“I’m not on good terms with the present day, but posterity loves me.” #SigizmundKrzhizhanovsky @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary #ReadIndies


For our #ReadIndies a year ago, I was delighted to be able to revisit one of my favourite authors in translation, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I think I’ve written about everything of his which has been translated into English, mainly in volumes from NYRB Classics, translated by the wonderful Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov, and his writing is truly unique. However, in 2022 Columbia University Press took up the baton, bringing out a new collection of Krzhizhanovky’s non-fiction under their Russian Library umbrella. ‘Countries That Don’t Exist turned out to be a stupendous read, expertly rendered into English by a group of talented translators. So imagine my excitement when I learned that CUP were bringing out *another* Krzhizhanovky in time for this year’s #ReadIndies; and that it was going to be a collection of fictions entitled ‘Stravaging “Strange”‘, with Turnbull and Formazov at the helm!! The publisher kindly made a copy available for review and frankly I was so hyped that the book barely made it onto the TBR before I picked it up and started reading; and I’m happy to report that it lived up to my expectations!

Well done CUP for naming the translators on the cover!!! 😀

I won’t go over SK’s background again, but suffice to say he ‘wrote for the drawer’ pretty much all of his life and it’s only in recent decades, since the fall of the Soviet Union, that his work’s been discovered and has been reaching the audience it deserves. The bulk of his work which has been published in English is in the short story/novella format, and he excels in this. The new collection, with its unusual title, does include shorter works, and what treasures they are. The three fictions are the title work, plus Catastrophe and Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki. The first and last are substantial pieces, approaching novella length; the middle one a shorter, more overtly philosophical piece, which is quite haunting; and all are just marvellous.

I have a platform ticket to literature. I watch others seeing people off or departing. but I’m not meeting anyone or seeing anyone off. That’s how it is.

First, I’ll address that word ‘stravaging’; I had to look it up, and it comes from the Scots/Irish word ‘stravaig’ which can be defined as wandering about aimlessly or with no goal – so that’s my vocabulary expanded! The title story could be regarded as typical SK, as it has a fable like quality, drawing on the imagery and adventuring of a Gulliver. The story within a story (told to the narrator by his old magus) tells of that teacher’s adventures in pursuit of a woman he loves; his next door neighbour, married to a much older professor, she’s somewhat out of his reach. However, the teacher is provided, by his own tutor, with a liquid which will shrink him, Alice-like, to a size too small to be perceived. He pursues his adventures, where to travel next door is an epic quest, and because of his miniaturisation can cause havoc with his rival, the Professor. And indeed, when returned to full size, he pursues an affair with his neighbour. However, jealousy will cause him to drink another potion which will cause him to become even more microscopic…

Catastrophe, by contrast, explores what would happen to the universe if Kantian thought was taken to its ultimate end, resulting in time no longer existing – which would indeed be a catastrophe! I’ll say no more about this piece, but it was most entertaining and thought-provoking!

Here the outskirts of literature ended. I went as far as possible past the line of words, walked through wastelands, falling down and picking myself up, despairing and spurred by the power of my despair. Suddenly I saw – looming up through the nothingness – the verge of a forest of mysterious and ineffable images. I looked round – and realized: I would never make it back to words.

The final piece, Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki, relates a fictional biography of a remarkably unsettled man! Katafalaki is fated never to find a real home, constantly on the search for the perfect tutor, the perfect discipline to study, and plagued by bad luck. He travels from country to country, moving through Berlin, Paris and even London, desperately trying to find his place and his metier. Yet nothing he tries seems to work, he’s easily tricked by those more devious than him, and even his attempt to make his mark by literally walking every street of London over a number of years is ruined by WW1 and then life moving on while he somehow stands still whilst continuing to walk… It’s a mesmerising work of fiction, with an unforgettable protagonist.

That’s just a little of what the stories are about, but I have to mention again SK’s unique prose; I’ve commented in the past how he twists your expectations, having a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That’s on show here, as well as his incredible imagination; the vivid descriptions in Stravaging are stunning, conjuring images of how the world would look from the viewpoint of something microscopic, and really I think his writings are quite visionary. The whole of Catastrophe, with its brilliant sequence of events showing how philosophy can literally affect the world, is stunning. And Katafalaki, with its hapless and peripatetic protagonist, surely is also some kind of wish-fulfilment for SK, who was never able to travel thanks to the Soviet regime. Just brilliant, all three pieces.

I live in such a distant future that my future seems to me past, spent, and turned to dust.

The three fictions on their own would make this a treasured volume in my collection of SK; however, there are other riches included. SK obviously kept extensive notebooks (as well as loose-leaf notes it seems), and some extracts of these were featured in ‘Countries That Don’t Exist’. Much to my delight, more are included here and these are wonderful; often short Krzhizhanovsky-ish aphorisms, but sometimes longer pieces; frankly, I loved these and I want all the SK I can get my hands on!

But the icing on the cake was the last section of the book; this contains extracts of the memoirs of SK’s partner (and eventual wife), Anna Bovshek, and these were just wonderful. Bovshek met SK in 1920 in Kiev, and they were together until his death in 1950; and these extracts give us a vivid pen portrait of the author. As there is no biography of him available as far as I’m aware (at least in English) this is incredibly important and to see SK spring to life through the eyes of someone close to him was the best thing. I devoured this section, witnessing his struggles to write and be published, his poverty and devotion to his art whatever the circumstances, and was terribly moved. Whoever decided to include this deserves immense thanks.

As you might have guessed from all the hyperbole, I utterly adored this book; it breaks my heart that SK could never be published in his lifetime, but maybe the world just wasn’t ready for him then. At least he’s found an audience and a readership in this messed up modern world, and I have say he’s up there with my favourite Russian authors (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov). I can’t praise or thank enough those who’ve brought SK’s work to the English-speaking world, especially the dynamic duo of Turnbull/Formozov. I’ve been having a wonderful reading year so far, and this is another book which is certainly going to make it onto my best of 2023 list. If you like quirky and thought-provoking, I do recommend SK – a marvellous, marvellous writer!

“…his heart had opened, awakened for a long time to come.” @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary #homewardfromheaven @Bryan_S_K


An imprint I always follow with interest is the Russian Library arm of Columbia University Press. They’ve released all manner of wonderful titles, many of which I’ve covered here on the Ramblings; and so I was intrigued when I saw they were issuing a work by an author new to me, Boris Poplavsky. “Homeward from Heaven” was his final work, considered his masterpiece, and here it’s translated by Bryan Karetnyk, who’s been responsible for bringing so much Russian emigre literature into English (particularly the marvellous Gaito Gazdanov).

Poplavsky sounds like he was something of a character, to say the least: from a wealthy Moscow family, he fled Russia after the revolution and settled down in Paris in 1921. He died tragically young, at the age of 32 from a drug overdose, and has been described as an ‘enfant terrible’. Certainly, on the evidence of this work, he sounds like a man drawn to extremes and also one with a divided self.

“Homeward…” actually follows on from an earlier work, “Apollon Bezobrazoff”, and that character does appear in this novel However, the focus here is mainly on a young man called Oleg; a Russian emigre in Paris, he’s following religious study yet is drawn to the darker, seamier side of life. His most regular companion is the aforesaid Apollon and the two men travel to the south of France where they live rough over the summer, existing on what they can beg borrow and steal, while Oleg pursues his obsession with the beautiful Tania.

…Oleg did not forget the sea, he would never forget it, although after Tania‘s betrayal, it sung to him not of happiness and life, yet sing it did, unrelenting and unembraceable, without words, the blinding witness to so many summer dramas and pointless confrontations. The footprints that Oleg left in the sand were washed away before all the others.

She’s somewhat unreachable, however, with a succession of boyfriends, and Oleg returns to Paris in the autumn where he then pursues a relationship with another woman, Katia. Despite this being a more successful liaison, Oleg seems unable to settle, constantly wracked by existentialist doubts. The return of Tania sees a rupture with Katia; but will his reunion with Tania be any more successful.

As translator Karetnyk’s excellent introduction clarifies, “Homeward…” was actually unfinished at Poplavsky’s death, and he explains how he drew on the original typescript for his translation. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes challenging read, and combines Oleg’s inner mologues with Apollon’s gnostic-style deliberations, set against vividly conjured backdrops of the Paris and south of France of the period, with its bohemian cast of emigres. Oleg’s conflicted nature is strongly on display, and the narrative focuses on his divided self, travelling from exalted regions of religious thought to a more prosaic, down to earth daily life. At one point close to the end, Apollon asks how his journey homeward from heaven has gone, and if the book is at all autobiographical (which I suspect it is), the answer might well be ‘not very well’….

The corners of the room slowly vanished amid the darkness. The window was a perfect pale blue, and across the street golden specks appeared as lights in the neighboring building were switched on.

Oleg, it has to be said, is not always a particularly likeable character. Oscillating between bullish masculinity and the febrile emotional state of an adolescent, he seems to struggle to come to terms with the world. He’s immature, often overwrought, and his treatment of women, as evidenced in some of the more explicit passages, leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless the book is compelling reading, with some beautifully lyrical writing, stream-of-consciousness prose sections and a most marvellous sense of place. The feeling of dislocation so common in emigre fiction is strongly present, and I kept being reminded of what those Russians who chose to flee had been through; which no doubt strongly influenced their art and their mindset.

As with all Russian Library editions, there is the previously mentioned introduction and excellent supporting notes to shine a light on any of the more obscure references in the text. “Homeward…” is a vivid, sometimes dark yet often exhilarating read, and I did finish it saddened that Poplavsky’s life ended when it did so that he was not there to carry on the story of his protagonists. The translation by Bryan Karetnyk reads beautifully and it must have been quite an undertaking to render some of the more complex passages into English! I’m happy to have finally been able to make the acquaintance of Poplavsky and his writing, and may have to nip off and see if anything else is available for the Anglophone reader…. ;D

(ARC kindly provided by Columbia University Press, for which many thanks – the book is out today!)

“The soul looks to art to protect it from the mind…” #SigizmundKrzhizhanovsky @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary #ReadIndies


There was high excitement at the Ramblings when I learned that Columbia University Press was bringing out a collection of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky‘s non-fiction writings under their Russian Library umbrella. SK is a massive favourite with me, and I’ve reviewed all of the marvellous NYRB editions of his work, along with an early collection from Glas. So it was a given that I’d want to read this, and CUP were kind enough to provide an ARC which was a marvellous treat!

Back in 2013, when I first read and wrote about SK, I quoted this from Wikipedia: “Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky (11 February [O.S. 30 January] 1887 – 28 December 1950) was a Russian and Soviet short-story writer who described himself as being “known for being unknown”; the bulk of his writings were published posthumously. In 1976, scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive and in 1989 published one of his short stories. As the five volumes of his collected works followed, Krzhizhanovsky emerged from obscurity as a remarkable Soviet writer, who polished his prose to the verge of poetry. His short parables, written with an abundance of poetic detail and wonderful fertility of invention – though occasionally bordering on the whimsical – are sometimes compared to the ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. Quadraturin (1926), the best known of such phantasmagoric stories, is a Kafkaesque novella in which allegory meets existentialism.” If ever a Soviet author was “writing for the drawer” it was SK, as so little of his work appeared in his lifetime. But intriguingly, as this new collection reveals, there was much more to him than short stories and it was often his non-fiction which managed to make it into print.

“Countries That Don’t Exist” is edited by Jacob Emery and Alexander Spektor, containing fourteen pieces which span SK’s writing career. The earliest, ‘Love as a Method of Cognition” dates from 1912; the final piece with a confirmed date is 1949; and each piece is presented with an introduction by its translator, whose name is given at the end of the piece together with the date if known. The amount of care which has gone into the presentation of the book is impressive, with a marvellous array of translators featured, and I feel I must name-check them all:

Anthony Anenome
Caryl Emerson
Jacob Emery
Anne O. Fisher
Elizabeth F. Geballe
Reed Johnson
Alisa Ballard Lin
Tim Langen
Muireann Maguire
Benjamin Paloff
Karen Link Rosenflanz
Alexander Spektor
Joanne Turnbull

Most of these are names new to me, although Maguire and Turnbull are familiar and favourite translators; all, however, seem to me to have done a magnificent job as there is a consistency of tone in the works which makes them all sound like SK to me! The book comes with an excellent introduction and supporting notes, so there’s all you could need to make this a rewarding reading experience.

But what is SK actually writing *about*, I hear you ask? Well, all manner of things really, and probably as hard to define as his fictions are! His early essays are philosophical, rooted perhaps in the symbolist tradition and exploring the inner and outer worlds, and how we use words to define and explore them. Then there’s literary criticism, as SK explores Shaw and Poe, perhaps unlikely bedfellows, particularly for writers in Soviet-era Russia (though Shaw was very popular there at the time).

Our world is too visible, eye and brain are over strained by a superabundance of vision, by an overdazzlingness of apprehensions – and so they ask that the thing be removed from its visible and tangible place, that it be excluded from time and space; that the realness of reality be less.

This being SK, there are any number of pieces which defy categorisation and straddle the line between essay and fantasy: the title essay explores exactly what it states, countries in fiction such as those in Gulliver’s adventures or (intriguingly enough) the stories of Baron Munchausen, who ended up in one of SK’s own fictions. Chess makes an appearance (as it did in the “Unwitting Street” collection); “A Collections of Seconds” riffs on photography’s ability to pin down a moment; and “The Poetics of Titles” is a particularly interesting piece which explores the naming of a piece of writing and its importance in defining what that piece of writing will be. As always, words and what you can do with them are at the heart of SK’s writing and it’s clear how important linguistics were to him. His wordplay is often dazzling and it’s a tribute to the translators that they’ve captured and conveyed this so vividly.

Needless to say, all of these writings feature SK’s quirky, individual way of looking at, and writing about things. Objects have a life force of their own; the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred; and SK’s view on what he’s writing about really is unique. Even something like “Moscow in the First Year of the War”, which could just be a stark memoir of the hardships of living during a conflict, is given the SK treatment and he presents what translator Paloff describes as a ‘slice of life’ – an impressionistic look at something as specific as windows, for example, where SK lets their appearance ‘speak’ as to the effect that war is having on them.

Art needs people who rather than acquainting us with the unknown, can disacquaint us with the known, who can take this thing that has become a mind-sore, this trifle right here, and raise it to the power of a dream or mystery.

The book closes with a series of excerpts from SK’s writer’s notebooks, presented in roughly chronological fashion, which share thoughts, aphorisms, and autobiograpical notes. As translator Muireann Maguire mention in her introduction to this, it’s possible to read an increasing sense of despair into the fragments as you get closer to the end, and this did remind me of how heartbreaking it must have been for a gifted author like SK to be pouring his heart and soul into his art, with no outlet to publish it or find a readership. Authors write to be read, to have that dialogue with the reader, and to be forbidden that must be the greatest punishment.

Well, I could go on and on about how brilliant this book is – and you can see by the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy what an effect it had on me! But I’ll stop here and just record my thanks to all involved in bringing SK’s work to a wider audience. I guess initial gratitude is to Vadim Perelmuter for discovering the archive and then eventually producing a complete set of his works; and then of course to NYRB and Joanne Turnbull, in particular, for championing his writing. SK was a completely original author, brimming with ideas and concepts and ways of looking at things which completely upend your viewpoint; and we can only be grateful that he kept on writing, with faith in the power of words to transcend his lifespan. This volume is a real triumph and I can ony hope that more SK makes it into English!

“But that’s not my point” #WITMonth #Klotsvog21 @RusLibrary @ColumbiaUP @Rustransdark


Having already read several books for WIT, I hadn’t necessarily intended to pick up another one. However, the best laid plans… Earlier in the year, I took part in a Twitter readalong of Olga Zilberbourg’s “Like Water and Other Stories” which was co-ordinated by the lovely Reem (Paper Pills) @ReemK10. She’s indefatigable when it comes to organising these events and when she announced one for this book, I had to join in. The work is questions is “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, and it turned out to be a powerful read.

“Klotsvog” was issued in 2019 by the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, and I was lucky enough to win it in a Twitter giveaway by the lovely @Rustransdark group at the University of Exeter. It arrived just as the first lockdown took hold, and somehow, I hadn’t got round to picking it up; however this was the perfect time to do so, and as always, having reading buddies really enhanced the experience. I confess, however, that I got to a point when I couldn’t stick to the ten or so pages a day and made my way to the end of the book – and was left a bit stunned and breathless. Let me try to explain why…

As a direct person, I myself never drop any hints and don’t welcome it when others drop them in my direction.

The book is narrated by Maya Abramovna Klotsvog, who introduces herself in the first paragraph with the statement that her name is not important: “what’s important is how somebody made life’s journey…”. Born of a Jewish family in 1930, her memories of her early life are given fairly briefly; having been evacuated during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ with her mother, they survived the conflict (although her father did not) and Maya manages some schooling and then finds a job in bank. This does not go so well, so she enrolls in evening classes – which is where things go wrong and Maya starts on her winding path through life. An affair with a married teacher leads to pregnancy; searching for a way to deal with this, she marries an older man, convincing him of his paternity. Her son Mishenka is born; she moves on to another husband, palming her son off on relatives; then there is a daughter, and another man. All of Maya’s life seems to consist of scheming, manipulating other people and constantly trying to improve her lot, find a nicer home and control what happens around her. However, none of this brings her happiness – in fact, in the end all she will find is heartache, and also that it’s impossible to deny what you are.

…my child will never speak Jewish. That’s for his own benefit. And don’t pretend you don’t understand. Jewish words cost you nothing. But oh, they could cost him so much. They could bring him death.

On first look, Maya Klotsvog is a shocking and awful person. Her narrative is focused entirely on her own needs, her own feelings and what she’s had to do to survive – she in fact seems proud of it. There are constant self-justifications, regular betrayals, twisting of facts and what seems like a total misreading of the reality around her. She describes herself as a teacher, even though she’s never really taught a class; however, her constant interference in the education of her children, where she describes herself as talking to the teachers ‘pedagogue to pedagogue’, make you cringe at her insensitivity and lack of self-awareness. She is, perhaps, the ultimate unreliable narrator because she has no idea how other people perceive her.

What she also fails to recognise is the effect she has on other people. Everyone close to her is eventually pushed away, and even those who love her can’t stay near her. Her hardness and lack of warmth are quite stunning, and although I felt sympathy for most of the adults who encountered her, it was the children who I felt suffered most at first. Manipulated, abandoned, shuffled from pillar to post, lied to – what a life.

And yet… “Klotsvog” is a subtle and nuanced piece of writing, and as I read I recognised that Maya is someone who desperately needs to control the people and surroundings she encounters on a daily basis, as the wider picture is out of her control. She’s almost OCD in her need to have things exactly as she wants them, and I suspect that her whole life is entirely driven by fear; having made it through the war and with knowledge of the Holocaust, Klotsvog is aware that she is vulnerable as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and her ghastly behaviour throughout the book comes from a need to survive. The book never spells out the horrors of the Nazi ‘final solution’, but it’s there under the surface and in little references which slip into the narrative. As Lara Vapnyar points out in her introduction, Stalin had his own plan for something similar; Jewish people were not safe in the Soviet Union, and as time moves on and Klotsvog grows older, anti-semitism seems to be becoming more prevalent. It’s hard to like Maya as a character initially, and her behaviour is reprehensible, but I came to understand her and in the end pity her.

…she’s scared. She’s scared because she ended up Jewish. All children are afraid of the dark. And Jewishness is akin to the dark for children if they don’t engage with it.

Because, as a character, she certainly makes the bed in which she ends up lying. Her behaviour not only alienates all those around her, it also enables the creation of one of the most disturbing child characters I’ve ever come across. I don’t want to reveal too much about this plot strand for those who might read the book, but let’s just say that considering the kind of children in Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” might give you the idea. I found this whole element absolutely chilling and I still haven’t recovered from the horror of it. Maya’s reaction to this child is not always rational, and definitely exacerbates things – but still, nobody really deserves that.

I started reading Klotsvog close on the heels of Petrushevskaya’s “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” and there were a surprising amount of resonances between the two stories, as both narrators were outcasts and outsiders, whether because of their political history or Jewish heritage. However, although both stories are told in mostly measured prose, the Sovietspeak and repeated phrases which creep into Maya’s language perhaps reflects the constraints under which she lived all those years. What could be seen as a book length exercise in self-justification certainly goes much deeper than that.

“Klotsvog” is translated by the always excellent Lisa C. Hayden, who brings her expertise and knowledge of the Soviet world to the book with marvellous results. Her friendship with the late author also adds a poignant edge, and Vapnyar’s introduction is also a emotional one. This really is a work which brings forth all kinds of feelings.

Well, I could go on and on about this book, and there is so much more which could be said, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say, “Klotsvog” is a powerful and unforgettable book, Maya is a monstrous yet ultimately tragic creation; this was a wonderful book with which to round off #WITMonth and thanks so much to Reem for organising the readalong which nudged me into picking up the book!

“…great acts of violence are covered up as legitimate acts of war…” @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary


Today on the Ramblings sees a return to one of my favourite types of reading matter – something Russian! It’s been a little while since anything from that country graced the blog (well, a week since I directed you to Shiny New Books!), and I always fear dipping into RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency…) Fortunately, one particular publisher is always on hand to help rectify that – the very wonderful Columbia University Press with their Russian Library imprint. I’ve covered a number of their titles (several for Shiny New Books) and they issue some really fascinating works which are not so well known as all the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys that a certain pair of celebrity translators keep going back to again and again and again… (ahem…) Today’s book is a case in point; I’ve never come across either author or title before, but it was an absolutely fascinating read.

“Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” by Alexander Radishchev (here translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman) was first published in 1790, the time of Catherine the Great, and it caused a stir; so much so that the author was initially condemned to death although this was eventually commuted to Siberian exile. So why should what is ostensibly a travel book cause so much uproar, and have such radical results for its author?

Radishchev was born into a minor noble family, and his book recounts a fictional journey between the two great cities of Russia. The path is along the postal route, with the narrator halting at points along the way, encountering many different types during his journey and exploring the good and bad points of Russian society. This framing device allows the author to have his character take a look at the social and economic issues facing the country, including the problem which seems to be the one which usually occupies the Russian intellectual – the evils of serfdom.

How much good can it do you, boyars, that you eat sugar while we go hungry? Children are dying, adults die too. But what can you do – you grieve for a while, you grieve but do what your master orders.

The book’s format is wonderfully flexible, allowing the author to include sentimental stories, poetry, theatrical plots, essays on history, theories on how to best raise children, and of course many meditations on the structure of Russian society and politics, with the corruption that runs through it. All of this makes for a fascinating and entertaining read, and I can see why it was considered so subversive. The author/narrator is particularly concerned with the ethical and moral, and his views on the evils of serfdom were considered very radical at the time. Although the book was apparently seen as a challenge to Catherine the Great, Radishchev did not think of himself as a radical; he simply recorded what he saw. And what he witnessed is actually quite shocking, whichever way he tells it; the serfs had a terrible life, being no more than slaves, and it’s not surprising that anyone wanting change knew that freedom for the serfs was vital.

One particularly striking section is where the narrator dreams of being all-powerful, a regal power ruling over an obsequious court. This power goes to his head and he’s on the point of ordering the invasion of another country when the figure of truth appears in the form of a “Straight Seer and Eye Doctor” to show him the error of his ways. So it’s not surprising that Catherine perceived the book as a threat, is it?

Although medication always traveled with me just in case, it was according to the proverb “each wise man has his share of foolishness”: I was not forearmed against delirium, which is why my head, when I arrived at the postal station, was in worse shape than a wig stand.

“Journey…” was a fascinating read from start to finish (and often unexpectedly entertaining!), and I’m not surprised that it’s considered the precursor of all the subversive literature which followed in Russia, right up to Solzhenitsyn in the 20th century. It’s a text which I believe has been little known to the general reader of Russian literature up until now (certainly I hadn’t heard of it), so it’s particularly pleasing to have it rendered so readably into English by Kahn and Reyfman (I have heard that the Russian here is not always easy to translate). As with all CUP Russian Library titles, there’s an excellent introduction (here by the translators), plus copious supporting notes.

Radishchev (Public Domain – By Unidentified painter – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1265966)

Radishchev did not live a long life; on return from his exile to Siberia he was confined to his estate, but continued to try to work on political reforms in his country. Despite his efforts, he was unable to make changes, and in 1802, after mention of another possible exile, he took his own life. His most famous work, however, remains, as a wonderful insight into the Russia of Catherine the Great, its politics, its social issues and the suffering of the serfs. A fascinating book, and an essential read for anyone interested in the society, thought and literature of the time!

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


“…at least once in his life he would be a beautiful person…” #gogol @ColumbiaUP #russianlibrary


It’s been a little while since we had any Russians on the Ramblings, isn’t it? ;D So today is the perfect day to take a look at a shiny new volume which has just been released in the rather wonderful Columbia University Press Russian Library imprint – “The Nose and Other Stories” by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Susanne Fusso.

Gogol is one of my favourite authors, and he’s made any number of appearances on the Ramblings – most recently when I reviewed a new version of his classic play “The Government Inspector” and a collection of essential stories from Pushkin Press. I’ve also revisited his magnum opus, “Dead Souls” and loved a beautiful little edition of one of his stories, “The Night Before Christmas“. You might think, therefore, that I would be all Gogoled out and a new collection would hold no appeal – but you would be very, very wrong! 😀

“The Nose…” is branded as “the first major English translation of his stories in more than twenty years”. Pushkin Press might argue with that, but I guess the word ‘major’ is the qualifier here, as the Pushkin volume had five stories, whereas the Russian Library goes for nine. The books have four stories in common – three of which are probably Gogol’s most famous – but the variances are interesting, and I’ll be posting in a couple of days about Gogol books and collections generally.

However, “The Nose…” contains a fascinating and fairly wide-randing selection of Gogol’s stories, and of most interest to me was the inclusion of works I hadn’t read before – and in one case, a story I’ve never seen translated! So I thought that it might be interesting if I looked at those here, as they really are a wonderful set! For info, the works included in the Russian Library volume are:

The Lost Letter
The Portrait (1835 version)
Nevsky Avenue
Diary of a Madman
The Carriage
The Nose
Rome (A Fragment)
The Carriage

Gogol’s works are often split into two categories: his Ukraine stories (more country and village settings) and his Petersburg works (later stories with that urban setting and plenty of alienation). This collection focuses mainly on the latter though some early works are included; and it’s the titles in bold that are my focus here.

The Philosophers’ voices were a whole octavo lower; there was nothing in their pockets except strong shag tobacco. They didn’t store anything up, but just devoured whatever came their way right on the spot; sometimes you could smell their pipes and vodka so far off that a tradesmen walking by would stop and sniff the air like a hunting hound for a good long while.

The Lost Letter was published in the 1831 collection “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” and is set in the Kiev area of Ukraine. Like many of Gogol’s early works, it contains elements of the supernatural and it’s narrated by an old sexton, Foma, who tells the tale of his grandfather’s encounters with devils on a journey to delivery an important letter to the empress. It’s a lively and dramatic story, funny and atmospheric at the same time, and somewhat sets the scene for what comes next…

Viy (from 1835) is another dark story, full of witches and devils, and it really makes quite spooky reading. A young student Philosopher Khoma Brut is tormented by a witch riding on his back; he eventually manages to throw off by chanting exorcisms, and he beats her with a stick. He thinks he is free of her, but is mysteriously summoned by a powerful Cossack; the latter’s daughter is dying and wishes Khoma to pray for her for three nights in a row. Despite his best efforts, Khoma is unable to get out of this and ends up spending three nights in a church with the woman’s corpse, calling on all the powers of good to protect him. What happens in the church is vividly and chillingly portrayed – Gogol really *could* write the forces of evil very effectively…

The Portrait is another work in a similar vein, and interestingly Fusso has chosen the 1835 version. She explains in her fascinating foreword that the later version in the 1842 edition of Gogol’s works was extensively revised by the author and he toned down many of the supernatural elements. However, the 1835 original presented here was a wonderful read; split into two sections, the first relates the story of a young artist Chertkov; a promising painter, just learning his trade, he stumbles across a portrait of a man at an auction house. The painting is compelling, but not in a good way; portraying a money lender, the eyes of the man seem to burn out of the canvas, alarming all who see it. Chertkov nevertheless buys it and it comes home with him (though not in a conventional manner…) It seems as though this portrait is possessed in some way, and it will have dramatic and catastrophic effects on Chertkov. The second section of the story reveals the history of the painting and how it came into being; and once again, the forces of evil are vividly and scarily portrayed. Each of these three tales really chill the blood…

His life was reaching the years when everything that breathes of impulse begins to shrink within a person, when the powerful violin bow reaches the soul more faintly and does not twine about the heart with piercing sounds, when contact with beauty no longer transforms virginal powers into fire and flame, but all the burned-out feelings become more open to the sound of gold, listen more attentively to its alluring music, and little by little, imperceptibly, allow it to put them completely to sleep.

Of course, larger than life, surreal and supernatural elements appear in Gogol’s later works; “The Nose” itself is a case in point, where that organ becomes detached from its owner and takes up an existence of its own. However, social satire and commentary also crept in, with “Diary of a Madman” being a particularly poignant study of the gradual mental deterioration of an impoverished clerk. “Nevsky Prospekt” (as I know it, though titled “Nevsky Avenue” in this collection) has more social commentary, too, as Gogol tackles the illusions abroad on the streets, as two men with very differing temperaments encounter women who may not be what the seem.

However, the last piece I want to consider is one which I’ve never seen translated before, and that’s Rome (A Fragment), published in 1842, the same year as “Dead Souls”. It’s a piece unlike anything else I’ve read by Gogol, I think, and I absolutely loved it. There’s minimal plot as such; the story opens with a carnival vision of a beautiful Roman woman, observed by a twenty-five year old Roman Prince, lately returned from several years in Paris. The tale goes on to relate the Prince’s past; his disillusion with the place of his birth; his initial love of, and the rejection of, Paris with its glittering modern lifestyle; and his return and reconciliation with Rome.

Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

“Rome” is beautifully written, a really gorgeous love-letter to the city, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read by Gogol. Although he writes marvellous prose, his focus is often dramatic or satirical, but here it’s anything but. The contrast between the modern city of Paris (and the descriptions make it seem remarkably current) and the ancient city of Rome, with all its history, is very finely drawn and actually brings both settings alive quite vividly.

Rome, of course, was a place Gogol lived; from 1836 to 1848 he spent much time travelling Europe, including Paris, and eventually settling in Rome. He adored Italy and its culture, and it’s obvious from this piece that his soul felt attached to it; whether by something spiritual, aethetic or a combination of both, it’s quite clear his heart belonged to Rome and that comes out in the reactions of the Prince on his return to his city. Of course, Gogol was deeply religious and so Rome would also appeal to him on that level. But whatever elements drew him to Rome, the result was a most beautiful, vivid and evocative piece of writing. Whether it was actually a fragment, or intended to just stand as a tribute to the city I guess we’ll never know; but I am so glad to have read it!

So “The Nose…” is a really wonderful collection of Gogol’s writings, and essential for any lover of his work I would say. The fact it contains the early version of The Portrait as well as Rome really is a bonus, and the introduction and extensive supporting notes are an excellent resource too. The translation reads in a very Gogolian way to me (although I have to say I never find myself happy with the odd Americanism – ‘gotten’, for example – but then the book *is* an American one!) The Russian Library books I’ve read so far have been a really wonderful array of works from one of my favourite countries, and “The Nose and Other Stories” is a very welcome addition to the range! 😀

“Can any man remain in Moscow without softening of the brain…” #woefromwit # alexandergriboedov @RusLibrary


Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov
Translated by Betsy Hulick

Back in 2018, I reviewed a fascinating book for Shiny New Books called Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Yuri Tynianov. That book was a fictionalised retelling of the life of an intriguing Russian author Alexander Griboedov; a friend and contemporary of Pushkin, he’s probably best known for his play, “Woe from Wit”. So when I heard the that Columbia University Press were bringing out a shiny new translation in their wonderful Russian Library imprint, I was very keen to explore it! Reading plays is not something I do on a regular basis; however, this is the second in a fairly short space of time (as I loved my re-encounter with The Government Inspector back in November). Must be something to do with the Russians… ;D

Griboedov had a fascinating and ultimately dramatic life; as well as being an author and composer, he was also a diplomat. And it was in that role that he met an unpleasant end when the Russian Embassy in Persia (now Iran) was stormed and he (plus many others) were slaughtered. It’s his play he’s remembered for nowadays, and it’s about as far away from the story of his life as you can get!

She must be mad.
You’d better warn her she can lose her sight.
What good is there in books? The French ones keep
you up, the Russians make you sleep.
(Famusov on his daughter’s apparent wish to read all night)

Subtitled “A Verse Comedy in Four Acts”, “Woe from Wit” was written in 1823 but subject to all manner of censorship (as was common in Russia at the time) and not published in full until 1861, long after the author’s death. It’s a humorous and satirical work, taking a wry look at Moscow society of the period; and as it was such fun to read, I imagine it would be a joy to see on stage!

The central character is one Alexander Andreyevich Chatsky, an idealistic young man who has been away travelling in foreign climes and is now returning to visit the house of Pavel Famusov; here, he hopes to re-encounter his childhood sweetheart, the latter’s daughter, Sophia Pavlovna. An understanding of sorts had existed between the two young people and Chatsky looks forward to seeing his beloved Sophia again. However, from the very start of the play, it is clear that Sophia has been allowing her affections to wander elsewhere; she spends all night billing and cooing with Molchalin, her father’s live-in secretary, as well as having all manner of admirers. Sophia’s maid Liza spends much of her time covering her mistress’s back so that her father is not aware of what’s going on – so the arrival back of the prodigal Chatsky makes things even more complicated. Add in a ball, where all manner of very individual guests turn up, a rumour of Chatsky’s madness which takes hold rapidly, and Liza’s need to juggle the fact that Molchalin is making a play for her while planning on Sophia as a wife for the sake of duty, and you end up with a wonderful and entertaining comedy of manners.

And who is “everyone”? I ask you.
Decrepit brains, deplorable antiquities.
The enemies of free expression,
unearthing their ideas from an old stock of
faded headlines…
(Chatsky, about to go off on his major speech attacking the old regime…)

However, what makes “Woe from Wit” stand out is the subtext; which actually isn’t as sub as you might think! One of the reasons that it was hard to publish the play at the time is was written is because of the strong element of social critique; Chatsky is an ‘angry young man’, looking for change, and he views what he sees of Moscow society at the Famusov’s ball with horror. He cannot attempt to fit in, criticises the guests and the whole of society, and indeed expresses such strong views that the rumour of his madness is easily spread. Will Sophia want Chatsky back? Will she find out the truth about Molchalin? Does Chatsky actually want to *be* with Sophia and in her milieu? Well, you’ll have to read the play to find out.

Portrait of Griboedov via Wikimedia Commons (IILE / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

“Woe from Wit” is a wonderfully entertaining read, with laugh-out-loud lines and memorable set pieces; and as I said above, I’d love to see it performed. The Moscow of the period, after the Napoleonic Wars, was a place hidebound by social restrictions and niceties; and someone with the views of a Chatsky would never fit in with it. The translation reads wonderfully, and the book comes with an excellent introduction by Angela Brintlinger which puts the play and Griboedov himself into context. I have to say, too, that I think Betsy Hulick has done a wonderful job, as rendering a verse play into another language must be extremely tricky (although I couldn’t tell you how freely she’s had to treat the original!) Interestingly, it seems that many of the phrases used in the play have become everyday expressions in Russia, so Griboedov’s influence is obviously a long one. Reading his play was hugely entertaining but also very thought-provoking; its window into Russia’s past and the society of the time was a real eye-opener; and it just goes to prove that comedy is a marvellous vehicle to get your message across!

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

A fabulous rediscovered Russian author over @ShinyNewBooks @RusLibrary @Bryan_S_K


As we carry on through the increasingly strange landscape of our modern world, the escapism of books is becoming ever more essential. I recent read a quite wonderful new volume from Columbia University Press press in their Russian Library imprint and I’m just stunned I’ve never come across his works before.

The book is “Fandango and Other Stories” and the author is Alexander Grin. His works are, I think, unlike anything I’ve read before. The writing is quite stunning, the sense of place vivid and the settings often unusual. In particular, the stories with a partial backdrop of post-revolutionary St. Petersburg had a resonance I wasn’t expecting…

The book is expertly translated by Bryan Karetnyk (whose translation work I can’t recommend highly enough). You can read my review here!


On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!


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


An elegy for Russian poets – Khodasevich at @ShinyNewBooks @CoumbiaUP @Ruslibrary


I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s of another book in the marvellous Russian Library series from Columbia University Press. “Necropolis” is by Vladislav Khodasevich, whom I’ve touched upon briefly on the Ramblings before. I have a collection of his poetry I picked up at Judd Books in London, and of course he was married to the wonderful author Nina Berberova.


“Necropolis”, however, is a prose work from a poet; a memoir of the authors and artists Khodasevich had known, it’s a compelling piece of work which memorialises many Silver Age poets (and others) who were lost during the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. It also inadvertantly reveals much about Khodasevich himself and it really is an excellent book. You can read my full review over at Shiny New Books! 😀

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