Category: Russia Page 1 of 8

Vasily Grossman: Народ бессмертен (The People Immortal; No Beautiful Nights)

The latest addition to my website is Vasily Grossman‘s Народ бессмертен (The People Immortal; No Beautiful Nights) . The book had been translated into English in 1945 but this version uses the original manuscript, some of which was censored, often by Grossman himself. It is an account of the relatively early period of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, in which the Germans ruthlessly drive forward, forcing the Soviets back. We follow one troop, in particular their Marxist expert commissar, a womanising soldier who is always willing to undertake any task assigned to him and various commanders. Grossman shows that the Germans are more efficient and organised than the Russians. (Stalin had claimed that the Germans had better equipment which was not true.) We see the bombing of Gomel, almost completely destroyed. We also see the effect of Stalin’s Order No. 270 which forbade Soviet troops from surrendering or retreating on pain of death and required them to fight to the death. The troop we are following is encircled, as many Soviet troops were and we see how they deal with it. Grossman is both an excellent reporter and an excellent novelist and this is another first-class work from him.

Vladimir Sorokin: Теллурия (Telluria)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s Теллурия (Telluria). This novel is set in a future where Russia and Europe have splintered into smaller states and seem to have been recently fighting a Christianity-Islam war which the Christians have won. The story is told in fifty vignettes, recounting the current siltation and the past, and we get a mixture of quasi-mediaeval tales, futuristic ones and those outlining what is going on. The key is tellurium, the drug of choice, found only in the microstate of Telluria in the Altai mountains (ruled by a Frenchman!). This is sold (usually illegally) in the form of nails which have to be hammered into the user’s head by a skilled carpenter (with the inevitable risk of death) and which people eagerly try to get hold of. Above all, Sorokin tells a mixture of stories about this world, what it looks likes and how it got to be be what it has become and gives us only a passing nod to Putin.

Sergey Kuznetsov: Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water)

The latest addition to my website is Sergey Kuznetsov‘s Хоровод воды (The Round Dance of Water). This is a novel that tells the story of an extended family, from the Revolution to the present day, though with the main focus on the post-Soviet era. Kuznetsov himself stated that he wanted to write about my contemporaries who are trying to understand themselves by looking at the past of their families and their country. Several of the extended family do not know who their father is or have little or no contact with him. For many of the modern ones casual sex and alcohol are important in their lives. However, we gradually learn about their ancestors and their roles in the Soviet era – from a NKVD member to a couple who helped build the Moscow Metro. The modern ones struggle with life but, by the end, the main ones are starting to realise that family is important and that there is more to life than booze and sex. It is superb a novel, quite unlike many of the other modern Russian novels you may have read.

Yuri Felsen: Обман (Deceit)

The latest addition to my website is Yuri Felsen‘s Обман (Deceit). This novel was first published in 1930 and is one of three surviving novels by Felsen, others being lost after he was sent to Auschwitz and murdered, and the first to appear in English. It is written in the form of a diary by a Russian exile in Paris who is a businessman rather than a writer (apart from the diary). He is receiving the niece of an old friend (herself divorced) and, even without meeting her, is convinced she is the one. She is not, at least as far as she is concerned. Two desultory affairs with two other Russian women are messy and unpleasant. However, the real interest in the book is that our narrator examines himself psychologically and it is not all together a pretty sight. He sees himself as a victim, cannot understand why people do not see things his way and ends ups saying It is impossible to live without deceit. It is an excellent read though not as some have said particularly Proustian.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club)

The latest addition to my website is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky‘s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club). A successful author who has succeeded because he got rid of all his books and was influenced by only what he recalled or imagined the books said has now now formed a club with other authors where the written word is banned and they each tell stories subverting traditional genres, from a deconstruction of Hamlet with multiple Hamlets and Guildenstern split into two characters, to a parody of old German Baron Munchausen style tales. We have a story of three mouths and a character resurrecting a method according to which a text is found and fitted to a piece of music after it has been composed. The book was written in 1926 but Soviet censors refused to allow it to be published. Fortunately those of us who are not Social Realists can enjoy its wit and cleverness.

Eugene Vodolazkin: Брисбен (Brisbane)

The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Брисбен (Brisbane). The story is told in alternating chapters, the first telling of the early life of our hero Gleb Yanovsky, till he becomes famous as a musician, and the second from, 2012 when three key events change his life. He is born and bred in Kyiv (like Vodolazkin) where, under the influence of his father, he takes up music. He eventually studies guitar but his dream is to go to Leningrad, where he studies language rather than music. He meets and marries Katya, a German woman, and they both become teachers. He is attracted by a generous offer to play music, so they go to Berlin, where the offer does not work out. However, he gets his chance and we gradually see his career take off. However,in the later story, we learn early on that he has Parkinson’s disease and the second half is, in part, how he copes with that, as well as political events. Vodolazkin is clearly concerned with the issue of how Gleb’s music and his life are interconnected and, to a lesser degree, his language(s) as he speaks Russian as a child to most people but but his father speaks Ukrainian. This is another complex and fine book from Vodolazkin.

Vladimir Sorokin: Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts). This is the first of apparently eight Sorokin novels that will come out in English translation over the the next couple of years or so. This is the most brutal and transgressive, written by Sorokin as the Soviet Union was breaking up and his ultimate nail in the coffin to the Soviet Union. He takes a standard Soviet trope – four “typical” Soviet people (Stakhanovite worker, war victim, female Olympic athlete, teenage boy) and instead of showing them as model Soviets, we see then as depraved, brutal cruel and violent. They engage in a series of brutal activities (such as murdering the parents of two of the group) and also a series of, to us, incomprehensible rituals. Sorokin spares no-one as he shows, in massive exaggeration, the dark side of the Soviet Union. But beware! It is not for the squeamish.

Vladimir Sorokin: День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik). This novel is set a few years in the future. Russia now has a Tsar again and, as with Ivan the Terrible, he is protected by an armed force called the Oprichniks. The story tells a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, the fourth highest ranking Oprichnik and an exciting and busy day it is. He and his colleagues start off by attacking the the house of a nobleman, who has run foul of the Tsar. The nobleman is hanged, his wife gang-raped and his children sent to an orphanage. While killing and other brutalities happen later, we also see bribery and corruption, book burning, flogging, drug use, alcohol and wine, special privileges, outwitting the Chinese and, I might mention, glowing genitals. We see it all through the eyes of Komiaga who is firmly committed to the cause and works hard to protect sacred Russia (yes, Russia is Christian). It is clearly an attack on both Ivan the Terrible and Putin, but an indirect one with no direct satire, sarcasm and humour and, as such, works very well.

Ismail Kadare: Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods)

The latest addition to my website is Ismail Kadare‘s Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods). Kadare spent some time in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, primarily at the Gorky Institute and this is an account of that period. While he loved the big city, it was not all sweetness and light. He has various women troubles. Most of his colleagues are from various regions of the Soviet Union or, like him, from other countries and they are often stereotyped by the Russians. Moreover, he is not terribly enthusiastic about the Soviet view of literature. He does discover a manuscript left in a room about a doctor called Zhivago and, later, the big event will the award of the Nobel Prize to Boris Pasternak, which brings down a furore on Pasternak, supported by many of Kadare’s colleagues (but not Kadare himself). Towards the end, we learn that Soviet-Albanian relations are deteriorating (Albania will move away from the Soviet Union and ally more closely to China) and the embassy warns Albanian nationals to keep away from Russian women, an instruction Kadare ignores. While not of the standard of his novels set in Albania, it is certainly an interesting account.

Andrei Bely: Симфонии (Symphonies)

The latest addition to my website is Andrei Bely‘s Симфонии (Symphonies). These are four works – prose poems is the not entirely satisfactory term I would use – written in Bely’s youth, very much under the influence of Symbolism. All were written well before the Russian Revolution and are full of colourful imagery, drawn from nature, mysticism and the Symbolist love of doom and gloom. While they all have a sort of plot, Bely is far more interested in the imagery and they are clearly written by a poet. They are interesting in their own right but also to show us the early writing of the man who would go on to write one of the great 20th century novels Петербург (Petersburg).

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