dostoevsky thinks they deserve it. No-one escapes from his relentless pen, neither the old fools nor the young madmen. Where Dostoevsky really excels, however, is in how he captures the mind of the extremist; there was passage after passage that struck a chord with me, and made me realise that little changes under the surface of progress; humans are much the same as they always were. I’ve already quoted one piece which stood out in an earlier post, but I could have pulled out so many – well, here are just a few:

He’s got this system of spying, in which all members of society watch one another and are obliged to inform on each other. Each belongs to all, and all belong to each. All men are slaves, and are equal in this slavery.

You see what happens when you slip in the reins for just a tiny little bit! No, this democratic rabble with their groups of five is of little use as a support; what we need is a single, magnificent, monumental, despotic will that relies on something external and premeditated then the groups of five will gently put their tails between their legs, and the subservience will come in useful when the occasion arises.

This’ll make you laugh: the first thing that everyone finds terribly impressive is a uniform. There’s nothing more powerful than uniform. I purposefully invent ranks and positions: I have a secretary, secret spies, treasurers, chairmen, registrars, their assistants – all much appreciated and splendidly endorsed.

I’ve found my own data confusing, and my conclusion directly contradicts my original idea, my starting point. Beginning with the idea of absolute freedom, I end with the idea of unlimited despotism. I should add, however, that there can be no solution to the social problem other than mine.

Talk about doublespeak and rampant cynicism; Dostoevsky knows human nature well and could recognise where things might end up. As Cockrell states in his foreword: “Dostoevsky went further than any of his predecessors and contemporaries with his insights into the psychology of terrorism, his depiction of what he saw as the catastrophic consequences of atheism and his prescient vision of a society driven to the brink of anarchy, with the spectre of totalitarianism waiting in the wings.” Prescient indeed! And if that doesn’t convince you, just read the chapter depicting the chaotically funny and shambolic meeting of revolutionaries who are all at odds and all with different beliefs and very probably couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. It’s hilarious and chilling at the same time; however, as always, when the general mass of people have had enough and start to take action, things begin to go awry. Stepan’s belief in art and beauty seems very naive when faced with the mob…

Don’t you know, do you really not know, that mankind can survive without the English, without Germany, most certainly without the Russian people, without science, without bread, but that without beauty it won’t be able to survive, for then there’d be nothing left to do on earth…

Well, I could go on and on about this wonderfully immersive reading experience but I’d end up risking doing a post almost as long as the book…. 😉 There are so many moments to enjoy in “The Devils”, from the narrator’s breathless and sometimes disingenuous take on events to Stepan’s petulant quarrels with Varvara to the marvellously worded puncturing of the pomposity of Russian society; particularly memorable is Dostoevsky’s fabulously worded description of Karmazinov’s writings (i.e. Turgenev) through the voice of the narrator, which I can’t reproduce here because it’s too long. However, suffice to say he simply dismantles the character’s writing and takes it to pieces in a cleverly done “Brutus is an honourable man” sequence! I got quite attached to the loquacious narrator (even though he can’t possibly have witnessed everything he relates) and on occasion, when discussing “our town”, his voice was very reminiscent of that of the narrator of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (which Dostoevsky slyly references at one point…) But there are tragic consequences for some participants that will break your heart, and I confess to becoming quite emotional at one small family’s fate. “The Devils” is most definitely a book of light and shade, deftly and expertly contrasting comedy and tragedy, and it’s quite obvious to see why it’s regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

So that’s my response to “The Devils” and I know it’s a book that’s going to continue resonating with me for a long time. It’s a complex, immersive, rambling, thought-provoking, deep, funny and dark book which gets under your skin and inside your soul. My choice of heading for this post was deliberate, as the dramatic sequence of events in the book either changes or destroys pretty much all of the participants; no-one really gets out unscathed at all. Having lived in this book and alongside these characters for a month, the devastating end left *me* emotionally drained and exhausted; although reading “The Devils” didn’t kill me, it’s certainly changed me….

*****

A word on the edition I read; this was a lovely new translation by Roger Cockrell, published by Alma Classics (who kindly provided a review copy – thank you). As usual, there was extra material, extensive notes and supporting information so an ideal version to pick. I have to applaud the translator for his epic undertaking and the narrative read wonderfully, as far as I was concerned; it felt authentically Dostoevskian to me! 😀

“The Search for God” – #Devils #Dostoevsky

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As I make my way through “The Devils” I do keep finding myself thinking how strikingly relevant Dostoevsky still is. This particular passage stood out, as one of his characters tries to sum up the issues of nationalism and the conflict of religions:

The aim of every national movement, in the case of every nation and at every stage of its existence, is nothing but the search for God, for its own God, unfailingly its own God, and belief in him as the only true God. God is the synthesis of all the people of an entire nation, from its beginning to its end. It has never been the case when all or many nations have possessed a single common God, but each nation has always had its own separate one. The signal for a nation’s extinction comes when it begins to share its God with other nations. Whenever there are gods that are shared between nations, then the gods die, together with people’s faith in them and with the nations themselves. The more powerful a nation, the more particular is its God. There has never been a nation without religion…

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Dostoevsky’s Nihilists are a dark bunch, and their behaviour gets darker as the book goes on. It’s worth recalling what a life he’d had by the time he wrote “The Devils”, in particular his narrow escape from execution and his exile as well as a rackety life and the loss of his first child. I’ll be writing more about this remarkable book, as I think I’m approaching the home straight of my marathon. It’s been a long journey, but very rewarding…

“….all that you are cannot be avoided.” #mandelstam

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I got myself in a bit of a tizz recently because I couldn’t find my copy of Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and I love it to bits and wanted to reread the end yet again. This irked me for several weeks, and so much so over Christmas that I finally resolved to take a stepladder and examine closely the bookshelf I thought it should be on (which is quite high up) Needles to say it was there, but had just fallen down the back of double shelved stacks with other books piled up on top… So I’m pleased to report it’s found!

Hurrah! It’s rediscovered! 😀

However, while I was rummaging, my eye fell upon  a slim volume from Glas publishers which I picked up some time back in my quest for everything Bulgakov. It’s a book which focuses on that wonderful author as well as poet Osip Mandelstam, and it was a timely find as the latter has been much on my mind recently. I own a number of works by this great Russian poet, and have been deeply moved by his fate; yet I’ve read little of what I own and have been vaguely nervous owing to his reputation as a possibly difficult poet with work full of allusion I might not get. I have dipped into his work via a number of anthologies, but I have poems, essays and travel writing lurking. Nevertheless, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines, “The greatness of Mandelstam was recognized even by Vladimir Nabokov, who despised practically everyone.” So I wondered if this might be a useful introduction the poet and to his work…

And I’m happy to report that it is! The book is “Glas New Russian Writing 5” and the translations are given as copyright 1993, although the publication date given on Amazon is 2000. Certainly, it would have been before the more recent slew of publications about Bulgakov, and it’s split into two halves which each focus on one of the two named authors. There are photographs, memoirs and examples of the author’s writing, and these build up to give a picture of their life and work.

Mandelstam’s life, or certainly the part of it after his marriage, is extensively covered in his wife Nadezdha’s two volumes of autobiography (which I intend to read when I’ve found a copy of the first…) However, the biographical interest in the Glas volume comes from a long section by Osip’s younger brother, Evgeny. He relates some family history, their Jewish heritage, stories of their early life and schooling, and reveals the problems between their parents which affected family life. As well as giving us insights into Osip’s personality and young life, Evgeny’s memories cover something of his own life. These reminiscences are fascinating in their own right, with tales of encounters with famous poets and the background of the drama of the revolution. An afterword reveals that the younger brother had an illustrious life of his own, working in medicine, but also with a literary side to his career, becoming involved in film scripts.

However, returning to Osip, the content is moving, beautiful and often so sad. Mandelstam, like Bulgakov, was inspired by, and reliant upon, a wife who supported his work, helped its survival and continued to promote it after his tragic death in exile. The poet was reckless enough to compose a critical poem about Stalin (reproduced in this volume) at the height of the dictator’s popularity. An NKVD mug-shot tells you all you need to know; he was exiled (along with his wife), returned to Moscow, was re-arrested and sent to a camp near Vladivostok where cold and starvation killed him.

Any other poet compared to Osip Mandelstam was like a spider weaving its web compared to a silkworm.

I’ve not read enough of Mandelstam’s poetry yet to decide whether the verses here are representative, but they’re certainly beautiful and memorable and not so scarily complex as I imagined. Add in the memoirs and images and you have what is a perfect little primer on Osip Mandelstam (and indeed on Bulgakov, if you’ve yet to make his acquaintance). You can still find this little book online, and if you want to explore these wonderful 20th century Russian authors’ life and work, this might well be a good place to start!

(NB – I’m normally keen to credit the translator, but although this volume is edited by Natasha Perova, the names of translators are spread out throughout the book. Here they are, and I hope I haven’t missed any: Kate Cook, James Escomb, Sonja Franeta, David Gillespie and Eric Guth.)

Sharing some lovelies from my own personal library!

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The trouble with reading anything like the wonderful Ozerov volume I reviewed a couple of days ago is the massive list it creates of authors you want to explore further. However, I *was* quite familiar with a lot of the names, and in fact the book acted as a reminder of some of the volumes I already own but which are languishing unread. And I have a lovely collection by one particular author – Konstantin Paustovsky.

Unknown Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paustovsky was a Russian author who lived through turbulent times (as did so many!) Born in 1892, he survived world war, revolution, civil war, Stalin’s purges, another world war and the thaw, passing away in 1968. Nominated for the Nobel Prize and influenced by Kataev, Babel and Olesha, his sequence of six books loosely categorised as autobiography are probably his most famous. These books, known as “Story of a Life”, are not necessarily an accurate historical document, but apparently regarded as a record of the times and his reactions to them.

Well – I remembered that I have these books; something prompted me a while back to collect a beautiful set of hard back editions, as well as a lovely Progress Press edition of some of his short works. And here they are:

They’re all pretty hardback editions with dustwrappers in some shape or form. Some are ex-library, all have been loved in the past, but I’m so happy to have them just as objects – well, just look at the jacket covers!

I just absolutely love, love, love those covers! Just stunning artwork, and when I’d picked up the first couple of volumes I knew I had to own the set. And yes – I need to read these books, because there’s absolutely no point in them just sitting on the shelves. Maybe that could be a project for 2019…

So thank you Lev Ozerov (and his marvellous translators!) for reminding me I owned all these lovely Paustovsky books. I definitely prefer vintage-style book design!

 

“…sometimes, the heart knows when it’s the last time.” @GrantaBooks #levozerov #borisdralyuk #robertchandler

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Portraits without frames by Lev Ozerov
Edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk
Translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

There are some books that you spot on the horizon and just *know* that they’re meant for you; and “Portraits without Frames” was one of those for me. I’m well-known for my love of Russia and its arts, and yet poet Lev Ozerov was a new name to me. I spotted the book in the NYRB catalogue, and the fact that it was rendered by such an esteemed list of translators would be recommendation enough. However, the subject matter sounded essential too, and I knew I had to read this book. Unfortunately, NYRB don’t have the rights for the UK; very fortunately, Granta *do* and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

This poor book has been carted around in my bag for days, I got so attached to it, so it has taken a bit of a battering…. 😦

Lev Ozerov was born Lev Goldberg in 1914; of Jewish Ukrainian origin, he made his name as a poet and literary critic, and was an important figure in Soviet literature. The verses in “Portraits…” were written towards the end of his life, and not published until 1999 (three years after his death in 1996). In this long and profoundly moving cycle of poems, Ozerov recalls his meetings with the great and notable in Russian arts over the Twentieth Century, and the results are breathtaking.

And I recalled
…the wall of books,
all written by a man
who lived
in times that were hard to bear.

The collection has been edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk (which is frankly recommendation enough!) and is divided into categories, such as “The Poets”, “The Prose Writers” and “Music, Theater and Dance”. The format is free verse – readable, beautifully lyrical and haunting – and each pen portrait brings the subject vividly alive. Ozerov certainly mixed with just about all the great and good in Soviet art, and the fifty accounts of his meetings with them reminded me just how many incredible artists the country and the era produced – even if they had to write for the drawer a lot of the time. Each poem is preceded by an introduction outlining the life and work of the subject; each translation is individually credited; notes are provided when necessary to illuminate the poems; so this really is an exemplary volume and a flawless reading experience.

As for the poems themselves, they really are something special. Each verse brilliantly conjures place, character, atmosphere; each subject exists in their own right and emerges fully formed from their word portrait. The parts build to a whole which is a wonderful primer on Russian creatives but also an incredible work of art in its own right. The stunning imagery of Ozerov’s verse is lyrical and often profoundly moving, never shying away from the harsh reality many of these artists faced. There was torture, exile, imprisonment, murder – yet the art survived and the book is a lasting testament to the power of words.

But nothing in Russia lasts
like a damaged reputation.

The book opens with Akhmatova; it takes in the likes of Pasternak, Platonov, Babel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Meyerhold – so many familiar names, and yet also many new to me. And the outside world impinges; there are chinks in the Iron Curtain, when “with a painful grinding” it would part and let an artist in or out for a visit; for example, Andre Malraux makes a memorable appearance (and I may well have gone off down a rabbit hole looking up his work..)

One of the most powerful sections was that of the Yiddish poets. Boris Dralyuk has written movingly about the “Night of the Murdered Poets” and it’s chilling to see how many artists were wiped out on that one night on trumped-up charges. As well as painting portraits of the subjects, the poems gradually bring Ozerov himself to life for the reader; in his relationships with the subjects we see hints of the actions he took to help and support his fellow artists. The introduction sets out Ozerov’s life and work, and the impact and legacy of what Dralyuk calls his “quiet activism” is immense.

How does it start –
the mad day, the mad life
of a writer? What whim,
what overwhelming force
presses a pen into some poor fellow’s hand
and lead him down
through all of Dante’s
twisting circles?

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, well, you can read this as poetic prose. If you think you don’t know enough about Russia and its culture, there is supporting material enough for any novice. And you’d be reading the results of work by a collection of stellar translators; no messing about with Russian books which have been rendered in English in umpteen versions already. Instead, they’re bringing us groundbreaking translations of new and wonderful works, and I for one can’t thank them enough.

Lev Ozerov – unknown photo studio, possibly before or soon after the end of World War II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how I seem to stumble on works that will be standouts of my reading year as we edge closer to the end of that year; it happened in 2017 and I suspect the same may happen again in 2018. Certainly “Portraits without Frames” is an outstanding book, a haunting work of remembrance and celebration, and a book I’ll return to. I’ve ended up with a long list of poets and artist to research and explore, which will be good for my soul though bad for the bookshelves. But as well as introducing so many artists new to me, this book has also acquainted me with Lev Ozerov, a poet I really want to read more of. I do hope there are other works by him in translation…

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

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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