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

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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

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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
Viy
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

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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

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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!!

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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

 

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

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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

“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! 😀

True confessions… @PimpernelPress @BacklistedPod @RichardDawkins @OWC_Oxford @RusLibrary

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… of the bookish kind, of course…

Yes, there have been more arrivals at the Ramblings (although I have squeezed several volumes out in Happy Mail and donations). Mainly these have been review copies (as anyone who follows me on social media might have spotted), but I have to admit to a few little purchases…

So let’s share those first… And entirely to blame is the Backlisted Podcast which recently focused on Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year“. I’d been considering reading this for a while – it somehow kept slipping onto my radar – and the podcast finished me off. After a Twitter discussion of which version was best to get, I somehow ended up with two…. Which will I read first? Who know, but I now own *two* Norton Critical Editions (my first was the Adrienne Rich collection I bought a while back)! 😀

Journal of the Plague Year

The next incomings are from charity shop and local Waterstones (who were having a sale).

Dawkins and Fellinesque…

A Dawkins for £1 is not going to stay in the charity shop when I’m about. And I have no idea what Fellinesque is (except I have a nagging feeling I might have read about it somewhere – if it was on your blog please tell me in the comments!) It sounds a bit weird, has the French Revolution in it (obvs with a guillotine on the front…) and was also £1. Worth a punt, methinks…

As for review books, the first arrived during the week and I was *so* excited about it, as I’ve been waiting to cover it for Shiny New Books:

Necropolis

I’ve read several of the titles put out in Columbia University Press’s Russian Library imprint, but I was particularly keen on reading this. Khodasevich is a poet I discovered fairly recently, and this book is about Russian writers from the early part of the 20th century. Can’t wait!!

And yesterday two more lovelies popped through the letterbox (well, actually, were handed to me by the postie, who is probably getting a bit fed up with carting large heavy book packages to the door – these were particularly weighty…)

Woolf and Carlyle

The one on the left is just gorgeous – a glossy colour picture illustrated book all about Virginia Woolf‘s houses. I’ve had a quick flick and it looks amazing! And interestingly on the right (because of Woolf’s interest in the Carlyles) is Thomas’s French Revolution history. A bit of a chunkster, but I’m desperate to read that too. I went to Carlyle’s house with my BFF J and it was surprisingly dark and small…

As I was grumping on Twitter this morning, it’s a little alarming when your review books form their own, separate Mount TBR. Self-inflicted wound I know, first world problem and all that.

Mount (Review) TBR…

However, I shall hopefully spend some time later on today sitting surrounded by a pile of books, flicking through them, reading bits and seeing which one hooks me the most. Yes, spoiled for choice…. 😉

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