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“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!

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.)

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