“… we all live on history’s Unwitting Street” #sigizmundkrzhizhanovsky #joanneturnbull @nyrbclassics


As anyone with a mountainous TBR knows, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s arrived, what’s to be read next and, actually, what book you’re really in the mood to pick up. A case in point is the book featuring on the Ramblings today; the most recent release from NYRB Classics by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “Unwitting Street” ( translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov). I bought it as soon as it came out and was so excited about the fact there was a new collection of his very individual and idiosyncratic writings available. Why, therefore, has it languished unread for so long???

There’s no good reason apart from the usual ‘so many books, so little time’; but suddenly, for no apparent reason, I realised this was the book I HAD to read right now – and it was a wonderful experience from start to finish. SK is an author with whom I’m very familiar, having read the four other books NYRB have issued, all wonderfully translated by the same team, as well as an earlier collection. SK was an author who languished in obscurity for much of his lifely, so his rediscovery is a joy. His stories are quirky, unusual and very individual; his take on life idiosyncratic; and his voice distinctive.

The grass of oblivion likes to be watered with tears: this helps it to grow.

“Unwitting…” collects together 18 short works, set in the Soviet world of the early 20th century, and they’re surreal, moving and memorable. The blurb on the back indicates that these stories are perhaps more playful than his other works in translation; well, yes, sometimes – SK is always playful, I feel, but there are dark and quite profound themes in some of these stories which really do take the breath away…

The first story in the collection, “Comrade Punt”, perhaps sets the scene for the rest of the book, with its tale of a pair of trousers able to take on a life of their own when their usual occupier dies – pretty much because of Soviet beauracracy. Short fables like “The Flyelephant” and “A Page of History” play with our preconceptions; and “The Slightly-Slightlies” starts as a tale of illusions but moves into darker territory when the illusions are dropped. “Journey of a Cage” uses the device of a parrot in a cage being passed from hand to hand to show the dramatic changes taking place in Russia of the time. In a similar fashion, “The Grey Fedora” follows the titular hat on its journey from head to head, ecountering all sorts of people on the way. “Death of an Elf” explores musical inspiration, as does “The Mute Keybord”, and chess turns up in a number of the stories. Then there’s “The Life and Opinions of a Thought” in which a philosopher’s idea fights against being written down.

But the dusk – for now – was otherwise engaged: unbidden, slipping into the hall unheard, it first gingerly touched all the corners, contours, and edges of things. Quietly pressing its gray fingers to window ledges and sills, the corners of the table, the sinuous outlines of men and chessman, the dusk tried to unsettle them. But the things, sealing up their edges, lines, and corners, resisted. Then the dusk’s gray muscles tensed and contracted, its fine cindery fingers clutched at contours and edges more fiercely and tenaciously. And the fastenings gave way: dropping lines, ledges, and planes, the shapes of things loomed up, contours swayed, corners came apart, freeing lines: things began to stream and quietly seep into one another. They were not: as of old.

All of the stories are clever, funny, quirky and so wonderfully written; and SK has a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That particular element always gives his writing a completely individual voice as far as I’m concerned – I’m not sure I’ve ever read prose like this. I’ve seen SK compared with Kafka, Borges and Calvino, and I would certainly agree that he’s a one-off as they are, taking the reader into uncharted territory and twisting their expectations. The blurb describes these stories as ‘philosophical and phantasmagorical’, a description with which I’d agree, but despite that playful element highlighted above there are most definitely dark themes running through the book. I was particularly hit by the story “God is Dead” which explores what actually happens to humanity when they cease to believe in God and so in effect that entity *does* die. It’s a breathtaking piece of fiction delving into human futility and left me quite stunned at the end. I think ‘philosophical’ is definitely the word to apply to SK’s works because you come away from them pondering deeply and with your thoughts and perspectives on life quite changed – well at least, I always do….

SK, via Wikimedia Commons

In some ways I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick up this wonderful collection, although I’m a firm believer in the right book at the right time – and maybe this was just its time! Whatever – “Unwitting…” was a wonderful, engrossing and entertaining read from start to finish, and a thought provoking one at that. Thank you whoever rescued SK’s writings from the archives, thank you Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov for giving him a voice in English, and thank you NYRB for publishing them – my life is enriched by SK’s books!

“Our wretched lives.” #WITMonth #Petrushevskaya


Having got into a groove with some stories translated from the Russian for #WITMonth, I was a bit tempted to continue in that vein. I’ve had a major reshuffle of the Russian shelves, incorporating all the piles of books lying around the house so they were all in one place (and making careful note of unread titles whilst doing so!) And in the middle of this, I decided that instead of popping “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated by Anna Summers) onto the shelf with her fictions, now would be a good time to start reading her!

Petrushevskaya is probably best known for her collections of short stories, with provocative titles like “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”; and her reputation has continued to grow in recent years. “Metropol…” however is a memoir; and the subtitle ‘Growing up in Communist Russia’ gives a hint of what can be expected. Although short, this is no light read…

Petrushevksaya was born in Moscow in 1938, in the titular Metropol Hotel, and lived there until 1941. At that point her father, a Bolshevik intellectual, was named as an enemy of the state. Petrushevskaya and her mother fled to Kuibyshev and from then on her childhood was one of suffering and constant change. As un-persons, Ludmilla and her mother lived on the poverty line, and the young girl was shuffled between relatives and homes, scrabbling to survive. Becoming feral, she often survived by scavenging and begging, and later attempts to teach her or ‘civilise’ her met mostly with failure – Petrushevskaya was a real wild child.

That feeling of coziness, of home, when a match strikes and a tiny circle of light appears, always returned when I had to settle in a new place. Never have I been frightened by circumstances. A little warmth, a little bread, my little ones with me, and life begins, happiness begins.

The book follows her life and travels until she finally grows up enough to become educated and get a break on Soviet radio. However, there are times during the story where it’s touch and go if she’ll make it. Yet, despite this grim subject matter, Petrushevksaya tells her story with a light touch, and it’s never less than readable. Told mainly in calm tones and often through a child’s eye, Ludmilla somehow travels through life avoiding the really bad stuff and makes it to adulthood – a true survivor.

As I said, this is grim stuff in places; and at times, when there are particularly threatening events (she finds herself potential prey of boys and men), Petrushevskaya switches to the third person, as if she can only relate her story by considering it as having happened to someone else. However, despite this, the book is incredibly compelling, and Petrushevkaya never indulges in self-pity; whether sleeping under a table in a communal apartment or in the Officers’ Club (where she finds shelter by breaking in), queuing in the bread line and getting served last, or pretending to be an orphan, she’s matter-of-fact and intent on survival. It’s this element, I think, that makes the book and its content less crushing than it could have been in someone else’s hands.

Back in Kuibyshev, her mother and sister accepted her disappearance without much joy. Her name was never mentioned again. On the other hand, so many people had vanished from their lives. At that time it was common – people disappeared without a trace, like the character in Daniil Kharms’s famous poem about a man who walked out of his house and was never seen again. Later the poet himself vanished. (On her mother’s disappearance)

One aspect of the book which was perhaps a little shocking was the willingness of Ludmilla’s mother to leave her with relatives or in homes and just go off; I guess needs must, and I’ve no idea how hard it was to live through the War and then post-War in Soviet Russia. However, it’s clear how much Petrushevskaya misses her mother and I did find this very moving. The daughter did, of course, survive and went on to have a fascinating life and a career, moving into the limelight after Perestroika and the fall of Communist Russia; and she’s now a multi-faceted artist, producing visual art and embarking upon a singing career as well as her writing.

There is nothing more beautiful than the steppe. Nothing. Even the ocean is smaller and ends sooner. For the rest of my days I will remember the sunrise over the steppe: a recently ploughed purple earth and an orange sun trembling over the horizon like an enormous egg yolk.

“Metropol…” is a gripping and enthralling read from start to finish, and the book is enhanced by the images included; some are personal photos from the author, and some photos to illustrate places and times. These add much to the narrative, and as an aside, I was really impressed with the quality of reproduction. I’ve read a number of paperbacks in recent months which have photos inserted into the main body of the narrative, and these are often muddy and of poor quality. I don’t know if it’s because my copy of the book is a US Penguin edition and the paper quality is better, but the images are really clear and well reproduced, which definitely enhanced the reading experience.

So my first experience of reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was a really powerful and memorable one. Her prose is excellent, her experiences unforgettable and her vivid portrait of life in Soviet Russia quite unparalleled. I loved making the acquaintance of Petrushevskaya for #WITMonth and really must get to her fictions soon! 😀


A little post-Christmas and Birthday round-up


As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, I am blessed (cursed?) with having a birthday fairly close to Christmas. It means I have to wait all year without celebrations and then two come along at once… Which can be a nuisance; but as my friends and family know me well, it also means there are often a fair amount of bookish incomings at this time of the year. Despite the fact that 2020  has been the year from hell and unlike any other, it’s comforting to find I still have piles of incoming books to share… ;D

First up the birthday pile:

There are some rather fascinating books in the heap, some of which I requested and some of which were inspirational choices by Mr. Kaggsy! From the bottom up, there’s “The Way of the World” by Nicolas Bouvier from Youngest Child; from what I’ve heard this should be a fascinating travel book! Then there’s “Moscow in the Plague Year” by Marina Tsvetaeva courtesy my Little Brother – he thinks the combination of Russia and Poetry and depression is ideal for me! ;D

Next up on the pile is Emile Zola – the first two books in his great cycle of novels. I have kind of conceived a desire to read the whole lot in sequence (gulp!) so requested these from Brother-In-Law. Then we get to Mr. Kaggsy’s choices, and he has done well. I love Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, so a pair of books by and about them promise great things. Mr. K. had a great attack of inspiration when he decided on the “Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader” as I don’t have this, and it’s stuffed full of fascinating stuff, as is “Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction”. The final book from Mr. K, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”, is one I’d never heard of – but it sounds a hoot!

Finally, atop the pile is volume 1 of the Journal of Montaigne’s Travels from my BFF J. (I am expecting remaining volumes to arrive later) – an antique and very pretty edition. Yay! Lovely birthday treats, all – and I’m keen to pick them all up at once, of course!

As for the Christmas arrivals, I sometimes expect to get less in the way of books but this year has seen some lovely books turning up under the tree:

I was a little knocked out by all the arrivals! To look more closely, from the bottom up, first we have books from family:

The bottom three are from Mr. Kaggsy, who managed to once again successfully get me books I want and don’t have – result! The next three are from the Offspring – thank you children! – and the top book is from brother-in-law who is usually good at following instructions re gifts…!

Next up is bookish arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa! As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m part of the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing, and each year we do a little Secret Santa. This year my gifts were from Alvaret, who I know through her own blog, and she sent me the most wonderful books!

Thoughtfully, she included one book from my wishlist (Nancy Spain), one she thought I would like based on my reading taste (“The Boarding School Girl” – spot on!) and a book she would like me to read (“The Brothers Lionheart” – I’m intrigued!) Such lovely gifts – thank you!

Last but not least, books from friends:

The Ocampo is an impromptu gift from the lovely Jacqui – thank you so much! Perfect! In the middle is volume 2 of the Montaigne mentioned above – hopefully volume 3 will eventually make an appearance… And finally, “The Salt Path” is from my old friend V. – an inspired choice, as I’ve been thinking I should read this one for a loooong time!

So I have been very spoiled bookishly in the last couple of weeks – and once I have shaken this “Underland” book hangover off, I will really have to try to choose what to read next! 😀

Gogol, translations and missing fragments – some ramblings… #gogol


I mentioned in my review of the Russian Library edition of Gogol, “The Nose and Other Stories”, that I would be posting on the subject of Gogol collections generally – and it’s certainly a fairly complex topic! Now, I own a reasonably substantial collection of Gogol editions, and here it is:

The Gogol tower…

That’s quite a pile of fiction from a man who didn’t produce *that* many works.. Breaking down the heap a little, some of the items are quite straightforward…

This is “The Government Inspector”, Gogol’s most famous play. Two versions of it – my original in the blue cover which I would have picked up in the 1980s, and the recent lovely Alma Classics version which I reviewed here. Nothing complex about that!

Next up, “Taras Bulba”. A Cossack epic, apparently… I haven’t actually read it and possibly won’t (but you never know). However, the completist in me picked up this lurid covered edition, again most likely back in the ’80s, because I wanted to have everything Gogol I could get!

“Dead Souls” should really need no introduction. It’s Gogol’s work of genius, and again I first read it back in the 1980s, in the David Magarshack-translated edition on the top of the pile. I re-read it in 2015 in the Robert Maguire translation and loved it all over again. The bottom version is translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney for when I want to revisit it…. ;D

OK. This is where it gets more complicated… Gogol wrote a *lot* of short stories and the books above are the collections or individual stories I own. Though I’m sure there are a lot more out there. But here’s the thing – not one of these collections is *complete* and that’s what I actually would like! According to Wikipedia, these are the short stories/collections Gogol published:

Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, volume I of short story collection (1831):

The Fair at Sorochintsï
St John’s Eve
May Night, or the Drowned Maiden
The Lost Letter: A Tale Told by the Sexton of the N…Church

Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, volume II of short story collection (1832):

Christmas Eve
A Terrible Vengeance
Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt
A Bewitched Place

Arabesques, short story collection (1835):

The Portrait
A Chapter from an Historical Novel (fragment)
Nevsky Prospect
The Prisoner (fragment)
Diary of a Madman

Mirgorod, short story collection in two volumes (1835):

The Old World Landowners
Taras Bulba
The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich

The Nose, short story (1835-1836)
The Carriage, short story (1836)
Rome, fragment (1842)
The Overcoat, short story (1842)

But the thing is, there appears to be no English complete collection of all of these stories which I think is actually a bit shocking. All the anthologies select, and they select differently. Fair enough, but if you’re going to mix and match from Ukrainian tales and Petersburg tales, why not just do a complete collection with *all* of his stories for those of us who love his work?

As you will have seen, I have a battered old ex-library book containing the collected Pevear/Volokhonsky translations, which again is not complete but has stories I don’t have in other volumes. I want to offload it, frankly, which sent me searching online and I came up with this Wordsworth edition:

It was £2.50 and it has a really wide range of the stories, including the ones I was missing that were in the P/V edition… So of course I sent off for it and it now sits happily on my shelf and the unwanted one is in the donation box. The translations are mostly by Constance Garnett and I’m happy with that. It has a version of “The Portrait”, too and I’m going to be interested to see which one…

BUT! I am still missing things, although I’m happy to have near complete Gogol now. The two fragments listed above as being in “Arabesques”, “A Chapter from an Historical Novel” and “The Prisoner” don’t seem to be anywhere in any of the collections I have, and I’ve failed so far to track them down anywhere else. If anyone know if they’re out there anywhere in English, I’d be very happy to hear about it. In the meantime, I am going to have to hang onto all the varying collections I own to make sure I have as many of the short works as possible. Really – unless I’m missing something obvious, isn’t it about time we had a complete Gogol edition for us Anglophone readers???? ;D

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