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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A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

A School for Fools

A school for Fools by Sash Sokolov

Russian fiction

Original title – Школа для дураков

Translator – Alexander Boguslawski

Source – personnel copy

I’m a bit late joining in Lizzy Siddals NYRB fortnight. I have a lot of there books on my shelves and haven’t reviewed too many on the blog so I had hope get a few more read but I have managed this so far and part way in two other books. This is what we like about NYRB well I do they seem to republish books that may have not got put out again this came out to a seventies as it had been one of those books that when it came out in Russia was put around underground in Samizdat copies. Sasha Sokolov. Tried many times to escape Soviet Russia once via Iran he was caught and only family connection saved him from a long prison sentence. He then manages in 1975 to escape and eventually became a Canadian citizen. He has published another book that has only just been translated I have that on my tbr pile. This is considered a modernist masterpiece.

This is what the teacher Pavel was saying, standing on the shore of the Lethe. River water dripped from his washed ears, and the river itself flowed slowly past him and past us with all its fishes, flat bottom boats, ancient ssailboats, reflected clouds with those who are invisible and those who will drown, with frogs eggs, algae , relentless water striders, torn piece of net m grains of sand from the beloved seashore and golden braclets lost by someone, with empty cans and heavy hats of Monomakh

Surreal passages like this make me wonder if there was anopther level we miss in english in the original Russian but the richness of his words can be seen like treacle going slowly down your throat.

Now this is one of those books that you get to the end of and really need to start again , but this time around I haven’t time anyway the book starts with one narrator telling of his school the school of fools( a school for those disturbed kids)  of the title and his summers at a dacha cottage that many Russian do during the summer escaping the city. His romance or lack of it (yes it is one of those books that you are never quite sure what is real ) with Veta. Now that sounds enough but then we get a second narrator that seems to be another side of our first narrator telling is a more far-fetched tale. This other voice is almost a monologue at times. The action flips from summer to the school and at times is surreal things like a bizarre dress code from the headmaster of the school. As time and what is life drift and we see the world through our narrators disturbed views of the world a hard world at times and memories of summers and school days all get mixed as well as strange digressions here and there as the book goes on. It is like a memory of a drunken few years glimmers of lives mixed with the dreams of life.

But Veta dosen’t hear. During the night of your arrival in the land of the lonely Goatsucker, the thirty-year-old teacher at our school.Veta Arkadievna, the strict teacher of botany, biology, and anatomy, dances and drinks winer in the best restaurant in the city with soem young, yes, relatively young man – funny, mart, and generpus. Soon the music will end – drunken violinist and drummers, piano players and trumpeters will get off the stage.

Veta is someone he is in love with at times and other not during the book !!!

Now this is one of the oddest books I have read it is hard to get a handle on and is what we well I read translation for Sokolov himself is considered a master of the Russian language on par with the likes Of Joyce with English of Schmidt in German and those two are two I have picked as for me it has nods to the Schmidt novella I read a few years ago with detached and strange Narrators and the stream of consciosness style at times is a nod to Joyces style. It maybe is also a way of capturing the madness of Soviet Russia at times the two extremes of the world the summers at the Dacha and the school reflecting Soviet life at times. Also, the playful nature of the words sometimes reminds me of how Anthony Burgess used language the translator is a lifelong friend of Sokolov so kept some Russian words in the text. He also wrote the intro. A great first choice for my NYRB fortnight.

Christened with crosses by Eduard Kochergin

Christened With Crosses

Christened with crosses(notes taken on my knees)  by Eduard Kochergin

Russian memoir

Original title – Крещённые крестами: Записки на коленках

Translator – Simon Patterson with Nina Chordas

Source – review copy

I often bang on about the small publishers I work with but the reason is this they tend to bring us the titles we wouldn’t see otherwise. That said this was a bestseller the second time it came out in Russia Eduard  Stepanovich Kochergin was born at the height of Stalinism in 1937 and his parents were considered enemies of the state and he as a young boy was sent away to state orphanage for children of political prisoners. This book follows that time and his six-year journey across the heart of Russia from Siberia to Leningrad his hometown.

In the next two wards there was a medical section – one of the most terrifying places in the orphanage, in our language the croakery or kaputka. Few of the children who were taken there returned upstairs. This section was led by a nurse called Absolute Drip. Her assistant, a deaf mute nursing aide, a dirty animal whose stench killed flies, did not clean up, but simply spread filt around

One his arrival to Pipsqueak ward he talks about the other wards, scarry to say the least !!

The book starts with him at home with his family and his christening at a church on Nevsky prospect and also his polish mother and Russian father firstly he was given poles for safekeeping.But was eventually sent to the state house and out to Siberia. We see him on a ward with other young orphans where he meets some other boys with names like the Toad and his deputy screwface. This is a brutal place but seen through a child’s eye Eduard or Stepanych becomes the shadow in these place and disappears. Living only at night when they are alone he grows sadder missing his parents and home, which leads to the young boy setting off on a six-year journey on the trains. He meets thieves. Then stumbles into a village where they still have a tradition of brewing.Gets taught how to make a fire all the time slowly making his way back home but does he?

Food was the main topic of our life. The dreams of the orphans mainly revolved around food, especially in winter and spring. During that time, as our hobbling lady said, we were liable to eat everything that wasn’t nailed down. In summer we ate weeds, rising catching a colon infection and falling into the clutches of the Absolute Drip.

This short passage reminded me so much of Dickens in  particular Oliver when he is at the orpahage as well.

I read this last week as my father was actually in Vladivostok a place in the far east of Russia a place he said still had a feel of its Soviet past. This is tale of a boy become a man but also a tale of post-war Soviet times the toughness of  when Stalin sent so many to the Gulags, this is the flipside of a writer like Solzhenitsyn as it is about the children of those prisoners those young souls we never heard about the brutal nature of the state orphanage. Seen through his eye but in the same way as books; like the boy in the striped pyjamas or curious incident in the night we see how violence can be seen but not really absorbed till much later. There is also a sense of adventure as we follow his homeward journey a sense of entering a wide world and learning skills and about danger first hand. Also glimpsing a dying rural world of Russia hinterlands with rituals and myths still alive in the 1950’s. A powerful memoir of one man’s journey to adulthood in a Soviet world that could have stepped out of a Dickens novel but 100 years on.

 

Solar plexus by Rustam Ibragimbekov

Solar plexus ( A Baku saga in four pars ) by Rustam Ibragimbekov

Azerbaijan fiction

Original title -Солнечное сплетение

Translator – Andrew Broomfield

Source – review copy

Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, in the middle of our

Our house it has a crowd
There’s always something happening
And it’s usually quite loud
Our mum she’s so house-proud
Nothing ever slows her down
And a mess is not allowed

Our house by madness seemed a rather good choice for this book -source 

Well when i receive the email to review this book ,I jump at the chance it isn’t often these days I get to add a new country and writer to the list of book from on this blog ,so a chance to read a book from Azerbaijan is a real treat .I hadn’t heard of Rustam Ibragimbekov ,but he has been well known in Russia and then Azerbaijan for his film making ,his father was an art historian ,Rustam went on to study in Azerbaijan and then in Russia where in Moscow he studied cinematography .He then start writing films and tv scripts ,his best known film is” White sun of the desert “,a cult film ,that has been shown to Russian cosmonauts just before they take off for a number of years .

He barely caught glimpse of her in the gloom of the entrance : two quick strides up two steps at a time , and she disappeared completely round the bend in the staircase .He was no longer afraid of being noticed.He wanted to get another look at her ,before listening to her rapid steps .

Alik follow the girl from the drama group .

Solar Plexus is four short novella length stories that track the course of a family in the capital city of Azerbaijan Baku in one building  and friends  we follow four genrations stories throughout the 20th century .The action focus on the peroid of 1940 to 1990 and four stories from those years we follow three genrations from 27 Shemakhinka street and the courtyard with in this address and the people hat live with in the courtyard .We open with Alik and his family ,Alik is involved in a drama group ,well he really likes one of the women in the drama group .Then we move on to Marat’s story he works at the quarry ,then we follow the Rectors story as he sees to the people round him .the last story follows the courtyard and its folks as a whole as they head toward Azerbaijan become a country once again as the Soviet union falls apart .

The first feeble but unanimous impulse we all felt when we emerged ,exhausted from the militia station was go straight home .But in 1992 Baku still retained some of the qualties of the real Baku ,and from out of nowhere we were suddenly surrounded by a gang of young men shouting in delight ,led by two twenty-year-old giants – Marat’s sons .

Near the end the sons and grandsons of the original families see Azerbaijan free again .

 

After reading about Rustam’s film and tv career ,well he is well-known for his talent at mixing tragedy and comedy together .The stories in here are a personnel glimpse of everyday life in Baku through the eyes of these families that are so different but due to the fact they share a courtyard interact with each other every day .The world outside is seen the end of world war two ,the Soviets taking charge ,the bad years of Stalin ruling with the purges ,but also we see how they slowly try to take over Azerbaijan making it more Russian than Azerbaijan . A wonderful mix of romance and comedy .We then glimpse how the people and country as a whole start to believe in the fact they could once again become a separate country as they saw at a distance what was happening in Moscow and elsewhere in the Soviet Union

Have you a favourite book from one of the former Soviet countries ?

Comapartment No.6 by Rosa Liksom

Compartment-No.6

Compartment No.6 by Rosa Liksom

Finnish fiction

Original title – Hytti nro 6

Translator – Lola Rogers

Source -Review copy

The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.

Daniel Defoe

Well when this dropped though my door ,it was one I put straight to the top of the pile ,I’ve enjoyed all the recent books from Finland ,That I’ve read have been gems ,plus I’ve always had a fondness for books set on trains so two ticks meant it was a must read .Well Rosa Liksom is a Finnish based writer ,she is also a well-known artist in Finland .She has written 13 other books ,this Compartment No.6 is the latest by her ,it won the Finlandia prize in 2011 .

When the station bell rang for the second time she saw a muscular ,cauliflower-eared man in a black  working mans quilted jacket and a white ermine hat and with him a beautiful dark-haired woman and her teenage son ,keeping  close to his mother .

When she first sees Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov on the station platform at Moscow .

Compartment No.6 Follows a train ride from Moscow on the Trans Siberian ,an unnamed finnish girl boards the train ,she searches and finds an empty compartment and settles down ,then her silence is shattered when a grizzled looking fellow enters the carriage , He then starts talking to the girl and telling her the story of his life at first she is a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights not quite knowing what to do ,but as the train speeds through the russian hinterlands she warms to this rough diamond and maybe sees part of her own life in his stories ,as the train is stopped they experience the rough conditions of the Soviet era ,this is the late eighties ,initially the girls thoughts are on getting to Mongolia and see some cave paintings as she is an art student and meeting an old friend but as her and Vadium (the man ) ,grow see maybe sees her life in a wider view outside the life she grew up in .

The night speeds through the dark into dim morning , a dogged queue at the shrine of the WC , a dry wash among the puddles of pee ,sputum ,shame and sheepish looks ,shadows of steaming tea glasses in the window ,large flat cubes of Cuban sugar ,paper light Aluminium spoons ,black bread ,viola cheese ..

She captures life on the train so well the sights and sounds of Soviet life at that time .

Well this is one of those books you can tell came from a love of the writer ,it turns out the writer took a journey on the same train in 1986 ,where she herself shared a compartment with a Russian man .Rosa Liksom has the artist eye for detail so the little things of life in Soviet era Russia are caught so well .For me the story remind me of a very old friend that over the years I lost touch with but Like Vadium was a rough diamond ,yes I remembered my fist meeting Steve and thinking god this bloke is just awful he was a friend of a friend but then over the next few meeting ,I saw through the swearing tales of his very hard upbringing and got to know one of the kindest souls I ever met and regret losing touch with ,That said Vadium isn’t quite such a kind heart soul but he is more than he first appeared to the Girl and he is the person that opens her eyes on her world ,so like me with steve this is someone she will remember for the rest of her life .Rather like the last lines of  the film Stand by me ,a writer remember a friend and journey in younger life .

Have you a favourite book based on a train ?

 

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