Midnight in the century by Victor Serge

Midnight in the Century

Midnight in the century by Victor Serge

Russian fiction

Original title –  S’il est minuit dans le siècle

Translator – Richard Greeman

Source – Personal copy

I left it to the last weekend to cover my last two NYRB fortnight reads. The first is the second book by Victor Serge I have covered on the blog I reviewed Conquered city a few years ago I went out and got a few more books from him. Serge had an interesting life growing up in an exiled family in Brussels at the turn of the century he was a firebrand and an anarchist in France in 1912 he was sentenced to five years and then expelled to Spain in 1917. He went to Russia in 1919 and joined the Bolsheviks and after that worked in the communist Press service until in 1928 he fell foul of the government and then in 1933 was arrested by Stalin’s police and held for 80 days and the sent in exile in Orenburg a remote city in Russia. He left Russia after two years there.

Mikhail Ivanovich Kostrov, who was not at all superstitous, had a feeling that things were about to happen in his life, They were heralded by almost imperceptable signs. So it was for his arrest. There had been the perculiar tone of voice with which the rector had told him: “Mikhail Ivanovich, I’ve decided to suspend your course for the moment …. you’re up to the directory.* aren’t ypou ? ” Fear obviously, of allusions to the new political turn “So” the rector continued, “prepare me a very short  course on Greece”.

The start of the troubles and Exile for Kostrov when he is called in and arrested.

That two years in Exile is the backbone to this novel and is about a city of Exiles. Chenor also called Blackwaters is where these exiles all live. The place is a mix of Old Bolsheviks like Rhyzik and the narrator, young workers Rodion a man that has taught himself and a splattering of Orthodox church believers and all those that Stalin didn’t want are thrown into the melting pot that is Chenor. It is an insider view into what it was like in Stalin’s Russia as we find out how people got there the fear that everyone at the time lived under the hopelessness of being stuck in exile and no chance of escape. This is the burnt embers of those that shone brightly but were stubbed out by Stalin’s policies and violent regime. We see how Kostrov at the start of the book is sold out by a colleague that was the reason he ended up in Exile. The book sees one of them trying and succeeding in escaping the city.

The forest line grows darker at the horizon. A little over two centuries ago, peasants fleeing serfdom built this little town on the bluff overlooking the river bend. They thought they had gone far enough into the inclement North to be forgotten. They were only half right, but what could they do? however far you flee, your grandchildren will have to flee one day in their turn.

This captures the hopelessness of living in Chenor set up by those that fled serfdom has now trap those there two centuries later.

This is one of those books that draw you into the world he saw that of being an exile and also of living in everyday  Stalin Russia where no one is what the seems. The dreams of the early days of the Bolshevik revolution seems very far and distance in the Russia they are living in. I have read other accounts from the like of Arthur Koestler Darkness at noon (strange the title has a similar tone to the title of this book) also Solzhenitsyn wrote about the cruel nature of the Stalin regime. This is an Orwellian world from the start when our main character is sold out by a colleague at work. Serge is one of those writers that is able to turn his own experience no matter how dark and black they were into touching and heartfelt prose in this great translation.  This is another example of why over the last ten years of the blog I have slowly been buying NYRB books my only wish is they were easily available to buy locally I have brought a few in Sheffield but most I have to buy online. Have you read Serge.

 

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Eleven Prague Corpses by Krill Kobrin

Eleven Prague Corpses

 

Eleven Prague Corpses by Krill Kobrin

Russian fiction

Original title – 11 пражских трупов

Translator – Veronika Lakotova

Source – personnel copy

I was saying I was overwhelmed with reviews and what is annoying I am reading fast than I can review so I let books slip and this was nearly one of those. This book grabbed me with the description of Krill as a writer he is interested in the cultural history of Russia and the Czech Republic. He is one of the founds of Russian Psychogeography and one of his novels is a tribute to Flann O’Brien. Oh, and he is also called the Russian Borges (i do hate that but I can see it here as Borges like twisting the detective short story as well).

Maurice approached me at the fuenral. He said – stuttering as usual and as usual in broken English – ” An apprpriate way of dying for a former restaurant critc isn’t it ? Professional, so to speak. Acute Pancreatitis. Caused by what ? by the excepitonal Czech dumplings pork, and beer. Anf of course, by always exceptional czech doctors. Dammned Prague.” It started to drizzle, the heavy scent of the earht mixed with the smell of damp clothes.It was difficult to breathe. “Dammned Prague”I agreed.” Dammned Central Europe”

His dislike of his hime is shown here but also the inkling of the first death being more than it seemed.

The series of Stories in this collection is narrated by an unnamed narrator. Now I am never sure as it is one guy or a collection of guys all Russian that all have a strong dislike of the home Prague. So the eleven short stories all tell various stories of deaths in and around Prague and how are the narrator was connected to them. From the death of a restaurant critic to the death of a teacher our narrator at times is an obituary writer and seems to be there or hear about these events shortly after they happen from people involved in a High school massacre in the US turning up in Prague. He hates the city and sees it as too Kafkaesque at times the shadow of Kafka hanging over his world as the deaths keep plying up. But Like Holmes he has logic on his side and clearly cuts through each death.

The next day I rang the Private British school to nail down some of the details of the late Mr. Lengthy’s life. Of course, of course, Mr  Taborsky. Such a sad loss for us. Yes, yes, we’ve sent everything you’ll need for the opbituary. Nothing to add. A detail? A striking detail? Hmmm you might be interested – the russian students of our school called him”London Dandy”. Yes yes, in russian “dan-dee Long-dong-ski” You unerstand russian ? oh excellent . Mr Lenghty wasn’t a fop, no, don’t imagine that please, nuthe did dressin an impecable was, and he took special care of his hands. A little old fashion isn’t it?

I was remind of a watson description in a Holmes cases here of small characteristics of people.

This is an interesting take on the detective short that has lots of Nods to classic writers like Doyle and Christie, in particular, there is a sense of this in the use of a British restaurant critic and English master in two of the stories. There is also a sort of Russian distaste of Prague underlying the stories as well the feel of him not fitting into the city now. The sense of Kafka looming over the city. Prague itself is a character in this book rather like the London of Doyles Holmes of the Devon setting of Christie’s books. The Borges claim holds up as the books have that sense of twist styles and shift settings and using plots from other writers in new ways that Borges did so well in his own stories. The narrator has a pinch of Holmes, Poirot and for me a nod to those hard-boiled crime detectives of classic American Noir. There is a clear logical min there like Holmes a man out of place like Poirot the Belgian in England. But also a world-weariness of the classic American detective those that hate there beat at times that are drawn to the dark side of the city.

The Beauties essential stories by Anton Chekhov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beauties essential stories by Anton Chekhov

Russian fiction

Translator- Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Source – review copy

I have read Chekhov before and my good friend Rob of rob around books has read and reviewed a lot of his stories.Chekhov is considered one of the first modern writers alongside Ibsen and Strindberg, he was a doctor by trade and wrote in his spare time in his short life of just 44 years he produced a number of works both short stories and Plays. He started writing to pay for his tuition. This is a new translation of thirteen of his stories by the nephew of the great Russian writer Boris Pasternak.

It was a moth-like beauty – the beauty that goes so well with a waltz, or darting accross a garden, or with laughter and merriment , and which has no buisness with serious thoughts, sorrow or repose.It seemed as if a good gust of wind blowing along the platform, or a sudden shower, would be enough to make that fragile body suddenly wilt, scattering its caoricious beauty like pollen from a flower.

“Ye-es…” sighed the officer. when the second bell sounded and we walked back to our carriage

One night on a platform a glimpse of a beauty on the platform.

There is a thirteen stories in this collection I will just describe a few of them here. The first the title story is a tale of beauty. It follows a man who is stopped for a few minutes at a station one night ,  when he glimpses a great Armenian beauty, which he had met many years earlier when they visit the girl’s grandfather. A day in the country follows a day in the life of a man Terenty , he is found by a little girl and he spends time with her and her brother both orphans we follow them through the day. Grief deals with a couple a drunk husband a loss of a son, a failing marriage  a wife who may actually also be dead. The husband laments how much his wife changed from the merry lass he married. The huntsman like the previous story I mention also deals with a couple this time a hunter Yegor now working for local landowner as a huntsman for him. They  meet one day on a country path his wife whom he hasn’t seemed for many years. She tries to persuade him to spend more time with her, but he has other ideas.

“It’s a long time since I saw you last, Yegor Vlasych..”says Pelageya, gazing tenderly at the huntsman’s shoulders as he moves.”Ever since Holy week, when you looked into our hut fr a minute and had a drink of water- we haven’t seen you since then.. Dropped in for a minute in Holy week, and God knows whay state you were in then.. drink and all … swore at me,beat me up, and walked out.. and I’ve been waiting and waiting.. worn my eyes out with watching for you … Oh, Yegor Vlasych, Yegor Vlasych! If only you’d come by some time

Husband and wife meet , a sad wife wants he even thou he beat her last time a sign of the times the bopok was written !!

I think most readers of this blog will know Chekhov.If not this new Pushkin collection edition would be a perfect place to start, I would think. I have read other translations of these stories, I like Pasternaks Slater use of words and he has done a great job keeping the wry humour of Chekhov also his sense of human nature. The collection has a good selection of his stories through out his career. I was touched by the beauties a story which is a bit like a story version of the you’re beautiful by James Blunt a glimpse of a beauty on a train platform echos with a memory of meeting another beauty years earlier. I also remembered the lines of Jack Palance in City slickers talking about his one love a woman he glimpse for a matter of moments earlier in his life has imprinted on his memory like the young man on the train in the beauties. A nice collection for any fan of Russian lit.

Moscow in the 1930’s by Natalia Gromova

Moscow in the 1930’s by Natalia Gromova

Russian fiction

original title – Последняя Москва.

Translator – Christopher Culver

Source – review copy

Well its a second visit to the Russia this woman in translation month , This time we have a historic novel about writers. Natalia Gromova is from a russian military family , she has lived in Moscow since an early agee and got a job at 16 working in the state historical library whilst finishing her studies , she has work for the Soviet encyclopedia in the past but since the mid 90s has been writing books that she use the historic archives to put together historic novels from original diaries , letters and articles of the time .

Alexander Fyodorovich served Russian literature like a priest: literature had completely replaced religion for his generation. But neither literature nor culture , as it became clear later, could save them from the chaos of revolution and then all ugly realities of Soviet life. many of these high-born gymnasium teachers and university professors looked at the complex issues of society and politics with disgust, and the consequences of this naturally fell on the heads of their children, who swept into the maelstrom of history.

I loved this passage about how literature took over religion in some in the 30’s

Moscow in the 1930’s is set during those pre war years of Stalin rule , we are drawn into a world of house and place that arent there anymore .This stitches together the diaries of writers like Olga Bessarabova, Vavara Grigiryena  are the two main sources for this work  well-known and now even forgotten to paint a picture of a world of writing at the time the friendships . People like Maria Belkina a well-known writer in her time but now forgotten to us in english. I loved the way Natalia brought us behind the doors of these writers as they discuss the works of the day and the writers Bulgakov who at the time was working on his own masterpiece that was set also in Moscow the Master and the Margarita during the 30’s .Daniil andreyev is another character who is in the story he was even in the book arrested by Stalin it turns out a lot of his great works were destroyed by The state secret police .

The more I read , the more colourful a picture I got of an old Moscow home . There were more than enough of these in the past. TO a degree, these Moscow homes were literary figures in themselves: fro the Rostovs happy home on Provarskaya street in War and Peace to the home of Gromeko family on the Arbat in Doctor Zhivago. Here the doors were always wide open, the house would teem with guests, a number of relatives would be resident, and holidays would be regularly celebrated, with Christmas festivities for children and adults

In her diary, Olga Bessarabova described the Dobrov home in the same way

An open door for the writer of the day to spend time with Olga and her family .

This is one of those books you need a notebook next to you as you read to note the names of the writers mention and their works . I did this and then looked to see what is available not much but I still have some to check out further Andreyev for example his later book roza mir , rose of the world came out in the late 90’s. Natalia Gromova brings a long gone Moscow to life , this is one of a number of books she has written using the same technique of real diaries and setting as a frame for her novels .I found this compelling if a slow read so much to absorb makes it a book that I will be rereading and discovering again.

 

Winston’s covers a surge of serge

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Another Russian gem is this one from NYRB I have once cover Victor Serge on the blog and have been eager to try others even if it is just an excuse to buy some great NYRB covers

Winston’s covers Turn turn Turgenev

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As  the year draws to an end I think the rest of the year I will do just Russian covers first up is a Turgenev. A novel of a homecoming, have recently read another classic Russian novel I feel 2016 may be my year of russian novels I will add a few more Russian novels to the blog and will be showing the covers til end of year of the books I have either as reread or unread to add to the blog. Have you a favourite Russian Novel ?

Winston’s covers 2 same old story or is it

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I started Ivan Goncharov same old story last night here is my edition of what is considered his masterpiece Oblomov. I have been lucky to get the new translation of same old story to read from Alma books.I do like this old penguin cover it.is rather creepy I found.

Winston’s books A nobel and a night film some new books

I had a few appealing books arrive this last couple of days from some well known writers and also a bargain find. I collected a number of parcels from post office and found –

death by water by kenzaburo Oe

A new book from a Nobel Laurate is always a welcome book to read and I have only reviewed on other book by Kenzaboro Oe on the blog A personnel matter a story inspired by his son. This seems inspired by his father and a case of writers block it follows Kogito Choko a nobel winning writer struggling to write about his late father with whom he had a trouble relationship that was never resolved before he drown. So a red chest from his sister full of his fathers possessions maybe hold the secrets from the past.

for two thousands years by Mihail Sebastian

The second arrival is a classic from Romania Mihail Sebastian was a prominent figure in literary circles in the Romania in the early 1930’s. This autobiographical novel follows him as Facist takeover and deep rooted Anti semitism starts to take hold. The quote on the cover is Arthur Miller who compares his writing to Chekov.

same old story by Ivan Goncharov

I read Goncharov masterpiece Oblomov years and years ago so when Alma said they had a translation of his first novel The same old story a tale of alexander a poet who moves from the country to the city. He sees his ideal of life in the city changed as he struggles with the ruthless world of the city.

night film by Marisha Pessel

Now last is one of those bargain books we all find. I am a cfan of pound shops we always visit the one in town mainly for some lotus biscuits, but there is always something to find that is a bargain and I can’t help shifting through books most time I know it is going be a lot of books I don’t want but once in a blue moon a gem turns up and this is one such book it came out two years ago and is a novel about a horror director that hasn’t been seen in public for ear then his daughter dies and this gives a chance to a Journalist McGarth that has want to expose the director Cordova for a number of years but has lost a lot in this journey. The book also has an app to unlock interactive feature although I need use my old iphone to use it.

What books have you had arrive recently ?

Russian stories by Francesc Serés

russian stories

Russian stories by Francesc Serés

Spanish fiction (or russian !)

Translator from Catalan Peter Bush

Translator from Russian Anastasia Maximova

Original  title Contes Russo

Source – review copy

Fransesc   Serés is a Catalan   writer he studied fine art and Anthropology at university ,after this he became a writer he has publish over ten books of novel and short stories in Spain and has also produced a number of stage works . He is also a professor of art history and a Russophile .

Consequently , if it weren’t for this confession of mine , nobody would know that Elvis Presley gave a concert in Moscow’s red square.

Yes , you heard me , a concert in Red square in 1958

It was one of the many demonstrations of strength the superpowers made during the cold war .A stupid one , but it was ,at the end of the day , a demonstration of strength .

Well imagine if the King had played in Moscow .

Frnacesc Serés happen in his love of Russian literature this lead him to coming  across a unmined wealth of lost , writing that hadn’t seen the light of day outside Russia .He gathered together 21 different stories from five new to us in the west  writers spanning the history of modern Russia .We start in modern Russia Ola Yevgueniyeva born in 1967 writes about Putin’s Russia stewardess contrast their world and the places they go and how their world is changing .Also a wonderful story of a chess match between an old gent and a young girl almost showing the change in modern Russia from the older player to the younger player .Then we move back through time with each subsequent writer .The next writer  Vera-Margarita she evokes the soviet past story of red square mentions of Lenin and Stalin .Then we get to Vitali Kroptkin and my favourite story Elvis Presley sings in Red Square ,did you know that Elvis had song in Red square in 1958 well he had new KGB files show ,a fun look at what could have happened had the King played in Russia .Then  we have Aleksandr Volkov he wrote of the post world war two soviet regime also how bizarre the state could be at times given the story about Voromians ,I liked this because it was just them remove the name and it is at heart of a number of incidents involving separate races with in the soviet sphere .The last writer Josef Bergghenko takes us to a pre world war two soviet times .

Voromians are pleasant , the odd one even looks at her as if he regonises her . one couple are called Var and Mirtila , like so many they ask her where they will be taken .She can’t think what to reply

A group that have been moved by the purges .

Sounds wonderful doesn’t it well it is amazing to discover these unknown writers ,ha nearly had you no the book is entirely made up by the writer francesec  Serés it is an homage to soviet writing but also a look into maybe what might have been written .He manages to pull it off with great style each writers piece do seem as thou they are from a different voice they are completely from the hands of Fransesc  Serés he has playfully mixed styles of contemporaries of the figures he is writing about so you get sense of these writers writing in their time echoes of kafka the fun of Bulgakov  .A book for fans of Russian literature but also the likes of Borges .I also discovered an interesting interview here it is in Spanish but comes across reasonably well via google translate .

Brief loves that live forever by Andreï Makine

Brief loves that live forever

Brief loves that live forever byAndreï Makine

Russian fiction

Original title  Le Livre des brèves amours éternelles,

Translator Geoffrey Strachan

Source Review copy

I ve reviewed Maikne before on the blog twice before the life of an unknown man and Human love  ,so have said a lot about the siberian born russian that has made his home in France and now writes in French .He is also now being published by Maclehose press for the first time .So this is his latest collection I m not sure if its a Novel or a interlocking collection of stories my self .

All young lovers travel this road and all ,in their alarm ,have only one soloution :to put pressure on the limits our poor human bodies impose on us .We doubled the violence of embraces,seeking now the complicty of the sea at night ,now the solitude of water falls in the forest.

Love in the soviet era is grasped at for all it is worth

So as you see on  the cover art, you sense what this book is  about  before you  read this book well the  picture gave me a sense of something being  a  tale of past like the birds that fly away every year but are remembered .This book is at heart russian and about loss and love ,but also moments in life .The life in collection is that of Dimitri Ress ,now on his way out of life .But through these eight chapters / stories ,we glimpse the love in harsh times ,what love is how we view love from a child through growing to becoming an adult .All this is set against a backdrop of 60’s and 70’s Russia .We see the child in an orphanage ,via an older man who has come to see them able to touch the very beginning of communism as this man had met Lenin ,through a holiday affair ,a women visiting a grave in France ,the Afghan war Ress gets injured .The dark grim times I remember of Brezhnev  we saw in the west those news reports of what seemed a very grim place ,here don’t seem so grim at times and shows as ever love can win through rather like Nadas in Parallel stories love and sex or even the whiff of sex is all that remains given communism .The start of the book also remind me of the start of life of an unknown man as it is two men meeting and one telling his life to the other .The women he meets and loves and how he remembers them remind me at times of the lines from the film city slicker where Jack Palance talks about a women he saw but never meet and just the fact that he could she her outline against the sun ,this is how Ress remembers not the whole just the feel of the women .

At the time of our meeting almost thirty years ago ,these were the solemm word I believed were needed to sum up Dimtri Ress’s life:a revolt against a world in which hatred is the rule and love a strange anomaly .And the failure of God whose creation man is called upon to set to rights …

Near the end his friend sums up the man .

Well I love Makine  ,his books always strike a chord with me and this book has the classic hooks of his writing they are soviet russia ,love as in this case not always working out ,the struggle for a better life .Though he lives in France and has as I said before has written other books under an alias that made the French press think there was a new French talent but no it was Makine ,where as his own writing is distinctively Russian ,with a real sense of longing and asking ,but I do always sense hope in his works and ok it doesn’t always work out .I’m not sure how you describe the book a novel or episodic novel but it lingers with you after you’ve put the book down remember like a collection of old sepia photos you’ve just pulled from under your bed and gone through and tell some one Ress memories some how drift into your own .Just wonderful .

Have you read Makine ?

 

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