A multiplicity of narrators…


A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

NYRB have, over recent years, become one of my favourite publishers, and I always check out their list of forthcoming books with great interest. So I was very excited when I saw that they’d be publishing a sparkly new translation of Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” (which is out today) and was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers.


Sokolov and his book have a fascinating history. The author was born in Canada in 1943, where his father was a Soviet diplomat; they were deported in 1946 for spying and returned to the Soviet Union. After studying journalism at Moscow State University, Sokolov made numerous unsuccessful attempts to leave the country (after all, he *was* a Canadian citizen!). “A School for Fools” was written in a remote part of the upper Volga and as it could not be published in Russia, was smuggled to the west by his second wife. Here, it was picked up Carl and Ellendea Proffer of the Ardis publishing house and became a sensation. Sokolov was finally allowed to emigrate in 1975 and although he has published three other works, he is quoted as saying that he keeps writing, but doesn’t want to be published any more (I wonder if this qualifies him as one of the Bartlebys?)


You might be forgiven for being a little apprehensive about approaching a book which is described thus on the reverse: “If Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this”. And indeed, it’s difficult to know quite how to summarise such a unique book, but I’ll try to give a little bit of an outline. “A School for Fools” is narrated by a young man who is actually two young men – or more precisely someone suffering from a split personality. He/they attend the titular school as they obviously don’t function well in r/l, and their time is divided between the city (Moscow) and a dacha on the outskirts. The cast of characters is fairly small – the narrator(s) and his/their parents, the staff of the school (including the headteacher Perillo and his deputy Trachtenberg/Tinbergen, the latter often doubling as a building superintendent), and the narrator(s)’ favourite pedagogue, Savl/Pavel Petrovich Norvegov. There are also “Those Who Came”, the postman Mikheev/Medvedev, the narrator(s)’ beloved Veta Akatova, Veta’s father and Rosa, beloved of Norvegov. As the story progresses we learn of the narrator(s)’ love of Veta, something of his/their background, his love of butterfly collecting, of life in the School and of the fate of Savl/Pavel.

I am talking like a novel and that makes me uneasy and ridiculous…

None of this, of course, unfolds in a straightforward linear narrative – in fact, “A School for Fools” has to be one of the most arresting books I’ve ever read (and I *have* read some unusual ones in my time, including Burroughs’ cut-up masterpieces). Initially, on approaching the opening pages, you do rather wonder if you’ll actually be *able* to read the book or make any sense of it, but oddly enough it ends up being surprisingly understandable. Despite the apparent disconnectedness of the narrative, a vivid picture builds up of the little settlement by the river, and its inhabitants, as well as the city school and its pupils. The narrators converse with themselves throughout, and this is often a book of digressions, with the story going off in several tangents and eventually coming back to its starting point. Nevertheless, it *does* always make sense and by the end you have a strong sense of the narrator(s)’ life and also what it must be like to live with multiple personalities.

Forgive me, sir, it seems to me that I digressed too far from the essence of our conversation.

The narrator(s) also struggle with a confused sense of time, and the story slips backwards and forwards so that it’s not always clear what is past and present, who is dead or alive. The river of Lethe is referenced often, in particular as running through the little dacha village, and the forgetfulness this implies is often felt by the narrator(s). There is much talk of crossing the river to the other side, which ties in the uncertainty about the state of the living or dead, and the vivid imagery of the story builds up a stunning and intoxicating narrative.


With a book as involved as this there are obviously going to be many different levels, and as the excellent notes by translator Alexander Boguslawski reveal, there is a dazzling array of references in the book to Russian history, customs and literature. The notes guide you through some, and there are obvious nods to Nabokov with the butterflies (apparently he loved the book); but there are others I picked up that hadn’t been highlighted – for example, a reference to Mayakovsky’s poem which ends:

And you
could you perform
a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?

as well as a desert crucifixion scene which not only contained hints of “The Master and Margarita” but also reflected the split personality of the narrator.

In fact, this is very much a book of dualities and bearing in mind its history, it seems clear to me that Sokolov is also meditating on the double nature of Soviet life. If anything, the book made me think of Christa Wolf’s “The Quest for Christa T.”. I commented when I reviewed that book “All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully” and I felt this element present in ASFF, as the author gradually builds up layers of the story. Under the Soviet regime what was important often had to be hidden and little phrases slipped into the narrative, like “resurrecting from the dead all those whose mouths uttered the truth”, emphasise this point.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the sometimes paragraph-long sentences, the prose is quite beautiful and hypnotic (and indeed, Sokolov has coined the term ‘proetry’ for such writing). Little gem of sentences and truisms jump out at you all the way through until you end up with a forest of sticky notes marking particularly striking sections.

A book is the best gift, everything best in me I owe to books, book after books, cherish books – they ennoble and refine one’s taste, you look in a book but see gobbledygook, a book is a man’s best friend, it enhances interiors, exteriors, and fox terriers.

And there are so many themes here, including the constant coming of the winds (perhaps an allegory for the sweeping down of the Soviet authorities) but most importantly the question of identities; these are fluid in the book, with the shifting and changing of names, and this is something that’s very relevant to life under Soviet rule when many were not who they seemed to be. Time is seen as flexible and as uncertain as identity.

And you yourself, who are you? You don’t know. You’ll get to know it later, when you string the beads of memory. When you consist of memories. When you turn entirely into memories.

I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.


I should commend separately Alexander Boguslawski for rendering what is obviously an extremely complex book into English, together with the helpful and unobtrusive notes (Boguslawski mentions that these are not indicated in the text so as not to interrupt the flow of the reading and I think that’s excellent in this case). In particular, he seems to have captured the absurdity and sense of word-play present in the original. The book was original translated rapidly by Carl Proffer and was in need of an update; add to this the fact that Sokolov has tweaked the novel over the years, and that he was consulted by Boguslawski during the translation process and you end up with what is obviously the essential version!

(Many thanks to Emma at NYRB for arranging the review copy – much appreciated!)


The 1924 Club: A Different Perspective


Simon’s tongue-in-comment on my post about Zamyatin’s “We”, to the effect that he was glad I’d found something Russian to read from 1924, actually led me onto some quite deep thoughts about the state of Russia in the 1920s. The country had been ravaged by years of conflict – the First World War followed by successive revolutions and then a devastating Civil War. The fledgling Soviet state was suffering from famines and shortages, isolated from the rest of the world and trying desperately to keep itself together as an entity. Amazingly enough, in the middle of all this the arts continued to flourish. The visual artists had embraced Constructivism which spread from painting and sculptures into film and theatre. Writers like Mayakovsky used their work for propaganda, slipping into agitprop posters as well as poetry and plays. The initial cultural boom would be crushed by Stalin’s increasing iron grip, but for a while the arts were in the vanguard.

I wondered whether I had any other Russian works on my shelves that would fit into the year we’re following, and hit upon the idea of short stories. I have a number of Russian collections but alas, many don’t give information about the dates of publication. But fortunately one did – “Soviet Short Stories”, edited and introduced by F.D. Reeve. Three of the tales featured in the book appeared in 1924 and so I set about reading them.

1924 soviet

The stories are Isaac Babel’s “A Letter”, Alexander Fadeyev’s “About Love” and Mikhail Sholokov’s “A Family Man”, and they’re all short and dramatic pieces. The first and the last are particularly strong, both telling of the harsh aftermath of the Civil War. Babel’s “A Letter” contains just that – a moving missive home from a soldier, revealing the dark extremes of behaviour. Sholokov’s brutal tale, set amongst the Cossacks, shows just how families were torn apart and turned against each other in an ideological war that really did rip the countryside to pieces. Both of these short pieces show the divides within families and how different generations reacted to the conflict and chose sides regardless of familial loyalties. Fadeyev’s “About Love” is a different kind of story, all about the contrariness of human emotions, and how we love someone more when they don’t love us and vice versa,

The war tales in particular made for stark reading – neither author pulls his punches and the visceral events and human impact is powerful. Fadeyev’s story has a bleakness less physical but still ends up making you wonder about the point of life and love. None of these stories was easy reading, but they did serve as a reminder of how different 1924 was depending upon the country in which you lived. Although all of Europe was recovering from conflict in different ways, it could be argued that the Russian people suffered more than most – a timely illustration of the fact that the 1920s were not all glitter and parties and jazz…

“… a white cloak with blood-red lining…”


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the things I’ve been promising myself for some time now is a re-read of Bulgakov’s masterwork “The Master and Margarita”. It’s a book I read and loved many years ago, and then fell in love with again more recently when I watched the 2005 Russian TV miniseries. The time had to be right, though, and recently when I was between books and unsure, I just picked it up and started reading. And, oh my! Am I glad I did so!


“The Master and Margarita” was unpublished during Bulgakov’s lifetime (and could perhaps be regarded as unfinished, only finally coming to print in the 1960s. Summarising it is not easy, but here goes nothing. One hot spring evening in 1930s Moscow, the Devil materialises in Patriarch’s Ponds, along with his retinue: an unpredictable and manic ex-choirmaster called variously Korovyev or Fagot (bassoon); and a large black cat called Behemoth with a habit of walking around on his hind legs, a fondness for vodka and a very garrulous tongue (he’s also a bit of a pyromaniac!). Encountering a proletariat poet Ivan Bezdomny (Homeless) and a literary editor Berlioz, they debate the existence of God and the Devil. The narrative then takes a turn into a story of Pontius Pilate, which runs through the whole work, related sometimes by Woland (the Devil), sometimes in a book by a writer known only as the Master, and sometimes in dreams. Woland and his retinue (mainly the retinue, to be honest!) proceed to cause havoc, death and destruction in Moscow. Ivan ends up in a clinic, where he encounters a mysterious man known only as the Master. The latter is the author of the story of Pilate, but has been crushed by the vilification he received by the critics and authorities, and is separated from the woman he loves and who loves him – Margarita.

Behemoth, Azazello and Korovyev, in the 2005 Russian TV adaptation

Behemoth, Azazello and Korovyev, in the 2005 Russian TV adaptation

The tale rushes on, with Woland’s Midnight Ball taking place, where Margarita is hostess and greets a hideous collection of the dead; Korovyev and Behemoth cause havoc wherever they go; Pilate searches for peace and revenge; and Margarita seeks to be reunited with the Master. Can peace be restored to all and will Moscow ever recover from the confusion?

That’s some of the bare bones of what is a rich, complex and quite fascinating novel, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. And yet, despite its complexity and length, I found M&M incredibly easy to read. It’s full of the most wonderful set pieces – a ‘magic show’ at the Variety Theatre, where Korovyev and Behemoth play tricks on greedy Muscovites, while Woland gets the chance to observe them; Korovyev and Behemoth’s visit to the Torgsin store (which you just *know* will not end well); Margarita’s flight through night-time Moscow and her revenge on Latunsky; the execution of Yeshua; well, I could list them forever!


Korovyev and Margarita at the Ball

So you might think from some of the initial impressions you get that this book is just a wacky satire, and that is one of the superficial elements; but it’s also very deep and has much, much more than just historical high-jinks. On a basic level, the Master can be taken as a self-portrait of Bulgakov (and I hadn’t realised quite how much on my first read of this book, but this became much clearer after having read his letters and diaries). Persecuted by the critics, unable to publish or make a living, the Master has struggled to create his mammoth life of Pilate, only to have it torn to pieces. He does not survive the attack (unlike Bulgakov, who fought on to keep writing, composing this book right up until his early death), and ends up in the clinic, broken and unwilling or unable to consider writing again. However, he could also stand for any number of Russian writers who were persecuted, and with the burning of manuscripts (which Bulgakov also undertook) you could draw a parallel with Gogol, who indeed burned the second part of his great work “Dead Souls” so that we’ll never know what was to come next.

Bulgakov is obviously using his work to critique the Soviet regime, and cleverly much of his comment is hidden in the Yershalaim sections of the book: a repressive regime (the Romans), arrests, torture, execution, spying and betrayal. The section where Pilate discusses the fate of Judas with the mysterious executioner Afranius is a model of double-speak, with even the chapter title being ironic, and it’s hard to see how this could ever have been published during Stalin’s time (but then Bulgakov did know that he was writing for the drawer).

And the book certainly gets you thinking about the fine line between good and evil, because nothing is black and white in M&M. Woland is the devil; Yeshua is a messiah. One is good, one evil, you would think but it’s not that simple. Yeshua here (and it needs to be pointed out that this is not just a Gospel retelling; this is Bulgakov’s – and the Master’s – telling of a tale of a historical figure who might have existed, a simple man who believed in peace and was turned into a figurehead); anyway, this Yeshua is no hero, no leader and perhaps is morally ambiguous. His fame will rest on the myth that grows up around him, and he even tells Pilate at one point that the things written down about him are untrue. Conversely, Woland, who should be purely bad, ends up being a force for good. In a pivotal exchange between Woland and Levi Matvei (Matthew), the former says:

“But would you ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living things. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?”

and he’s right. Human beings can’t imagine heaven (the subject of an interesting recent post here) and we can’t imagine a world without striving and searching. So although we follow the Yershalaim sections of the book, thinking that we know what’s to come, our perceptions become skewed as we’re constantly reminded that this isn’t the familiar Biblical tale we expect. Interestingly, the more obvious Biblical elements in fact turn up transposed into the Moscow sections (a last supper with 12 attendees for example).

Bulgakov as the Master?

Bulgakov as the Master?

M&M works on so many different levels that it’s hardly surprising it took Bulgakov from 1929 till the end of his life to write it (and he was still revising it at his death). You can read it simply as a very funny satire, as its portrait of bureacracy-bound 1930s Moscow with its niggling regulations and pomposity is unparalleled; you can enjoy the wonderfully joyous romp as the characters cut through the pettiness of Soviet daily life; you can look at the criticisms of the regime hidden in the book and get a real feeling of what it was like to live under such an authoritarian system; you can enjoy Bulgakov’s take on the historical story of Yeshua; and you can see the painful struggle that Bulgakov and other authors had to try to create their art and have it recognised.

But more than anything the moral element shines through; the need for integrity, for tolerance, for a world where light and shade both exist to balance each other out and where humans can put aside their difference and trust one another. It is the *system* that prevents Pilate from saving Yeshua from execution, an event which will torment him for aeons; when all he wanted to do was walk with the preacher and talk with him. In fact, Pilate emerges from the book as a genuinely tragic character, and the resolution of his story is one of the most moving parts.

There’s so much more I could talk about: Bosoi and the currency; Varenukha and the vampires; everyone wanting reinforced cells; Bulgakov’s incredible use of the imagery of weather; the Moscow housing crisis (which turns up in every one of his books, it seems!); the significance of primus stoves; the motif of composers’ names for characters (Berlioz, Stravinsky, Rimsky); other recurring motifs (sun, moon, knives, roses, severed heads); the fate of Ivan; and of course the influence of “Faust” (Bulgakov was fond of the opera and the legend); but I fear there’s enough in this book for several university theses!

The terrible two

The terrible two

“The Master and Margarita” is truly a masterpiece; this is only my second read of the book, and already I feel I understood so much more from this time round. The characterisation is superb: all of the players leap off the page, alive and real, and I have to confess that Korovyev and Behemoth, with their gleeful mischief, are favourites of mine. In fact, it’s strange how M&M plays with your attitudes as a reader; you find yourself laughing with the bad guys as they burn and destroy; you want Pilate not to suffer any longer; you find yourself drawn to Woland despite his evil, as he actually seems more moral than the authorities in both cities. All of these elements intrigue and provoke, and I think on another re-read I will get even more from the book – there are so many subtleties and nuances.

M&M is one of those rare books that’s so all-consuming that when you get to the end, you simply want to go back to the beginning and start reading it again so you can re-experience every wonderful part of it. Bulgakov really was a genius, pulling together so many different strands in this story to make something extremely powerful, a book that possesses you all the way through. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to read it at least once – it really will change your view of life forever.


As an aside, the version I read this time was that translated by Burgin and O’Connor. There are several different translations (here’s a picture of some of the ones I have – the Glenny translation is not shown because I have an e-book version), and each seems to have its supporters and detractors.

margarita x 5

Obsessive, moi?

This particular translation seems extremely good to me; it captured the voice of the author in a way that sounded authentic to me as I compare it with the other Bulgakov books I’ve read. The translators drew on two versions of the book available (it was initially published in a censored version, and there were also changes made by Bulgakov’s widow), and there are notes at the back which clearly explain why choices were made at certain points. There is also excellent commentary by Ellendea Proffer which not only illuminates specifics which might puzzle the general reader, but also draws out themes and allusions which might not be clear to a modern-day Westerner. For example, the Master skirts round the issue of his treatment shortly before he goes to the clinic, but an authorial mention of the fact that his buttons had been removed from his jacket would signal to a contemporary Russian reader that he had undergone interrogation. The notes are not indicated in the text, which I rather liked as I often find them intrusive; instead they are given for each chapter at the end of the book and you can seek them out if you wish. On my readings so far, I’d highly recommend this version, but I hope to read the more recent Hugh Aplin translation next time and see what I think of that!

A Book of Brilliant Things


Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century compiled and translated by Muireann Maguire

I hadn’t realised quite how badly I’d been affected by my reading of “Grey Souls” until I came to try to pick up another book – and found it almost impossible to get into one! I’ve definitely been struggling a little with choosing my volumes recently, and nothing I touched appealed – I’ve just been putting everything aside after the first few pages.


However, I finally got over my stumbling block (or reader’s block!) by pulling “Red Spectres” from my pile of Christmas gifts, and it turned out to be exactly the tonic I needed.

The book is a collection of short stories in the Gothic vein, all written under Soviet rule. Now, Russia under the Bolsheviks is perhaps not a place you would expect this type of writing to flourish, but it very obviously did – maybe because this was a good way to disguise political comment, or maybe because it was a way of writing that was so far removed from politics that it was safe.

Whatever the reason, there is a whole genre here, and translator Muireann Maguire has actually written a book on the subject as well as collecting and translating the stories in this volume. And what crackers they are!

It was the fact that there were stories by Bulgakov and Krzhizhanovsky in it that first attracted my eye to Red Spectres – and in fact all but two of the tales are translated for the first time. It’s a fascinating and collection of stories, ranging from tales of ghosts and mirrors, through science gone wrong to seances that only call up the NKVD! Bulgakov is represented by two works: The Red Crown, a civil story of haunting, and A Seance, a wry comment on the clash between superstition and modern ideology. And the new Krzhizhanovsky is a dark story about a medical dummy that comes to live in a quite unnerving manner and lives through the years of turmoil in Russia.

It’s the speed of decline… Savages also love speed. What you seem to consider a sign of your unique refinement is simply atavism. All entertainments of this type – water sports, cycling, races of all kinds, skiing, funfairs, carousels, carriages, horse-racing – this is all a contagious enchantment with the dizzy sensation of free-fall. Speed has a limit beyond which movement along a horizontal plane becomes free-fall . And those who think like you want to create a motion that’s just like free-fall. What could be more primitive? And, one might say, pointlessly primitive? (Grin; The Grey Motor Car)

But the real revelation to me was the discovery of Aleksandr Chayanov; an agronomist by day, he also wrote 5 short stories and a novel. Maguire has translated three of these, and they’re a standout in the collection. “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” tells of a man consumed by an obssession with the original woman who inspired a mannequin, one of a pair of Siamese twins, and his quest to track her down; “Venediktov” (which has the distinction of having inspired Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”), is a story of devilish possession and pursuit through Moscow; and “The Venetian Mirror” (one of two marvellous mirror stories in the collection) plays on our uneasiness with the reflected world and our fascination with the possibility of entering it. His writing is excellent and evocative, and the storytelling compelling.

I love the Moscow streets by night, gentle reader; I love to wander through them in solitude, without any goal in mind. The dozing houses might be made of cardboard. Neither the noise of my steps nor the bark of a wakeful guard dog disturbs the calm peace of the gardens and courtyards. The few lighted windows seem to be me to be full of peaceful life, of maidenly reveries, or solitary nocturnal thoughts. As one observed how the little churches dream their dreams, unexpected sights often loom up in the empty streets; now the gloomy colonnades of the Apraksin Palace, now the towering bulk of Pashkov House, or the stony shadows of Catherine’s great eagles. (Chayanov; Venediktov)

Each tale in the collection is a gem in its own right, and put together here they produce a most marvellous book; excellently translated and notated by Maguire, with an informative introduction, this is definitely one of my books of the year – I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s ideal reading if you have an interest in Russian literature, in the Gothic genre, in the development of writing under the Soviets, or simply if you love good short stories. A wonderful book, and just the thing to pull me out of my reading slump!

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Red Spectres is published by Overlook, who have a history of producing Russian translation, and this is a lovely hardback edition too! For those interested in the subject Maguire has also published “Stalin’s Ghosts”, a study of supernatural fiction in early Soviet Russia, which sounds fascinating! Check out Russian Dinosaur for more about translating the stories for Red Spectres.

Sneaking behind the Iron Curtain


Journey Into Russia by Laurens van der Post

I’m a great believer in the right book at the right time, and this volume turned out to be very much a case in point. Knowing of my love of all things Russian and all things travel-related, OH tracked down a lovely first edition of JIR for last Christmas – it’s a wonderful object in its own right, complete with fold out map in the back and on lovely quality paper which has stood the test of time. Bearing in mind it’s 50 years old it really is looking good!

I hadn’t found the right time for reading it, but watching Michael Portillo travelling about Russia on a train recently on the BBC made me very jealous and so I decided to assuage the travel itch with Laurens van der Post!

The author himself was quite a fascinating character! The potted version from Wikipedia is: “Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, CBE (13 December 1906 – 16 December 1996) was a 20th-century Afrikaner author, farmer, war hero, political adviser to British heads of government, close friend of Prince Charles, godfather of Prince William, educator, journalist, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer and conservationist.” However, if you read the whole entry, he was friends with Leonard and Virginia Woolf (my book is a Hogarth Press edition), lived a pretty wild and sometimes controversial life, wrote the books on which the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” were based, and apparently wasn’t averse to embellishing his life story a little!

A llittle fragile, but a lovely first edition!

A llittle fragile, but a lovely first edition!

What’s so fascinating about this book for me, of course, is that it’s travel writing behind the Iron Curtain – much like the wonderful “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey” by Fred Basnett, which I reviewed here. However, there is a difference in perspective, as van der Post was much more high-profile visitor to the USSR, whereas Basnett’s approach is much more low-key and down to earth. Both books are excellent, and actually reading them fairly close together is quite useful because you end up having quite different impressions from both writers.

Van der Post, it should be said from the start, was obviously a complex character and it’s clear from his writing that he has no sympathy for totalitarian regimes of any sort. Nevertheless, he has a deep wish to *know* Russia and its people and he tries hard to do so, despite being hampered (of course!) by the authorities in various shapes and forms. He manages to travel to a remarkable number of places including Siberia, the Black Sea, Kharkov, Yalta plus of course Moscow and St. Petersburg. Van der Post mixes with as many people as he can, from his guides to local writers, poets, farmers, scientists and as many of the young people as he can make contact with. And he finds, despite their different political viewpoints, that the people of Soviet Russia share many of the same concerns as those outside it, as well as wishing to co-exists peacefully with the West.

The lovely foldy out map

The lovely foldy out map

However, despite the apparent openness of the world he encounters, there are reminders of the State which controls everything. One particular encounter with a group of young people ends with somewhat worrying supervision and van der Post being unable to track down the young people again. Throughout the book, he is careful not to name names so as to avoid getting anyone into trouble with the authorities, which is understandable (although I would like to be able to read an annotated modern version in which the people where actually identified now that the Soviet era is over.) What shows up very clearly here is the isolation of the Russian people, from any kind of contact with the West, its culture, music, politics and people.

Initially, it was a little hard to get going with JIR, as van der Post’s tone can be a little pompous at times. He often seems to be taking a slightly detached, anthropological view of things and sometimes wanders off into pontificating and list of facts, where I found my interest drifting slightly. However, his writing *can* be very evocative, particularly when he feels passionate about a subject:

Cypresses have always gleamed in my imagination like light at the end of a long tunnel perhaps because they may have been the first tree chosen by men to accompany them on their long and enigmatic journey through time. The scent of cypresses after rain is a smell translated and made aromatic in a way that not even the frankincense, myrrh and arboussiers of the antique world can excel. No matter where they grow, in Southern Africa, on the hills behind Golgotha, in Greece or Etruria, cypresses bring with them a sense of dedication out of the earth.

He responds particularly to the landscape of Russia, and his descriptions of travelling through the Siberian steppe are stunning.

One of the most memorable sections of the book is that where van der Post attends a May Day celebration at Kharkov. Here he witnesses Soviet bombast in all its splendour, with endless military parades and trumpeting of the superiority of the Soviet regime. Yet there is no joy coming from the people during the parades, and the whole thing is a cold, mechanical exercise serving only as a propaganda exercise. Van der Post emerges from the experience in a claustrophobic state, desperate for peace and quiet, needing the reassurance of free art and culture.

A little fragile, but a lovely first edition!

A little fragile, but a lovely first edition!

And culture is very much the keyword here. In 1964, although some thawing had begun under Khrushchev, art and literature and culture generally were still very much controlled. Years and years of Soviet realism had taken its toll on the Soviet citizen’s mindset and van der Post comes to realise that the people were limited mentally because of it, appreciating all the more the Western outlook:

All this made me realize another thing about Soviet Russia: how barren the Soviet mind and scene is of fantasy of any kind. Suddenly I felt sad that I had not brought Carroll, Edward Lear and the others with me for them to read. Those are the medicines too that the traveller in the Soviet Union needs to kill proliferation of the insect within himself. I longed now not only for fantasy of thought but the live human fantasies which one still encounters daily in the eccentrics of Britain. I realised again the natural wisdom of this deep instinctive respect and love that the English have for genuine eccentricity. And I realized how starved these young people themselves were for some fantasy in their own lives.

As van der Post leaves Russia at the end of the book, he seems to breathe more easily, physically and mentally, as the weight of the Soviet system lifts from his back. Nevertheless, he seems to have gained much from his journey – a better understanding of the place and its people, and the knowledge that things are changing and that as the thaw continues the Soviet people may come to enjoy more freedom.

This was in many ways a great read – it left me with some vivid impressions of the places van der Post travelled through and the people he met. On occasions, his views and his personality slightly got in the way for me and I did find myself a little bogged down occasionally with some of the longer passages about industry and agriculture (and bemused by one particular statement: Siberia could supply the whole of the world with coal for two thousand years and still have some to spare! – really? Then why are we having an energy crisis!) Fred Basnett’s book will probably be more of a long-term favourite of mind, but “Journey into Russia” makes a valuable companion to it!

Recent Reads: Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky


(Warning! There *are* slight spoiler elements to this review!)

I don’t like to be away from my Russian authors for *too* long, and it’s always a delight to explore writers you haven’t read before. The Strugatsky brothers are a case in point – I’d heard of them through their novella “Roadside Picnic”, upon which the Tarkovsky film “Stalker” is based, but I’d never actually read any of their works. However, I picked up another novella of theirs, “Definitely Maybe” in London recently, and really felt drawn to read it soon – and as I’m a person who always follows their reading whims……. 🙂 It *is* very highly rated, and the great Ursula LeGuin says:

”One of the Strugatsky brothers is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekhov, but nobody is sure which is which. This is definitely, not maybe, a beautiful book.”

“Definitely Maybe” was published in 1974 and tells the story of Malianov, an astrophysicist. The place and time are unclear to start with, but it is in high, hot summer and mention of White Nights soon reveals that the story is set in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was during Soviet times). Malianov should be on holiday, but he has sent his wife Irina and son Bobchick away as he feels he is on the verge of a great discovery. However, he is finding it very difficult to work…..

If the weather conditions were not bad enough, there are the interruptions. First, a large delivery from the local story, with caviar, vodka and all kinds of goodies. Then an attractive young woman turns up, apparently an old friend of his wife. His neighbour in the flat opposite, also a scientist, commits suicide and some strange heavies turn up to interrogate Malianov, accusing him of murder. His scientific colleagues visit, relating tales of also being unable to work owing to distractions. Who or what is causing these problems – is it aliens, or some weird supercivilisation? – and does the mathematician Vecherovsky, who lives upstairs, have a clue to the answer?

This is a fascinating book on a number of levels, and very gripping and readable. It’s written as a series of extracts from a journal so the story dips in and out, which is a clever device to move the plot along, but also keeps you guessing about quite what is happening. Poor Malianov is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep his thoughts together despite the sabotage to his work that is going on. There are clutches of scientific talk where I’m not sure whether it was real scientific talk or not, but in many ways that doesn’t matter. What matters is Malianov’s struggle – who it is against and what it’s for.

And here we get to the nub of this book – is it science fiction (for which the Strugatskys are known) or is it satire? That’s a good question, particularly as the term Sci Fi encompasses such a wide range nowadays, from classic speculative fiction a la Wells, to modern space sagas of strange alien armies fighting each other for aeons (and all things in between!) It seems to me that the brothers were using a Sci Fi format to house their satire – and obviously doing a good job as it got past the censors mainly intact. But if satire is a literary form that critiques the current regime or norm, then this is certainly it – and a satire with depth and compassion.

arkady and boris strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As a brilliantly written piece of speculative fiction, the story stands in its own right. However, this being a piece of work produced  under the Soviet regime, any reader would be looking for a sub-text – and it’s not difficult to find. Malianov’s struggle is obviously an allegorical one, with the right to do his own research challenged by external forces – not the authorities, not aliens, not a supercivilisation, but a kind of homeostasis; a self-regulating force of nature that wants to stop humanity developing anything that might one day bring about the end of the world. Of course, the forces of nature represent the huge weight of the Soviet state, a constant malevolent force that seemed to be able to throw things in the path of a citizen in the most unexpected way. Although farcical in places, it’s chilling to find that the final, successful method that Nature uses to stop Malianov is the same used by the state in Soviet Russia – to threaten a person’s nearest and dearest.

“Who knows what’s in store for us? Who knows what it will be? The strong will be, and the blackguards will be. And death will come and sentence you to death. Do not pursue the future….”

And so the book becomes a poignant discussion of personal integrity – it is easier to be strong if you are a single person like Vecherovsky, who at the end of the book is the only one left fighting. The minute you care about anyone else you become vulnerable, and Malianov goes through much soul-searching before coming to his decision – the consequences of which he will have to live with forever. He recognises that others have made the same decision he has to make:

“I rolled up into a tighter ball. So that’s how it was. The man had been squashed. He was still alive but no longer the same man. Broken flesh, broken spirit. What did they do to him that he couldn’t take? But there must be pressures, I guess, that no man can take”.

How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche. Malianov’s decision is a realistic, human one and he knows the consequences.

“Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

DM manages to be funny and sinister at the same time, and the commentary on the Soviet regime is obvious. I found the book a really thought-provoking and quite emotional read and I salute the Strugatkys for getting so much into a short novella. I definitely want to read more of their work – there’s no maybe!

Happy Birthday Mayakovsky!


Today is the 120th birthday of one of my favourite poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky. In honour of the day here are a some quotes and photos:



I want to be understood by my country,
but if I fail to be understood –
what then?,
I shall pass through my native land
to one side,
like a shower
of slanting rain.

“Back Home!”, first version (1926); translation from Patricia Blake (ed.) The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 36


Mayakovsky Monument in Moscow

Mayakovsky Monument in Moscow

for us
is no paradise of arbors —
to us
love tells us, humming,
that the stalled motor
of the heart
has started to work

“Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostorov on the Nature of Love” (1928); translation from Patricia Blake (ed.) The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 213

Mayakovsky’s tragedy was to be a passionate misfit in a society that was becoming increasingly intolerant of individualism. His attitude and his work are still relevant today, and I would highly recommend his prose work “My Discovery of America” which is published by Hesperus Press. One of his silent films, “The Lady and the Hooligan” still survives – as does his memory.

Happy birthday Vladimir Vladimirovich!


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