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The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

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#1968 – Some previous reads

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When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!

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There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read pre-blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂

 

Reading Plans and Challenges for 2013

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I should confess up front that I’ve never really been one to plan ahead with my reading. I’ve always read on a whim, whatever my reading mojo feels it must read – and in fact if I feel I *should* read something it often puts me off. However, since starting to blog about books I have started to focus a little and plan my forthcoming reads a tiny bit – and I have often managed to stick to the plans! I greatly admire those who can decide what they’re going to read for the next month (or indeed the next 12 months) and then stay on track.

Having said that, I am going to set myself a few goals for 2013:

1. Read more books from the TBR – and conversely try to purchase a few less…

2. Heavenali and lots of other lovely LibraryThing VMC group members are having a Barbara Pym readalong for 2013 and so I shall be joining in and reading a Pym a month – as the books I have by Pym are on the TBR this will help with goal 1!

3. Simon at Stuck in a Book is having a group read of Julia Strachey’s “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding” in January – as I have already read this book once, I shall join in and this will help with goal 4:

4. Heavenali is hosting a month of re-reading in January – which I think is an admirable thing to do because as she rightly points out, “That first experience of a book can’t be entirely re-created, but it can be enhanced.”  I won’t commit completely to re-reading only, but I shall re-read as many titles as I can fit in alongside my new reading.

5. I have started to collect Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, aiming to get a set in lovely vintage orange Penguin. As there are 12 books, I’ve decided to commit to reading one a month. They are, after all, slim volumes and I think I should be able to manage this – and it is less intimidating than sitting down to read all 12 in one session!

So, to specific books for January:

gazelle

Some Tame Gazelle – the first of the Barbara Pym titles

powell
A Question of Upbringing – the first of the Anthony Powells

cheerful
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – I have this lovely Penguin version

happy m
Happy Moscow – a new translation by Robert Chandler which is therefore a re-read (as I read the previous translation from the library) and a new read!

ivan denis
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – another dual purpose book as this is also a new translation

Other possibles on the soon-to-be-read-hopefully pile are in the picture below – whether I get to them or get distracted is another matter, especially as there are all the Christmas and birthday books to think of. I think I need a month off work to catch up……

jan possibles

Recent Reads: In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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After about ten days of joyous reading, I have actually finished the chunkster! And I must say that it has been a remarkably rewarding experience. This is one of the longest books I have read in a long while, and sinking myself into the depths of it, not rushing myself, becoming involved in the characters and their lives and fates, has been marvellous – and has also convinced me that I haven’t lost the knack of reading long works!

“In The First Circle” has had a chequered history. On the back of the success of “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich”, which Solzhenitsyn had somehow managed to get published in the Soviet Union in 1962, the author decided to try to get more of his work out there. He knew that ITFC was unlikely to be published in its original format, so he edited it heavily, changing a number of plot details and removing whole chapters in the hope that the censors would pass it. They didn’t – but the truncated copy was smuggled to the West and published there in 1968 to great acclaim.

However, once Solzhenitsyn had defected to the West, he worked on reinstating the missing material and putting ITFC back into its original state. This 96 chapter version was finally published in English in 1999, translated by his approved linguist, Harry Willetts, and this is the volume I read.

1st

Firstly, a short plot summary from Wikipedia:

In the First Circle depicts the lives of the occupants of a sharashka (a R&D bureau made of gulag inmates) located in the Moscow suburbs. This novel is highly autobiographical. Many of the prisoners (zeks) are technicians or academics who have been arrested under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code in Joseph Stalin’s purges following the Second World War. Unlike inhabitants of other gulag labour camps, the sharashka zeks were adequately fed and enjoy good working conditions; however if they found disfavour with the authorities, they could be instantly shipped to Siberia.

The title is an allusion to Dante’s first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy wherein the philosophers of Greece, and other non-Christians, live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, as they were born before Christ, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, makes a telephone call he feels obligated to his conscience to make, even though he knows he risks arrest. His call was taped and the NKVD seek to identify who made the call.

The sharashka prisoners work on technical projects to assist state security agencies and generally pander to Stalin’s increasing paranoia. While most are aware of how much better off they are than “regular” Gulag prisoners, some are also conscious of the overwhelming moral dilemma of working to aid a system that is the cause of so much suffering. Lev Rubin is tasked with identifying the voice in the recorded phone call, he examines printed spectrographs of the voice and compares them with recordings of Volodin and five other suspects. He narrows it down to Volodin and one other suspect, both of whom are arrested.

By the end of the book, several zeks, including Gleb Nerzhin, the autobiographical hero, choose to stop cooperating, even though their choice means being sent to much deadlier camps. Volodin, initially crushed by the ordeal of his arrest, begins to find encouragement at the end of his first night in prison.

However, a bare bones description of the plot gives no real hint of the richness and complexity of this novel. It’s remarkably well constructed and features a disparate cast of characters who are in fact connected by a complex web, which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. The story features a wide range of people, from the zeks, who are portrayed as having a relatively comfortable existence in the special prison, compared with those in Siberia; their wives and families, trying to scrape out an existence in the free world but often shunned because of their prisoner family members; the free employees of Marfino, who supervise the work of the zeks but in many cases become involved with them; the officers and the officials of the various state agencies who are often in conflict with each other while desperately hanging on to their positions; even the Great Leader, Stalin himself, is portrayed.

Because the book is so rich in characters, it’s hard to pick out just some to focus one, but my favourites included:

Ruska, a young zek mechanic who falls in love with Klara, a prosecutor;
Klara herself, who finds this love so unexpectedly, only to have it snatched away.
Gleb Nerzhin, the main autobiographical character, a mathematician who represents Solzhenitsyn
Nadya, Gleb’s wife, a student in Moscow, waiting patiently for her husband, but has been unable to see him for a year, and is afraid to let anyone know her husband is a prisoner because of the consequences to her
Lev Rubin, a hardened communist who refuses to accept that the regime is wrong, despite having imprisoned him. Rubin is instrumental in the downfall of Volodin and the character is based on one of Solzhenitsyn’s friends
Sologdin is another designer working on the various scientific projects, and apparently based on another friend of Solzhenitsyn.
Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, used to the good life and married to another daughter of the prosecutor. It is his actions at the start of the book that have such a dramatic effect on the rest of the characters.
To say that the action takes place over 4 days is perhaps slightly misleading. Although the actions of the first chapter set in motion a train of events which will come to fruition over the following 96 hours, Solzhenitsyn does not restrict our understanding of the characters to only what we see happen to them during that period. Instead, he enriches our experience of them with the use of flashbacks and memories, each character recalling events from their lives and things that have brought them to this point in time. Some of these ‘back stories’ occur over several chapters, as in the sequence in which the Great Leader recalls his life and his rise to power. And each is illuminating and speaks with the individual voice of the character who is narrating it.

The structure of the book is unusual in that the narration is described as “polyphonic”. Although in the third person, each chapter or sequence of chapters is told from the viewpoint of a different character. This enables us to get to know them all well and also creates a more intimate style of storytelling than that of an omniscient narrator but without the restrictions of a first person narrative. These shifting perspectives enable us to see events outside the sharashka and also allow us to appreciate different characters’ views of the same situation.

Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Panin(Lev Rubin, Gleb Nerzhin and Dmitri Sologdin in The First Circle)

Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Panin
(Lev Rubin, Gleb Nerzhin and Dmitri Sologdin in The First Circle)

The story is of course based on events in Solzhenitsyn’s life and men he knew. Like Gleb, he was imprisoned in a scientific research prison (Marfino) and we presume that the book is in fact a roman-a-clef. This is no criticism however – it would be a foolish author who claimed that his work was not influenced by his life, and if you have lived through remarkable experiences and times it makes sense to turn them into fiction, into a work that will outlive you and talk to future generations.

And this book does talk to us – it paints a remarkable picture of what it was like to live under the Soviet regime: the fear; the impossibility of fighting back against a complex and iron-fisted bureaucracy; the distrust of fellow man; the mindless cruelty; the blind following of the cause. There is a magnificent chapter where many of the prison staff have to attend an educational talk on the Soviet state which is littered with meaningless sentences and statements which make no sense at all, which nevertheless they all have to pretend to agree with.

Marfino

Marfino

One of the most moving sequences in the book is the chapter 61 when Innokenty visits his mother’s brother, Uncle Avenir, whom he barely knows and has not seen since her death. Despite this, and Ink’s initial doubts, the two men discover an instant family bond and are soon exchanging deep and treasonous opinions. Uncle Avenir is a secret memory man, retaining old newspapers back to the time of the revolution which show how the party line has changed and history has been re-written. His connection with his Uncle is one of the things which changes Innokenty irrevocably so that he goes on to take the momentous action of the first chapter.

And irrevocable actions happen at several points during the book. Many of the characters make heartbreaking decisions which they know they will result in them being sent to Siberian camps and probable death, but they also know that they will be failing themselves morally if they do not make those decisions. Innokenty’s phone call, Gleb’s refusal to join a cryptography research group, Gerasimovich’s refusal to work on a project which will enable the Cheka to spy on other citizens, Ruska’s decision to put his status as an informer at risk by letting other zeks know who the informers are – these are all moral decisions with far-reaching consequences but which allow their makers to rise above their captors.

The book also captures brilliantly how institutionalised the zeks have become after years of captivity – a kind of captivity with no hope of justice or freedom at the end of it. In the West, a prisoner knows he or she will be released when they have served their term but under this regime there is no prosect of escape:

Their dreams were all different, but whatever they dreamed, the sleepers were miserably aware that they were prisoners. If in their dreams they roamed over green grass or through city streets, it could mean only that they had tricked their jailers and escaped or had been released in error and were now wanted men. That total, blissful forgetfulness of their shackles imagined by Longfellow in “The Prisoner’s Dream” was denied them. The shock of wrongful arrests, followed by a ten- or twenty-year sentence, the baying of guard dogs, the sound of escort  troops priming their rifles, the nerve-racking jangle of reveille in the camps, seep through all the strata of ordinary experience, through all their secondary and even primary instincts, into a prisoner’s very bones so that, sleeping, he remembers that he is in jail before he becomes aware of smoke or the smell of burning and gets up to find the place on fire.  (chapter 71)

Solzhenitsyn allows his characters free rein to discuss their beliefs. And many of them do disagree quite violently – the chapters covering the disagreement of the communist Rubin and the religious Sologdin being a case in point, where the author describes the argument beautifully:

Like an express train rushing through the night, stopping nowhere, past rural stops, past wayside signal lights, across empty steppes, and through brightly lit towns, their argument sped over light and dark places in their memories, and everything that briefly loomed threw an uncertain light on, elicited a muffled echo from, their uncontrollably swaying, coupled thoughts. (chapter 69)

The irony is that it is only in prisoner that the characters can discuss their beliefs and feelings this freely – outside in the so-called free world they would be arrested instantly for any of the views they profess. Nerzhin starts the book as a sceptic having reached that point after much reading and thought, and he has a somewhat cynical outlook:

…..Nerzhin saw the People differently. None of his books had prepared him for his new insight. “The People” did not mean all those who speak your language, nor yet the chosen few branded with the fiery mark of genius. Neither birth nor the labor of your hands nor the privileges of education admit you to membership of the People.
    Only your soul can do that.
    And each of fashions his soul himself, year in and year out.
    You must strive to temper and to cut and polish your soul so as to become a human being. And hence a humble component of your people.
    A man with such a soul cannot as a rule expect to prosper, to go far in his career, to get rich. Which is why for the most part “the People” is not to be found at the higher levels of society. (chapter 66)

Solzhenitsyn is a master at portraying the realities of the Soviet regime – the chapters where Innokenty is arrested, then transferred to prison, give a chilling and detailed description of the whole dehumanising process. But it is not just the men who suffer – the women characters have to endure separation from their loved ones, a scrabble for survival, lack of money, the endless bureacracy which affects everything from their chances to qualify through university or the simple ability to eat well. Chapter chapter 82 indoctrination in optimism – women on the outside and their hideous lives of grinding poverty and shortages

I should say here that I hadn’t actually read all of the truncated version “The First Circle”, only the first half-dozen or so chapters – but a quick comparison reveals how much more powerful the original, restored version is. The catalyst for action in the first chapter is watered down in the cut version from the passing of atomic secrets from the USA to Russia, to a warning to a doctor that he is about to be arrested. The impact is considerably lessened and it is hard to accept that Innokenty would risk his comfortable in the cut version, whereas it is entirely believable in the original, restored book.

I find this book easy and a delight to read, but I do accept that it’s not for everyone and the fact that I’ve steeped myself in Russian culture and history helps! A basic knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet years that followed it would be useful to any reader, but it isn’t essential – there is always the Internet to check up on an unclear reference! And on a practical level, there is a useful list of characters names and who they are at the front of the book.

I find it astonishing that people have criticised Solzhenitsyn’s writing and claimed that he has only received attention because of the circumstances about which he is writing. This book is a remarkable piece of work – brilliantly written and constructed, populated with real, believable characters and painting a living picture of a group of human beings’ lives. I came out of the book feeling as if I had lived alongside the events in and around Marfino and I still have mental images of the action and the characters in my head.

As Wikipedia states:

The novel addresses numerous philosophical themes, and through multiple narratives is a powerful argument both for a stoic integrity and humanism. Like other Solzhenitsyn works, the book illustrates the difficulty in maintaining dignity within a system designed to strip its inhabitants of it.

My personal belief is that Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has suffered because of his refusal to embrace Western values. When he left Russia, the West (America in particular) seemed to want him to reject his cultural heritage and espouse Western views. But he never did this, pursuing his own beliefs and agenda to the end. Whether or not you agree with his views (and I don’t always) this doesn’t give you the right to condemn his writing with no grounds. His books are wonderful windows into a dark time, peopled with living characters and situations, and I highly recommend them to anyone who loves literature.

Russian Reading Month: Final Day and Update!

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Well, it’s the last day of November and so Russian Reading Month draws to a close!  I have enjoyed taking part in this and I certainly won’t be stopping reading the Russians just because it will soon be December – especially as I still have to complete “In The First Circle”, which will run on well into the next month!

russia-c

But I’m very pleased with the books I have read for this challenge which have been:

The Conquered City by Victor Serge

Nicolai Gogol by Nabokov

Faust by Turgenev

Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky

and over half of In The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn!

The month has also been fascinating because it’s made me think much more about the volumes I’ve read in the past, the translators and their translations and what it is I really enjoy about Russian books.  I’m also keen to re-read many of my old favourites like Ilf and Petrov. So thanks to Tuesday in Silhouette for setting this up – it’s been great fun!

As for the chunkster – it’s turning out to be a great joy. Everything I read by Solzhenitsyn raises his status as a writer in my eyes, and “In The First Circle” is no exception.  It’s a complex, well constructed and many layered work, but surprisingly easy to read and I shall look forward to reviewing it soon!

 

Freedom

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“…you are strong only as long as you don’t deprive people of everything. For a person you’ve taken everything from is no longer in your power. He’s free all over again.”

― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, In The First Circle

Russian Reading Month: …in which I take on a chunkster!

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I’ve noticed a tendency in myself recently to read only shorter works. This isn’t something that’s always been my reading mode – I’ve happily sunk myself into massively long volumes in the past with no issue at all and with great enjoyment. But on thinking about it, I think that embarking on this blog is something to do with it. I’ve been reading shorter works so I can get a review out every day or two, and small volumes are therefore more manageable. This is Not Necessarily A Good Thing – so I have given myself a bit of a talking to and reminded myself that at the end of the day, I read for pleasure and I read what I feel like reading, and that it doesn’t matter if I don’t post for a week!

So – I take on a chunkster! The book in question is one that’s been on my TBR mountain for a couple of years in its present form and for about 35 in its original form! In case that statement causes any confusion I’ll explain – in my teens I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and after reading “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich” I got hold of all of his books that I could – most of them in Penguins from the 1970s or thereabouts. One such was “The First Circle” and I confess to never having got very far into it.

However, a couple of years ago I discovered that this volume had been severely truncated by the author in the 1960s in an attempt to get it published by the Soviet authorities, following the success of “Ivan”. Needless to say, they wouldn’t have anything to do with it, but it was this shortened version that had been published in the West, somewhat out of Solzhenitsyn’s control. After he defected to the West, he restored the work to its original form and this version was published shortly after his death, in a version by his approved translator, Henry Willetts (under the title “In The First Circle”). I demanded a copy from family for Christmas 2010 but didn’t get very far into it – at 700+ pages I was a bit daunted.

By Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

But – 700-odd pages or not, I am determined to read this. Solzhenitsyn seems to be in some ways a forgotten author which is a great shame. When I was growing up he was ubiquitous because of his political stand and his defection to the West, and his books were very highly regarded. However, I think his public persona and his politics have got in the way of perception of him as an author. I read “Cancer Ward” within the last few years and was blown away. I think he’s a remarkably good writer and I’m looking forward very much to getting sunk into “In The First Circle”.

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