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“…in a hot climate I find it agreeable to have smooth cheeks.” #paulhogarth #russia #alaricjacob

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A Russian Journey by Alaric Jacob and Paul Hogarth

I’ve no doubt commented before on the dangerous effect of bookish Twitter; I do like to hang out there, as bookish types are such fun, but they *will* keep drawing my attention to interesting-sounding books… I often manage to forget where recommendations come from, but in the case of this book I’m sure! Retroculturati regularly features images by the wonderful artist Paul Hogarth, most notably covers of Graham Greene paperbacks (some of which I actually own…) However, Hogarth’s works featured in any number of books, and when I happened to realise he’d illustrated a book with the title “A Russian Journey”, investigation was warranted… ;D

It transpired, in fact, that Hogarth not only illustrated the book, he also travelled around Russia with its author, Alaric Jacob, in 1967. Now, I’m a sucker for books which take you travelling in Soviet Russia, so of course I had to see if it was available at a reasonable price (I didn’t have high hopes, it must be said…) Amazingly, I was able to procure a copy in really good nick, with nicely intact dustjacket, for a tenner – result! Bearing in mind how often I’ve been disappointed by inaccurate descriptions of second hand books I’ve bought, this was a pleasant surprise! Anyway, on to the book…

Published in 1969, the book (which nearly shares its title with Steinbeck’s record of his journey through Russia with the photographer Capa) is subtitled “From Suzdal to Samarkand” and follows the trials and tribulations of the two men as they attempt to negotiate Soviet bureacracy and travel round the country. Jacob had a history with Russia, having lived there off and on between 1943 and 1947. His connection with Hogarth went back to nearly that time, and both men had always intended to make a joint picaresque journey round the country, recording their adventures in words and images. That had become harder and harder with the Cold War intervening, but finally in 1967 they made their trip. The result is this book, which is not just entertaining; it’s a wonderful snapshot of life both in and out of the Soviet Union at the time and raises some interesting thoughts.

The book comes will a lovely hand-drawn map at the front showing the places Jacob and Hogarth visited; and interestingly they never got east of the Ural Mountains, though they travelled south a lot into Asian Soviet Russia – Samarkand and Tashkent – as well as dropping into Kiev in Ukraine and heading into Georgia to track down Stalin’s homeland. As they travel, Jacob reflects on the changes he’s seen since 1947 and the contrasts between East and West, while Hogarth beavers away drawing wonderful images of the places they go. The pair encounter all manner of people native to each of the areas, and their interactions are always thoughtful and human. Despite the attempts at control by Intourist, the two intrepid travellers go where they want to go and see what they want to see and the results make fascinating reading.

The narrow road from the airport passed through wooded country before joining a great motorway. In the fields on either side we saw wooden cottages all bearing television aerials even though most of them seemed not to have been painted for years and some had crazy roofs and eaves on the verge of collape. Harsh electric light burst out of each house and lit up the surrounding snow. In a landscape untidy and forbidding each cottage stood out as an outpost of human warmth and jollity in the wintry waste. I was forcibly reminded of the madness of Hitler and his generals in trying to overrun and occupy thousands of square miles of such country in the depth of winter. At that time no lights ever shone over the snow: ruin and desolation lay all around. Presently we passed a memorial, composed of anti-tank barriers painted the colour of blood, which marks the sport where Guderian’s tanks were halted on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the historical point at which the narrative is poised; for Jacob, the Second World War is still a relatively recently memory, an event fresh in his mind, and many of his meditations in the book are informed by his experiences during that conflict. He’s able to see the changes which have taken place, particularly in Moscow, during the two decades since he visited and rue some of these; yet he’s realistic enough to know that change has to happen to improve conditions for those living there.

And Jacob’s politics are intriguing; he obviously leans to the left, believing at that time that the future would be best served by a move to socialism or Marxism, or at any length away from the mess that capitalism already was. He’s critical of England, referencing Iain Nairn’s “Subtopia” and regarding the country as restricted and claustrophobic. His attitude towards Stalin is – well, interesting really, as he does seem to not exactly apologise for him, but believe that the Soviet system can still be one which works. I guess that’s a viewpoint which wouldn’t really hold water nowadays…

Nevertheless, the travelling itself is marvellous, as the two men buzz about over Russia by train or plane, experiencing all the frustrations of trying to get sensible transport information out of Soviet flunkies who seem to want to make things difficult for the foreigners. The men encounter a fascinating range of Soviet citizens, many of them artists who are excited to make contact with fellow creators from the West; and also young people who are disillusioned with the Soviet regime and can’t understand Jacob’s enthusiasm for it. You get a real picture of what living in the USSR was like and what the people felt, and so the book is a fascinating snapshot of life there at the time, and also Western views.

It has to be said, too, that the book is often a very funny read; Jacobs is a drily witty narrator, and tales of their epic eating and drinking sessions were a hoot! The men were also plagued by recurring run-ins with intrusive Polish jukeboxes playing awful state-approved pop music, and poor Hogarth found the constant eating and drinking just too much; as Jacobs comments at one point:

I said that anyone who had read Churchill’s War Memoirs ought to know that no one lacking a strong head and a good digestion should ever submit himself to Soviet hospitality.

There’s also a fascinating amount of name-dropping and referencing; the men run into Pablo Neruda in passing, attempt (and fail) to find Kim Philby, see Mayakovsky’s death mask and pass the grave of Griboyedov. But underlying much of the narrative is Jacob’s memories of WW2 and the depredations suffered by the Russian people while beating off Fascism. It’s something he finds hard to forget and it informs his attitudes throughout.

A stunning image by Hogarth of Lementov’s house in Tiflis – plus an example of the marginal drawings.

As for the illustrations, well they’re just wonderful. I love Hogarth’s style and the book is stuffed full of his impressions of Russia, whether full page (or two page) colour illustrations, or small sketches tucked in the margins. It really is a joy, and if he turns out to have illustrated a book on Paris I think I’ll die happy!

“A Russian Journey” turned out to be a marvellous, atmospheric read which really took me back to the time it was written. I was quite young when it came out, yet in the decade that followed this book I can recall how close the War still seemed then. There were still old air raid shelters in a nearby piece of woodland; structures that needed to be demolished or rebuilt from wartime bombing; and a sense that, in my provincial town, we were being dragged from the 1950s and 1960s into a shiny new world. I’m not sure that promise was fulfilled, but whether the Eastern alternative was any better is not something I can judge. However, I absolutely loved this book and it will sit happily on my Russian shelf next to Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archive and Fred Basnett’s Travels of a Capitalist Lackey and Laurens van der Post’s Journey into Russia and John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal. Hmmm. I sense the dangerous possibility of a new collection of Soviet travel writing in the wings…. ;D

Retroculturati has an excellent post about the book here, which also gives more background information about it.

ETA: Jane asked in the comments if she could see the map, and here it is:

Not drawn by Hogarth, but still a very nice hand-drawn one – I’m very fond of maps… ;D

“We play the fool in this world in order to be free” #victorshklovsky @Dalkey_Archive

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Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
Translated by Richard Sheldon

I took the unusual step (for me, anyway) of doing a little polyreading recently. I used to be able to do this regularly, but more recently have struggled with more than one volume on the go, preferring to devote all my energies to one book at a time. However, the nature of the books I was reading leant themselves to polyreading, and one of them was this unusual and fascinating volume from Dalkey Archive Press.

Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) is possibly best known as a theorist (his “Theory of Prose”, published in 1925, is considered a seminal work). However, he was also a critic and pamphleteer; his critical writings on film were amongst the first to take the form seriously, and as he was a close friend of the great Eisenstein, I wish Shklovsky’s book on the filmmaker had been translated… I initially came across Shklovksy during the madness of my first flush of obsession with Mayakovsky; he was a friend of the poet and his book “Mayakovsky and his Circle” was one I picked up (I think) in the wonderful Collets International Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. As well as all this, it transpires that Shklovsky also wrote fiction; so I felt I really needed to read one of his books and “Zoo” sounded just fascinating. A little purchase receipt from the lovely LRB Bookshop (how I miss it…) tells me I bought it in 2016; yet another case of me buying a book and then losing it somewhere on the TBR for ages…

Then I was mesmerized by you.
I know your mouth, your lips.
I have wound my whole life around the thought of you.

Anyway! “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love” (first published in Berlin in 1923) is an unusual beast and probably needs some context. Ostensibly, it’s a epistolary novel, with the author writing to the woman of his dreams, Alya. The latter, however, has forbidden him to write to her about love and so instead he’s forced to fill his missives with anything from Boris Pasternak to the Grand Order of Monkeys. Alya replies occasionally, and unfortunately it does seem that the banned subject *will* keep creeping into the letters…

All well and good, but there’s a lot more going here than might first be seen. The book was published while Shklovsky was living in exile in Berlin (alongside many other Russian creatives) and the ‘Alya’ figure is actually Elsa Triolet; an author in her own right, and the sister of Lily Brik, Mayakovsky’s great muse. Wikipedia states of Shklovsky that he wrote a number of semi-autobiographical works disguised as fiction, and they’re not wrong!

To live in any real way is painful.

So the book obliquely tells the story of Shklovsky’s love for Elsa (who would go on to later marry French poet Louis Aragon, as well as having a distinguished literary career and becoming the first woman to win the Prix Goncourt, in 1944). However, it also offers a vivid glimpse of Berlin in the 1920s and the lives of the Russian exiles. All manner of them flit through its pages for the author to ruminate upon; and he also meditates on any number of theories about art and literature, and the characteristics of the Hispano-Suiza sportscar! It’s an entertaining and unusual mix, and really not like anything else I’ve read.

The content of this letter obviously escaped from some other book by the same author, but perhaps the compiler of the book deemed the letter indispensable for reasons of variety.

Producing this issue of “Zoo…” was not a straightforward matter, as translator Richard Sheldon reveals in the detailed commentary and notes which accompany the book: it went through a number of editions from 1923 to 1964, and each seems to have contained different versions of the contents. The Dalkey Archive edition contains everything, including the author’s prefaces from the later editions and all manner of elided text; a real achievement of scholarship.

My other Shklovsky book…

Stylistically, Shklovsky’s prose is perhaps unusual too. The letters are often written in a declamatory style which reminded me very much of Mayakovsky’s poetry, and the lines between forms were obviously being blurred at the time. The narrative is sometimes fragmented and digressive, and the experimental nature seemed to me to reflect the development of modernist literature of the times. The meta elements are fascinating, with Shklovsky even at one point in the book referring to a book he’s currently writing, called – “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love”!

My whole life is a letter to you.

“Zoo…” was a fascinating read; discursive, evocative, and unexpectedly full of the love for Alya which the author has been forbidden to express, it really did capture a lost time and a place. I’ve seen comment online that the book is best read for the first time without constant reference to the notes, and that’s probably good advice; they *are* copious and useful, but distract a little from the narrative flow. I’m not sure if I actually ever read Shklovsky’s book on Mayakovsky, but having experienced his writing in “Zoo…” I do feel very inclined to pick it up soon!

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

Tackling mortality the Russian way…. @pushkinpress #tolstoy #borisdralyuk

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Lives and Deaths: Essential Stories by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

Following on from my last post, where I considered a lovely new collection of Gogol’s essential stories from Pushkin Press, I’m today going to be looking at a similar collection bringing together some of Tolstoy’s shorter works. Tolstoy was, of course, more prolific than Gogol (well, he lived a lot longer, for one thing…); and so translator Boris Dralyuk has perhaps had a more difficult task in choosing which works to feature. He’s made what I think is an exemplary selection, one which focuses on what seems to me to be the main thrust of Tolstoy’s shorter works – death, how we prepare for it and how we meet it (as well, I suppose, as the life we lead beforehand).

The four works Boris has translated are “The Death of Ivan Illych”, “Pace-setter: The Story of a Horse”, “Three Deaths” and “Alyosha the Pot”. Of these, two I’ve read before (“Ivan..” and “Alyosha…”) and two are new to me; and certainly I sensed similar themes in each work. “Ivan…” in particular is a very dark story, dealing in the main with the illness and impending demise of the titular man. He’s again hide-bound by that Russian civil service and rigid social structure, but aims for a happy life, marrying and settling down. A random minor accident seals his fate and we watch his gradual deterioration, his wrestling with his mortality and his attempts to reckon his life. It’s a grim struggle for him, and throws up all manner of issues for the reader, as I found before…

“Alyosha the Pot”, which I recognise but must have read pre-blog, is a short tale of the life and death of a simple peasant who spends much of his life doing things for others and can therefore meet his end with serenity. And “Three Deaths” is a fascinating story, new to me, where Tolstoy considers three different types of demise: that of a consumptive rich women, an ancient peasant and – well, of the third death I will say nothing, as does Boris in his introduction, for fear of spoiling the effect. But it is a remarkable piece of writing!

I’ve left “Pace-setter…” till last because it really is something special. It is indeed the story of a horse; the Pace-setter of the title, a piebald gelding of good breeding who nevertheless had a hard life. We initially see him as old and worn out, tormented by the younger horses and struggling to carry on. However, he speaks out at night, telling his tale to the other members of the horse community, and it’s a story of suffering at the whim of humans, cruelty and betrayal, and the loss of a master with whom Pace-setter had a strong bond. Pace-setter’s story opens the eyes of the other horses to what kind of animal their companion was, and it’s a remarkably moving and powerful piece of writing (and excruciatingly sad in places).

via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve had my struggles with Tolstoy in recent years, finding it difficult to deal with his dogmatic attitudes at times; and indeed re-reading “Ivan…” I was struck again by his need to constantly blame women for the problems of human relationships. The extreme attitudes of “The Kreutzer Sonata” were starting to creep in, and his narrator’s lack of any empathy at the changes his wife was undergoing during pregnancy is shocking (although perhaps not unusual at that time).

Nevertheless, “Pace-setter…” does much to redeem him in my eyes. It’s tempting, of course, to see the life and hardship of the horses as analogous with that of the peasants. However I think it also reflects Tolstoy’s deep connection with the natural world, an element that comes through in some of the other stories. Deep down, Tolstoy seems to be saying that we should lead a *useful* life, and if we’ve done that we can face death with equanimity. That isn’t in fact a bad philosophy and if more people adopted it nowadays, we might have a nicer world around us…

“Lives and Deaths” is, therefore, an excellent collection and gives a really good flavour of Tolstoy’s writing and core beliefs. The translations read beautifully, there are useful notes where needed, and the stories flow thematically. If you want to get to grips with the essence of Tolstoy, his beliefs distilled into his short works, there can be not better place to start.

(Review copies of this book and Gogol’s Essential Tales kindly provided by Pushkin Press, for which many thanks! Both of these books would make a wonderful introduction to these Russian authors if you haven’t read them before;  but even if you have, these collections are a great way to get reacquainted… :D)

An influx of Russians! @pushkinpress #gogol #tolstoy #oliverready #borisdralyuk

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Time to head off any risk of their being a Russian Reading Deficiency on the Ramblings! 😀 I’ve been lucky enough to receive these two review copies from the lovely Pushkin Press: a pair of collected short stories by a duo of favourite Russian authors – Tolstoy and Gogol. Both of them present what are described in the subtitle as “Essential Stories” and that’s a description with which I wouldn’t argue! So today I’ll look at the Gogol selection, with the rather evocative title “And the Earth will sit on the Moon”!

I have long suspected dogs of being far more intelligent than humans…

This selection of five of Gogol’s tales is translated by Oliver Ready, who provides a useful introduction which interestingly mentions the long reach of Gogol’s influence through Dostoevsky to Bulgakov. And these stories really *are* vital: “The Nose”, “Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat” are possibly Gogol’s best-known short works and deserve to be revisited, even if you’ve read them before, as they capture the writer’s essence quite brilliantly. “The Nose” is a surreal masterpiece in which the titular objects becomes detached from its owner and develops a life of its own; “Diary…” follows the mental collapse of a clerk who becomes obsessed with his superior’s daughter; and “The Overcoat” meditates on the fate of a poor man who invests his money and soul into a new garment.

And so, in a certain Department there served a certain clerk, a clerk whom nobody could describe as especially remarkable, who was a bit short, a bit pocked, a bit carroty and even, by the looks of him, a bit blind, with a widow’s peak, wrinkles on both cheeks, and a general complexion that was positively haemorrhoidal…

These three Petersburg-based stories have a common theme; they pick apart the horrors of a society based so much on status and rank, where those at the bottom are prey to financial and emotional crisis, excluded from the world of the haves, and have an existence rather than a life. Gogol is well aware of the poverty that exists in this world and the pernicious effect it has on those impoverished workers, and it’s clear where his sympathies lie. In particular, it’s chilling watching the gradual mental deteriorationof the clerk in “Diary…” as the entries become weirder and the dating of the writings more bizarre.

The other two stories have rural settings rather than the city; but Gogol is just as devastating with his satire. “Old-World Landowners”, while purporting to be a portrait of a much-missed world now declining, actually reflects the primitive manner of living in many Russian rural areas. The opening paragraph is just brilliant:

How I love the unassuming life of those proprietors of remote estates who are known in Little Russia as old-world landowners and who, like decrepit picturesque cottages, present such a welcome contrast in their motley garb to all the sleek new buildings whose walls have not yet been drenched in rain, whose roofs have not yet turned green with mould, and whose plastered porches still conceal their red bricks from view.

And despite the narrator’s apparent love of the ‘old world’, I don’t think many of us would want to live there…!

The final story, “The Carriage”, is a marvellous piece of satire, again focusing on the rural world but one in which a small town is disrupted by the arrival of a regiment of the military. The local landowners attempt to keep up with the status of their visitors, but one gentleman in particular is caught out by a mixture of vanity and too much alcohol…

I’ve read all of these stories at points throughout my life, but loved revisiting them in these lovely new translations from Oliver Ready (probably best known for his rendering of “Crime and Punishment”). He also provides a helpful note on the various ranks of the Russian Civil Service, notoriously complex and essential to the understanding of the anguish and status of Gogol’s protagonists. This is a fabulous new collection from Pushkin, and if you’ve never experienced the wonderful writing and satire of Gogol before, it’s the perfect place to start! Go on – you know you want to… ;D

Next up on the Ramblings – essential stories from Tolstoy! 😀

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

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My Life by Marc Chagall
Translated by Dorothy Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Notebooks

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

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

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

The Notebooks on their travels, already a bit festooned…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Domain – Via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these are the books concerned:

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

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

Next up some Russians:

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

And finally a Virago and a fragile Picador:

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

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

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