The Karamazov Readalong

As you may have seen already, my friend Liz Humphreys from the blog Leaping Life is going to host a The Brothers Karamazov readalong. Her timing is no coincidence, as 2021 marks the bicentenary of Dostoevsky’s birth. It’s the perfect opportunity for those of you who have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s epic novel The Brothers Karamazov. She has invited me and our mutual friend Rebecca Bud to make some contributions to the readalong, which obviously we were more than happy to do!

Intimidating

The Brothers Karamazov is definitely one of those intimidating novels that are huge in every way. It tackles some of the biggest questions in life, such as the conflict between reason and faith. Of all the great Russian writers of the 19th century it was after all Dostoevsky who made us think and reflect the most. He didn’t shy away from subjects such as poverty and prostitution and has a habit of leading you into the darkest corners of the human mind.

A very short biography

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, where his father was a doctor at a hospital for the poor. Perhaps it was there that his lifelong fascination with less fortunate people began. By the time Dostoevsky was 18 years old, both his parents had died. He and his brother moved to St Petersburg, a city that would become very important for his work and life. His first literary succes was a short novel called Poor Folk (1846), and it made him famous overnight. In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for treason and sentenced to death. He was already taken to the place of execution, when the tsar at the very last moment pardoned him and his fellow prisoners. He was sent to Siberia instead, and spent four years doing forced labour in chains. He wrote all his major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov) after Siberia. He married twice (the second time happily), had 4 children (of which 2 died), and had to overcome a severe gambling addiction. As if all that was not enough he was always ill: he suffered from epilepsy, haemorrhoids and emphysema. The emphysema caused his death in 1881.

Politics

The Brothers Karamazov was written in the last two years of his life, and as such it should be seen as his life’s work. This was a time of great political turmoil in Russia. After the abolition of serfdom Russia had come to a crossroads and the country was divided. Dostoevsky was a convinced Slavophile, believing that Russia should stay true to itself in order to move forward. One of Dostoevsky’s motivations to write The Brothers Karamazov was to have an opportunity to explain his moral and political views. 

Death of his son Alyosha

The basic idea for the novel, which he had in his head for several years before he started writing, changed after the death of his 3 year old son Alyosha. Little Alyosha died from an epilepsy fit. Besides being struck with grief, Dostoevsky also felt immensely guilty, as clearly Alyosha had inherited the disease that killed him from his father. Dostoevsky went to the famous Optina Pustyn monastery, and there he talked to the equally famous Father Ambrose about the death of little Alyosha. He named on of the brothers in The Brothers Karamazov ‘Alyosha’ and gave Father Ambrose a part as Father Zosima. 

The quintessential novel

“Everything would be put in with an idea that would illuminate the whole.The very selection of facts will suggest how they are to be understood. And it ought to be interesting even for light reading, apart from its value as a work of reference. It would be, so to say, a presentation of the spiritual, moral, inner life of Russia. I want everyone to buy it, I want it to be a book that will be found on every table. It’s an immense undertaking” (from Demons, as quoted by Christofi, page 176 Dostoevsky in Love).

*****

I can highly recommend the biography Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi as an introduction to Dostoevsky and his work. Christofi takes you through Dostoevsky’s life with quotes from letters, excerpts of his novels and notes from his diaries. It’s as if we can hear Dostoevsky himself reminiscing about his life.

*****

As an introduction to the readalong the three of us have recorded a podcast, in which Liz explains all about the readalong. If you wish to take part, you can find more information on Liz’s blog. The readalong starts on the 27th of July.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

Sakhalin through the eyes of Chekhov

Chekhov – homo sachaliensis

In the spring of 1890 Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904) left Moscow and traveled to Sakhalin, an island on the eastern coast of Russia. At the time Sakhalin was used by the authorities as a penal colony. Chekhov wanted to go there for three months to make a census of the involuntary population of the island.

So if no-one went to Sakhalin voluntarily, why did Chekhov, who already knew he had tuberculosis, want to go there? In 1888 the famous Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky had died. Chekhov, who had always been fascinated by the accounts of explorers, wanted to follow in his footsteps, even if only once. As a doctor, Sakhalin seemed to him the perfect place for a humanitarian investigation. As a writer, it would provide him with an opportunity to talk to some hardened criminals.

Also in 1890 the authorities were not exactly keen to have an outsider take a look in their kitchen. Chekhov did eventually get permission, although immediately some telegrams were sent to warn the local authorities. And so Chekhov became the first Russian writer to travel voluntarily to a penal colony.

The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been constructed. The tracks ended in Tiumen. Chekhov had wanted to travel further by ship down the river, but although it was already spring, the river was still frozen and he had to travel by carriage on an excruciatingly bad road instead. He finally reached Sakhalin after eleven weeks of traveling.

Sakhalin was such an unwelcoming and unpleasant place that no-one (apart from the indigenous peoples the Gilyaks and the Aino) stayed there any longer than necessary. The hostile climate made it virtually impossible to grow any kind of crop. There were schools, but the teaching was left to former prisoners who had no previous teaching experience. The local hospitals lacked even the most basic equipment. On the one hand some of the prisons were regular gambling houses, with the guards being just as addicted as the prisoners; on the other corporal punishment was given for the slightest offence. A surprisingly large amount of wives had followed their sentenced husband to Sakhalin; only to regret it as soon as they set a foot on shore. A large part of the female population had to prostitute themselves to survive, whether they were convicted criminals or the wives of convicted criminals.

The accounts that Chekhov wrote about his experiences and impressions were hugely influential. The idealistic purpose of the penal colony was that the prisoners would become better people there. Chekhov’s factual and straightforward eye witness account of what actually happened in and around the Sakhalin prisons, opened the eyes of society and improvements were made. Nonetheless one cannot help thinking that even nowadays, 130 years later, Navalny awaits a similar fate, and that not that much has changed.

In spite of his less than smooth travels, Chekhov never lost his sense of humour. Take for instance his description of a ‘typical’ Siberian bedstead: “In the corner stands a bedstead, piled with a whole mountain of feather mattresses and pillows in pretty cases; to clamber up this mountain you have to place a chair beside it, and the instant you lie down you sink. The Siberians love to have a good sleep in a soft bed”.

Or here describing the typical, stupid and random ways of the islanders: “…, while in the lower reaches the Gilyaks were capturing for their dogs immeasurably healthier and tastier fish than those which were being prepared in the Tymovsk District for human beings”. (The fish swims upstream, and the quality of the fish decreases rapidly the further upstream it gets).

And finally: “Nowhere is the past so swiftly forgotten as on Sakhalin, precisely because of the extraordinarily high mobility of the exile population, which changes radically every five years here (…) What happened twenty to twenty-five years ago is regarded as being profound antiquity, already forgotten and lost to history.

Although that last bit is not true anymore, because thanks to our excellent Chekhov we know exactly what it was like and who was there on Sakhalin island during the summer of 1890.

Books read:

Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Reeve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Anton Chekhov, a Life – Donald Rayfield

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

By the way, I did join forces again with Rebecca Budd and with Dave Astor at the end of 2020 for another podcast!

My Bookish 2020

We will never forget the year 2020, but, as often happens with life, there were some silver linings too. For me it meant that I had more time and peace to read and write. Which I did!

Eugene Onegin

A large part of 2020 was dedicated to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin on A Russian Affair. Somewhere in February, just before the Corona crisis hit Europe, I came up with the Eugene Onegin challenge, a chapter by chapter reader’s guide. It was such a wonderful experience to submerge myself into this masterpiece and it made me appreciate Pushkin’s genius even more than before. If I took part in Mastermind now with Eugene Onegin as my specialised subject, I would probably know all the answers!

Spin-offs 

One reader suggested that I also read In Paris With You (Songe à la Douceur) by Clémentine Beauvais, a modern day version of Eugene Onegin, set in Paris. Clémentine Beauvais describes it herself as “yet another love, yet another Paris love, and on top of that, it’s a rewriting of another literary love”. In a year in which it wasn’t possible to go to Paris, the next best thing was reading a novel set in Paris. Another spin-off I read is What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn. I first heard about this modern day version of Anna Karenina from Yelena Furman in The Feeling Bookish Podcast. Irina Reyn is a Russian émigré writer who lives in the United States. Her debut novel is set in the close knit community of the Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City, which is apparently not all that different from the original Anna’s milieu. 

You have to be pretty brave to re-write a great classical novel, as comparisons will inevitably be made, but both writers managed to turn the original idea into a new and original work. 

Women in Translation

I read a lot of modern eastern European fiction in 2020, such as The Eight Life by the Georgian born writer Nino Haratischvili. An excellent book to read in a time when we can’t travel much, as it would have been a heavy one to carry around;-). My favourite discovery of 2020 was Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, an Armenian writer living in Moscow. Truly a balm for the soul!

Reading group reads

Another balm for the soul is Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I am currently reading for an online book club. Book clubs can be a great way to discover new books and I’m really enjoying taking part in Sarah G’s Russian book club. For the same book club I read The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov; not a balm for the soul and not about librarians as we know and love them, but a modern dystopian novel. It was interesting though! Together with some Twitter friends I’m reading Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. This shows how a truly great writer like Chekhov can even turn a census of a penile colony into a very readable and even enjoyable piece of literature. 

Non-fiction

For research purposes and out of genuine interest I also read a lot of books about Russian literature and writers behind the scenes. This year they were mostly related to Eugene Onegin, such as Nabokov’s extremely extensive commentary. In order to find out more about Russian superstitions I had ordered a book called Bathhouse at Midnight, which unfortunately got lost twice during shipping. I’ll try to order it again in the new year.

Non-Russians

From my blog and Instagram you may get the impression that all I read is Russian literature, and although this is mostly true, I do actually read other books too. This year I returned to classics like Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. I also take an interest in Finnish literature and particularly enjoyed Crossing by Pajtim Statovci.

Let’s hope that the year 2021 will again be a good year for reading, but we can do without the virus this time! I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2021, с Новым Годом!

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Who’s Who of War and Peace

There are about 580 individual characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Most of them have long and confusing Russian names and titles, and this is probably the most often heard reason, after the length, that people hesitate to read War and Peace

Therefore I have compiled a list of the 73 most frequently recurring characters, in alphabetical order, by the name by which you are most likely to encounter them. I also give a short description, trying to avoid any spoilers. Please note that the spelling of the names may vary per translation. At the bottom of this post you’ll find a handy downloadable and printable PDF. I have also provided links to individual character posts.

The Characters

(Tsar) Alexander I; the Russian emperor (real).

(Princess) Aline Kuragina – Prince Vassili’s wife.

Alpatych, Yakov Alpatych – a member of staff on the Bolkonsky estate Bald Hills. 

Anatole; Anatole Kuragin; Prince Anatole Vassilievich Kuragin – the eldest son of Prince Vassily, handsome, but, as with his sister Hélène, the outside does not match the inside. Close friend of Dolokhov.

(Prince) Andrei; Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky – Marya’s brother, Lise’s husband, and the son of the old Count Bolkonsky. Spends most of the novel on the Russian front. Can come across a bit cold-hearted. 

Anna Mikhailovna; Princess Anna Mikhailovna Dubretskaya – Boris’ mother, and a good friend of the Countess Rostova. She’s always trying improve her son’s position. 

Anna Pavlovna Scherer; Annette – although the novel opens with her, she’s a minor character. A socialite and rather conservative. 

Arakcheev; Count Alexei Andreevich Arakcheev – general and statesman who had a violent temper (real).

Bagration – a Russian general (real).

Bazdeev; Osip (Joseph) Alexeevich Bazdeev – a Freemason and acquaintance of Pierre.

Berg; Alphonse Karlovich Berg, Vera’s husband, officer in the army. 

(Count) Bezukhov; Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov; the old count – Pierre’s father, one of the richest men in Russia, already on his deathbed when introduced.

Bilibin – a diplomate with a clever reputation, moves in the highest circles.

(the old Prince) Bolkonsky; Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky; old Bolkonsky – the father of Marya and Andrei, an old-fashioned and strict man.

Boris; Prince Boris Dubretskoi – Nikolai’s friend, nice, but a bit calculating.

(Mademoiselle) Bourienne – a French woman who has been hired as a companion for Marya.

Catiche; Princess Catiche – one of the three nieces of the old Count Bezukhov, she tries to secure at least some of his inheritance.

Daniel – the head huntsman at the Rostov’s country estate.

Denisov; Vaska; Vassily Dmitrich Denisov; a hussar officer who becomes friends with Nikolai, a real good guy, can’t say the letter ‘R’.

Dmitry Vasilevich – Count Rostov’s estate manager. 

Dolgorukov; Prince Yuri Dolgorukov – general in chief.

Dolokhov; Fedya; Fyodor Ivanovich Dolokhov – an officer who becomes friends with Nikolai. He can be cruel and mean. 

Dorokhov – Lieutenant-General in the Napoleonic wars (real).

Dron – the village elder at Bald Hills, the Bolkonsky estate. 

Esaul Lovayski the Third; Mikail Feoklitych; the esaul – an ‘esaul’ is a Cossack captain.

Ferapontov – an innkeeper.

Hélène; Princess Elena Vassilievna Kuragina; Countess Bezukhova – Prince Vassily’s daughter, very beautiful on the outside, but not always on the inside.

(Prince) Hippolyte; Ippolit; Ippolit Vassilievich Kuragin – the youngest son of Prince Vassily, not the brightest of the family. 

Ilagin – a rich neighbour of the Rostovs who likes to go hunting. 

(Count) Ilya; Ilya Andreevich Rostov; Count Rostov; the count – the head of the Rostov family, very good-natured and generous.

Ilyin – a young officer, Nikolai’s protégé. 

Julie; Julie Karagina (not to be confused with the Kuragins), Marya’s friend and, like Marya, an eligible wealthy heiress. 

Karataev; Platon Karataev – a peasant soldier who is held prisoner by the French together with Pierre.

Karay – Nikolai’s favourite hunting dog together with Milka.

Karp – a peasant at Bald Hills, the leader of a small revolt after the old Count Bolkonsky has died.

Kozlovski – an aide-de-camp of Kutuzov.

Kutuzov – commander in chief, played a crucial role in the battle of Borodino (real).

Lavrushka – the orderly who looks after Denisov and Nikolai while they are on duty in the army.

(the little Princess) Lise; Liza; Elizaveta Karlovna Bolkonskaya –  Andrei’s wife, she has a protruding, downy upper lip, and is overall very sweet and charming.

Mack; Baron Mack von Leiberich – the commander of the Austrian army (real).

Makar Alexeevich Bazdeev – the half insane and alcoholic brother of Pierre’s Freemason friend Bazdeev.

Mary Hendrikhovna – the wife of the regiment’s doctor.

(Princess) Marya; Marya Nikolaevna Bolkonskaya; Masha; Mary – Andrei’s sister, often referred to by Tolstoy as plain looking with large eyes, a bit nervous and very pious. She adores her brother Andrei.

Marya Dmitrievna; Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova – family friend of the Rostovs, known as “the terrible dragon”, she always speaks her opinion. 

Mavra; Mavra Kuzminishna – a servant in the Rostov household.

Mikhail Ivanovich – an architect.

Milka – Nikolai’s favourite hunting dog together with Karay.

Morel – Captain Ramballe’s servant.

Napoleon Bonaparte; the French emperor (real).

Nastasha Ivanovna – the ‘buffoon’ at the Rostov’s country estate, a man dressed in woman’s clothes. It was apparently still normal to have a jester at Russian country estates in the beginning of the 19th century. 

Natasha; countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova; countess Rostova – the youngest daughter of the Rostovs – pretty, she has a strong intuition, rather reckless, good-hearted like her father, but less compliant.

Nesvitski; Prince Nesvitsky – an officer, acquainted with Nikolai, Denisov and Dolokhov, described as stout and usually laughing.

Nikolai; Nikolai Ilyich Rostov; Rostov; Count Rostov – the oldest son of the Rostovs, cheerful, good-natured and well respected, a bit reckless and a brave hussar.  

Nikolenka; Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky – the son of Andrei and Liza.

Pelageya Danilovna Melyukova – one of the Rostovs’ neighbours.

Petya; Count Pyotr Ilyich Rostov – the youngest member of the Rostov clan, overenthusiastic and reckless like Natasha and Nikolai. 

Pierre; Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov; Count Bezukhov – the illegitimate son of old Count Bezuchov who has been acknowledged just before the old Count died and is now his heir, making him the most eligible bachelor in Russia.

(Captain) Ramballe – a French officer whose life is saved by Pierre.

Rostopchin – governor of Moscow. Rather than giving up Moscow to the French, he had all the inhabitants evacuate and let the city be burned to the ground, so that Napoleon found the city empty and burning (real).

(Countess) Rostova; Natalya; the Countess – Ilya’s wife and the mother of Vera, Nikolai, Natasha and Petya, carer of Sonya.

Shinshin, Pyotr Nikolaevich – Countess Rostova’s cousin.

Sonya; Sophia Alexandrovna; Sophie – she is the ward of the Rostovs, an orphaned relative. Very pretty and Natasha’s closest friend. 

Speransky; Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky – secretary of state (real).

Taras – the Rostov’s cook, a serf who had learned to cook from a French chef. Aristocratic Moscovites, like the Rostov’s, enjoyed giving lavish dinner parties, and having a good cook was a matter of personal pride.

Telyanin – an officer who steals Denisov’s purse

Tikhon – the personal manservant of the old Prince Bolkonsky. 

Tikhon Shcherbaty – a peasant who joins Denisov’s regiment.

Timokhin; Captain Timokhin – an officer.

Tushin – Captain Tushin – an artillery officer.

Uncle – a distant relative of the Rostovs and one of their neighbours.

(Prince) Vassily; Vassily Kuragin; Kuragin – the father of Anatole and Hélène, who does his utmost to make sure his children marry well (meaning wealthy).

Vera; (Countess) Vera Ilyinichna Rostova – the oldest Rostov child, not always popular with the others because of her rather prim attitude.

Zherkov – a hussar cornet, he used to be a part of the group of friends in Saint Petersburg that Dolokhov lead.

Click here for the Who’s Who of Anna Karenina.

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

In 1833, during the famous ‘Boldino Autumn’, Alexandr Pushkin wrote The Queen of Spades, a wonderfully ingenious and mysterious story.

Pushkin’s famous quote that “two fixed ideas can no more exist in one mind than, in the physical sense, two bodies can occupy one and the same place” pertains to the protagonist of The Queen of Spades, Germann, who is obsessed with a secret that an old countess has been keeping for sixty years: three cards that will guarantee you to win. He is prepared to do anything to find out this secret, he even considers becoming her lover. 

Motivation

Germann’s father was a Russified German who left him a small fortune. Enough to live moderately.  Germann is frugal and lives only of his officer’s income. When asked why he never joins the others when they play cards, but watches them play instead, he always answers that he is ‘not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries’. Although his initial reaction to the anecdote was that it’s only a fairytale, he quickly becomes obsessed with it and starts to see the three cards as a key to a successful life and the acceptance of his fellow officers. 

Faro

The card game that is played here is called Faro. In the most simple form there are two players, a banker and a punter. The punter chooses a specific card from his own deck of cards, puts it on the table and places a bet on it. The banker has a separate deck from which he takes two cards in each turn. He places one card on the left and one on the right side of the punter’s card, until the card that was betted on turns up. If this card falls on the left, the punter wins and if it falls on the right, the banker wins.

Plot

Germann has inherited 47000 rubles and expects to increase that amount to 376000 rubles with the three winning cards. With the help of the countess’s ward Liza, whom he misleads, he gains access to the bedroom of the old woman. But she refuses to tell him the secret and desperately Germann threatens her with a pistol. The 87 year-old  woman is literally scared to death. Germann manages to get away unseen and it is assumed that the countess died of old age. Three nights later she appears in his bedroom as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards: three, seven and ace. He can bet on only one card per 24 hours. As soon as a suitable opportunity arises, Germann tries his ‘luck’. He puts all 47000 rubles on a three and wins. The second night he wins on the seven. The third night, however, a queen falls on the right and an ace on the left. Excitedly Germann cries “the ace wins”, but when he turns over his card he discovers that instead of an ace, the queen of spades lies in front of him and he has lost everything. The other players are satisfied, “famously punted!” they exclaim. But Germann does not hear it. He loses his mind and spends the rest of his life mumbling “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.” 

Irony

The irony of Pushkin’s story is that Germann finally gains the respect he wants so much the moment he loses all his money, but he doesn’t realise this and goes crazy. Unlike Nikolay in War and Peace* he cannot deal with his stupidity and move on. 

Interpretations

Pushkin leaves room for several interpretations. The most likely scenario is that Germann already lost his mind and merely dreamt that the dead countess came to visit him. There are several clues that Germann started to go crazy before he lost. He is described as someone who never plays himself but watches others play with ‘feverish anxiety’. He also already appears to ‘know’ the three cards already before the ghostly apparition: “no! Economy, moderation and industry: these are my three winning cards, these will treble my capital, increase it sevenfold, and earn for my ease and independence!” And the ace? Well, they didn’t call Pushkin a genius for nothing; it is hidden in the Russian original: “Нет! Расчёт, умеренность и трудолюбие: вот мои три верные карты, вот что утроит, усемерит мой капитал и доставит мне покой и независимость.” The Russian word for triples end with a ’T’ and the next word, to increase sevenfold, starts with ‘US’, together forming the word ‘tus’, meaning ‘ace’. Besides, this statement is not even logical; when betting on cards Germann will double and hopefully ‘octuple’ his money, and if something doesn’t make sense at first sight, you can trust Pushkin to make it make sense in another way. Also in Faro the player basically bets that a certain card will fall on the left instead of on the right; there is no logic or strategy in such a bet, something which a normal thinking person would have realised. The source of the anecdote, Tomsky, the grandson of the countess and Germann’s fellow officer, is also not  very reliable. He repeatedly teases his grandmother and Liza, and it is not unimaginable that he fabricated the whole anecdote. 

Other remarkable facts

The old woman’s secret pertains not only to the three cards, but also to three essental items in her toilet: rouge, hairpins and a bonnet; in her bedroom Germann witnesses the loathsome secrets of her toilet. Tomsky’s first name is ‘Pavel’ (Paul) and he marries a girl called ‘Polina’. Germann has caused the death of the countess and when he loses the game the banker tells him “your queen has lost’; in Russian the word ‘ubita’ (убита) is used, which does not only mean ‘was beaten’ but also ‘was murdered’. And before you know it you’ll see numbers everywhere, like Germann: the countess is an 87 year-old lady; in the number 8 you can see the number 3, making it three, seven, queen…

*in Tolstoy’s War and Peace Nikolay loses 43000 rubles playing Faro against Dolokhov, who cheats. 

The Queen of Spades by Alexandr Pushkin in a translation by Gillon Aitken

Rereading “The Queen of Spades” by Andrew Wachtel

The Ace in “The Queen of Spades” by Sergei Davydov

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020 (playing cards from Wikipedia)

The most Scottish of the Russian writers – Mikhail Lermontov

In 1613 a Scottish officer named George Learmonth left Balcomie Castle in Fife and travelled to Poland. From Poland he went to Russia, where he stayed and changed his name into Lermontov, a name that was to become legendary in the world of Russian literature.

200 years later, on the 15th of October in 1814 to be exact, the poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov was born in Moscow. 

And 400 years after George Learmonth left Scotland, one of his Russian descendants, Maria Koroleva, returned to Scotland to find out more about her own and Mikhail Lermontov’s Scottish roots. She had raised money for a Mikhail Lermontov memorial to be put up in the Scottish village of Earlston and she even designed a special “Lermontov Bicentenary” tartan to mark the 200th anniversary of Lermontov’s birth. 

Thomas the Rhymer

In order to fit Earlston into the Lermontov family history we need to go back in time even further: about 800 years ago a certain Thomas of Ercildoune was born in Earlston, which was called ‘Ercildoune’ back then. This Scottish laird became well known as Thomas the Rhymer or Thomas Learmont, a prophet, or ’seer’, who wrote his prophesies in verse. According to the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, which was later successfully retold by Sir Walter Scott, he received the gift of prophesy from the queen of Elfland. Yes, a fairy. The Learmonths claim to descend from Thomas the Rhymer.

Mikhail Lermontov was well aware of his Scottish heritage and most likely it was this awareness that sparked his poetic aspirations. At the very least it was a source of inspiration for him. Like most writers at the time, he was a big admirer of Sir Walter Scott, Ossian* and George Byron, all Scottish of course. He never had the opportunity in his tragically short life to visit Scotland, but he did visit it in his poems, such as Ossian’s Grave (Гроб Оссиана) and A Wish (Желание).

The poet of the Caucasus

However, Lermontov became mostly associated with the Caucasus, the region where the vast majority of his work is set, and where he spent a lot of time, both in his childhood and during his military career and exile. The rugged and spectacular mountain landscape must have reminded him of the Scottish landscapes that he knew only through the works of Scott and Ossian. It can even be said that Lermontov did for the Caucasus what Sir Walter Scott did for Scotland; his beautiful and lively descriptions of the region continue to inspire travellers and readers to this day. 

Although it cannot be said with certainty that Mikhail Lermontov is a descendant of Thomas the Rhymer, he seems to have had the same talent for prophetic verse; in the poem The Dream he pictures his own death in eerily accurate detail.

Lermontov’s fame and reputation in Russia is second only to Pushkin. He was hugely influential both as a romantic poet and as the writer of the first great Russian psychological novel, A Hero of Our Time.  

And so Lermontov is not only ‘the poet of the Caucasus’, but also ’the most Scottish of the Russian writers’.

Thomas the Rhymer with the queen of Elfland; a Caucasian landscape painted by Lermontov; Balcomie Castle; a self portrait by Lermontov (all images from Wikipedia)

*Ossian – in Lermontov’s lifetime Ossian had not yet been proven to be a fabrication of James Macpherson.

*****

In order to celebrate Lermontov’s birthday today, I picked up a nice collection of his poetry: After Lermontov – Translations for the Bicentenary, edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack. Many of the poems in this collection are translated by Scottish poets and translators, and some are even translated into Scots.

https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/tartanDetails?ref=11000

P.S. The Scottish Poetry Library has just brought it to my attention that they made a podcast about this very subject in 2014. In this podcast several of the contributors of After Lermontov – Translations for the Bicentenary talk about Lermontov and, even better, recite some of the poems in the collection. I loved it and recommend it highly.

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Women-in-translation month on A Russian Affair

August is traditionally women-in-translation month in the world of book-blogging and book-twitter. My blog is dedicated to the predominantly male world of 19th century Russian literature, but nowadays there are many great and interesting female writers out there, so why not digress a bit?

Lyudmila Ulitskaya

Let’s start with Lyudmila Ulitskaya. I once saw her at the Helsinki book fair, where she was so popular that the auditorium where she was speaking was literally filled to the brim with people eager to see her. I loved her novel The Kukotsky Enigma (Казус Кукоцкого) about a gynaecologist with a special gift who marries one of his patients, set against the background of communist Russia. Ulitskaya’s characters are people you know and care about from the first page on which they are introduced. And most importantly: her work has that special quality that so much of the best Russian literature has: it’s life-affirming.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Another Moscow based author is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. She too focuses on family life in Soviet times. The recurring themes in her work are poverty, abuse, envy, alcoholism, unhappy love and unfulfilled ambitions. Although this may be something that many women in the former Soviet Union struggled with, her stories are surprisingly free from politics; the enemy is not the state, but the daughter-in-law who is after your apartment. Her stories may be dark, but so is her sense of humor. They always have a surprising ending that leaves you something to think and laugh about. 

Tatyana Tolstaya

Then we have the stories of Tatyana Tolstaya, the granddaughter of the writer Aleksey Tolstoy and a distant relative of Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Being born into such a family she had big shoes to fill, and she pulls it off very well. She definitely has her own distinct voice. Her stories start off perfectly normal, but at some point they turn into something impossible. One of the story collections is called Aetherial Worlds and that sums up her work pretty well: unearthly. I have a copy of her (only) novel The Slynx still waiting for me.

Guzel Yakhina

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (Зулейха́ открыва́ет глаза́), translated by Lisa Hayden, is set in Tatarstan. Zuleikha is a young Tatar woman who is sent to Siberia during the dekulakization. In Siberia she is forced to built a new life, literally from scratch, and there she discovers her own strengths and talents. Yakhina based the story on the experiences of her own grandmother and on eye-witness accounts from other dekulakization survivors. This intricate novel is a real page-turner; there are frequent cliff-hangers which leave the reader in suspense for whole chapters.

Banine

Now we move to the Caucasus, starting with Banine’s wonderful memoire Days in the Caucasus.  Banine paints a colourful and delightful picture of her childhood in Baku (Azerbaijan) and the family’s summer house by the sea, set at the beginning of the 20th century. Her enormous (her words) grandmother is the head of the family, and besides praying five times a day, she loves to gossip, play poker and swears like a sailor. I hope that the wonderful Pushkin Press will also publish the sequel, Days in Paris.

Narine Abgaryan

A tiny and remote village in the mountains of Armenia is the setting for Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky, another translation by Lisa Hayden. The village is so remote that even goats find the path leading to the village scary. The villagers live in their tiny world, unaffected by modern technology. The passage of time is noted by the seasons and just like in ancient times each villager has a particular trade, so that they can get by without needing the rest of the world, simply referred to as ‘the valley’ or ‘the North’, too much. This idyllic place is, however, plagued by all kinds of disasters. Abgaryan’s enchanting and charming book will keep you guessing until the last page. 

Nino Haratischvili  

Finally Nino Haratischvili, who gave us more than 900 pages to read with The Eighth Life, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. Nino Haratischvili was born in Tbilisi in 1983 and moved to Germany in 2003. She clearly is a born storyteller and her pleasure in writing and love for Georgia shine through on every page. The Eighth Life tells the (his)story of the Jashi family through six generations of women, spanning about 100 years from the beginning of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century.  

The world is tough, but so are you!

A common thread seems to be a need to go back to the Soviet era and somehow validate the suffering experienced by the authors themselves and/or their ancestors. Not in the raw manner of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but much more relatable, and always with at least a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  

What were your highlights and discoveries this women-in-translation month?

By the way, I made a more extensive series for #WITMonth on my Instagram @arussianaffairig

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Season 2 Episode 42: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Finale — Tea Toast & Trivia

Once again I’ve joined forces with Rebecca Budd from Tea, Toast and Trivia, and we’ve recorded a final podcast about Pushkin and Eugene Onegin. Many thanks to Rebecca and her husband Don for giving me the opportunity to discuss one of my favourite subjects!

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. “We still, alas, cannot forestall it This dreadful ailment’s heavy toll; The spleen is what the English call it, We call it simply, Russian soul.” Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again joined […]

Season 2 Episode 42: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Finale — Tea Toast & Trivia

Four memorable dogs in Russian literature

There are several memorable dogs in Russian literature, and it’s about time that they get the attention they deserve on this blog! Let’s take a look at four famous examples.

Tolstoy 

Tolstoy’s extraordinary psychological insights apply to dogs as well as humans; take for instance Laska from Anna Karenina. She is an enthusiastic, experienced and dedicated hunting dog. As soon as she notices that her owner Levin is planning to go hunting, she gets all excited with impatience. During the hunt she senses exactly how things are going. If her owner is unlucky, she doesn’t want to show her lack of faith in him and even though she does not believe that he really has shot a snipe, she still pretends to search it (part 6, c10). And although her sense of smell is infinitely better than Levin’s, and she is on the trail of some game, she does follow his orders to go and look somewhere else, just to please him, and thinking to herself “Well, if that’s what he wishes, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself now” (part 6, c12). Who could wish for a better dog?

Chekhov

Chestnut Girl in the story of the same name, that is told completely from the dog’s perspective, is a nervous, dumb and endearing little dog. She lives with a furniture maker who is always drunk and does not look after her very well. One night she loses her owner and is taken home by a clown who has a circus act with animals. Her new owner treats her very well and calls her Auntie. At first she is very confused, especially by her new housemates; a cat and a goose. But she soon forgets all about her old home. One evening the clown takes her along to perform in his act, and it just so happens that the furniture maker is in the audience. He recognises her, calls her and in an act of panic and confusion she jumps off the stage and runs back to her old life. “And you, Chestnut Girl, you’m like a joiner ‘longside a cabinet-maker…” says the furniture maker on the way home.

Bulgakov

Bulgakov gave us Sharik (A Dog’s Heart). A common street dog with a common name. He too is found outside in the cold one day and taken home. In this case by a very prestigious doctor, who thanks to his prestigious clients still lives in relative luxury after the Russian revolution. Sharik has no trouble at all adjusting to his new life, although he does have something against the doctor’s stuffed owl. But… the doctor uses him in a medical experiment. He implants the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal in the dog. Slowly but surely Sharik changes into a man, or rather a scoundrel, and soon the doctor’s orderly household is turned completely upside-down, not to mention flooded with water. Sharik becomes Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, has all kinds of pretensions and turns against the doctor.

Turgenjev

In the story The Dog the narrator’s life is also disturbed by a sinister dog. One night the narrator clearly hears a dog rummaging around in his bedroom. But when he lights the candle no dog can be found. This goes on for six weeks; as soon as he blows out the candle, the dog sounds can be heard. He is advised to consult a ‘seer,’ who tells him to buy a puppy at the market and keep it with him at all times. The sounds should stop and the dog will be useful to him in another way too. The narrator does as instructed, and the nightly sounds stop. The puppy grows into a big dog and one day when visiting a neighbour, the narrator is attacked by a large, monstrous and rabid dog. The narrator is saved by his dog Tresor and the monster dog disappears. Later the monster dog reappears and attacks the narrator again, and again Tresor saves him, but this time Tresor does not survive. 

A dog’s life

Four completely different dogs, each memorable in its own right. For Turgenev and Tolstoy the dog was something between a human and an animal. Laska is not only a good hunting dog, she also understands Levin better than he understands himself and she is always there for him when he needs her, whether out hunting or when he comes home a bit depressed. The Dog is one of Turgenev’s ghost stories, following the pattern of a traditional fairy tale. Turgenev was not superstitious and did not believe in ghosts, but he did have a fascination for such things. Dogs feature in many of Turgenev’s works, the most memorable being Mumu. Chestnut Girl may not be very smart, but she makes up for that with her faithful and endearing nature. She follows the ‘better the devil you know’ principle and happily goes back to her old owner. Sharik is a parody of the New Soviet Man and the illusion that the revolution could change the people.

Gogol fun facts

Sharik’s new name Poligraf Poligrafovich brings to mind the name of the protagonist in The Overcoat, Akaky Akakievich. This repetition of names, although not uncommon (as in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin), has a comical effect when the names used are unusual, as in this case. And speaking of The Overcoat; in the Russian original the narrator in The Dog buys the puppy from an ‘overcoat’, a ‘шинель’, using the word ‘overcoat’ to indicate a person in an overcoat. 

For non-Russian literary dogs I recommend Dave Astor’s blog post on this subject, which is also where I got the idea for this post.

Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments 🐶

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Inside and Out Book Tag

I saw the inside and out book tag this morning on Karen Langley’s blog (who got it in turn from another blog and so on) and thought it was great fun. It’s always interesting to read about other people’s bookish habits, so I thought I’d share mine as well. Although my blog focuses only on 19th century Russian literature, my reading and book collecting is certainly not restricted to that area. I’m a real bibliophile with a soft spot for pretty vintage and beautiful new editions. Let’s get started!

1. Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?

Ideally they should provide a bit of tantalising information about the book and the writer, so that when browsing in a bookstore (always a pleasure), you’ll know if it’s something for you and be tempted to buy and read it. 

Some publishers, however, think that it helps to put as many positive reviews of the book as they can find on the cover, back and flap. The fact that the literary critic from The Guardian liked it does not guarantee that I will too. And who even cares that the local weekly newspaper of Tollerton thought it to be ‘atmospheric and mesmerising’? I’d much sooner take the advice of bloggers and twitterers that I know to have a similar taste in books.

2. New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?

I much prefer paper books and have a preference for hardcover, especially if it is a book that I know I will keep forever and so is worthy of the investment. 

For the purpose of my blog I do have eBook versions of books like War and Peace, because it’s much easier to search for certain passages or characters. I also listen to audiobooks sometimes when I’m out walking or doing chores. They make a nice alternative to podcasts and if the narrator is good, they can be great fun to listen to.

3. Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?

Not in fiction, I use post-its or an eBook. But in the non-fiction books that I use for my blog research I’ll happily scribble away with my pencil. On the other hand I do not fold pages, nor the whole book, and I avoid putting it down upside down to keep it open on the page where I was. I also remove the paper covers from hardcopies before reading, so that they stay nice (although part 6 of Tolstoy’s collected works has travelled a lot with me, paper cover and all, but I suppose an obviously well read book also has its’ charms 😉)

4. Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?

Not at all. All I want is a good, interesting and entertaining story, and men are as good or bad as women at providing that.  

5. Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?

Only when I was little!

6. Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?

Very organised. My shelves are categorised by country and genre, and placed in alphabetical order (by author, of course!). I do, however, put biographies next to the author. So Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy is next to Tolstoy’s fiction. But general books about Russia(n literature) have their own shelf space. 

We are in need of a few extra meters of shelf space though, there are piles of books everywhere in our house, both of the read and to-be-read variety. That said, I have no problems with selling or donating books that I know I will not read again.

7. Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?

Plenty of times! This cannot be avoided, I love books and if I find a pretty copy of a book that I already own, I’m often tempted enough to buy it. It runs in the family…

8. Take it outside to read, or stay in?

I can read anywhere. I love to relax by the lake or the sea with a book. Airplanes are never boarded without a book. But I mostly read in bed while my man is snoring next to me with his sleeping mask on because the light is still on 😄😴

That’s it! Of course I’d love to hear more about your bookish habits too. Take care and happy reading 📚

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020